Saturday, December 31, 2016


by J J Cohen

My New Year's wish for all of my friends returns me to an inauguration held here in Washington eight years ago. What a different world, like sudden clearing after long years of war. My son and I attended the event together. We sat for a long time on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, eager for the less bellicose, less divided nation that we thought was finally to come. MLK had given a resounding speech from those very steps in 1963, his dream had taken too long to arrive, the road traveled marked with violence and protest ... but in 2008 the advent of a better future finally seemed close.

Of course the last eight years have been no utopia. We can all list what went wrong, what choices and policies and appointments were made that we wish had not been, what opportunities squandered. But I want to return for a moment to 1963, or 2008, or any moment in US or world history when it didn't seem that the time ahead was dire and that maybe we could be a nation or even a global community that accepted, tolerated, intensified, cared, enabled, affirmed -- and not unkind countries full of walls, roiling hatred, and vociferous negation. I don't want to lose the past's unfulfilled possibilities.

The years ahead will not be easy. Yet I believe a feeling that held so many of us in 2008 has become even more important now. Yes, I understand that hope has sometimes been used to trick people into making them accept a constricted present for the promise of a better future that never arrives. But hope does not have to be a deferral of the now for something to come. The present we make is in fact the future itself. Hope is a toolbox and a shelter, a reason for activism, a catalyst for protest. Hope is immediate. Hope can be a "no" and a "now." Hope takes and demands work.

Post 11/9 has been agonizing to me for many reasons, but a slow burn of anger has prevented despair. And now I recognize, something else as well. So let's build refuges together. Let's make new shelters even in the face of hate. Let's challenge those who would have us despair. Let's watch out for those in danger and say no to those in power.

Let's not lose hope.

Friday, December 30, 2016

as the year ends

by Mexican Judge (@laloalcaraz)

by J J Cohen

What a year, huh?

I'm just back from a week in New England and NYC. I thought I'd offer a few links of interest before prepping for New Year's festivities, which are slated to include Death in the Afternoon cocktails for that classy, literary feel for which Cohen bacchanals are known.

So. If you want to practice your German, you may find this program that features an interview with me and several other scholars of the monstrous to be of interest. "Von Ungeheuern und Menschen" airs on January 1 on Deutschlandfunk and will be available as a podcast shortly thereafter. The more we think about monsters the better prepared we might be for 2017 ...

New Year's Resolutions for the GeoHumanities is out, filled with reasons for why we need more longterm thinking and some lithophilia with our humanism.

Not too long ago I published a review essay in Public Books on How to Live in Uncertain Times. Times have certainly become more uncertain since then.

Speaking of living during turbulence, if you have not yet joined WATCH (Writers Artists Thinkers Challenge Hate), please consider doing so. We are 900 strong and determined to crowdsource alternative futures.

If you're attending MLA in Philly, please join the Forum on Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities and ASLE at an EcoHappy Hour at Milkboy from 8-10 pm on Thursday January 5. All are very welcome.

At Glasgow Review of Books, Tom White compiled a list of "Reads of the Year" that includes this blog post. I was happy to see that "The Story I Want to Tell" resonates, since it seemed to me the most important thing I wrote this year.

So, yeah. 2016. On the positive side I can say that unlike at this time last year when it seemed like things were falling apart for our son, he is in a much better place. He even declared his English major: what could be better than that? Our daughter is studying for her bat mitzvah, not eagerly, but with occasional diligence (and a fair amount of dreaming how easy it must be to be a Christian, with their trees and lights and Santa-delivered gifts). I'm behind in my work but it's been a good year of travel (Austin, Berlin, Phoenix, West Virginia, the Isle of Skye and Edinburgh, London, Maine, New York city for my first gallery talk, Richmond, Poland). But it's also a year when in the aftermath of the election I feel like a city that has come to feel like my home is being slowly taken from me: white supremacists performing Hitler salutes in a restaurant where our son had has bar mitzvah celebration and our daughter will have hers; a gunman walking into our neighborhood pizza place because he was convinced that Hillary Clinton kept children as sex slaves there; a change of mood in DC that seems profound and disorienting and likely to endure.

Perhaps I will see some of you at MLA, and perhaps some others at the protest on inauguration day, or at Women's March on Washington the following day. No matter what, though, here's wishing you some happiness and much hope for 2017. We need both, together.

-- Jeffrey

PS I shot this picture from the rain-streaked window of a bus yesterday as we pulled out from Penn Station. By focusing on the raindrops and blurring the street scene the lens revealed a radiance that I did not realize until I looked at the image. May 2017 have some changes of perspective, some ecstatic moments, some unlooked for beauty and kindness for you as it unfolds.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

3 books of note

by J J Cohen

'Tis the season when a flurry of publication activity inevitably unfolds. Here are three book projects with which I've been happily involved. I am recommending these volumes as being of wide interest to ITM readers. Plus, the editors will really appreciate your support.

Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene
ed. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino
from the website:
This important volume brings together scientific, cultural, literary, historical, and philosophical perspectives to offer new understandings of the critical issues of our ecological present and new models for the creation of alternative ecological futures. At a time when the narrative and theoretical threads of the environmental humanities are more entwined than ever with the scientific, ethical, and political challenges of the global ecological crisis, this volume invites us to rethink the Anthropocene, the posthuman, and the environmental from various cross-disciplinary viewpoints. The book enriches the environmental debate with new conceptual tools and revitalizes thematic and methodological collaborations in the trajectory of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Alliances between the humanities and the social and natural sciences are vital in addressing and finding viable solutions to our planetary predicaments. Drawing on cutting-edge studies in all the major fields of the eco-cultural debate, the chapters in this book build a creative critical discourse that explores, challenges and enhances the field of environmental humanities.
My own contribution is about onomatopoeia and environmental impress (with special attention to Marie de France and Geoffrey Chaucer). Complete table of contents is HERE.

Ecocriticism, Ecology and the Cultures of Antiquity
ed. Christopher Schliephake
This book I blurbed. Here's what I wrote:
Too many writers assume that ecocriticism and environmental engagement began with the poems of Wordsworth or the writings of Thoreau. This collection of essays well demonstrates that for as long as humans have been creating texts they have been meditating critically upon their place within a natural world that far exceeds them in scale and duration. Of as much interest to those working in the environmental humanities as classists, Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity demonstrates that the Greek and Latin texts of antiquity have much of importance to say to a critical conversation today.
Fascinating and wide ranging volume that makes major inroads into bringing ecocritical concerns to Greek and Roman materials.

Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us
ed. Adam Golub and Heather Richardson Hayton

This one is coming soon (March 2017). It's a wonderful, extremely useful collection for which I composed an afterword contemplating the uses to which "Monster Theory" has been put in various classrooms. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

a poem for today: Audre Lorde, "Power"

by J J Cohen

My eye opener this morning was reading letters of complaint to the U Penn newspaper in the wake of students replacing a portrait of Shakespeare in an English Department stairwell with a photograph of black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde. Some writers state that they are offended and have never even heard of Lorde. Yes, writing a letter of complaint about feeling offense rather than, say, ordering Lorde's books and reading a bit of what she has written. That pretty much sums up America in 2016: vituperating that some young people placed an image of a black lesbian feminist [who is also a poet and writer of astonishing talent; that never seems to get mentioned] above a stairway for a few days -- a spot where Shakespeare has resided for, um, decades. Maybe even 400 years.

I've been thinking about Lorde this week as an artist, critic and activist who looked around the 1970-80s and pretty much beheld the contours of 2016. Prescient, angry at injustice, unlistened to, Lorde is a writer who were she alive today would be reminding those shocked at Trumpism that many US populations have been living with his version of America for a very long time. White supremacy, misogyny, racism, denial of access to health care, violence slow and swift: Audre Lorde wrote about it all, decades ago. The Cancer Journals are an especially powerful indictment -- and a prelude to disability studies as well.

I'd also note that Lorde published mainly with small feminist, multicultural presses like Aunt Lute, exactly the kind of non mainstream press that deserves our support at the moment ( Why not buy her books from them now? Why not buy many books?

Here is Audre Lorde's poem "Power." Remind yourself that its copyright is 1978 as you read it. The world is less changed than we think.


The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody's mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

Monday, December 05, 2016

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies

A guest post by Sierra Lomuto

By now we probably all know about the National Policy Institute, an innocuously named white supremacist think tank that held their annual conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on November 19th. The not-so-subtle yet still coded conference title “Become Who We Are" served as a call to white nationalists to come out from the shadows and proudly re-emerge under the authority of our country's new president-elect. With over 200 people in attendance and mass media coverage, it does appear that their public profile is indeed on the rise.

NPI President and Director Richard Spencer gave a lecture in which he declared, “The Trump movement was kind of a body without a head. The alt-right, as an intellectual vanguard, can complete Trump” (according to Dave Weigel at the Washington Post). With Trump's presidency and planned appointments, white nationalism is poised to take a position of open, unapologetic influence in the governance of our laws and policies. Spencer intends to harness this political endorsement as he becomes a public intellectual of the movement and legitimizes white supremacy within the cultural sphere. 

With the tagline “For our people, our culture, our future,” NPI's surface rhetoric belies the white supremacist ideology that the think tank espouses. Their mission statement reads: “NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” This language seems to present a positive message regarding the celebration of European heritage and even employs a rhetoric of inclusion through reference to a shared global identity. The absence of hate speech and racist language is strategic not only to deter those who oppose white nationalism, but also to recruit those who wouldn’t otherwise want to be associated with swastikas, the Ku Klux Klan, and other more recognizable forms of white supremacy.  The NPI also publishes articles which conceal their racist ideology by presenting it through the guise of research, a facade of scholarly character, and the credibility of academic degrees. Spencer received his BA in English and Music from the University of Virginia, and his MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, before leaving his doctoral program at Duke to pursue what we often refer to as an "alt-ac" career in the public humanities. 

On the "Become Who We Are" list of speakers was another well-educated intellectual, Kevin MacDonald, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University--Long Beach. In addition to MacDonald's status among the academic elite, he is the editor of The Occidental Quarterly, a white nationalist journal that publishes content on "white identity, white interests, and the culture of the West," according to their online mission statement

As white nationalists leverage the most powerful seats in U.S. government to buttress the institutional legitimacy and intellectual justification of white supremacy, there should be no doubt that they will reach us in our bubble of academia. They will likely reach us medievalists first.

Over the same weekend as the NPI conference asserted the place of white supremacy within the mainstream of American intellectual culture, I attended a conference on medieval manuscripts where I witnessed its normalization within academia. But while most (hopefully all) of us in the conference room would readily rail against the racist ideologies being promoted by NPI and Spencer in DC, hardly anyone seemed to notice what was happening within our own local community of medievalists. 

One panel, whose aim was to highlight medieval and modern connections by way of material culture, included a presentation by a tattoo artist who translates Celtic iconography from medieval manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, into body art. The panel's second speaker discussed how he drew from Anglo-Saxon history and illuminated medieval manuscripts to design his strategy card game, which was launched earlier this year. Both presentations promised to appeal to a medievalist audience eager to see how the distant past we study resonates with artistic communities in our contemporary world. As the panelists moved through their talks, however, a subtext of white nationalism became increasingly clear to me. 

The deep significance of Celtic iconography within the white nationalist community was never explicitly referenced during the first speaker's presentation nor during the Q & A, but it was unavoidably present. As the beautiful images of the artist's work were projected onto the overhead screen, I began to notice the consistency of canvas: every example was etched into white skin. When asked about her clients’ motivations by an audience member, the artist explained that her clients are white people looking for a heritage to celebrate during a time when "being white is bad." Her answer echoed the white supremacist rhetoric we find in places like Stormfront, a white nationalist online community whose tagline reads, "We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority" and whose emblem is the “sun-cross” version of the Celtic cross. In fact, on one of the site's message boards, the OP asks for tattoo ideas and our conference speaker’s name is suggested along with the advice that Celtic crosses work better for tattoos because they are not as obvious as a swastika. The OP expresses concern about being ostracized for his beliefs, fully aware of the negative perception of white nationalists, and his respondents offer him ways in which he might be more covert. A Celtic tattoo is one such suggestion.

If the panelist's comments on white heritage weren't enough to reveal the community to whom her business caters, her response in the Q & A that it would be stunning for a client to care about the distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon iconography confirmed it for me. It is one thing for an Irish person to celebrate their ethnic heritage with a Celtic tattoo and quite another for a white person to use Celtic iconography to symbolize their racial whiteness despite their actual heritage. Race and ethnicity are not interchangeable categories of identity. To celebrate one's Irish, German, or Italian ethnicity is akin to celebrating one's Ethiopian, Chilean, or Thai ethnicity. There is no equation to be made between whiteness and ethnic heritage. Whiteness is a racial category of privileged dominance; it is a power structure upheld by the oppression and marginalization of non-whiteness. And I don't think I need to point out that it has never been "bad" to be white in America. 

The speaker had already triggered my racism-odometer when she made a joke during her talk: while explaining that Hawaiian tattoo artists don't like to connect the bands in tribal tattoos because of their belief system, she joked that it was more likely that they were too high to keep the needle straight. While the joke made me cringe, the eruption of laughter with which it was met alarmed me more than the joke itself, and I perked up to a much deeper problem: the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies. As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see "Oriental" used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples. And in scholarship on cross-cultural relations, I still see the case being made that curiosity for and openness toward difference—i.e., an ethos of multiculturalism—undermines the presence of racial hierarchies. 

Despite my awareness of the race problem in our field, this particular moment struck me with a new urgency for change. Still reeling from the election and constant news of hate harassment and crimes around the country, including at my own institution, I was unable to brush this moment and this panel under the rug. In the return to white nationalist centrality in our mainstream political and cultural spheres, we as medievalists need to be extra diligent about increasing our racial consciousness—in our classrooms, in our scholarship, at our conferences, in any place where we create or share knowledge about the Middle Ages.

The second panelist received a lot of pushback in the Q & A on his game's complete lack of diversity, and rightfully so. His team used medieval manuscript illuminations to design their visual materials, such as castles and knights on horseback. In creating their fantasy world, he explained that there were many instances where they had to adapt authentic medieval images to appeal to their modern audience, as was the case when they transformed a medieval castle to appear more Disney-like. Yet he and his team were entirely comfortable designing the game with zero racial diversity, despite its genre of fantasy and the very real presence of people of color in the Middle Ages. Clearly they didn't envision an audience of non-white gamers during their design meetings; perhaps they weren't interested in one. Whatever their motivations, they imagined the Middle Ages—as does much of our popular culture—as a space of whiteness. And while I cheered on my colleagues for taking him to task during the Q & A, I couldn't help but think that we are the ones to blame for this. 

The discussion on race in the Middle Ages has been fraught with controversy since medievalists began having one at the turn of this century. The conversation often stalled on the question of whether we could even talk about race because of a sensed threat of anachronism. In his 2015 postmedieval edition Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker tried to end any lingering resistance to the topic by asserting that now is the time to move on, stop debating whether race is relevant to the medieval, and start thinking about how medieval race-thinking differs from and contributes to modern racism. Yet the debate continues, and the issue is often reduced to a quibble over terminology. This debate must end once and for all. When we refuse to see race in the Middle Ages, the stakes are much greater than etymology or linguistics; we are refusing to see how hierarchical structures of difference operate in all of their nuanced complexities, including within multicultural and transnational contexts. We are allowing the Middle Ages to be seen as a preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage. And we end up convening conference panels that uncritically present the use of the medieval in perpetuating white supremacy. I keep returning to this idea that it would have been incredibly powerful, and leagues more significant, if the panel I attended had framed the discussion with a consideration of just how racialized the engagement is between modern pop culture and the medieval world. 

We medievalists need to build our racial consciousness. We need to understand that race is not synonymous with ethnicity or culture, nor does it exclusively belong to a scientific discourse that postdates our premodern period of study.  It does not begin and end with skin color or biological markers of difference.  Race is a structural mode of codifying difference into an ideological system. It is malleable because its constitutive parts are themselves malleable. To echo Cord Whitaker, we need to stop asking whether we can discuss race in medieval texts and contexts, and instead ask how it operates in these materials. We need to stop reading a text like The Book of John Mandeville as an example of medieval cross-cultural tolerance and a celebration of multicultural difference. If we acknowledge the antisemitic sentiment expressed in this text, which is the prevailing consensus, then we must immediately acknowledge the tolerance we do see (for example, with the Great Khan) as part of a more nuanced system of racial hierarchy. 

It is no coincidence that Medieval Studies has embraced the turn from the postcolonial to the global within our larger field designations. While the former was heavily resisted and spent more time justifying the pairing of the postcolonial with the medieval than it did producing medieval postcolonial theory, the Global Middle Ages is one of our hottest new fields. This is partly because the global seems to speak more readily to what we know was a medieval world engaged in intercultural exchange much different than the postcolonial world of the 20th century. But it is also because of our field's general resistance to the political, its discomfort with racial discourse, and its often self-imposed exile from critical theory (despite its capacity to travel and adapt across temporal origins). But to think of the global as a neutral mode of studying cross-cultural encounters, is to miss its point entirely. The global is and always will be inflected by perspective---when studying global histories we must always ask, from whose gaze is the world being seen, interpellated, and made legible? 

Without a racial consciousness, Global Medieval Studies will only serve to perpetuate white dominance as it will only foreground more marginalized histories and peoples insofar as they remain within the dominance of the white gaze. Without a racial consciousness, Medieval Studies in general will only continue to perpetuate a myth of white European supremacy that white nationalists can latch onto for justification and validation for their racist belief system.

When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponized against people of color and marginalized communities in our own contemporary world. If white nationalists want to corrupt Celtic iconography with their white supremacist ideologies, or find solace in a game whose currency is a fantasy of whiteness, we can't stop them. But we can refuse to help them. We can build a racial consciousness and stop using words like "Oriental" and "uncultured" to refer to non-white peoples in the Middle Ages. We can stop saying "race" doesn't apply to the Middle Ages when what we mean is that later forms of racial codification don't apply; we can start asking, what forms of race do we see operating in the primary sources we study and teach? 

If we have a Richard Spencer in one of our classes, we can be sure he will not leave better equipped and more justified to spread his white supremacist hate. And our white students who likely wouldn't otherwise think about race, will leave our classes having at least learned that race is not something they can ignore because we—their professors whom they look up to and respect—both affirm its existence and the need to study it with care.  

Sierra Lomuto is a Ph.D. Candidate
at the University of Pennsylvania 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Postcard from Poznan

by J J Cohen

Climate change works in two registers: the meteorological and the emotional. The mood of the world has changed. Nations take new joy in perilous exclusions. We are building walls. We are patrolling borders with vigor. Animosities thought to have vanished revive.

We are wondering who ought to be admitted through the gates of our increasingly small communities, who ought to be preserved. Who will knock and find no welcome? Who will perish at the outside? What price will those within protective walls have paid for their security?

Climate change: global warming and cold hearts.

(Illustration is one of my favorite pictures of Noah's ark, BL Additional 11639 f. 521. It's from a miscellany with a Jewish scribe and various Christian illustrators, a collaboration born of a fleeting moment.)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here

by Jeffrey J Cohen and Julian Yates

Dear ITM Readers,

Below you will find an account of our recent pilgrimage to God's Ark of Safety in Frostburg, MD. Anyone who has traveled Interstate 68 has spotted its scaffolding, looming over the highway, and its cheery if faded blue sign announcing the erection of a modern ark.

We are writing a book together called Noah's Arkive: Groundless Reading from the Beginning Until the End of Time. The project examines how versions of the Noah story circulate around the imagination of climate catastrophe, from ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary envisioning of sea level rise. In the course of writing the book we hope to visit a series of replica arks being built around the world, including this famous one in Kentucky and this infamous one in the Netherlands

Let us know what you think. This blog post is the book's official embarkation (though in fact we've been working on it for a while). 

-- Jeffrey & Julian 

“Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!”

Because we are building an ark, we traveled to western Maryland to visit an ark being built.

Frostburg MD is a city of the road. In 1806 Thomas Jefferson approved the construction of the National Pike (now US 40) to enable the easy flow of goods to eastern markets. “Mount Pleasant” grew as a waystation for travelers, tourists and itinerant laborers. Over time the dirt track widened and was paved with asphalt. Mount Pleasant became Frostburg, taking its name from Meshach Frost, builder of its first house and hotel. The C & O canal was cut nearby. A railroad constructed. Stagecoaches gave way to automobiles and freight-laden trucks. Frostburg grew. The discovery of coal led to a boom, beautiful homes, a stately hotel. But times changed. Routes changed. Frostburg shrank. The houses and stately hotel are still there but a walk down Main Street is now met with some lively storefronts, some boarded windows, signs welcoming bicyclists, and posters that plead “Don’t Frack Frostburg.” The little city remains tied to the road, but Interstate 68 now bypasses Main Street and most vehicles do not stop.

On November 16, 2016, we headed to Frostburg from Washington DC by car. The journey takes a little more than two hours depending upon traffic and traverses varied terrain: urban expanses of impressive density to sprawl, to farmland and undulating hills; blue portion of a liberal state to its purple middle and red edges; rapidly changing, racially and culturally diverse areas with numerous recent immigrants to majority white communities established in the early 1800s and smaller now than in centuries previous; centers of finance and government to towns that depend on tourism, agriculture, resource extraction; East Coast to near Appalachia. The passing miles yield glimpses of differently paced cycles of economic flourishing and retraction, as well as discontinuous histories of challenge, resistance, reduction.

It’s easy to miss the ark. Or, more correctly, it’s easy for those seeking the ark to over-anticipate its appearance, to want its immensity to loom above the city. Traveling west, you pass the structure quickly on the right as the highway skirts the town. The road bends and there the ark is, fractionally behind you: perched high above the road, which keeps on going, leaving the red steel beams to your rear view mirror. ”Noah’s Ark being Rebuilt Here!” announces a blue billboard. Yet its location when you exit the highway is difficult to find. We back-tracked to reach the site--small roads and sharp turns, no pedestrians, just the occasional passing car. We drove by modest houses, then a stretch of much larger ones, built on former farmland. Up a steep hill, and we arrived at a sign mounted upon immense steel beams announcing ARK OF SAFETY. The sign reminded us of those we had passed along the way that declared HONDA or FORD, and our suspicion that the congregation had repurposed a defunct car dealership to house their place of worship was later confirmed. It also struck us that to find this ark you have to know your way, possess local knowledge -- or use Google maps, which includes the Ark of Safety as a site of possible local interest.

It’s easy to wax poetic about this kind of pilgrimage experience, to give in to a certain touristic drive to narrativize epiphany and encounter, to hang out with an ethnographic desire that never quite materializes. Truth is we were apprehensive. Donald Trump had just won a contentious presidential election on a platform of exclusion, containment, and wall-building. Much support for his vision of an America made great again derived from those distant from what his campaign derided as “the bi-coastal elites,” many of whom imagine a national community that is open, itinerant, cosmopolitan. Trump had significant support for his vision among evangelical voters. And there we were, two academics heading off to see this stalled project of an ark, started 40 years ago as part of an evangelical congregation’s desire to be, to grow, to become. We were worried about what we would find, worried that we would be all condescension, all knowing smiles that might really just be raised guards against a worldview that comprehends everything in advance, including us. Who would we be made out to be by and through the encounter? And who were we, really? What were our intentions? We knew we wanted to visit the ark, but why we had that desire for encounter was difficult to articulate.

There’s so much talk these days about respecting the metaphysics or ontology of other forms of life--animal, plant, let alone human animals who belong to particular ecologies, locales. What then of the closer to home metaphysics of this evangelical ecology that grew up in situ, in Frostburg--very precisely in Frostburg, a city given to itinerance, to roads, and even, come the coal boom, to a routing of matter so that this capital might flow elsewhere, a flow that the anti-fracking signs on Main Street now seek to stem? We have to take seriously the story the congregation broadcasts to the world through its blue highway billboard: “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here.” For they share and do not share this here with us. Both they and we are building arks. Their sense of here might not be ours, but we did not want to re-write them according to our world view. Neither did we want to be scripted into theirs.

Like it or not, their ark arrests. Respond to their sign. Get of the road; search for the structure; park your car; and you do feel like you have arrived. But what is offered here, in Frostburg, is not a destination. It’s more the point at which another kind of journey might begin. What then does it mean to stop at this site of a landlocked vessel, being built here? What exactly would we encounter at this half built, some might say half-baked ark?

We are not sure that we rose to the occasion. But we did, we think, allow this visit to become an occasion for emergence. Of course, the ark helped.

Perched on the hill above the small city, it all looked a bit disappointing. Lock your car at the almost empty lot, look the congregation’s car dealership converted to a place of worship in the eye, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was some wild goose chase. No one about. Just the wind. The sound of crickets in grass that was just days past the need for mowing. Clean, cool air.

What beckoned at first was the steel beams, and then, when we climbed the hill, the concrete. The expansive slabs shaped in an immense rectangle and the long rows of bases for buttresses that do not yet exist seem almost a Fountains Abbey here in Frostburg. These concrete squares offer the shape of an ark to come. Not an “authentic” ark, whatever that would be, but a Noah’s Ark in prospect, adapted for the nearby congregation. Laying a foundation according to the dimensions God delivers to Noah in Genesis but adding an extra floor, this ark’s engineer assumed a cubit must be 18” in length, making the concrete outline extend about a football field in length.

Truth is we were impressed by the scale of the endeavor, a little overwhelmed. This ark in process, whether or not it ever finishes, has already created a strange little ecosystem: a lively home for insects, squirrels, birds; a field full of weeds and wildflowers, gone to seed; on one side, an indentation of matted grass and mud, with dried algae suggesting that rainwater pools, lingers, evaporates. We felt something like wonder, something marvelous, even if it was unlikely we would agree to miracles (the Ark’s website announces two of them). It was under the sign of this wonder, wide-eyed and canny, that we would speak to one of the faces of the ark--the man who, so we would learn, had poured all that concrete, far more than is visible to the eye (that is how foundations work: they compress, harden, render themselves invisible even as they subtend). Our wonder, we hoped, would afford a shell of protection for us but also a space of shared affect and sympathy.

There was movement at a nearby building. Actually there wasn’t. But we spotted a red station wagon and an open door. What happened next is hard to describe because it wants to be easy to describe, wants to fit into an expected narrative. We met Pastor Spence beside a metal building that last winter’s snow had collapsed. He and a fellow congregant, whom we never met, were removing ceiling tiles and some wall boards. His black jacket was white with dust and he was wearing a protective mask over his nose and mouth. We had written to Pastor Spence twice before our visit to Frostburg, introducing ourselves and hoping he would be willing to speak with us about the Ark of Safety, but our requests had gone unanswered. We thought it might be him at the door but we were not fully certain. We caught his attention and told him how impressed we were. He took the mask from his face and placed it above his head, thanked us, did not introduce himself or ask our names. But we talked. He spoke of laying the concrete foundation years ago, the amount of labor required. “I was an engineer at GM,” he told us. “I drove here to build the ark.” The ark was Pastor Green’s vision, he emphasized, not his. He had inherited the project from a man now absent.

We were interested and Pastor Spence warmed quickly to the narration of ark stories. He told us how a construction team from Winchester had to erect the metal frame since no one in his congregation was licensed to do so. We remarked at the amount of labor that must have gone into to getting this far. So much time, so much pulverized stone, so much metal. Pastor Spence emphasized how deep the foundation plunges, invisible concrete set as anchor for a structure yet to arrive, a vision not yet made solid. The ark had to be checked and approved by an engineering firm, and its metal scaffolding was pronounced secure--safe beyond what any final building would require. It had cost a lot. But such is life. We don’t know the circumstances that followed after the completion of the concrete base and the partial metal frame, but work on the ark stopped a decade and a half ago and has yet to resume.

To what does the phrase “God’s Ark of Safety” refer? Not to or not only to this beached ark, beached to begin with, by design. It refers also and always to the congregation itself, whose ark idea this skeletal construction enacts. For what else is a congregation than an ongoing convocation, a shared conviviality?

We asked Pastor Spence what the people living nearby thought of his Ark. He spoke offhandedly of struggles with homeowners: a few nasty phone messages, demands that the steel structure be demolished, embarrassment at this white elephant, fears of devalued property. Arks are as likely to attract derision as they are to cultivate wonder. Would they prefer a vacant lot? Pastor Spence remained cheerful, but not exactly hopeful. As we wandered the site we had noticed places where the concrete was deteriorating, its steel rods exposed. The beams are covered in rust. Ruination is a form of renewal, maybe, but that process also crumbles dreams. Or maybe not. Maybe there is in revelation and grand visions and majestic arks a coldness or a closedness that an unfinished ark rebuffs. This modest ship that was never meant to sail possesses an intensity that a larger architecture might not be able to hold. Well that is our extrapolation. But this sense of productive incompletion as somehow generative runs in parallel with Pastor Spence’s own buoying sense that this ark endeavor, this refuge in Frostburg, had traveled the globe as story, bringing thousands of people to God and even curing the sick.

Pastor Spence had recently visited Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky. He spoke with wonder of that ark’s situation, its scale, its monumentality. He was proud to admit to crying when he first glimpsed Ham’s achievement: rounding a hill and beholding a fully realized vessel built to a 24 inch ell scale. Since we seemed interested, he offered that his own congregation had gone about their own project backwards. The Ark Encounter had taken only six years to design, secure necessary land and funds, and then build. The Ark of Safety had been embarked upon without a plan for raising the money needed for completion. We felt bad. We interrupted. We attempted to reassure Pastor Spence of what had already been accomplished. Funny, this rush to sympathy that did not allow the man quite to finish what he was saying or thinking. But arks do that. All that labor, all that time and money, all that good will--who would want to think it had all gone to waste? Not that that was what Pastor Spence might have been saying.

In retrospect it seemed to us that Pastor Spence had learned to dwell alongside the ark in its incompletion, and that dwelling as a neighbor to a project forever ongoing was at this moment enough. From time to time though (as if he felt it necessary to invoke some future in which the ark might be fully realized) he spoke of investors from distant states who might underwrite the project, if only they could find the time to visit Frostburg. But then his story would become local again. Just as the project was about to float upon liquid capital pouring in, the narrative would turn to the congregation and their lives here and now, with the ark offering a rather modest future. What does it mean always to be working at ground level, aspiring to a view from its highest deck, but suspecting that an such a view will elude? And there is so much of the ark below ground that you cannot see. Forever anchored to a hill in Allegany County, unfaithful to the rules that God delivered to Noah, this ark is not the vessel of Genesis. Pastor Spence assured us that he believes in the literal truth of the bible, the Deluge as historical fact, but his structure is tied to its local origins, the product of Pastor Green’s revelation. The congregation is not building Noah’s Ark, but rebuilding it, building it again, in this this new time and place. The Ark of Safety, Pastor Spence stressed, has extra “nonbiblical” space for his community, four floors rather than the Noachic three. They want room within to meet, to pray, to work. An auditorium. Some offices. Elevators at each end for ease of access. We could almost envision those partitions and this inhabitance as he gestured towards the skeletal steel structure, four storeys tall. “It was never meant to float,” he said. This ark is a house, not a boat. It doesn’t necessarily expect catastrophe and it is not being built against global flood. It is for them, for anyone who exits the interstate, and who decides to remain here.

“Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!” It’s easy to accustom yourself to that gerund--look, that act of building is so permanent a condition that it’s not actually happening any more. Most cars pass the weathered sign and the ark’s steel frame and continue to Hagerstown or Cumberland. Some people stop, drawn by what they have noticed or by internet sites that detail the strangest roadside attractions you might glimpse as you travel the US. As we ate lunch in downtown Frostburg and filled our notebooks with what was already becoming a memory of a visit, an encounter reducing itself into narrative, we asked someone at the restaurant about the town’s relation to the Ark of Safety. She related a different origin, heard from a friend, involving a man who sold a vision of an ark as a trick to take the money of others and then vanished. She did not know if that tale was true. She did not have an opinion on the ark itself. She was just reporting what her friends who had lived in Frostburg for a long time had told her. These competing local narratives will not add up to a settled story.

Pastor Spence narrated a miracle to us, an event that unfolded in the time of Pastor Green, the man who first dreamed the ark. A traveling salesman arrived in Frostburg driving a fancy car, wearing a $500 suit, intent on selling the Ark of Safety congregation a security system for their worship building. Pastor Green listened patiently to the pitch, noting how the salesman wiggled uncomfortably in his chair. He asked the man from out of town if he had a back problem and if he could pray for him? The salesman was not interested. “I’ve listened to you talk for an hour about your security system,” said Pastor Green, “Let me tell you about mine for a few minutes.” And so he did, and he prayed, and the man was healed. Pastor Green suggested that the salesman donate a security system to the congregation--which he did. The salesman stopped traveling. He stayed, became a friend, opted for the ark, a different itinerary or state of itinerance. Pastor Spence told us that he had just come across the congregant’s x-rays last week in the building he was now working upon. Because the man did not want them returned he threw them in the trash.

Parables want to be read. Actually they don’t. They prefer to be enacted--or re-enacted as if for the first time in the lives of those who receive them. So, as writers now, this is what we received. It was perhaps too easy for us to render this little story an allegory. A traveling salesman who sells security systems becomes secure in the Ark of Safety. His changed body speaks his conversion and he stops moving (no more life on the road, no more writhing in his seat). The Ark of Safety, an ark in progress, is its own system of security, foundation. Doubled in its reference both to the ark and the congregation, it takes up a relation to the world premised on a profundity of faith that means something, that gives shelter, that encloses. Recognize that and you would have to stop. Park your car. Not move on and decide to join the rebuilding here. Of course you too would eventually toss away the image that shows the old, faulty support systems, the skeleton before it was properly aligned. X rays and their filmic remains are useful. They diagnose. But maybe true security lies in a different sense of system, a different way of understanding and responding to what goes unseen, a different sense of being in the arkive. X-rays that are not wanted enact the closing off of one security system and the adoption of another.

But what else would we say? We are interested in arks less because of what is stored within them than because of what they discard or exclude, the stories that do not make it aboard, everything left to the rising water. The salesman was captured by the vision of an ark at hand aspiring to a greater ark to come. We dwell with the concrete support for the unbuilt ship, the part underneath the ground that you cannot see, with the strange little eco-system, if not security, that this unrealized ark allows rather than the revelation of some completed structure, some future that may or may not arrive.

We distrust our ardor for Pastor Spence’s story of the miracle, the story of an archival trace recently and conveniently vanished. The tale when we retell it corroborates too neatly what we came to Frostburg hoping to find, the confirmation of our own theory of arks. The discarded x-ray image of the converted body of the itinerant salesman condenses too many of our expected itineraries: the price of inclusion into small community, the linking of enclosure to safety, the inevitable abandonment of some objects, people and histories to the outside, movement become stasis, story become architecture, waste become wonderfully generative.

The parable proves more complicated. Its narrative arc enables the security system which faith provides to comprehend and thereby enclose the knowledge that techniques like x-rays furnish. It does not deny the unseen. The traveling salesman’s back hurt. The traveling salesman needed a home. More than that expected trajectory, however, “security” at the Ark of Safety offers alternate modes of community, belonging, and meaning that are more immediate, longer-lasting, that take less time to sell. If we are prone to distrust the ease with which we seem able to read and so rewrite this parable, it is perhaps because this parable is also a reading, a different way from ours, of programing a relation between belief and technique. Like a car, or a metaphor, parable describes a movement or transport: parabolas are curved planes, the warping of forward trajectories by gravity’s relentless, invisible pull. One arkive encloses another, comprehends it, discards its remnant (the film) but not the information or the impetus it provides. Much the same is true of our project and the reading or rewriting of the Ark of Safety that we condense into parable. Every enarkment collects its own economy of affect, wonder, and violence. But every ark is also a shared space that traverses history, collecting stories along the way, curving towards a certain predictability perhaps but never quite hitting a foreordained mark, never quite realizing a future known in advance.

As Pastor Spence remarked in a moment of complete candor, we have no idea what the inside of Noah’s Ark was like. The Genesis story yields no specifics: no arrangement, no scheme, only a reference to lower, middle and upper levels. So it is that, in Kentucky, Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter materializes the biblical narrative through complex technologies of watering and feeding that automate the labor of caring for all those animals taken aboard, a fully enclosed ecosystem. The biblical narrative offers a blueprint for a structure’s exterior and general divisions but no instructions for inhabitance. The difference we share with the Ark of Safety then is this: we too do not know what life on the ark was like. We do not imagine that we can come to comprehend how that interior should “really” be (re)built. What we do know, though, is that to fill that space, to compartmentalize its vastness and populate those chambers with these but not those entities is to decide everything in advance: to authorize a series of irreversible paths, roads without roadside attractions. A completed ark would be a disappointment, a suffocating space, too delimited, devoid of escape hatches. Refuge too easily becomes gated community (the kind that complains about nearby, unrealized arks), or a prison.

The Ark of Safety is a local ark. “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!” as the highway sign in Frostburg declares. The ark is not an allegory for anything else. Pastor Spence is a person like no other. He is not a character, or a type. Yet as we drove home we talked about Pastor Spence as Noah, in the sense of the ordinary medieval townsman who might be asked to play the role when the cycle play was being performed. Everyone knew it was really just their neighbor Joe, that Noah was a tradesman and father and maybe even a ne’er-do-well rather than a visionary, a perfect model of obedience to a distant God. That ark in the drama where he played at being Noah was a sometimes structure, easy to take apart and store, lacking in one sense of depth, but still saturated in another. That ark would be no less beautiful for all its deficiency. As we write our book and so, like it or not, rebuild our own ark, does that mean that we too are Noah, asking questions about security and itinerance and conviviality and parables as we speed away from Frostburg, returning to our respective home-base bubbles in a safe little car?

We think that it is so. We also become or come to person Noah by our undertaking to write this book. The question, we suppose, is who else shall we become?