For about two years now, the BABEL Working Group has been staging creative stealth interventions into medieval studies conferences [primarily the International Medieval Studies Congress at Kalamazoo and the annual meeting of the Southestern Medieval Association, but with plans to travel to the Congress at Leeds, the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society, and other venues for medieval studies]. The group is a non-hierchical scholarly collective with no top, bottom, or middle, composed of medievalists and other scholars working in premodern areas who are interested in a present-minded medieval studies as well as in a more history-minded “everything else” studies. Taking as its chief concern and “perpetual project” the place of the human person, humanism, and the humanities in a post-human and post-historical university [and world], we aim to collaborate [and have collaborated already] with scholars working in more modern areas of the humanities, but also with experts from the sciences and social sciences, literary and visual artists, and also those working outside of either the university or art more properly, such as human rights lawyers and systems analysts who work for corporations such as IBM. In addition to sponsoring sessions at various conferences, we have also collaborated on books and special journal issues, and are also working on grants for further collaborative work, symposia, and curricular reform. We also have plans to make a film in the summer of 2008, tentatively titled Provocations Toward a Post-Catastrophic Humanities, which we hope to premiere at a future meeting of the Modern Language Association. In this film, we plan to interview major figures in literary and historical studies, the fine arts, and the social and more hard sciences, in order to elicit some considered ruminations on the place of the humanities in a post-Katrina, post-viral pandemic, post-global warming, post-terrorism, etc. world, and also to draw out some reflections on whether or not “becoming posthuman” is itself a catastrophe for the humanities, and why or why not. Although the film will include figures from all fields, it will be a “medieval studies” production.
At this year’s 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies [Western Michigan University], the BABEL Working Group sponsored two sessions, “Premodern to Modern Humanisms” and “What Happened to Theory in Medieval Studies?” During the first session, which featured four medievalists [Betsy McCormick, Mary Ramsey, Tim Spence, and Karl Steel] and a geologist [LeAnne Teruya, San Jose State University], papers were presented that related medieval texts and genres, such as Old English elegy, the Morte D’Arthur, the Canterbury Tales, and the fifteenth-century Book of Hours, to such disparate subjects as iPods [as sites for the devotional self], Hedwig and the Angry Inch, work in science on crying and tears, and global positioning systems. One panelist, Karl Steel [Brooklyn College-CUNY] argued that one conclusion that could be reached from analyzing the various medieval discourses on the superiority of humans to all other animals, is that humans taste better. Further, “The deliciousness of human flesh naturalizes this purportedly most natural of differences. Nonetheless, if this separation succeeds in preserving human specialness, it does nothing to prevent anthropophagy: in fact it encourages it.” As regards our propensity to murder animals for meat, as it were, Karl concluded with this: “The fifteenth-century vernacular moral treatise Dives and Pauper proves that the verb ‘occidit’ of the Sixth Commandment does not apply ‘boþyn to man & of beste,’ but it still places limitations on the slaughter of animals: anyone who butchers an animal ‘for cruelte & vanite,’ that is, anyone who enjoys killing the animal, has sinned. For humans, however, there must be something in us more than mere life; we must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; our slaughter should not be simply a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure.” The response to this panel presented by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen can be accessed here.
At “What Happened to Theory in Medieval Studies,” Michael Uebel urged us to think of theory as a “how” and not a “what,” and further, to understand how the “point of theory is to suspend the finality of deep structures, and to elicit and amplify the forces of potential change”; therefore, theory is not a critique of reality but “a new, affirmative construction of the real.” Michael also urged us to refuse academic narcissism and to embrace the idea “that what one says comes from the place of not-yet-knowing.” The gangster-collaborators known as Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke reminded us of Jorgen Tessman, Hedda Gabler’s scholar husband in Ibsen’s play of the same name who “spends the entirety of his honeymoon scouring Europe for manuscripts and antiquities, all while his sexually frustrated wife practices with her pistols and dreams about the bad-boy critic Eiler Lovborg,” and what the play teaches us is that some scholars are “dull, lacking in imagination–both in their intellectual pursuits and, it seems, in bed. . . . Ignoring the erotic potential of human interaction, they have fallen in love with the dead–whose objects they fetishize.” In her talk, “Springtime for Theory,” Anna Klosowska talked about reading theorists “as a trove of strains of thought” against which her own arguments, in Dinshaw’s phrase, “groovily emerges.” Further, Klosowska expressed her need for these texts as “playmates and interlocutors,” although, albeit, it is a rather “lonely play date.” Nevertheless, her interest in postwar and current theory is, as she said, “based on my perception that it sharpens my ability to read premodern texts in order to have relevant conversations with living interlocutors in other fields, mostly modern.” James Paxson argued for a “revived biologism” in medieval and other studies of sex and sexuality, especially [and this is the cool counter-intuitive moment] because “science, which perforce must center sexual distinction and reproductive practice on the question of origins, cannot itself readily sort constitutive terms.” Further, the “most salient biological studies attempting a prehistory of sexuality and gender . . . have tried to distinguish the binary nature of genomic needs in sexual beings from the physiological agencies that deliver such genomic needs,” which is why it was possible for Jim at one point to invoke “a remarkable prosopoeia: the rectum doesn’t know it’s a rectum as the vagina doesn’t know it’s a vagina; both organs think they’re cloacae.” [And yes, you should look up cloacae.] If some of us aren’t sure we can apply the insights of modern science to medieval texts, Jim urged us to embrace “conceptual” and “creative” anachronism “as a critical tool of discovery.” Bonnie Wheeler sketched out a state of affairs in medieval studies whereby it can be seen to be either shrinking in size [becoming marginalized or eliminated altogether] or vigorously enlarging its productive territories, but most important to her was not that we “get [more] medieval” but that we “get [more] political.” Steven Kruger’s and Ethan Knapp’s responses were equally bracing, and interestingly, they both cautioned about the need to think more deeply about what we think we mean when we say we want to be “interdisciplinary.”
On a panel sponsored by the Society for Medievel Feminist Scholarship and the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, “Feminist Studies and Queer Studies: Affinities and Enmities” [featuring the eminent queer theorists and medievalists Steven Kruger and Carolyn Dinshaw, who both gave beautiful and moving papers, and also featuring a wonderful paper by Mark Fulk on sapphic sexuality in early modern England], I had an opportunity to present BABEL’s manifesto/love letter/lonelyhearts ad, “Beyond Feminist, Gender, Queer, Everything Studies: Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies.” This can be accessed via our group medieval studies weblog In The Middle here, where there is also an opportunity to comment and read whatever discussion evolves.