Saturday, October 29, 2016

bumps and glitches and making refuge

REFUGE symposium in progress, as photographed by Alexa Huang

by J J Cohen

Sometimes I get into a funk about the devaluing of the humanities, the proliferation of bureaucracy within academia, the mania for assessment as a box-ticking exercise over the cultivation of superb pedagogy in its varied forms, the transformation of higher education into a service economy structured around quick, underpaid gigs rather than the longterm cultivation of shared endeavor ... and so on. Within that larger picture directing an institute has grown each year to be more of challenge, since the support mechanisms something as ambitions as GW MEMSI requires simply are not there. On the positive side I have learned to be quite a travel agent, reservation maker, financial form filler out, social media advertiser, and so many other skills I did not ever think I'd need. Since it is so important to me that MEMSI guests feel welcome from the moment they arrive I put a great deal of effort into small things -- and have learned (for example) to stop by the hotel in person the day before to ensure that everything is in place, to double check with the library that the proper guest list has gone to the front desk, etc. Fun! And: never a guarantee that the best plans are not going to encounter bumps of all sorts. I often think about what I could do if I had better structural support (and I am so grateful for the graduate students and faculty colleagues who consistently step up to the plate to help me).

This week has felt especially hard because I did something I almost never do: I gave up. I finally waved a white flag when an introductory, undergraduate course so important to me and to the engaged humanities I want to enact was nibbled to death by two years of administrative and then resource-related pressures. I just could not write one more email defending something that had proven so successful (I have the assessments from last summer to prove it!) despite its "nonstandard" form, and I could not get the support I needed to make the course work well ... so I cut my losses, cancelled and replaced "Myths of Britain" with "Chaucer" before registration opened. As you can no doubt tell, I am also being hard on myself for having done this and am hoping it is not a sign of things to come. But there is a part of me that is kind of relieved that the clock is ticking on MEMSI: the Institute's internal funding expires next year, after a ten year run.

OK, that's the gloomy part. Here's the radiant part. 

Sometimes after a day filled with frustrations, angry phone calls to hotels where you suspect a guest was denied early access to his room for reprehensible but all too common reasons, despair at the library not having the guest list right again, the gathering that happens in the aftermath of the annoyances is so unexpectedly catalytic that all you can do is sit back, nod your head, and think "THIS is why the labor is worth it." After a day of glitches large and small (and despite my anticipation of each glitch and emplacing everything to prevent them) ... when the GW MEMSI symposium on REFUGE started yesterday afternoon, everything the event required didn't matter anymore. A packed room of undergraduates, grad students and faculty colleagues from near and far assembled to think together, create together, dream stories more affirmative than the narratives we have been given. By the time the Venetian Room of the Hotel Lombardy closed at midnight, my faith in the communal forging of a future humanities -- or at least in the benefits of forming temporary shelters where that future might be thought --  had been amply restored. Patience Agbabi, Pamela Troyer, Steve Mentz, Jonathan Hsy and DJ Spooky inspirationally enacted what "refuge" might mean in these troubling times. I will tackle a thousand bumps and glitches for such moments of making new and better narratives together.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People


BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

[a slight morning edit] Yesterday, my "Problems in Posthumanism" graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter's groundbreaking, monumental "1492: A New World View."

Among other things, Wynter observes that the medieval "Scholastic order of knowledge" held that all humans lived only within a narrow habitable zone in the Northern hemisphere, because the cold of the far North and the heat of the tropics barred Adam's descendants from any further travel. She argues that when Europeans realized that the globe was peopled all over, the scholastic epistemological order collapsed, so clearing the way for the rise of secularization. (if you don't know the essay, here's a summary to start you off; I'd also highly recommend the Wynter interview with Katherine McKittrick in On Being Human as Praxis).

Wynter's '1492' is therefore an essay about epistemological breaks, the end of the Middle Ages, and also, very much so, about new possibilities for the human to realize its full potential. It's a strange essay for a medievalist and posthumanist to teach, but necessary, because of its commitment to antiracism and anticolonialism, and because of its breathtakingly ambitious combination of geography, cultural history, systems theory, and cognitive science (!).

I naturally prepped by rereading Valerie Flint's 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, all encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle's Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,
Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.
So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins' Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the Earth's general habitability (and therefore offers another route for crusades); and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the Earth's habitability in Jean Buridan's fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the "Scholastic order of knowledge."

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found 'disproofs' of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in "traveling theory": but few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic "Feudal" order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. And while reading Buridan, I found this (and my Latin's a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray):
And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it were inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; which is an unheard of thing [thanks Tony Hasler below for the emendation!], as some say.
Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si esset ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, "John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth") (also available here, p 156).
As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I'm particularly struck by Buridan's "proof" on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic "proof," and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan.

Even as a man from the "frozen North" (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan's proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness "beyond the common measure of man" as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter's, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:
the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth....[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)
In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the sixteenth century and onward.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Oure dedes ben of o colour": John Gower wins a Nobel!

Alexander and the Pirate, from the Buch der Tugend (via ArtStor)

Brief words of congratulations are in order for John Gower's Nobel prize win. Like certain other prolific writers, Gower has produced "a large number of [verses] revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics, and love." Surely we all know this representative moment?
It fell per chance upon a day
A rovere of the see was nome,
Which many a man hadde overcome
And slain and take here good aweie.
This pilour, as the bokes seie,
A famous man in sondri stede
Was of the werkes whiche he dede.
This prisoner tofor the king
Was broght, and there upon this thing
In audience he was accused.
And he his dede hath noght excused,
Bot preith the king to don him riht,
And seith, 'Sire, if I were of miht,
I have an herte lich to thin;
For if the pouer were myn,
Mi will is most in special
To rifle and geten overal
The large worldes good aboute.
Bot for I lede a povere route
And am, as who seith, at meschief,
The name of pilour and of thief
I bere; and thou, which routes grete
Miht lede and take thi begete,
And dost riht as I wolde do,
Thi name is nothing cleped so,
Bot thou art named "Emperour."*
Oure dedes ben of o colour
And in effect of o decerte,
Bot thi richesse and my poverte
Tho ben noght taken evene liche.

* "Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you a king"

(via me, here)

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Not Subtle; Not Quaint

There is a particularly harrowing scene in Mad Men, when Don Draper—the advertising executive at the center of the show—exhibits his dominance over one of his (very many) sexual partners and adversaries by grabbing her by the crotch. There is nothing sexy or seductive about the action. It is violent. It is chilling. It is hard to watch.

But what it is not is anomalous. 

Last week we all saw a video in which we can hear, loud and clear, the voice of the GOP nominee for president boasting about his sexually predatory behavior against women. He  says,

I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.
And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Despite the barrage of misogynist statements he’s spewed on radio and television over the last year, it was this clip which finally shook the members of his political party out of their willing slumber. They have condemned him, expressed varying degrees of outrage, said they’re sickened by his words. They’ve virtually stampeded towards the EXIT sign away from their party’s nominee for president.

As if his words represented something never before heard, never before seen, so deviant, that only now can they see him for the monster that he is.

Except he’s not a monster. He’s a man. A man acculturated by a long tradition of misogyny. I am glad that so many politicians have come out against Trump (too little too late). But Trump himself may be closer to the truth when he referred to his comments as “locker room banter” in an official statement (to which I won’t link; but here is a WSJ editorial about it). They are closer to the truth not because most men speak this way among one another (I doubt they do), and they are certainly closer to the truth not because the alleged banality of this language is reason to excuse it. Rather, they’re closer to the truth of a longstanding trope of misogynist dominance over women’s bodies—a trope that medievalists know well.

Many readers of this blog were surely reminded of Chaucer’s description of Nicholas’s assault on Alison,

And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.”

Nicholas grabbed her by the pussy. And then he said, “if I have my will.” Don Draper grabbed Bobbie Barrett by the pussy. And then he said, “Do what I say.” Donald Trump boasted that he “grab[s] ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Never original, Trump was availing himself of a stock gesture of violence that expresses dominance over women via the route of women’s bodies—arguably (arguably) even the body part that most defines a woman in biological terms.

Medieval objects feature this gesture commonly (more commonly than we’d imagined, in fact; but Damian uncovered a number of these images relatively quickly and with ease). In certain cases, as in the Taymouth Hours, the gesture is an explicit sign of sexual violence, condemned by the caption below.
British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, fol. 177r

Victoria & Albert Museum, Museum Number 220-1867

British Library, Royal MS 16 G vi, fol 4v

Notice how in two of those images, the woman who are being groped and grabbed and seized make gestures of shock. With their hands up and, in one case, body turned away, they register the full horror of the assault.

One of the most significant contributions of this blog has been to show us how much we live with the Middle Ages today, how much we speak with phrases uttered hundreds of years ago, how much we see with eyes primed by visual traditions of the medieval past. And one of the consequences of this knowledge is that we can no longer dismiss as anomalous behaviors that are objectionable and damaging. Nor can we condemn as anachronistic or opportunistic scholars who would see in medieval art and literature deep resonance with our culture today. The words spoken by the Republican nominee for president emerge from our cultural legacy. It is up to us to engage with that legacy until the day that is so truly beyond the pale of understanding, so alien, that it becomes impossible to act and illegible to read.