Monday, May 27, 2013

Look, Don't Touch! -- Karl Fumbles with Noli me tangere


Picture from the Met
At the end of my annus mirabilis, I published a response essay in Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture (ed. Katie Walter), a new Palgrave anthology with pieces by Lara Farina, Bob Mills, Julie Orlemanski, Elizabeth Robertson, Susan Small, Isabel Davis, Katie Walter, and Virginia Langum. Happy to see so many friends of the blog in that list. Look to this anthology for work on Blemmyes, on Havelok, on werewolves, as skin and time, on the philosophy of medicine and probing,on the Testament of Cresseid.

And look for me doing work that I kept from this blog, and more's the pity, because, as you'll discover, I fumbled. How hard I fumbled is up to your judgment.

My piece develops (no surprise) a posthuman material thought about skin. I'm mostly proud of it. Some samples:
"Flesh thus may be thought of as unrealized skin, or as unseen skin touching other unseen skin, in a body at once organized as a binary of surface and depth and as a plethora of laminated layers of skin, in which each bodily stratum is simultaneously its own surface and the depth that another cannot reach."
"If skin is a membrane, bidirectional plane of contact, or container, then we need not think of skin only in an organic sense or, for that matter, only as delineating the borders of a conscious subject. Skin rather should be understood as being everywhere things persist, meet, or are. Skin intervenes in any encounter. Skin establishes difference, an 'interval.' It mediates while confounding absolute immediacy" &c.
"To touch means to be touched in turn. To be at all is to experience one's limits and to be available, to abut on others and to feel one's shape by encountering resistance and by reaching back. As Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey put it, '"my body" does not "belong to me": embodiment is what opens out the intimacy of myself with others,' to which I would add that embodiment is also what prevents intimacy by enabling others to exist as others."
Too much "academic mumblespeak" and other bad prose habits there (thus, at once, rather, to which I would add), but otherwise not so bad. No (major?) errors.

I wish I could say the same for all of it. Elizabeth Robertson surely deserved better than the response I gave. Robertson, as I write, "traces doctrinal efforts to resolve the apparent contradiction between Christ's commanding Mary Magdalene not to touch him and his inviting Thomas to probe his wounded side." She does great work with the noli me tangere scene, and I supplement her discussion of some artworks with one about a twelfth-century Leonese ivory plaque of the scene (see above). Though the plaque says Dominus Loquitur Marie, the Lord talks to Mary, it's much more about touching than speaking. Christ's hand rests on the shoulder of one of the travelers to Emmaus, and when Christ reaches out to ward off Mary, his outstretched fingers just barely penetrate her halo. "Even," I say, "his attempt to avoid touch must be recognized as another moment of contact."

from the left
Except that's not what's happening. Not exactly. I was at the Met yesterday to see James Nares' extraordinary film "Street" (a must-see for all thinkers interested in scale and time), where I also saw this plaque among the objects Nares had selected "to provide different points of entry into aspects of his work." The plaque's about traveling, about visitation, about surprise, about touching and not touching, and about silence, since a plaque can only represent speech without actually giving it voice. It's about how this film about just looking also must be a film about touching. We're not simply conducting surveillance. The cries of delight when birds crossed the screen, when New Yorkers loved seeing, of all things, a pigeon (!), was proof enough of that.
from the right

But if you look at the plaque from the left, Christ isn't actually touching Mary's halo. His fingers stop just before it. Or they're floating just above it. Foiled!

Or so I thought, until Alison rescued me by pointing out that Christ's fingers do penetrate her halo, so long as we're looking from the right.

We have a host of lessons here. I can give you two, and invite you to list more. The first: don't write about a sculpture until you've actually seen it. I wrote my essay in Paris, not New York, and should have written about something, oh, at the Louvre or the Cluny. The second: don't forget anamorphosis, particularly with sculpture, which are, if we work with them properly, moving images. This plaque invites us, requires us, to move around the scene, so we can realize that, depending on the lighting, depending on our stance, we're going to see the touch Christ tried to prevent. And we're going to miss that touch so long as we don't let the sculpture move us around it.

And for more on such things, see Asa Mittman.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Globalization and the Humanities in the Twenty-first Century

[My GW colleague Alexa Huang has agreed to share with us on ITM her recent testimony in front of Congress on behalf of the humanities. Enjoy! -- JJC]

Globalization and the Humanities in the Twenty-first Century
Congressional Briefing by Alexa Huang, May 16, 2013

Some people register a sense of place through sweet memories of taste and sounds, others through scent and smell, and still others through images in their mind’s eye. To me, the world is made up of stories. Stories full of sound and fury. Great stories are often strangers at home. They defamiliarize banal experiences and everyday utterances while offering something recognizable through a new language and form.

And stories, like people, travel and move around. Stories connect us to other times and places. When Shakespeare’s plays move through different cultures, they reveal unexamined assumptions about human nature and tell surprising stories about globalization. Take, for example, a slice from Hamlet’s inquisitive mind: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The versatile verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. It has been translated into Russian, German, and Arabic as “to do,” “to die,” and “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?). Translating this speech into Japanese will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity.

Literary ambiguity is our friend. The ambiguity is a welcome gift for the uninhibited mind, for it has been an ally of oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, Tibet, South Africa, Poland, and elsewhere. The ambiguity allowed them to express themselves under censorship. When history is held hostage by politics, when human rights are violated, the humanities help restore dignity to what it means to be human. When ambiguity is deliberately eradicated, when things are painted black and white, it is usually during a dark moment of history: the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, lynching, the Scottsboro boys incident in the post-Reconstruction South of the Unites States. Hamlet in a foreign language compels us to rethink what we assume to be familiar about our own culture. The humanities in a global context enrich our mind as we pause to ask some fundamental questions. To be whom? To do what?

I was born to Taiwanese parents in a farming village outside Kaohsiung and was raised in Taipei. On sultry summer evenings on the subtropical island of Taiwan, my grandmother would tell me fairy tales under a starry sky, stories about her life story under Japanese colonial rule, and stories of the stones, crickets, and the village. This is how I developed an insatiable appetite for stories—historical, fantastical, political, heroic. As a college student at Tsinghua, I majored in the practically impractical major known as literature. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to study abroad as an exchange student in Germany, where I discovered that the most frequently performed playwright in that country is not Goethe but William Shakespeare. As I would find out later, Shakespeare was an important figure that helped establish a unified German cultural identity and literary tradition in opposition to French classicism. I soon learned that all over the world Shakespeare has been a common cultural touchstone for centuries. A Renaissance poet associated with a theatre called the Globe, Shakespeare had become a global author long before globalization became a catchphrase. There are now Globe theatres in Germany, New Zealand, Japan, the Unites States, Canada, and elsewhere.

My curiosity set me on a path of studying cultural globalization that took me to Strasbourg, France, Oxford, England, and several other countries. When I visited London in 1996, work was under way to reconstruct Shakespeare’s renowned Globe Theatre near its original site on the South Bank that would open in July 1997. I gleefully donated a brick to the project. In the mind of an undergraduate student from a small island nation that has not been recognized by the U.N. and most countries since 1971, that brick was a material connection to the West beyond international politics, to a fascinating historical space, and to the intangible cultural heritage of a “brave new world,” as Miranda would say in The Tempest. Storytelling is in fact the foundation of Prospero’s magic. The magician frames the world he and his daughter live in with stories that help them heal from the experience of exile and forgive their enemies.

What I was not aware of as I stood at the construction site of the great theatre in London in 1996 was that globalized art means business. The modern Globe is not only a sign of cultural rebirth of London’s once-shady South Bank but is also a perfect example of how the humanities can lead to economic prosperity and transform communities. The number of visitors to the South Bank and the Bankside Cultural Quarter (where the Tate Modern and the Globe are located) jumped from an annual average in the tens of thousands in the 1990s to 13 million in 2011. Another example of this principle is how the humanities informed the core strategies used to market London during the 2012 Olympics. This strategy is being repeated for the 2016 Olympic Games: a reconstructed Globe Theatre is being planned in Brazil to coincide with the games and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Beyond economic implications, we can also learn a great deal about another culture through stories its members tell, and we can always learn about ourselves by comparing how another culture reads a story we know, such as Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s stories and the stories different cultures tell about Shakespeare eventually led me to California in 1999. American humanities education plants seeds for great changes in people’s lives. As a wide-eyed graduate student at Stanford, I learned from an inspiring, international faculty and cohort of students how to ask probing questions and take history to task and how to find a path through a dark forest of conflicting ideas. To achieve these goals, I studied a number of languages, including Latin, classical Chinese, modern Japanese, German, and French. I learned how to read closely and contextually for both information and untold or silenced stories and how to build sustainable intellectual communities through effective written and oral communication. When it came time to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I initially wanted to stay with a conservative, safe topic in a more established subfield in Renaissance studies. I am thankful that instead I discovered and participated in the creation of global Shakespeare as a new field of study. I am forever indebted to Professor Patricia Parker, whose relentless pursuit of perfection pushed me to take the road less traveled and answer my calling to tell stories. After I earned my doctorate in comparative literature from Stanford, I moved to the east coast and became a scholar of globalization.

As my students at George Washington University’s Department of English and Elliott School of International Affairs tell me, the humanities and especially imaginary literature helps them put human faces on globalization. There are social implications of the fact that today’s college students understand globalization better through the humanities. There are clear benefits to being able to relate to international trade partners and strategic allies on a human level with compassion and not treat them as statistics. Knowledge of cultural globalization can help us avoid cultural imposition and move towards cultural sharing and building common ground.

Story-telling makes us human because it helps us understand the human condition in different contexts.

Recent history has shown that the humanities are greater than the sum of its parts. An eccentric topic for an obsessed researcher may not seem to matter in light of national security or to the general public until we are caught off guard in a crisis when, as in the wake of September 11, we are pressed to learn about who we are, how to come to terms with atrocities, where we as a nation are headed, and why. The humanities are not a luxury; they are the very foundation on which meaningful lives are built. Skills in critical thinking, civil debate, and understanding narratives are vital to American values of freedom, liberty, and social equality, and a democratic society founded upon the government’s accountability and rational citizen participation. This is why public support for the humanities is crucial.

It is a privilege and a unique responsibility to teach Shakespeare and globalization in downtown Washington, D.C., three blocks from the White House. My international and local students alike take pride in studying in the nation’s capital. The American nation was founded upon basic principles of humanistic thought, including the concepts of justice and universal humanity. Capital Hill is a proud host to institutions that foster these ideas, including the Supreme Court, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution. America clearly values humanities thought: its Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Today its collection includes over 155 million books and a vast collection of photographs, sheet music, sound recordings, and films on over 838 miles of shelves. The library provides a record of how people lived and expressed themselves in daily life and through the arts.

Shakespeare has helped shape powerful thinkers around the world, including the founding fathers of this nation. Thomas Jefferson kept a commonplace book that featured Shakespearean passages. Abraham Lincoln could recite soliloquies from Richard III. Language becomes literary when it acquires the power to motivate people and move nations.

In our age of globalization, understanding other peoples’ stories means the difference between being a window shopper and being an informed decision maker in international arenas. Here are two inspiring stories of Shakespeare in South Africa and in China.

A smuggled copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela while he was in the Robben Island jail. The South African prisoners there signed their names next to passages that were important to them. The passage Mandela chose on December 16, 1977, was from Julius Caesar, just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March in act 2, scene 2:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
These lines taught Mandela how to dream and how to rise from the ashes. Through imaginary literature, we, like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Mandela, are able to rehearse multiple scenarios and histories without having endure the costly consequences of going to war or taking one’s own life in a political prison. The humanities can show us the future of the history we are making.

We are defined by our stories. At the same time, stories liberate us from the prison house of a relatively short life span in the infinite universe. Great stories can also give us courage, insight, and vision. In one of my classes, I discuss with my students the impact of the joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense to tour the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth to thirteen U.S. military bases in 2004. Indeed, what does it mean to read Shakespeare through peace and war?

Wu Ningkun has a moving story to tell. The mainland Chinese intellectual returned from the University of Chicago to join Mao Zedong’s New China in 1951. A decade later, he was sent to reform himself in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution because of his alleged association with the capitalist West. Although he was under close surveillance, he still managed to smuggle a copy of Hamlet into the camp to read whenever “the prisoners had to spend the day cooped up in a cell when a blinding blizzard blew from Siberia” in northeastern China. Of this experience, he later wrote in his memoir A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China:
Hamlet was my favorite Shakespeare play. Read in a Chinese labor camp, however, the tragedy of the Danish prince took on unexpected dimensions. . . . The Ghost thundered with a terrible chorus of a million victims of proletarian dictatorship. 
The real question I came to see was neither “to be, or not to be,” nor whether “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” but how to be worthy of one’s suffering.
It is interesting to note what Wu elides from the Hamlet quote: “or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” On the one hand, it could mean that he wishes to counter the unfortunate condition of Cultural Revolution by not taking on a Hamlet-like passivity. On the other hand, it could imply that Wu seeks justice on a more transcendent level and is not seeking revenge upon those who unjustly imprisoned him. Shakespeare helped Wu survive in the labor camp, and reading Wu’s story helps us understand a crucial moment in the making of post-Mao China as the nation emerges from the Cultural Revolution.

Thinkers and leaders such as Lincoln, Mandela, and Wu have drawn inspiration from their reading and built stronger, interconnected communities through the humanities. There will be no national security without an in-depth understanding of our own culture and the cultures of others. Statistics and numbers give us only a partial picture of international affairs. Thoughtful and engaged citizens are the foundation of a democratic, civil society. The humanities enrich the creativity of the business world, enhance the adaptability of workforces, and promote crucial cross-cultural understanding.

Great stories instruct and delight, comfort and inspire. Because you provide public support for the humanities in America and allow us to continue to discover and tell powerful stories to the next generation of Americans, you play a major role in securing the leadership role of the United States. For that, I thank you.

Briefing on the Humanities in the 21st Century:
Addressing National Security and Other Global Challenges through Cultural Understanding
May 16, 2013,  mRayburn House Office Building, Room 2253, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance in cooperation with Congressional Humanities Caucus
Session chaired by Eva Caldera, Assistant Chairman for Partnership and Strategic Initiatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Alexa Huang is Professor of English, International Affairs, Theatre and Dance, and East Asian Languages and Literatures, and director of graduate studies. She co-founded and co-directs the GW Digital Humanities Institute, and director of the Dean's Scholars in Shakespeare Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She also is the co-founder and co-director of the open-access digital performance archive "Global Shakespeares,"

Other panelists include Eli Sugarman, Senior Director at Gryphon Partners LLC, and Carter Findley, Humanities Distinguished Professor in the History Department at Ohio State University

Founded in 1981, the National Humanities Alliance advances national humanities policy in the areas of research, education, preservation and public programs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Swerve Code (draft)

by J J Cohen

Below you'll find my short essay in progress for a special cluster on Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, forthcoming in Exemplaria. I don't love the amount of negativity in it but am feeling rather stuck in turning that around -- mainly, I think, because the Middle Ages are so poorly treated in the book.

The Swerve Code            
Despite prestigious awards and an enviable popular readership, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern has garnered a mixed reaction among scholars, especially (but not exclusively) those who study early European literature.[1] With its narrative of classical achievement, gate-busting barbarians, long medieval stagnation and sudden Western rebirth, the book’s collective Bildungsroman mode of historiography is creaky to the point of retrogression. A self-enlightening Europe stands in exceptionalist isolation from the remainder of the globe. Propelled forward by the actions of heroic men, history culminates in an unexamined first person plural that is “us” – and along the way the narrative quietly jettisons the work of feminism, ethnic studies, postcolonial theory, critiques of the canon, and other important qualifiers of the Burckhardtian thesis. Scholars have wondered what deeper research into historical complexities, a fuller account of dissent and diversity, and a more humane accounting of those left to silence might have yielded. Such critiques have been advanced in multiple forums, including book reviews and social media, where a lively conversation about The Swerve has been ongoing.[2] Acknowledging the enthusiasm the book continues to generate despite its scholarly shortcomings, I will in this short piece argue that despite its obsession with newness The Swerve’s popularity derives not from its originality but from a reassuring familiarity. I will suggest in closing a promisingly anti-humanist countermovement already embedded within its broad brush, medieval-phobic plot.
            The Middle Ages described by contemporary medievalists were heterogeneous, roiled, temporally thick, culturally hybrid, and geographically vast. Their plural form in English conveniently underscores that they do not constitute a singular epoch and must remain irreducible to facile summation. The Middle Ages described by Stephen Greenblatt are not quite so complicated. Self-contained like fifteenth-century Florence (“distinctly medieval in appearance”), the time period from the fall of Rome to the rise of humanism is, like the city, “closed in and dark” (110). These two urban descriptors materialize the metaphorical truth of the homogenous age that pre-Duomo Florence embodies: walled against the wider world, lacking in illumination. Thus medieval monks (all of them) possessed a “mental life” that was “hedged” by “high walls” (28). Epistemologically isolated, immured by their inability to swerve (that is, to act unpredictably and thereby precipitate the new), those who historically contributed to a lively and diverse intellectual culture are glimpsed mainly as agentless copyists, “solitary souls” laboring over the reproduction of texts they fail to comprehend (12). Classical philosophy in Greenblatt’s account was detested as pagan and roundly suppressed, leading to a “Great Vanishing” (86) of precious texts. Though prized because of monastic injunctions to daily reading, books were for amassing more than use (39). What reading did occur was a disengaged process, since curiosity had “to be avoided at all costs” (41). Even outside the confines of medieval ecclesiastical structures (an expanse across which the narrative seldom treads), choices in living were severely limited. Ploughmen tilled as they had always tilled, monks prayed just as they did when their orders were founded, oligarchs ruled towns that seem always to have been theirs to control. We never glimpse these secular figures as producers or consumers of texts. The aristocracy who commissioned chivalric romances is as absent as merchants, guild culture, pilgrimage and Islam. Adherence to inherited modes of life continued so long because “it was not as if there were any coherent alternatives” (16). A millennium of pestilent stillness, the Middle Ages becomes an affective expanse enamored of fear and death -- so that even if the period had some art, these efforts tended to be “horrors, loving carved” (76). Likewise omitted from this narrow story are the burgeoning of universities, cultural captivation by King Arthur, the catalytic power of the genre of romance, much consideration of the rediscovery of Aristotle through translation of Arabic texts, the thriving of cities and the new modes of life that they enabled, world-connecting trade, learned women like Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, travel to China and Greenland, dissent and critique. An inventive, cerebral, and successfully unorthodox author like Chaucer has no place in The Swerve, even if his deep reading in Boethius and obsession with chance and fortune resonate deeply with Lucretius (as well as with the elemental theory that Lucretius imported from Empedocles and upon which he drew in describing the actions of atoms). Whereas the Renaissance prized humanist subjectivity, the Middle Ages of The Swerve obsessed over the body, especially the mortification of the flesh.
            Central to Greenblatt’s vision of the Middle Ages is the figure of the self-flagellating monk. In Peter Damian Greenblatt finds the man (it is always a man who is the Great Historical Mover in the smaller narratives that weave the total masculine fabric of The Swerve) who culminates the long struggle to “secure the triumph of pain seeking … the celebration of the whip” (107). This embodied imitation of the scourging of Christ must be self-enacted because the days of martyrdom ended so long ago:
To be sure, Damian concedes, in the case of his glorious predecessors, someone else was doing the whipping. But in a world where Christianity has triumphed, we have to do the whipping for ourselves (107)
Greenblatt offers an extended description of medieval self-flagellation and its “theaters of pain.” Dramatic scenes of loving the whip become metonyms for monastic practice, which is then conflated with European Christianity (singular). So enthusiastic was the ecclesiastic embrace of canes, rods and hair shirts that “ordinary self-protective, pleasure seeking impulses” among lay populations “could not hold out” (108-9): medieval people, it seems, were by constitution weaker and more obtuse than we moderns, at least when it came to resisting ecclesiastical injunctions to self scourge. Societies of flagellants began to thrive. “Mass hysteria” did what it does best, erupting in periodic outbursts (109). Self-mortification and the flow of blood became instilled as “the core values of believing Christians” (109). Thus much later in time, a monastic devotee of Opus Dei will be glimpsed administering this ritual on his pale flesh:
Silas turned his attention now to a heavy knotted rope coiled neatly on the floor beside him. The knots were caked with dried blood. Eager for the purifying effects of his own agony, Silas said a quick prayer. Then, gripping one end of the rope, he closed his eyes and swung it hard over his shoulder, feeling the knots slip against his back. He whipped it over his shoulder again, slashing at his flesh. Again and again, he lashed.
The lay conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, incidentally, does not have a monastic branch and is not known to advocate or practice self-flagellation. Many readers will recognize that the murderous albino monk Silas is a character from Dan Brown’s sensational bestseller The Da Vinci Code. [3] Brown’s book appeared eight years before The Swerve, and although I would not argue that Greenblatt’s enthusiastic monastic flagellants derive from Silas, both Brown and Greenblatt are inheritors of a script luridly imagined within Gothic fiction, with its stock of perverse ecclesiastical figures.[4] The figure of the monk who devotes his life to the flesh (erotically or masochistically or both) rather than the nurture of mind and soul is a Gothic trope, deeply embedded in the genre’s anti-Catholicism. The figure of the self-flagellating monk and the perverse medievalism he embodies seem right because, like Greenblatt’s old-fashioned emplotment of the Renaissance, they are conservative, retrograde, just a little bit dirty.

In the paragraph following Greenblatt’s account of flogging, medieval monks are granted no agency for the production or preservation of the manuscripts found in their libraries. “It was by chance …. It was by chance … And it was by chance” Greenblatt intones three times to convey how a copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things came to survive the great darkness of the Middle Ages. A happy twist of fate, then, that monastic communities were so busy self-flagellating; otherwise someone might have noticed what had been copied and preserved within their archive, a space for storage and moldering rather than reading. Greenblatt posits that through Lucretius’s writing of the poem and through Poggio’s rescue of the text, the philosopher and the book hunter enabled the world to become not-medieval. Yet in the narrative he provides to support that thesis it would be just as true to observe that the modernity we are all now enjoying could not have arrived were it not for the distracting allure of the monastic whip.
Although I express that conclusion in a way that is tongue in cheek (and imitative of Greenblatt’s own critical causality), I do so not to make fun of The Swerve but to point out something that its author quietly captures quite well, a smaller drama that undercuts humanistic progressivism. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, the book by Niklaus Largier that provides Greenblatt with most of his material about medieval self-flagellation, was translated into English by the Object Oriented Philosopher Graham Harman. Greenblatt’s brand of humanism is antithetical to Harman’s work, which ruminates upon the agency and mystery of the nonhuman. Despite a world that on the face of it is propelled forward through the acts of Great Men, The Swerve also imagines a space in which objects like texts exert force and radiate power. Read a book by Lucretius and its Latin meters change you profoundly, implant themselves like a virus, demand replication and dissemination. Humans and atomistic Latin philosophy become symbionts rather than solitary. Each possesses historical agency within a social, cultural and material network through which they not only move together but propel each other unaware. Were Greenblatt to think critically about this inhuman activity that pulses in his narrative, he might have penned a story more complicated, more innovative, more posthumanist than the attenuated tale of classical loss and early modern rebirth he tells. Aleatory swerves, after all, do not depend upon humans for their slow or sudden motion. They carry us along with them, unaware.

[1] For a trenchant examination of Greenblatt’s claims about Lucretius and the Middle Ages in The Swerve that cites previous reviews, see Jim Hinch, “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters.” Greenblatt responds briefly to some of these criticisms at the end of John Monfasani’s review of his book.
[2] I gather many of them at this post at the blog In the Middle in a post entitled “Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize.”
[3] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; the indented quotation is from page 17. Medievalists know that Da Vinci is not a last name but the place Leonardo was from, and that the book more accurately ought to have been called The Leonardo Code.
[4] Transgressive ecclesiastical figures, especially monks, are well traced and linked to contemporary anti-Catholicism by George Haggerty in Queer Gothic 63-83.

Works Cited

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code (New York; Anchor, 2003)
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize.”
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011)
Haggerty, George. Queer Gothic (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006)
Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2005)
----------. The Quadruple Object (Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books, 2011)
Hinch, Jim. “Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters,” Los Angeles Review of Books Dec. 1, 2012,
Largier, Niklaus. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. Trans. Graham Harman (New York: Zone Books, 2007)
Monfasani, John. Review of Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Reviews in History

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Maiden Knight at Kalamazoo

by Steve Mentz (Thanks to the ITM fab five for graciously inviting this guest-post!)

Mishigami, the "great water"
Mishigami, the "great water"
When you dive into cold water, it pushes the wind out of you. The icy shock holds you still, just for an instant. You slide beneath the waves into water’s slippery grip, and then lurch back up onto unsteady feet. Now everything’s different. The air bites exposed skin, but it isn’t just the cold or even the wind raking the lake into ragged swells. Something else. Your breath comes in near-frantic wrenches, and you can nearly feel some hidden motions inside your body, some awakened fire, constricted now inside loose ropes of cold. The lakewater has encircled your body, taken you whole – that’s what immersion means – but after you stand up it gradually sloughs itself away. Second by second your breathing reasserts its rhythm. You plunge under a second time, and the cold comes back, but nothing like the first shock.

Early Saturday morning, before my first-ever presentation at Kalamazoo, Lowell Duckert and I went swimming in Lake Michigan. As I usually am, I was seeking meaning. Does it make sense to read frigid immersion as allegory, to say that my scant thirty hours at the Medieval Congress, perhaps five of which were spent sleeping, embody the same impulse as plunging into the cold waters of the Third Coast?

A maiden knight arrives
Lowell, post-immersion
Lowell, post-immersion
As an early modernist who’d never been there, I was curious about Kalamazoo. It shouldn’t have been all that exotic - the gap between the periods isn’t that wide, and anyway I’m close to the Sidney and Spenser Kzoo sub-cultures via my first book on romance. Plus the elemental hospitality of the BABEL/ITM/MEMSI/etc flowed through every hour. To paraphrase Jeffrey’s introductory remarks from “The Future We Want,” medievalists and early modernists are better served by seeing each other as alternate sympathies than rival claimants to a pre-modern throne.  He sees a chasm between the sub-fields that needs to be bridged, and I’m also tempted to imagine a border across which sorties can sally and trade flourish, but in any case it seems more fun to be on both sides.

Even so, I felt vaguely alien upon arriving at the Congress. The sense that everyone else knew where they were going was part of it. Navigating the foreign WMU campus Friday afternoon to get to my first session seemed Spenserian and allegorical. (Should I say Dantesque instead? Romain de la Rose-like? Spenser is my go-to allegorical marker, but not the only one.) The ground was charged with meanings. The first living creature I encountered on campus was a goose. Symbol of fun? Or the need to extend our circle of attention beyond human actors? Of seasonal migrations? It was raining, and I hadn’t packed an umbrella or raincoat. The first human I recognized was Jeffrey Cohen, driving his rental car slowly down a campus drive. He rolled down his window, spoke my name, smiled, and drove off, leaving me in the rain. Meaning…what, exactly?

A symbolic object?
A symbolic object?
Because allegories must be interpreted (via Chris Piuma & Jonathan Hsy)
Allegories must be interpreted!
(via Chris Piuma & Jonathan Hsy)
During a busy spring of many conferences, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between individuality and community. The productive tension between the one and the many has been on my mind for a long time, and thinking back on my trip to Michigan, I have the sense that Kzoo might enable a slightly different response to this endless conundrum. Unlike the annual conferences I regularly go to – SAA, MLA, less often RSA – it’s always in the same place. To my fellow conference goers, many of whom happily rattled off their Kzoo numbers – 12 years straight! 13! 5! 20! – it clearly felt like home.

Like a first-time reader of an over-abundant text, Malory or Dante or Chaucer, I searched for ways into the overwhelming numbers & flavors & ideas on diplay. The goose started things off, and then it wasn’t long before I’d spotted a few grad school friends and eased into the familiar pattern of academic conferences: found the registration table, looped a badge around my neck, arbitrarily narrowed my list of four intriguing sessions down to one.

I ended up choosing what felt like the most Kalamazoo-ish panel, La Belle Compagnie’s “How Shall a Man be Armed?” a live demonstration and modeling of English armoring practices during the Hundred Years War. My BABEL-y and theoretical friends wondered if I was poking fun at medievalism by choosing that panel. And perhaps I was a little, as I retold the story at happy hour, but the truth is I love experiential learning and the pressure living bodies put on ancient structures. I really can’t get enough of that stuff – which is one reason I love teaching with live theater and also why I launched my maritime scholarship by learning to climb the rigging and set the sails on the tall ships at Mystic Seaport back in 2006. The Armor panel was wonderfully dense and awash in technical details, including the influence of Italian and French fashions on English armor designs. (I thought it was good evidence for the claim that modern men's fashions evolved out of armor.) The panel featured, in the four stalwart men gradually being dressed from foot to helm, a full helping of bodily presence, the force of “now” infiltrating historical expertise. Plus some good jokes, intentional or not: one knight’s beaver kept falling down and interrupting the presenter. It showcased the sometimes awkward fit of scholarly technical precision and fan-boy enjoyment. I could only get to one session as a audience member, but it was a good one.

How Shall a Man Be Armed?
How Shall a Man Be Armed?

As at NCS last summer, the communal virtue I wanted to think through at Kzoo was fellowshipI’d done my homework and read a little David Wallace, and I was interested in testing the rough assumption that, compared to my home waters at SAA, Kzoo was more fellowship-full, less hierarchical, more interdisciplinary, and extended across different kinds of intellectual space. That's a caricature of SAA, but an enabling fantasy about Kzoo.

In many ways, unsurprisingly, the two conferences are more alike than not. I was struck, though here I might be reading from my own private Kzoo, driven by BABEL, MEMSI, etc., by a deep attention to social organization and institutionalization beyond the panels. After seeing men armed, I went from BABEL happy hour -> MEMSI dinner -> BABEL party at Bell’s Brewery. I’ve seldom felt so well taken care of at a conference or so thoroughly awash with fellow-feeling. (At SAA I sometimes consciously shift between different sub-discourses, which I didn't at all at Kzoo, except I guess at the armor panel.)

My favorite moments at dinner were watching Jeffrey shift from insisting, as drinks were served, that it would be “impossible” to put together another set of MEMSI panels for next year’s Kzoo, because he was out of ideas, to watching him assemble, before dessert, a twenty-speaker mega-panel on “The Impossible.” (My word, supplied by Lowell, is “dry.” Impossible & undesirable, but something we covet and value. Though I now wonder if “memory” has already been taken?)

Bell’s is definitely a place to which I’d like to return. The logistics of the pre-panel swim the next morning trimmed the wind from my sails Fri night, but it’s an excellent spot. 

The Future We Want
The Future We Want
The Cormorant and the Future

The panel I’d come to speak on, “The Future We Want,” dealt out six pairs and a wild card. The 10:00 am time was perfect for a pre-talk lake swim, a quick 60 miles west, before fiddling with flash drives and slideshows.
It was odd that none of the other panelists took up our offer to join us for a dip. Maybe they were waiting in a different hotel lobby at 6 am?

The talks rolled over us like so many cars in a freight train, roaring westbound, peering through fog, monkey at the wheel. I'll sprint through them in an early modernist spirit of competitive evaluation:
  1. The best presentation came first, Anne Harris and Karen Overby’s gorgeous meditation on optical lushness and the gifts of Art. I craned my neck backward to stare at the slides.
  2. Better than all the rest was Arayne Fradenburg and Eilleen Joy’s rich evocation of institutional freedoms and futures. No one was surprised when they admitted their talks had been ghost written by frozen kobolds held deep underground, where they spend their dark days digging for possibilities.
  3. My favorite was by Alan Mitchell and Will Stockton, who wasn’t really there. They brought the devil to the party and showed what happens when times and modes change.
  4. Lowell Duckert and I may not have had the prettiest pictures, but we were the only ones to sing during our presentation.
  5. None of the talks was better than Chris Piuma and Jonathan Hsy’s brilliant poetic meditation on containers and overflowing meanings.
  6. I could not believe it when Julian Yates and Julie Orlemanski actually came to blows over the dynamic meanings of The Battle of Maldon. There was no way to top that level of commitment, so it’s good that they anchored our relay.
Actually the best part may have been the introductions. Wild-card Jeffrey likened each of us to a different literary genre, then sat in the front row with eyes blazing. Greedy glutton of imagination, lapping it up after lashing us all to the mast!
Cormorant sees the future
Cormorant sees the future
I see now, but didn’t yet realize as I wrote the talk, that the “various” I was celebrating via Milton’s fallen angel-bird was the difference I’d come to Michigan seeking, the fellowship poured into glasses and spread across lush lawns, the screech of newness in my ears. As usual with acts of discovery, what you find is mostly what you bring. But what I like about new conferences is the slight reshuffling of times and voices, the partially off-balance feeling created by available novelty, and the opening up of new ways.

In maritime historical circles, the idea of the Great Lakes as the Third Coast aims to supplement familiar narratives of "Atlantic history" and Pacific globalization with a different American story, one that enters slightly askew, via the St. Lawrence diagonally from the northeast. This narrative connects the landlocked center of the continent to a distinctively northern maritime economy, trading furs and timber rather than cotton or sugar. This coast even -- quelle horreur! -- speaks more French than English, or at least it used to. Adding these fresh-water coastlines to our maritime narratives provides new trajectories for waterborne thinking.

That's what I like most about an early spring dip in great waters.

(Cross-posted at the Bookfish)