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)
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!
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
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
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
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Thursday December 1 3-5 PM
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
|photo by Jonathan Hsy|
- "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
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
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
Friday, March 18, 2011
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
[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.
- What do we mean by the “nonhuman” in medieval and early modern culture?
- 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?
- Is the nonhuman itself subdivided according to this principle of absolute exteriority, which would make of animal, vegetable, and mineral entirely discrete entities?
- 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?
- What do we mean by the “life” of animals, vegetables, and minerals in the medieval and early modern worlds?
- 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?
- How might the phrase “nonhuman lives” potentally reify even as it admirably pluralizes the “nonhuman”?
- What critical idiolects do we invoke when we refer to “nonhuman lives”?
- “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?
- “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?)
- “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?
- 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”?
- 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?
- How do the terms “nonhuman” and “lives” invite us to think of their nominal opposites?
- 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?
- The nonhuman would seem to presume the human. What is the status of the human once the nonhuman becomes an object of analysis?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
As you know, Jane Bennett's AVMEO keynote address is free and open to the public.
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
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.