Sunday, July 29, 2012

Re Portlandiabus

Scholar stone at the Chinese Gardens
When I became stranded in Chicago and found myself spending the night in a hotel with a woman from Portland I'd just met who is a Paleolithic baker who un-schools her children, I knew that I would love the city.  That my occasion for being there was to attend the New Chaucer Society gathering and to reconnect with old friends guaranteed it.  A more intentional and well-lived city you will seldom find.  I witnessed slow, quiet conversations between police officers and homeless Gothic-punk teens, free public transportation downtown, an interconnected food culture of small purveyors and fresh everything, and a setting - with Mount Hood watching over it all, and Mount Saint Helen gazing from afar - that takes your breath away.  While we were gathered in our meeting rooms, reading papers, being pushed and warmed by ideas, an enormous block of stone 330' at its base was pushing itself up (being pushed?) from the crater of Mount Saint Helen's.  The rock formation, known ichthyic-morphically as a fin, juts straight up at over 300'. It grows (and here I ask you to read slowly) at a rate of 4.6'(1.4 meters) a day.  So while we met and spoke and thought, a stone formation understood as the part of a fish that provides movement propelled itself into the world another 18'.  That is definitely my kind of conference.  Now, it won't last forever, neither the fin nor the conference.  The fin will eventually collapse in on itself (gravity, structure, the limits of miracles), but in doing so will be rebuilding the summit of Mount Saint Helen's that was exploded when the volcano erupted in 1980.  I could pursue the metaphor about academic ideas striving forth and collapsing and rebuilding into massive structures, but... actually, why not?  There is a dynamism there, an insistence and a power, that I see in both ideas and stones.  And as a great lithic sympathizer, when I dub something stony, it is by no means an insult. It is always an invitation to consider the material.

An impossible rose at the Rose Gardens
And this consideration of the material was very much the tenor and condition of the conference.  The role/place/effect of interpretation, the presence of human and what has been dubbed non-human, the locus of animation.  It is always a wonder to me to hear the English of Chaucer and Chaucer's day come alive in the tell-tale quotes that scholars isolate to make the points of their papers.  It's a beautiful, lyrical sound and unfurls richly upon the tongue - a very material thing.  But what happens to the liveliness of the text, what this liveliness might mean and how it might be used to mean something in our time was more contested than I've seen in past conferences.  This is a very good thing indeed - it means that something is at stake, that there is movement and tension.  Does a text only mean something to its human interlocutors?  What if we get away from the obligations of meaning that we have carved out for our own human importance, and think instead of articulation?  And yes, I'm thinking of articulation in the botanical sense of the term: as an "internode," the space between two joints in a plant. (Here's a nice picture, and here's a pithy (I can't stop!) explanation). Might a text articulate an ocean instead of give it meaning or mimesis?  Might the ocean articulate itself through a text? Jonathan Hsy, Steve Mentz, and James Smith opened up the possibilities of the ocean (cavernous though they may be) for me and an entire rapt audience on this.  The panel on "Animate Objects and Ecologies" that Allan Mitchell organized, and that I tremulously/happily was on, laid out texts, containers, straws, glass, and colors to witness animation, to struggle with articulation between the nodes of one thing and another, even more than between the nodes of human and non-human. Things happen (in every sense of the phrase) when you start to wonder about straws left in books, badger hairs for brushes to paint stained glass, colors that are things, and texts that are so permeated with perforated contained that they become oceanic. Other discussions became fraught over the issue of agency - a reluctance, both ethical and professional, to displace (some understood dismiss) the human.  But, and I don't think I'm just trying to be comforting here, object oriented ontology doesn't seek to dismiss the human - it's human primacy that it seeks to question and, yes, definitely displace. In doing so, it allows for an entirely new alignment of human and other agency in, to my mind, a more vibrant world.  A more ethical one, too.  If you want to see where/how this could take you, what this all might be, how this might change the way Things Are, read about celestial nourishment with Eileen Joy, read about prismatic ecologies with Jeffrey Cohen. Glorious.

Tree/stone configuration on the way to Tamawanas Falls
And then there are settings in which human primacy is such a laughable vanity that I almost feel protective of our fragile, devastating humanity.  The Columbia Gorge leads you away from Portland and if you keep going you can eventually circle Mount Hood and find yourself hiking up towards the Tamawanas Falls.  The ground is steady and dusty - it's more compacted volanic ash than dirt (in fact I think that it is compacted volanic ash) and the path that's been carved out gives itself easily (here) to wild formations of tree roots and stones.  The nature I thought I knew disappears.  It helped to read Brian Doyle's marvelous marvelous book, Mink River before coming here, it helped to remember other ecosystems unfolded in Ann Patchett's State of Wonder - but nothing really prepared me for the Falls themselves.

Tamawanas Falls
Ok - that's not entirely true.  This is exactly how I imagined the boy-meets-dragon scene in How To Train Your Dragon.  There's an entirely different ecosystem around the falls: the water hits so hard when it comes down that it sprays an entire 80' semi-circle with a fine mist - this in addition to the river that throws itself lustily through the rocks.  And so: vibrant green, and small birds that make their nests behind the falls, and unexpected meadows.  And all this with beautiful, generous friends who took me out and about and in and out of thickets and thoughts with tremendous good will and sharp wit and the brilliance of an Indian food feast at the end of the day.  Wonders untold laid in wait - and now to make good on them all.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

CFP: Eco-Critical Approaches to Medieval Art

Fontaine Ste.-Barbe (Le Faouët, Brittany)
Eco-Critical Approaches to Medieval Art: East and West
ICMA (International Center of Medieval Art) Panel at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies
May 9-12, 2013 at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI
Organizers: Anne Harris and Nancy Sevcenko

How did the use of natural materials affect the meaning of medieval works of art? How did the act of representing nature construct the concept of the natural? What do medieval works of art reveal about the interaction of natural forces and human agents?  Ecocriticism explores conceptualizations of nature, both in its material presence and in its abstract representations.   It invites a study of medieval art with a keen interest in the "stuff" of nature used in the fabrication of art (wood, stone, glass, gem, metal, vellum, and ivory) as well as in the "image" of nature produced by visual representations (in the form of landscapes, gardens, animals, stones, trees, flowers, the human body, and the cosmos). Personified as the "Child of God and Mother of things" by Alain de Lille, Nature transmitted a divine agency into the material world.  In Christian Materiality, Caroline Walker Bynum argues for devotional objects as "disclosures of the sacred through material substance."  How can we investigate medieval art objects at their point of intersection with natural matter and human experience?

This panel seeks to reassert and explore the agency of natural matter upon its human "interactors" through both devotional and secular works of art.  We invite papers that explore the materiality of medieval works of art as it relates to the natural world, that analyze the representation of nature as it conceptualizes nature, and/or that localize works of art within cultural constructions of the natural.  Beyond being curious about the ability of works of art to "reflect" attitudes to nature, this panel asks how works of art in the European, Byzantine and Islamic Middle Ages shaped conceptions of the natural, made nature present within a devotional or secular context, and evoked the divine agency of nature through its materiality.

Please send paper proposals consisting of a one-page abstract and a complete Participant Information form (available on the Congress website) by September 15 to either one of the organizers: Anne Harris ( or Nancy Sevencko (

Monday, July 9, 2012

Parting (Hewn Redux)

Boucicaut Master, 15th c. Fitzwilliam Museum
I've spent the morning in and out of the Garden of Eden, with Genesis, with Hugh of Saint Victor's Didascalicon, and in and out of modern authors and their takes on it all (a couple of recent vivid examples assembled here by Jeffrey Cohen), and, as happens when I'm overloaded or overwhelmed (how am I going to get this all down into a syllabus? what to take from it all for my article? my short presentation next week?), I clear the decks by asking needlessly naïve questions.  So I start to wonder about the animals in and after Eden: are they expelled as well? do they have a "fall," too? or do they just "go with" Adam and Eve out into the world? Here, a marvelously ambiguous image: I always think at first that Adam and Eve are in Eden and everything outside their enclosure is outside of Eden.  But then, how to explain the lounging angels (so casual! the red sword more colorful than brandishing) and the several animals outside the enclosure (the swan, the fish leaping out of the water behind the enclosure, the bird perched on the enclosure itself, that little mouse, the swan the fish the hen pecking outside and the rooster looking inside the enclosure), and the unobstructed opening whence a river pours forth?  Are we not, instead, in some enclosure within Eden, created especially (?) for this meeting between Adam and Eve?  This ambiguity helpfully troubles the otherwise absolute break of the expulsion, the interminable inside and outside that the expulsion provokes, the endless yearning for return and reconciliation that it initiates.

"Parting" is a term in geology that denotes the breaks along parallel lines in rocks due to stress (in utter layman's terms). Once it is made, that's it, the stone is never whole again.  And I think of this geological act of hewing, (and of seeing it in those Squire Boone caverns), and I think of the hewn as a primal human condition (order hewn from chaos, Adam hewn from dirt, Eve hewn from Adam, humans hewn from Eden - some of these thoughts assembled here), and all of a sudden just now it became important to think about animals' parting from some Eden state.  Darwin and the urban pigeon would point to adaptability instead of Eden, Donna Haraway and Tim Morton would tell me to stop looking for origins and original states already, but (because I am just as fascinated by the mythology of Eden as I am by our potential freedom from/abandonment of it) I would want to pause and insist on asking about the post-Edenic fate of the pre-human.  Animals were created before Adam and Eve in this our heavy and laden Judaeo-Christian ecology.  When humans parted from Eden for their moral failing, how did this affect the animals in Eden? Are animals innocent morally? Innocent of morality? There's undoubtedly an answer in medieval theology, I just have to keep reading (and keep thinking through Karl Steel's book).  But until then, I will keep turning to the pre-human as a way to consider the ecologies of the non-human and the post-human: did/do they have partings?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

TIYDK #3: Squire Boone Caverns

We lost the heat very quickly (it couldn't possibly follow us all 160 feet down), and then, soon after, we lost a predictable sense of scale, a proper sense of time - gone in the wonder and the questioning and the incredible busyness of caverns. With Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher getting lost in that cave, with Oliver giving me a trick for differentiating basic rock formations (stalactites have to hang on tight to stay suspended from the ceiling), with watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams, caverns have become a place, a particular kind of space where we could bring our bodies to wander within the shifts and grunts and artistry of stone.

The Big One
As with so much of natural formation, it's the relentlessness, the insistence, the purposefulness that gets me.  It takes a hundred years for a cubic inch of stalactite to create itself (building itself down), longer I think for a stalagmite (building itself up).  Here, the two have met, have found each other, have joined, after millions of years.  It is a monument to seismic yearning.  There is pathos in stone, to be sure (think of the curve and sigh of a medieval sculpture or, go ahead, of a Rodin marble), but desire on this scale, reaching across such a primal gap as space, well, an unbearable heaviness of being comes to mind.

Flow Stone
What's hard to discern is what is reaching for what exactly.  The other parameter you lose is that of matter: which has the agency here, stone or water? It's water that was here in the form of a Mississippian era sea about 350 million years ago, it's sediment that remained to layer itself into stone, it's water that carved out the stone into caverns, it's the stuff of stalactites and stalagmites that is rebuilding walls of stone.  There's an ebb and flow, a monumentality, to all this - and so our water and stone metaphors mix.  Geological vocabulary is at ease with these hybridities.  Behold the flow stone: calcium carbonate remains as water flows over stone and creates a stone that looks to move like water, that stills the time of water's flow, that turns water into stone.

The marks of earth tides
Earth tides are such a moment, earth tides leave strange markings.  They defy my comprehension and I will seek help from my geologist friends, because what I understand so far literally moves the ground beneath my feet.  The key line from the Wikipedia entry for me is: "The Earth tide encompasses the entire body of the earth and is unhindered by the thin crust and land masses of the surface, on scales that make the rigidity of rock irrelevant." Jeffrey Cohen's geochoreography comes to life anew! It's a complicated dance to understand involving the gravity of both the sun and the moon and beautiful phrases like "lunar tidal forcing" (do the stones not want to dance?), but the steps are simple: up and down, and so the Earth's surface moves in re-markable ways: daily, weekly, fortnightly.  I already look forward to what the conversation with my colleague, wherein I know already that I will experience what to me is a wondrous phenomenon: a concept that at my first read is inscrutable will, through their patient and metaphorical explanation, click, lock into a sense of scale that I can, at least in their presence with my questions, briefly hold.

So is it the scale that makes "the rigidity of rock irrelevant"? Because I would think that it would make something pretty spectacular make "the rigidity of rock irrelevant."  But scale, a shift in perspective, seems rather possible.  Although I suppose that the ability to shift perspective (visually, ethically, temporally) is pretty spectacular.  This shot, I'm fairly certain, is on a human scale: that is, we could apprehend all of these forms, we could encircle the thickness of the stalactites with our hands (but we don't touch them, as our guide says, because the oil in our hands would cause the stalactite to stop growing - another question for a geologist!).  But I could also choose to see those two vertical forms at the bottom as the size of humans and then everything shifts - and there are huge caverns that leave the human scale far behind. There's a map (I'll have to get a hold of it) that shows all of the caverns in the United States of America, and you can see where the enormous inland sea was millions of years ago, and you notice the line of caverns through Tennessee which seems to exist in some strange echo with the Appalachian mountains.  The enormity of the network yawns beneath our feet, known to few living creatures save bats and other near-invisibles.

Squire Boone
And Squire Boone.  This is the morbid/mystical part that made these caverns the first of Indiana's for us to visit. In 1790, Squire (his name, given him by his father, an English Quaker who came to Pennsylvania in 1696, and his mother, a Welsh woman who, in bearing Squire, gave birth to the tenth of her eleven children) and his brother Daniel Boone discovered the caverns while eluding "pursuing Indians" (as reads a marker above ground outside the find spot). The caverns became "holy ground" (the marker again) for him and when, many years later in 1809 he returned to build a grist mill and settle down here, he planned for his burial within the cavern.  He was originally elsewhere, but the walnut coffin ("hewn (hewn!) from native timber" reads the marker) disintegrated within the atmospheric conditions (the relentless work of stone and water making wood more than irrelevant).  His bones were scattered by various and sundry creatures engaged in their own relentless pursuits, but in the 1970s, when the caverns were being prepared for human visitors, they were regathered (identified by the eleven wounds he had sustained in his days as a pioneer and frontiersman and lived to tell about and have recorded). The original marble marker had also been rapidly devoured by the cavern and just this year a brand new one was installed.  The coffin is new (and newly sealed forever) and Squire's remains really truly are inside. You see it on your way into the caverns, but the guide sits you down to talk about it only on your way out. A tiny little girl asked "But how do you know that's really Jesus in there?" It is clearly VBS (vacation bible school) season in Indiana.

I don't really want to go above ground yet. I want to keep us here a little bit longer, see these seepings fingering their way out of earth tide cracks, listen to the echoes of tiny questions, talk more with Oliver as he considers that the only difference between these constructions and sand castles is time (and a tiny flicker of human agency), think more about the crazed Europeans who grabbed land and claimed rights and found holiness, remain in the increasingly thrilling and excruciating presence of something so fantastic, so willfully complete and morphing.

Gem Mining!
But ok, ok - it's time to go and our babysitter can babysit even today, so the office happily awaits, so let's go back up and see their glee at a bit of gem mining.  There's a whole village up around Squire Boone Caverns, including an enormous "Rock Shop." It's all privately owned (as are all the caverns in Indiana) and it's striking: none of the towns around here are big enough to make it on the radar of chain restaurants, you can't take any major highways here from where we are, and so you instantly feel very far away from anywhere else.  The owners have made the place a site for gems  - they ship to all these different places in the States from here.  Who knew?

Chosen by humor
And so I was able to make a little project for the Ecology of Medieval Art class I've been thinking about for a while now into a reality: it's with stones that I want to start the conversation about actor network theory and ecology both, and I'll do it by placing a stone at all places around the seminar table. Some students will just sit down, others will choose their seat based on the stone at its place, and so some of us will have been moved by stone and so we will need to ask why.  As I chose my 20 stones for 20 students, I already had to ask myself about why we would (could even) "choose a stone."  Aesthetics in beauty, linguistics in naming, a little bit of humor (Oliver didn't even really stop walking as he passed by and quipped "what scared it so badly?" - see photo above), a more personal reason or desire? It's a microcosm of the class and I need to think about the opening writing prompt a lot more, but it's a start. Strange things are already happening: I love the 20 stones and I know all of their names already (the promising "Aventurine," the delicate but dangerous "Satin Spar," the mysterious "Lodestone"), and can't help but wonder which student will pick which stone, and will I associate that student with that stone and vice versa (I'm going to ask them to keep their stones all semester, as they will be the starting point for several writing prompts). Yet when Iris asked, herself incredulous, "So, are you going to let the students keep them?" I was already kind of sorry that I'd have to let them go.   

One last scamper into the woods and a tiny creek and, in the still, hot air, the absolute thrill of feeling a rush of cool, vigorous air and thus finding another cleared opening to the cave, the water visibly rushing out to greet us, but maybe also sending us on our way.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Once more...

Hunting and Gathering (uh, Harriet the Spy is for Iris)
The upcoming New Chaucer Society meeting is on my mind, and making me think both about last year's Kalamazoo paper (on stained glass as interpretation in The Book of the Duchess) and this year's round table (Animate Objects and Ecologies) and all of the other projects that are pending, but available to lucid contemplation in the suspended state that is summer.  I want to write in all directions (about the storms, about the shape of the St. Fiacre project, about the wonderful intersections of the disparate books I'm reading, about a soon-to-be publicized Call for Papers that I (gulp) will be putting Out There), but each of those is its own thing.  Enough tonight to celebrate the gracious wonder of friends, three muses who teach at the University of Chicago and who invited me to come up for the day to talk about book chapters, projects, and Things Medieval.  Virginity, allegory, materiality, nature - four different projects, yet intertwined by the time the day was over.  My own thinking about an eco-critical art history is becoming more layered, starting to include questions about the motivations of representing nature: how does the visualization of nature conceptualize nature? I can isolate some of what I would consider "natural matter" (stone, wood, gem, vellum, I could easily go on) used in making medieval art - but pressed to identify representations of nature in medieval art, I couldn't easily name "landscape," "animal," "plant," as isolated examples because natural things are so deeply intertwined with human existence - is there even a nature "out there" in medieval art (culture)?  Nonetheless, I still wonder about a medieval response to nature - was it aesthetic? was it framed by...? (When I put this to Mac (the modernist, mind you) he said "No, the response was more likely to be one of terror." Ponder).  I feel myself moving closer to certain medieval objects (certain landscapes, back to the alabaster panels, the plants of the St. Fiacre choir screen) - but still wanting to read gobs more.  And so off to the Seminary Co-Op, treasure trove of my graduate school years, generous haven of possibility.  Graduate school was brutally competitive (huge M.A. classes winnowed to tiny PhD co-horts) and my experiences at a southern women's college, imbued with hazelnut coffee and backrubs and the smell of clove cigarettes while we read each other the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (good lord, it's all true), had done little to prepare me to be tough.  But the Seminary Co-Op reminded me blissfully that I could always read, always learn more, always find something new.  And to this day, I marvel at what it proffers up: classics I've always wanted like Michael Baxandall's The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (let materiality reign supreme!); complete and utter wild cards like Philip Fisher's Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetic of Rare Experiences (I couldn't resist the possibility of learning about Descartes's description of a rainbow); and then what promises to be an astounding experience, Amy Knight Powell's Depositions; Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (each chapter has a medieval section and a modern vignette, so "Crucifixes with Moveable Arms" (back to the marionettes!) is paired with the vignette "Marcel Duchamp's Unhappy Readymade (1919)" - I will read the medieval and Mac will read the modern and it shall be good. This (the search, the serendipity, the discovery, the reading) is the fundamental pleasure that frames viewing works of art - sometimes, it is the fundamental pleasure itself.  And lastly, too: driving home, plunging back into the vast expanse of Indiana seen from the highway, this time under a pink-to-orange moon and between the hundreds and hundreds of windmills that make up the enormous wind farm I have come to love, tonight, each windmill blinking a red light, stretching an impossible hem across the horizon.