Chris Piuma, word garbler
[I’m reposting this from elsewhere, before posting about BABEL 2014, but I am still having this time now then.]
What follows is a notedump, perhaps designed more to overwhelm than to summarize, or to reflect the density of ideas, enthusiasms, and connections that the BABEL meeting tried to drown us all in. Despite the entire time feeling out of time, an Edenic mirage that we were both well within and yet was always just out of reach, I’ve tried to reconstruct a chronological account of what I did and what I heard people say (and my apologies if I’m misrepresented what anyone said).
If my notes are to be believed, I am not a jetsetter, and I do not normally dash from bed to the plane to the event, but after a night of modest sleep there I was, Toronto Island airport, and a prop plane ride and there I was, Logan airport, where a free subway ride took me to Northeastern University, to a student center, to a table with registration forms and trick dice, whenupon I started a day that I had already started five hours ago in order to go to the airport and which would not end for three days. Or, I would have started it, but there was some confusion about when the first panel was supposed to start, which was a confusion symbolic of our shambolic temporality, because really almost everything else went off without a temporal hitch.
My bespoke nametag—for we all had different, hand-picked icons on our nametags—had an image of Freddie Mercury triumphant on it, and it was great and frankly better than everyone else’s.
THURSDAY 1:30: “Getting medieval on medieval studies”: I broke out a new notebook, which looks like a Moleskine but isn’t, with graph paper pages (I’m one of THOSE people) and a bookmark ribbon that immediately broke off, and I was ready. Ethan Gilsdorf, journalist, started us off with an enthusiasm for Tolkien that could have been more developed, but he included some images of early 1980s hand-drawn D&D maps of implausible dungeons that are the sort of thing I’d gladly look at all day. Darin Hayton talked about Maximilian I and his penchant for self-fashioning as an olde-fashioned knight (as an early form of medievalism) and its historiographical fallout (which reminded me somewhat of m’colleague Chris Berard’s work on Edward III’s appropriation of Arthuriana). Myra Seaman wondered why we worry about undergrads contaminating their readings of medieval texts with anachronistic ideas (as if we wanted to keep those readings irrelevant, locked in their historicized box). Jamie Taylor looked at Margery Kempe as “curious”, as engaging in “practice without ontology” (which perhaps means something like: doing something without being defined by what you are doing, and therefore somehow knowledgeable about who you are and where you are going), which would lead to a very interesting discussion in the Q&A about the luxury of curiosity, and who gets the freedom of that luxury. Elly Truitt talked about using medievalist movies in undergrad pedagogy, and how they might be ways to frame “our take” on aspects of medieval culture, and what issues might be at stake that student could then reconsider when reading primary sources. Christine Neufeld’s response, among other things, mentioned that medieval studies has moved past questions of epistemology to questions of ontology, and here is where I admit that I still don’t quite know what’s at stake when we talk about ontology, especially if we’re talking about ontology instead of epistemology, but here is not where I go into that at any length.
THURSDAY 3:15: “Families old and new”: I went to this panel in part because, more than any other panel, I had no idea what this would be like; in part because I knew a lot of people who would want a report about what it was like; and in part because, knowing Peter, I was curious what the rest of his family might be like, because this session was all about Peter Buchanan (who is a PhD candidate in my department, a few years ahead of me) and his family. It was a weird idea for a panel, and I expected it to be quirky and awkward, and it was, but it was also fantastic, going far beyond its familial obligation and tying in with many of the threads that ran through the conference. Peter’s father, David, is a beef cattle population geneticist, and his talk focused on how a family that a few generations before had been tinsmiths and the like were now university professors. Nothing wrong with tinsmiths, of course, but what expanded the family’s range of potential occupations? In no small part, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which established colleges in every state aimed at improving the lives of industrial workers both through technical training (such as beef cattle population genetics, for farmers) but also the humanities. This was efficient, effective federal governing, and yet here we are now, cruising in the ruins. Peter’s cousin, Dan McKanan, is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School — something like that — and he talked about the problem when schools become accountable to only one group (such as the federal government or the board of trustees) and counselled being accountable to many (and manifoldly different) groups, who in turn would also have some investment within the university. Peter’s sister, Amy, is a clown, and her discussion of the harrowing (for my tastes) and intense experience of clown college (which uses the via negativa: nothing but criticism from your teachers, insisting that you bond with your peers; I’m not sure whether I care to connect this to the academy in ruins!) and, especially, her sketch of what I might call “clown theory” (the clown as the person who feels big emotions for you, your clown as the most intense version of you) resonated with much of the rest of the conference, in no small part because Amy kept “seeing the clown” in people as they gave their presentations, in how we “clown up” in order to be effective presenters and translators of ideas, but also in how greatly we care about what we’re doing. Peter finished with a sensitive reading of family, gift, and “givenness” that I cannot adequately replicate, and then the far too few people in the room had a conversation about family, ethics, and the university.
THURSDAY 5:30: “The deep and the personal: The earth, time, and thought”: Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Science, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who has also been coming along well, gave a plenary talk that displayed their shared fascination with stones and the lithic, but first from Lindy’s scientific perspective, then from Jeffrey’s humanities perspective. Lindy talked about planet formation (its knowns and unknowns), the Permian Extinction (when nearly all life was extinguished 250-odd million years ago) and tried to get across a sense of the vastness of geologic time; Jeffrey considered the ways that rocks announce that “the world is not for us”, and focused on the Mars Curiosity Rover’s exploration of a rock-strewn world that we have no real hope of making “for us”; then they had a dialogue, asking each other questions about the culture of the humanities vs. the culture of the sciences, which was marked by a strong openness on both sides for taking on the challenges that the other discipline offers: What are the humanities trying to figure out? What is the role of beauty in science? It’s not as if others haven’t asked these questions before, but Jeffrey and Lindy both showed a marked curiosity (oh ho!) and interest in the world that is always a delight to see displayed.
THURSDAY LATER: There was a reception, and then there was some eating (in which David Hadbawnik and I did some plotting), and then there was some more meeting up at the bar, and all these receptions felt like a long day of saying hello, or a long morning of saying hello, before a few days of deeper conviviality, and although I broke it off slightly early to go back to the hotel and try to get a few hours of sleep, nevertheless it was not proper sleep, but merely a day held in abeyance (and indeed I woke up feeling more tired than I did when I went to bed, despite a luxurious six hours of uninterrupted sleep).
FRIDAY 10:00: “Future-philology”: Karl Steel, who I was sharing a hotel room with, found a nice breakfast kiosk on the long walk to the conference, and, powered by breakfast burrito and coffee, endless coffee, I arrived at my session: in which an ad hoc Society for Future Philology was formed among people who had not coordinated in any way beforehand. Matthieu Boyd advocated teaching minority languages, not so much in an attempt to get people to properly speak the languages properly, but rather so that they’ll have an understanding of the possibility of a minority language and a stake in what that might mean for a language, for language in general, and for the people who speak such languages. Michael E. Moore took us through some ways that classical philology was used by Nietzsche (in particular) to create a better world (even if it isn’t necessary the better world we would hope for). I looked at a dirty Horace poem, divinatio (radical conjectural emendation of a text), and asked for a more creative philology that is less interested in establishing a single text (I’m hardly alone in that, though) and more interested in using variations (even untenable or conjectured ones) to make the reader more attentive to the text. I also hoped for creative exploitations of this sort of philological practice, and wasn’t I surprised when I saw on the book table some gorgeous looking examples of just that, which had been published by the next speaker, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei. He talked about Old Nubian (and Gerald Browne’s charming and curious development of Old Nubian studies); my notes here say “philology as philology practice as practiced”, and I don’t remember what that means but I like it. Michelle Warren explored the debris and ruins of the 1930 Colonial Exhibition in Paris (where works of philologist Joseph Bédier were on display), and considered “imperial debris”, which had been “made to look discarded” by the power of empire, for its agenda. Finally, Lisa Weston looked at philology as necrophilia/necromancy and the connections between grammar and grimoire, and tied this in with “chaos magic” and, again, divinatio. If the Future-philologists ended up agreeing on one thing, it seemed to be that the future philology is fundamentally based in the practices of past philology with light emendation, which I guess isn’t that surprising, all things considered.
FRIDAY LUNCH: Eileen Joy, David Hadbawnik, Dan Remein, and I met and plotted and schemed, and there’ll be more to say about that soon enough, although from that list of names you can probably guess the gist of the scheming.
FRIDAY 1:30: “Impure collaborations”: A remarkable panel of collaborations. Natalie and Maria Cecire talked about sisters, children as animals (including some famous sisters allegedly raised by wolves), and how cuteness is founded in suffering (even though their presentation was pretty cute and caused no suffering). Caroline Osella and Sean Furmage, two anthropologists, both dressed in drag and had a performative, scripted dialogue about the pros and cons of ethnographical field work, of “going undercover” to “live as” the people you’re studying, and summarizing what I suspect is a fundamental debate within the field: is this exploitative, colonialist, a pretence at a more authentic experience, or is this an admittedly problematic move but still one of the best tools we have for getting outside of some of our assumptions. They unpacked the issue deftly, charmingly, and humorously. Brian Upton (game designer and theorist) and Elizabeth Upton (who works on late medieval French polyphonic music) gave a sort-of rondeau, showing a sort of indirect collaboration, where his unfolding ideas about how “constraint” (by which he means not constraint really, but rather how a game attracts you to particular goals) works in creating the pleasures and experience of gaming led to her thinking about how this might be applicable to music, and her success in expanding his model led him to expand it even further and apply it to even more things: a model of collaboration all the more effective for being unintended. Melissa Jones and Maura Smyth wanted to reconsider the erotic as not necessarily happy and playful and “safe” and looked at Thomas Nashe and Margaret Cavendish to request an “unhappy erotic”. Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, who have been writing a book together (they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve “turned off track changes” when rewriting each other’s texts, which is a fantastic detail!), reviewed a talk they gave at a BABEL session at Kalamazoo a few years ago, suggesting that they were too naive and positive about collaboration then, although their collaborative experiences still seemed incredibly productive, thoughtful, and pleasurable; they discussed their experiences as a confident “we” and their realization that not everyone would want to be part of their “we”, that their pleasures, experiences, and worldlogic weren’t universal, and that within the amazingness of their collaboration they would have to reckon with a “they” that didn’t want to collaborate with “us” (which I suspect BABEL as a “we” also experiences regularly!). Eileen Joy and Anna Kłosowska performed unexpectedly similar work, thinking about who we are writing/working for (and some historical examples of people who wrote “for” one person, even if their works were more broadly read and appreciated, and how that dependence upon the one unfolded when, say, that person died) and some sadness at how every “we” results in a “they”, as Eileen talked about losing a former friend who was dismayed by her moves to propagate the convivial “we” of BABEL at the expense of the, oh let’s say, traditional scholarly “we” of “the work”, and how that friend decided to become part of “they”. Sigh. Michael O’Rourke offered a thoughtful meditation on, among other things, the erotics of collaboration, of touching one another’s sentences, of potentially having one’s sense of ownership over those sentences upset (as, it seemed, a factor that was productive of the erotic — but, I wonder, does “the erotic” depend upon that level of investment in self?).
FRIDAY 3:15: “All in a jurnal’s work: A BABEL wayzgoose”: The idea of this panel was to have independent publishers discuss their projects. There were two papers given in this talk that I either very much misunderstood or very much disagreed with, and therefore it wouldn’t be productive for me to engage with them here; there’s nothing to be gained from it, and life is too short. I will instead mention what I enjoyed, including Isaac Linder’s opening remarks, loosely connecting the tradition of the printers’ wayzgoose celebration to the particles light that left 9-Cygnus at the time of the invention of the printing press striking us today: all the augurs are propitious. Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei (again) railed against peer review in the humanities, which, at its most provocative, encouraged us to embrace the Sokal Hoax and embrace the possibility that all of humanities is a hoax. Eileen Joy discussed Punctum books and, among other things, the delight in publishing books that, while they might be “wrong” in some way, are still interesting and spark interesting conversation and thought. And Dan Remein talked about the more practical side of publishing with limited resources and showed how poetry can be intertwined in thought and activism well outside the academy and without any dedicated funding stream.
FRIDAY 5:30: More plenaries: Jane Bennett and David Kaiser gave the second round of plenaries, and sadly there was no sign of collaboration between the two of them. Bennett’s talk began to sketch out a theory of an impersonal sympathy via Paracelsus and Walt Whitman; impersonal, here, meaning something like non-subjective, not originating in consciousness, but, sometimes, percolating into consciousness: my body might imitate that of a tree we see stretching toward the heavens, acting in (impersonal) sympathy before we recognize that I’m in this sort of fellowship with the tree. It might, but it might not, and I was struck by how often Bennett would assert what I (what “you”) would be doing right now, looking at this image, which I would then notice I was NOT doing, and indeed I became aware of the many other objects in the room or the birds swooping by the room that my body did not enter into any sort of sympathy with. It didn’t seem like a sufficient story, and Bennett didn’t include any of the scientific reasoning behind why a theory of sympathies was abandoned by scientists. It seemed, for a while, that she might be suggesting it as a sort of salutary myth, following Whitman: that if we paid attention to our impersonal sympathies, this would increase our democratic fellow-feeling. But Bennett explicitly rejected that notion, and it was never clear to me what she actually was getting at. Oh well; perhaps next time. David Kaiser gave a summary of a recent book, about how unemployed and unaffiliated physicists in Berkeley decided to investigate the philosophical underpinnings of quantum mechanics, and how they made unexpected alliances with other cultural outsiders (Werner Erhard, people interested in ESP, etc.), all of which work led, eventually, to important and mainstream developments in quantum mechanics. It was an interesting tale, well told, although I wish it had pushed a bit further at certain moments, especially at the nature of the unlikely alliances that were formed and how they shaped the physics thinking (or the physics shaped the, say, ESP thinking) but it was already overlong and is possibly dealt with in the book.
FRIDAY LATER: Some of us ended up dining at Kitchen, which had some very tasty historically, uh, reconstructed? inspired? meals (well, they had dates attached to them anyways), and served beer in cold metal tankards, all of which was delightful. It was also the venue for the next event, in which Thomas Meyer read from his translation of Beowulf and fielded questions from the audience. It was a lovely reading, although the space was a little too small to let everyone in comfortably. Then there was an after party, in which I talked to some delightful and enthusiastic Northeastern grad students who had been helping out, and also got into a good argument with Karl about whether Hamlet rules or drools. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide which of us took which side in that debate. We closed the place, and eventually somehow stumbled back to the hotel.
SATURDAY 9:30: “Synaesthetics: Sensory integration against the disciplines”: And a very few hours later we were awake again. By this point my body had moved into a situation beyond tired, but I very much wanted to see this panel, as synaesthesia has always struck me as interesting (and perhaps intriguingly out of reach for me). Jonathan Hsy expanded his In The Middle post and its overview of the clinical understanding of synaesthesia — how it does show up on fMRI and the like, and therefore we agree that synaesthetics “really” do see what they claim to see, and is not a metaphor. Emily Gephart’s talk about ekphrasis is one that I have few notes for, but only because she encouraged us to close our eyes during the talk and think of our favourite art works (mine: Petrus Christus and Agnes Martin, though not quite that one but close enough), to visualize them, as she described how words are incommensurate with sight/art. It was a lovely experiment/experience, to have my eyes closed during the talk, and to note the different types of attention I was paying (and, OK, I peeked for a bit during the middle of the talk to notice that about half the audience, maybe, were keeping their eyes closed). But it also went with Jonathan’s talk in an interesting way; Jonathan assumed that I probably wouldn’t have synaesthesia, that I didn’t see colours when I looked at letters (etc.), which is true enough; but Emily kept talking as if I was able to “see” my favourite works of art, which isn’t quite true: I have a very, very feeble visual imagination, and what I was doing was mostly remembering seeing the art, rather than seeing the art. So I could think about what I thought about the last time I saw them, and I had vague flickers of visual data, but it wasn’t anything like seeing the art, which is how it seems to play out in most people. Anyway, in both cases it was about modes of sensual reception that I don’t have access to — that I’m disabled with respect to — but in one case, my disability is normal, and in the other, it isn’t. Anyway: Will Stockton then spoke about early modern sex and whether it was defined by, you know, genital touching or whether it could include, say, drinking. There was also a brief mention of “erotic vomiting” which apparently I’m one of the few medievalists to have heard of before? Utterly not my scene but I’m aware it’s out there. Allen Mitchell talked about Michel Serres and the desire to privilege direct experience over the abstraction of words (eating of food rather than talk about food), and the discussion of food as a sort of anticipation (a pleasurable delay) of the tasting of food (which is all well and good although I’m interested also in the pleasures of the nonabstracted materiality of words, which taste good too — but yes, still here I’m urging to sometimes taste in favour of abstracting). And Ian Sampson rounded the table with a discussion of Lacan, perspective, and Brunelleschi’s looking-through-a-hole-in-a-painting-at-its-reflection-in-the-mirror-which-depicted-the-scene-before-you trick, which later had an interesting echo of an echo in one of Sans Façon’s artworks, of painting a sign on a building to appear like the landscape behind the sign, but turned, not focusing on the subjectivity of the viewer but rather on the status of their environment. A good and provocative panel.
SATURDAY 11:30: “Will it blend? Equipping the humanities lab”: Liza Blake delightfully analyzed the phrase “Because, you know… Science!” as an attitude toward science as having an explanatory power that doesn’t need to be explained, and considered the epistemological triumph of scientism despite science being founded on an ever-distancing horizon of unknowing (the more you know, the more you know you don’t know; it’s unknowing turtles all the way down!). Peter Taylor’s interest in “unruly complexity” was a starting point for an abbreviated form of establishing a David Bohm-esque dialogue, which sadly there wasn’t enough time for, although I’d love to see a fuller version of this kind of experience at a future BABEL conference. Haylie Swenson gave a charmingly written talk about Caliban’s umwelt, suggesting we might read him as nonhuman (more than human, or rather than a metaphor for a particular type of human) and that his experiences on the island might be radically different than the humans’ experiences. Elizabeth and Jessica Sklar, in absentia, talked about collaborating on a volume of essays situated between math and humanities, and asked whether the bridges that could be built to translate between the two disciplines would be amalgamations or transformations. Kathryn Vomero Santos compared translation and alchemy and suggested that translation studies is not only interdisciplinary but forms the vocabulary of interdisciplinarity, in that going from one discipline to another is considered in terms of translation. In the Q&A afterwards, it was asked when we would say “Because, you know… Humanities!” (my thought: that usually comes up as part of an ethical charge (roughly, ”We must do this because, you know… Humanities!”, not that that exact phrase is used)).
SATURDAY LUNCH: An all-too-brief lunch with Jonathan Hsy, in which we discussed synaesthesia and plotted for our upcoming collaborative talk at next year’s Kalamazoo, which you seriously do not want to miss.
SATURDAY 2:00: “Se7en Undeadly ScIeNceS: The trivium and quadrivium in the forking multiversity”: Unexpectedly, the one panel where the seven different talks (each limited to seven minutes) didn’t really cohere; maybe focusing on disciplinarity will do that? Christopher Cannon looked at XML markup as grammar, and questioned whether grammar tells us anything about meaning and thus about language (which carries about three positions that I disagree with, but it was still overall an interesting talk). Jill Ross talked about rhetoric, focusing on its role in medieval Iberian disputations and its role in developing multiplicity and hybridity and connections among competing truth claims, which are needed to make the diverse university function. Eleanor Kaufman, also in absentia, looked at logic, Aristotle’s categories, Porphyry’s taxonomies, and Scotus’s haeccicities and their connections to Deleuze, in an interesting paper that my notes aren’t helping me reconstruct adequately. Maura Smyth (as geometry) gave a lovely Sloterdijk-inflected talk about a personal literary history that connected seemingly disparate bubbles of ephemeral moments through/across coincidences; it was a shame that she framed this through a strawman attack on Franco Moretti’s work that resembled nothing I’ve read or heard from him (close reading vs. distant reading isn’t a zero sum game!). Shankar Raman, as arithmetic, read Shakespeare’s second sonnet in light of Frege’s theory of number (which is weird and amazing and which I’ve only heard about in passing before). Bruce Holsinger, as music, did not sing at all during his presentation, but talked about resonance as the undying spectrality of sound and linked this to a zombie humanism (following Jeffrey Cohen and Jonathan Hsy’s recent ITM posts): departments/disciplines as having sustained a devastating amount of critique, but yet they keep lurching back, and considering “(the) tradition” as a sort of zombie in similar ways. Finally, Scott Maisano talked about astronomy and the Tempest, but I missed that talk for “call of nature” reasons, alas. On my way back, though, I noticed the security officer standing outside the panel about beer making (with free samples!), keeping the numerous underage undergrads (who were having some sort of event nearby) away from the beer. The security officer had a gun. This seemed a smidge excessive.
SATURDAY 4:15: More plenaries!: First, Sans Façon discussed some of their public art work, which is largely notable for, in a sense, not drawing attention to itself. The best example of it was a simple idea: adjust two streetlamps so that they point to the same spot, forming a spotlight, and then sit back and watch how the public interacts with that space. That idea of art that works without announcing itself: Is there a scholarly equivalent? We feel obliged to be explicit in analyzing and announcing what we’re doing and why. Then Carolyn Dinshaw and Marget Long gave a terrific talk that mapped Carolyn’s interest in medieval stories about going to Eden, a place that was both in the world and not in it, with Marget’s attempts to photograph mirages, all culminating in a scene from Road to Morocco that is better watched than described.
SATURDAY LATER: Amongst the dinner chat, a discussion with someone who is new to BABEL events, who was dismissive of a few talks that attempted to be performative but, I was told, didn’t quite nail it; it’s great when it’s done well, but if it isn’t going to be done well, it shouldn’t be done at all; I pointed out that there aren’t a lot of spaces where this sort of performative academics could be tried out, and people who are interested in exploring how this might work don’t get a lot of chances to, as it were, practice, and that I valued the conference for being something of a “safe space” for trying these ideas out. Later, at the final wrap up party, the inverse of this came up, as Lindy (the astrogeologist) kept repeating how amazed she was at how not-boring humanities conferences are. We had to, sadly, inform her that they weren’t all like this, not at all, and that one of the points of a group like BABEL is to make this sort of space flourish, to insist upon the legitimacy of a creative academic practice that, as I argued in my talk, has been happening all along anyway, but too often only in the cracks and corners. I suppose I don’t want to argue that all of academia needs to be like this — that thinking should only count if it’s performative or convivial or whatnot; it’s fine that there are people out there who don’t want to be part of this sort of “we”, who want to be part of a “we” that I don’t want to be part of. I don’t want legitimizing this activity to be at the expense of legitimizing their activity. But this is much closer to how I experience and appreciate intelligence, and I want to see more of it.
SATURDAY EVEN LATER: And I guess that would have made a good wrap up, but time isn’t so tidy. I got to have a great long conversation with Lindy about everything from infinitely long poems to why solar systems are discs (and not, say, spheres) to the geologic formation of Newfoundland; I advocated to members of the Material Collective (whose panels I heard were excellent, and I regret not having been able to go to them) that they actually do start publishing a journal — or something! — because whether the art history world is ready for them or not, I certainly am; I had a several-drinks-in discussion about cats and metaphors with Rob Wakeman and others; I don’t even know, the words, they just kept coming, and they were all great. And when we finally left, a dozen of us took cabs to an all-night bakery in the North End, where I had some grape nuts pudding because what the hell is that even? (answer: bland) and where we got yelled at by a cop for, first, eating in a store that didn’t have (or deserve) an eat-in licence, and second, being noisy on what seemed to be a deserted commercial strip. What? Whatever. We got in cabs and went back to the hotel, and I collapsed and (after a leisurely lunch with Karl) I wandered around Boston a bit on my own, beginning the long work of decompressing and plotting anew.
tl;dr: Well, that’s fine, go back and skim!
See also: Steve Mentz, Mary Kate Hurley, the Material Collective, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and the futurologist Karl Steel. And, afterwards, some lovely and more abstract commentaries from Jonathan Hsy and Jen Boyle.
04 November 2014