Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Digital Inquirers: GW MEMSI Welcomes GW Professor Alexander Huang and Folger Director Michael Witmore

We're overjoyed that two new scholars have entered the GW MEMSI community this fall semester:

1) Alexander Huang, GW Associate Professor of English, specializes in Shakespeare and globalization (especially Asia), Shakespeare and performance, and digital humanities. He is also Research Affiliate in Literature at MIT and General Editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook (since 2010). As co-founder and co-editor of Global Shakespeares, an open-access digital video archive based at MIT, he recently served as the video curator of an exhibition on early modern and postmodern Sino-European cultural exchange at the Folger Shakespeare Library. His research is more than just plugged-in: if you have not visited Global Shakespeares or his personal website yet, do so immediately. Professor Huang has been busy and abroad this summer; he gave a talk at the Edinburgh International Festival, "All the world's a stage," that touched on touring theatre, festivals in 21st century cultural life, Shakespeare's global career, King Lear, and The Tempest. He then conducted interviews for the televised BBC 2 Review Show and for "Classics Unwrapped" on BBC Radio Scotland. During these programs, he discussed global Shakespeare, the Edinburgh International Festival, and what's at stake in performing Shakespeare today. What's more, the GW Hatchet just published an interview with him, "Bringing Shakespeare to Life." Please acquaint yourself with his two most recent publications (below) and welcome him personally at a GW MEMSI event this academic year.

Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Columbia UP, 2009), winner of the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, an honorable mention of NYU’s Joe A. Callaway Prize for the Best Book on Drama or Theatre, and the International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS) Colleagues’ Choice Award

Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia and Cyberspace, co-edited with Charles Ross (Purdue UP, 2009)

2) Michael Witmore, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and newly-appointed Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. His research interests include Shakespeare, early modern intellectual history, and the history of materialism. He directs the Working Group for Digital Inquiry, a group of humanists who use computers to assist in traditional humanities research such as mapping the prose genres of Early English Books Online (EEBO). Take the time to navigate his blog, Wine Dark Sea. His most recent publication, Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare (Norton, 2010), was inspired by a painting in the library he now directs. You can read more about this work and his exciting new tenure in a Folger interview. We hope to have Professor Witmore headline an event for us in the near future.

Please welcome these two renowned scholars and "digital inquirers" to the GW MEMSI community!

Suzanne Miller Lunch Seminar 9/9/11

The first GW MEMSI Seminar of the 2011-12 year will feature the work of Suzanne Miller, an assistant professor in the History Department at GW. Her essay "Cycles of Violence and Penance: Crafting the Narrative of Venice's Adriatic Empire" is available for circulation immediately. Please email Lowell Duckert (lduckert@gwu.edu) to obtain a copy of the paper and to RSVP for the seminar.

We meet in Rome Hall 771 (Academic Center, 801 22nd St NW, Foggy Bottom Metro) on Friday 9/9 promptly at noon. A light lunch will be served. The seminar is a conversation about precirculated work in progress, so please arrive having read the essay and ready to give feedback and join the conversation.

In order to ensure that there is enough food, you must RSVP to Lowell to attend; if you do RSVP, please do come.

Professor Miller's interests include the intersection of politics and cultural production, the construction of authority, and cross-cultural encounter. Her current research focuses on colonial endeavor and foreign rule within the medieval Mediterranean. Read more here.

We look forward to seeing you on the 9th!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

For the record ...

... we would settle for the .5 in that 113.5.

We're cheap, and easily made happy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oliphaunt Books

Oliphaunt Books, sponsored by GW MEMSI, is an impress of punctum press. The website is up, as is the Facebook page.

More soon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Nedda Mehdizadeh on Re-mapping the Renaissance

Two years ago the National Endowment for the Humanities altered the rules slightly for their prestigious summer seminars, enabling two advanced graduate students to attend each program along with the faculty members who form their main audience.

GW MEMSI is very proud of our two PhD students in English who have earned difficult to obtain spots in these seminars, Nedda Mehdizadeh and Jessica Frazier. I've asked them to each report on the seminars they have taken. Nedda's account follows below. But first let me state here how proud I am of her achievement: I've known Nedda since she enrolled at GW as a masters student, and have admired her rapid intellectual growth. In the letter of endorsement I composed for her application I observed:
What I love about Nedda's work is the reciprocal model of influence she employs: she is not interested in simply tracing how the West attempts to exert its power over an exoticized East, but looks attentively to how the East has already exerted a deep and compelling influence over the West. Focusing upon her keyword of translation, Nedda argues that these relations never break into binaries, but are instead complicated, interlaced, and ambivalent. She is a lucid writer and a diligent researcher with competence in the necessary languages. Whether she is examining patristic exegesis or early modern travel literature (and even Milton’s Paradise Lost as travel literature), she has an eye for compelling detail and a commitment to deep historical contextualization. Her work will someday yield an important book.
Congratulations Nedda and we look forward to your future successes!

-- Jeffrey Cohen

Last year, just as the parameters of my dissertation project were becoming clearer, I received an email notification about a summer seminar funded by the NEH and led by University of Maryland-College Park’s Center for Baroque and Renaissance Studies. This program, “Re-mapping the Renaissance: Exchange between Early Modern Islam and Europe,” described its aim as expanding notions of East/West encounter by re-thinking how those in Europe and those in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa interacted in the early modern period. Building on current trends in scholarship that work to re-imagine a binary opposition in which the West dominates the East, the seminar brought little known sources written and produced by the “East” to the fore. What we found was an East that informed processes of mapmaking, exemplified a mutual exchange of ideas, and inspired artistic trends in the production of fashion and artifacts.

Responsible for the wide-ranging program that was attentive to a variety of disciplines and cultures were the seminar’s two directors – Adele Seeff, director of CRBS and professor of English at UMD as well as Judith Tucker, professor of History at Georgetown University. The three-week schedule included cartography, travel narratives, and trade objects, and inspired a series of fascinating and productive conversations among the seminar’s 17 participants (15 professors/independent scholars and 2 graduate students). The disciplines represented spanned art history, architecture, comparative literature, English literature, history, and religious studies and research interests included matters concerning England, Spain, Portugal, Germany, North Africa, Georgia, Persia Turkey, to name a few.  During the three weeks of the program, we discussed assigned readings and attended presentations, and each conversation led us to long lists of references that accompanied the  new perspectives we were gaining. We also shared personal research developments we encountered during individual research time, giving us the space and opportunity to process information with our new colleagues and develop our projects in surprising ways. And the environment, no matter what the topic of discussion, was always congenial, warm, and helpful, as well as challenging.

The afterlife of the seminar has also been impressive, and this is a great credit to the wonderful organizers of the program. With the help of phone/email lists as well as our reliable !Ning site, we continue to collaborate and share as a community of scholars.

We have become friends and colleagues who read each other’s work, organize panels for conferences, or add to our growing list of resources with helpful recommendations. It is because of these accomplished scholars and wonderful people that I have been able to approach my project with a new perspective and renewed excitement. This seminar has reshaped the themes of my project, as I am reminded to be more attentive to the generative nature of encounter rather than focusing solely on the dangers so many have hitherto spoken of. It has taught me to consider the other side, inspiring me not only to include eastern-written documents in my upcoming Fall course, “When East Meets West,” but also design the course under the same guidelines of “Re-mapping the Renaissance.” And, perhaps, most importantly, it has provided me with a community of people I will always be grateful to know.

-- Nedda Mehdizadeh


Three-week schedule

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fall 2011 Calendar of Events

Please mark your calendars and share this announcement widely. All events are free and welcome all who wish to attend.

Friday September 9 at noon
Lunch seminar
Suzanne Miller (History, GW): "Cycles of Violence and Penance: Crafting the Narrative of Venice's Adriatic Empire"
paper will be circulated two weeks in advance
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St NW

Friday October 7, 9 AM
Breakfast seminar
Jessica Frazier (English, GW), “Re-Orienting the Diamond: India, the Transnational Jewel Trade, and the Early Modern Theater”
paper will be circulated two weeks in advance
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St NW

Thursday October 27 4 PM
What Monsters Mean (discussion of the cultural significance of monsters from the medieval period to the present day by two experts in the field)
Marvin Center 310, 800 21st St

Friday October 28 12-2 PM
Monster Theory (seminar for interested faculty and graduate students; readings circulated in advance)
Jeffrey Weinstock and Asa Simon Mittman
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

Thursday December 1 3-5 PM
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

Friday December 2 11 AM
Critical Animal Studies (seminar for interested faculty and graduate students; readings circulated in advance)
With Karl Steel, Julian Yates, Peggy McCracken and Tobias Menely
Rome Hall 771, 801 22nd St

We are working on the spring semester calendar, and want to ensure that you hold this date:
Friday January 27 12 PM
Lunch seminar: Ben Tilghman (GW, Art History), "The Enigmatic Nature of Things"

To be added to our electronic distribution list, please contact Lowell Duckert, lduckert@gwu.edu

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Audiofiles for Objects, Networks and Materiality

The audio files for our Kalazoo session on "Objects, Networks and Materiality" may be found here.

Our thanks to Eileen Joy for recording and posting them!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kalamazoo Success

Thank you to everyone who attended or participated in our panel at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo last week. We had about fifty people in the audience, and a lively discussion that followed excellent presentations. Look for news here soon about next year's MEMSI panel.

photo by Jonathan Hsy
We were also honored to be at the punctum press launch. Again, look for an exciting announcement here related to this innovative press.

Objects, Networks, and Materiality (A Roundtable)
Organized and Presided over by Jeffrey Cohen, and Sponsored by GW MEMSI
  • "A Parliament of Things?" Laurie A. Finke
  • "Things without Faces" Julie Orlemanski
  • "Medieval Nets" Valerie Allen
  • "Passionate Matter" Elizabeth Blake
  • "Remediating Matter" Kellie Robertson
  • "The Ice Age Is Never Over" Lowell Duckert

Thursday, April 28, 2011

GW MEMSI funded through June 2013

The George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute is happy to announce that it has received funding through the Office of the Vice President of Research through June 2013.

We are pleased and grateful for this extension of our initial three year run into the next twenty four months ... and we look forward to creating that future with you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Objects and Agency Mini Conference

Please join the students of Jeffrey Cohen's graduate seminar "Objects, Agency and the Consitution of Life" on Thursday April 28 as we hold a mini-conference to conclude the course. The event takes place at 3 PM in the English Department seminar room, Rome Hall 771 (801 22nd St NW).

The panelists are:

Craig Mariconti, "'Hir owene dirke regioun': Inclination and the Life of Stone in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain"

Laura Feigin, "Powerlines in our Bloodlines: On the Temporality of Agency of Vibrant Matter in Marie de France's Guigemar"

Emily Russel, "Otherworldly Corpora: Why Sir Orfeo Looked Away When I Can’t"

Haylie Swenson, "Animal Angels: Nonhuman Intermediaries in Breton Lais"

After the conference we will toast the ending of the spring semester with a drink at a nearby place of libations. Please join us!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

AVMEO Afterthoughts

by Nedda Mehdizadeh

One large black work glove, one unblemished dead rat, and one smooth stick of wood. In this motley assortment of nonhuman “things” gathered near a storm drain in Baltimore, Jane Bennett found the inspiration for her provocative book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things – a response to different theorizations of matter (Kant, Spinoza, etc) as well as a “reply to a call from things.” For GWMEMSI, it was the springboard for a series of conversations that culminated in the spring conference, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in Early Modern and Medieval Periods.” The exchange Bennett experienced with these nonhuman objects left her with an enticing question: “What if the items really did – in some underdetermined sense – hail me?” As a result, her book attempts to contend with thing-power, with the agency of the object, the thing, the nonhuman entity, and its desires, its stories. The conference, likewise, attempted to contend with the same ideas, calling on a variety of scholars, including Valerie Allen, Eileen Joy, Sharon Kinoshita, Julia Reinhard Lupton, Peggy McCracken, Carla Nappi, Kellie Robertson, Karl Steel, and Julian Yates, not to mention many other scholars from across the continent sharing works-in-progress (or even thoughts-in-progress), to make sense of human and nonhuman interactions. What we came up with were .... well ... more questions à la Jonathan Gil Harris’s concluding remarks, but also perhaps a better idea of which questions to ask and a closer understanding of how we might share the world with our nonhuman cohabitants. What are these nonhuman “things” telling us? What are the ethics behind ventriloquizing their stories? In what ways do these interactions shape our approach to cultural studies?

For me, the nonhuman “things” that began our story, as well as other nonhuman “things” discussed during our two days of conferencing, were guides to unexpected places. As a graduate student working on Anglo-Persian encounter in the early modern period, objects have played but a bit part in my work, getting eclipsed by human interactions between Persian kings and English travelers. The truth is that I began thinking about my dissertation topic through objects. During the spring semester of 2007, my dissertation director, Gil Harris, introduced me to seventeenth-century travel writer Sir Thomas Herbert, and I was taken with his obsession with the ruins of Persepolis. Over the years, I have visited and revisited this moment  in his narrative without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion about what to make of the fragments that captivate Herbert – and, me. Or to use Bennett’s words, the objects of Persia’s ancient, fallen past have been calling to me. But their call has been largely ignored, or met with exasperation, like an exhausted mother without an idea of how to pacify her child who incessantly repeats “Mom. Mommy. Mama.”

Recently, however, I started thinking more critically about the structure of Persepolis, and what its fragments are doing. For Herbert, it is a portal to ancient Persia where the palace still stands in all its splendor and is still very much alive. For me, they are a bridge to many temporalities – ancient Persia, early modern Persia, modern day Iran. And I didn’t have to stray too far from home to begin making sense of this moment and its objects, turning, as I often do, to my professors and mentors: Jeffrey Cohen, in his article, “Stories of Stone,” from the inaugural edition of Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies and Gil Harris’s chapter on Othello/Desdemona’s handkerchief in his Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. During the AVMEO conference, I found myself transported to Herbert’s encounter over and over again, often by a nonhuman agent introduced by one of our fascinating speakers.

The animals of Sharon Kinoshita’s talk, “Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire,” were facilitators of exchange between the Christian and Islamic worlds, often associated with a variety of movements brought upon by gifting or bartering. But as the question/answer period following her talk indicated, these same movements occur with stone; as Kinoshita reminds us, the materials that make up the palace of Persepolis come from different locals, producing one structure made up of fragments from different places. Or the “Flower Girls” of Peggy McCracken’s paper which focuses on “a garden of plentitude” encountered by Alexander in Roman d’Alexandre whose forest can restore virginity. The filles de fleur are in many ways one with the forest and its virgin-(re)making properties after encounters with visitors – such as Alexander and his men – in what is perhaps a metaphor for the plentitude of virgin land that will offer itself to Alexander’s desire for empire-building. Or Valerie Allen’s “handout” – mine, a periwinkle gemstone with clouds of white – that fascinated me with its curves, dent, and coloring, giving me a tangible way to wonder at the “virtue” of an object. Or Carla Nappi’s Chinese words that translated and transliterated Persian script, underscoring the practices of “making sameness” and the importance of considering systems of identification in order to understand the early modern object that is, in many ways, foreign to us now. Each of these moments, brought about because of a nonhuman “thing,” made me think more about what is at stake in thinking about objects, particularly those from the many Persias I encounter in my work.

Something that I am realizing is that I might have been asking the wrong question about Herbert’s Persepolis all along. Maybe there is no stable, singular answer that will ever satisfy me because maybe that is not the point. Herbert, in each edition of his narrative (1634, 1638, 1664, 1677), goes back to Persepolis, reimagines the space, and rewrites it. It is his way of going back to that moment of history. To the moment of Persia’s splendor. To the moment that fascinates him most: Alexander’s destruction of the palace. Maybe it is the “going back” that matters here. Or at least, maybe it is the “going back” that matters to me. Persepolis takes me back. To my roots. To memories of stories told by my family about our past. To my first visit to Iran when I was a nine-year-old walking through the ruins, not fully understanding its importance or the stories the stones were telling, but knowing the profundity of the experience. To the stories it anticipates about Iran today. To the possibilities of what Iran might look like in the future. Eileen Joy, in her inspiring plenary entitled “You Are Here: A Manifesto,” discusses in part three “A Text Is A Sentient Being...” the ways in which texts are themselves vibrant matter. She says, “we might say that literary narratives, although they are, in one sense, completely unreal, or sur-real, and inhuman, pitch themselves at the real world and also create space (underground passageways, shelters, hiding places, root cellars), for that which cannot be brought into being, or cared for, anywhere else.” Returning to Persepolis – to a place that allows me to visit all of the versions of Persia/Iran – brings what is gone, what is left, what is meant to be into that space Joy talks about. Sifting through the ruins of Persepolis is, perhaps, my “reply to a call from things.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

It’s Co-implicated, AVMEO: Drifting with John Muir, Speaking Stones, and a Slower (Non)humanities

First, I wish to reiterate the comment Jeffrey Cohen made at In the Middle on the indescribability of last weekend’s conference. Secondly, this post tries not to fill in the blanks of the “AVMEO experience” as much as add another layer to the rich sediment surrounding the event. (Here I point to the brisk conversations happening now: posts by Eileen Joy at ITM; Jonathan Gil Harris and Nedda Mehdizadeh, my conference cohorts, at this blog; and the posts and threads to come, I’m sure.) As audio feeds become available over the next few weeks, those of you who were unable to join us over the nutritious, albeit rigorous and theoretically engaging, weekend will be able to participate in these conversations as well. Please do.

Although I don’t have any pressing Iowan engagements like Jeffrey, my words are nevertheless slow in coming. And despite that this conference, to paraphrase Julia Reinhard Lupton on Saturday night, feels like a “commencement” or an “initiation,” I’m still slow out of the gate.

But slowness, I know, is all right. The conference couldn’t have come at a more accelerated time in my doctoral career. I’m deep in my dissertation topic of “ecomaterialism:” exploring early modern landscapes (or any –scape) as vibrant (Bennett), living, actor-networks (Latour/Serres) of (non)human desires and assemblages (Deleuze). Sometimes I accelerate too fast – as this last sentence make clear. How do we (in the delicate sense of the “we”) compose with the world (in all senses of the word “compose”)? Ecomatter is my mind, and ecocriticism is a vast place to inhabit. And the ontological questions I ask – I need to ask – are beginning to get more “speculative.” Eileen, for example, used Timothy Morton’s work to describe the binary “bind” between human and nonhuman, inside and outside. According to Morton’s “dark ecology” we can’t cancel or preserve this binary, just accept it, and should furthermore delve deeper into it than deep ecology allows. His “melancholic ethics” means “loving the thing as thing,” even if it means staying in the “slime” or “this poisoned ground.”[i] How can/do things relate? Graham Harman was the other absent interlocutor for many of us at the conference. Eileen brought up his object-oriented-ontology in her talk as well – never really touching, objects and their relationships recede from us, relating only to one another in the presence of a third (the vicar) in “vicarious causation.”[ii] Questions abound (rightfully so; see Gil’s post) and complications emerge. The “ethics of interdependence” that Eileen ardently spoke of feels suddenly necessary. Ethics is, in Eileen’s words, “a slowing down,” a welcoming of the other, an addition of beauty. We should listen to the countless inhuman actors in the world, start forming alliances for more sentience (and keep doing it!), and make room for hospitality and its possibilities. (Listen to Peggy McCracken’s captivating talk regarding the host as well.) To paraphrase two (or four?) of Eileen’s alerts, you are here and there are relations. Hello, everything – we’re co-implicated.

So let’s slow down. I want to pick up on Eileen’s idea of the humanist as a “slow recording device,” a being involved in a world of complication (relationships and theories of relationality, of which Morton and Harman are only two, to be sure) who also describes a world of co-implication, of sentience, becomings, and desires shared between actants – whether inanimate or animate. What happens when we slow down, when we take the time to take these ethical steps seriously?

I will try to trace a solid example. (“Track”, actually, might be more useful when talking about steps left behind for us, borrowing from Julian Yates’s woolly speech.) Not surprisingly, I turn to an object – no, not the speeding beach ball hurled at Jeffrey’s head. I’m speaking rather of the stone I retrieved from Valerie Allen’s lapidary grab bag during her talk on “Mineral Virtue.” There is a surprise to this object, after all. Valerie’s lecture, while addressing in its content what Jane Bennett calls “thing-power,” also brought up issues of material agency in its very method. The randomness of the bag – why did I receive an alluring light blue rock that now cohabits my apartment? – underscores what Julian elsewhere has called “agentive drift.” For Julian, drift represents agency itself: when/how one becomes an actor, what these varying actors will become across their endlessly variable networks, into what aleatory directions they might go, “a dispersed or distributed process in which we participate rather than as a property which we are said to own.”[iii] This process importantly produces. Think of Carla Nappi’s consideration of “things as motion” in her discussion of how things undergo “cottonification.” Becoming light-blue stone, perhaps, is the slowest thing imaginable. But drifting with the random stone connected me at that moment, and connects me still, to others with their mutifarious rocks. This form of audience participation or petrification?) shores up one of Julia’s points neatly: how the proximity of assembly and assemblage relates the essential (inter)dependence between persons and things (once again). Was not the conference, at its heart, as event, this very thing?

But wait! Slow down. There’s an additional thing out of the bag (at least for now). I’m speaking about the rock as part of a “domestic ecology” (Julia). Or, should I say, I’m speaking to it? Or, should I say, it’s speaking to me? As I write this, it is “over there” on my desk. For some critics, minding place poses the very problem of contact and how things relate. Yet in my conversation with the stone – I use “conversation” deliberately; stressing the con- (with) and the verse (to turn) – my very writing (right now!) is an alliance, a thing that exists because it is a relation and produces relations (Latour). These continuous connections – stone, keyboard, kiwi, you the reader – shouldn’t primarily lead to the complications of causality, origin, and distance, for they fundamentally take us to the weird joys, strange horizons, and new modes of being that co-implicated assemblages afford. And they should at least drift us away from the bullying terms of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism that (too often) mire ecocriticism. The speaking-writing-stone-subject-object-that-I-am does not dissolve the human/nonhuman border in an act of prosopopoeia, but in fact highlights this border’s ontological nonexistence altogether. In turn, an “ethics of interdependence” involves the “humanist recording device” tracing these tracks of (non)human connections all the while making new ones slowly across time. Ecopoesis would be one example. What else?

Like speaking stones. Like stooping to stone. I think we have a lot to learn from the zany ethics of someone like John Muir, the nineteenth-century Scottish naturalist known for, in addition to his tireless preservationism, his eccentric habits and perambulations in the Yosemite Valley. Muir, in other words, was a consummate drifter; he drifted with the world. Coincidentally, he was ridiculed for the strange habit of “stone sermons,” moments when he dialoged with living rock (his belief) and recorded the lessons learned. Take his methodology, for instance:

“I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove. Where night found me, there I camped. When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to say. When I came to moraines, or ice-scratches upon the rocks, I traced them, learning what I could of the glacier that made them. I asked the boulders I met whence they came and whither they were going. I followed [...]”[iv]

Muir stoops to listen, not to conquer. He beautifully encapsulates what Jane invoked in her keynote lecture about hoarders: “Hearing the call of things.” As such, Muir risks the same pathologization that hoarders incur for their “preternatural vital materialism.” As I’ve been suggesting in this response, an ethics of interdependence is just Muir’s method: an ethics attuned to the voices of things (like rocks) spoken to (“I asked”) and heard from (“to hear what it had to say”). The humanist recording device translates these voices into a body of work, thereby inventing an assemblage of (non)human traces. By drifting “from rock to rock” with a living landscape, by following the boulders’ physical tracks (“whence they came and whither they were going”) Muir’s “traced” (or written) experiences emerge. Nevertheless, although “hearing the call of things” for Muir is a powerful moment of interdependence, Jane reminded us that this “call” is not one devoid of complications. Kellie Roberston, in a sparkling lecture on Chaucer as “man-mineral assemblage” brought to mind “dead” rocks as well. Karl Steel’s and Sharon Kinoshita’s animal lectures put pressure on animal/human boundaries but also exposed the fears that perpetuate them: the precarious “living lupine home” (Karl), the “taxonomic imagination” of Christianity versus Islam (Sharon). In others words, things are complicated. Ultimately, what is crucial to remember is that there are relations, and that hearing the calls of animals, vegetables, and minerals – hello, everything – leads us into places unknown, both dark and beautiful, and into co-implicated conversations, Muir-like, that we “follow” and “follow” and “follow” some more.

[Thank you to the panelists, speakers, and participants who made AVMEO such a success. Special thanks to my vibrant committee co-members: Jeffrey Cohen, Jonathan Gil Harris, and Nedda Mehdizadeh.]

[i] Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[ii] See, for instance, “Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos: A New Theory of Causation” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 6:1 (2010).

[iii] See “Towards a Theory of Agentive Drift; Or, A Particular Fondness for Oranges circa 1597” in parallax 8:1 (2002).

[iv] John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979) 69.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Animal Vegetable Mineral: Twenty Questions

by Jonathan Gil Harris

[The following was delivered at the conclusion of the AVMEO conference (3/11/2011, Washington DC) and is offered here as a provocation to further discussion. Please add your answers, observations, and comments to this post!]

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.  If this conference’s theme sounds like a pre-modern version of the parlor game “Twenty Questions,” it is perhaps only appropriate that my response should also take the form of twenty questions.  The parlor game’s questions seek to arrive through processes of elimination and guesswork at a positive individual entity; but I hope my questions will do the opposite – that is, resist the allure of any singular or final answer to what constitutes the “Nonhuman Lives” of our conference.

So here goes.

  1. What do we mean by the “nonhuman” in medieval and early modern culture?

  1. Are we dealing (as the Animal Vegetable Mineral parlor game does) with taxonomies of the natural world that presume, as did Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1735, the exteriority of the nonhuman to the human?

  1. Is the nonhuman itself subdivided according to this principle of absolute exteriority, which would make of animal, vegetable, and mineral entirely discrete entities?

  1. Or did medieval and early modern writers see the nonhuman as always already in the human – and, by logical extension, the mineral in the vegetable, the vegetable in the animal, and so on?

  1. What do we mean by the “life” of animals, vegetables, and minerals in the medieval and early modern worlds?

  1. As Laurie Shannon has noted, writers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance tend not to speak of “life” but of “lives.”  This plural form certainly appeals to those of us who wish to resist making of “life” a universal abstract exchange value.  But what exactly do we pluralize when we speak of “lives” rather than “life” – singular living entities, individual conceptions of “life,” otherwise homogeneous taxonomic categories?

  1. How might the phrase “nonhuman lives” potentally reify even as it admirably pluralizes the “nonhuman”?

  1. What critical idiolects do we invoke when we refer to “nonhuman lives”?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might tap into the language of biopolitics, famously codified by Xavier Bichat, who in 1800 characterized life as “a habitual succession of assimilation and excretion.”  Bichat’s conception of life draws loosely on Aristotle’s conception of nutritive life as diminished in relation to higher forms of animal and human life.  And this distinction itself resonates with the well-known Greek hierarchy of zoe – or bare life – and bios – or life proper to the polis, an ordering that Giorgio Agamben sees as crucial to the crypto-theological constitution of modernity.  How may “lives” in the plural implicitly presume a distinction between the meaningful and the negligible life?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might also suggest Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff’s influential conceptions of object biographies as they move from one arena of valuation to another.  Are “lives,” then, diachronic extensions through space and time of individual entities – like Eleanor of Acquitaine’s vase and Emperor Frederick’s exotic animals (as discussed by Sharon Kinoshita) – or of entity-producing practices (as in Carla Nappi’s account of cotton-ification and China-fication?)

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might presume less diachronic extension through time than forms of agency.  Drawing on Jane Bennett’s accounts of vibrant matter and the hoard, we can think of nonhuman things as participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration, communicating with other actants.  Things, in Bennett’s words, call us.  But if things call, will we come?

  1. What do all these understandings of nonhuman lives do to our conceptions of time, chronology and period, including the very terms “medieval” and “early modern”?

  1. Diamonds are forever, the saying goes.  The geological time that compresses carbon into adamant and eventually a diamond crystal is almost inconceivably long; the millions of years that it takes to produce a diamond make our conception of period, or even Fernand Braudel’s longue duree, seem impossibly short.  As Manuel De Landa notes in his discussion of non-organic life in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, periods are simply local strata in larger “glacial” temporalities that include the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms.  And yet our restratifications of those flows do possess a historicity according to specific logics of production.  Diamonds are forever, but the social life of the blood diamond that comes from modern Sierra Leone differs from that of the bloody diamond that comes from Sir John Mandeville’s medieval India, retrieved by a swooping eagle from the bottom of a canyon on a slab of animal meat thrown by the eagle’s handler.  Each presumes different modes of supply, labor, exchange, and even imaginative possibility.  How, then, do nonhuman lives ask us both to dispense with human history and to recognize the impossibility of doing so?

  1. How do the terms “nonhuman” and “lives” invite us to think of their nominal opposites?

  1. Death may seem to be the opposite of, and excluded from, life.  Yet in medieval and early modern theology all living matter was potentially considered dead.  This wholesale mortification was resisted in various vitalist traditions, which understood seemingly dead matter as heterodox forms of sublunary life possessed of “virtue,” as Valerie Allen’s discussion of Albertus Magnus reminded us.  And, as Karl Steel pointed out, the phrase “dead matter” presumes that it must have once been alive for it to die.  How, then, should we understand death in relation to nonhuman lives?

  1. The nonhuman would seem to presume the human.  What is the status of the human once the nonhuman becomes an object of analysis?

  1. Thomas Nagel advocates that humans should imaginatively attempt to become the bat they cannot be; the Renaissance poet George Vaughan asks his readers to acknowledge the vital vegetal life that we all possess; Geoffrey Chaucer, as Kellie Robertson reminded us, imagined himself as iron between two magnets.  Are such imaginative acts of becoming-nonhuman antihumanist, posthumanist, neohumanist?

  1. Lupine/sylvan children (Karl Steel); petromorphic prosopopoeia (Kellie Robertson); anthropofloral hospitality (Peggy McCracken); co-implicated interdependence/astral projection (Eileen A. Joy); sheepish sidetracks (Julian Yates).  What are the ethics of such nonhuman becomings?

  1. Heinrich Nolle has suggested that “humans ape plants.”  More specifically, we have seen maidens ape flowers in Peggy McCracken’s paper.  What happens – as the syntax of Nolle’s phrase invites us to do – when we start thinking of humans and nonhumans in terms of networks (or meshes, to use Timothy Morton’s term) that conjoin multiple actants?

  1. Take the Bezoar stone.  Edmund Scott certainly did.  In his 1603 treatise An Exact Discourse … of the East Indians, Scott refers to the Bezoar stone as one of the most hotly coveted commodities in Java.  This seeming mineral was of unusual provenance: it was a carbuncle excised from the intestine of an animal, usually a goat, and was believed to be caused by eating too much persimmon fruit.  The Bezoar stone was believed also to possess miraculous medicinal powers: it was traditionally ingested by the European traveler to combat the noxious effects of the pathogenic vapors she inhaled in the hot and humid climate of Java. So what is the Bezoar stone, and what are its lives – Animal, Vegetable, Mineral …


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

AVMEO: Images for Bennett's "Powers of the Hoard"

As you know, Jane Bennett's AVMEO keynote address is free and open to the public.

She has asked me to post images from her address ahead of time (see below). Please acquaint yourself with them now, for they will not be displayed during lecture.

Just a reminder: the event takes place this Friday 3/11 in Room 309 of the Marvin Center (800 21st St. NW).

“Powers of the Hoard: Notes on Material Agency”

Though there are historical concepts to draw from in the history of philosophy, a distinctively contemporary vocabulary for a world of thing-power is still in the making, at least within the humanities and social sciences. In the talk, I try to add to that vocabulary, primarily by examining what hoarders -- considered as people who are preternaturally attuned to things -- have to teach us. This idiolect is directed not toward capturing the things outside of us but toward changing our own sense-perception, tuning it toward the frequencies of the thing-powers within and around our bodies. How to render the self more susceptible to the non-linguistic communicability between vibrant materials? I seek also to critically assess the theory of "thing-power" and the "agency of assemblages" that I pursued in Vibrant Matter by engaging some more trash, indeed a whole hoard.