Sunday, November 15, 2015

a gathering

by J J Cohen

Dispatch from the front lines of BABEL. Read the post. Support the movement.

Sitting in a coffee shop while daughter is at Hebrew school. I'm just back from a few days in Dallas, where I was welcomed into a rare kind of intellectual community: a gathering of undergraduates, grad students, and professors into difficult conversation, the humanities at their best. This vibrant collective owes everything to Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams and Bonnie Wheeler, and the open doors of their home.

Bonnie and Jeremy are the sweetest couple. Being with them for two intense days made me feel a part of the kind of family I dreamt about as a child, where love is palpable and intellect and humor are hard to tell apart. I always thought college would be like this, but had quietly given up on that kind of gathering until I visited SMU. I hope Bonnie and Jeremy won't mind my sharing this picture from my time with them. The image is blurred because I could not resist breathing awwww as I took the shot, and thereby accidentally moved my hand.

In another photo of Bonnie, displayed in her hallway, she stands in a white dress with long flowing hair and amazing white glasses. Both her hands are upraised: she fills the frame and makes it clear no one will pass her. She is wearing a white shawl and appears as a beautiful yet absolutely commanding Flower Child. I love the image for what it conveys about Bonnie's spirit. Here is what I once wrote about Bonnie:
Few have had such a positive impact upon Medieval Studies as Bonnie Wheeler. Her special mission throughout her career has been the cultivation of young scholars, fostering their intellectual growth through mentoring and their professional possibilities through guiding their research. She is and always has been an inspiration, a catalyst for change, and a fairy godmother for those working on nontraditional projects. 
The photo was taken at a time in the academy when people like Bonnie were so necessary ... and yet persecuted for not conforming to a severely limited academic type (especially for women). Bonnie has searing stories to narrate about medieval studies when she entered the field, but I can summarize their moral: the field is a far better place for women -- for everyone -- because of the shit she challenged and refused to repeat. The feminist fierceness of Bonnie's generation must never be forgotten (even as its focus, assumptions and aims have been, of necessity, widened). Nor should the hostility of the academy towards those who pushed against its status quo. That panic when the academic status quo is threatened continues.

During an afternoon tea that gathered the community in Jeremy and Bonnie's home, we had a wide ranging conversation about micro-aggressions and the "feel" of college campuses. Some people did not know what micro-aggressions are, others saw their invocation as a threat to free speech, but everyone -- even when anger bubbled -- listened with patience, took time thinking through uncomfortable realizations. Bonnie spoke eloquently about the dangers of the forced choice of thinking that college is either a space of challenge or a safe home (it is both). She also spoke about how second wave feminism accomplished its activism, emphasizing the importance of consciousness raising and the face to face encounter.

The previous day I gave a talk to an energetic audience about Noah's ark and the stories we tell about climate change. The first question was about Levinas and the faces of the dead animals in the manuscript illustrations I showed. The question took a little while to be formulated, and some people in the audience became impatient, but it can take time to get things right, to be clear and complex at once. The humanities are not so great at providing answers, at least not easy answers. Yet they excel at teaching us to ask better questions. That takes some fumbling, some time, some willingness to stay with someone as they figure things out.

I left the tea briefly to chat with a graduate student about her thesis project. When I came back, everyone had gone upstairs to watch the news and behold in helpless fascination the attacks in Paris. A concert, a soccer game, restaurants and cafés. The terrorism had targeted the young.

Earlier in the day I'd visited the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald built his sniper's nest. The exhibit there is good, and thorough, emphasizing what JFK accomplished -- as well as how many groups hated him for it (one reason conspiracy theories flourished immediately is that so many wanted him dead). The Peace Corps, the NEH, the NEA, the space program, expansion of voting rights, integration of public schools, and the formulation of a comprehensive federal civil rights bill are all his: art with science, humanities with being humane, an emphasis throughout on making the nation better for all who follow even if that means triggering massive discomfort and challenging the status quo. It's sad to think that 50 years later so much of the social justice movement put into place by Kennedy -- and his valuing of the arts and humanities -- have been eroded rather than intensified. A pillage economy has replaced a push for shared equality, gun rights over civil rights, plush retirement accounts for some rather than economic justice for all. It is very difficult to be young right now. When I look at the future imagined in 1963 and the one we live with at the moment, I wonder how we learned to be OK with its attenuation.

Except not everyone in that "we" is OK with constrictions of possibility. I place great hope that student protests at Missouri, Georgetown, Yale and elsewhere are getting things right. The generations that preceded them convinced themselves to perpetuate an economy, a justice system, a world of arts and humanities and science that gets so many things wrong -- that passes along a small future, modes of thriving reserved for a privileged few, instead of opening doors wider, increasing access, imagining the world otherwise.

This nation values money rather than people, increasing what some few have rather than increasing access to that having.

How did anyone come to believe that a valid assessment for any particular course of college study (say, in English or History versus Computer Science) is how much money those holding a credential earn in the course of a career? According to this metric, embraced by both US parties, the more money you earn the more highly your degree is to be ranked as effective. It's that blunt. Screw such appraisal and the assumptions that came with it. Any philosophy major can tell you that the correlation between lifetime salary and lifetime happiness is not one to one. Beyond a certain minimum threshold that enables a person to obtain the food, shelter and comforts of a modest life [a minimum that ALL people merit], more money does not yield more satisfaction with one's life. Nor is a life with tremendous cash flow and a well stocked retirement portfolio a life better lived. I hope more universities and colleges pressure those who would "run a university like a tech company" (as Timothy M. Wolfe disastrously promised to do at the University of Missouri) to realize that they need to sign up for a remedial course of education in the liberal arts, where they might learn a little better what institutions of higher education at their best accomplish.

What if a reply to terror were art? What if an answer to violence were acts of imagining a world otherwise? What if in response to hatred we refused the invitation to hate?

Here's an old piece I wrote about Paris and complicated histories of race and violence. I was thinking about that blog post recently because it's included as an excursus in my most recent book and I was asked to comment on it during a graduate seminar at SMU where the students had read Stone. I declined. Oddly I cannot talk about the piece without tearing up, even after all this time, and I just did not want to have to wipe at my eyes during that conversation. The violence in Paris happened the next day and I sat with the same people glued to a TV set in Dallas watching images in horror and welling up.

I believe that the Zombie Apocalypse arrived long ago, in the form of a small number of well educated, mainly white and affluent Americans who consumed as much as they could grab and gave futurity little thought. They negated or reversed so much of what seemed possible in 1963 and 1968, so much of that vision of a more just future. Their gated communities (a version of Noah's ark) now exclude those who are not thriving. They have seized control of many universities (among so many other things). They do not ask: how can we expand access? How can we open doors in welcome, rather than construct such massive walls? They did not follow the path that Jeremy and Bonnie, social activists both, insisted was the groundwork of more capacious and more equitable community. They turned away from the utopian visions many of them had embraced when they were younger.

Utopia does not vanish when it is no longer by one generation dreamt. Young people -- including my students, current and former -- are much smarter than some of these ark-dwellers suppose. Today's young will not long remain complacent or compliant. I believe they will refuse the legacies of racism, misogyny, rampant militarism, economic disparity, environmental injustice and homophobia being handed them as if natural or inevitable or the way things simply are. 

I revere the visions of a more just, more equal nation that are a rightful inheritance, a world for which so many have for so long labored.  I have great faith in the future a new generation of young activists will make. 


Friday, November 13, 2015

DISPATCH from the Front Lines of BABEL: MLA Subconference, Steering Comm. Elections & More!

Dear BABEL-ers and Friends of BABEL,

This is a quick message from your friendly neighborhood BABEL Steering Committee about three important items. (If the phrase “BABEL Steering Committee” isn’t ringing any bells, check out our self-introduction from about a year ago, available here).

FIRST, we want again to thank everyone who helped make October’s BABEL conference at the University of Toronto such a delight. If you were there, we encourage you (please!) to take a few minutes to fill out our follow-up survey so that we can build an even more magnificent conference next time.

SECOND, we want to draw your attention to an event being supported by BABEL, punctum books, and Studium (a co-disciplinary space for the arts and humanities in east Austin, Texas). This event is the Third Annual MLA Subconference, which takes place just prior to the enormous Modern Language Association conference each January, and which seeks “to confront the (labor) crisis in the humanities head-on” and support organizing among “those impacted most: adjuncts, graduate students, university food and service workers, labor organizers, and activists working within communities affected by university-driven gentrification.” The Subconference is currently gathering donations to help defray travel expenses. As the organizers write:  
We'll [have] as many as 200 participants this January, but we need your help in getting the Subcon organizers and presenters (primarily grad students, non-grad adjuncts, and community organizers) there. 

We've received about $1000 in institutional contributions so far, but with roundtrip airfare running between $225-$500 from most points in the U.S. and Canada -- and with seven main organizers, and as many as 24 presenters, all coming specifically for the Subcon—we need your support. Help us expand the Subcon network and build power and autonomy among contingent workers and allies in higher ed. 

Your contribution will go toward:
  • Roundtrip fares for plane, train, and bus travel; 
  • Mileage reimbursement for those driving; 
  • A limited number of hotel rooms (we plan to provide home-stays for most participants); and/or 
  • Inter-Austin public transportation.
We encourage EVERYone to make donations as you are able, and you can do so here. At this present moment, when we witness the power of campus activism all around us, donating to the Subconference is a way to support those already fighting for a more just future for the academy. We’re proud to say that BABEL has made a substantial donation of $500 to the Subconference, using a portion of the funds left over from October’s conference. Go, Subconference, go!

THIRD and finally, the BABEL Steering Committee will soon be seeking nominations for NEW COMMITTEE MEMBERS. As four of our twelve members rotate off, four more will be elected by the corporate body of BABEL (i.e., you! and anyone who wants to be you! that's everyone!), from a pool of nominations (also generated by *you*). More information is on its way within the next month about the nomination and election process, but in the meantime, we want to encourage you to start imagining which BABEL-associated wunderkinds -- whether academics, non-academics, para-academics, artists, activists, grad students, adjuncts, lecturers, performers, editors, poets, peripatetics, or what-have-you -- might help steer the BABEL ship. More about that anon!

Otherwise, the BABEL Steering Committee hopes you are enjoying either an incandescent or else a most riotous November.

The BABEL Steering Committee

Monday, November 09, 2015

“Shakestime” (On Method)

by Julian Yates

[Julian presented this piece recently at the Folger. I've been collaborating with him recently for a forthcoming punctum book, Object Oriented Environs: you may read our introduction here. We're honored to share this wonderful meditation on method here at ITM -- JJC]

The following post reproduces the paper I gave in the penultimate session at the highly stimulating Fall Weekend Symposium devoted to “Periodization 2.0” (November 5-7 2015) at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Institute, graciously and expertly organized and hosted by Professor Kristen Poole of the University of Delaware and Owen Williams of the Folger Institute.

I arrived at the symposium with one paper, but the conversation over the two days provoked me to write a new one that reflected on my own training. This trip down one of memory’s lanes led me to articulate the underlying methodology of much of my work as a scholar thus far in my career. I am deeply grateful for the occasion, the papers by fellow speakers, the genial conversation, and the provocation.

I am grateful to ITM for the invitation to post the paper here—I hope that you find it interesting!

“Shakestime” (On Method)

I thought it might be useful at this point in our conversations if I prefaced our entrance to the peculiar temporal or spatial variety that shall have been Shakestime by trying to Polly parrot back to you some of the things I think I have heard over the last two days. I do not have time to do this responsibly, to name names and give credit where credit is due. I apologize in advance as I mischaracterize your contributions—they come back to you from someone who in 1993 or so (that’s the year 5753, of course, in another calendar, also coincidentally the year the Toronto Blue Jays won the World series) embarked on a reading of the philosopher of science Michel Serres with the result that all writers became my contemporary.[1] This didn’t mean very much because all the word “contemporary” meant was that like you and me these writers were or had at one time been finite beings; had to deal with time as they experienced it and as it was mediated for them by their object world or ecological milieu. Just like us, just like King Lear, they were not “weatherproof” and so were buffeted by the eventfulness of this world; subject to physical distress, joy, loss, affective or emotional turbulence. Just like us they created material and discursive shelters, external memory devices, objects (which include texts) some of which remain today in various states of disrepair; some of which survive at the expense of others or do so by the occluded and now invisible labor of a host of animal subjects human and otherwise. Periods are shelters. They provide shelter against the irreversible time of physics.[2]

This contemporaneity—or shared exposure to time (le temps) and to the weather (le temps) meant, so I learned, that in order not to do violence to these writers and their objects, to misconstrue them by marshaling them to the latest interpretive schema, I had to seek “to know them from the position of the known.”[3] I had to work inductively. I had to read without a meta-language; do without symptomatic reading strategies; and avoid synecdoche like the plague. Sociology, anthropology or any explanatory set of terms and paradigms knew no more and no less than the texts they set out to study. Marcel Mauss and Lévi Strauss were very smart. But they knew no more than did Molière who was also very smart. Theater was already a social laboratory that would become, courtesy of the Royal Society, a theater of scientific demonstration.[4] Writing was projective, experimental, and future oriented. Different media interpenetrated and anticipated each other. Moses was a switchboard operator, one in a long line of telephonic intermediaries.

Periodization, to the extent that it was an issue, became a problem of grammar or syntax. Where do you like to end your sentences and begin others? How were you going to emplot texts you declared past so as to produce certain kinds of time effects that would do rhetorical work in what you took to be your present. To periodize was to calibrate, to become the writer of a new text or the producer of a new object, and so to refold the remains of the past to particular ends. To periodize was to delimit. It was violent and so was in some shape or form to be resisted. To declare, for example, that Periodization 2.0 marked the beginning or the end of a Renaissance at the Folger or was a Restoration of sorts was essentially to declare war on a competing narrative or settlement. This declaration enabled you to mark a break with an intervening middle time of benighted bathypelagic sensory deprivation (ages you made “dark”) under the sign of your rebirthed continuity with or reclamation of glories past re-clothed or re-embodied in the likes of, surprise-surprise, oh look it’s us.

Epistemic breaks were right out. They might be posited but only as heuristics or propositions and they were not particularly interesting because they were about reducing the complexity of the noise of things (past, present, and future). They were dangerous because they might all too easily turn into fixed points and reveal themselves to be on ramps to all too familiar intellectual superhighways.

Synchrony versus diachrony was a false choice because timer was multiple, discontinuous, and not linear. It does not flow. It percolates.[5] Different configurations of matter, different objects (the First Folio, a ruff, the Holy Cross Guild chapel, a musical phrase or style) obey different chronologies. They are asynchronous but might also synch up. Things do change. But nothing disappeared. Secularism, for example, was merely a differently religious way of re-tying the knot of belief and belonging. The word religion was to be understood according to a strict Latinism that reminded you that re-ligere means to re-tie. Religion therefore designated all the various processes or routines by which we declare ourselves “fit to be tied,” the narratives, communities to which you claimed to belong thereby authorizing your otherwise irrational, even unforgivable, decision to cut yourself off from other creatures.[6]

Language was about vectoring. Nouns and verbs were less important than prepositions (the pre-placing or positioning of things) or deictic markers. There was no better word or place to be than “between” or, if you like, in the middle.[7] The program, then, was to try to craft something on the order of a “general theory of relations” or poetics of translation or metaphor, a new kinematic aesthetic—how do ideas and things move; where do they go when they seem to vanish; where and how do they come back?[8] Nominalist or inductive forms of historical epistemology; tracing words and gestures; postures; signal tracking, traveling by the turns of a trope, by the force or blow to a figure that impresses itself, were the way to go, but they were not ends in themselves. They were merely translation tools, means of transport, that enabled you to learn how to refold texts that seemed to be separated by vast chronological distances so as to see their similarities, their proximal relations, proximity, and yes, on occasion, their isomorphism.

Time was an effect of space—best metaphorized as a giant hankie that could be unfolded to maximize the distance between two points or folded over and crumpled in order to make two points coincide.[9] Time did not exist without objects; and those objects served as translational relays, crossroads, anchoring points, convocations, which folded together the differently timed remains of persons, animals, plants, and all the various entities that make up our built worlds.[10] They might be palimpsests as Jonathan Gil Harris has argued, but the word overlay seemed more neutral. Objects accreted their uses; abuse, accidents, and decay.[11] Certain objects seemed especially stable—the Eucharist, money, the cell form of the commodity, Shakespeare (sort of) which is to say they spliced together matter, signs, and flesh in ways that could direct or route traffic. All that traffic (repetition as difference) kept them stable.[12]

Agency became annoyingly easy to talk about. Objects or “quasi-objects” didn’t have it; but neither did “quasi-subjects.” Instead they both participated in its production. Subject and object were grammatical positions first and foremost and could be occupied, from moment to moment, by different entities, human and otherwise. This was all best explained by watching rugby, but baseball would work too. For to any unbiased observer the ball was obviously the true subject, giving agency to whoever had it or made it do what was required.[13] The whole subject / object problem was best left well alone and handled by speaking of ties, ligatures, and the way our worlds stack animal and vegetable labor to produce forms of life that confuse all these categories strategically. The only thing you could ultimately say about people is that they were parasites. And, maybe with a lot of hard work we might be able to achieve something on the order of a mutually sustaining relation to our world. Perhaps the parasitic relation that kills might be stabilized or transformed into a symbiosis. But, let’s face it, the Holocene (entirely recent time) if not yet the Anthropocene, hadn’t gone very well so far.[14]

As you can imagine, as a graduate student back in 1993, this all came as a bit of a shock. New historicism (already flagging) looked really strange. It’s synchronic slicing up of things past and bewitching use of synecdoche let you know that it was a powerful mode of translation, a powerful topological operation. Best to steer well clear. So, as a first step, I decided to write a dissertation that, as I would be frequently reminded, had no real literature in it. It’s title, “Cunning Conveyaunce: Space, Narrative and Material Culture in Renaissance England,” let you know that I was very modestly just out to track the peculiar lexical flexibility of the words “cunning conveyaunce” and their compeers “curious contrivance” in describing certain contemporaneous quasi-technological devices in t: portrait miniatures, relics, flush toilets, the printed page, and priest-holes (secret hiding places for books, massing stuff, or priests, a technology that essentially enabled houses to forget). The texts I chose derived from my signal tracking which was, in part, performed by way of a chronological short title catalogue search with a card catalogue; and then reading within the disciplines that claimed expertise for the texts I tried to read. My “period” ran from 1570 (the founding of the Jesuit Mission to reconvert a reformed England) to 1606 (the aftermath of Gunpowder Plot). Antiquarian labor of the early to mid-twentieth century or “fetish labor,” as I like to think of it (and positively so), proved crucial to this endeavor because the labor we have to do now to approach texts and objects always proves reciprocal to the labor they did back then to make and use whatever text or object you are out to understand.[15]

More peculiarly still, as I reckoned with where my reading of Serres and then the sociologist Bruno Latour had taken me, I discovered that I had not been turned into a philosopher or a historical sociologist but had been re-territorialized in questions of media, form, genre, and trope, understood as ways of trying to understand the messy business we call poiesis, making things and the status of the things that we have made and that make us. This was a happy outcome because deep down I was trained as a formalist, had always thought that formal analysis, close reading, narrating the scene of encounter with an object, aesthetics understood as an account of perception, pretty darned inductive—a laboratory of sorts. It also meant that I could finally understand that the lesson of Derridean deconstruction was not a cautionary tale on the irresponsibility of a maximum entropy formalism but a radical empiricism that sought to stop the noumenal or heuristic positing of categories becoming realist by exposing it to the noise that it had sought to filter out but without which there would be no signal to track or to name. That noise was potentially always a set of signals from another differently timed object, echoes of excluded voices, forgotten or invisible labor, human and otherwise. Close reading, deconstructive reading, attempted to hold open the bounded period of the sentence, “the structure of the sentence to the saying,” so that it may be said differently.[16]

What is Shakestime? Who or what, for that matter, is Shakespeare and how is it that he may defy periodization? I have a couple of answers. You could, for example, describe Shakespeare as “a proliferating knot of times and places, a translational node or quasi-object.” “Shakespeare” is an assemblage or activity, a chain of making, whose performance produces an evolving collective of texts, readers, readings, persons, performances, and audiences.[17] More contentiously, if you are a bit fed up with that and want, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s terms, “provincialize” Shakespeare, you might be inclined to re-describe “Shakespeare” not as a now defunct historical person or a series of plays but as:
a mobile, conflicting, conflicted, and partial time-bound set of practices. What happens if we proceed on the assumption that the academic designation ‘Shakespeare studies,’ as well as school curricula, professional Shakespeare theaters, the film industry, media libraries (on and offline) refer not to a series of agreed upon texts or performances but instead to a series of differently distributed fetish communities, each of which tunes itself to the shifting auratics of its chosen ritual objects as they are variously mediated—from manuscript to quarto to folio, on and off and back to the stage, the movie theater, and the home entertainment system—the ontology of the thing we study ‘Shakespeare’ [or Shakestime] waxing and waning, constantly picking up and dropping actants as it goes. The distribution of readers into different fields of study (performance, theater history, criticism, theater production, and so on) would constitutes not a happy holism, but a series of discontinuous and only sometimes intersecting conversations or crowds that converge on variously mediatized forms of Shakespearean texts. The Shakespeare industry, so it turns out, would refer not merely to an elaborated infrastructure, but to the industry of so very many readers and purveyors, whose vital juices the Bard requires to keep on flowing. In this model, the labor of all such fetishists (myself included) stands in reciprocal relation to the past labors of reading, living, and dying that our work posits as ‘past.’”[18]
If you want to imagine something different, if you want to calibrate the past differently, to imagine other more capacious periodizing strategies, you might need to stop reading Shakespeare or to direct traffic to another set of texts and objects which would then anchor your sense of time.

Nothing I have said thus far about what “Shakespeare” or “Shakestime” are or might be should be confused with what it entails to open a reading of or encounter a play. Plays are projective. They wish to become something else: a performance, a reading, a new text. They are necessarily incomplete and so must be joined. By joining them we activate and perform their structures and turning space into place by our time-bound occupation of them.[19] That is, in a sense, the lesson of the plays as I read them, whose predicaments usually seem to revolve around characters not quite being when or where they thought they were and asking for help or failing to find any.

Coming last, as York tells the audience early on in Henry VI Part II, means that you get to reap the benefits of comprehending the situation; time is less important than timing.[20] But judging whether you are timely is really difficult—best not attempted but frequently unavoidable. Lady Macbeth ends up stuck in Act 2 scene 2 even though she’s in Act 5—in one of Shakespeare’s contribution to making king killing seem unthinkable even as he still thinks about it.[21] Macbeth and Banquo register the disappearance of the witches in Act 1 scene 3 as a moment of sensory estrangement. Everything that happened; everything they heard and seemed to have been promised; has gone, or worse, never actually was at all. The futures they were offered: Macbeth’s life and reign; Banquo’s genealogical afterlife; never will have been. We watch as the two of them register this loss and reckon with the residue or remainder of their inflated sense of being. The lives and legends the witches suggested to them, and which they just now imagined, have become less than virtual. All that’s left, until Ross arrives and hails Macbeth “Thane of Cawdor,” (1. 3. 103), as if he were some witchy speech bubble gone awry and only now making it back, is the aching abandonment become giggly abreaction that the two men share: “Your children shall be kings / You shall be king” (1. 3. 84). Perhaps it was all just the wind. “Have we eaten on the insane root?” (1. 3. 82).

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom wakes up in Act 3 scene 1 even though he’s in Act 4 waiting for a cue that never comes or won’t till Act 5; remembers more of what happened in Act 3 than he’s willing to say out loud—more than the lovers, that’s for sure who are totally unable to explain how everything turned out alright.[22] Eager to periodize, to consummate their marriage, Theseus writes them all off along with poetry, dreams, and madness (5. 1. 2-23). But Hippolyta’s the better signal tracker (had read her Ovid apparently); judges that “all the story of the night told over / And all their minds transfigured so together / More witnesseth than fancy’s images, / And grows to something of great constancy” (5. 1. 25-26). She tropes or trumps the play’s lexicon of translation to register the knot, the tying off, that she names a transfiguration. An end is coming—an end she registers in performance either, happily because consciously, with a wink; or, unhappily, strangely, without acknowledgement, at the moment she redacts Theseus’s frustration with the moon in the opening lines of the play in reference to the stunt moon, Moonshine, “I am aweary of this moon, would he would change” (5. 1. 237).

When am I? When are we? Is it in fact now? Does time progress or does the time of others catch us up and out? These questions seem to capture the flavor of “Shakestime,” unless you’re riding the kairos, immanent to the action, at one with the time, or in Iago’s words, “even now, now, very now.”[23] But that won’t last very long.

I am not sure what time it is. But 2016 or year 5777 of the Holocene is coming. I do not know who shall win the World Series but a predictive weather report might safely offer that things will remain changeable, with a chance of shakes-appearing.

Thank you.


[1] Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 44-45.

[2] Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy, trans. Josué Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 115-116. “History,” adds Serres, “flows around physics” (116).

[3] This use of le temps is fundamental to Serres’s philosophy and a continual reference. But see Serres and Latour, Conversations, 58. On Serres’s strange form of empiricism, see Bruno Latour, “The Enlightenment without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres’ Philosophy,” in Contemporary French Philosophy, ed. A. Phillips Griffiths (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 89.

[4] On anthropology and theater, see Serres, Hermes, 3-14.

[5] Ibid., 57-59.

[6] For this coding of religion see Serres’s work generally and in particular, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), in which the word ligature is successively interrogated and “re-tied.”  On the madness and violence of decision as cutting or the creation of an edge, see, in different registers, Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans., 55; and Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans., David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 53-82.

[7] Serres and Latour, Conversations, 64. This engagement with prepositions as the way in which beings incline and attach to one another has been life long. For a book-length treatment of préposés (prepositions, pre-placed entities, employees, postmen) as figures of mediation in art and literature, see Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth (Paris: Flammarion, 1995).

[8] Serres and Latour, Conversations, 66.

[9] Ibid., 59-62.

[10] Serres, Hermes, 115-116.

[11] Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

[12] For a dazzling contribution, inspired in part by the work of Michel Serres, to an analysis of this order of stability, see Michael Wintroub’s analysis of the “metrological work of trying to establish, maintain, and extend the faithfulness of translation--in domains as diverse as literature, politics, religion, and commerce.” Michael Wintroub, “Translations: Words, Things, Going Native, and Staying True,” American Historical Review 120: 4 (2015): 1185-1227.

[13] Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis and London, [1982] 2007), 224-227.

[14] For Serres’s attempts to think beyond the neutrality of parasitic chain with its excluded middles (“the third man”) towards successive figures of symbiosis along with what frequently sounds like despair at what he takes to be “appropriation through pollution,” writing as a form of excremental marking or re-marking, see, among others, Angels, The Natural Contract, and Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution, trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[15] This dissertation would provide the basis for Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

On the reciprocal nature of “fetish” or antiquarian labor, see “Shakespeare’s Kitchen Archives,” in Speculative Medievalisms: A Discography, ed., The Petropunk Collective, (Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2013), 179-200.

[16] For this modeling of deconstruction see, Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

[17] “Accidental Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies, 34 (2006): 90-91.

[18] Richard Burt / Julian Yates, What’s The Worst Thing You Can Do To Shakespeare? (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1-2. On provincializing as a strategy, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[19] On play texts as projective, see “Shakespeare’s Kitchen Archives.”

[20] William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part Two, ed. Roger Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3. 1. 381.

[21] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5. 1.

[22] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 4. 1. 197. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

[23] William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1995), 1. 1. 89.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Running with Mary; or Against the Agon

a guest post by Sharon O' Dair

[Sharon presented this piece at the recent BABEL conference in Toronto in a session on "The Sweaty Scholar." We're honored to share it here at ITM -- JJC]

Mary Decker Slaney, currently age 58, is the only athlete to have held every American record from 800 meters to 10,000. To this day, she holds American women's records in the 1500 meters, mile, and 3000 meters. In 1973, Mary set her first world record. Some 6 years earlier, I ran with Mary on a club track team, the Long Beach Comets. I was 11 or 12, she was 9 or 10; she always beat me. She beat girls older than I—my friend Tina, for instance, who was 13 or 14 (and who, like me, subsequently completed a PhD in English). The coaches knew Mary would be a champion. She was 9 years old! They also knew I would not; one of my coaches—the handsome young one—told me my butt was big. I weighed 90 pounds. I don’t think I’d reached puberty. My partner says I have a thing about my butt. Wouldn’t you with that history?

But more important than the size of my butt is that I’m not slow; my best time in the mile was 5:25, which I ran when I was 12. Even now, I’m not slow. A couple of years ago, I ran a 5K race, my first in 50 years, almost. I don’t know what got into me, but I was in great shape. But I’m usually in pretty great shape, having run almost continuously at varying distances since running with Mary. I think I was influenced to run the race because earlier that year, I had decided to attend my high school reunion, the 40-year anniversary of our graduation. Crucially, though, the aptly named “Hurricane Run” was convenient, held on Dauphin Island, AL, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico where, until recently, I had a beach shack. The Hurricane Run wasn’t, I’m sure, peopled by scores of brilliant runners, but I did win my age group handily, by two and a half minutes (25:57/8:22). What is the lesson here? Though I didn’t know it 50 years ago, running with Mary taught me this: exceptional talent is rare. And obvious, obvious to those with the knowledge to judge such matters. In graduate school, looking at the professors in my department, I thought, “Stephen Greenblatt is Mary Decker Slaney.”

In the description of this panel, competition arises only once, in this question: “do physical activity, training, and competition provide merely a diversion (however salutary) from scholarly work, or are there ways in which they can also inform it?” I would suggest, however, that competition is the driving force of most colleagues’ athletic pursuits. We want to win, even if only our age group. We want to better our personal bests. I suggest this partly because I have watched dozens of junior colleagues become runners, often after having loathed sports for years. I watched them become obsessed with training and winning. Some can’t stop; a marathon isn’t good enough. Isn’t long enough. But mainly, I suggest this hypothesis because what I have had to “explain . . . to . . . colleagues,” and especially to fellow athletes, is not why I run but why I don’t compete and don’t run races (except for that one 5K). It’s as if colleagues cannot fathom just running five or six miles a day; often I’m told, “but you could easily run a marathon!” As if running a marathon should be an obviously desired goal! When pressed about reasons for not racing, which is most of the time, I say, with a wink, “Oh, I’m competitive enough professionally” or “I run so I can eat and drink and still look good” or “I don’t do mornings.” All of which are true, but as with so much, the truth is more complicated. I don’t run races because I don’t want to compete. Not even with myself. But for many colleagues the point of running is to train and to race and to win and so, I hypothesize, the way training and competition inform scholarly work is by reinforcing competitive norms in the profession. Scholarship is competitive, too, often brutally so. We want to win. To be right about King Lear. Or Beowulf. And we want others to be wrong.

Training and competition reinforce behaviors essential to competition in any arena. Isn’t that what we are told when we are young? The lessons learned in competition will carry you through life! And that is true: discipline, leadership, all of that. But competing in The Hurricane Run allowed me to recall why I came to resist racing and competition and how running without competing informs scholarship, too. To compete in the race, I trained for a week, maybe nine days, by which I mean I tried to see how fast I could run 3 miles. In doing so, I realized specifically and viscerally, bodily, what I’d long forgotten. To race and to win, I had to focus. My mind. On every step. On every step’s speed. Go, go, go, go, I said in my head to my legs. Don’t stop, don’t let up. When I lost focus, I lost speed. I lost speed when I let my mind wander—toward last night’s dinner, the birds overhead, pizza delivery at students’ houses, my current piece of writing, transitions! But letting my mind wander, especially about writing, is what running allows me to do. It’s thinking without thinking. Like those times, at night, when I wake up from sleep, knowing what I need to say next in an essay. This, for me, is one way running informs scholarship.

In a word, the problem with competition is that it makes me competitive. It makes me want to win. Deep down and not so deep, I wanted to win that 5K. And as Wendy Brown argues recently in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, that is a problem. Not the racing per se, but that today, neoliberalism has made winning the point in every nook and cranny of our society—“from mothering to mating, from learning to criminality, from planning one’s family to planning one’s death” (67). And Brown insists, “the premise and outcome of competition . . . [is] inequality” (64). Inequality. In this sense, one can see the truth in my joking reply about why I don’t race: “Oh, I’m competitive enough professionally.” I don’t need or want more competition in my life. But the truth is, I don’t want to compete professionally, either. And as Brown argues, and as we all know, academia has not been immune to neoliberal, competitive rearticulation, with unfortunate and even possibly disastrous consequences. Brown is especially scornful toward faculty who “gain recognition and reward . . . [to the extent that their] methods and topics are increasingly remote from the world and the undergraduate classroom. . . . [which makes] it difficult to establish the value of this work to students or a public ” (195, 196). Paradoxically, this rearticulation has “weaken[ed] the capacity of liberal arts scholars to defend the liberal arts at the moment of their endangerment” (196).

Brown says her point is “not to castigate a rising generation of young scholars for participating in practices that index the degree to which all academic practices have been transformed by neoliberal economization” (196). When I read that sentence, I wrote in the margin, “Why not?” Why not castigate younger scholars? And ourselves, too, older ones? How else will we change the neoliberal economization, the competiveness, of our work unless we refuse it? Play the game differently? And isn’t this what this conference and The Babel Working Group want to do? Play the game differently?

Some years ago, at a conference, a rather elite and exclusionary one, a colleague, older than I and very successful, who had been through the war in the 1980s between feminists and new historicists, said to me, while gesturing toward our colleagues sipping wine: “all that fighting then, the ambitious competing and jockeying for position, the pain of it all, and here we all are, all in the same boat, all pretty much the same.” I nodded, said something, and then realized that soon I would be able to say the same of my cohort. And now I can. All pretty much the same. But there’s more. For, as Janet Adelman put it in 1973, soon enough, everything we have written will become “historical curiosities,” wrong or benighted or quaint to a succeeding generation (1). In the 1980s, while she and others were fighting—and, as a woman, I am glad she did—I was sort of competing as a graduate student, but sort of not. In the 1980s, for example, I didn’t do the work of recovery in order to write a dissertation on women’s writing from the early modern period. For me, the job market was too iffy to spend five or six years in an archive with writing I didn’t want to read, even if Stephen Greenblatt were to direct and New Historicism dictated that doing so would get me a job. To this day, I write what I want and do not worry too much about how it is received. And so, this is how running, not racing, truly informs my scholarly work: to remind me that winning is not, should not be, my professional goal. And I do not need to compete to do the work I want to do. Mary Decker Slaney and Stephen Greenblatt (and the few others like them) beat the competition, won the race, so we don’t have to.

Works Cited
Adelman, Janet. The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2015.