Friday, October 31, 2014

Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability

by DOROTHY KIM [Guest Posting]

[More post-BABEL postings (including more SCALE presentations) are to come! Meanwhile, check out this important posting from Dorothy Kim (twitter: @dorothyk98) with suggestions on how we can collectively create a better future for medieval studies.]

Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability

After my last In the Middle post, I had a number of people reach out to me with stories about similar things happening at medieval conferences in regards to racial, gender, and disability microaggressions. In other words, my colleague’s public encounter was a normal part of the lives of certain divergent medievalists. On the interwebs, I also had several people tell me stories about other things that happen at conferences that I have decided to write about in this post. A number of female junior medievalists (graduate student and junior tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty) have told me that certain conferences have become the hunting ground for male, white-cishetero men. What I mean by this is that there have been witnessed incidents of sexual harassment happening at medieval conferences. Though conferences alone are not the only space where this happens. I think we have all witnessed sexual harassment at medieval talks, seminars, and in other professional spaces.  

In particular, all this was brought to my attention because at the New Chaucer Society conference in Reykjavik, a certain male, white, cishetero faculty member (who is also married) has been sexually harassing junior female medievalists at conferences in front of witnesses. Apparently, he did this at the previous New Chaucer Society in Portland and he struck again in Reykjavik. NCS is not the only conference that this has been happening, but I call on organizers—NCS, BABEL, MAA, Leeds, Kalamazoo, etc.—to seriously consider what their resources, statements, and consequences are for these events.

Feminism and Silence

In this great written piece in THE, the author writes: “As I learned intimately during my doctoral studies, the university is an intensely hierarchical space, and students are structurally positioned to seek the approval of the academic staff to whom they are entrusted. This makes students vulnerable to abuses of that power.” There are power dynamics and power abuses at play in sexual harassment in academic spaces. But the point is and what angers me the most is why must students and junior colleagues—often the most vulnerable and with the least resources in these situations—be the one who must fight to change the harassing and toxic environment? Why must they be the ones to do all the labor (both emotional, bureaucratic, and eventually legal) to call out, fix, and address these situations? Why is there so much silence? Our silence is not helping the victims nor creating accessible, safe spaces. The author of the THE further points out that “Secrecy did not protect me or the other women. It didn’t even protect the university management. The only person it protected was the professor, whose years of abuse were hidden from the public eye.” [Read the entire opinion piece HERE.] It is time to take it out of the closet, to air it out, to give it sunshine and let others hear and see. It is time to stop protecting the abusers.

Codes of Conduct and Only the Beginning

This issue of sexual harassment at conferences is not new—it has surfaced in mainstream media in relation to women at tech conferences. A very recent issue of ModelViewCulture looks at Codes of Conduct at Events and issues surrounding inclusive events. I encourage everyone planning to organize anything to read that issue.

Closer to home, there has also been an ongoing discussion amongst librarians because Joseph Murphy (@libraryfuture) is suing two librarians for libel to the tune of $1.25 million dollar in the Canadian courts. Nina de Jesus @satifice and Lisa Rabey chose to speak out against sexual harassment at library conferences (which eventually may have gotten the ALA to revamp their Code of Conduct statements). You can read more about this HERE and here and HERE. Nina de Jesus and Lisa Rabey have a funded site for donations for their legal defense and a call for witnesses to stand up: Likewise, someone has organized a petition asking Joseph Murphy to withdraw the lawsuit. I have already signed the petition. Nina de Jesus is a writing colleague of mine from ModelViewCulture and is also a DH Projects librarian. You can follow what is happening with them and this lawsuit at #teamharpy on Twitter.

Medieval Studies and Sexual Harassment

Several victims and witnesses have identified this serial sexual harasser. I will not name names here on this blog because I do not have the permission of any of my sources to divulge nor have I been the victim of sexual harassment at NCS. However, the problem with whisper networks is that in the end it allows the continued behavior to happen with no consequences. Likewise, recent events in Canada have been a conversation-starter on Facebook. Alexandra Gillespie recently posted a Facebook post about the Jian Ghomeshi firing at CBC. [EDITED on November 2 to indicate that thread is no longer public; instead the conversation can continue in the comments section below.] The commentary on that post speaks to a long, persistent history of sexual harassment in medieval studies spaces. As with many things I have written more publically, it’s time to break this silence, this medieval whisper network that tells particularly junior women and graduate students who are the sexual harassers in our field. I encourage people who want a community conversation to either post on Alexandra Gillespie’s public post on Facebook that already has numerous narratives being shared among female medievalists. I also call anyone who feels more comfortable with Twitter to use #medievaltwitter to share their stories of harassment at medieval academic events. We need to begin by speaking about what is happening. We have all been witnesses, heard, and or been victims.

Steps Conference Organizers Can Take

My question now is what should conference organizers and societies do about this? I have dug around the NCS website, there is no Code of Conduct on there anywhere about what the standards are for conferences in general (though feel free to correct me anyone if I just missed it). I would strongly suggest that all societies who have conferences write Codes of Conduct, but write ones with some bite. I will also say that though the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship has never run its own conference, I will ask that an agenda item on Codes of Conduct be put on our Advisory Board Meeting for Kalamazoo 2015.

What I mean by this is that serial sexual harassers are not going to stop harassing young women at conferences unless there are consequences. NCS moves around the world every two years. Conference attendees show up, often foreign shores, at unfamiliar conference sites. There is no clear delineation of resources in relation to what happens when sexual harassment, sexual assault, violent assault happen at a conference. Along with a clear set of resources, conference organizers must be clear about conduct expectations and then what the rules are if these expectations are broken.

Nina de Jesus’s post on transformative justice addresses many of what we can do beyond Step 1—breaking the silence. Code of Conducts must be victim-centered at all times. This is one of the biggest steps our communities must address. As she points out in her post (I, not Nina, have bolded key sections): 
Frameworks and clear support for victims. One of the reasons why situations like this continue, despite the offender being known, is that, within our communities (both libraries and beyond), there is little-to-no support for victims and/or survivors. I don’t only mean support in terms of victim services (although these are important as well), but even the very minimal support of the benefit of the doubt. 
The problem with habitual abusers/harassers is that they tend to know exactly what sorts of things they can get away with. They know who to target. They know that, even if their targets voice their experiences, that the victim will be doubted (and blamed) or that, in the absence of ‘proof’, nothing much will come of it. And, importantly, they know how to engage in their abusive, harassing, and potentially illegal behaviour in ways that leave very little evidence behind.
The NCS’s known serial harasser in the whisper network of junior women has consistently harassed young junior women medievalists. These things are about power, opportunity, and a lack of consequences because sexual predators know they can get away with this behavior. If we want conferences and particularly NCS to be a safe space for all, more has to be done to support victims and call out this behavior. Nina de Jesus points out in her post that the gender statistics in fields does not necessarily mean anything: the harassment is happening in library studies (a field filled predominantly with women).

A transformative justice, community accountability, and victim-centered approach also means conference organizers have to stop imagining that “proof” is actually an issue. As Nina de Jesus eloquently writes:   
Many people think that these situations boil down to ‘he said/she said’ and that we can just really never ‘know’ what actually happened. Of course, this generally means giving tacit approval for the predator to continue abusing and harassing people. 
In case people have forgotten, we are neither the police nor the judicial system. We do not have to adhere to their evidentiary requirements. We do not have to assume innocence. We don’t have to build a ‘case’ against someone. We don’t, in actual fact, require ‘proof’ that would hold up in a court of law. We don’t need to gather evidence and conduct investigations.
This is about community accountability. Holding abusers/predators accountable to the community and holding the community accountable to itself.
So as a medieval community, I am calling on you to hold your colleagues accountable. Otherwise, your silence is tacit permission for sexual harassment and abuse to continue in these academic spaces.

If talking about it, getting it out in the open, not having it as a whisper network secret is the first step then step two requires concerted efforts for a victim-centered approach that at its bedrock is about community accountability.

Nina de Jesus’s community accountability post outlines exactly what these steps look like.  

1. Victim-Centered means actually supporting the victim.

    “Don’t ask for ‘proof’.
    Don’t treat ‘both sides of the story’ as if they hold equal weight.
    Do not engage in any type of victim blaming behaviour.
Listen to the victim. Do it. And don’t judge.”

2. We need Codes of Conducts that are enacted when people break professional boundaries. 

There is no point writing such statements without actually making sure they are actionable. What are the consequences? What is the follow through for these consequences?

Her post makes excellent examples and I am sure conference committees and come up with other ones:
Did a woman just report getting sexually harassed? Eject the man from the conference. Don’t ‘ask’ him to stop. Eject him and let him know that he can try again next year. Did a presenter just make a racist joke?Stop the presentation. Call it out. If this manages to derail the talk (eg., the presenter gets defensive and is unwilling to apologize), then the talk is over. Does someone have a reputation for being a sexual predator? STOP INVITING THEM TO SPEAK. Essentially: hold people accountable for the harm that they cause. 
She concludes with this great point: 
The thing is, is that if we don’t hold people accountable for small, seemingly innocuous (microagressions anyone?) behaviour, we give them tacit permission to escalate this behaviour. If people are held accountable for their bad behaviour it also gives them a chance to learn and grow and (hopefully) stop behaving that way. If accountability becomes normalized, instead of silently accepting that abuse and harassment are something that we just need to grin and bear, then accountability doesn’t have to be this big boogeyman. It also doesn’t need to mean that a person’s reputation and career are ruined.
Because if accountability is what gets normalized, then we’ll all eventually have this experience (since there are no perfect people).
NCS London 2016 is a little over 2 years away. That is plenty of time to draft a code of conduct, get information out about resources, and set up victim-centered, community accountability measures. Inform your panel moderators, explain and give them training on addressing moments when the Code of Conduct is violated. I would also suggest that societies and conference organizers make sure that all conference organizers are appropriately trained in regards to sexual harassment and sexual assault. We must take responsibility for what happens in our communal academic spaces.

I have been asked and have agreed to be a part of organizing the BABEL Conference for 2015 in Toronto. So, yes, expect a Code of Conduct, expect victim-centered, community accountability, and transformative justice as a major component in organizing this conference. Feel free to send me your thoughts on anything via email ( or Twitter (@dorothyk98). I hope #medievaltwitter and the Facebook comment area can be a space where we can  discuss what kind of medieval community we want for the future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014



My most exhilarating moment of BABEL14 was the "scale" plenary, pictured here:

We had 4 minutes each, banging through one paper after another. We kept to time, with more or, in my case, less dignity. I know myself to be a roughly 135/words a minute speaker. And I knew I had about 4 minutes and 15 seconds of stuff. Still, I started my paper on "subatomic" with too much excitement or too much of a sense of citizenship. Maybe I felt guilty about the extra 15 seconds. Zooming through the opening bit (with a pipsqueaked "I've read Karen Barad!"), I realized my error, applied the brakes, and slowed down gradually to ponderous solemnity as I approached my time's end.

This may have sounded deliberate. It wasn't.

Thanks to Jeffrey for inviting me to be a part of this, and thanks to the other presenters: it was a real pleasure to watch you work, and to join you in this vast working thing.

My paper follows. Remember: it's exhortatory.

It's not uncommon to think if we could just to get to the ground of things, we'd have the truth. I've read Karen Barad, and I can tell you that's not quite right. The more precise you get, the less certain. On the subatomic scale, and not only on that scale, we find not foundation, but indeterminacy, as yet unresolved into either wave or particle, where particular ways of engagement yield particular realities. Down there, and perhaps not only down there, epistemology and ontology collapse or feed into each other.

There's another, even less rigorous way to think of "subatomic," not one concerned with size but rather with distance and perspective. Things seem smaller when we're far away or when we're too big to notice them without effort. Up close, things seem bigger. Middle English scholars will know where I'm going with this: Chaucer's Troilus, killed before the walls of Troy, ends by looking down on "this litel spot of erthe," laughing at everyone who weeps for his death, because his spirit, now speeding through the eighth celestial sphere, knows this mutable world to be nothing but "blynde lust, the which that may nat laste."

Troilus, freed from earthly love and earthly affection, thinks he finally got it right. To him, the world has become tiny, and therefore insignificant. Actually: he's right, but not entirely. Compared to the smooth motion of the celestial spheres, compared even to the place, wherever that is, where Troilus will spend eternity, our earth is insignificant. From up there, it really is "nys but a faire" that "passeth soone as floures faire." It really is, from up there. And down here it's something quite different, which Troilus would know too if only he came back.

I'm more sympathetic to Tolstoy's Prince Andrei, who has a similar vision as he nearly slips into death while lying on the field of Austerlitz. He looks up and considers his hero, Napoleon, a "small insignificant man" compared to the "lofty, infinite sky." And yet he wants his life back, "which seemed so beautiful to him, because he now understood it so differently." Andrei also gets perspective, but not like Troilus. He's gotten not perspective but perspectives. He knows both sky and the world down here are true, both correct, both irreducibly important. And so on, we should say, at all scales, without limit.

The "subatomic" tempts us to it with the vain promise of foundation; or its smallness tempts us to mistake it for unimportant and ourselves, whatever we are, as the opposite. We scholars, but not only as scholars, let whatever concerns us occupy our whole attention. Our concern becomes our world. We let ourselves be captured by what others, sometimes our allies, assume to be just minutiae. They accuse us of losing track of the really important stuff, race, class, climate change, the god particle, language itself, evolutionary history, the whole nonhuman world and its weird times, and so on. Depending on whatever we're working on, they're absolutely right. And so are we, so long as we're not laughing at their little spot of earth. If you're feeling comfortable, too inclined to laugh, I suggest you change perspectives.

Let's not make Troilus's mistake.

Monday, October 27, 2014

WE WANT YOU: Nominations for BABEL's (Futures) Steering Committee


I have always thought of the BABEL Working Group as a desiring-assemblage with, as has often been said/written in many places, no top, no bottom, and only a middle. This is an essential image for me, and it is not just an image: it is an actual un-structure, a very mobile and ever-changing one at that, and one in which I have really placed a lot of faith. This means that the group has to be constantly open to upheaval, change, and directions that cannot be anticipated in advance. It means that the membership is always changing and fluctuating: get on, get off, stay for a little while, stay longer, have a one-night stand with it, or marry it, we're okay with all that, because we're actually trying to help people better engineer and enact *their* projects and desires, which are not always necessarily *our* projects and desires. Hello. How can we help you? Goodbye. Good luck. Keep in touch: we always answer the phone. As I voiced my own desires for such a desiring-assemblage, in an essay published in 2007, "Goodbye to All That: The State of My Own Personal Field of Schizoid Anglo-Saxon Studies,"
There must be room, in my mind, within Anglo-Saxon studies, not just for the individual scholar who wishes to take herself into uncharted theoretical territory (to go and come back again as a lone traveler), but for deleuzoguattarian roaming packs and multiplicities to emerge and join with other packs and multiplicities to create desiring-scholarly-machines and critical machines-machines-machines-machines. This would be, in the words of Jeffrey Cohen and Todd Ramlow, a "process formed of alliances with and through [disciplinary] others, a process not collapsible to either side of a self/other binary, a process always in motion, changing (performatively) in multiple contexts" (Cohen and Ramlow 2005/2006). These alliances would be made up of groups of scholar-machines (an Anglo-Saxon studies machine, a queer theory machine, a post-Norman Conquest history machine, a third-wave feminist studies machine, etc.), each of which would function as "a break in the flow, in relation to the machine connected to it," and everywhere there would be "break-flows out of which desire" would pour forth (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 37). Ours would then be a field (or machine) that would have to run on the libidinal-intellectual economies of the philologist as well as the queer theorist, the codicologist as well as the new historicist, and so on. I want, further, to see working groups formed across the temporal divides that separate Anglo-Saxon studies from the "other" Middle Ages and beyond, in which groups Anglo-Saxonists would take leadership positions (while also practicing anti-hierarchical collaborative work) and the primary impetus for the disparate "joinings" of these groups would be nothing less than a complete re-envisioning of the humanities and its relation to public thought and life.
Re-reading this makes me wince a little ["nothing less than a complete re-envisioning of the humanities and its relation to public thought and life"? CALM DOWN, Eileen!], but I still hold fast to the idea of a scholarly collective that could actually put deleuzeoguattarian roaming packs into action both within and outside of the university as both political practice and also sustaining (collective) life practice. It's honestly kind of hard to pull off such an idea, and over a good period of time, while simultaneously refusing any sort of structured "ordering" of your enterprise. The BABEL Working Group does not have officers. Nor membership fees. Nor "meetings" with Robert's Rules of Order. We do not have "operating papers" nor by-laws nor charters. We have a bunch of manifestos and a bunch of happenings and collaborations of various sorts and journals and books and presses and stuff, stuff, stuff. We definitely have what might be called an "ethos" and a "mission," but one would have to scour countless posts written here at In The Middle over the years [written by more persons than just me, and responded to in ways that have always helped the group to continually refashion itself in beneficial ways] in order to begin to get a sense of where we've been, what we've believed in, and what we've enacted and tried to enact, but describing BABEL in what is called a "one-sheet" would be practically impossible, and frankly, I'm glad about that. So much of what BABEL is has accrued over time and even in [happily] pell-mell fashion. Like any good desiring-machine.

But here's the thing: BABEL is getting bigger [has been getting bigger] and has been producing ever more break-flows, ever more machines-machines-machines-machines. Things are getting choppy in here and it's getting more difficult to keep the martini shakers balanced on the tables in our ship of fools as it pitches and yaws on the high seas of multiplicities-becoming. SO we decided: let's form a Steering Committee for BABEL, one for which people would volunteer to serve for a period of several years [in different increments] in order to help us think about the future(s) a little bit more. We've decided to get a little more serious about the future(s), because we don't want to just, like, go over a waterfall and never be heard from again [nor do we want to fuck up, and sometimes we do, by unintentionally violating our so-called ethos or breaking something we didn't mean to break or just acting like asses or not getting something important "quite right," by sending the wrong "message," but hey, we didn't mean it, but what good are excuses? etc. etc.]. At the same time, we never want to be the establishment, nor the status quo [and I worry A LOT that some people think we are, and did I say I WORRY A LOT about that?!!?], and if we ever start to *feel* or really *seem* or even *become* that, well . . . Houston, we have a problem. We need to keep agitating and keep changing [and maybe ultimately disappear over the horizon ANYway], while also remaining true to what I [only *I* perhaps, but still *I* but likely also "we*] believe is one of our most important values, or practices is perhaps the better term -- FRIENDSHIP, a shared and INCLUSIVE SOLIDARITY in our endeavours, even when we disagree about all sorts of things. Here is how I put it in a blog post in 2008, "Having the Stubbornness to Accept My Gladness in the Ruthless Furnace of the World: Cruising a Possibilistic, Potential Medieval Studies":
I think the culture of how we do things has to change, and I will expend every ounce of energy I have trying to change it . . . : I want more inclusivity, more voices, more openness, more friendship, more democracy, more experimentation, more kindness, more generosity, more playfulness, more poetry [and less hermeneutics], more roguishness [a la Michael O'Rourke's roguish queer studies], more silliness, more self-ironizing, more freedom, and more awareness that, finally, it’s not a question any more of whether you want to be touched by me or not, because at some level, we are all already touched by everything . . . , and we need to find better ways of both welcoming but also guarding each other’s difference within what is already a world gone mad with touching [good touch, bad touch, and everything in between], while also seeing that, without reaching-toward [which is touch even before this reaching arrives, if it ever does, at its object], we’ll have to think this world, perhaps, too much on our own, and in the usual stultifying ways . . . .

I want a possibilistic, potential medieval studies [anything is possible, nothing has happened, anything could happen], one which could only be achieved with a certain mode of cruising, as explicated in Leo Bersani’s Homos, where we repudiate property and citizenship and narcissistic self-containment, where we refuse to “settle . . . for an intersubjectivity cleansed of all fantasmic curiosity,” and where we ask nothing more of the objects of our desires “than to share a certain space with them” [p. 124]. This also means figuring out how to let others be, how to provide spaces within which others can emerge because they have, partly through my desire for a potentializing and not a totalizing relation, the “freedom to reappear, always, as subjects too inconclusive, too multiple, too unfinished, ever to be totally loved” [Bersani and Dutoit, Forms of Being, p. 68]. We are also going to have to imagine and bring into being new forms of “taking care”—why do we have all these discussions about the health or ill health or future or no-future of our discipline [whether literary studies most broadly or medieval studies more narrowly] and practically no discussions about what we mean to each other in this work? If our discipline fails, it will partly be because we neglected this question and opted for singular and selfish acts of heroism and suicide instead. So, for me, this friendship I want, which I believe is political, and which I want to argue here will have to be the basis upon which any future disciplinarities or interdisciplinarities [or anti-disciplinarities] will be built and hopefully prosper, has something to do with creating new spaces for the enabling and enaction of what Thomas Carlson describes as the most loving, yet also most difficult, gesture: "There is perhaps no act less loving than to step in for another, or indeed all others, so as to make everything already actual for them, given ahead of time; and there is perhaps no act more loving, or more difficult to define, or quite simply more difficult, than to give another the actuality of possibility itself—to give another time and life."
None of this makes me wince. I still believe this is perhaps one of BABEL's most important missions: to continually create new spaces where others can flourish and do the work THEY want to do, not the work I/WE want them to do. And you know what? That requires friendships and alliances built over time, and: WE REALLY NEED YOUR HELP for that to flourish. Has BABEL helped you? Well now, please, help BABEL. As Myra Seaman puts it on the BABEL website:
BABEL wants YOU! to help assemble a BABEL Working Group Steering Committee. This group will work separately from--though of course in concert with--the conference programming committees for BABEL 2015 in Toronto, BABEL 2017 on Saturn, and beyond. The steering committee will focus its attention on guiding BABEL into its gorgeous future(s). Nominations are  sought for TWELVE bright and friendly innovators who work well with others.  The BABEL membership will vote on the slate of candidates to fill the 12 slots (at least 3 of which will be current graduate students, non-tenure track faculty, and non-academics), with each position having a term of 2-3 years. We especially seek nominations of recent additions to the BABEL crew.  Nominate yourself, nominate another (and don’t worry: we’ll contact your nominee to confirm their willingness to serve), but whatever you do, send your nominations to Myra Seaman ( by the last moment of October (that is, the end of Friday, October 31). The election will take place the second week of November, to ensure it doesn’t dim the midterm elections taking place in the States the week before.

Friday, October 24, 2014

CONGRATS to S.J. Pearce: Winner of the 2014 Michael Camille Essay Prize

Fig. 1. Bodleian Mich. MS 50 (Neubauer 2219), f 116v.

I am super-thrilled to announce today the winner of the 2014 Biennial Michael Camille Essay Prize, the theme for which this time around was "Medievalism and the Margins." I'm especially happy that this essay investigates the marginal position and place of poetry in relation to prose in critical writing, since for a long while now, both the BABEL Working Group and postmedieval have been invested in exploring and enacting poetics as a lyrical criticism.

S. J. Pearce, New York University, Department of Spanish and Portuguese

Poetry on the Edge: Modern Medievalism's Marginal Verses

This essay is a preliminary examination of the relationship between prose and poetry in the work of modern editors of medieval texts, work that typically separates out the two modes of writing, even where they coexist unitarily in the source materials. The principal vehicle for this examination is a unicum manuscript (Bodl. Mich. MS 50) of a twelfth-century Hebrew ethical will written by Judah ibn Tibbon, a Granada-born translator of Arabic philosophical and religious texts who spent most of his adult life in exile in the Provençal city of Lunel. The will is written in both prose and verse; the late medieval/early modern scribe’s decision to consign the prosodic portions of the text to a margin running down the outer edge of the page is evocative of the unease that subsequent students and editors of this and other texts produced by the Islamicate culture of Spain would confront when editing those texts for modern readers. By responding to this manuscript’s provocation of format, the essay stakes out the ground for future and continuing discussion of the marginal place of poetry with respect to the related prose in modern and contemporary scholarship.
Steven Kruger, Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center
Anna Klosowska, Miami University
Kathleen Biddick, Temple University
Asa Simon Mittman, California State University, Chico

S.J.'s essay will appear in postmedieval in 2015 [Issue #2], and appropriately enough, in the special issue edited by David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds on "Contemporary Poetics and the Medieval Muse."

HUZZAH for S.J. Pearce, and with deep gratitude to the judges for their hard work examining all of the essays submitted.

Monday, October 13, 2014

In conjunction

by J J Cohen

I think a great deal about the future of the humanities, especially when (in my darker moods) I suspect that the generation in graduate school now may be the last or second to last to have fairly widespread access to the training necessary for advanced humanities research (and the proof of that diminishment is that these graduate students have so slender a possibility of obtaining the jobs necessary to sustain that access). If the humanities have a future, our best prospects inhere in the forging of alliances across the specializations that have for too long compartmentalized us into guilds without a sense of shared endeavor, without an urgent sense of community. Territorialism is slow death.

I've been drawn deep into the environmental humanities because they of necessity foreground urgency of action in a time of evident crisis and solidarity across disciplinary, temporal, national and linguistic differences. I've found some intense and sustaining friendships here that have profoundly challenged how I do work (or, to be more precise, how I see work and life as entwined practice, so that I have stopped assuming boundaries hold). On the one hand I've become impatient at the cordons sanitaires we erect around disciplines to keep them small (as if the world were ever small), and on the other have become frustrated at how easily we assume that what we inherit as disciplines are modes to replicate rather than knowledges and practices the life of which is in their reinvention.

That's a long way of saying that Serenella Iovino and her husband Maurizio Valsania (a Jefferson scholar doing a short term residency at Monticello) came to visit my family yesterday, and we had the best time eating (I made a Prismatic Ecology inspired quiche, since Serenella contributed to that volume), walking the neighborhood on a sunny day, being together over an afternoon during which my family expanded to include two new members. My daughter at one point gave an impromptu concert, translating a piece for the clarinet to the piano, and a cardinal just outside the porch chirped along to her confident notes. The day was perfect not just because we were able to mingle our families, but because over the past few years I have come to find the work that Serenella does, alone as well as in partnership with the wonderful Serpil Oppermann, sustaining. They have challenged me to think about the (feminist, anti-racist, environmental) project of material ecocriticism as one that can unfold only by thinking across the boundaries that nations, languages, specializations, conditions and support for work, disciplinary histories and academic reward systems impose. I'm honored by such amities,

Yes, I will always be a medievalist. I'll always work on obscure texts composed in ancient English, French, Latin. But I also know that if medieval studies -- if, indeed, any of the humanities -- are to survive the corporatization and downsizing with which even universities have become enamored, then we need three things: a better sense of urgency; a much expanded awareness of our shared endeavor; and more friendship.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


by J J Cohen

Maura Coughlin, Asa Mittman, Lora Webb and I went beachcombing for BABEL 2014: we are participants in the beach walk/flash exhibition listed as 15 and 16 on the program. This super-sized panel was broken into smaller groups by the organizers, who asked us to figure out how to share an investigation into littoral materialities and sea-side composing. We decided to share the images of some beachcombed objects with each other, and invite our co-participants to create stories for them. Here's a montage of what we combed:

And here are our personal descriptions of the item, sorted according to their background color in the montage above:

  1. red: "I found it in Destin, FL when I was probably 8 or 9" (Lora)
  2. blue: "Found on the banks of the Thames, right by the Banker’s Pub, this past summer" (Asa)
  3. green: "Found in September of 1999 on a beach in Nova Scotia. A sheep’s horn (I think) with a hole drilled through it. That’s how I found it." (Maura)
  4. hand with Navajo wedding ring: "a petric egg gleaned as I wandered the coast of southern Maine. It still tastes salty if you lick it." (JJC)
And here are the tales we told.

You may see me as a solid granite egg, yet I am of many things: quartz and feldspar and several others.  I am peppered and salted.  I am of the earth—the bedrock of the continent.  I was molten; I have been through processes of metamorphosis and am but a fragment of what was once much greater. I have been moved by glaciers and dashed by waves until I was tumbled almost round.  I will be something else again, perhaps sand for a time. Jeffrey was not the first human to select me. I was picked up on a beach once and because of my shape I spent a time in a hen house, a false nest egg coddled and warmed by one broody hen after another. Later, many woolen socks were mended over me.  I fell away unnoticed from a sewing basket one day on another beach as the woman who then kept me waited for a boat to return.  With the movement of a few tides, my grey woolen casing slipped off and, for a time,  I rejoined the granite of the seashore. This man who speaks of stone found me, took me from the shore, and prized me for my shape.  He placed me in his hand, tasted salt on me, holding me a bit too close to his lens so that my crystals went soft in his image as if a salty tear, a memory of the sea, washed his eye.
After she breathed her last, I had taken the large pliers from their leather sheath and ripped one molar from her jaw, just as the old woman had instructed.  The brutal cracking and rending seemed an abject violation, despite the coldness and immobility of Fiona’s once vibrant form.   It was hard to believe that my favorite horse could be remade from this one tooth, but in my grief I was willing to try almost anything to get her back— an animal like that only comes into your life once.  I cleaned it as best I could, but her years of grazing on the scrubby margins of London had left an almost impermeable patina on the enamel. I caught a chill that night, wandering the banks of the Thames, searching for the gypsy encampment where I might find that woman again. In the drizzle and fog, several small campfires I came upon illuminated groups of Roma but none admitted to knowing her; just as I was about to give up I found a brightly painted caravan lit up by the biggest of all the fires that night.  Drunken artists playing gypsy.  After several cups of bohemian gin, I began the long walk home, cursing my misplaced faith in remaking and other such quackery.  I felt for the tooth in the pocket of my grey overcoat and found only a hole: it was gone. 
Hey, Beachcomber: Pick me up.

I’m worth it. Look, I was a brass key when that really meant something. Brass. No stars or leopard print or any of that stupid shit. 

You had to be cut back then, held up to the original, proofed for fit. It mattered. I was a blank, then the old guy dragged himself to the back of the hardware store and ground me down.

Tell me a plastic card has the charm. Tell me you can wear that piece of trash on a chain around your neck or leave it under a rock by the beach for that woman you sent the letter. So what if she never came. You get what I’m saying? 

Can’t you see that I’m the REAL THING? Just pick me up— my lock still works… I know it. I can feel it.


I palpitated the big fellow’s forehead, feigning to look for the right spot. “Ah, there’s your problem!” I crowed, playing to the crowd. I pulled my sharpest knife from my belt, and subtly palmed my best stone. I held my breath, and sliced into the poor fool’s skin. He grimaced and groaned, strapped down to the chair, while I pretend to peer intently into the wound. A few more seconds… Then, swiftly, I placed my palm over the wound. With a flourish, I yanked backward, now holding up the egg shaped stone, slick with his blood and my sweat. “I have removed your brain stone! You are cured of your madness!” All that was left was to collect my fee and get out of this little seaside town. Well, life doesn’t always work out like you’d like. The madman’s mother unstrapped him too early, before I could get much distance, and, as he stood, he charged me. I took a dive on the sandy ground, choosing to fall on my own before he could knock me down, and, in the ensuing chaos, and crowd, slipped away. Only later, catching my breath over a pint of ale in an inn, did I realize that in the scuffle, I’d lost my best brain stone.
I should have known. Really, I should have. I never should have gone to the presentation, never should have listened, and certainly, certainly never should have given them my money. They looked legitimate enough, but everything was just a bit off. I was hoping to get out of my crummy apartment, and of course, when I’d moved to Florida, what I’d wanted is what everyone moving to Florida wants: a condo with an ocean view. There were posters (though the graphic design left a bit to be desired), and a tabletop model of the building. All I needed was to put down a small deposit to reserve my space in what would be the most affordable luxury condominium complex in Destin, FL. Even his suit was somehow off, or maybe the suit was fine but the shoes were wrong, or the shoes were fine, too, but his hair cut… Something was just not right, but the deal was too good, and the gym and pool and views, and somehow, almost unbelievably, I could afford it all. And I just needed to put down a few grand to reserve the spot, and get my key. “Now, this is just a symbol, this key,” he explained, as he handed it over. “You’ll get the real keys when the place is finished.” He handed me a small, ordinary house key, with “C ON DO” irregularly stamped on one side. Again, it just was not right. By the time I read about the scam in the papers, a week later, they were gone, having blown town. I went down to the spot where my condo would have stood, if there was ever going to be one, chucked the key into the surf, and slouched back to my apartment.
Ok, so, I get it, I’m an ornament, a bit of decoration, an objet d'art, if you will, and I know this is a pretty sorry existence for a fine bit of battle gear like myself, but I tell you what: I been around a damned long time, and this is the best stretch I’ve had. I mean, when I first sprang out of that guy’s head, I thought this was going to be fan-frickin-tastic. All day, bash this ram, bash that ram, the satisfying, hollow knock of horn on horn, and it was like that for a while, but then, turns out the fella I’m strapped to, well, he ain’t exactly the alpha male, if you know what I’m talking about. So, when we’re just little lambs, knocking around, it’s good fun, but then we’re getting hammered pretty good, and spending more and more time lurking at the edge of the flock, munching grass on our lonesome. No fun, that. And then, bam! Like a clap of thunder, and there’s this searing pain, and then I can’t see a damned thing, because, it turns out, I’m lying in the tall grass, broken off. Ages, sitting there, doing nothing, listing to the flock braying softly in the distance. Never did find out what happened to my ram. Then, one day, hey, something’s happening! Great! I’m picked up, handled carefully, and I think things are maybe on the up and up, but then, out of nowhere, this guy pulls out a freaking drill, and starts boring a hole straight through me! In one side, out the other. Unbelievable. Then, he threads a strap through the hole. He fills me up with some black powder, and jams a plug in my opening, and slings me on his belt. For the next few years, it’s nothing but blam-blam! Hunter shooting dumb brutes who got no idea what’s happening, and now I’m wondering, am I complicit? I’ve got no choice, but still, who hangs around, holding this jerk’s gunpowder for him? Yeah, me. Would have been worth it, if he’d ever have shot that brute who broke me off my ram, but never did. Then, one day, the strap breaks while he’s jumping over a stream, running after some damned deer, and I’m down, right in the water. At any rate, I get the powder cleaned out, which feels good. Never liked the taste of it. And then, slowly, I’m carried, bouncing, down toward the sea. The journey takes ages. Years? Decades? No idea, but at the end of that, the beach seems nice. For a while. Sand and some sun, sometimes, but sooner or later, some idiot with a dog always shows up, and then, I’m like any other bit of detritus to them. Tossed into the surf, hauled back in a drool-filled mouth, out and back, out and back, and then unceremoniously dropped on the sand. Sometimes, I’m buried in the sand, nothing but crabs and sand lice passing by now and then. Other times, the tides haul me out, and its more damned dogs. “Come on, boy! Go get it!” Pathetic. So then this hand picks me up, and I’m figuring, here we go again, and I brace for the spiraling throw to the waves, but instead, I get some interested murmurs. I’m gently turned this way and that and, eventually, slipped into a soft jacket pocket. A while later, I’m rinsed in the clear water of a sink, and then, thank god, finally let to dry out for the first time in who knows how long. And then, I’m set on a shelf, by some nice looking books. On occasion, someone picks me up gently and turns me over, but mostly, I just get to sit her, calmly, quietly, undisturbed.

I have spent much of my life submerged in wet places. First gathering calcium and dentin buried in the blood and bone of a young jaw. When my crown had formed and my enamel was hardening I shoved aside the puny baby tooth that blocked my path. I erupted from itchy, achey gums ready to be truly alive. Sadly, the life of a tooth is not one of excitement. We are the tools of the jaw, the first (and I think most crucial) stop on the road of digestion. Our only adventures are new foods. When my job was done, I sat idle in the warm moist mouth with only my siblings and the tongue for company. There was a steady stream of liquid through the mouth the night I came loose. I’m not certain what happened but I was hit hard. I felt my ligaments crack and break. With gush of blood I slid out of my spot in the gums and under the tongue. Then suddenly I was forced from the mouth and falling through the cold air. I landed on something soft and of a similar warmth to the mouth. From there I was slid into a pocket. A dark, soft place with one warm side and one cold side. I was beginning to realize that I was loosing feeling when three fingers found me. Suddenly I was flying. With a plink I hit water - cold, rushing water. I was swept along quickly as I sank. Just as I was considering what an interesting experience I was having, I began to feel less and less of it. I was dying. By the time I finally settled on the river floor I was a dead tooth. As the sediments covered me, I turned blacker and blacker. 
Years and years passed under the mud, and trash, and water of the Thames before a current from a speeding boat unburied me. I washed ashore much changed from my last time above water. I am now graying and covered in brown — dirt? minerals? — brown something. I was once so shiny and white. I spent a few days lying on the bank drying out when the tide went out and welcoming the return of the wetness when it came back in. And then new fingers picked me up. I was held in a different hand and then put into another pocket, which was much the same as the first. 

In the beginning, I was much larger. I was born in the hot depths of the earth. Cooling slowly, I became solid, white, and speckled. I was a layer of the earth for a long time until the ice came, gouging a hole through my middle and splitting me into huge boulders. I became we. We traveled together beneath the sheet of ice, becoming smoother and rounder as we rubbed against one another. By the time we reached the sea we were with many other stones - some white like us, some reddish, some very gray. The ice plunged us into the sea before melting away. Years and years passed and I was rolled back and forth, back and forth in the water, I became smaller and rounder, smaller and rounder. With every storm, we were mixed more and more with the other stones. Some times I would end up far out to sea, other times I would be washed ashore. I've been picked up by human hands many times. People admired my roundness, my whiteness, but they always put me back, or balanced me on one of my fellow stones, making tiny, ephemeral towers. But the last person kept me and took me away from the sea. For now, at least, I no longer roll with the other rocks and the waves.
I am one of a rare set of double twins. My twin and I I could have been many hairs, but we were strong horns. Twisting and turning fibers of keratin, we sprouted from the head of a young Hebridian ram who grazed in the fields near the sea. Our bigger brothers lived on the top of the head and were far showier, but my twin and I were the rarer second set of horns. When he was young and strong, our ram won many battles with us on his head. When he grew old and weak we stayed bright and beautiful and when he died and rotted all away we remained. Long after the ram's death a man parted us from his skull. I don't know why he drilled into me, but it must have been a mistake because he cursed and threw me away from him and into the sea. The current dragged me out to the depths away from my twin. I was out to sea for a long time before I was pushed back towards land and washed up amid seaweed and shells on a different shore. Here I was picked up by gentle hands, and examined, and kept as a mysterious treasure.The sea and time have separated me from my twin forever. I am now a part of a collection that will always be incomplete for I am one of a pair. 

ITEM BC UCSB 1: metal key, inscribed, Florida beach
When Romana buried the shiny object she found in her mother’s purse, she and the swallowing sand triggered a series of events with profound consequences for five lives. Her parents could not gain entrance back into the timeshare they had purchased, and her mother admitted during the thunderstorm that drenched them on its steps that she never wanted two weeks in Florida every year anyway, and maybe she did not want the fifty weeks in New Jersey either.

ITEM BC UCSB 2: tooth, possibly fossilized, England
When Augustine combed the beach at Utica he discovered on that receding shore the tooth of a mammoth, which he mistook for a giant’s molar. He committed to parchment a reverie about his find, a story of vast humans and time out of memory, but the tooth he hurled back into the sea. Currents moved the thing from Africa to India, then around the jutting coasts of Europe. Because a saint had once grasped the tooth, the object cannot erode. It has over time diminished, however, and when discovered along the Thames held no narrative of woolly beasts or primordial giants or a holy man walking the beach and dreaming theology.

ITEM BC UCSB 3: a very small oliphant, pierced for use as a pendant, Nova Scotia
Isotopic analysis suggests manufacture near Roncesvalles. Tusk of a pygmy elephant, possibly bred for tiny oliphant production. Intended to be decorative. Sword slash on side suggests use during battle -- puzzling, because horn emits sound roughly similar to buzz of a kazoo. Martial deployment may have been accidental: perhaps user believed would resonate more loudly, with catastrophic consequences. Discovery of object in Canada may suggest early settlement of North America by Carolingian adventurers.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Demons, Disability, and "Mute Beasts": An Essay Idea

Miguel Ximénez, 1466-1505, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons c. 1490
Miguel Ximénez, 1466-1505, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons c. 1490

I recently agreed -- breaking my great period of NO -- to write a book chapter on animals and disability simply because it's been a paper I've long wished I'd written, and because I can see this work fitting into my long percolating, almost mythical second book project. When prodded, here's what I pitched:
For several years I've wanted to write an essay on the way that 'mute beasts' communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede's Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.
As of yesterday, inspired by conversations with an independent study student, I'm thinking I also need (at least) a section on DEMONS. Why? Because one key symptom of demonic possession is altered speech: the possessed person often can only howl like an animal, or -- by the thirteenth century -- speaks all too fluently, with the undying reason of the demon, compelled by God or His earthly agents to preach the truth of salvation and holy history. The "mute beast" is anything but mute; the rational demon ("animal aereum, rationale, immortale, patibile, diligentiam hominibus impertiens" eg) is a machine for telling the truth. The one incomprehensible and constrained, the other perfectly, even excessively comprehensible, yet also, quite vividly, constrained. Obviously, given what will be a likely focus on later medieval demoniacs, gender (specially, the disturbance of publicly speaking women) will be a focus. Keywords: agency, voice, truth, authenticity, gender, and the body.

Here's the reading to date for a project that almost certainly cannot become be-worded until next Summer:

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. "The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims (c. 1347–1396): A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints." Speculum 85.02 (2010): 321-356.

Craig, Leigh Ann. "The Spirit of Madness: Uncertainty, Diagnosis, and the Restoration of Sanity in the Miracles of Henry VI." Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 39.1 (2013): 60-93.

Newman, Barbara. "Possessed by the spirit: Devout women, demoniacs, and the apostolic life in the thirteenth century." Speculum 73.03 (1998): 733-770

In the meantime, I have papers on oysters, fables, medieval race, materialism and gender to revise, write, co-write, and write, respectively. Some of these are not yet due.