Saturday, February 08, 2014

Far North

Winnipeg airport at dawn
by J J Cohen

I'm in Minneapolis for an hour, in transit back to DC, after a great visit to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. My trip was sponsored by the Group for Premodern Studies, in the persons especially of Roisin Cossar and Heidi Marx-Smith. I thank them for their gracious hospitality: I've never felt so well taken care of on a visit. I also congratulate the GPS for the deep collegiality they've cultivated among faculty and students. Really inspirational.

At dinner the night I arrived we conversed about community and how to sustain it. I arose the next morning with the topic on my mind, and so composed this little FB status update (which I share here because I realize that many ITM readers are not, with very good reason, on Facebook):
After watching a pink, orange and blue sunset behind snowy Assiniboine Park (and noting that the bike paths along the river become skateways), the gracious Roisin Cossar and Heidi Marx-Wolf took me to a delicious meal -- where the waiter had read Medieval Identity Machines in a religious studies class last year. Weird, small, beautiful world. At dinner we spoke about many things, but I woke up thinking most about our discussion of the spaces where we do our intellectual work. It's too easy to keep conference space (for example) confined to the fifteen minutes of the read paper, the ten of the Q&A, the ninety of the total session, a parcelling of time that does not foster much in the way of even ephemeral community. That's why lately I've been trying to push at those boundaries: sessions with many short pieces so that the emphasis is on discussion rather then delivery. Or GWMEMSI at Kzoo this year ('Impossible Words"), which has an Official Session on Thursday, but a Rogue Session in a non-conference space (either a brewery or a bus, I'm trying to work it out) the preceding evening. My NCS "Ice" Roundtables include a hike to Sólheimajökull to spend some time trekking with a glaciologist before we speak about ice's life. The overloaded 13 project "Scale" panel at BABEL UCSB will, if I can pull it off, be preceded by an outdoor "collaboratory" in the Channel Islands. Just as importantly, outside of all this making and refiguring of physical spaces for thinking has been the carpentry of electronically mediated social spaces. Archiving what effervesces in such spaces (in the form of a book, typically) has become less important to me as time goes on. What matters most is the impress that the coming into being of even a shortlived community can have on thoughts and projects that might arrive long after. Community doesn't have to endure or be official to possess consequence. Recordation and recognition may even be a vibrant community's death. An antidote to the long range strategic planning and assessments of success demanded by the corporate university, these fleeting encounters and transient unities matter profoundly.
In an essay I read by Alphonso Lingis on the plane ride this morning called "One's Own Voice," the philosopher calls such ephemeral communities "small friendships," and speaks of how by releasing trust into the world these amities intensify possibility. Travel, Lingis asserts, is predicated upon such little intimacies, acts of interpersonal confidence, a secular assertiveness in the face of the "black wall" of death. (And I should note that the reason I was reading this essay is because Heidi, in an exemplary act of "small friendship," gifted me a copy of Mosaic that contains the Lingis piece).

The next day we had a lunchtime discussion of social media and its relation to community formation and publicity for scholarly work and groups. After a brisk tour of the campus during which I came to realize that the gap between -4 and -27 is not as great as I'd supposed, I delivered a talk drawn from my forthcoming book, Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. I've been working on the project for seven years now, and delivered the completed manuscript to Minnesota exactly a week ago. For the first time it seemed strange to be speaking about the lithic, as if I should be placing everything in the past tense. I take that as a very good sign. The Q&A was vigorous and fun. I'll share with you a truth I confided about the project when I was asked -- as I am inevitably asked -- about its origin. I have a series lies I deploy to describe why I would write a book about stone. Sometimes I tell people it's because when I was very young my parents refused to buy me a Pet Rock, declaring the fad a waste of money, and that this book is my revenge (take that, mom and dad!). Sometimes I talk about the glacial erratic on a hill near my childhood home that my friends and I used to imagine was a portal to another world. I've linked the book's genesis to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which holds an extensive collection of minerals (and where I used to go for some moments of peace during my graduate study). Another origin story links the book to the rocky coast of Maine, and another describes catalysis in an encounter my son had with Barber Rock at Avebury. Or I might admit that I've always been a geophiliac, collecting stones wherever I travel. Still more stories are about Berlin, Barcelona, the Grand Canyon, or my aborted career as an astrophysicist. I might narrate my search for things in this world of loss that endure. All these stories are lies. They are also all true. Who knows why any project we undertake grips us?

We might not be able to explain lucidly why we do the work we do, but I left Manitoba convinced once more of this: our projects cannot be lonely. Yes there are moments of research that require isolation, or at least the giving of oneself over to companionships with inhumans. My own little moments of insight come sometimes from conversations and dialogues (as when I present work, or when I ask someone else about their own work in my office or over a drink), and sometimes from the "small friendships" I form with rocks, an aurora borealis that would not reveal itself in the Winnipeg sky, a brisk frigidity in the Far North's windblown whiteness. Work emerges through wide community. The worst kind of book is the magisterial tome that attempts to leave silence in its wake: so perfect, so right, so self-enclosed that it aims to leave nothing more to say. What hubris. Better to write towards the opening up of conversation, to instigate or deepen an exchange that will leave your contribution intensified, perhaps even absorbed and surpassed -- and what could be better than having had a hand in such an act of collaborative creation?


Unknown said...

Hi Jeffrey, I completely forgot to tell you about Tyndall stone, a Manitoba limestone used very extensively here. Found this pamphlet, whose presentation of the stone as a building material complements some of your ideas: (

take care!

Heidi Marx said...

Thank you, Jeffrey, for these moving reflections on your time in Winnipeg. They remind me that myths of origins are only really effective when they resist petrification. One of the many gifts of your visit was the way "stone's spur to story" revealed just how many geophiliacs there are among my treasured colleagues at the University of Manitoba! How wonderful to work among people who carry pebbles in their pockets to fondle, give away stones to small children or wedding guests, admit their susceptibility to the magnetic pull of the Canadian Shield, mark their presence at ancient petroforms by tying old scraps of fabric to the branch of a white birch tree. And although I am tempted to think this disclosure a peculiarity of the strange and wonderful place where I live, I am quite certain your forthcoming book will out many more lovers of stone, revealing similar, albeit unique and particular, lithic-human enmeshments wherever the word goes forth! Again, many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Glad you felt some warmth up here. Sorry I had to miss your talk.
- David D

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Beautiful, Jeffrey. Glad you had such a wonderful time in Winnipeg.