by J J Cohen
Below is an excerpt from the book that Julian Yates and I are writing about the long history of Noah's ark as an expansive trope for narrating the endurance of life during catastrophic climate change. It's the introduction to a chapter about the many stowaways -- from unicorns and the phoenix to demons and devils -- that writers and artists have placed aboard the ark over the centuries, because they did not want to live in a world that did not include such lives. We could learn a great deal by attending to this impulse to expand refuge as wide as possible, even at the risk of foundering.
I'm offering this ITM post to anyone who feels out of sorts or out of place at the moment. The field of medieval studies is going through some storminess right now, with accusations flying of certain people or groups being fascists or the red guard or total reprehensible assholes or what have you. I've had enough with policing, threatening, dismissing, reducing, silencing; I've had enough of battles that replicate in miniature toxic discourses that seem to be omnipresent right now. It is especially disheartening when the language of violence and exclusion issues from allies in the building of inclusive structures, in the fashioning of refuge. I want my field to be better than this, even in its anger. I stand with those who want to cultivate, intensify and amplify voices working to build a progressive and inclusive humanities that attends to the diversity and possibility within the past
-- and by this I mean especially those who are precariously situated in the field, those who become easy targets for backlash and trolling and exclusion via spectral things like "merit" (as if that existed in some social vacuum where the excellence of a conference session on military history was patently evident against one about allyship and building a more inclusive field: the decision to include one over the other is a decision about who has a place in the community, and what the identity of that community shall be, now and in the future).
I was thinking about all this as I revised a book chapter this morning. Here it is, a piece I wrote with Julian Yates for the book Noah's Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge
. If it resonates, then it is for you. Cheers.
Every ark is an invitation, an opportunity to think with the world’s contingency and capaciousness, the chance to escape confinement and tell better stories, to begin again but without necessarily obliterating what precedes.
Every ark is a chance to compose with past materials a divergent future, a new story formed of ancient plots and tropes, a shelter built with hope against the return of storm. True, Noah’s vessel too easily becomes a transport device for a narrowed plotline in which all but one preceding story is lost to the waves. Populated through a grim and selective summons, the ark once full bolts its gate against a world left to drown. The rainbow towards which that vessel is launched always seems singular, definitive, predetermined. As the book of travels and wonders that began to circulate under the name of John Mandeville in the fourteenth century notes, this structure of selection and preservation is still to be glimpsed upon Mount Ararat, even if no traveler may climb there. On his map of the Holy Land the medieval cartographer Matthew Paris depicts a pristine but abandoned ship on a mountain full of snakes, noting that the vessel is secure from human approach “on account of the desert and vermin” -- atop a real if unreachable peak, landlocked archive of abiding origins. Materializing spaces of circumscription and confinement, sorting the various and the volatile into fixity, an ark may now take the form of a museum, chancery, seed vault, biosphere, starcraft, zoo, library, database, repository. To engineer such a structure is to perform a gesture of despair and desire at once: despondency for an Earth relegated to wasteland, not to be saved; and confidence after disaster abates in a better home to come. Yet that “better” conveys a narrowness, begging the question of better for whom? An ark is not launched in the expectation of a more survivable or commodious world for all who dwell upon its lands before and within catastrophe. Every ark preserves at cost. Selective and small, its spaces are closed against a cosmic diversity of humans and nonhumans, conserving meager community against general ruin. Arks aspire to exclusive origin, a recommencement in which all but one preceding story will be lost to the waves. Arks easily become prisons. The prospects that they are built around will prove lethal to many, inside and out.
Yet every ark at its launch offers the possibility of narrating differently the stories its hold both contains and excludes. Even as its door slams shut, quiet possibilities arise, a realm of hazard and hope, a provocation from the ark’s outside or maybe even from within its narrow walls to dream (as Timothy Findley’s angel Lucy puts it, in words that helped to launch this book) “yet another world,” a realm of expanded possibility, a space for the flourishing of adventitious collectives, unforeseen communities of care. Not a utopia exactly, most certainly not a heaven this is a wave-tossed place on Earth we are talking about, not a deferred aspiration. In this beleaguered expanse, mere endurance may give way to capacious co-existence, difference-filled modes of life converging in sympathy. Climate catastrophe brings acute and unevenly distributed suffering, most certainly, but sometimes also the possibility of another kind of world, a fleeting here-and-now where the relentless forward trajectory of the ark towards Ararat and covenant yield for a moment to dangerous lingering in precarity and shared vulnerability.
Dissonant stories endure.
An ark is a fortress, its price of admission too high…. and yet every ark has the potential to become a life raft, a refuge, a temporary haven. Every ark is fuller than intended. The same vessel that reduces boisterous lives to storable units and attempts minute regulation of the storylines it conveys will inevitably open the imagination even as it closes pens, cages, windows. As the waters rise and the ark begins to lift, quiet invention emerges, a provocation to creativity in disaster’s midst. Though its destiny is mountain and rainbow, Noah’s ark has a tendency to remain at sea. Despite the closing of alternatives an ark attempts, the trajectories it sails will veer unexpectedly, will offer the unbolting of the unforeseen. An ark conserves against present disaster and promises the resources necessary for beginning over. Yet an ark also attempts to assert human agency within, upon and against a world of noncompliant nonhuman actors, refusing containment, engendering entanglement. Creatures, elements, storms, oceans, climate, toxins, atoms, time and every other force and object placed at the exterior of the structure environ, push back.
An arkival voiding and a drawing down of limits may strive to found rigorous and enduring certainties, but will also produce fruitful ambivalence, intimate anarky. Arkiving is productive. As the patriark Noah came to know when he constructed his box of animal preservation with a single aperture and to a precise number of cubits, the vessel’s form can be constricting and its interior dark, claustrophobic. Yet the creatures housed within are not frozen in time: they live, they breathe, they eat and shit and struggle. As his ark organized its denizens and narratives, its walls proved far from watertight. Possibility and dissension seeped inside. Stowaways were discovered. Space aboard this millennium-crossing transport device constantly opened for vexing perplexities and the unfolding of unexpected dramas. As Noah’s menagerie of origins and carefully loaded hoard of prospects sailed towards unforeseen narrative destinations, the ark assumed a flotilla of forms that have kept it available for boarding, remodeling, and relaunching.
Every ark attempts to populate the world otherwise and thereby extends an irresistible provocation to think the world’s contingency and capaciousness, the chance to escape confinement and tell better stories, to begin again but without obliterating what precedes.