Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Mastodons and Macmas

Mastodon! at the Indiana State Museum
I live in a state of multiple personal histories, but where History Itself hardly ever happens. Indiana is a state of people (both the Amish and the KKK have thrived here) more than events (though we're all meant to know something about drug discoveries at Eli Lilly's, and John Dillinger did rob a bank here). Memorials where Things Happened are few and far between - think plaques rather than pedestals. And my kids have picked up on this: they've pointed out on different occasions that no one comes to Indiana to sign a treatise, or tread in the footsteps of something amazing that happened, or touch the column of that one house where that declaration was made, that book was written, that changed everything. And yet. But now. We've seen... the Mastodon! And it was here! "Right here in Indiana?!?" as the kids kept asking incredulously. "Right here in River City!" kept answering Mac (furthering their bewilderment). But of whim, of a morning when we should have been grading and preparing for the holidays, we took off for the Indiana State Museum, propelled by Mac's reading of Elizabeth Kolbert's absolutely terrific piece in the New Yorker about George Cuvier and his discovery/declaration of the concept of extinction based on his work with mastodon and mammoth bones. The totally wonderful and absurd juxtaposition of the Celebration Crossing (Santa! a Train! Raggedy Ann handing out cookies!) and the Mastodon exhibit I will leave to your imagination. Instead, I hope to revel a bit in the tension of historical scales: the huge, massive (yes, mammoth!) statements of an extinct species plodding this very (now very mundane) ground we walk, and the ephemeral entreaties of my own love for my husband and children, which are so individual as to not matter (in an archaeological/historical sense), but which mean the world to me.

Mastodon Mandibles Mostly
Maybe it was thinking of Cuvier and back to the Museum of Natural History in Paris as it used it be before the, granted, fantastic renovations, but the displays looked very early 19th-century to me. Big taxonomic layouts aligning a wealth of bones that have been dug up from beneath the cornfields of Indiana. Easy realizations about the differences between Mastodons and Mammoths. It's all over: in the skull, the curve of the back, the length of the tail, the curve of the tusk. But those all look related. What really gives away Cuvier's discovery of two totally different ancestral trees for the mastodon and the mammoth are the teeth and the jaws: the mastodons had huge rounded teeth (that reminded Cuvier of breasts!!! - and gave them their name) that moved in their jaws' circular motion.

These don't look like breasts at all
Mammoths had blocks of unindividuated teeth that chewed in jaws that moved only up and down. I loved learning this. Simple, drastic knowledge that things are more complicated than you thought they were. Knowledge lodged in the crucial mundane: teeth are boring, but without them, no mastodons, no mammoths. I still can't quite explain the thrill of knowing that both species trod this land. It's linked to the thrill of place surely: I have a friend who is going to Dublin for four days in preparation for teaching Ulysses. I know that being in the landscape where Icelandic sagas were written will be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember Mac's careful study and then reveries when we walked all those many WWI battlefields during sabbatical. And now to close our eyes and not have to think any further than the next cornfield to imagine the roaming, and the eating of 400 pounds of ruffage a day, the enormity of this wondrous difference so close. Only time, really, separating us. 12,000 years to be imprecise but evocative of some type of scale. It's in Arizona that evidence of humans hunting mammoths and mastodons has been found - not here. Here, we get to imagine this place before people, before history, before things happened. But for the kids, mastodons being here is something big that happened. It is huge.

So there we are, the five of us in the galleries, being thrilled to discover that something really cool and huge and awesome had indeed happened here. It gave us a new sense of belonging here, I tell you: our fantasies and curiosities being met with big, solid, bones of reality. Of all things for us to feel connected to: mastodons and mammoths whose horizon of consciousness couldn't even begin to begin to begin include us. One could say the same for so many things we love: Chaucer, the Icelandic saga tellers, that one soldier next to Otto Dix in that one trench that Mac wants to think about, all of the creatures that people the books and games the kids read and play. But we retool the scale with our own yearning: we bring them closer, Chaucer and the Mastodon, Eragon and the soldier. Meanwhile, we live within the intimate otherness of family. Those whose horizons of consciousness do include us, those we yearn for all the more for being so close. I stepped outside of our gathered glee just long enough to take this picture and feel a powerful rush of sentimental emotion: their smallness in the scheme of everything, their hugeness in my world, the fragility of goodness, the thrill of love. The intimate scale is a sentimental one. The mammoth scale is a heroic one. Somehow we bridge the two with our desires to know and be known.

The mighty mastodon
And so I'm looking at this mighty mastodon, who meant so much to us. And I'm thinking about how the mastodons of Indiana are by no means unique, how the Le Brea tar pits are filled with them, how in Arizona they are the remains of the hunt. I'm thinking of the tremendous ethical problem of intimacy and uniqueness (and the impossibility of both) presented in Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. When I took this picture, I was thinking about the preparations for Macmas: Mac's December 24 birthday that has become a brunch that gathers our treasured friends, all of us here, more or less explicably, in this place. And I'm thinking of where to put things on a scale, a spectrum of mattering, a range of intimacy and uniqueness.  What courses throughout is the fundamental absurdity of imagination.

The mighty mammoth - totally different animal
And so to end with the reach of our wondrously absurd imaginations stretching across the unknowable and into love. There's Mac initiating an entire dinner's conversation by suggesting that Greg (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) (!) is an unreliable narrator and that Rowley might actually be smart. And each kid presenting totally cogent arguments as to why an unreliable narrator might nonetheless be telling the truth. Mastodon bones and mammoth teeth present themselves as absolutely reliable narrators of a heroic past, one made more wondrous by being right here. They are reliable because they are gone: in their extinction is a kind of wholeness, a kind of completion, that makes them reliable - heroic and sure. We are more open-ended, sentimental and unsure, reliable only in our entanglements and heroic in our imaginations.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Becoming Trees/Trees Becoming

Mondrian, Tree II, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
"Becoming" (and its partner "fetching") has always fascinated me as a word signifying something beautiful, or at least pretty and pleasant. So wayward and complex is the English language (the pronunciation conundra of labels/lapels and cough/through/dough are the tip of the iceberg) that the very same word "becoming" has two different etymologies altogether. There is "becoming" as gerund: "a coming to be, a passing into a state". But there is also "becoming" as adjective derived from "comely" (as bejeweled is from jeweled). And comely (as this morning's OED romp revealed) is an Old English word, cymlic: beautifully constructed, delicately fashioned, fittingly wrought. "Becoming" then has its roots in the description of objects, finely made, but it's come to describe the beauty of persons, too. Becoming object and becoming person meet in the "Dream of the Rood," to which I've made a glad return in finishing an essay on the "hewn" (and oh my yes, that's a great etymological trajectory, too). There, the tree that becomes the wood that becomes the cross is a beautiful personified object, an object that speaks and marvels, and trembles with gladness and desire when Christ's (of course beautiful) body is placed upon it. It is trees, then, where the ontological and aesthetic cadences of "becoming" meet. Ever since being a companion to that early morning hunt, and granted, since thinking about trees a good deal over the past months, I've come to see them as shifting forms, Ents on the run, oscillations between states of being and beauty; I've come to see them as becoming. While Deleuze and Guattari may have resented their firmly planted roots and their hierarchic reach, there's room, in the ache and growth and, dare I say it, manipulations of trees by the human imagination to understand becoming trees in their state of perpetual becoming: to see them as unstable forms, opening to fear and transformation and beauty.

Mondrian, Apple Tree, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
And so Piet Mondrian draws and draws an apple tree in an insistent series of black chalk on paper renditions. If you Google "Mondrian Trees" any number of fascinated bloggers will take you through the transformation from landscape art to abstract art better than I can here. It's not so much the trajectory that fascinates me (though the "visual etymology" of trees in Mondrian paintings is a lovely little piece of knowledge) as the instability. Mondrian is not progressive in his tree paintings: there is no simple trajectory from lush tree to grid. Instead, there are a series of simultaneities and oscillations between branches and bars. In trees, rather than seeing an icon of stability and seasonal return, Mondrian sees fragmentation and disintegration, a hide and seek of predictable form, and elusiveness of shape. I wonder now if he, too, didn't at some point see dawn in the forest, or the sun etching (yes, that's the word) the apple tree in his yard into lines.

Bosch, drawing, Cooper Union Museum
Who knows, as one must ask, what Bosch was seeing? But there's reveling in the instability of form here, as comely creatures float up from the tree's form and the artist's pencil. These finely wrought grotesques that fascinate because they are so sure and possible, and so creepy that we really hope they're not. Deep in the OED entry on "comely" is the idea of difficulty and suffering: the effort of making the thing that is finely wrought, the dark side of the delicate: its worry and failed first attempts. Here is Bosch at play, worrying (over) tree forms until by the end it's the breath of a frothy bird and the weird gas coming out of the ass of a tusked insect. Here, as with Mondrian, I might want to be comforted by the trajectory of an abstraction, by the dematerialization of rough boring bark into abstracted tendril. But, like Mondrian, Bosch stays true to form: it's trees all the way up. Limbs (and oh how wonderful is the phrase "tree limb") and branches and shoots all over the page...

... a dynamic of shifts and transformations that happens insistently. It starts (if we wanted to choose a starting point, but really, there may be no origin here) at the bottom of the page, in the fantastic confrontation between the tree on the right whose face frowns at the flying creature whose talon/root limb reaches out to land, its own right limb still an uprooted tree part. "Who are you?" "What have you become?" Iris, who has just emerged ready to delight in the thick snowfall coming down outside (and is of course bedecking the tree outside the window in its own white mantle of snow) has just made this more interesting: the "limb creature," as she calls the flying one, has just broken free from the tree on the left and seeks another companion to liberate itself, a cleaving the tree on the right, frowns upon, maybe unwilling but certainly helpless to stop the proliferation of forms.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Being There

Actually, Sts. Cosmo & Damian
I wonder if this is how we might have appeared to her, two still strange creatures - high up, transfixed, similarly bedecked, the one on the right making hesitating gestures, the one on the left more sure. She worked around us in a long, absolutely not leisurely arc, stomping her front leg, never taking her eyes off of us, then huffing at her two spring deer who, following, leapt with unnecessary grace. She could have taken her cue from their oblivious abandon, because my guide had no intention of shooting a doe. Had a buck not been so coy, had it made an appearance, it would not have been so lucky. That is one of the many things that hunting late in the season means: the rut (what a word!), which renders the deer stupid with sex and initiates the hunting season, is drawing to a close - along with the fall that had signaled it was time to rut to the deer in the first place; most of the hunting for meat (does and spring deer) is at its end, and now hunting is for trophy (bucks). And in our measured democracy, everyone (not just the lord of the land) has the right to kill a buck, but just one (and only one). Hunting late in the season and early in the day came to mean a series of observations, a stilling of the brutal spectacle of the medieval hunt, and a slowing of the blunt narrative of the modern one. This now was never about killing a deer or shooting a gun (I don't have a license for either, so really, that was never the point), it was about the tremendous other goings-on.

the view from up here
It turns out the forest has its own dawn. Or the forest as it starts to thin into a field, a glade, a clearing. The Middle Ages kept coming up with words for this space, defining and refining what it could mean to whom. We moderns woke up early, in long tradition with Lord Bertilak (but without the squires and the mass), and traipsed through dark forest, each step crazy loud.  It's my guide's land, so he knows it very well, takes turns, a path through a shallow creek, no pause up an unexpected hill, a sure kick where a huge branch had fallen in last week's storms. For me, it's trust and hurry. All greys and then suddenly a climb up a ladder (15'? 20'? I'm notoriously bad at measurements, but it was enough to be dizzying), a tiny platform for our feet, and a simple parallelogram platform for our seats. I sit. I'm exhilarated but my body's puzzled: isn't this the part where we keep going, where the momentum builds? Hunting is about waiting. But it turns out it's the dawn, an hour later, that's first going to take my breath away. I took the picture above long after (I didn't want to have the camera's clicks and whirs bother things, I was a still still Byzantine icon, remember) this marvelous dawn, this stealing of pale peach fingers on the forest floor, this crinkling of bark into high relief, this matter of branches being recognized as such and swiftly redrawing the entire landscape from hues to lines. It was incredibly trippy, this little moment of time speeding up when everything had been so still. How alarming and resolute it must be when the sun withdraws at dusk.

yep, same spot
If this shot looks pretty much the same or closely related to you then you're like me, and you're not like my guide, the perceptive and magnanimous Virgil to my utterly ridiculous but really sincere Dante eager to traipse through the long memory of the hunt so much do I love this medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I sat in the spreading pool of silence, I could absolutely let myself imagine the crash and tumult of Bertilak's first hunt, I could even pretend to see ghostly forms as "Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread" (l.1151, Marie Borroff's translation from the Norton Critical edition, 2010). What I could not see was what my guide saw: deer; legs and elegant necks moving in gliding parallel with the lines of the trees. He kept seeing them many minutes before I could. A connoisseurship that left me marveling every time the deer would materialize from between the trees. Looking at the image above, you'd wonder that I couldn't see them before. But the lines are not so clearly delineated, there's a good deal of confusion in the stillness.

the edge of the forest, of the clearing
I had come out here to think along the lines of Gawain (ll. 1126-1178 and 1319-1364 were the ones I read and reread - translation is below the late-14th-century English) and the Saint Eustache legend, and even just line 29 from The Dream of the Rood. And I did, I newly understood the desire for the rush of life in sylvan silence: the plenitude of the deer herd that excited Bertilak's dogs so, the stag filling the glade with its resplendent antlers in which Saint Eustache saw a brilliant crucifix, the tree that would become the cross of the crucifixion remembering its original place at the forest's edge before the men came to cut it down. Despite this attempt to write, I still don't know why place, or rather  being there (forest, glade, clearing, tree place) meant so much here. It wasn't re-enactment certainly, it wasn't medieval authenticity (I live in Indiana for crying out loud), it wasn't hunting ( a big part of life where I live which I now understand completely differently and still hardly). (There is a long caveat to be written about hunting, its mixed status around here as both sport and food, the ethics (oh yes) of thinning herds so fewer deer starve to death, but i want to think more about that in relation to the ethics and aesthetics (and class!) of the medieval hunt before I write it). I think that there is this idea of resonance, of trees and deer present and past; but even more so, there is this idea of stretching out these texts in a place other than the classroom or the study, of letting them mingle with the brief (whispered) interruptions of silence my guide and I exchanged, human commonalities in mundane moments of extraordinary circumstances: talk of looking after our fathers, kids today, our kids, of meeting our spouses, our friends, of doing our work. Talk of revelation and adventure, of plenitude and respite.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cease your toils

During the time that Brillat Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste (for the 30 years prior to his death from pneumonia in 1826 after standing in the glacial abbey of Saint-Denis to attend the 30th anniversary commemorating Louis XVI's execution), the turkey, domesticated and amply sauced in France, was already no longer called a coq d'Inde. The dinde (as the humble turkey is still called today in French) had been stripped of its New World origins and its Christopher Columbus misnaming, and had become commonplace, a bird for everyman.

The turkey is the largest and, if not most delicate, at least the most flavorful of our domestic birds. It also enjoys the unique advantage of attracting to it every class of society. When the vine tenders and the plowmen of our countryside want to treat themselves to a party on a long winter night, what do you see roasting over the bright kitchen fire where the table is laid? A turkey. When the practical mechanic or the artisan brings a few of his friends together to celebrate some relaxation all the sweeter for being so rare, what is the traditional main dish of the dinner he offers? A turkey stuffed with sausages or with Lyons chestnuts. -- from M.F.K. Fischer's (marvelous) translation of La Physiologie du Gout. 

Brillat-Savarin experienced the original exoticism of the turkey while in exile in America, when his New York friends whisked him away to a hunting property in Connecticut and he hunted wild turkeys. He successfully shot one and recounted with great, wry pride, "this deed... [that] I shall recount all the more eagerly since I myself am its hero." But before the shooting and the eating, deep in the hunting woods, our hero engages in a reverie worth the telling on this day when just maybe we might get caught in daydreams, cease our toils, and meander as well as feast and laugh and toast and cheer.

I found myself for the first time in my life in virgin forest, where the sound of the axe had never been heard. I wandered through it with delight, observing the benefits and the ravages of time, which both creates and destroys, and I amused myself by following every period in the life of an oak tree, from the moment it emerges two-leaves from the earth until that one when nothing is left of it but a long black smudge which is its heart's dust.

This year's Thanksgiving gets to observe the benefits of time, with us less sad that my dad is not here, and, in great wonder and joy, hosting both deeply happy newlyweds and a mom made new by a wondrous adoption. We will be grateful and remember and hope. And read Art Buchwald's "Le Grande Thanksgiving" column, and add the new favorite McSweeney's "Public School Education Thanksgiving." And we will feast.

Parsnip Pear Soup*

Maple Glazed Carrots*
Green Beans and Radishes Braised in Orange Juice*
Cumin-Roasted Beets*

Winter Squash Pot Pie with Swiss Chard and Chickpeas*
South of France Turkey**

Simon and Garfunkel Stuffing
Pomegranate Ginger Cranberry Sauce*

Rosemary Mashed Potatoes**
Gratin Dauphinois**

Candied Cranberry Tart***
Pumpkin Creme Caramel*

*From this year's issue of Vegetarian Times
** From this year's issue of Rachael Ray (I know she's creepy, but her test kitchen is good)
***From my Epicurious app


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Objects that Orient Ontology

Petrus Christus, Carthusian Monk
We've been spending the semester in my medieval art history class thinking about "Painting and Presence." Petrus's Carthusian Monk was my avatar on Facebook, I found him at the Met - we're in deep. Though I knew (with great relish and anticipation as I contemplated teaching these lush works of art with their vital wood supports, their vibrant oil surfaces, their fervent color projections, and their intense degree of illusion) where the course was going in terms of content, I didn't really know where it was going to go conceptually. I had set up "painting" as an emerging category (the newness of oil and its visualizing possibilities, the shifts in patronage arrangements, the gathering of different audiences) and "presence" as a kind of open category (aura? power? theology? ontology?).

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini

I don't expect the category of "presence" to be the same for every class (students' interests and my own will push and pull that different ways each time I teach this course, I hope), but this time, it was definitely ontology. The existence, the conditions of being, grappling with what it means to be so many things: painting as object, painting as vision, painting as devotion, patron, patron as image, patron as soul, and objects, so many objects that positively glowed by the time we'd realized we'd been talking and writing about them for weeks: shoes and mirrors and dogs and candles and windows and textiles (oh the textiles!) and tiny sculptures writhing on bedposts and the ends of benches and fruits and windows. What were they all doing and being? And though my writing presents them as a cascade of things, in each painting they are neatly arranged, suspended in a poised quiet.

Campin, Mérode, tools
If (if!) a hammer is a hammer when it hammers, what is it (doing and being) when it is in a work of art? (An equally good question, with a fantastic answer from the painter himself, is to ask after and asparagus: go ahead, look at Manet's one asparagus and ask!)This alone makes me wish we'd read more Heidegger, more Bogost, more Morton, more Harman, more Bennett - more object oriented ontology all over the place. (It also makes me wish that Harman and Morton would take their awesome art criticism to medieval art). The question is one that art history has asked in its own within-the-frame way (and, in being our "writing in the major" course, "Painting and Presence" has a historiographic element): a hammer is not ever (ever!) just a hammer ever since Panofsky wound the connecting threads of "disguised symbolism" into Early Netherlandish Art. It is the tool that helps Joseph make the mousetrap that will catch the mouse that is the devil for whom Christ is the bait from the typology of that one Psalm. The field of art history has wrestled much with disguised symbolism and social history has done tremendous work to shift the conversation. And yet, far from social history and deep into questions of being and painting, ontology and representation, that Panofsky started asking, this detail from the Mérode Altarpiece that holds some very prized objects has everything I want to be thinking about right now: tools, representation, and a table. Friday afternoon, I denied all grading and obligations and read Sarah Ahmed's essay "Orientation Matters" in the New Materialisms anthology and she wrote of tables (from a table) with Husserl and Heidegger and Derrida, and I can't stop thinking about objects that orient ontology, objects that are the starting point (Husserl's mode of orientation) for existence. You can start (oh my goodness anywhere, but let's just say) with the hammer in the world that Campin saw, and translated into representation. That represented hammer then does work an in-the-world hammer never could: it can (if our interpretive minds respond to it this way) be a symbol, or engaged in the symbolic construction of the devil-catching mousetrap. In some ways, the bigger challenge is just letting the hammer be. But I learned with elemental eco-criticism that we seldom let even the smallest blade of grass be, we and our yearning minds.

Christus, Goldsmith, coins and a mirror and...
And so I am left to think of these arrangements on tables, on wooden tables and wooden boards that become paintings. Of objects without symbolism, objects that might be "in and of themselves" objects, except they never are, being, as they are, pigments suspended in oil swirled over polished and treated wood. Except that they are objects because my mind perceives them so and is able to see great meaning in them (symbolic, radical - think Dian Wolfthal's piece from the Troubled Vision anthology about this very mirror). As Jeffrey Cohen's marvelous book on stones gathers, as I savor what Tim Morton has me thinking about in Hyperobjects, I want to think more about simultaneity and being: a stone as inert and vital; a painting as representational and real, an object as itself and salvation.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bugle Call

Will it be like this?

The barn where the kids ride horses is, like so much else around here, in the middle of a cornfield. And yet, for some reason, I always feel as though I'm leaving what's ordinary about this landscape every time I take them there. I think that it's the gravitational pull of the horses' world: the neighing and huffs across the stables corridor, the mouser cats primly avoiding the heavy hooves, kids leading horses in and out of the pastures, the calls of Candace and Lisa who keep this equine ecosystem moving and fed. The minute we're there, we're very far away from anywhere else. I watch my children ease into their fascination with the horses: thrill, control, dream. I give in completely to thinking of horses past, medieval palfreys - the deep dignity of this bridled animal who may be domesticated, but is not always entirely tamed; the force and courage of this fervent bulk that takes the hunter to his prey, somehow rides the warrior into battle. There is absolutely nothing there to stop me from the historical romance of the horses, even as I know that Apah would really just prefer a carrot thank you, that Indy will nudge you when you sing, and that mischievous Dukey just might canter unexpectedly again with my tiny Eleanor gleefully hanging on. So I watch the kids on the horses, and I always bring something to read that will let me daydream a little more. This time, it was Eric J Goldberg's article, "Louis the Pious and the Hunt" from the July issue of Speculum: a historical survey of the imperial status of the hunt long before I'm used to thinking about it. And in the midst of it, a most unexpected excerpt of Carolingian poetry by Walahfrid "On the Bone of a Little Doe," a relic of the fauna that now feeds the flora:

     What once covered bone marrow now nurtures a tree.
     A shinbone produces a seed - that must be a very good omen.
     I am astonished that the bark is not damp and that it is
     Tougher than the very wood: such is the strength of the bone.
     All things exist to serve you, great emperor: you go hunting for deer
     And a forest grows up from their bones! Hail!

Artificial deer decoys are still legal in Indiana
Deer in the forest. I think of deer in the forest every year at this time. We are in the period of transition from Archery Season to Firearms Season. From October 1 to November 15, it's still pretty medieval out there. The custodian from our building posted her archery kill on Facebook and there'll be venison to celebrate at her house. Now, though, the firearm hunters will submerge into the woodwork (via tree stands and quiet creeping). I have a standing invitation from a friend to go and I find myself, as I have every year, stuck in fascination, unable to gear up the momentum to say "ok, let's go, let's do it." I've seen very few animals die before my eyes: six magnificent bulls during the San Isidro feast days in Madrid during my honeymoon with Mac (yes, there's more to talk about there), and two tiny mice slowly squeezed to death by the snakes to whom they were fed at the McCormick's Creek Nature Center while Iris and I watched helpless, mesmerized, wordless. I'd have to stay wordless here, too - quiet, thinking about the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight conversation that prompted the invitation in the first place.

It won't be like this!
So to fill the empty space between the invitation and a decision, I poke around, I research a bit, I become even more fascinated: the rules and regulations of what is called "Fair Chase" (you may not use bait, not even salt, you may not use dogs except to track a wounded deer, you may not flash a spotlight, you may not use infrared, or electronic calls - but you may use a deer decoy); the "Disposition of Carcasses" (calling Karl Steel!), that would not allow for Carolingian poetry (you are responsible for every bit of the deer you kill); the requirement that an "antlered deer" have at least 3 inches of antler. There are still many things I don't understand: the land - there is state land and private land and there's great excitement because the state is opening up more land to hunting, but it all makes me realize that I know more about medieval forest law than about modern hunting lands. And of course, the kill without the hunt. The fought bulls, the snaked mice - there was an element of the chase, no matter how disparate. Here, we'll watch and wait. Is it the kill? the waiting? the trophy? the feast? This friend has shared quail and venison with us before and there'd be feasting to be done this time, too. Yes, I would definitely use a medieval recipe, and, moreover, heed the warning signs of the advice column entitled "Does Your Venison Taste Like Hell?" (nice medieval flavor to the pointed question). I don't yet know what I'll do. I've taught the incredible images of Gaston Phebus I put up here today. I've marveled at the medieval ritual of the fumets (the duke determines which stag to hunt based on the courage he smells in droppings). I've taught the intertwined wonder of the hunting scenes from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Now to move that into the real? (well, maybe not the fumets) - the quick and the vivid and the not-up-for-discussion. I imagine a surge of adrenaline in the forest as all parties involved realize what is happening in a reality that has no time or space for language. I imagine being cold and quiet and bored. I imagine horror subdued by quickness and precision. I watch my children on horses and know that there is a reality of animals approaching that both quickens and dissolves my daydreams.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Parchment, Echo, Nature?, Epochs?, Bristles: Contact Ecologies, 2013

Yes, again.
I return to Brueghel's Tower of Babel after a conference, this time, in the echo-chamber of the upper reaches of the Tower, whence attempted contact with the divine stretches, and where I can position myself to think (all too briefly) on the gathering of speakers and ideas of "Contact Ecologies" at George Washington University (Jeffrey J. Cohen and Haylie Swenson, architects, GM-MEMSI, site). The phrase/idea/concept/ethos of "Contact Ecologies" is an open one, under construction, in the making. Jeffrey's invitation to speak was insistently unaccompanied by a blueprint, so multiple architectures/points of view resulted. (Realize, I may not be able to let go of this metaphor, try as I might). Bruce Holsinger brought us to the wonder of the "parchment inheritance" through the dizzying numbers of animals sacrifices in the production of manuscripts (knowledge, that gesture of turning the page, finding out more). You can start with any number of thousands in any collection, but those quickly escalate to the millions, and so we have a complex "historical ecology of the animal archive." You know it's a good gathering when the first paper makes the audience gasp. Augustine, the Babylonian Talmud, and a letter from the contact ecology of war (Crusades) followed, each articulating a new scale (at one point, the sky itself was all parchment) of this act of materiality and biology, this thinking on parchment. I spoke about the contact ecology of sound, specifically as shaped by the echo, by Echo herself. And Eileen Joy was right to hear my voice change when I reread Ovid's myth: catastrophe, illness, and desire are all in that myth and in how we practice echo and hearing. William IX, Michel Serres, and Timothy Morton amplified her, made me see how far echo could reach, not only in how sound provides contact but in trying to understand how that sound/contact recedes as echo. I couldn't help but end in an object, and it was the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase and I'll be writing more about that (probably at Material Collective) soon. Kellie Robertson fearlessly placed us in the Augustian/Aristotelian nature/ecology fray. Nature is unsustainable. The idea of Nature "never speaks comfortably from her material bodily form," and I quickly became fascinated with the medieval discomfort with Nature. There was no naïve happiness or sure containment of a concept of the natural in the Middle Ages, and that epoch's discomfort continues to provoke ours. Teleology and Theology became intertwined and the modern insurance-industry phrase of "acts of God" takes on an entirely new set of problems for me. Steve Mentz proposed an "ecological theory of historical change" via a journey through the Anthropocene, the Homogenocene, the Thalassocene, and the Naufragocene. In the shipwreck, we grasp for any grounding and historical epochs offer brief respites of certitudes and ground. But "all epochs are false constructs" (though we need them - profound oscillations/waves provoked here). And so to think beyond the theft model (in which history and ecology both are a series of tales of dispossession) to the composture model, in which a rich, loamy intermingling does the work of history. This is where the shipwreck and its era (the Naufragocene) comes in, and our awareness and embrace of it, of learning to swim in (not desperately away) from it. So imagine our eager minds when Timothy Morton greeted us with the hope and horror of bristles. "Things are ungraspable because they bristle," but they are lively as such - they respond, they are resilient, they are multi-scale. Maybe instead of distance from objects (be they the Eleanor of Aquitaine vase or the hyperobject of global warming), we can think less of distance and more of a fraught approach. Fractals help here (in their multiplicity and edges), and so do hedgehogs - the little herisson of Derrida's contemplation of poetry, the retreat/receding/withdrawal of the prickly thing. But also, its frisson (and, in terms of frisson's relation to jouissance, I couldn't help but delight in thinking of OOO becoming o O O!). Children, a flooded basement, The Day call, so three unformed thoughts: TOYS: "Philosophy," said Tim, "should be in the business of making toys, as opposed to setting down laws. We should be creating new things for others to play with, so as to generously enlarge the domain of thought." GENEROSITY marked this gathering: in the initial questions put forth by Jeffrey, in the willingness to Try Things Out (every sense of that phrase), in the companionship and eagerness to broaden the conversation, which had been brilliantly initiated even before we gathered by Eileen Joy's revolutionary call (ok, you can call it a talk, but come on) for the future of publishing. And (of all things!) CRAFTSMANSHIP: the love of a good sentence, the effort of putting it all together, the assemblage of ideas came up over and over again in conversation. Might we be feeling the imprint of our thinking about materiality in the love of a sentence, the physical thrill of an idea?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The View From In the Out Here

This is the view from the upper reaches of the Tower of Babel.*The horizon stretches far and you are not alone. This year's BABEL Critical/Liberal/Arts gathering showed me again. The workers - the haulers of bricks, the carvers of stone, the facilitators of the great machine that is the tower, pause. What prompted them to do so? The tedium of the work? The glory of of it? I've certainly felt both in the Grand Project of Academe. So we stopped, we looked, and this is what we saw. Henry Turner and the Hollow Earth Society made invitations, strategized an open, reaching university: Henry with the Society for the Arts of Organization (consider the medieval body that is the corporation, join this one, grow the idea!), the HES with an introduction to the edurganism, academe as spreading slime mold instead of ivory tower (or even underground rhizome), academic practice as para_site, doing its work _next to_ the institution (feed your students, hike with them, publish wild things!). Eleanor Johnson with Toad Poetry (look closely, care until it's creepy and then ask all the questions), Ammiel  Alcalay with Lost and Found (gather the archive until it's no longer an archive but a place). Bruce Holsinger with Chaucer and Gower's critical friendship (and yes yes yes, this brilliant scholar's long-awaited historical fiction novel, A Burnable Book, is coming out, and yes yes yes a brilliant scholar wrote a work of fiction), and Allen W. Strouse with Sir Orfeo (and the idea of potential pilgrims which made me think of perpetual potential pilgrimages and made me realize I was on one). Jamie "Skye" Bianco with Q3C (Queer, Creative, Critical Compositionalism with things that have affect, let's start with the flotsam and jetsam that makes it to shore, let's be "para-academic DJs," compiling and collecting, gathering and curating)' and Eirik Steinhoff making "Nothing Happen" (and I held a pamphlet for the first time in forever and there was Rosa Luxembourg and the idea of sabotage, and Kafka, so it got complicated and good). And Michael Whitmore with Fuzzy Structuralism (when software starts to read Shakespeare) and Marina Zurkow and Una Chauduri with Inner Climate Change (and yes, for 7 minutes we listened to a soundscape meditation, and no, it wasn't easy).

And for one of the first times in a gathering of academic to talk about academe, the emphasis was not on despair, but on action. There are Things We Do, and there are Things To Do. You _are_ institutional change, but you are also parasite and collector, producer of pamphlets and writer of wild words, gatherer of students and toaster (!) of friends. You are in the tower and of the tower, but the view from Babel/BABEL stretches out to sea to see a lush island and strong currents. And from there we'll wave to Eileen Joy and Allan Mitchell and Julie Orlemanski and Myra Seaman who got us up here in the first place. Tomorrow, we'll go to Oceanic New York, where Steve Mentz started us thinking Thursday night. For now, I'm going inside to see the art that's clinging to the walls and the objects humming under pools of light.

* This is also my first time composing on my iPad, so pardon the absence of links. I'll get those up tomorrow, because you'll want to visit. I'll try to keep weird autocorrect miscorrects to a minimum.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Whatever this might mean

very far away from anywhere else
A year is not an entirely arbitrary cycle. The planet does spin pretty decidedly all the way around the sun once, give or take that bit that adds up to Leap Year, for that amount of time. But a year anniversary does seem arbitrary: whatever it is you're marking, it was the same five days ago and it will be the same five days from now. It's really only the original day itself that matters. Still, I'm not going to fight the insistent call to let myself remember sitting with you, and holding your hand, and smoothing your hair, and telling you you were doing great and that it was going to be so wonderfully all right, and wanting so badly for your labored breathing to stop being so labored and not ever wanting your breathing to stop. And then it did, and that moment of a year ago has already passed because it was 4 a.m. and this year I slept through it. The hardest part was actually remembering last year and two days ago, when you no longer had the strength to raise your hand to shake Mac's like you did every single time. You just shook your head no and I think the three of us adults in the room knew, while the kids chatted on like it was any other meal with you. Now that the moment has passed, I can think about the slow, grand machinery of the funeral: my first phone calls, all those arrangements taking place, everyone coming down to very far away from anywhere else. The momentum of commemoration. A year later, there's nowhere for it to go, save for the stillness of remembering or Eleanor's wonder that it's already been a year. She's right to wonder - that was fast. There's been a rush of things, and even as I write that, I think of things that are happening right now, the rush I need to rejoin in about 5 minutes. Thus. I'll mark this time with words much better than my own that will help safeguard this moment of wonder. Brian Dolye is a gentle and meticulous caretaker of his dying characters. There are several passages I could quote, and my very very favorite is actually another, but that character is kind of a rotten guy and my dad was the gentlest most loving guy and so I can't copy those words about him. But what Doyle writes about the nun (and my beautiful friend Nancy was moved by these same words in the parallel universe of another blog post) is perfect. As I reread the words to write them down, I know that it's what I fervently wished for for my dad, even the mundane things, as, to use another borrowed phrase, this mortal coil loosened its hold on him. I hope (and there is still room for naïveté, there isn't that much wisdom gained in a year) that his dying might have been like this, that any dying might be like this. So. This is from pages 94 and 95 of Mink River, which is a marvelous place.

The priest left and the manager, who had much admired the old nun, knelt for a moment at her bedside, and then he left, too, locking the door behind him, and the room was still again.  The old nun, or whatever she was now, had seen and heard all this, indeed she could see and hear far better than she could when she was alive, everything in the room now unbearably clear, everything its absolute self, everything rimmed with light like frozen dew rims twigs and leaves, the toaster shining, the refrigerator magnets shining, her coffee cup shining, the painting of Moses shining, her to-do list with fix fan! on it shining, and she could hear for miles and miles, every sound crackling and distinct, every sound announcing its origin in a way she had never heard before. She heard owls, girls, trees, radios, fish, a fist landing hollowly on the chest of a boy, the suck of a baby at a breast. She heard a thousand thousand thousand sounds she had never heard before and would never have been able to identify before but now she knew them and loved them and had always known them and they were delicious and holy and necessary.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Really Real

Courbet, River Landscape (private collection!)
I'd forgotten my camera and kind of cursed doing so and kind of tried to love the freedom you're supposed to have when you don't have a camera. The odd result was that I was louder: more exuberant in my praise of the rocks and moss and trees (fantastic exposed roots!), the great name of the State Park, the belief in its healing fountains in the 19th and early 20th-centuries, and the effects of the sun on the water as it coursed in plentiful bursts through the ravine. These exultations proved supremely annoying to the kids who were, alternately, Lewis & Clark and a lawyer assessing the risks we were taking (the latter to mock me and my useless words of warning about climbing this that and everything). I was actually sympathetic to their plight: no one needs ebullience emanating from behind them at any given moment when they're hiking or being Lewis & Clark or being a risk lawyer. I tried to be less vocal, but I realized that my outbursts were also a response to a kind of frenetic energy that develops when I'm surrounded by unrelenting beauty and overwhelming well-being in this moment (especially as this moment exists in contrast to regular time, where the kids go back to school on Wednesday (indecent) and work is starting to pile up, all of it good, but all of the old anxieties, blah blah blah). A kind of Sublime Lite; and almost-awe; a not-quite transcendence. I continued in this frenetic and exuberant vein until Courbet came to me. A particular turn in the landscape, a blunt yet leading play of light, a flat patch of water - something conjured him up and all of a sudden I could see his landscape, could imagine him loving this place, seeking out its intricacies and what he might hold still. I felt myself relax into a focus, sort of delighted at the realization that images could make me relax, and that they are a part of my hikes. That's a lot of mediation in the face of what should be direct access to the natural "world." Representing Nature is one of our cardinal sins against its force, some (Tim Morton) have said. But representing Nature is one of the ways that I am in it; mediating nature makes it more immediate. Why? Because I see more, I pay more attention to detail, I see the bigger picture, am involved in the dynamic of presence and representation when they are at their closest points of contact. Is that why landscapes were so fascinating to Courbet? Because the move from presence to representation was so quickly mediated that it became itself immediate? One thinks, too, of how awed the owner of the painting's family and friends stand before it.  Of how much Courbet's painting could oscillate with the Real Thing for me today. I stopped pointing out what everyone could see. I focused. I felt the warmth of a kindred spirit. I learned from Lewis & Clark and the lawyer. And I was very present/really there by thinking of representations, of things over there, across the boundary/divide/thrill of images.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Soeth What?"

Will Princess Olive choose Cinderfella?
The scene is set. The Grand Ball is on. In walks Cinderfella (shh! it's really Popeye) in finery bestowed him by his fairy godpappy. Olive Oyl sweeps him off his feet, wooing him with a singular combination of gender, cultural, and temporal hybridity: "Ah, ma chérie, cometh with me to ye Casbah." But it's only seconds before he's confronting Bluto, who is already contemplating Olive's crown for himself. "I seeneth her first!" quoth he. To which Popeye replies with the memorable words "Soeth what?" The scattershot appending of "-eth" onto words that prevails throughout the barely 7 minute cartoon really sticks its landing here. More defiant than dismissive, it's come to embody a cheeky resistance found useful by my children, who use the phrase liberally. The quick n' classy way to signify Things Medieval, the addition of "-eth" simultaneously gives everything a certain flair and makes it ridiculous. It reminds me of Ira Glass noticing that within minutes of being at Medieval Times, he was no longer using contractions: more formal, more correct, but funny, out of place. Misplaced linguistic elegance (your "soeth what," your "oneth, twoeth, threeeth") has the pleasures of both asynchrony and system. The experiences and repercussions (and yes, pleasures) of asynchrony (explored in Carolyn Dinshaw's exciting new book, How Soon Is Now?, and Jeffrey Cohen's excellent review of the same) engage the abandon and defiance of free play - language takes you to medieval times faster than a car to Medieval Times. You can be there, you can get medieval, you can go all funny, simply by tweaking your speech, your system of talking. Adding "-eth" to just about everything is the comic companion to Jonathan Hsy's observation (in the midst of a brilliant meditation on (re)animating dead or endangered languages) that "[v]oicing Middle English aloud is just one way of physically inhabiting a language that is not one's own." With a quick "Soeth what?" my seven-year old makes the Middle Ages her own for the time of the laughter she elicits.

Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)
"Whose Middle Ages?" is a question we are jolly well asking. Sitting in Ira Glass's minivan and then sharing a banqueting bench with him during that unforgettable visit to Medieval Times, Michael Camille talked about the disparate reasons people momentarily want to make the Middle Ages their own: it's an orderly time (when a knight was a knight and a peasant was a peasant), it's a chaotic time (monsters and miracles and beasts), it's everything in between. What it's not, what it can't be, is authentic. This is what makes medieval re-enactments both fantasy and farce. Where Ira Glass at times worried about the accuracy or correctness of the Middle Ages at Medieval Times, Michael reveled in the fantasy and the play - in the end it's what made Medieval Times medieval for him. That, plus, you get a crown.  The class defiance of modern medieval fantasy (so perfectly encapsulated in "Soeth what?") is pervasive, but necessarily occluded in its performance. "You know," the helpful young woman told me as I picked up tickets in the lobby of Medieval Times for me and my students several years ago, "for $10, you can upgrade to royalty." I've never forgotten that. The sweet and simple possibility of moving five rows closer to the action and getting extra medieval Pepsi - for a mere $10! There are so many things to love here: what it means to be royalty at Medieval Times, the ease with which one can become royalty, and the resulting absurdity of royalty. It's, I think (as I read through his travel writing following a trip to Hannibal, Missouri earlier this summer to celebrate the kids' love of Tom Sawyer), what Mark Twain relished: the ease of access that moderns have to the mysticism and pomp of medieval life. The simultaneous immediacy and irony of Medieval Times, A Knight's Tale, and the Society for Creative Anachronisms (the opening question of the website is fantastic!). I'm always amazed at how quickly (how immediately) the Middle Ages can be conjured up ("Soeth what?" / "Getting medieval"). The "transposition of epochs" (a wonderful phrase positioned in parallel to the "transmigration of souls" at the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court from 1889) isn't even necessarily virtual: you can stand in front of cumbersome and plumed medieval suits of armor in any number of castles open to visitors. The owners of the castles in Twain's day "were all out in the country for the summer, and might not have known enough to ask us to dinner if they had been at home" he quips in Innocents Abroad (Chapter 17), well aware that the ease of access is itself a fantasy - that the aristocratic (even if impoverished enough to open their properties for tours) owners of the castle wouldn't give tourists traipsing through their turf the time of day. Even the "lackey" in his "petrified livery" is "malignantly respectful" of the visitors - because class and access, immediacy and irony, fantasy and farce are always complicated.

Little Audrey
Eleanor, at seven, has discovered the wit and wisdom of Mother Goose, and, it seems, the built-in invitation to mock them. The sing-song of the rhymes, the absurdity of the situation, and the facility of the moralization (not that she would use these terms) make Eleanor laugh. Sitting and reading for a good while in the garden behind our house the other day, she sighed in a Brooklyn accent, "Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes, what does she know about modern times?" The line, it turns out, is spoken by Little Audrey, bored in school that she has to recite Mother Goose rhymes instead of being able to read her Phony Funnies comic book featuring "Pinhead and BirdBrain." The accent is performed by Mae Questel (born Kwestel and appalling her Orthodox parents as she broke into vaudeville and television) who also gave voice to none other than Olive Oyl and Betty Boop. Cheeky defiance is not a critical mode, but in the rimshots and pot shots it takes at the expense of hierarchy and certitude, it's pretty swell.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Love Letter

The Ellé River
This will be short and sentimental. Something that lets me be glad, makes me feel lucky. The moments that gleam, that appear unbidden, the secret life of glee. I've just sent off my first article about medieval art in Brittany, and I'm thinking about it in triptych form, and every part of that triptych (the setting, the scholarly apparatus, the art) holds these moments fast. This is a little ridiculous, I think, this kind of exuberance for an article (for crying out loud). Good luck with my emotions if I should ever write a book. I lived and breathed these ideas and the people that nurtured them in so many ways, though, that I want to write them a love letter. I loved coffee in the morning at the mill, and long conversations with my beautiful hosts, and threading my way through the Breton countryside and those awesome roundabouts, and coming to this river after following the path set by the chapel's fountain, and talking about hunting boar with a local aristocrat at a dinner party, and waking up very far away from anywhere else, and knowing Mac and the kids had been here and here and here and that next time I would show them this and this and this.

I loved finding out (uselessly, it turned out) about late medieval crenellation licenses in Brittany, and laughing at de Guilhermy in 1845 quoting Balzac by writing "Donc, à nous deux, jubé de Saint-Fiacre," and ordering books about woodworking, and going to the U.S. Geological Survey page about springs, and writing conference talks that wove in and out of this, and loving conference talks and that kind of writing and talking and thinking, and marveling at how crippling academic writing still is for me and how much I'm still looking for a way to credit all the scholarship and engage in all the issues and somehow preserve the freedom and the play that the conferences revel in, and the asides as we gather around coffee at said conferences, and dancing while frogs just wouldn't stop having sex after we had all spoken at one said conference.

Et maintenant, jubé de Saint-Fiacre, à nous deux. This is a work of art that takes some serious girding of the loins. But I love your complacent angels, and your devious but ultimately martyred fox (that hen is grabbing his testicles in its beak!), your frightened Mary, and your writhing thieves, your medieval wood injected with resin and silicone and restored in multiple ways, your artist (knighted!) who signed his name, merci mon sieur Olivier Le Loergan, your biniou and bombarde players, your Mass of Saint-Gregory, your glutton barfing a fox, your goose and your duck and your oak leaves and beech leaves and your custodian who knit half a sweater while telling me all about everything.  And now I'm getting ready to go on a road trip to a dinner party in Cincinnati and for now, in this, with you, everything is possible.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mahouts on the Beach

He was 33 years old at the time, so the war was over, his time with the Merchant Marines had ended, he had graduated from college. This album, simply titled "1953; scènes de passage pendant la deuxième tournée de l'Extrême Orient," must have been during the early years at Citibank. I'm creasing back pages that are still stiff, seeking his handwriting, wishing I knew more about the world in 1953, more about the great machinery of capitalism at that time, more about these landscape photographs that seem isolated, sparsely populated, and may have been.  The first images are of Hong Kong (taken in March, which means he celebrated his birthday that year traveling between Japan and India, that's months' itinerary). Then, next page, Calcutta. My dear student Vishal recognizes a movie theater that's still there while nothing else in the photo remains the same. My dad's words (awkwardly translated by me): "Under a too-clear sky, a too-hot sun, this city pushes the traveler to quickly go somewhere else.  It is full of refugees, half of them sleeping in the streets or in train stations. They await deliverance." I type in "Calcutta 1953" then "Kolkata 1953" and find no major crises that have left their trace, instead this rather incredible video and an American film released that year and these photos which provide another explanation. I don't know who's right, probably both - I do think about India just six years after partition. Citibank didn't wait long. But then I look that up and find out that Citibank had been in Calcutta since 1902. I don't know anything. The past is savvier and more intricate than I can imagine. This 33-year old man, now ten years my junior, writing pithily, critically? For Bombay, he writes: "The white world turns upon itself, waiting its turn, but comfortably." Then, this is the next page:

He has several of these pages with no text, just images. I look at travel times, I realize that it's 27 hours by car from Calcutta to Bombay, how much more by train (plane?) in 1953? He's moving fast, being dropped into these places, time for a quick gin and tonic (good for the malaria, apparently invented by the British East India company), a sit in a wicker chair, a deal. I don't know what he was doing in the bank at the time - when we were born he was an inspections officer, finding fraud and gathering evidence for prosecution. This seems far from that. The more I look at the pictures, the more they amaze me: yes, the contrasts (the adults clothed, shod (though ties and jackets are off) while the kids, having left their shoes, splash in the pool); the composition (second photo: that relaxed hand draped over wicker in the foreground while kids mess with a chair in the middle ground and others swim in the background); the narrative (third: the birds eating what's left of tea after the chairs have been abandoned and the pool is cleared).  What's he thinking? Who does he have to talk to? What is he trying to live with when he says: "British overseas life is an existence at once free and regimented, held in the balance of good taste and violence, the latter most often carrying the day."

By the end of April he's in Ceylon (it will be called Sri Lanka as of 1972) on his way to Singapore. A single line of writing takes 20 minutes to realize: "After the heat of India, the itinerary leads to Singapore, with a first leg of the trip by Comet to Mount Lavinia." Did he fly on the first commercial jet liner, then? There's no declaration of wonder, no proclamation of firsts, but if he flew on a DeHavilland Comet, wow! (and whew!).  Mount Lavinia turns out to be a suburb of Colombo, deeply steeped in the kind of colonial romance that rechristens a local dancer with the name of an epic heroine, names a city after her, and makes a hotel out of the governor's mansion in 1947, one that is still thriving (and makes post-colonialism look like a pipe-dream). If he stayed there in 1953, he left for walks on the beach pretty quickly - those are the only pictures: catamarans pulling up to excited children, long stretches of ocean (thoughts of 1937-1948 in the Navy? maybe not at all), and then, the photograph above. No words on this page, just them, stopping me absolutely in my first flipping of this album two years ago. By the time I rushed in and asked him about them he had little to say about anything, but his eyes were mischievous and he was smiling when he said "They were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them." I pressed for more (why on the beach? where to? what for? the sounds? the movement?) but he had nothing more to say. Closed his eyes, kept smiling. I pull back now and I think of him standing on the beach, the surf coming in pretty loudly, those chains clinking, the elephants' heavy steps leaving eddies in the sand. He pulls out his beloved Leica and there's some kind of communication, the young men drawing their long elephant goads up, looking at him, he at them. If I know my dad (and I knew so little even though I know a lot), he would have thanked them by raising his right hand in greeting and tilting his head down and to the side with that wonderful smile that said "there's more to be said here than we can say." The camera would have fallen back on his chest, the strap pulling its weight against his neck. He would have breathed deeply and closed his eyes and maybe now thought of everything up until now. And then he would have walked on.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Approach, Approach

January page, Très Riches Heures, 1410 (BN)
"aproche, aproche" - so say the golden letters in their space and ours, on stone and parchment, for feast and fascination; painted of the same golden hue as the sparks flying up from behind the fire screen, a fellow sound to the crackle of the gathering; competing with the attendant's staff for representational presence. They are spoken by the Duc (sullen, gouty, ensconced) to the monk (accommodating, reaching, possibly simpering) - we'll leave them to curry each other's favors. Or, tendrils of a curvy "r" linger over the attendant's head, the "a" folding in on itself in a frisson at the touch of a courtier's so elegant fingers. Or, the manuscript repeats its invitation to its viewer: "Come, come - behold my salt cellar and my Crusades, marvel at my fat duke and my greyhound, linger over my furs and that guy's tights, ask about my spaces and my beauties and my powers. Approach, approach - we know you won't ever entirely get here, trapped as you are in your world of consequences and contingencies, whereas here multiple simultaneous universes glide atop each other seamlessly. But approach, approach, come closer, don't ever stop trying."

The table was laden with possibilities at this year's Kalamazoo. And the approaches were multiple - experimental, convivial, brave.  Words hovered in air, ideas un-settled, and I felt like a lot was happening all at once. It. Was. Wonderful. I'll be writing on the Material Collective blog about the Material Collective goings on (an incredible combination of Future, Time, and Blunder), so it's here that I'll start to think through "Eco-Critical Approaches to Medieval Art, East and West: I (Landscapes) and II (Objects)," two panels I organized with the marvelous Nancy Sevcenko. These are more responses than summaries - the papers were rich and full well beyond my fascinations. First, if you'll indulge me, an excerpt of my super brief introductory comments:


Conceptualizations of nature are anything but natural, and eco-criticism invites questions of the constructions of nature, the natural, and that amorphous place we have built for ourselves: the natural world. Medieval images mediate the category of the natural through their materiality (the very stuff that medieval images are made of hold agency and meaning) and their evocations (the anagogical invitation of medieval images to perceive beyond the material world). In doing so, medieval images activate the category of the natural, they frame the agency of nature – manufactured from the natural, they oscillate over and ultimately blur the built boundary between artifice and nature.

Our first set of papers are grouped around the idea of landscape: of nature as place, of nature as a built environment, manufactured by pilgrimage, patronage, and paint and re-presented to viewers questioning their place in the world. In one of his more enigmatic statements to his followers, Christ said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (We have no natural home, no resting place). This restlessness of place (this need for place) is confronted by the medieval images you will hear about today, and the frameworks they constructed: the land-scapes that simultaneously created and became assemblages of place, real and imagined movement, and human bodies. 

I love that crazy quote, "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" - (Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20). One of several from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that makes the break with nature that humanity seemingly celebrates and seeks to repair. So a first concern for the landscape papers was where and how the categories of "nature" and "art" met - for two of the three, it became where they blended imperceptibly (the stuff of the natural world being the stuff of art), for a third, it was where the two relied on each other for representation (the natural world signified in art, artistry signified by the natural world). I've only pulled one image from each talk, but I invite you to contact the speakers if you wish to know more - they are a generous and glad group, and it was an honor to think with them. IF YOU WANT TO THINK FURTHER ON THINGS ECOCRITICAL, Heide Estes has set up a Facebook group dubbed "Medieval Ecocriticisms" - find it and like it and join the conversation!

Pyrolusite from Sinai (from Anastasia Drandaki's talk)
Anastasia Drandaki made the audience gasp with this slide. She'd taken us to the Katholikon of the monastery at Mount Sinai, and we'd seen the Burning Bush (and pilgrims taking branches) and here, then, a bit of the stone from the site, pyrolusite whose dendritic crystals miraculously manifested (more than re-presented) the Burning Bush itself. Oh what Roger Caillois would have to say about this one! Nature making/being/encompassing/ Art, collapsing the two into the phenomenon of "natural beauty." Miraculous because it existed outside of human intervention, but miraculous also precisely because it could intervene in human lives, as stories of healing miracles proclaim. Independent of humans and yet deeply involved in their fate. An active land, a landscape full of possibilities. I love the problem of human perception here: it is our re-cognition of the crystals as tree branches that excite, suggest our wonder, make the miracle. Agency gets good and tricky here: the crystals are not an imprint of branches, they possess no mimicry, but they are wondrous to us in their ability to imitate elements of the natural that we have deemed as such.  Still, I interpret the audience's gasp as responding to the stone's independence from human presence: its ability to be complete, to trump and best our own representational efforts, and (simply) to be beautiful. Anastasia's talk made me want to think more about the aesthetic (miraculous?) agency of stone, about this wonderful problem of natural beauty.

Kaminaria donors and trees (from Barbara McNulty's talk)
Barbara McNulty took us to Cyprus, a place that has long held a fascination for me (no, never been there) because of its absolutely perfect liminality between East and West. I think of Richard the Lion-Hearted's obsession with it, the Lusignans!, the multiplicity of artistic endeavors, this stretch of land that makes the Holy Land almost yours, Venice certainly claiming so. This tiny church holds the remains of a fascinating fresco with a woman (a widow?) at the head of a donors' procession including three young men (her sons?). Precisely positioned between each one, at the level of their waists or the depth of a very large field, are tiny trees on sloping hills. Does a tree a landscape make? How minimal can the representation of nature be? Here, I'm fascinated with how nature is signified. I wondered out loud during the discussion afterwards about the minimalism of natural representation here, and Alexa Sand brilliantly noted the reductive power of allegory. With that, I can work in and out of representation (visual and textual). It's when a tree is not just a tree that it becomes part of a poem. The signification of the Kaminaria trees can range widely: from territorial signifier, to indicator of a mapping vision, to allegory of Paradise (the Virgin Mary is directly nearby, exerting her own aesthetic/semiotic pull).  Here again, I was confronted with the problem of human perception. The very act of seeing a landscape is an act of categorization, and Barbara's talk pushes me to try to articulate what is natural (anything? everything?) about the idea and presence of landscape. 

Terra Verde (from Amber McAlister's talk)
Amber McAlister made us prize the material experience of paint. The fantastic Summer Teachers Institute in Technical Art History, held at Yale, had brought her not only into contact with elemental art history (paints, pigments, varnishes, and more), but also into its actions (mixing, making, readying).  There are things forgotten in the age of oil paint in tubes: the tedium of grinding colors, the transformation of brute stuff into refined matter, the marvel of a representational form appearing beneath your brush. The Dominican monks of the Chiostro Verde of Santa Maria Novella in Florence made meaning when they made their choice to use terra verde to paint the Old Testament cycle of the cloister, the cheap and earthy pigment uniting Creation and creativity. Perception here oscillates between pigment and Paradise (not seeing the Paradise for the pigment? seeing the Paradise through the pigment?).  This is the rub, the challenge, the fundamental dilemma of an eco-critical art history for me, so well put forward by Amber's paper: art history has been the study of made things; alternately the study of the perception of made things. The things we are interested in thinking through are made by makers who didn't want to/couldn't leave stuff be: stone became statue, sand became glass, pigment became paradise. The transformation of matter was made, material was wrought, so that meaning could be wrought (overwrought?). I know that reading lots and lots of anthropologist Tim Ingold (and keep scrolling down his page for inspiration) will help here. Where I already see us putting a common eco-critical vocabulary into practice for objects, I find myself casting about for language with landscape. These papers push me to keep thinking beyond the representation and conceptualization of nature by art, to the materiality and agency of this actually quite strange category of human perception and physical presence called landscape.

And so, objects.

Our second set of papers gathers around objects: things made from stuff, announced by their agency, by their ability to shape (among other things) human behaviors and desires. Eco-criticism here seeks to move the conversation beyond animism and anthropomorphism, to speak of active objects, of objects that activate; to acknowledge the agency of objects unto themselves.  Our scale shifts from earlier today: from untouchable landscape to hand-held book or relic, from all-encompassing to all-engrossing.  Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter; the political ecology of things makes a consistent appeal to move from epistemology to ontology – from what we know to what is, from meaning to matter, from knowledge to experience. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but they do shift the conversation about objects, as you will see today. 

Quills with ink (from Heide Estes's talk)
If you recognize these quills from the Medieval Ecocriticisms Facebook page, then you'll know it was Heide Estes that set it up. (Many thanks, Heide!). Presenting an ecofeminist reading of the Old English Riddle 26 (the "book" riddle) meant rejecting dualistic thinking (which the riddle's moves and slippages from animal to skin to book, its oscillation between thing and object, rejoiced in); it meant bringing forth Val Plumwood's call to "nature as a political rather than as a descriptive category." A landscape is not a thing the way that an object is a thing: there are entirely different dynamics of participation and becoming. And the poem revels in the becoming, it fascinates us with the necessary (ordinary? mundane?) "centuries of slaughter that gave us medieval writing" (that's from Heide's paper - a phrase that's going to stay with me). Embedded in the poem was my very favorite thing: a kenning - why say quill when you can say that it was "a bird's joy/ made abundant tracks of ink over me." That's the animal skin speaking as it becomes manuscript page - the same voice, but a different ontology, as the poem progresses. I will confess to a deep yearning, when I hear this poem, for speaking objects. Art history's objects are not mute: I firmly believe we are the vehicles for their speech (through our rituals, our desires, our poems, our particularly evocative art history essays). But to hear a gilded book tell you of its animal origins, of being killed and cut and written upon, taken and covered with gold and read with fervor - that is a wonder that should course through my writing more often.

Inside the Protaton Reliquary (from Brad Hostetler's talk)
Brad Hostetler, I like to think, would find no stone mundane, let alone leave it unturned. The Protaton Reliquary gathered together four stones and aligned them into/as a Holy Land arrangement. There is no nature and/vs. art here, right? There is only presence and participation, Brad emphasizing the "EK" (from) of the inscriptions next to each stone: from the Tomb of Christ, from Golgotha, from Bethlehem, from Gethsemane.  One could start to make distinctions between the wrought metal and the raw stone, but, as Ben Tilghman pointed out during the discussion afterwards, the stone is made, too: both stone and metal are elemental, have the vibrant matter of things. The Protaton Reliquary gives me the opportunity to think about a seamless perception, one that works over the representational field without making a nature/art distinction, one that assembles matter partly for pleasure (there is something so wonderful about the careful quadrant positioning of stones from such places) and partly for salvation (the donor on the cover of the reliquary kneels in tight proskynesis).  There is a reason, here, to think of the act of assemblage, of putting these stones into this frame, as itself a devotional act, but also an act of becoming - of the vibrant matter of stone and metal and wood (the center of the reliquary, now visible through an 18th century intervention).

Ivory booklet now at the Cloisters (from Alexa Sand's talk)
Alexa Sand opened up the last object for us, an ivory booklet - a rare work whose inner leaves received, at one time, pliant wax upon which could be written prayers - and its resonances with the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux.  She explored the becoming of both: the five hundred (500!) sheep needed for a large codex; the "bark" that must be stripped from the dentine on its way to being ivory; the gestures and knowledge (which we ourselves can only gesture to knowing) that moved around the materials of ivory and parchment.  A key claim in the history of perception put forward the idea that "the origins of parchment and ivory were never entirely obscured by their processing"(Alexa's beautiful writing). The violence (think ivory and parchment procured) is "translated" (Alexa again) through our senses: the musk deposit that ivory leaves on our skins, a reminder of the animal from whom this was taken (and you can see how Heide's Riddle 26 was conjured up here); the weight and size assessed by a human perception that might well know how many animals were sacrificed. The states of being (dentine, pillaged object, luminous carving) are all simultaneous here. Alexa's work made me realize (and relish anew) that materiality does not precede and recede - it persists.

The conversations afterwards held one big surprise in the tension between queries asking for more theoretical engagements and others protesting the very presence of eco-critical theory. This wide spectrum made me realize that we are still in the process of building an interpretive community of eco-criticism within medieval art history. Ultimately, we will be post-disciplinary: we will all gather on Facebook and read each other's materials and hear each other out and meet again at future conferences. At Kalamazoo 2013, we wanted to test specific works of art/aesthetic scenarios within the ideas and challenges of eco-criticism, of the constructions of Harman's "nature [that] is not natural and can never be naturalized." As the conversation continues, and as we e-mail each other, and find each other on Facebook and, we'll develop that common vocabulary. This is what I have always liked about theory: its ability to create an interpretive community, a bunch of people eager to put ideas into practice - and the momentum that builds in that eagerness. I have put my "Ecology of Medieval Art" syllabus (where Jane Bennett, and Jeffrey Cohen, and Karl Steel and Alf Siewers and (the next time I teach the course) the entire cast of the "EcoMaterialism" issue of postmedieval feature prominently) up on and there will be more reading lists found in articles and talks put up on the site by the wonderful members of these panels, and the discussions on "Medieval Ecocriticisms" on Facebook. Another night, soon, I'll want to think through eco-criticism's revelry in literary studies and its relatively muted presence in art history. For now, bed: so as to think and write and grade another day. Materiality persists. And it insists, "aproche, aproche."