Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fire, Air, Earth, Water: Elemental Order vs. Phenomenological Order


First, read Eileen's post on the new issue of postmedieval, which looks like one for the ages. And then Jeffrey's 2014 retrospective, and then this, below, which I suspect may be the final ITM post for 2014.

Or maybe not?
  CaptureHere's a T-O Map from the Mandeville epitome that begins that famous fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add 37049, f. 2v. (also famous for including the unique copy of the Middle English "Disputation between the Body and the Worms," which I write about here).

Warning: I'm not a map scholar, and, as Chet van Duzer probably already said what I'm about to say here, I apologize. Be patient and imagine briefly that you're one of my students, befuddled, curious, and confused. Or imagine you're one of my colleagues, ideally one who knows more about paleography, maps, and medieval science than I do. I humbly submit myself to the correction of all. 

I'm fond of this map because it comprises two intersecting two-dimensional planes, which together generate an approximation of three dimensions. Note, first, the geography: the left bottom quadrant is Europa, the right bottom quadrant Affrica, and the top half Asya (if I'm reading that right). Various cities and regions have been labeled: Syria, Alpes, Roma, Gallia (France), Hispania, Ethiopia, Carthago, etc.

Meanwhile, at the very top we find a band of red, which is Fire; below that, a band of clouds running through a scribble of blue, which is Air; below that, written below a band of trees, Earth; and then, dividing the Asia, Europe, and Africa, the element of Water.

If fire, being lightest, is above the slightly heavier air, and if both of these are above the surface of the earth, then the labeling of elements intersects the world map at a perpendicular. There's a catch, though: as earth is heavier than water, the labeling of elements reverses the final two, as it places water, incorrectly, below the earth. The simple explanation is that this reversal just represents our experience of our world: so long as we're not wading or drowning (or being rained upon), earth, for us, is above the water, whatever the claims of natural science.

The reversal also neatly represents our world's slightly off-kilter arrangement of elements, as explained by one far-seeing mid-fourteenth-century theorist. Jean Buridan's commentaries on Aristotle's De caelo et mundi and Meteorologica consider the question of whether the whole earth is habitable. His answer? One quarter, yes, the rest not. He doesn't get to that conclusion without some struggle. In Joel Kaye's summary, Buridan first:
raises a question that Aristotle had never considered: why would any one quarter of the earth be more likely to remain above water and habitable than any other quarter?...Given the spherical nature of the earth, given that according to Aristotelian physics all earth falls naturally to the earth's center, given the great abundance of water with respect to land, and assuming with Aristotle...that the universe is eternal...why in the fullness of time should any portion of land whatsoever remain habitable above water? (94)
To save the world from drowning, Buridan concocts "an interconnected physical system in dynamic equilibrium" (95), in which heat and cold make the earth above waters slightly lighter than drowned earth, so that the earth's weight and its center of magnitude slightly differ. Only the earth below the waters is as cold as it naturally should be. The off-kilter interaction of earths of varying density, balanced in an eternal motion of unbalance, keeps exactly one ever-shifting quarter of the earth above water (96).

Is this eternal, Weeble Wobbly unbalance what's represented by the T-O map of BL Add 37049? Doubtful. More likely, it represents the lived, human experience of elements, with the earth below us, and the water, we hope, even lower. But were some Carthusian bro a committed Aristotelian (unlikely!), we can imagine him looking at this map, on the verge of unloosing yet another "well, actually," but then thinking back to his studies, and resting content, temporarily above the waters.

(for more on floods, see Jeffrey here, with "Drown").

Mirages are the Dreamers in the Drowned World: Philology and the Mirage of Time


With "Philology and the Mirage of Time," edited by Michelle Warren,  postmedieval closes out its 5th year, and this special issue is really something to celebrate, as it exemplifies so well much of what the journal has hoped to accomplish, bringing together a wide range of voices from multiple disciplines, languages (Sanskrit, Arabic, Malay, English, Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Old Nubian, Low Greylag, Breton), and temporal periods in order to explore what Warren terms the "retro-futurism" of philology in the 21st century. And thus we have on beautiful display in this issue [as well as in so many other issues of the journal] the "productive critical tension" between past and present so central to postmedieval's mission. As Warren herself writes of how this issue evolved,
We did not set out with a coherent plan but instead put faith in the alchemy of disparate practices, and listened to the sparks fly when the pieces came together at a conference held at Dartmouth College in 2013. For the occasion, I had invited Carolyn Dinshaw and Marget Long to recreate a performance I had seen them present the year before [at BABEL's 2012 Biennale in Boston]. With a montage of medieval manuscripts, original photography and film clips, they explored various places that vanish or simply don’t exist. Their savvy troping of mirage inspired me to turn the philology project into a conference: I wanted to see what might emerge from an explicit philological framing of their visualizations of language and time. In the event, mirage solidified in my mind as a figure that shimmers in the background of each essay.

A mirage, as presented by Dinshaw and Long, illuminates philology in several ways. First, as a geophysical phenomenon, a mirage is ‘physically real, a nowhere that is somewhere’ (Dinshaw and Long, 2013). In its most common form, a mirage appears when heat causes light rays to bend, causing an image from above to appear inverted below. The turbulence of rising hot air makes the image unstable and distorted; it appears only along specific sight lines. While the image is real, it produces illusions as we try to make sense of it: the sky projected onto the ground ‘looks like’ bluish water. Mirage thus captures the nexus of reality and projection that defines interpretation. Whether at the graphic level (What is that blurry letter on the page?) or the abstract level of language systems (Is that mark a blurry letter?), philology constructs meaning out of materiality and imagination.

Since the mirage is physical, it can be photographed. (See this issue’s cover for an example.) The photograph itself adds layers of time, for it is ‘an image of the past, a record of the present, a projection of the future’ (Dinshaw and Long, 2013). This conflation of temporal referrals makes photography akin to philology, which also occupies mixed temporalities: its forms derive from some past image, fix a record of a present interpretation and project that interpretation into the future by inscribing it in some durable form. Just as photography enacts ‘the desire to fix an image for future consideration’ (Dinshaw and Long, 2013), so does philology as a practice of transcription, translation and transliteration. A mirage photo in particular functions as a ‘low res mixed reality space’ (Dinshaw and Long, 2013): like an old, smudged document, it is hard to read; it calls up our desire to interpret. As we try to establish linguistic coherence out of fragments, we might wonder if the image was ever clear in the first place. 

Figure 1. Curley goes swimming (Marget Long, 2013, min. 11:28).

Mirage shifts to another order as a trope in fictional film, where it often functions as a synonym for fantasy -- the hyperbolic opposite of reality. These mirages capture the material fictions that haunt philology at its core. Subjectivity and desire, as the essays here show, do motivate material forms -- under the guise, though, of not motivating them. Dinshaw and Long introduced the fantasy mirage through Long’s two-channel video installation, You Were Drifting (Long, 2013). On a 25-minute loop, the piece stitches together footage from 20 films, shown on two monitors, the lower one upside down to replicate the geophysical characteristics of a mirage (See Figure 1). The upside-down images challenge legibility, just as a mirage challenges perceptions: it is difficult to focus simultaneously and equally on both monitors. Striving to see the installation as a single image, we encounter the processing effort that takes place even when we aren’t explicitly noticing. Similarly, with philology, we try to see more than one place and time but easily slip into more limited views.
The issue brings together a stunning array of articles that explore philology's multivalent and multitemporal "nowheres" that are also "somewheres," as well as what contributor Sheldon Pollock argues should be philology's three-dimensionality -- through texts and other objects as various as the novels of Joseph Conrad; the Rāmāyaṇa of Valmiki and Enlightenment philosophy; the Arabic-English Lexicon (1863–1893), a monumental dictionary of classical Arabic created by Edward William Lane (1801–1876); the history of romanized print and digital media; nonsense words in Heidigger's Metaphysics and Gerald M. Brown's study of "Old Nubian"; the role of sound in Anglo-Saxon monastic texts; Greek, Latin and French bestiaries; Roland Barthes's Society of the Friends of the Text and the short fiction of Ursula Le Guin. Herewith the full Table of Contents:
Editor's Introduction
Shimmering philology
Michelle R Warren
Philology in three dimensions
Sheldon Pollock
Cosmopolitan philology
Karla Mallette
Romanization and the digital future of philology
Chris GoGwilt
The disturbing object of philology
Vincent WJ Van Gerven Oei
A sensual philology for Anglo-Saxon England
Martin K Foys
Post-human philology and the ends of time in medieval bestiaries
Sarah Kay
Philology, or the art of befriending the text
Ika Willis

Book Review Essay
Humanism, philology and the medievalist*
Seth Lerer

*reviews Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2013); Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2014); and James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Another really exciting feature of this issue is that we used one of Marget Long's mirage studies for the cover -- (Inferior) Mirage with Dust Devil, 2013 -- and we asked Palgrave to allow us to wrap the image around the entire issue [front, back + spine], which they happily agreed to, and we think the result is stunning. Friends, the print object lives! [see above]

Here is what Marget Long wrote for us about the cover image:
I took this picture while standing in the middle of El Mirage Dry Lakebed in San Bernardino County, California. It’s a photograph of a mirage and a ‘dust devil,’ a temporary whirlwind that appeared above the mirage just as I set up my camera. Ghost on ghost. It was no accident that I was standing in that dry, ultra-flat basin. My fascination with mirages has sent me chasing them in both near- and far-flung places: the Crocker Land expedition archive at the American Museum of Natural History, Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter) in the United Arab Emirates and Wendover, Utah, for a month-long, refractive experience at The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Mirages are not photogenic. Mirages are live, image-generating machines. Mirages have the body of the earth, the air, and the sun. To look at one is to bounce backwards on the moon. Mirages are supra-photographic. A photograph of a mirage has both high and low indexical qualities. Mirages stockpile Bitcoins. Mirages are Con Air. Mirages are the most beautiful nowhere. Mirages are 4D queens. And the opposite of touch screens. A photograph of a mirage drains the life right out of it. Mirages are the terminal lagoon. Mirages are the dreamers in the drowned world.
For more about Long's fascinating Crocker Land project, which includes her mirage studies, go HERE.



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Retrospect for 2014

by J J Cohen

The cusp of December into January invites retrospection to move forward, or some such gnostic spouting.

This year has been fairly sparse for blog posts, a scarcity due in large part to other forms of social media. Like my four co-bloggers, I variously use Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to do the public and personal work that a few years ago blogs mainly performed. My own posting lull is also due to having been extraordinarily busy this year: all the classes I taught were packed with students; the graduate committee on which I've been serving had some enormous, consequential tasks to complete; I traveled quite a bit (some favorites: Manitoba, Iceland, Alaska, Channel Islands and Victoria BC); I brought three books to press after long gestations and have been hard at work on two other, massive projects that I will speak about in time here; and so on; and so on; and so on some more. I keep thinking about this post, though, and wondering how I failed so spectacularly to give myself the Epochal Pause I'd promised last January. The year ahead is a killer: teaching a seminar on catastrophe at the Folger (forebode much?); conferences and speaking engagements in Vancouver, Washington Pennsylvania, Atlanta, Kalamazoo, Geneva, London, and New Zealand (I had the chance to circle the globe this summer giving scholarly papers by adding two commitments -- and in a rare moment of sanity decided against it); having a son old enough to apply for college, and making some campus visits (so interesting to see the College Admissions Machine from the other side); co-writing a book and co-editing a massive collection. So I have much writing on my plate, much thinking, much travel. And maybe what I should finally realize is that it isn't so much an actual pause that I need, because I derive so much joy from writing, thinking, traveling, teaching, collaborating, organizing -- but the fantasy of a pause (infinitely deferred) carries me through the work when it feels overwhelming.

Here are some of my favorite blog posts from ITM this year. You'll notice that many are guest posts: Dorothy Kim especially contributed to the vitality of the blog this year. Let me know what I've missed, here and elsewhere. And happy 2015 to you!

Pause, in which I gave myself a gift that I failed to keep.
Irina Dumitrescu on the Future of Old English
Karl on an Early Modern Child's Drawing
Jonathan on Oceanic New York, a wonderful gathering put together by Steve Mentz
Karl on zany Collective Nouns

A short reflection on wandering in Ohio, Break
Academia, mentoring, solitude, affect (link to a Storify archive of tweets)
The draft intro to Elemental Ecocriticism, which will be out for MLA 2016
Karl on Blaise of Parma and periodization
Dorothy Kim on Wikipedia editing for scholarly organizations
A small paean to collaboration
The Kalamazoo Gyre, an account of the first GW MEMSI Rogue session and other good things
Karl on Crowds and Periodicity
Jonathan on #medievaltwitter, in the style of Buzzfeed
On finishing my last solitary book
Laura Saetveit Miles, Once and Future Feminism
Karl on medieval race and class
Ecostitial, the introduction to one of this year's books, finished in a cabin in West Virginia

In the Glacier Cracks are Rumbling, my favorite post I wrote this year, and one that makes me both happy and sad
Boyda Johnson on Who Gets a Voice on Twitter
Agential Objects and Magic Rocks, the controversial (?) paper I gave at NCS in the hope of clearing up some misapprehensions about the objectal turn in theory
Helen Young on Re-Making the Real Middle Ages(tm)
Jonathan Hsy's brilliant and important piece on Intersections and diversity
Lowell Duckert's inspirational Teaching Literature in the West Virginia Ecotone

Jonathan's Native, Norse, Other
Karl Steel on Teaching the Prioress Again
Material Collective Beachcombing, a prelude to BABEL UCSB
In conjunction, another piece on collaborating
Eileen on the BABEL steering committee
Karl, Subatomic
Dorothy Kim on Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment and Community Accountability, our most widely shared post ever at ITM
Mary Kate, Cosmic
Catching up, a quick run through of many things, including BABEL Santa Barbara
Jonathan on Medievalisms and Trans-Medievalisms

Mary Kate, Creating Alternative Communities, the blog version of her NCS presentation (read the comments!)
Karl's essential and timely Talking Ferguson in the Medieval Classroom
Locutus of BABEL on Hello from the Steering Committee
BABEL Goes to Toronto, a call for sessions (you have a month to send your innovative proposal!)
Teaching, learning, a reflection back on this year's teaching
Karl on holiday deliciousness

These were some of the posts I've found myself returning to, or which did some work I found personally or professionally significant. But there are many more: check out the archive. And: thank you for reading In the Middle. There would be no blog without you.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Saint Nicholas Miracle, or, These PIES, they are DELICIOUS


Over at the Smithsonian, Natasha Geiling writes about Santa, who has as many hometowns as Christ has foreskins. Santa lives at the North Pole, or, rather, the "North Pole," variously in New York, Alaska, and Finland. Saint Nicholas, we medievalists know, lived further South. Geiling writes:
The real Santa Claus—the historical figure upon which the legend is based—never lived anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century bishop who lived and died far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now Turkey. Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas is said to have loved giving gifts, once throwing three sacks of gold coins into the house of a poor family, thereby saving the home's three daughters from a life of prostitution. Nicholas was also a favorite among sailors, who prayed to him during rough seas. The sailors spread Nicholas' story around the world, turning him into one of the most popular saints in Christendom.
My favorite Saint Nicholas story, though, is the Miracle of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, an early version of the Sweeney Todd legend. I tell the story in my How to Make a Human (210-216), where it's subjected to the kind of microscopic, psychoanalytic exegetics academic literary critics, and only us I think, delight in doing ("The furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly" and so on; really very sorry).
From the twelfth century on, the story's told often, in art, in poetry, and in song, beginning with a story about -- yes -- a travelling salesmanThe one I like best is in one manuscript (Bodley 779) of the South English Legendary, a massive Middle English collection of saint's lives
It begins like so: “on a tyne thre clerkis com wandry in a street / of hongred and ful sore athirst” (once upon a time, three clerks were wandering in a street, suffering much from hunger and thirst). When the clerks plead with a butcher to board them (“her out that we ne sterue”), he refuses, often and rudely, until his wife suggests that they kill and rob the students in the night. After all, students are rich! ("of siluir habbeth gret plente. and ek [also]...gret...sacheles"). The students eat their fill, and then bed down, all the while invoking the name of Saint Nicholas. Soon after, the butcher has his wife fetch his ax, and he goes to work (""for culle ich wole hem sone" [for I will slaughter/kill them [or sort them!] soon]).
Being students, they have nothing worth stealing but their bodies. 
When the butcher panics, he blames his wife: you should never have called the clerks back! His wife patiently reminds him of his craft: they should make the corpses into “pastis and pyus . . . for pork hy cholleth ben solde” (pasties and pies . . . [to] be sold as pork). The next day, the butcher announces that he is selling three pennies’ worth of pies for the price of one (“for on peny ich wolde yeue, for hanseles sake, / that is worth to other thre, whoso hit wolde take”).
Quickly, maybe even before the butcher manages to unload any stock, Jolly Old Saint Nick arrives, with his entourage of ushers. Nicholas “axed of [the butcher] what he hadde, and what to sillin wolde” (asked [the butcher] what he had and what he would sell), who “answered baldeliche, pasties and pyes he hadde / and good chep” (boldly answered that he had pasties and pies, and that for cheap). The butcher intensifies his pitch, “and swythe loud he gradde / for a peny that is worth to. to the ich wele selle / lok nouthe wher hit be gret chep. by hem yif thou wille” (and he cried out very loudly, “I will sell two pennies’ worth to you for one. You can’t find it this cheap anywhere else. Buy them if you like!”). Nicholas's response: 
hastou any other flesch. telle swythe anon
for ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost. and nought that thou ne gabbe
other flesch nab ich non. tha thou sext her to sille
yis for soth hastou. bakis thre ich wene
that liggeth isilt ther in thy fate . . .
do and bringe me ther to. yif hit thin wille be
for my wil is of hem to bigge.
Do you have any other flesh? Answer quickly, for I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of. And don’t lie.” “I have no other flesh except for what you see here for sale.” “Yes, in truth, you do have it. I believe you have baked three that lay salted there in your vat . . . bring me there, if it is your will, for it is my will to buy them.
The butcher and his wife confess and cry for mercy, promise not to do this anymore (""for neuer her after ne cholle we more") -- though it's unclear whether they mean butchery or slaughtering students (in which case, how many times have they done this?) -- and Nicholas resurrects the clerks. The end!
Or not! You'll notice a continuity error: are the boys in the pies or not? Why does Nicholas keep insisting that he wants better meat than the meat that he's being sold? Aren't the boys right there on the counter already? There's something a bit off here, as if the story's too embarrassed to admit what it's done: like all embarrassments, the story's furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly (ha! got it in). It's that boys and pigs are pretty similar (the corpus/porcus joke is tediously common in medieval writing, and not just in medical texts); it's that, as we know from Snowpiercerbabies taste best. It's that Nicholas wants a bit of that Christmas pie, but he's too ashamed to go at it directly.
Remember this miracle today by feeding a student. Tell them it's Christmastime, and there's no need to be afraid, because today's a butchers holiday. And if you're having ham (shame on you if you are), think about where it might have come from; if there's a knock on the door, and you see a fourth-century bishop outside, you'll know what you did.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Teaching, Learning

by J J Cohen

Breaking pedagogical news: it takes twenty years to learn to teach an undergraduate course well. OK, I am a slow learner: it took me that long to reach the point where I end a semester thinking, this is the kind of classroom I want to be within from now on. The fall semester is nearly complete -- fifty five grades to enter and then I'm done. I won't be teaching at GW again until 2016 (I'm at the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring, then have a semester of leave for the fall as I work on two book projects I'll blog about soon). And yes, on the one hand, I like to complete things and move along ... but on the other, I'll miss both my classes, the most enjoyable and possibly the most successful of my career to date. Here are a few things I've learned, or learned again.

1. All hail the students.
I am fortunate: GW students are wonderful, and they make me feel a strong attachment to the place. The students who enroll in my classes don't necessarily share all that much when it comes to background: they are fairly diverse in race, religion, gender and sexuality, geographic origin, and economic circumstances (though the latter can be invisible, surfacing in painful ways). Yet these students generally share earnestness, engagement, a sense of play, and a desire to build supportive communities. They care about each other. I watched these strengths in action on the first day of Chaucer class when, as we went round the room for introductions, one student requested that they be referenced by third person plural pronouns. The other students simply nodded assent and the introductions continued apace (while I thought: I really like this group).

Don't get me wrong: I have taught courses that have been an immense challenge (the Quiet Chaucer Class of 2011 will live forever as a low point; but then again, I also had to learn from that group that sometimes pedagogy has to be adaptive to what students want as well as what the instructor believes they need). I have had experiments in teaching go badly wrong and I have reported my fair share of GW undergrads for violations of the Code of Academic Integrity. But in general I know that I can rely on them to make a discussion based class -- even one with an enrollment of 90 -- work well.

2. Throw away your book.
The Riverside Chaucer is now, due to the tyranny of Cengage, over $100 to rent in paperback. I've been teaching Chaucer from the Riverside since graduate school: my own hardcover is held together with duck tape. Its decades of marginalia have framed how I lead class discussion for years. I could not in good conscience ask my students to buy or rent the Riverside this year, so I joined them in using the edition edited by Jill Mann for Penguin ($14). I decided this was a good opportunity to rely no longer on my accumulated notes, and so did not refer to my venerable Riverside for course prep. The Canterbury Tales did not become a blank slate by any means (I have this thing called a memory, quite faulty but still useful from time to time) -- yet the text seemed fresher than it had in years. The unthought inheritances of my normative training as a medievalist are still very much with me; teaching without that heritage inscribed on the page was liberating in small ways, though. Another way of putting this: my Riverside bears the visual evidence of having studied with and been a teaching assistant for Chaucerians like Larry Benson and Derek Pearsall -- and the whole Riverside project is framed by Benson's general editorship. The edition has a personality that owes something to him, evident in its textual apparatus, glosses, and its mediation through the community of colleagues and friends he chose for the editing of specific tales. That's good in some profound ways, but it is also a fact that I have not thought sufficiently through for the kind of Chaucer studies I want my students to have versus what the Riverside (and my training) offers. Using a clean edition of the text helped open some distance that I did not know I needed. In a semester during which speaking about sexual assault in class resonated profoundly with an ongoing public discussion of rape culture on campuses, not using the Riverside proved especially useful for framing rape in Chaucer's life and texts -- and for opting out of the long history of normalizing sexual assault into a familiar fabliau device, a motif of long history, or a joke.

3. Enough with the assessment.
It's remarkable to me how much we -- how much I -- have internalized the demand from accreditation bodies to assess everything, as if the success of a course in something as blessedly inutile as Middle English were readable from a series of metrics that mapping student achievement. In the end I don't care all that much if students can identify passages, explicate themes and key terms, compose a properly formatted bibliography. These things are nice but what I really want is to stoke their imaginations, get them to realize that the world is big and strange, expand their conceptual possibilities, and discover the pleasure of sustained attention to a work of art. I'm not sure how to assess wide-eyedness. I stopped aiming for coverage and started intensifying the time we have in class together, as a fellowship. Towards the end of my Chaucer class I realized through our conversations that all my students had reached proficiency in Middle English, had a good command of the Canterbury Tales, and were adept at making connections among the narratives. Instead of a final exam that would assess retention and promote coverage, I gave them a take home with two questions on it: a prospect that invited them to write about all the things we did not cover in class (what was left out? where might we have gone next? what futures have been opened up for study?), and a retrospect that invited them to collect their course materials, ruminate over them, and speak about the ground they had tread with the their classroom companions and with Chaucer, the changes in their understanding of the tales (and if they wished, themselves), along the way. I've never enjoyed reading finals so much.

Not every Chaucer class has to arrive in Canterbury. What about lingering along the way? Enough pretending that the humanities must be vocational training. My students repeatedly commented in their course evaluations on two things: how liberating it was to start at the same point as their peers in learning Middle English (shared vulnerability), and what a relief it was to have a class that embraced useless knowledge.

4. A closed classroom door cannot keep the world from entering.
This was a semester when gross miscarriages of racial justice unfolded repeatedly in the US: black men dying needlessly and white police officers exculpated. Rather than pretend a classroom is a temporary shelter against an unjust world, in both my classes we had discussions of race that touched upon Ferguson and its aftermath. In Chaucer our conversation on the day after the verdict became a rumination over community-making and inclusion: my students kept going back to the threats against the Pardoner and the kiss that reintegrates him. In Myths of Britain, we spoke repeatedly of the long history of racialized brutality, evident in many of the texts we read together: Othello and Isle of Pines, most strongly, but also Beowulf and Mandeville's Travels. We have many students of color in that class (about 20 of the 60), but we would have been talking about race in the course no matter what. I'm Jewish, my teaching partner is black, and in collaboration we teach our students the complexities of a literary tradition that was not written for us, that can often offer violence towards those we identify as being part of our own history, but a tradition we want to grapple with and think deeply about all the same. And we want to do that with our students -- an invitation to dialogue that they happily accepted.

5. Collaboration is scary when it works.
This year marked the sixth time I've taught Myths of Britain, a slowed down version of Intro to Brit Lit that focuses on close reading, slow looking, and better writing through repeated revision. But it's the first time I've co-taught the course, and that collaboration changed everything, leading to a complete reinvention. It helped that my teaching partner, Ayanna Thompson, happens to be a close friend. It also helps that we both gain a great deal of intellectual energy from challenging each other. That dynamic played out well in the classroom, where we worked out a back and forth that modeled for the students (we hope) how to disagree respectfully, playfully, with evidence, with passion. The student evaluations for the course were terrific, and one comment sticks with me: that Ayanna and I execute a Bonnie and Clyde routine well. I think that means we dress well and rob banks. Actually, what I think it means is that when it comes to reaching for some comparison for the team Ayanna and I formed, the student could not find an adequate model, since this collaboration crossed gender and racial differences in ways that don't happen enough in the academy. And I will admit, I was nervous teaching with a friend, especially one I know is so good in the classroom. It felt vulnerable, and the course will never be the same.

6. All hail the students.
None of this semester's experiments in pedagogy would have succeeded without a committed group of students. In Chaucer they happily did the work of tying Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book and Simon Gikandi's essays on the conditions of literary production to the Canterbury Tales. They were with me when I tore up the syllabus and let the end of the course become much more free form than the beginning. They experimented. And the same with the Myths of Britain students. As Ayanna and I attempted to find the best way to frame the class, they never abandoned us. Even when they disliked a text, they came to the lectures with plenty to say. They were there for each other: challenging, encouraging, companioning. It's rare, I know, when you can trust your students so much that you can play with the structure of the course as you are teaching it and know that they will respond well to the opening up of possibilities. Here's to more such rarities.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Communities, Collectivities, Ecologies: MKH's First Graduate Syllabus!

by Mary Kate Hurley

As the semester comes to its close and grading begins in earnest, I’m getting ready to teach my very first graduate seminar in the Spring, currently entitled “Community, Collectivity, Ecology.” I’m sharing my first pass at the syllabus in part because I’d love to get feedback as I finalize it.

Our graduate students at Ohio University are not, generally speaking, medievalists (although give me a few more semesters and I bet I can change that!). My plan, then, is not to focus on giving them a complete historical overview of the period nor to make them into medievalists, per se, although I do want to give them a good grounding in the period. Rather, I thought that brief introductions to critical trends in the field would be the most useful approach to take: the idea would be to use medieval literature as a kind of laboratory for thinking through theoretical ideas that they can import to their work in various fields.

My plan, then, is to teach the interconnections of the two divergent projects I’ve been developing over the past few years. The first, which is based on work from my current book project, locates the development of communities and collectivities in texts that are considered, broadly speaking, as translations. The second is a more ecology-driven project, one that considers how texts participate in their environments. Obviously the second project is far too under-developed to use as a paradigm for graduate study, so my plan here is to start exploring the way that community and collectivity, when taken expansively, shade into ecologies. What I mean by that: if you keep tracing the actors, collectivities can look a lot like ecologies. I want to explore those grey areas with my students, to try to figure out how these three terms interrelate, interpenetrate, and perhaps unhinge one another. I’m not quite sure what we will find, especially since the second half of the course is very much experimental, but I thought it worth a go. I would welcome any feedback or thoughts, especially in the last half of the course where I move to materials I'm less familiar with.


Course Description:
Where does humanity end and “nature” begin? Modern eco-critical, materialist, and object-oriented critical modes question the centrality of the human to literary texts and the worlds they create, describe, and inhabit, encouraging readers to acknowledge and circumvent the often tacit anthropocentrism of their concerns. In this course, we take the post-human to the pre-modern. Medieval authors knew nothing of Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, or Graham Harman, yet their depictions of human communities are deeply concerned with the ways humans are implicated in their environments. We’ll read medieval texts including Beowulf, Exeter Book poetry, Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, Marie de France, and Chaucer.
Marie de France, Lais (trans. Ferrante and Hanning)
Beowulf, trans. Roy Liuzza (2nd Edition, facing page edition and translation)
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
Coursepack and Blackboard Readings

Informed Participation: 25%
Short Discussion Papers and Leading Discussion (x2): 25%
Conference Paper 1 (including annotated bibliography and abstract): 25%
Conference Paper 2 (or article-length essay version of Conference Paper 1, plus annotated bibliography and abstract): 25%

Community, Collectivity, Ecology

Week One: Communities in Context
• Raymond Williams, Keywords (excerpt on Community)
• Brian Stock, Listening for the Text, “Textual Community”
• Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest” THRS 6 (1996): 25-49.

Week Two: Textual Communities, Communities of the Page
• Holsinger, “Of Pigs and Parchment”
• Elaine Treharne, Living Through Conquest (excerpt)
• Fleshing out the text: the Transcendent Manuscript in the Digital Age," Elaine Treharne (Postmedieval 4.4)

[Possible Workshop with rare librarians and local bookmakers to talk about the production and creation of books]

Week Three: Medieval Textual Communities
• Alfred’s Preface to the Pastoral Care
• Kathleen Davis, “National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Post-Colonialist Thinking about the Nation”
• Nicholas Howe, “Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England” JMEMS 34.1 (Winter 2004): 147-172.

Week Four: Medieval Textual Communities in Translation
• Geographical Preface and Excerpt from Old English Orosius (with Latin translation)
• Lawrence Venuti, “Translation, Community, Utopia”
• Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”

Week Five: Communities of Faith
• Aelfric, Life of Saint Gregory (ed. Clemoes)
• Clare Lees, “In Ælfric’s Words: Vigilance and the Nation in the Life of Saint Gregory” in A Companion to Ælfric, ed. Mary Swan and Hugh Magennis. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Week Six: Collectivity and Community
• Aelfric, Life of Saint Oswald
• Michel Callon, “Toward a Sociology of Translation”
• Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (excerpts)

Week Seven: Actors and Networks
• Bede, excerpt on Life of King Oswald
• Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (excerpts)
• Marianne Malo Chenard, “King Oswald’s Holy Hands: Metonymy and the Making of a Saint in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History”

Week Eight: Beowulf’s Collectivities
• Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Urn”
• Deleuze and Guattari, 10000 Plateaus (excerpt: Rhizome)

Week Nine: Animals
• Marie de France, Lais
• Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: “Cohabitation,” “Wolf, Man, and Wolf-Man” and “Conclusion”
• Peggy McCracken, “Animals and Translation in Marie de France”

Week Nine: Anglo-Saxon Oceans in Middle English
• Chaucer, The Man of Law’s Tale
• AHR Forum: Oceans of History, “Introduction”
• Horden and Purcell, “The Mediterranean and the New Thalassology”
• Ingrid Nelson, “Premodern Media and Networks of Transmission in the Man of Law’s Tale,” Exemplaria 2013

Week Ten: Wonder Ecologies
• Old English Wonders of the East (ed. and trans. Orchard)
• Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ed. and trans. Orchard)
• Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (excerpt)
• Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (excerpt)

Week Eleven: Landscapes
• Guðlac A and B
• Alfred Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion” (from The Postmodern Beowulf)
• Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (introduction)

Week Twelve: Saint Erkenwald and Time
Saint Erkenwald
• Karl Steel on Erkenwald and Claustrophilia

Week Thirteen: Made of Meat
Disputation of the Body and the Worms
• Karl Steel, “Abyss: Everything is Food,” Postmedieval 4.1

Week Fourteen: Presentations of Conference Paper 2 or expansion of Paper 1

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Off the Books: BABEL Goes to Toronto


all images from Sean Kernan, Secret Books

I submit to ink. I go into the elsewhere of chiaroscuro. The lack of transparency, the elaboration of shadow as a medium, makes the codex a soft bomb of potential. The sociality of reading does not always or only pertain to the present; it implicates the multi-temporal generosity of politics. Within this folded time, the person and an impersonal speech test and inflect and mix into one another. The book’s darkly confected scene is a speculative, temporally striated polis.

~Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”

As some of you may know, or as some of you may NOT know, the BABEL Working Group is moving its biennial meeting to odd-numbered years, starting in 2015, when we will be meeting at the University of Toronto, from October 9-11, under the banner, "Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering." We are pretty excited about this meeting, in no small measure because we've decided to let all potential session organizers decide what sort of structure(s) they might want for their sessions (duration-wise, format-wise, # of presenters-wise, setting-wise, etc.) and the programming committee will do their earnest best to pull these sessions together into a rowdy and invigorating un-conference stretching over 3 days. We are also going to experiment with how we structure the plenary [or un-plenary] sessions, so stay tuned on that! We have also worked really hard to construct a description of the conference's themes that both draws upon traditional manuscript and history of the book studies, and also examines various registers and valences of the phrase "off the books": how might we collectively explore various histories of the book and bookmaking, as well as consider what it means to go “off the books”: how ideas and various cultural and historical forms leap off from and out of books; how we ourselves are “off of” books and “over” books; what it means to go “off the books” or “off the record”: to go astray, between and off the lines, underground, and illegal, and to be unaccounted for. Going "off the books" thus means examining books themselves—their place in our culture, social imaginary, sense of history, and expectations of academic labor and value—while simultaneously examining their edges, aporias, margins, lacunae, and Others.

You can see the full Call for Sessions here --

-- and I will also repost it here:

4th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

 ~ Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering ~

9-11 October 2015

University of Toronto, Canada


*Send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 1, 2015, to:

For its 4th Biennial Meeting, to be held at the University of Toronto from October 9-11, 2015, BABEL proposes to take flight both along and off the fractal edges of the book. As an institutional and intellectual locus, the book has long occupied a privileged place as an ultimate substrate and platform for the inscription and dissemination of sustained thought and argument, of the images and ideas signified in language, and of the cultural-historical “goods” of various groups, societies and polities over time. Moreover, both the printed book and manuscript hold a prominent place in the foundation of humanistic study (think of how Homer’s corpus survives in the present thanks to its translation from papyrus to medieval manuscript “edition,” or of the British Museum Library, founded in 1753, whose three founding collections—donated by “mad hoarder” library- and cabinet-builders Robert Cotton, Hans Sloane, and Robert Harley—have been instrumental in the establishment of the study of English literature in the UK and North America, and beyond). The book is not only an object, form, and genre, but also a demand, a requirement, and a form of labor. It is the supposed monument to tenure-worthy academic production (the monograph), as well as the chief marker of communal academic and para-academic labors (edited collections, art books, climate change manga), and also a space of outright resistance to the status quo in academic publishing and beyond. The book is also a symbol and reification of authority, canonicity, and official terms, accounts, ledgers, and judgments. It is a location of nostalgia, an affective touchstone for a past that maybe never was, that also always remains entangled with the present of each book’s production. The book is also the chief exemplum of the print epoch in the long history of media forms: the blank white page that waits passively to be imprinted—impressed with/by—the works of human subjectivity and intellectual-cultural production (but is this also a mirage?). The book, further, signifies a certain slow process of cultural production, one that is often valued so highly precisely because it is perceived as difficult, painstaking, voluminous, weighty, and “serious”—the worthy achievement of a certain Olympiad-style intellectual athleticism.


We are calling upon individuals and groups interested in proposing sessions for our 2015 biennial meeting that would explore various histories of the book and bookmaking, as well as consider what it means to go “off the books”: how ideas and various cultural and historical forms leap off from and out of books; how we ourselves are “off of” books and “over” books; what it means to go “off the books” or “off the record”: to go astray, between and off the lines, underground, and illegal, and to be unaccounted for. Going off the books means examining books themselves—their place in our culture, social imaginary, sense of history, and expectations of academic labor and value—while simultaneously examining their edges, aporias, margins, lacunae, and Others. What might be potentialized, opened up, and made when we break books, or break with books? Can we ever really leave books, or are we always somehow interleaved—both in our solitary studies but also within our University-at-large—with the books that have formed our education(s)? Are there ways in which books themselves have provided spaces of subterfuge, for going “outward bound” and “off the record,” for resisting the business-as-usual of the Academy and other institutions? Does going off the books, refusing to keep records, and shredding the evidence-as-usual, while disseminating our ideas in other (more supposedly radically “off-book” forms), allow us to escape surveillance, or does it simply bind us to a surfeit of labors that can never be properly compensated? Will we ever be able to pay the price of our departure(s) from the forms of cultural capital that have ensured so many programs of study, so many positions, so many jobs? And why would we desire this path? We propose the sub-title “making, breaking, binding, burning, leaving, gathering” as a set of keywords (that are, importantly, also verbings and actions) with which we challenge everyone to propose sessions that would investigate the multiple trajectories and valences and entanglements of the past and present of being both bound to and off the books.


Pre- and post-print media are “off the books” on either side. The manuscript books that existed before and for a long time after the invention of the printed “book” can be considered pre- or peri- or proto-books, not-books, un-books, books that shouldn’t be or that never were; they are the messy material instantiations of the collected labor, texts, thoughts, economies, ecologies and authorities of literary, philosophical, and devotional production; they have been made, re-made, bound, unbound, stolen, modified, collected, decorated, cut up, passed around, re-used, thrown away, burned, eaten by mold, worms and critters, scraped, swaddled, broken and bequeathed. Scrolls, rolls, booklets, tablets, quartos, charters, interlinear and marginal commentaries, and various other “documents” are the (un/non)-books that never were. So too digital media of various sorts are (un/non)-books that never were—instead of a unified, finite, and monolithic/monographic material presence, their existence is diffused throughout the infrastructure of electronic media and articulated for more or less fleeting periods on multi-purpose surfaces; digital inscriptions and forms of dissemination show us the limits of the book (material or not) even as they re-write and re-invent it (and digital forms of inscription themselves have limits that we wish to explore vis-a-vis the longer histories of “the book”).

Our current moment inspires and calls forth a whole set of questions relative to the past, present, and future of the book: Is the digital age offing the book? Is the book merely dying on its own? Or being killed? Is it changing? Is it now? Is it then? Is it alive? Is it zombified? Consider, for example, that among so many “hard” media forms that have been introduced since the invention of the printed book, only the book remains as a sort of durable information/entertainment platform—as opposed to celluloid film, the phonograph record, the reel-to-reel tape, the 8-track tape, the VHS tape, the cassette tape, the floppy disk, the hard- and zip- and flash-drive, the CD, the DVD, and so on. If, while everything else (all information, all “knowledge”) migrates to the “cloud,” the book persists, is this persistence perversely anomalous, or somehow the natural result of a brilliantly built-in anti-obsolescence/anti-cloud? What does it mean that the liveliness of books—if such can be argued for—is predicated upon the use and objectification and even death of other beings: animals, cotton plants, oak galls, geese, trees, etc.? Or upon the nearly off-the-books subsistence wages of outsourced proofreaders and warehouse workers (Amazon’s “pickers,” for example)? And what about the (often) unpaid labors of writers, editors, booksellers, and publishers who continue to make and purvey books even as they are declared “over” and “dead, whether for a certain fatalistic love of something “old,” a wild ambition to reboot a supposedly anachronistic form, the desire for a materially tactile instantiation of the imagination’s felicitous and promiscuous errancies, or for the hope of a more robust public commons in which not just all ideas, but all forms of the dissemination of those ideas, has equal purchase upon our collective attention?


Is the book more than an object-form? Is it also an ideal that governs certain measures of scholarly production, now and in the past? Is it magical, talismanic, more-than-human? Is it a thing to be read, or a thing reading? Is it an inscription, or an instantiation, or an incarnation?  Is it even legible? What do we do with unreadable, invisible, or impossible books? Is “the book” singular or multiple? Is it disseminated, iterated, copied, composed, collected, gathered, bound, and in what ways? Is it a figure, a ground, a horizon? Is it a little world, made cunningly, or is it utterly false: a cracked mirror, a bad representation of everything it purports to “body forth”? Indeed, what sort of a body is a book? What bodies does the book gather around itself, and in which times and places? What sort of “gathering” (which is also a “thing”) is this?

“Off the Books,” as a conference-event, is also about more than physical (or post-physical) “books” (delineated, perhaps overly narrowly, as those objects we find on shelves in libraries that still have shelves). In thinking outside the authorized, official, documented, and on-the-record spaces of intellectual labor and production, we also invite session proposals that consider what it means—emotionally, ideologically, culturally, socially, institutionally, practically—to be “off the books” of the university’s usual protocols, and off the books of our disciplines’ usual methodologies, to be outside the parameters of what is defined, recognized and rewarded in the current iteration(s) of the Academy. We want to think carefully (and with a certain will to action) about the growing body of contingent labor, unpaid labor, unacknowledged labor, precarious labor. We want to think about the university’s “books”—its accounts, its records, its rules, its protocols of oversight, and its production(s) of its own (often oppressive and overly managerial-bureaucratic-technocratic) authority, both within particular institutions (whether Harvard or the City University of New York or wherever) and also within Western culture more broadly. We also want to think about the erasures (and the psycho-somatic violence) often involved in the production of the Academy’s “official” records: which bodies, agencies, agendas, accounts, motivations, ecologies, and economies do the official documents cover up, suppress, oppress, or exploit?


In thinking about being “off” the university’s books (its ledger-keeping, its endless demands for assessment, its austerity measures, its sorting mechanisms, its status-based hierarchies, etc.), we therefore also want to consider forms of resistance that go “off the [university’s regular] books,” about undisciplined and undisciplinary labor, about so-called “academic” work that takes up residence in all the outré, dimly lit, queer “dives” of the para- and non-Academy, all the “come what may” places that flicker and shimmer in the spaces of the in-between, the marginal, the gutter, the underground, the temporary autonomous zones. How can we leave the standard “playbook” behind? How can we produce subversive labors that allow us to gather together in gestures of misfit future-izing, even while we risk censure, and maybe even our “careers,” while also building new spaces for the University-to-come? How can we perpetuate and sustain the whisper networks that affirm the validity and worth of the personal “account” and also construct more durable architectures of heterotopic (dissensual) solidarity? How can we bring bodies that have been historically suppressed and erased into better focus and positions of self-empowerment and disturbing vocality (“disturbing” because these voices thankfully, if distressingly, don’t allow for self-assured complacency or banal forms of leftist liberal pieties)?

“Off the books” is thus also meant to signify a collective recognition of (and even an active, and not a passive, mourning for) what never survived to make the leap from book to book to book to book to book—papyrus, tablet, manuscript, print, digital—with a recognition of what is not yet in the book (recorded), but should or could be. To feel that something is, and has been, “off the books” is a condition of (a necessary) longing (or nervous angst) for the ways in which that lost (and covered-over) past retains a kernel of something that could still be realized (think: Walter Benjamin’s idea that those living in the past, who were the “losers” of history, are turning by the dint of a secret heliotropism toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history). Books contain, but they also include. The canon is a problem only because of what it occludes (it could contain, in Whitman’s parlance, multitudes); one response to judgmental and even accidental occlusions is a radically promiscuous practice of inclusion. We might think, then, of what has not yet been “on/in the books,” or what has only recently started to arrive in some sort of “book” form (if even as ancillary “data” or companion “environment”), or what kinds of heretofore unanticipated “books” might be brought about by new techniques, new translations, and new technologies. We might also think about which books we wish had never arrived—books that we desire to lose, unteach, forget, dismember, or relegate to the domain of bad dreams.


We invite proposals for sessions that take us both “on” and “off” books in any of the ways we have outlined, or in ways we have not yet imagined. As with all BABEL endeavors, we invite and welcome provocations that address and confront and work through questions, issues, and subject areas we have not yet anticipated. Further, we invite creative proposals for sessions from all academic fields and sites of para-academic work. Most importantly, this year we launch a new conference (or un-conference) structure: instead of determining in advance that sessions will be 90 minutes each, or 60 minutes each (as we have done in the past), we want YOU to propose the session you want to imagine, at the speed you want to run it: for example, a “speed-dating” or “dork short” session, with 20+ people circulating and doing 1-minute introductions of their research to one another over the course of an hour or more; a seminar that meets for an hour a day each of the 3 days; a 90-minute panel with three traditional papers; an hour-long roundtable discussion with 5 or more persons presenting research/ideas/writing relative to a specific topic or question; a session that would take place over a brunch or lunch or during the cocktail hour; seminar-workshops of 10 or more persons who have circulated work and/or readings in advance; “flash-paper” sessions where presenters have been given prompts in advance that they then “respond” to in short (3-5-minute) performances; a session that extends over the entire 3 days with some sort of performance or exhibit; a “linked” session, spanning 2 hours with a break in-between, with presentations in first half and “breakout” group discussions in the second half; a “slow reading” session where 6+ people bring a passage, an image, a text, an object, etc. which is then “chewed over/ruminated” slowly with audience; a creatively designed “poster/object” session; an anti-plenary plenary session; a “maker/making/unmaking” workshop/lab; a session delivered entirely with emoticons; an intellectual “dim sum” sessions that takes place over real “dim sum”; a session where people give away work they will never be able to finish; etc., etc.

Think about sessions, too, in the form of: working group, demonstration, performance, collision course, dramatic reading, thought-experiment, dialogue, debate, seminar (with papers circulated in advance), drinking game, diatribe, testimony, flash mob (or other type of flash-event), roundtable discussion, complaint, drawing-room comedy, speculation, gymnasium, protest, clinical trial, séance, laboratory, masque, exhibition, recording session, screening, potlatch, cabinet, slam, etc. In addition to calling for sessions that address books and being “on” or “off” the books, we also invite sessions that are themselves “off the books”—that is, off the record, secretive, hidden, not conducted according to the usual protocols, or not institutional or official in any way imaginable. We have set aside the following spaces: 2 rooms that can hold 50 people each; 1 room that can hold about 80; 1 seminar room that can hold 6-10; a hallway that can hold an exhibit, or posters, or a small performance, or a very friendly flash mob; etc. If you propose a session, and a time (preferably in half-hour increments), we will work to make a schedule that will accommodate a lively, rowdy multiplicity of sessions.

Please send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 1, 2015, to:


BABEL@UToronto 2015 Programming Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Arthur Bahr (M.I.T.), Roland Betancourt (University of California, Irvine), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University), Maura Coughlin (Bryant University), Lowell Duckert (West Virginia University), Irina Dumitrescu (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn), Alexandra Gillespie (University of Toronto), Rick Godden (Tulane University), Andrew Griffin (University of California, Santa Barbara), David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY), Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio University), Eileen A. Joy (BABEL Working Group), Dorothy Kim (Vassar College), J. Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Susan Nakley (St. Joseph’s College, NY), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Daniel C. Remein (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Arthur J. Russell (Arizona State University), Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Sean Smith (Dept. of Biological Flow, Toronto), Karl Tobias Steel (Brooklyn College), Cord Whitaker (Wellesley College), Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University), and Laura Yoder (New York University)

BABEL Future(s) Steering Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Sakina Bryant (Sonoma State University), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University), Lara Farina (West Virginia University), Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University), Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University)

Friday, December 05, 2014


by J J Cohen

I have an ongoing small project that is part of a larger project about following ecotheory's keywords as verbs rather than instantiating its terms as unmoving nouns. The small project is called "Drown."

An excellent undergraduate class at the University of Miami in Ohio heard an early version (thank you Tobias Menely!) and some faculty and graduate students helped me immensely to refine it at the University of Victoria in November (thank you and happy birthday Allan Mitchell!). Blog readers with a good memory will recall I placed some notes about it here back in May 2013, recording the invaluable assistance social media (Facebook plus blog) had been in gathering materials and ideas. Here's the latest version, the abstract in progress for a lecture I'll give at Emory in March (where I'll be the Kemp Malone speaker: how great is it to have a series named for Kemp Malone?)

Let me know what you think. Material to be covered includes gleefully catastrophic depictions of global warming that include sunken cities; Noah in Jewish, Islamic and Christian tradition; medieval depictions of Noah's ark; the Chester play of Noah's Flood; the Miller's Tale. Moonrise Kingdom probably ought to be in there as well since it encases and enacts Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. Then again, there is only so much time ...

Suggestions for deepening my archive are most welcome, as are secondary readings, challenges to the way this inquiry is framed, anything that comes to mind.


Here’s what your city will look like when the ice sheets melt. So declares the headline of a recent story about maps that illustrate the transformation of urban sprawls into ocean-embraced archipelagos. As sea levels rise 40 or 80 meters, San Francisco, Vancouver, and landlocked Portland will become sudden peninsulas and clustered islands that ascend from roiled inlets, fjords, and newly formed seas. London will become Venice, and Venice Atlantis. What is at stake in our desire to imagine cities submerged? Why do we seldom in the process consider the lives of those likeliest to perish in the rising waters, Katrina anew? Why are we not perturbed by the imperative these depictions hurl against land and people, the command to drown?

Perhaps because we have learnt to adopt the viewpoint of Noah. Whereas Jewish and Islamic traditions wondered if Noah was a just man, since he (unlike Cain, Jacob, Abraham) did not argue with God when the Flood was declared, did not attempt to save the people with whom he dwelled, medieval Christian manuscript illustrations typically depict Noah serenely floating in his ark, surrounded by his family and a harmonious menagerie. Yet some late medieval depictions of the Deluge show the ark adrift on a sea of corpses, or render the ocean transparent so that the victims of biblical climate change must be acknowledged. What would happen if we stopped using the Flood as our unspoken cognitive frame for global warming – or at least if we stopped playing the role of Noah and abandoned hope of salvaging small community in an ark built against more complicated, more collective, more livable futures. What if we thought with more sympathy about what is lost when we uncritically embrace the apocalypse conveyed by drown?