Monday, November 27, 2017

#MLA18: some ecocritical events

by J J Cohen

Five years ago Sharon O'Dair, Stacy Alaimo, Stephanie LeMenager and I founded the MLA Forum on Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities. We've been surprised and pleased at the success of this new community, gathering scholars across disciplines and time periods for some vibrant conversations. This year -- my last on the executive committee, and therefore my year to chair -- brings our annual gathering for a happy hour as well as what appears to me to be one of the most environmental humanities rich MLA annual meeting we have had. Here are some of the events collated; please let me know if I forgot anything. If you will be in NYC this January, we hope you will join us.

Thursday January 4
12:00 PM Early Modern Biopolitics: Race, Nature, Sexuality
This session explores the utility of biopolitics to early modern English and to early American literatures, leveraging early modern culture to retrace the genealogy of biopolitics. Topics include sixteenth-century Atlantic slavery, Restoration-era conceptions of sovereignty and race, seventeenth-century sexuality and population theory, early American racial theories of Protestant lineage, and pan-European early modern cartography.
AND ALSO AT 12:00 PM: Performance, Materiality, and Ecology in Early Modern Literature
This session examines how early modern performance might inform ideas of agency emerging from contemporary materialist theories. Presenters explore how different categories of matter perform, considering the mineral, the vegetal, and the human outperformed by one of its parts. The presenters and audience debate how thinking about material performance can shift the conversation about agency, acting, and actants.

3:30 PM  Anthropocene Reading
This session considers how different practices of critical reading—symptomatic and surface, formalist and materialist, philological and computational—facilitate approaches to literary studies in the Anthropocene.

5:15 PM Responding to Extinction
AND ALSO AT 5:15 PM “Uncer giedd geador”: Feminist Studies in Old English

7-9 PM 
MLA Ecocriticism & Environmental Humanities Forum Happy Hour
An MLA and ASLE happy hour at 5th&Mad for anyone interested in the environmental humanities and their friends. Please come and meet some new people in the field!

Friday January 5
12:00 PM Climate Science, Climate Narrative: Historical Perspectives

1:45 PM  Teaching and Learning the Stories of Standing Rock and #noDAPL
Speakers facilitate a reflective conversation about how the dynamic stories of indigenous-led environmental justice activism at Standing Rock may be taught and learned. Participants share their engagement with Standing Rock and #noDAPL through diverse pedagogical and educational experiences, ranging from working at the Defenders of the Water School to designing university courses to collaborating on open-access resources and public curriculums.

2:30 PM
Field trip to Newtown Creek! In tandem with the "Site Specifics" session on Sunday (see below), a group of intrepid MLAers are gathering to explore this place of beauty and toxicity. We will take public transportation and have a considerable walk so please come with a transit card and warm clothing. Email to reserve a spot; spaces are limited.

Saturday January 6
8:30AM Early Modern Women and the Environment
Panelists discuss early modern women’s negotiations with built and natural environments. Topics include Vittoria Colonna’s garden at Ischia; biopolitical readings of visual and textual representations of gypsies; Ursulines’ utopian project in New France; literary garden of Lucy, Countess of Bedford, at Twickenham; and women’s manuscript recipes’ engagements with household and natural domains.

12:00 PM Weak Environmentalism
The urgency, high stakes, and planetary scale of climate change have produced commensurately strong environmentalisms. Panelists consider the work that a weak environmentalism might do, as alternative or supplement to strong. The subjects addressed include small-scale actions and ideas, low-intensity affects and social ties, and weak frontiers between species or between animate and inanimate matter. What is the environmentalism of stone?
AND ALSO AT 12 PM Afro-Natures and Afro-Futures: Speculation, Technology, and Environment in African Literature and Film
AND ALSO AT 12 PM Environmental Humanities and Italy

3:30 PM Literature of Waste and Environmental Insecurity in Central and Eastern Europe

5:15 PM Legal Ecologies
The Anglo-American legal tradition is fundamentally anthropocentric and individualist. This session pushes back against this tradition by considering how the theoretical tools developed by ecocriticism might help us redescribe legal experience in terms that don’t depend on the grammar of I and me. Participants also consider the implications of this conceptual reorientation for the practice of environmental justice.
AND ALSO AT 5:15 PM Reclamation Ecopoetics of the African Diaspora

Sunday January 7
12:00 PM Site Specifics
How does place matter, even at a hotel-centric MLA conference? This session focuses on topics related to New York City environs (e.g., the Hudson, urban parks and ecosystems, tectonics, superstorm impacts, and environmental justice) but also on “climate controlled” and other kinds of spaces. 
AND ALSO AT 12 PM “Of Strangers Is the Earth the Inn”: Still Life, Scale, and Deep Time in Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Damian Fleming on Rethinking One's Own Early Work ... and Scholarly Change

by J J Cohen

Damian Fleming has a not-to-be-missed post on "ethel sweet ethel-weard: the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript" in which he revisits his first publication ... and prevents its emphasis on love of German culture being facilely deployed by medieval-loving white supremacists. He also suggests, quietly, that we think more seriously about the possibility that the Beowulf manuscript was composed by two women. I love especially this section, about change over time:
Since writing that paper over a decade ago I have read and reread and taught Beowulf many times. I love the poem more every time I read any portion of it, but my understanding of it has changed significantly. I no longer imagine reading Beowulf as a celebration of germanic pre-Christian culture. I read Beowulf as similar to the majority of extant Old English poetry: deeply melancholic, explicitly Christian, and critical of the pre-Christian culture it presents. In teaching Beowulf I try to guide students to see the tragic triad of women—Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Grendel’s mother—whose suffering epitomizes the destructive nature of the violent culture they are caught in. At the most recent Medieval Academy of America meeting, a series of panels on Feminist Approaches to Old English literature, organized by Robin Norris, Rebecca Stephenson, and Renée R. Trilling, included a paper by Stephen Yeager who presented a thoughtful reading of Beowulf as a poem written potentially for women and potentially by a woman. His reading, which drew upon the work of generations of feminist scholars before him opened my eyes to possibilities I am shocked I had never considered before, since they are so consistent with how I had already be reading the poem.
It's a beautiful piece, and well conveys how our attitudes towards our own scholarly work ought to be open to revision and reflection. Thanks for offering it, Damian.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro


This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here's what's undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I've found easiest to navigate:
British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings.
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the 'Devonshire Chaucer').
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the 'Delamare Chaucer')
If you're reading this, I trust you're already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook's Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk's Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you'll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight's Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has "Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia," and where Hengwrt 25v has "Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda," Christ Church 152, 26v, has "the ordinaunce of lystys that thesyus ordaynyd" [corrected]. Does the Knight's Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of "ordaining" the divisions of the plot?

Or here's the Reeve's Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v:

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself ("Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale" -- note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes "Prologue" in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath's Tale start?

Harley 7334 89r, with a red "Narrat" in the margin.
In at least one case, in Harley 7334 89r, her tale - or one of them anyway - begins after the Pardoner interrupts her, where we have a red "Narrat" in the margin. Here, then, the Wife's prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her "experience."

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife's Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here's my (crowded) slide:

Is it just "words between" the Friar and Summoner? It is an "interpretation" of the Wife's tale? An "interruption"? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife's prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar's Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r
Should the carter be taken down to hell? "Nay q[uo]d þe deuel," he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda's story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v
The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin's Tale -- not the Merchant's -- begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire's Tale. They've clearly "sought in diuers places" for the "the reaste" but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn't get changed: in red, "The Prologue to the Merchaunt." Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant's Tale ("Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight"). No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn't bothered by variance in Tale order. If you're having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than "fragments."

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


by J J Cohen

Dear friends,

Stacy Alaimo and I have been nominated to run for the next co-presidents of ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment). Please read our statements at the link below (I hope that you will agree with the ethos we try to articulate) and -- if you are an ASLE member -- please consider supporting our candidacy. Thanks!

(An interesting fact: ASLE has never had a medievalist lead it.)

Jeffrey Cohen (George Washington University) and Stacy Alaimo (University of Texas at Arlington)

I am honored to run for co-president. Over the years no professional organization has meant as much to me as ASLE. Its community has long been a welcoming home, and I am eager to serve the membership, intensify our strengths, and work to ensure a vibrant future. In these times of ecological peril, I look forward to increasing the visibility of its activism as well as our ability to work in tandem with other like- minded organizations to effect social change. I have enthusiastically participated in the ASLE Mentoring Program and am especially dedicated to ensuring that emerging writers, authors and theorists are adequately supported. With Stacy Alaimo, Stephanie LeMenager and Sharon O’Dair I am a founding member of the MLA “Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities Forum”. I am committed to collaboration and believe that ASLE offers a powerful structure for scholars and artists to work across fields and disciplines. My scholarship includes a trilogy of edited collections (two co-edited with Lowell Duckert) that gather more than 50 writers thinking about the future of the environmental humanities, and attempt to bring writers together across time periods as well as disciplinary training: Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green; Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (2015); and Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking (2017). With Stephanie LeMenager I co-edited a special issue of PMLA on “Assembling the Ecological Digital Humanities” (2016). None of this work would have been possible without the inspiration of ASLE conferences (where much of it began) and its congenial community of scholars, writers, artists and thinkers. With planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, I wrote a book on Earth (2017) for a general audience. With Julian Yates, I am currently finishing a book on the myth of Noah’s Flood and climate change. Finally, my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (2015) was awarded the René Wellek Prize for best book in comparative literature this year.

I am honored to run for co-President of ASLE. The nomination provides the opportunity to give back to an organization that has long been such a vital intellectual community for me. There are few scholarly organizations with such a strong sense of community, comradery, mentorship, and shared ethical and political orientations. I became a member of ASLE soon after the organization was formed, participating in listserv discussions in the early 1990s, while writing my dissertation on topics that would become “ecocriticism, “ecocultural studies,” and “the environmental humanities.” I’ve served as the ASLE Liaison to the SLSA (the Society for Literature Science, and the Arts) from 2004-2009, organizing panels at both of their conferences to promote more cross-fertilization between environmental studies and science studies. I have also served on the Book Awards Committee and as an official Graduate Student Mentor from 2004-2008. It has been exciting to see the organization grow and the field flourish. With Jeffrey J. Cohen, Stephanie LeMenager and Sharon O’Dair I served as a founding member of the MLA “Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities Forum,” and as its first chair. At the University of Texas at Arlington, I served as the co-chair for the President’s Sustainability Committee--working on everything from food services to landscaping to academic programs. I also established (with two colleagues) a cross-disciplinary minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, which I then directed for five years. My own scholarship includes about 45 scholarly essays, as well as the books Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (2000); Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (2010), which won the ASLE book award for ecocriticism; and Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (2016).

Among the issues we would like to work on as co-presidents: how to ensure that at time of dwindling institutional support our membership can still access ASLE conferences, events and resources; fostering more intense collaboration between ASLE’s humanists and natural scientists; finding new ways for our artistic and scholarly branches create things together; ensuring that the work of our membership finds as wide a public as possible (because what we do matters); working with institutions to ensure that a diverse cohort of emerging scholars and artists is being cultivated so that the future of the field will be a more heterogeneous one; ensuring that the biennial conference is site-specific, meaning memorably and tangibly part of the place in which it is held. We share a strong ethical and political commitment to environmentalism, environmental justice, and social justice. Even as the environmental humanities are flourishing nationally and internationally across fields and disciplines, it is important to support ASLE as a vibrant and distinctive organization that has been invaluable for the development of environmental and environmental justice scholarship, practice, and activism.