Friday, June 20, 2014

Ice at #NCS14

Langjökull, which I hiked with my family in 2012
by J J Cohen

The most recent International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo was wonderful in many ways, but also at times reaffirmed my increasing dissatisfaction with traditional conference panels. Three or four loosely connected papers plus a response and then (if there is time, because inevitably someone has gone too long) aleatory questions from the audience that may advance the communal topic or may (if the session chair is not moderating) allow the three people who study liturgy to render the session on postcolonial medieval studies a liturgy session because one paper had a brief reference to liturgical calendars -- well, I don't always get as much as I would like from such gatherings. Blogs and other social media have made these loose sessions less useful than they were in the past, since it is now fairly easy to garner public feedback on ideas and projects without reading an excerpt in front of an audience for fifteen minutes. Such sessions can be productive, especially when the theme is specific, the papers carefully curated by the organizer, and the panel moderated so that the conversation is inclusive and focused. But that does not always happen. I find myself drawn more to sessions with multiple, short presentations and lingering discussion afterwards, to roundtables that approach a single issue from multiple perspectives, and to spaces adjacent to as well as within the conference that are not part of the official program.

I've written here at ITM about para-conference space as a fecund expanse for modes of thinking and doing that official conference sessions disinhibit: see the justification for the GWMEMSI Rogue Session at the last Kalamazoo, as well as my account of what actually unfolded there. For the upcoming BABEL conference in Santa Barbara, a large group of us (13!) crowdsourced and brainstormed a special session on SCALE that includes an outdoor "collaboratory" in the Channel Islands. The day before the conference begins, we will take a boat to Santa Cruz and hike the rocky canyon around Scorpion Bay, hoping something will emerge from this peripatetic and communal cognition that would not have been possible within a conference room. And at the upcoming New Chaucer Society Biennial Congress in Reykjavik, I've arranged two roundtables on "Ice" that will include a group hike of Sólheimajökull, a glacier in the south of the island. If time permits we will also head to Eyjafjallajökull, the ice topped caldera of a nearby extinct volcano. Oddur Sigurðsson of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (and respondent to the Ice roundtables) will lead us, since he knows this glacier intimately through his studies. We've hired a well reputed expedition company to supply us with the necessary equipment and keep us safe. It seems to me that if we are going to gather in Iceland to speak about representations of ice, if we are going to theorize ice and think with it, we also ought to walk across a frozen expanse together.

If you are attending NCS, I hope you'll come to the roundtables on the first day of the conference. Abstracts for the presentations are below.


GROUP 1: 9:00-10:30
1A Roundtable: Ice (1) Theory (HT 103)
Thread: North: Texts
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Chair: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

1. Timothy S. Miller, University of Notre Dame, “Like Ice / Ice Like: Fluidity, Solidity, and Reading Metaphor Backwards”

Ice famously lies at the foundation of Chaucer's dream poem The House of Fame -- figuratively but not literally, we might be tempted to add, unless we recognize that the poem consistently confuses the figurative and the literal in a way that might enable a new reading of the frozen foundation of the goddess Fame's castle. After all, in Chaucer as elsewhere in medieval and modern literature, ice most often figures fluidity rather than solidity, change rather than stability. Inspired by both recent posthumanist thought and the complex allegorical mechanisms of the poem itself, this paper raises a simple set of questions: first, what can the House of Fame and other medieval narratives that employ ice in the discourse of metaphor and/or allegory tell us about ice in its material ecologies? How do those ecologies differ from the world of metaphor that the substance so frequently inhabits and undergirds? In order to begin answering these questions, this paper willfully adopts an inverted reading strategy: what if we were to read Chaucer's House of Fame as if it were a poem fundamentally "about ice," that is, as if the vagaries of human fame that the poem dramatizes were an extended metaphor for ice and its inherently fluid mutability rather than the other way around? One of most brilliant things that has ever been said about the poem must be Robert W. Hanning's suggestion that we read it backwards, but this paper proposes reading the House of Fame "backwards" in a different way: reading its foundational metaphor backwards, as it were. Furthermore, it is the presence of ice itself -- a subject of endless fascination and commentary in classical and medieval scientific writings on phase change -- that permits this inversion. Although fluid in more ways than one in its transformation from liquid into solid, ice also seems to signal the end of mutability in becoming a substance no longer fluid but fixed. Yet medieval authors who employ ice in metaphor rely on the substance's concealment within itself of the potential for reversal, for melting and reverting to water. In medieval narrative, then, ice so often appears to be a feature of the natural world taken as a given and a known -- "cold as yse" had become a well-worn phrase even in the 14th century -- and then invoked as such to explore the complexities of human relations through reference to something believed simpler and more intelligible. But everywhere that we find ice, we should perhaps take this radical but necessary step to understanding a key ecology of the inhuman: imagining the human world as a metaphor for phase change, especially since the human body cannot itself ever endure such an experience (medieval bodies, too, could only be "frosyn to dead"). But in reversing the ways that ice has been used to explain the human, perhaps we can use the human to travel beyond the human and approach ice itself.

2. Lowell Duckert, West Virginia University, “Icespeak”
“I want to find out what these stones and rocks and pieces of ice are trying to say to me.” (Terje Insungset)
“We heard the world open, express itself, clamor, rumble, call, demand, invade, fear, be moved, forbid. I’m telling the story of the world beginning to tell its story.” (Michel Serres)

Recent ecocritical studies of voice tend to privilege organic sounds (like those of animals). To counteract this tendency, my presentation will amplify the presence of one nonorganic voice around us – ice. The human is never the sole speaking subject in these conversations – a position that the recent collection Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (2012) unfortunately ignores. Following Tim Ingold’s (2011) call for a more theoretically-rigorous and materially-inflected investigation of soundscapes (or any –scape), and building on Michel Serres’s theories of noise as a creative force that generates multiplicities outside of meaning, I will argue that icescapes are soundlabs that synthesize (“place together”) humans and nonhumans into noisy assemblages. These alliances, or what anthropologist Steven Feld (2003) deems “acoustemologies,” disrupt our ways of knowing and being in the world while, at the same time, create new forms of response, new theories of speaking, and more expressive modes of ontology. To examine the potential that icespeak holds, I will turn to two soundlabs in particular: (1) modern scientists’ obsession with the “song” of icebergs, a frequency emitted by ice at 0.5 Hz and thus inaudible to human ears without additional instruments; (2) the “experimental” compositions of Terje Insungset, whose “icemusic” synthesizes the artist’s body with its material medium. Icespeak’s synthesizing agency never reaches totality; icy noise can signal the unidentifiable or herald an oncoming catastrophe, for example. Yet both soundlabs reconceive ways of synthesizing our shared stories and bodies beyond the “death cries” of calving (a common conception); they redefine listening as an active response to nonorganic speech; they emphasize the improvisation, endless variation, and enchantment that living with/in a noisy, and melting, world entails; and they compel us, finally, to attend to voices not our own, and to tell stories of beginnings rather than of ends with them.
Paul Kos, “The Sound of Ice Melting” (1970)

3. Ethan Knapp, Ohio State University, “Frost”
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow
--         W. Stevens

            This roundtable presentation would have two aims.  First, I'd use the opportunity to offer my own short take on Object Oriented Ontology, coming out of past work with Heidegger and aiming to suggest a place or two where I see OOO coming into particularly fruitful connection with various modes of historicist analysis and critique.  Second, I'd try to use this framework to cast some fresh light on one of the most famous moments of Gower's Confessio Amantis, the beau retret made by Amans at the conclusion of Book 8, when Cupid pulls out the fiery dart that he had thrust into him at the outset of Book 1, leaving Gower suddenly an old man, outside the parade of lovers, baffled by the passions that had driven him as Amans. 
            This new state is described through a seasonal metaphor.  Gower looks in a mirror, sees his new state, and glosses it through an extended description of the passage of months in a year, as Spring yields to Winter.  This metaphor is usually exhausted as a traditional topos linking the passage of human years to the passage of seasons, a meaning certainly important in the context of the Confessio's regular invocation of humanity as microcosmic fulcrum of the broader world.  But I'd like to put some additional pressure on this moment.  Of all the elements that mark the condition of winter in this topos (cold, grief, darkness, barrenness, hunger) it is clearly, and emphatically, cold that most engages Gower here.  The dart whose removal precipitates this scene is described always as "fiery" or "hot"; Venus tends the wound left behind with an ointment "mor cold than eny keie"; and the description of Winter itself begins with "frost, snow, wind and rain" and ends simply with "chill."  Moreover, within this wintry constellation, frost seems the crucial term.  Winter is evoked here to gloss the changes Gower sees in his own face, and these changes all connect to frost – a new pale color, veiny wrinkles and his face 'defaced' as though it were covered from view by a new element.
            So, why frost?  My thoughts are still preliminary at this stage, but I'd like to explore the way in which frost appears here as the mode through which the elemental form of ice comes most directly into contact with the human, in a process of near fusion that leaves both changed.  Frost covers.  It spreads and becomes something like a second skin, rendering the human into another icy object.  The strangeness of this transformation helps explain, I think, the delicately ambiguous tone of the conclusion to the Confessio.  Amans becomes Gower as he is covered by frost, as he enters into a frosty stage of existence.  This is quiescence, of a sort, but it is also Gower presenting himself as author of the scene.  Hence my epigraph – the Gower of this passage is not so much moral satirist as he is an object coming to know itself as object.
            I can add here that I also plan to contextualize this reading by contrasting Gower's metaphoric choice of fire and frost to the more conventional Petrarchan choice of the antonyms fire and ice.  The two pairs are usually taken to be pretty identical oppositions, but I'll aim to tease out the sense of this small, but I think important, alteration in the convention.

4. Steve Mentz, St. John’s University, “Hugh Willougby Talks to the Seafarer about Ice”

This talk will tell the story of an imagined conversation about ice between a literary and a historical figure. The literary figure, the narrator of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer,” treats frozen northern waters as a symbol of physical, cultural, and spiritual alienation. The historical figure, Sir Hugh Willoughby, who froze to death on board his ship Bona Esperanza in the winter of 1553-54 while attempting to discover a Northeast Passage, provides less direct testimony, but the surviving documents of his fatal voyage imply that he treated ice as a physical obstacle. My talk juxtaposes these two points of view – the poetic narrator’s alienation and the historical figure’s encumbrance – to argue that ice represents an environmental limit that human culture translates into a cultural symbol. The frozen, “ice-cold waves” (“iscaldne waeg” 19a) the Seafarer endures transform themselves over the course of the poem into a promise of a reward from God in heaven (“Faeder on heofunum” 115a). Willoughby, by contrast, confronts an ice-scape that cannot be transmuted into symbol. I will explore these two points of view in relation to three central experiences of premodern cultures in the frozen north Atlantic – discovery, mystery, and catastrophe – to argue that ice provides an especially clear vision of two related elements in human conceptualizations of their environment: first, that it is difficult and dangerous to transform environmental dangers into symbolic tokens, and second, that doing so is, usually, irresistible. For a modern extension of the dangers, pleasures, and challenges of making alien seascapes into poetry, I’ll conclude with a brief description of Caroline Bergvall’s brilliant new poem Drift, which combines an experimental translation of “The Seafarer” with the historical records about the “Left-to-Die boat” containing Lybian refugees that drifted through the Mediterranean in 2011 under the watchful eyes of NATO planes and ships. Bergvall’s poem combines historical catastrophe with medieval poetic beauty, and she, like me, asks how poetry responds to alien environments.

2B Roundtable: Ice (2) Writing (HT 104)
Thread: North: Texts
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Chair: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

1. Dan Remein, New York University, “Icerune”
How does ice make its mark in what is ostensibly human literary language? This paper will consider this question especially as it concerns the Old Icelandic Greenlander Sagas and their place within a longer literary history of ice in the medieval North Atlantic. Ice, or 'is,' has its own runic character in the “futhork.” The opening pages of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda refer to a swelling floe of toxic ice in the yawning-void whose melted drops form the first of the mythic frost-giants. Earlier in the medieval period, the Old English Riddles invoked the delicate icing-over of a puddle, a wave transforming from slushy churn into ice, and the noise of an iceberg accelerating into breakup and contact with shore. The Norse Greenland settlements would have been beset by ice: whether at home, on the marginal areas of habitation, or at sea. Fluctuations in coastal ice conditions in the thirteenth century seem to have required altering older routes from Iceland to Greenland. Norse Greenlanders headed to the icy far north of the Davis Strait to hunt walrus, and some may have relied on the u-shaped curve of this ice shelf to direct them across the strait when headed to North America for timber and iron. So why then do the Greenlander Sagas seem relatively uninterested in ice? In this paper, I consider why the fragile and frightening dynamics of ice seem so absent from the thirteenth century literary accounts of the Norse Greenland settlements and explore how ice may have nonetheless less left behind its own markings, however secret or faint. By what non-representational floes, crystallizations, freezes, or thaws can human language register the speed, temperature, age, fragility, durability, sharpness, slipperiness, silence, and noisiness of ice when not directly describing it?

2. Leila K. Norako, Notre Dame de Namur University, “Vanishing Ice and The House of Fame: An Ecocritical Interrogation”
This talk considers the agency of ice in Chaucer’s The House of Fame. In the allegorical dream vision, the House of Fame sits upon a foundation of ice. The narrator, Geoffrey, climbs up a mountain to the base of the castle and describes the glacial foundation at some length. The names of famous persons are etched into its sides, and the narrator notices that at least one side has melted so much that the names are lost forever. The impermanence of these names seems to agitate the narrator, but he instantly reassures himself by observing that the House of Fame’s shadow protects the names on the opposite side of the foundation. Ice by its very nature, however, is liminal, and its liminality likely contributed to Chaucer’s decision to perch his House of Fame upon it. The palace sits, after all, “in myddes of the weye / betwixen” heaven, earth, and the sea — an allusion, perhaps, to the vaporous, solid, and liquid forms that water can take. The melting of the building’s glacial foundation, in all of its inexorability, consistently threatens its existence and the stories preserved in its walls. Like the Mississippi River described by Jeffrey Cohen in Prismatic Ecologies, ice is an “earth artist,” “its projects tak[ing] so long to execute that humans have a difficult time discerning their genius” (xix). I argue in this talk that the narrator Geoffrey struggles with this very limitation in human perception. He tries to comfort himself by seeing at least a portion of the foundation as permanent, but in doing so he fails to see – or perhaps chooses not to see – how much of human invention lies at the mercy of the natural world and its movements.
As such, even though this poem mentions it but briefly, ice remains the primary agential object in The House of Fame. And I argue that reading ice it in this way allows us to examine more accurately the implications of the poem’s persistent enjambment of the human and the non-human. The powerful presence of ice in The House of Fame reminds us that, while the poem concerns itself in vibrant ways with human stories and objects, there exists in tandem to the manmade a force that (however glacial its movements or its meltings) may ultimately get the last word. In order to highlight ice’s agential role in the poem, I will make regular use of images and videos of Icelandic glaciers. These glaciers, and the landscapes carved in their wake, stand as quiet, looming memorials to the power and the impermanence of ice, and my hope is that these images will encourage a reading of this poem that acknowledges the significance of ice in The House of Fame’s interpretive landscape.

3. David Coley, Simon Fraser University, “Ice as Parchment, Ice as Pen”
In his fourteenth-century translation of De proprietatibus rerum, John Trevisa defines cristalle [quartz] as “snowe or ise [that] is ymade harde in space of many ȝeres ... and torned into stoon nouȝt oonlich by vertu and strengþe of colde but more by erþelich vertue.” He further notes, “þis stoon is cleere, and so lettres and oþere þinges þat been ydo þerinne be yseie clereliche ynough.” For Chaucerians, Trevisa’s letters in petrified ice immediately recall The House of Fame’s “roche of yse” inscribed with “famous folkes names,” a “febel fundament” for Fame’s temple and an apt but unstable medium for written language.In the medieval imagination then, ice seems to have operated (at least in part) as a volatile but effective parchment, a site on which the lucidity of the written word strained against the essential impermanence of the text. It was a midpoint between the stone of Belshazzar’s temple and the water of a still pool, between the wall where Daniel once read Babylon’s doom and the ephemeral surface where John Keats would, centuries later, record his own sad end: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Recently we have come to recognize ice not only as parchment but also, and fundamentally, as stylus, gouging glacial inscriptions into the land like the finger on Belshazzar’s temple wall. In our age of rising carbon levels and glacial retreat, our ability to read such tectonic calligraphy seems ever more urgent. How do we understand the inelegant scrawl of glacial moraine, the sudden puncta of glacial calving, the “rubbe and scrape” of advance and retreat? The glacial recession that Chaucer could never have foreseen in his “ofthowed” ice carves fresh writing into the earth at an ever increasing rate, leaving behind a dazzling calligraphy of stone and water. Are we, like Geffrey atop his ice boulder in The House of Fame, engaged in a new and sometimes bewildering dialogue with a visibly disappearing icescape? Are we belated paleographers of an icy, “roynish” hand? Or, more darkly still, are we more akin to the stunned Babylonians staring at the letters in the temple wall—Mane, Thecel, Phares—struggling to interpret these terrible glacial signs and the unwelcome truths that they may portend?

4. Jeremy DeAngelo, University of Connecticut, “Ice as Social Signifier” 
            Individuals in the Icelandic sagas often have names that overtly reference ice—Jǫkul, for example, or Frosti. However, these names are not distributed randomly among the characters; they invariably occur among figures such as giants, trolls and Sámi—groups which in the sagas are marked by their antisocial tendencies and existence on the margins of society. An association with ice, therefore, indicates a certain type in a medieval Icelandic context, one whose relationship with the colder elements guided the understanding of their character, for good or for ill. For mythological or legendary figures, their names’ invocation of the elements reinforced their chthonic nature. In the pseudohistorical sagas, however, a link to ice reflects the broad reality of the Scandinavian Peninsula, wherein the Sámi generally inhabited the colder, more northerly and internal regions relative to Norse settlement. The sagas often attribute the ability to survive in more extreme conditions to either magic, a bestial nature, or both, and Sámi characters’ chilly demeanors in the literature suggest these qualities. Yet it happens in the literature that these icy figures intermarry with the Norse, and their children inherit both their names and their qualities. These talents serve them well, yet also mark them as separate—hybrid figures whose antisocial tendencies and affinity with ice keep them from fully functioning in proper society. As characters in the literature of a people who themselves draw their identity from ice (Ís-lendingar), these figures indicate how the Icelanders saw themselves relative to the larger Norse world: set apart on account of their frigid environment, tenacious and irascible, yet stronger on account of their hardiness and hard-headedness. Ice, therefore, in medieval Icelandic literature serves as a useful social marker, one which indicates both one’s lineage and the behavior one should expect based upon it.

5. James L. Smith, University of Western Australia, “Touch of Frost”
Burning fire and chilling frost Both bite the body’s senses with a different kind of ‘fang’, As shown by how each makes us feel a different kind of pang.
                                      ~Titus Lucretius Carus, The Nature of Things (London: Penguin, 2007), 430, p. 48
In the thirteenth-century Grænlendinga saga, Leif Eriksson and the members of his expedition were warming to the newly discovered green land, for “there was no frost in winter, and the grass hardly withered.” Here, they imagined, was a home free from the deprivations of life’s inevitable extremes in the chill embrace of the Arctic Circle. In so doing, they generated an imagining redolent of affect and agriculture in equal measure. The medieval Norse explorers dreamt of a place in which, like all life in the cold, the onset of the ice could be survived, could be weathered. And yet, as many a polar explorer of the nineteenth century discovered to their cost, there is no escape from the cool embrace of the ice when human heat-making fails; the cold is an endless reminder of agential limitation. This paper seeks to explore the touch of frost as a subtle play of power and interdependency, non-human entanglement, and the limits of survival. Survival at the onset of winter makes little distinction between inner and outer space, for the confrontational piercing of human life with slow, gentle, violence occurs literally and figuratively.
The modelling of inner space, the interplay of coldness and warmth within the human heart, is a form of chill abstraction. In the Old Testament, Job is able to weather misfortune when “The waters are hardened like a stone, and the surface of the deep is congealed” because his heart does not succumb (Job 38:30). The tree of his spirit is able to survive through hardship until the ice melts and the fountains of fortune flow once more. Medieval frost is dew, the romantic essence of heavenly providence spread with favour across the earth, and yet it is hardened, its fluvial softness transformed to adamant and piercing new shapes. As the Trevisa translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum puts is, “Hore frost is no3t ellis but dewe Ifroren.” It, like life and fortune, has cycles. Regno becomes regnaui, which in turn becomes sum sine regno: a human life becomes chill when broken beneath the wheel of fortune. The heart, like flora in an icy climate, must seek to survive the chill of psychological winter. The parable of the human heart, in an act of synthesis with non-human interactivity, is shaped by the touch of frost.

RESPONDENT: Oddur Sigurðsson, Icelandic Meteorological Office