Sunday, May 06, 2018

on saying good bye

by J J Cohen

I keep attempting to craft an elegant and  poignant blog post about saying good-bye -- or rather how terrible I am at saying good-bye, because good-byes are impossible to execute well. And so it seems are blog posts about them: I have spent a month creating and deleting them. Instead then I am writing this public memo today to record that I am not going to write that elegant and moving post now or at any time in the future.

There, I've let it go.

And now, a short and inelegant and non-poignant blog post about good-byes that will in no way capture the utter complexity and ambivalence of taking leave of places and of people. It will at least record some short and scattered thoughts.

A good-bye can be painful, unpleasant, bitter. A good-bye can be a relief. Yet sometimes a good-bye arrives naturally because an arc has culminated or important work is clearly accomplished or omens simply indicate that it is time to seek the new. After ten years I realized that even if I had stayed at GW I have achieved most everything I wanted as director of MEMSI, for example, and was in danger of starting simply to replicate the familiar rather than attempt collaboratively the future of the past. It is someone else's turn to lead -- and I have excellent colleagues for that role, should they choose it. I also knew that after two decades as a GW English Department member I had done what I wanted to do, and now younger career faculty members are making their own changes and I do not want to be in the way. Had ASU not offered me a chance to reinvent what I do, I was contemplating a move that would have brought me more deeply and explicitly into the environmental humanities and comparative literature, an intensification more than a change. But I am moving to Phoenix: on Friday we will we have a house in that city, and in the near future we will relocate. After a long time in a selective private institution the chance to work within an access-oriented public university appeals to me deeply -- and yes, I know I am giving up a very comfortable and in some ways near perfect job in DC but I believe that what I am about to do is actually more important. Some good-byes seem right. Careers have life cycles, and ending some obligations and investments of time has already opened up a space for others (just wait until you see the CFP for ASLE 2019, and the Noah book I'm writing with Julian Yates for U Minn Press is a constant source of joy).

To say good-bye is also to decide what to distance and what to hold close, either as memory or in an embrace towards future community. GW MEMSI will live on in new forms, I have no doubt. Many of those who gathered under its auspices are friends now forever: they are companions on a boat named Friendship, as a thoughtful gift masterminded by Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz and Jonathan Hsy at the GW MEMSI Ten Year Celebration made clear to me. At that event Dorothy Kim asked me to speak about closure, because so many things that have been important to me and many others kind of seem to be ending ... but really they are just in new hands, and their fates are open to reinvention.

Our family sold our house but its place in the heart remains. Over the twenty years we owned it we reconfigured the structure so much that I doubt its original 1940 owners would recognize it. We made the house ours by breaking down walls and rendering its spaces more capacious, easier to access. We have welcomed hundreds of people through its doors in the time we lived here, and we hope they departed with a little bit of the warmth and happiness that this house shelters. Washington DC will forever be the city which most feels like home.

And this blog will forever seem a virtual home. I'm not leaving In the Middle, not at the moment, but I imagine that if I continue to blog here what I offer will be less frequent and rather different in content. My wonderful co-bloggers have the chance to reinvent what this site is and does; nothing would make me happier. That, to me, is the best kind of good-bye: one in which space opens for others to thrive. A well built home endures for a long time, even if at some point it no longer resembles what it once was.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Brief Talk on Animal Lives

British Library Add MS 11390, 18vDer naturen bloeme.

Just wrote this thing, for the "Channeling Relations" medieval conference at the Graduate Center, May 4, 2018. The program looks fantastic, and I'm proud to be part of it.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. And he led me about through them on every side: now they were very many upon the face of the plain, and they were exceeding dry. And he said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live?

In part, my goal in doing medieval animal studies has been to try to give flesh and life back to animals. Of course, medievalists do that with people too, but the tendency for decades of medievalist writing about animals had been to take animals as medieval symbolic schemes took them: chiefly as textual. The old method is effectively an extension of the medieval genre of the bestiary, whose various entries on animals, and sometimes stones, and sometimes humans themselves, begin with a compendium of natural history - what we might call the 'real' of the animal - before swinging into Christian moralization. That is, the older method of reading medieval animals had been to concentrate on animals as if they had a final cause, namely, what they meant symbolically for us, as if understanding that was sufficient for giving us something like the truth, because a symbolic truth produced with a clerical imprimatur, that is, with the approval of trained intellectual, would have been presented as the truth.

Giving life back to animals means working with less certain materials, with a mind not just to the final cause, but also to the material, formal, and efficient ones, as well as the ongoing cause of the thing itself, distinct from whatever end it ends up as. Sometimes attention to this rich range of truths requires working with the history of interest, an attention to the way that animals drew culture makers -- writers, visual artists, and so on -- to dwell with them as something more than mere opportunities for thought. It wasn't the symbolic use that first drew them on: the symbolic use feels very much like an arbitrary schoolroom exercise, sometimes quite calcified with centuries of hermeneutic habits -- the eagle's ability to look directly at the sun is predictably a model for the life of a holy person -- and sometimes quite arbitrary, with no particular or necessary attachment to the animal on hand.
What drew culture makers to dwell with the particular animals was not only the desire to make symbols, but also, and perhaps even but also primarily the body and ways of the animals themselves.

More than a decade ago, in his "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages," Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observed that the various nonhuman lifeworlds of animals - the gender complexity of hyenas, the fact that bears literally lick their cubs into shape after they're born, and so on -- offered humans a chance to imagine other ways of life, not so predictably bound to being merely human.1 In some sense, material like medieval natural science – a man will lose his power to speak if a wolf sees him before he sees the wolf, but he can regain his voice if he takes off all his clothes – is something like medieval science fiction, an imagination of what else the human might be, to the extent of losing human difference altogether. Many of you here will of course be thinking of “Bisclavret.”

And yet that’s still about what the animals can do for us. A more animal-focused approach might be inclined to want the data provided us by archaeology. On Monday, in Leeds, a graduate student offhandedly told me about work she’s read about evidence of dietary differences between working dogs in the country and companion dogs that lived mostly indoors: I’ve yet to be able to track down the article, but I thought I’d mention it here on the off chance that one of you knows about it. And just yesterday, I found an article on a dog skeleton discovered in Southwestern France; it had been buried, quite deliberately, during the 11th or 12th centuries. Of average size, the dog had suffered broken bones on at least three separate occasions, but there is no evidence of its carcass having been abused, or its having been skinned for its fur, or butchered for its meat.2 A victim of abuse, it was also cared for in death. We can put flesh on the dog by imagining its grim life, its being beaten by what Chaucerians know as yerdes smerte, and by wondering whether the person who buried the dog was the one who beat it, or the one who loved it, or both.

We can give animals more life by not just attending to how we dream new lives for ourselves through their exotic bodies and capacities, and not just by relying on so-called “brute matter” offered us by archaeology--—the brute matter metaphor, incidentally, may date, in English anyway, to Robert Boyle, in 1686, on God as divine clockmaker3. The material of brute matter calls out to us in the voice of truth, which they seem to have because it exists whether or not we’re there to take notice of it. But of course life is a truth too, as are shared lifeworlds, which means we have to attend to narrative, to the way the animal unfolds itself through its own time and space, sometimes with us, and sometimes for reasons that are not for us at all. As I’m nearly out of time, let me just point you to the Life of Cuthbert, to remind you of the story of the horse that gnaws on a thatched roof, dislodging a loaf of bread: the horse’s appetite feeds the saint, who, in gratitude, and to preserve his fast, gives half the loaf to the horse.4
Thank you.

1 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 39–62.

2 Annelise Binois et al., “A Dog’s Life: Multiple Trauma and Potential Abuse in a Medieval Dog from Guimps (Charente, France),” International Journal of Paleopathology 3, no. 1 (2013): 39–47, For butchery of dogs, see, for example, Eileen M. Murphy, “Medieval and Post-Medieval Butchered Dogs from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland,” Environmental Archaeology 6, no. 1 (June 1, 2001): 13–22,

3 Timothy Shanahan, “God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988): 558. He develops his example by pointing to the clock at Strasbourg.

4 Many versions of this story survive; for one, J. T Fowler, ed., The Life of St. Cuthbert in English Verse (Durham: Surtees Society, 1891), ll. 1278-1306.