Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Vous êtes joignable"

Happy arrival
Here is Eleanor perching on the front stoop of our house in Courbevoie (still on the Metro line but definitely a marvelous world apart from Paris). She is delighted, and we are amazed: at the garden and the ivy and the roominess and our lovely landlady and the wooden staircase and the story that houses like this one were built for the engineers and their families of the Suez Canal. All of the usual travel indignities have been endured and in my remaining minutes of consciousness I just want to feel lucky and revel in a new French phrase I learned today. My dissertation research year was 20 (twen-ty) years ago and while monuments aspiring to transcendental importance haven't changed, the set-up of quotidian life absolutely has. I've never lived in a neighborhood like Courbevoie, either - let's be more specific. I've never lived within walking distance of La Défense. The kids were downright heroic in this shiny, ginormous (there is no more critical term) distopia that I will be posting many images of eventually because it's utterly fascinating. We went to see and take care of a few things (Metro passes, maybe a cell phone). An Orange kiosk was right there so we jumped in and were set up with cell phones (flip phones are still the best options for the those (like us - urgh) whose iPhones rejected any SIM card not put there by the manufacturer. My happiness at having these (basically) walkie talkies through which Mac and I could communicate in the city was clearly visible, and the excellent guy helping us smiled and said "Oh oui! C'est bien. Maintenant, vous êtes joignable."  I am JOINABLE. You can join me. I am able to be joined. I absolutely love this phrase - contemporary, utterly clear, a distinct layer from past experiences living here.

True transcendence?
 But then again, maybe there are more transcendental entities around me than a day of jetlag and tooling around a new neighborhood and La Défense would allow me to realize. A trip to the nearby FranPrix yielded these two powers. I keep talking to the kids about the "persistence of matter" (because of all the medievalist work being done there, and my own fascination with the persistence of natural matter in artistic form) and the kids found some "very persistent" (Oliver) cheeses indeed. The Morbier is an old friend that you can often find in the States. But few cheeses are as angry to see you as a Pont l'Evêque. And yet it is a rich and loyal cheese whose stench brought tears to my eyes for both sentimental and chemical reasons. So here we are, starting five months together, this first day rendering us joinable to this new place, joining the unrelenting modernity of La Défense with the unyielding tradition of stinky cheese. Tati plays with this idea of Paris new and old a lot in Playtime. Now we'll give it a go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

And so, oui

The 16th document of the 18 to be provided for a long-stay visa to France is proof of applicant children's enrollment in a French school. Like all of the documents needed, this one is presented as non-negotiable and absolute - a tone struck especially clearly with the FAQs, to which every single answer is no (as though all questions were simply attempts shirk obligations). And so I've been anxious about our submission of our local principals' letters detailing the kids' long-distance education plan while we live in Paris from August to December. By all internet accounts, French culture (and certainly the French educational system) looks down on what they call "l'école en famille" (family schooling), what we call here "home schooling." It is seen as a breach of the social contract that is education (we could go all the way back to Rousseau if we wanted to) and into which the French government and thus society has invested so much. And I profoundly admire that social contract, I marvel at its reach and federalism (the entire country shares textbooks and curricula - the much-debated Common Core of the United States is a mere dance step in the complex ballet of the French academic system - grade levels? non, non, non: CP, CE1, CE2 and then change it all around, but every French kid that makes it that far will know all of the intricacies of what it means). But since school doesn't begin until almost mid-September, and since there will be two weeks of vacation and strikes and travel, I don't see the kids having enough time to gain traction with the French language. I do (but don't want to) see them, with their little legs dangling beneath their desk arranged in a neat row of like desks, while Paris teems and calls and thrives outside. Let's be clear: I am ambivalent about this. I worry about the lack of socializing and friendship (knowing we'll rely more heavily on expat communities at first because they're friendlier in a short amount of time), and, well, I worry about turning my back on Another Great Social Program that France has poured its energies into. At the same time, I see this as the opportunity of a lifetime: to let my knowledge of the city (earned and treasured in a 1989-90 study year, a 1993-4 dissertation research year, and then all of the wonderful brief visits) be guided by my children's curiosity. To show them every last thing I ever marveled at. To share this city absolutely with them and find out what seizes their imagination. To go off the pedagogical grid (as far as the Swiss Virgo inside will let me) and teach and learn tremendously differently. All this to say, there was a lot at stake in not supplying the requested documentation of number 16.

Airplanes in chapel! (Arts et Métiers)
And then the French government said "yes" - or, uh, "oui" of course. Unflummoxed by the strange request, no doubt chalking up our misguided freedom to our being foreigners, the French government has granted all of us visas and we are good to go. We leave in two weeks and the summer's academic work will continue right up until the last minute. It's a heady time (revisions, book review, a collaborative project proposal, a deep desire to get a new article started), but now most of my afternoons working around the house frame insistent daydreaming about all that we might do together. Certainly we'll all work at home in the mornings, and then Mac and I will split the day (or the week, depending on how things go) to work in the Bibliothèque Nationale or any number of super specialized libraries. After lunch, out we'll go into Paris, France. When we read Le Petit Prince (bilingually!), can we also read Wind, Sand and Stars? Can we go to the Musée des Arts et Métiers and look at the planes hanging from the chapel vaulting? the engines ensconced in individual chapels? Yes! Yes, I do believe we can! Will there be invitations to consider what Rembrandt's Bathsheba is thinking? Oh yes. Will we ask about Benjamin Franklin's endeavors in Paris, France? Well, most of them. Do I mourn the departure of two of Paris's cooler museums, le Musée National du Sport (to Nice) and le Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (where I used to go listen to recordings of breton and other dialects made by Claude Lévi-Strauss students and played back in stilled and strange dioramas) (to Marseille)? Very much. But there will be other and new places - and the serendipity of exhibitions and happenings and the sequential thinking skills and thrills it takes just to use the Metro.

Room of Endangered or Extinct Species
So I'll be posting out here about this aspect of the experience. About home-schooling in Paris, France; Paris-schooling?; about the resources and challenges of it (my never having done it, my now studiously approaching mathematics which I used to love and kind of can't wait to see operative again, my only pedagogy really being curiosity); and about some of these crazy ideas for shared endeavors (that we'd all read the same book, all study the history of the same park, each find an animal to champion in the Salle des Espèces Menacées et des Espèces Disparues - Room of Endangered or Extinct Species). This absolutely lucky, unprecedented, unique, suspended five months that will have nothing and everything to do with our lives in Indiana.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Cathedral Thinking" - on collectivity

Feininger, Cathedral of the Future, 1919.
I have been writing a review of Medieval Modern; Art Out of Time by Alexander Nagel and have thus been thinking a good deal about meetings of the minds across temporal divides, and (because it is summer, and I am grateful for the time to actually really think with all of the wonderful people past and present engaged in this endeavor of searching and researching and writing) meetings of the minds in general. This book, for me, joins the great work of Bruce Holsinger's Premodern Condition and Amy Knight Powell's Depositions in opening up period boundaries and exploring, as Nagel says it so well, "a dizzying pattern of recursions" (273). The image I have here, which also graces the cover of Nagel's book, makes me marvel at how the Middle Ages became a time whence future time could be thought, indeed, envisioned. It also makes me wonder about the process of separating form and content in the radically secular Bauhaus's embrace of religious architectural process. And it unnerves me to think how easily (in the early 20th century. Today?) an image of a cathedral (an oppressive image to so many) could become a utopic image. There are many ways to think of the inheritances and legacies of the Middle Ages, complex and multivalent as they are, and I'd like to think for just a little bit on how collective rethinking can be a reshaping of the period - as well as how the collective we have come to call the Middle Ages shapes us, we who have never been just modern.

Exploded diagram by Leonardo da Vinci
How a collective comes together (to build a cathedral, a barn, a school of thought, a discipline) is itself a process of assemblage that can be treasured by memory/history and loved in language, all the while never being fully understood or predictable. Karl Steel and Jonathan Hsy have recently shared fantastic collectivities - click here for one including a "superfluity of nuns" and here for another celebrating a "fellowship of Tolkienists." Angie Bennett Segler wrote a declaration of "radical hospitality" that, along with the post from Eileen Joy that she cites, has been inspiring me all summer. Mary Kate Hurley invites feedback (literally! you can do so until July 10!) on "Creating Alternative Communities" in an age and within an academic institution that does a whole of individuating and isolating. And the Material Collective gladdens to new writers keeping (to me) that most wondrous of collectives, that between art and humans, decidedly "strange." I gather all of these collectives in my thoughts and on this page now in a luxurious (and kind of wonderfully disorienting) moment of self-awareness, typing away in the quiet of my building in the middle of my town ensconced in corn fields in Indiana. As the Material Collective had voiced during the "Impossible Words" session at Kalamazoo, "a collective cannot see itself in its totality." For some reason, right now, it's very thrilling to me to think of so many people in such disparate places striving in so many different ways towards/with things medieval. I think of Ian Bogost's discussion of exploded diagrams in Alien Phenomenology - all of the medievalist collectivities I've listed here (and many and any others) are themselves parts apart, but also take this thing called the Middle Ages apart. The cathedral need not loom so large. The medieval period sits in the perpetual potential of the exploded diagram we constantly redraw for it.

And so to end (quickly because, summer, pool, children) by asking the reverse. If modern shapes the medieval, how does the medieval shape the modern? Nagel, Holsinger, and Powell are asking exactly this question. Jeffrey Cohen asked it of the medieval eco-criticism panel at Kalamazoo this year in asking after points of contact between modern theorists and medieval ones (and ideas and scenarios and images). I find that I asked the question in my review of Caroline Walker Bynum's Christian Materiality and Mary Carruther's The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages at Different Visions. I guess that I'll end with that today:

Many of the revelations of agency and materiality being developed in contemporary theory were active in the Middle Ages, and medievalists have much to share with modern thinkers struggling through the economic, ethical, and social problems of inert materiality and deadened physicality.

I was prompted to write this entry, I realize now, not so much because of the review that is being written, but because of the collectivities that I find myself reading with and within. I feel boundless gratitude for them, and the friendship and momentum and meaning they generously offer. And so, an effort at the first draft of a book review has become a love letter. Thus it goes.