Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman @ UMP

by J J Cohen

Now that I've received the fully executed contract and it is 100% official, I'm very happy to announce that my book Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman will be published by the University of Minnesota Press. This book will be my fifth project with UMP (first was this little thing, then two monographs, and most recent is this collection) -- and I'm pleased to be working with them again. I love that their books are reasonably priced and immediately available as hardcover, paperback, and etexts.

Who knows if the title of the published volume will be the same as that on the contract, but I made a decision not to have the word medieval appear within it. Most of the materials I examine are actually 12th-14th C (English, French, Latin), but I've grown a bit weary of period-specific writing and hope to trigger a larger conversation through this work. We'll see.

I have a great deal of revising ahead of me, but it's good to know that the work will have a good home. Look for it in 2015.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chaucer Classroom First-Day Flipping: A Plan


Tomorrow's the first day of Fall 2013 classes at Brooklyn College. If you teach college, you probably started this week too, and you likewise know that the first day often tends to be a waste of time: an embarrassed slog through the syllabus, with dire warnings about plagiarism and absences and misused electronic devices, or a series of accidental mini-lectures that the students endure for each of the required 75 minutes.

I stopped doing that year(s) ago (of course! of course!) and now tend to have first-day written text analysis and small group discussion; I can also have them do preliminary translations, if I'm teaching Middle English; but there still tends to be the syllabus slog, however abbreviated, and the 'intro to the Middle Ages' lecture.

Not tomorrow. I spent last Spring flipping my classroom, but there's more flippery in this old dog yet.

It's simple. First thing is to cut the syllabus way back. It's now just 4 pages of a normal-sized font without anything complicated in terms of due dates. A short syllabus means no syllabus slog.

More importantly, rather than going through my normal first-day factual talking points, I've generated 14 or so questions to divide up among up small groups (2 or 3) in various ways ("everyone on this side look up the even questions, and you guys, look up the odd," for example). They'll find the answers on their phones or tablets or whatever, and then be clumped into larger groups (7 or so) to run through their answers, which we'll then review together. Basic classroom flipping: they'll teach each other and learn how to find answers.

In a class of 26 or so, in 2013, I'm relatively sure we'll have sufficient gadgetery to make this work. If not, at least I'll know the answers. And if they're using their phones &c to find the answers, and doing this in small groups, they won't have time or space to text their friends. Everyone wins except for students who don't want to do any work.

While they're doing this, I'll project some manuscript images and get them ready to translate and recite the opening lines, as tens of thousands of students have done before them.

Here are some questions:
  1. when did Chaucer write?
  2. What is the etymology of the word "medieval"?
  3. list 3 historical events from before Chaucer and 3 from after Chaucer, excluding events in the 20th century
  4. Who was the king when Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, and what happened to him?
  5. Name a significant historical event that happened in Northern Europe when Chaucer was alive.
  6. How many popes were there in 1380?
  7. What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?
  8. What are some differences between Middle English and Old English?
  9. How many Canterbury Tales did Chaucer plan to write?
  10. Are The Canterbury Tales complete?
  11. What is a "quire"?
  12. What is "paleography"?
  13. Could Chaucer have ever eaten a potato or tomato or turkey? Why or why not?
  14. How would you pronounce the word "knight" in Middle English? Why?
  15. Bonus question: name a difference between the order of the tales in the "Hengwrt" and "Ellesmere" manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales.
Share your questions, or at least your first-day flipping tricks.


Well, it didn't work, and it worked. Here's the problem: smart phones connect us with the world and our friends, so long as the world and our friends are anywhere but where we are at that very moment. Of course, we professors will apply critical pressure to the notions of "world" and "proximity" and "connection" too: but, c'mon, I think you know what I mean.

It's like this: for making connections within the classroom, smart phones don't work, so long as you're trying to make connections between groups of 2 or 3 students. In one sense, then, the exercise worked: the students busily looked things up, and they asked questions (like, one wasn't sure of the difference between a pope and a cardinal, and most realized quickly that #4 was a bad question, given that the answer was Edward III, or Richard II, or Henry IV). But they mostly asked me questions, not the people they were supposedly paired with.

However, when I then clumped the small groups into larger groups of 6 or 7 and had them share their answers with each other, the exercise worked beautifully. The only real problem was me. I couldn't stand to watch all that excited talking and not participate, and I knew that if I circulated through the room, joining groups in succession, that they'd stop talking to each other and just look to me for the answers. So I twiddled my thumbs and watched, jealously, as they worked out the problems. I'm afraid I cut them off too soon.

I had my shot at redemption, though. Apart from my English Comp class, I've been given two Chaucer classes: the undergrad "lecture," and a weekly grad Chaucer "lecture" for Master's students. Obviously, my goal is to make both of these 26-27 student classes not lectures, and I'm using the same tools for both.

So, last night, I had the grads first work together in groups of 5 or 6 translating the famous first 18 lines of the General Prologue. This built camaraderie and got us into the text right away. Then, and only then, did I show the 15 questions, with these instructions: "you're going to be answering these questions. no need to write things down, and feel encouraged to use your phones to look things up. My first recommendation: first determine how many of the answers your group already knows. Then work through the remainder collectively, maybe by dividing them among each other. Report back to your group when you find the answer. This side of the room [gesture] work top to bottom, and this side of the room [other gesture], work bottom to top."

And that, my friends, worked perfectly. It was noisy, learned, and above all saved me from my same old boring intro-to-Chaucer-and-the-Middle Ages lecture. When I asked the groups to provide answers, I elaborated, especially with #7 ("What were some written languages in fourteenth-century England?"). In both classes, I asked "what about Hebrew? why not Hebrew?" The grads more or less could guess, but the undergrads--interestingly, especially for Brooklyn College--tended to say things like "well, they read the Bible in Latin." A little learning is a thing: I asked, "everyone in England in the Middle Ages read the Bible in Latin? Really?"

In short: with some changes, recommended. I'll be doing this again.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Materialism, Economic and New: Tobias Menely Responds

by Tobias Menely

[Tobias sent me a robust response to my post on Materialism, Economic and New. I front page it here so that this conversation -- which I believe is a very important one -- can be easily followed for those of you with RSS readers, etc. And, Tobias deserves equal space! -- JJC]

Thanks so much for carrying forward this conversation, Jeffrey. I so deeply respect the work you do in generating dialogue!

In the seminar I described, our goal will be to think about the tension (dialectical relation?) between two narratives of modernity as a series of crises that build toward the current global totalization, in which human beings are geologic agents causing rapid anthropogenic climate change, a scale change that seems to have effected an ontological rift or rupture. In one narrative, the prime mover is capitalism--defined narrowly or broadly, in terms of the production of surplus value, mercantilism and financialization, spatial compression and temporal acceleration, the creation of a proletariat through enclosure and urbanization, the falling rate of profit. In the second narrative, causality is more widely distributed, manifesting in both the positive and negative feedback loops that form through the human extraction of energy and material from ecological and biogeochemical systems.

I am not entirely compelled by attempts to locate a robust account of ecological crisis in Marx (as in the work of John Bellamy Foster, Neil Smith, and Jason Moore), although one does seem to emerge in the Frankfurt School. Marx’s discussion of energy systems (“motive power”) and technology (e.g., in Chapter 15 of Capital Vol. 1) is profoundly insufficient. The notion of a metabolic rift is useful (I’m still trying to figure out how useful)—see, for instance Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster’s essay “Guano: the global metabolic rift and the fertilizer trade” in Ecology and Power—but it’s certainly peripheral to Marx’s argument Capital. I agree with Chakrabarty in “The Climate of History” that “a critique that is only a critique of capital is not sufficient for addressing questions related to human history once the crisis of climate change has been acknowledged” (212). Even the term “metabolism,” taken from physiology, seems insufficient as the basis of a theoretical model. Some forms of energy (solar, wind) we can exploit almost endlessly without generating rifts. The problem with fossil fuels is not scarcity and exhaustion butwaste, what’s left-over: the fact that carbon dioxide is a byproduct of combustion and just happens to absorb solar radiation.

This said, I look around at the “objects” in my office and out my window and nearly all of them have gone through a process of commodification, all of them are here, now, because of the global commodity system. Even those objects that are not commodities have been valued by the market. Moore articulates a version of this in an interview:
Wall Street is a way of organizing nature, differently but no less directly than a farm, a managed forest, or a factory. The financial speculation that  reinforced underlying contradictions in the production of food, energy, and metals between 2003 and 2008 –the longest, most volatile, and wide-ranging commodity boom of the 20th century –was a decisive moment of world ecological crisis. (
 Margaret and I wrote something similar in our “Red” essay for Prismatic Ecology:
The market is, in effect, always thinking about ecosystems and organisms, regarding them as sites of potential value and translating those quantifications into concrete activity. “It is the abstract logic that attaches to the creation and accumulation of social value,” in the words of Neil Smith, “that determines the relation with nature under capitalism.” However individuals or societies regard the natural world, it is the market’s valuation of ecological matter that is responsible for the most productive thinking about the global environment.
In our account, the problem with an emphasis on the human subject—with, say, “the ecological thought,” or even with the nicely Lacanian problem you describe of reorienting desire—is not its anthropocentrism but its obscuration of the thinking, quite literally an abstracting and a valuing, that takes place in the market, in commodity-exchange. This is the model developed by Sohn-Rethel in Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology and extended by Zizek inSublime Object. The market has its own modes of thinking (“real abstraction”), its own desires and its own ethics.

Do we learn more about the market if we characterize it as an object or even “hyper-object,” or do we learn more about its metabolism, its needs, its agency, its history, by drawing on (and extending) the sophisticated resources given by historical materialism?

I too look to multi-temporality to think about desire and ethics. My work on animals is about the historical force of a sign function (the “creaturely voice”) irreducible to historical localization or the symbolic domain, a communicative injunction both “pre-original” and anticipatory of a human still-to-come. But in turning to climate change—in envisaging a future in which my own grandchild, if Rowan reproduces, would, at the end of this century, inhabit a planet two to six degrees C hotter than the average global temperature in the Holocene, the epoch in which human civilization developed—I have felt a much greater imperative toward historical localization and specificity, a much greater need to think, in materialist terms, about crises and turning points. Now, all of this said, I do understand your claim about the importance of ethics and desire. However analyticCapital is, its analysis is animated by a principle of justice, a principle Marx himself provides no historical (or transcendental) grounds for theorizing. I guess I’m with Benjamin, though, in feeling that a radical reorientation of desire or a real extension of ethical concern or the preservation of utopian hope only occur when we recognize the weight of history upon us—to push this idea further toward paradox, when we recognize the hopelessness of our situation. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Materialism, Economic and New

sunset, Cadillac Mountain
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Maine, a trip that combined some hiking in Acadia (that's your postcard to the right) with three campus visits (University of Maine at Orono, College of the Atlantic, and Bates College: son liked all three), a family visit in Bangor, and a family reunion in Ogunquit. That's quite a bit of movement over eight days of vacation.

I'm certain that my eco-geological preoccupations began along the Maine seacoast, no doubt as a child, since the tidal pools at the rocky sea edge have always been one of my favorite places. Although I tried not to bring much academic work with me this year, I did think a great deal about the Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies graduate seminar I will be teaching starting (gulp) Monday. I want to share with you a comment that Tobias left on that post about my draft syllabus while I was away, as well as my brief and I think inadequate response, in the hope of spurring a larger conversation -- or at least to offer some food for thought as the term begins. Tobias wrote:
I’ve been developing the syllabus for a graduate seminar as well—“Species and Planet in the Long Eighteenth Century”—and I’ve found particularly useful work at the intersection of Marxism and environmental history, such as Jason Moore’s essay, collected on his website: I’m planning to teach “Nature and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism” alongside _Robinson Crusoe_. Moore begins his argument with the thesis that the feudal “lord-peasant relation was fundamentally antagonistic to long-run ecological sustainability” (107), leading to a series of crises (intensified by the waning of the Medieval Warm Period), the solution of which was geographic expansion, which in turn provided the conditions for capital accumulation and the transition to capitalist modes of production. He quotes Wallerstein: “The only solution … that would extract western Europe from decimation and stagnation would be one that would expand the economic pie to be shared, a solution which required, given the technology of the time, an expansion of the land area and population base to exploit” (116). I’m also teaching from an excellent book by three French scholars, _In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages_, which includes a chapter on the medieval energy regime, focusing largely on water mills and transportation. From my perspective, this sort of extended Marxism, which considers the ecological conditions and energy regimes that shape capitalist development, while continuing to recognize the fundamental explanatory power of historical materialism, is crucially important to theorizing the Anthropocene.
I responded (and here I will lightly edit to remove some typos):
Tobias: thanks so much for your thoughts - and for your frequent pushing me to think more materially [in the Marxist sense] about production and consumption; it has been very, very helpful to me. I've been ruminating over what you've offered as I hike and swim in Maine, thinking a lot about the human impress upon these ecologically "pure" spaces that are actually just zones for the consumer-vacationer. There is so much to say about the so-called transition out of feudalism, and it would include some trenchant critiques of that supposedly hegemonic mode as partly a retroactive fantasy, as partly a too totalized view of what was on the ground multiple, shifting, and geographically specific governmental assemblages, few of which were stable for all that long. Feudalism is sometimes more useful for the work it does in buttressing rupture narratives than in actually explaining, say, 14th C England's modes of production and consumption (which were mercantile), or 9th century Britain, even under Alfred (pillage economies far and wide). Almost everywhere I look within medieval materials I see the same tendency: towards excess consumption to the point at which an ecology goes out of balance and must readjust. Iceland loses its entire tree canopy in a century (Vin Nardizzi has traced a similar process for early modern England). England loses its animals for hunting, leading to game reserves and reformulations of king's dominion and property, etc. Humans tend towards the Gaussian function but also tend to pull back before utter collapse. That seems to me the most important lesson for the Anthropocene: when will it be too late to pull back and reorganize? So on the one hand: YES we absolutely need to understand the mechanics and historical specificities of shifting energy regimes. YES historical materialism is vital to such an enterprise. But in addition, there seem to me some ethical questions not well addressed through historicism of whatever kind -- primarily, how to make people desire differently? That task (one in which history is suggestive but holds no secure answers) is one that preoccupies me in my ecological work.
I don't think that's a good enough answer, and would like to think more about economic materialism of a Marxist bent alongside the new materialism. At Tobias' suggestion I've also been reading through Jason Moore's work (I'm grateful Moore has made it so easily accessible via his website). I've found much to admire in his wide-ranging essay "From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology." The closing paragraph is especially provocative:
Constructing narratives of the longue durĂ©e as if nature matters as producer no less than product is more challenging still. This is the challenge that world-ecology meets head on. If nature matters ontologically in our philosophy of history, then we are led to engage analytically the human-biospheric dialectic’s double internality. Humans simultaneously create and destroy environments (as do all species), and our relations are therefore simultaneously if differentially through time and across space being created and destroyed with and by the rest of nature. From this optic, “nature’s” status undergoes a radical shift in our thinking: a transition from nature as resource to nature as matrix. This means that nature can be neither destroyed nor saved, only reconfigured in ways that are more or less emancipatory, more or less oppressive. But take note: our terms “emancipatory” and “oppressive” are offered not from the standpoint of humans narrowly, but through the oikeios, the pulsing and renewing dialectic of humans and the rest of nature. At stake now perhaps in a more salient way than ever before in the history of our species is exactly this: emancipation or oppression not from the standpoint of humanity and nature but from the perspective of humanity-in-nature. 
I like how Moore's work reconfigures materialism's dialectical movements to include interpenetration of nature and culture, humans and the matrix of nature. He does so with an eye towards being able to articulate, forcefully, how climate change works and what human agency means in these perturbations. It's a rather anthropocentric approach but without such approaches owning up to human responsibility for eco-catastrophe is likely impossible.

But I still don't think it's enough. I'm not an environmental historian, and in most of my projects I am not doing the close contextual work of mapping how a specific energy regime develops within ecological constraints and engenders material consequences. Most of the texts I have been examining in my recent work are so multi-temporal that I cannot tie them to anything like economic or even contextual specificity: the lapidaries, for example, carry some material forward unchanged from 300 BCE. They are not ahistorical, but they are sedimentary (that is, veined with polychronic deposits of material). And in the end I am not all that interested in discovering, say, why Marbode of Rennes composed his seminal lapidary in the eleventh century as I am in mapping the world his text imagines, how as a work of both science and speculation (I'd call it an alternative ecology) it bequeaths to the later Middle Ages a way of perceiving the world in which even stones thrum with vital activity and burgeon with story. It is difficult to emplace carbuncle within an energy regime (even if it is a kind of coal), but it is possible to speak of the invitation it keeps offering (an invitation accepted again and again) to discern a certain radiance in "mere" materiality that mandates an ethical regard towards inhuman things. And for me, the great ecological obstacle is not so much to inform people of culpability and make them realize repercussions (importance as those two things are), but to get them to desire differently. The Middle Ages provide well, not a good example, exactly, but a good archive for that task. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Drag-and-drop Old Norse First-Person Pronoun Quiz


If you're new to or ignorant of Old Norse, as I suspect even many of you are, and if you plan to get comfortable with Old Norse before the New Chaucer Society arrives in Iceland, you've no doubt disappeared hopelessly into the thicket of Old Norse pronouns: personal, demonstrative and indefinite, not to mention the definite article, in masculine, feminine, and neuter, singular and plural forms, and, in the personal pronouns, a dual as well, and for nearly all of these, a nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative form (but thank goodness, no ablative or vocative, so far as I know). In sum, I count 150 separate 'slots' for pronouns.1

To me, that's a lot. I realized I needed some kind of electronic tool. Liberation Philology Old Norse is wonderful, but it doesn't have a pronoun module. One would have to be built.

This morning, I found the Drupal 'Quiz Drag Drop' module, itself built on the 'Quiz' module. All I had to do was to learn to do a few things: how to install Drupal in Ubuntu; how to install Drupal modules in Ubuntu; and how to set up quizzes once I installed the module. The last step isn't any more mastered than the first several. More lemon difficult than easy peasy, at least for me.

But I did it. I'll figure out how to make this public sometime in the next few weeks, and in the meantime, or any time before next July, I'm happy to take suggestions or recommendations.

If the video resolution is terrible in this post, as I suspect it might be, try my tumblr page instead. And apologies for the roar of my Dishwasher.

EDIT, Sat 24 Aug

I wasn't happy with the Drupal module: not much documentation, not much help. Today I tried Moodle. Here's a screenshot of the result after I successfully completed the test:

Since my OS is Ubuntu, I used these instructions to install Moodle. I then downloaded the drag and drop quiz types from here, unzipped and copied them into the /var/moodle/question folder (use your own method: I opened Nautilus as root to make copying into the appropriate folder easy), checked the README files in the unzipped folders to make sure I had installed all the dependencies, and then clicked on 'notifications' from within Moodle to make sure the plugins actually installed. This sequence isn't exhaustive: I'll be happy to share a full set of steps with you if you need them. If you're not running Ubuntu or some other such OS, you'll probably get along fine without. And if you are running Ubuntu, do NOT install Moodle from the official repositories (sudo apt-get install moodle is NOT your friend). Use the instructions I link to above.

Short version: here's the video instruction I followed for making a drag and drop quiz in Moodle once the plugin's been installed. Enormously helpful.

Once Moodle's been set up appropriately (not so easy), this is a far easier, less clunky setup for my pronoun quiz. The feedback system isn't as quick as it is in the Drupal Addon, but that's a small loss given the overall gains.

1. Yes, I know perfectly well that modern-day Icelanders don't, as a rule, speak Old Norse.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies

by J J Cohen

(read Eileen's post and the sneak preview of Aranye's spectacular new book first!)

For those of you who do not follow my perturbated status updates on Facebook, I've just emerged from a fifty day Writing Lockdown that, honestly, took its toll. The good news, though, is that Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is under contract and will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015. The manuscript is nearly done. I've spent a summer of not being very social, didn't travel much, and wrote like crazy. But: tomorrow I leave for our annual trip to see my family in Maine. A highlight will be when we take our son to see the University of Maine at Orono as a potential applicant. My grandfather graduated their first law class in 1918 (when law was an undergraduate degree), and my dad did his BA in 1953. It would be interesting if Alex likes it...

I've been drafting my syllabus because Semester Is Coming, and I need to be ready the moment I return: I have a graduate seminar that meets Mondays. Below is the rough version of a work in progress. Let me know what you think. Putting it together felt like murdering children: so many books -- so many, many books -- that I just could not include.

English 6240
Literature of the British Archipelago:
Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies

This seminar gathers polyglot literary works from Britain's early postcolonial past to examine what happens when disparate people, biota, and elements (forces as well as fundamental materialities) meet, struggle, blend and bind. Through strife (the brutality of conquest, internal colonialism) and love (including its queer, ontology-crossing modes) we will map what happens within contact zones of people, animals, plants, landscapes, and climatic and topographical nonhumans. Our texts offer glimpses, at times horrifyingly blunt, at times oblique, of what unfolds at violent encounters and slow aftermaths. The roiled environments, trauma, veering, and unexpected futures these zones engender are evident in a medieval literature that resonates profoundly with contemporary ecotheoretical concerns. Some of our key terms: nature, natality, oikos/home, scale, hybridity, environ, elementality, actant, contact, monster, blood, catastrophe, vortex, love, strife.

This course is open to anyone who wishes to take it, including those whose focus is in later periods. Primary texts not in Middle English will be read in translation. The pedagogy is multimodal, experimental, adaptive, and collective.

Learning Objectives
By the end of this course you will:
  1. be able to translate Middle English into a contemporary idiom
  2. identify key critical concepts in ecotheory and use them to understand medieval and early modern texts differently, & vice versa
  3. be able to apply techniques of critical reading within a contextualizing historical frame, and map why such frames inevitably do not suffice
  4. be able to articulate why the advent of the Anthropocene gives so little hope for the human future
  5. be spurred by the past to think, at least tentatively, beyond dreams of sustainability and to move, cautiously, beyond ecological despair
  6. compose a carefully researched and substantial work of original scholarship

Attendance and participation; two presentations; sporadic short writing assignments that will count towards your participation; a sustained ecological meditation conducted over the length of the seminar (“Tiny Ecology”; see below); final essay that could form the basis of a scholarly article. You are also required to attend the GW MEMSI conference “Contact Ecologies” (November 15; see below), and to compose a 6 page analytical account of the keynote and panels. These assessments will count towards the total of your grade in these proportions:
            Participation                              20
            Conference write-up                10
            Tiny Ecology                             20
            Seminar paper                          50
Tiny Ecology:  You will choose a place for intense ecological attentiveness. During the course of the seminar you ill make frequent visits to note its changes from late August into December. There are no special requirements for the place you choose: it may be a built environment, a natural space, a humanly curated expanse (park, garden), an abandoned corner or lot, a recurrent puddle or a fountain. Best is an area close to home that you have lived with or near for some time without paying much regard to what unfolds within its little biome. The area can be as small as a concrete planter by a Metro station or as large as a tree and its environs. Attention should be paid to human influence and neglect, nonhuman forces (weather, sunlight, microclimates, pollution, decay, gentrification), and the surfacings of particular histories (especially but limited to the species of animals and plants evident; you may have to learn the difference between kudzu and dandelion, a starling and a wren). These notes will be typed up and used as the basis of your presentation on Tiny Ecology Day – and these presentations will form the course review.

Contact Ecologies: On Friday November 15 GW MEMSI hosts a daylong symposium on “Contact Ecologies” featuring Steve Mentz, Anne Harris, Bruce Holsinger and Kellie Robertson. The keynote will be given by Timothy Morton. You will notice their names throughout this syllabus. All students enrolled in this seminar are required to attend, participate and write an analytical report on the experience.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind is a serious offense and will be prosecuted fully. At a minimum you should expect to fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Academic Dishonesty can be as simple as consulting a website to spark your ideas, incorporating some of those themes or facts into your argument and not citing the source. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement: If you require accommodations based on disability, I am very happy to work with you. Disability Support Services (Academic Center Floor One, 994‑8250, is available to assist you as well.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore.
  • Age of Bede
  • Grettir’s Saga
  • Beowulf
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • Wace, Roman de Brut
  • Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
  • Gerald of Wales, History & Topography of Ireland
  • Poems of the Pearl Manuscript
  • Mick Smith, Against Ecological Sovereignty

Schedule of Readings
A syllabus always seems incised in granite. This one is not. I’ve mapped out a possible path our seminar might follow, but nothing here is definitive: we can alter the schedule of readings to adapt to our emergent themes and communal obsessions. Unless otherwise noted, readings not from the list of texts above are available via Blackboard under “Electronic Reserves.”

August 26  Green Inscription
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (excerpt on the settlement of Britain)
  • Chaucer, “The Former Age”
  • Karl Steel, “A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: ‘The Former Age’ with Dindimus”
  • From Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature: “Green Reading”
  • Suggested: Vin Nardizzi, “Medieval Ecocriticism” (review essay, postmedieval 4.1 2013)

September 2  LABOR DAY

September 9  The Force of the Elements
  • “The Voyage of Saint Brendan” (from Age of Bede)
  • “The Wanderer” (read all four translations and try the Old English:
  •  “The Seafarer”
  • from David Macauley, Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire and Water as Environmental Ideas: “Philosophy’s Forgotten Four” “Stone” “Ice and Snow” “Cloud” “Domestication of the Elements” and “Revaluing Earth, Air, Fire and Water”

September 16  Inhabitance and Displacement
  • Beowulf I (to death of Grendel’s mother)
  • Guthlac A and B, trans. Charles Kennedy
  • Alfred Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion” (from The Postmodern Beowulf)
  • Alfred Siewers, “Earth” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Valerie Allen, “Road” (from postmedieval 4.1)

September 23  Grim Future
  • Beowulf II (dragon and Beowulf’s death)
  • From Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism: “Apocalypse” “Dwelling” “Futures”
  • From the PMLA “Sustainability” cluster (127.3, 2102): Stacy Alaimo, “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures;” Dan Brayton, “Writ in Water: Far Tortuga and the Crisis of the Marine Environment;” Steve Mentz, “After Sustainability”

September 30  Horizon
  • Grettir’s saga
  • From Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe: “The Norse and the Crusaders,” “Weeds,” “Explanations,” “Conclusions”

October 7 Animality
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • From Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: “Cohabitation,” “Wolf, Man, and Wolf-Man” and “Conclusion”
  • Bruce Holsinger, "Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal” PMLA 124 (2009)
  • Suggested: Lowell Duckert, “Exit, Pursued By a Bear (More to Follow)”

October 14  Beyond Green
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • From Gillian Rudd, Greenery: “Wilds, Wastes and Wilderness”
  • Steve Mentz, “Making the Green One Red: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe”
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology” (from A Handbook of Middle English Studies)

October 21  Enmeshment
  • Wace, Roman de Brut (to “Night of the Long Knives,” line 7280)
  • Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology” (PMLA)
  • Timothy Morton, “The Mesh” (from Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century)
  • Timothy Morton, from The Ecological Thought
  • Anne Harris and Karen Overbey, “Lush Ethics”

October 28 Material’s Agency
  • Wace, Roman de Brut (to end)
  • Kellie Robertson, “Exemplary Rocks” (from Animal, Vegetable, Mineral; download here:
  • From Julian Yates, Error, Misuse, Failure: “Wrinkles in Time and Space” and “Martyrs and Ghosts in 1606”
  • Julian Yates, “Cloud / Land” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Julian Yates, “Towards a Theory of Agentive Drift; Or, A Particular Fondness for Oranges circa 1597”

November 4 Sovereignty and Contact Zones
  • Gerald of Wales, History & Topography of Ireland
  • Mick Smith, Against Ecological Sovereignty

November 11 Indigeneity and Trans-Corporeality
  • Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
  • From Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: “Bodily Natures” “Material Memoirs”
  • From Rebecca R. Scott, Removing Mountains: “The Logic of Extraction” “Hillbillies and Coal Miners: Representations of a National Sacrifice Zone”


November 18 Beyond
  • “Patience” “Pearl” and “St. Erkenwald”
  • Kathleen Palti, “The Bound Earth in Patience and Other Middle English Poetry”
  • Karl Steel, ““Abyss: Everything is Food” (from postmedieval 4.1)
  • Karl Steel, “Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia”

November 25  Tiny Ecology Day (inventive presentations and course summary)

December 2 Final Projects and Communal Feast

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Driving Education: A Crash Course + An Army of Lovers: Sneak Preview of Aranye Fradenburg's STAYING ALIVE: A SURVIVAL MANUAL FOR THE LIBERAL ARTS


There are many different kinds of intelligence, and there will always be a few writers who don’t need to read Shakespeare in college, or game designers who don’t need economics courses to get rich. But a terrible narrowing of the mind and of mental experience is ongoing in our country, sometimes waved on by the very scientists who ought most of all to respect the mind’s powers. The philosopher Guillaume LeBlanc argues that philosophy should now understand itself as work performed on behalf of particular cultures and ecologies, producing a new ethos of the philosopher for whom the question of belonging to an ordinary world has become, not something to bracket or transcend, but centrally important. Understanding how ordinariness is produced, and critiquing self-evidence, remain crucial activities of cultural analysis, as does the defense of expertise; but it is not simply a matter of intellectuals going public. It is also a matter of experts deciphering the relationship of their work to the arts of thriving and surviving, and feeding the results of their analyses back into their work. And it is time to fight, not just for this or that way of thinking, but for the experience of mind itself, and its cultivation — for (the pleasures of) knowing, reasoning, investigating, analyzing, debating, loving, desiring, and reflecting.

~L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, "Living the Liberal Arts: An Argument for Embodied Learning Communities," in Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts

For a while now, since I was working on my dissertation in 2000-2001 [and in which I wanted to address the question of the future of the liberal arts in light of its many histories], I have been intensely interested in what is sometimes called "university studies," best described I think as critical self-reflections and public intellectual polemics on the state(s) of higher education by those who know it very well from firsthand experience, either as tenured professors, college administrators, adjunct instructors, and also graduate students (Aaron Bady springs most notably to mind in this latter category: see his collected writings at his zunguzungu blog at The New Inquiry), although occasionally critiques of the university also come from members of think tanks, mainstream journalism (cultural criticism), and the like. These reflections can be narrow-mindedly conservative (Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education spring to mind, as does David Horwitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America) or more progressively liberal [yes, I am biased], such as Marc Bousquet's How the University Works [addresses labor inequities in higher ed], Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace [addresses the commercialization of the university and its disciplines], Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University [addresses the important subject of unequal access to higher ed for Americans as a result of conservative campaigns to thwart the university's democratizing functions], and Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fall of the Faculty [addresses the detriments to higher ed that have been caused by the rise of "all-administrative" universities], just to name some of the more notable examples of the past 10 or so years. As readers of this blog and/or any of my own published work know,  I am highly partial to Bill Readings's The University in Ruins, not only for its highly trenchant critique of the ways in which the American university has become a "transnational bureaucratic corporation," thus disrupting and weakening the role of traditional humanistic disciplines, but also of how this ruinous situation might [perversely/positively] open new [utopic & post-historical] spaces "in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise," and "with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question." In this scenario, we would give up the idea of "culture" [conceptualized narrowly in relation to specific groups] and also static [and increasingly fragmented] disciplines, and even a kind of static inter-disciplinarity, in favor of an ever-shifting disciplinary structure that would continuously "hold open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together." One might argue [and I will] that Readings's ultimate hope for the "university in ruins" as a space in which the question of "being-together" and disciplinarity itself would be permanently entangled and left purposefully open and unsettled has never really been put into serious practice. It would be too open-ended, of course, too experimental, risky, and perhaps, non-practical [and really messy in terms of administration]. Which is not to say it can't be done.

A lot has happened since Readings' book was published [posthumously] in 1996 -- one could say that his critique was dead-accurate and that the "ruinous" situation he sketched, especially in terms of the university's corporate-managerial structure and the concomitant assaults on the humanities, has intensified, and since the financial crises of 2008 onward, the idea [long-held and long-valued] that the university should be an important public [and publicly-funded] concern, especially for its vital role in securing various forms of social egalitarianism and a broad-based meritocracy for the greatest numbers of persons possible [not to mention, in order to enhance cognitive and technical innovations of all varieties, for the pure advancement of knowledge and practices of "making," regardless of cost-based "outcomes"], no longer appears to be either viable or what might be termed a "common concern." All across the country, states are slashing university budgets and expecting institutions of higher ed to figure out more and more ways to "pay for themselves," and to be "profitable" [whatever that might mean -- MOOCs are one prominent and lamentable outcome of this type of thinking]. This may be an over-simplification [because I can't do justice to all of the myriad examples in this blog post], but let's just say that the foregoing state of affairs has led to all sorts of jockeying within the university today to both winnow down and/or eliminate disciplines that appear non-utilitarian or to dress up traditionally philosophical disciplines [such as literary studies] in more utilitarian clothing. In addition, protocols of oversight and "accountability" have intensified to the point of leaving faculty little time and room to actually do the work they were hired to do: teach and research and mentor, and direct & innovate their own curricula and disciplinary collaborations. Most harmful of all, and in direct proportion to the budget-slashing maneuvers of state legislatures [and the subsequent lack of progressive federal amelioration of such], tuition and student debt levels are at unsustainably crippling levels, and the ranks of tenure-track faculty have shrunk to something around 30% of all teaching positions [say "hello" to the thoroughgoing adjunctification of higher ed].

The university system in the state of California has represented an important battleground in this current situation, partly because the state's economic woes have been so severe since 2008 [and more importantly, because of Gov. Jerry Brown's and UC President Mark Yudof's dismantling of the UC Master Plan, whereby all eligible California citizens had been entitled to a place within the University of California, regardless of means], but also because the state has long been internationally admired for its public research institutions [their quality but also their broad access] and also has a long and enduring history of faculty and student activism on its behalf [see, for recent examples, Aaron Bady's "Bartleby in the University of California: The Social Life of Disobedience," Michael Meranze and Christopher Newfield's blog Remaking the University,  Robert Samuels's blog Changing Universities, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, and I could go on -- there are so many examples, not to mention scores of organized protests, rallies, strikes, etc. over the past several years -- but I won't]. Aranye Fradenburg has long been an outspoken activist on behalf of the public humanities [and against administrative malfeasance in all of its guises], but she has been extremely busy since 2008 in helping to organize and lead critical and activist interventions within the UC system [she organized a faculty walkout at UC-Santa Barbara in 2009, has worked on behalf of the lecturers' union, UC-AFT, created "Saving UCSB," and among many other activities too numerous to mention here, is a tireless letter writer and public speaker on behalf of academic freedom, the value of the humanities, and the importance of open access to public higher ed]. Thus we are heartened to see that she has also devoted an entire monograph [an incredibly laborious venture] -- Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts -- to an insightful diagnosis of the various neoliberal and technocratic forces currently assailing and undermining the public university, and to a fierce polemic on behalf of the humanities as the critical site for fostering forms of artfulness critical to the future of our "being-together" in this world. And she has generously decided to publish it with a new start-up press, punctum books, because she agrees [thankfully, with all punctum authors and editors] that work within the humanities, and especially public intellectual work, needs to have the widest purchase possible upon the public commons and should not be kept locked behind corporatized paywalls. And in the spirit of collaboration that we certainly hold dear here at ITM [and also at BABEL], she has crafted the book to include "companion" essays from Donna Beth Ellard, Ruth Evans, Julie Orlemanski, and Daniel Remein [as well as a Preface by myself and an Afterword by Michael Snediker], so that the book is part-scholarly monograph, part-poetic-activist desiring-assemblage.

In some important respects, Staying Alive -- as a labor of public intellectual advocacy for the humanities -- does not represent a departure for Fradenburg's ouevre, although many in medieval studies [and beyond] associate her work primarily with Chaucer studies [especially in a certain psychoanalytic vein], and also, more broadly, with particular [and brilliant] theoretical explorations of historicism, psychoanalysis, sexuality, alterity/Otherness, temporality, and aesthetics [among other subjects]. But reading carefully, one can see that she has always been concerned with defining and valuing the work [and also the jouissance] of the liberal arts against the "order[s] of utility," with the important connections between [individual and group] desires and ethics, and with the connections between enjoyment, disciplin/arity, and the larger polis [indeed, her first book in 1991, City, Marriage, Tournament, attends to the latter]. In 1997 she published an essay in New Literary History, "'So that we may speak of them': Enjoying the Middle Ages," that she later expanded into the Epilogue for Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (2002). Perversely [or not], while many in medieval [especially, Chaucer] studies have plumbed and re-plumbed this book for its invaluable insights into Chaucer's literary oeuvre [and historicism, more broadly], when I was working on my dissertation in 2000, the only chapters I read were the Introduction ["Sacrifice in Theory"] and the Epilogue ["Some Thoughts on the Humanities: Enjoying the Middle Ages"], because they were germane to my own work at the time in trying to craft defenses of intellectual-historical studies. In this Epilogue, Fradenburg discusses the importance of resisting, from within the humanities [and medieval studies, more particularly], the "utilitarian rhetorics that sustain the jouissance of capitalism," and she urges us to
take up . . . the question of the jouissance of the academy, rather then assuming it is our task to discipline jouissance out of the academy. For one thing, we cannot discipline jouissance out of the academy, because discipline is always permeated with enjoyment. So why give ground on our enjoyment?
Why, indeed? In fact, in her more recent forays into cognitive studies, animal behavioral research, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, biosemiotics, and the like [and as evidenced in recent publications such as her "Living Chaucer" essay in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2011)], Fradenburg has amassed an incredible body of scientific and other evidence for why we should not only not "give ground" on this enjoyment [with all of its positive and negative implications -- i.e., enjoyment is a messy affair but no less necessary for life as a result], but also for the ways in which living itself is an art and the humanities provide the deepest reservoir of the [non-utilitarian, excessive, ornamental] artfulness so necessary, not just for surviving, but for thriving in this world. Contrary to recent polemics that simply urge the humanities to become more scientistic or technology-focused, to demonstrate their utility or even trophy their uselessness, Staying Alive does something remarkably different: it argues for the humanism of a new scientific paradigm based on complexity theory and holistic and ecological approaches to knowledge-making. It urges us to take the further step of realizing not only that we can promote and enhance neuroplastic connectivity and social-emotional cognition, but also that the humanities have always already been doing so. “Nature always exceeds itself in its expressivity” -- which is to say artfulness is necessary for adaptation and innovation, for forging rich and varied relationships with other minds, bodies and things, and thus, again, for thriving — whether in the boardroom or the art gallery, the biology lab or the recording studio, the alley or the playground, the book or the dream. Bringing together psychoanalysis, science, aesthetics, and premodern literarature (from Virgil to Chaucer to Shakespeare), Fradenburg offers a bracing polemic against the technocrats of higher education and a vibrant new vision for the humanities as both living art and new life science. For me, especially, the book matters because -- even if not overtly -- it takes up and further exemplifies the necessity of Bill Readings's vision of the university as a critical site for play, for non-utilitarian experimentation, for keeping knowledge unsettled, and where, in Readings's words, "thinking is a shared process without identity or unity."

What Fradenburg's new [forthcoming] book also demonstrates -- along with the important body of work known as "university studies" that her book will soon join -- is that those of us who work within the humanities must commit some of our most valuable resources [primarily, our always-encroached-upon time] to academic activism, whether through letter writing, blog polemics, organized protests and strikes, collectivist agitation and intervention, mutual aid initiatives, and books such as these. We cannot just "bide our time" within the university, hoping things will get better, or even assuming they will [all "storms" pass is what many people seem to believe]. We have to seize hold of the university -- as an institution, but also as a public trust -- as our concern, and we must be willing to fight for that concern. As Julie Orlemanski writes in her contribution to the volume, "An Army of Lovers,"
Academic-activist writings not only deliver dispatches from the numerous battlegrounds of higher education. They also call upon those who care to read them -- those who might defend the institutional homes of speculation, imagination, and historical understanding. These writings are the communiques that circulate within the "army of lovers" and also pass beyond them, to unpresupposed outposts and new readers. . . . mobilizing reflections about learning in the present.
Staying Alive will be available at the end of this month, but in the meantime, we have made available the first chapter, "Driving Education: A Crash Course," and Julie Orlemanski's response to that chapter, "An Army of Lovers," HERE:
Please circulate widely [and you can see the full Table of Contents for the book HERE, at the punctum books website].