Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Medieval historian David Perry in the Washington Post:
As we mourn the martyrs in Portland, care for the wounded and support the women who were initially targeted, we shouldn’t ignore the danger that racist appropriation of the medieval past presents. American white supremacists want to make Vinland great again, laying out an imagined past in which Vikings are the rightful conquerors of North America, locked in eternal battle with the Skraelings, the Viking slur for indigenous people. We must inoculate ourselves against this hate by telling a better story, one that recognizes the many errors of our past, but also lays out a vision for a more inclusive future.
Read the whole piece on what white supremacist fantasies of vikings get wrong HERE.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Every ark is an invitation

by J J Cohen

An ark is a strongbox in which are conserved against cataclysm an inadequate number of new beginnings. An ark is built through violence. Its hospitality is extended at cost. An ark's delineating and defensive walls will inevitably prove porous, its contents unsettled (and full of stowaways), its trajectory adventure-filled, and its future both uncertain and filled with unforeseen possibility.

Every ark is an invitation, the inevitable welcoming of a world far larger than its manifest.

Yes I am writing: in this case, a version of the ark project I'm working on with Julian Yates to deliver at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art next week. The theme of the exhibit is Hosting the Inhuman, with an emphasis on radical hospitality ... so I will be delivering my talk in a space that has been reconfigured as a generic hotel reception area. I'm excited and a little nervous. My title? "Welcome to Noah's Ark!" It's the first time I've given a talk with an exclamation point in the title!

The image, in case you are wondering, is by one of my favorite artists, William de Brailes. I don't think he loved the ark story -- at the very least he made a problem of it. Here, a VERY crowded vessel is almost ready to set sail.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Workspeed, the Big Other, and the Midcareer Funk


My (first) book came out in 2011, the product of a dissertation that took some 4 years to write. Time to degree was slower in those long ago days of the early oughts (at 1999-2007, I was average), but what I have proudly, certainly delusionally remembered, mainly, was that the book - a deeply revised version of my dissertation, with a creaky chapter on hunting swapped out for a new chapter (my favorite, in fact, on resurrection theology and anthropophagy) - saw print when I had only just slipped past halfway through my tenure clock. Fast. I thought this was normal.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 30, c. 800, Ecclesiastes 12:12
It's now been 6 years since that other book, and much longer still since I first submitted the manuscript for review (2009!), and I've been worried. To be sure, I've banged out articles and reviews in the intervening years, and I've learned to write somewhat coherently without the constant intervention of dissertation supervisors and household writers far more able than I, but the book? Where is it? It may be stupid to say this in public, but not long ago, I sent two chapters to my favored press for an advance contract, and now it seems it's being sent out for review. Depending on how the review goes, that may be good, but it feels slower than it should be.

Or not! Who's your point of comparison? What's normal? What's acceptable? At a book party recently, which was for one author, two books, I told the writer that they wrote a book each time they rolled out of bed (and sometimes, I suppose, they roll out of bed twice, for exercise); they complained about one of their presses - the party wasn't supposed to be for two books -- then laughed at their slowness compared to a couple other colleagues. Joanna Ruocco has five books coming out next year. She writes fiction, but still. Then I think of Kathy Lavezzo, with 11 years between her first and second book; Carolyn Dinshaw, since 1989, one book about every ten years; I think too of a dinner companion at my big medieval conference, a great scholar, whose first book came out in 2010, and who's still working away at their Book Two; another long conversation with another academic, much and deservedly admired, who started their job the same year I did, who came out with a book not long after I did, and who may be close to finishing their Book 2. All these people are great. And so on.

It's perhaps possible to be Jeffrey Jerome Cohen or Adam Kotsko or Sara Ahmed, though they themselves also likely wonder if it's possible to be them. Certainly none can be for themselves what they represent to others. The Big Other's Always Barred: your idol is worried too. But it's not necessary to be them, even the worried versions, to be a Worthy Writer.

It's possible too that I worry about these things because my brain is sometimes addled - it moves fast, it likes to burrow, it often flitters chickadeelike from one short writing piece to another, it tends to wreck itself orthographically and solecistically - and because I worry about class: without the fancy or bourgeois childhood that I inaccurately, I'm sure, imagine most other academics to have enjoyed, a childhood of long conversations with their parents and schoolmates about Lucretius, in Latin; I'm certain that my scholarly life is a decades-long scramble to make up for what I missed by missing these first, necessary loquelae.

It's possible that this is all Grade A foolishness, but I'm sharing this here in case I'm someone's Big Other, and letting you know I'm worried, that I'm finding my way past it, and I hope you are too, and hoping, if possible, that we can get more enjoyment from this thing we love.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

On Hospitality: #BlanketGate and #BlanketsForKzoo2017


Screenshot of the #BlanketsForKzoo2017 crowdfunding website; click for transcription of text with visual description.

The International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (#Kzoo2017) is approaching!

There are been a number of conversations on social media about hospitality and inclusivity at Kzoo: from questions of in/accessibility, disability, and mental health to online responses to the recently-announced effort to encourage writing pronouns on one's own conference badge as a gesture of inclusivity for all people of any gender identity or gender presentation.

Most recently, #BlanketGate erupted (it was announced on Monday, May 8, that that WMU will no longer provide blankets for those staying in the dorms and blankets are instead available for purchase for $17). Since this development most adversely affects scholars with limited funding, SMFS began a crowdfunding drive to purchase blankets for Congress attendees (with plans to also donate blankets to a homeless shelter afterwards).

For full context and to contribute to the blanket drive at Kzoo2017, visit this crowdfunding page created by Kathleen Kennedy (the target is $5,000).

(For more info on the logistics of this effort, see Karen Overbey’s public Facebook posting.) *

Efforts such as these are extremely important to create a Congress that truly enacts hospitality and welcome (in all senses of these words). On this note, check out the community-minded events on the BABEL schedule for Kzoo2017 (among many other things Medieval Donut 3.0, a Queerdievalists social, a workshop led on by members of a fellowship of Medievalists of Color, and BABEL roundtables on Feminism With/Out Gender and Access in the Academy). For more postings along these lines, check out the website for the SMFS Trans* Travel Fund, JEFFREY’s posting at ITM, Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski’s eloquent open letter, a post on horizontal mentorship by Micah Goodrich, and an honest and informative perspective from Karra Shimabukuro on anxiety and its implications for the conference experience.

* UPDATE 4:31pm EST: The blanket drive organizers have been coordinating with ICMS staff. Blankets left in dorm rooms will be bundled up, laundered, and donated. If you wish your blanket to be donated you can leave a note in your room upon departure.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Jokes, Violence, Change, Welcome

by J J Cohen

Middle English Dictionary, "welcǒmen"

Some three word sentences that are difficult to utter: I am sorry. I screwed up. It's my fault. That's my ignorance. I'll do better. I will listen. I have learned. Defensiveness comes easily and first: I was kidding. Can't you take a joke? Why are you making a big deal? People need to lighten up! What is this, Stalinist Russia? What about my feelings?
But what matters is what comes after the impulse to dismiss or self-justify: can you listen to what is being said to you, even if it hurts? Can you commit to not relying on others for further instruction, as if it were their job to teach you? Audre Lorde called this the pedagogical burden, the unspoken expectation that people of color will endlessly undertake the labor of teaching white people why and how to be less racist. You cannot pretend it is up to other people to instruct you in being less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist; that work is yours to undertake for yourself. When what Sara Ahmed calls a feminist killjoy challenges your humor -- jokes as a form of violence that create community by excluding those not in power or not possessing your access or privilege -- will you listen seriously and strive to do better? To fail is also to experience a chance to grow, and growth at any age hurts, but also offers a moment for deciding who you will be from now on ... and who will be welcome to stand with you.
I say all of this with the approaching #Kzoo2017 conference in mind. On a non-official page dedicated to discussion of the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies it was announced that "#Kzoo2017 staff will be modeling pronouns on badges to encourage write-in participation in advance of requiring it for all 2018 registrants." Some people immediately applauded; some made jokes or made light. Those actions were called out, since it takes a certain security in your own gender identity being read as you desire it to be read and not being met with violence to make light of what for many is essentially a new welcome mat being placed at the conference entrance. I won't rehash what unfolded in the aftermath other than to note that there was much discussion in which some people really did strive to do better in ways that matter. I'm grateful to those who challenged and those who listened. But I also note for example that a dude from Iceland who places images of pre-Nazi swastikas into his feed because they are "hilarious politically incorrect humor" has, not surprisingly, not changed his attitude. I'm not cherry picking this example: to believe that pre-Nazi swastikas are funny and people need to lighten up when swastikas appear in Facebook posts is to refuse to acknowledge the pain and feelings of endangerment that such humor inflicts on some. It's not funny. And I will say again what I wrote in the thread: "My firm belief is that it is *never* OK for a privileged group to make light or make jokes about race, sexuality, gender identity. If you are fortunate enough not experience acts of physical violence or verbal aggression against your very being in the world, then why would you from your position of safety crack jokes about a policy made to help those who are or might be GLBTIQ feel more safe and better welcomed at Kalamazoo? I applaud the ICMS announcement."
Sorry to go on for so long. I have heard that some queer/trans/non binary attendees of the conference now feel unsafe. I think it's important to keep in mind that the pronoun policy came from the conference organizers; the jokes unfolded on a conference fan page (and were met with vociferous challenge and engaged discussion; swastika guy was an outlier). I also want to remind all who are reading this that there is a QUEERDIEVALIST gathering for queer medievalists and allies at the Radisson Bar May 13 at 9 PM. I will be there. I will also be around for the entire conference. I will do what I can to make you feel welcomed -- and I know that I can say the same for all five other "In the Middle" bloggers, all of whom will be at the conference. I am certain the same is true of MEARCSTAPA, the Material Collective, SMFS, BABEL and so many other groups that make the conference a lively, inclusive place. In closing allow me to append ITM's statement of values, because these words so well articulate the medieval studies I and many others among us want:
"We welcome the weirdos, the obsessives, the lovers of the minute, the constitutionally uncertain ... Our medieval studies would not be possible without feminists, without queers, without posthumanists, without those who insist that the paired notions of a “white medieval Europe” and a “Christian Europe” are cruel anachronisms ... Our medieval studies is attentive, excited, empathic, at times sad, and above all careful, of itself and of its community."

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Some thoughts on the Pamphlet Wars and Post-Election Teaching

by Leila K. Norako

Back in the winter, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a survey course on medieval and early modern literature. Since through lines are essential in a survey that’s only ten weeks long, I opted to focus our attention on gender, power, and monstrosity. I was also determined to make sure that we attended to a good amount of “non-canonical texts” – especially those that were, by all accounts, immensely popular in their day. And so, midway through the quarter, my students and I embarked on a micro-unit on the early modern pamphlet wars.

We focused our attention on the debates about the nature of women, and we started with “Jane Anger: Her Protection for Women” (1589). Anger may have been a real person, but some have speculated that she was either a woman or a man using a pseudonym—either way, as a class we agreed that her name certainly had a rather glorious, comic-book-hero ring to it. Her Protection is considered part of a broader series of debates on the nature of women known as the querelles des femmes, and it's significant because it appears to be the earliest pamphlet (potentially) written by a woman. Moreover, it defends women emphatically, stressing the multifarious ways in which men “misread” women because they persistently underestimate their abilities and motivations. Take, for instance, this *utterly glorious* passage, which could, at least in part, also describe the experience of being a woman (on and off the internet) in 2017:
The desire that every man hath to shewe his true vaine in writing is unspeakable, and their mindes are so caried away with the manner, as no care at all is had of the matter: they run so into Rethorick, as often times they overrun the boundes of their own wits, and goe they knowe not whether. If they have stretched their invention so hard on a last, as it is at a stand, there remaines but one help, which is, to write of us women: If they may once encroch so far into our presence, as they may but see the lyning of our outermost garment, they straight think that Apollo honours them, in yeelding so good a supply to refresh their sore overburdened heads, through studying for matters to indite off. And therfore that the God may see how thankfully they receive his liberality, (their wits whetted, and their braines almost broken with botching his bountie) they fall straight to dispraising and slaundering our silly sex. But judge what the cause should be, of this their so great malice towards simple women. Doubtles the weaknesse of our wits, and our honest bashfulnesse, by reason wherof they suppose that there is not one amongst us who can, or dare reproove their slanders and false reproches: their slaunderous tongues are so short, and the time wherin they have lavished out their wordes freely, hath bene so long, that they know we cannot catch hold of them to pull them out, and they think we wil not write to reproove their lying lips: which conceites have already made them cockes and wolde (should they not be cravened) make themselves among themselves bee thought to be of the game. They have bene so daintely fed with our good natures, that like jades (their stomackes are grown so quesie) they surfeit of our kindnes. If we wil not suffer them to smell on our smockes, they will snatch at our peticotes: but if our honest natures cannot away with that uncivil kinde of jesting then we are coy: yet if we beare with their rudenes, and be somwhat modestly familiar with them, they will straight make matter of nothing, blazing abroad that they have surfeited with love, and then their wits must be showen in telling the maner how. 
Plus ça change, indeed. As Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald have observed, the author not only "takes traditional stereotypes of women . . . [but] and applies them to men"; and she consistently adopts rhetorical devices typically coded as masculine, deploying them in order to demonstrate how "language socially constructs gender" (51). As a result, her Protection became a perfect pairing with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I was honestly quite struck by how enthusiastically the students engaged with Anger’s work in spite of its challenging prose and its density. While acknowledging the uncertainties about the text’s authorship, they were fascinated by the possibility that a woman writer penned this response and how, in doing so, she not only carved out a space for women's voices in the broader querelles de femme debates, but also—however inadvertently—mirrored some of the rhetorical maneuvers that Chaucer has the Wife of Bath deploy. This allowed them, then, a concrete example of how cultural conventions/norms persisted from the middle ages to the early modern era and, in the process, they were invited from the very start of our early modern unit to interrogate their own assumptions about rigid periodization.

Speght's delightful acrostic poem.
Our next class meeting focused on John Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Women (1615) and Rachel Speght’s A Muzzle for Melastomus (1617), where she takes Swetnam to task for his misogyny founded in, as she asserts in so many words, utterly garbage biblical exegesis. While there remains some uncertainty over the pamphlet that provoked Jane Anger’s response, we know that Speght sought to respond to and refute Swetnam’s Arraignment specifically. He had published it under a pseudonym, for instance, and Speght all-too-happily offers an acrostic poem at the outset of her refutation that reveals Swetnam’s actual name. Her refutation of his pamphlet also becomes abundantly clear once you compare the works to one another. She picks apart his exegesis with meticulousness, for instance, arguing that it borders on blasphemy due to its inaccuracies. She also regularly chastises him for the lax organizational structure of his pamphlet, and a single reading of The Arraignment reveals that assessment to be more than fair: Swetnam’s pamphlet being a series of loosely strung together provocations, compiled with the intent (as he puts it) to “bear-bait” women. 

Our discussion just so happened to take place as Milo Yiannopolous found himself in a career freefall, and the parallels between his and Swetnam’s rhetorical strategies and motivations were just too apt to avoid. We talked a good deal about how both men are self-professed “bear-baiters” (Swetnam’s term), and how they rely far more on streams of barely linked provocative statements rather than cogent argument in their writings (or in Milo’s case, “talks”).

One intrepid student pointed out, too, that we needed to consider Swetnam’s potential motivations: the same publisher responsible for disseminating Swetnam’s work also published Speght’s response. And this has led some to think that publishing her work may well have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else; that, in other words, the publisher may have sought Speght out in hopes that her response would refuel enthusiasm for Swetnam’s pamphlet (the Arraignment was, admittedly, wildly popular, with 13 reprints in the 1600’s). As the theory goes, Swetnam may well not have believed in what he wrote, but rather sought through The Arraignment to provoke responses and, in the process, garner more attention for himself. And if that was his goal, he certainly met it given the number of women (Speght included) who wrote directly against his incendiary pamphlet.

So, I returned us to Milo as a potentially useful modern parallel. We considered the possibility that he too (according to some sources) believes very little of what he says. And as we did so, the same student who brought up the backstory on Swetnam raised their hand and said: “but that doesn’t matter, right?” They elaborated, explaining to their peers that regardless of whether he means what he says, his words can and do influence others to believe/say/do horrible things. And so we turned back to Swetnam, considering the ways in which he—insincere though he might have been—did wonders (given the popularity of his work) to reinforce the already entrenched idea that women are inherently inferior to men.

As an exercise, I asked students to consider the two pamphlets and, in small groups, assess them closely in order to make an argument about which was more persuasive. Many chose Speght, and for good reason: her pamphlet is immaculately organized, she provides ample evidence to back up her assertions, her biblical exegesis (however much it may have seem alien to us) is clearly more grounded in careful close reading, and time and again she points out the hypocrisies and holes in Swetnam’s work. A few students though offered that Swetnam was the more persuasive of the two. They argued as much by pointing out the power that provocative statements can and do tend to have, especially if they’re being read and disseminated to a group of likely receptive readers. They considered, for instance, the power that someone like Milo can wield over a fairly significant group of people. How he, and likely Swetnam, could harness and entrench oppressive ideologies by relying on emotional appeals rather than facts and careful observations about the world. While they disagreed vehemently with what Swetnam offered in his pamphlet, they saw very clearly the power that this kind of rhetorical approach can have—they saw its cunning, even in the midst of its rhetorical sloppiness. They also pointed out that Swetnam has the rhetorical advantage as the bear-baiter. As David Perry observed so well, provocateurs like Swetnam and Milo set rather clever traps: to ignore them is to risk allowing their ideas to foment (and, in the process, do real and palpable harm), but to engage them gives them the attention they so very clearly require in order to remain compelling and persuasive to their bases. This puts a tremendous burden on someone like Speght as she orchestrates her response—a burden never shouldered by the bear-baiter.

In closing, I invited students to turn to Speght’s pamphlet and consider it as a proto-feminist text. The term proto-feminism had come up several times throughout the course, and Speght offered the perfect set of opportunities to interrogate and press on its boundaries. Through a series of closing questions, I stressed the fact that while Speght seems at first to talk about women generally, she stresses fairly early on that she’s focused on “virtuous” women. This, I offered, implicitly leaves out any/all women she might code as not virtuous. I then directed their attention to the fact that she may have been referring to Protestant women specifically, and that her telling use of the word “heathen” (which she uses to call out Swetnam’s terrible writing) signals—again implicitly—that women of other cultures and religions may well not be included in her category of virtuous women worth defending. I also offered that for as much as Speght diverges from Swetnam, she too insists on a heternormative gender binary with clearly defined roles and attributes. As Dinshaw and others have argued about the Wife of Bath, in other words, this is not a work seeking to dismantle a patriarchy but rather one that seeks to find greater degrees of agency within it. I invited them, as a result, to consider the diverse peoples (persons of color, persons of different religions, anyone who might today identify as LGBTQIA, women who aren't "virtuous") who are actively excluded because of Speght’s maintenance of these hierarchies in her writing. In the end, I offered that what we have here isn’t a kind of proto-feminism in any sort of intersectional sense, but rather a kind of proto-white-feminism that, for as radical as it may well have been in its day, simultaneously works to affirm certain oppressive cultural norms even as it seeks to upend others. 

Winter quarter was a brutal one on a variety of fronts, and it was one in which my campus palpably felt (and honestly continues to feel) the effects of the shooting that took place when Milo came to campus. It was a quarter where I regularly lost sleep over the way in which people like him use the past to justify their metastasized hatreds and racisms. I still lose sleep over that, and so much else these days. But I have to say—in these two class meetings, it felt more than a little good to roll up my sleeves with my students and work, in ways however small, towards the goal that the inimitable @ChaucerDothTweet said so beautifully: