Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kalamazoo

This past weekend I attended my first International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI, as part of the GW MEMSI panel “Ecologies.” While each and every paper presented by my fellow panelists was illuminating, if not absolutely brilliant, I was most captivated by Carolyn Dinshaw’s discussion of the ubiquitous image of the green man, that foliage enshrouded face, sometimes wearing, sometimes spewing vegetable matter, which decorates so many abbeys and cathedrals throughout Europe. The green man image has always interested me, primarily because it challenges and worries at the imagined boundary between human and non-human (in this case, vegetable) objects by illustrating a body shared equally, perhaps symbiotically, by human and plant. What I found most remarkable about her paper, however, was the anecdote about the interruption of her studying the green man by a vagabond, homeless-looking woman, a discretely human object that caught Carolyn’s attention while she was photographing the architectural ornaments. Here we are on a panel at the invitation to talk about that which is “utterly non-human,” and yet Carolyn pauses to dilate upon the meanderings of a very human thing, a pause which seems incongruous if not directly counter to the efforts of the panel. I was momentarily stunned.

Yet the title of the panel was “Ecologies,” and what is the promise of ecology if not an attempt to connect to, touch, relate, assemble with objects that are often left out of anthropocentric networks? And what is a homeless woman if not an object that is marginalized, abandoned, neglected, untouched, un-assembled, ejected from the most potent and puissant human networks? Thinking about this woman calls to mind Levi Bryant’s description of dim objects, “objects that only lightly manifest themselves in an assemblage of objects,” objects that only appear briefly and have no real political or social voices (1). Perhaps it is the duty of the ecologically minded to notice dim objects and shine a little light their way. Thus, amidst all of our work to invite non-human objects into our assemblages and to call attention to all the non-human objects that are always already at work within our networks, Carolyn reminds us that there are a great many human objects whose agency is often overlooked and who need to be enveloped and embraced by larger social bodies.

Perhaps I was so taken by this brief anecdote, this passing mention of the homeless woman, because I felt myself very much an example of a dim object at Kalamazoo. I arrived alone, an “Independent Scholar” with no relation to an institution; I spent hours wandering the WMU campus with no mæg, no mamaþþumgyfa, and no meoduhealle to call my own(2). Things relate, touch, connect, but as I walked through the various Goldworth Valley buildings searching for the registration table, as I squeezed through crowds and skirted by laughing, smiling, conversing storms of conference attendees, I felt utterly and absolutely withdrawn, like I had completely receded from view, and I wanted to scream “Would someone fucking touch me already?!” A hand on the shoulder, a brush of an elbow, a look in the eye; as focused on and interested in non-human relations as I am, I was surprised at how ravenous I was for a simple human connection.

Fortunately I had made the very wise decision to attend Thursday evening’s postmedieval roundtable discussion; Jeffrey J. Cohen, the person responsible for my being a lonely, dim object in Kalamazoo in the first place (the effusions of gratitude will come later in this post), was in the audience, and upon noticing my lone figure sitting in the back of the theater, he invited me to sit with his cadre of GWU graduate students and professional colleagues. I diffidently approached this motley coterie, doubting they would warmly receive a man of no mead-hall, and, to my deepest surprise, I was instantly enveloped by so much warmth and conviviality, I was so unwaveringly invited to join this little cabal, that I recognized my isolation had been primarily self-imposed. Inspired further by the theatrical performance of The Material Collective, which was delivered by various bodies scattered throughout the audience and complimented by free wine, and their message of the need for unity and strong relationships amongst those wanting to brave unconventional, theoretical, interdepartmental academic work, I determined to spend that night and the following day building as many relationships and connecting to as many medievalists as I could.

At a conference like Kzoo, things once assembled quickly disassemble, then re-assemble, never as the same assemblages they once were; micro-assemblages and swiftly shifting networks are the status quo, so keep up. I felt like alabaster, which is moist and malleable when first harvested, but swiftly loses its water molecules, hardening mere minutes after it is excavated. Yet hardened alabaster is still pliant, still soft, still supple; it is easily scratched and easily carved. Alabaster wants to be touched, it wants to connect with hands and tools and, never losing its chemical desire to recombine with water, it welcomes transition and transformation (3). Thus, like a raw chunk of alabaster, I left myself open to being touched and shaped and changed, and I fortunately fell into a crowd of eager hands: those involved with BABEL, postmedieval, and/or GW-MEMSI. These folk are all hands (curious hands, but not lecherous ones), they reached out to a chunk of rock eager to connect and, while respecting its qualities and chemistry, polished its rough edges and carved indelible marks into its surface.

This cadre of medievalists reminds me of Bryan’s rogue objects: “These are objects that aren’t locked in any particular assemblage or constellation of objects, but which rather wander in and out of assemblages modifying these assemblages in a variety of ways”(4). I don’t mean to speak for the individual actors that constitute the BABEL/postmedieval family (especially if they would disagree with me here), but rogue object seems a perfect appellation for this group. Instead of shaking its fists at the institution, it passes through, wanders, engages, disrupts, jars, slices, shifts, mutates and upsets the rigid status quo of the capital “U” University by modifying it from the inside via brief, roguish acts of unconventional scholarship. And its members are very much a family, nurturing, supporting, embracing each other and welcomingly receiving new friends into the fold.

I would love to wax on about my too brief experience at Kzoo 2012, but I fear this blog post would just turn into some mawkish gushing about the remarkable people who made my first medieval conference such a valuable, validating and entirely unforgettable experience (assuming it already hasn’t). I do, however, want to express my utmost thanks to the two individuals who made my experience a true success: Jeffrey J. Cohen and Eileen Joy. Jeffrey’s unwavering confidence in me and his enthusiastic support for my work got me to Kzoo in the first place, and Eileen, well, Eileen is just a fucking rock star. Thank you both for teaching me that academia can be collaborative and not just competitive. Let the cut-throats cut each other, we have sweet music to make (yes, that is a somewhat veiled allusion to my “Ecologies” roundtable paper).

(1)Coffield, Kris. "Interview: Levi Bryant". Retrieved 14 May 2012.
(2)No kinsman, no treasure-giver, and no mead-hall, O.E. from The Wanderer…obviously.
(3)I am indebted to Anne Harris whose passion for alabaster is infectious.
(4)Coffield, Kris. "Interview: Levi Bryant". Retrieved 14 May 2012.

5 comments:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am smarting from Eileen's rock star status when in fact I am her Svengali. But whatever. Great post. Thank you!

Eileen Joy said...

It is true that I was made in Jeffrey's image, but then I decided to use him as a host plant.

Terrific post; it heartens me to believe [or know] that somehow, the atmospheric climate of the conference has changed somewhat over the years, and that you felt so welcomed. Bravo to everyone involved in that, and bravo to you for your gorgeous paper in the Ecologies session.

Jason R. Berg said...

Fantastic post! I love your writing style, it's very engaging. I too hate that aimless wandering at conferences, it can be so lonely. Glad to hear someone put out a bowl of milk for a stray cat :)

John Vaughn said...

Awesome description of your experience! My first national conference wasn't quite as intimate, but I remember how exciting it was to be there.

Eileen Joy said...

I should have also said, and didn't before, that your description of BABEL is exactly what I have hoped for: not so much fist-shaking, but yes, rogue/vagabond wanderings and disruptions. I hope we can remain true to your description.