Radical Hope for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

October 18, 2012 - 10:01pm

An Interview with Eileen Joy

The first in a series of interviews with medievalists and early modernists that will appear on the CMEMS blog.

Eileen Joy had a busy September. Putting together the second BABEL Biennale, co-editing postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (which just won the ALPSP Award for Best New Journal in 2012, beating out other finalist journals in cancer research, ecology, and physics), making regular contributions to the In the Middle blog, and resigning from her professorship in order to run BABEL full-time.

I Skyped into the "nerve-center" of the BABEL Working Group, and we talked about an organization that started with a desire to intervene in medieval studies and is starting to dream even bigger. We were chatting two weeks after the BABEL Biennale conference, which was by many accounts and late-night Facebook status updates, an inspiring weekend in Boston. The title of the BABEL Biennale, "cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university," evokes a sense of crisis and hope for those who study the past and live in the present.

Panel titles at the Biennale ranged from "Medieval Touchscreen" (which gathered together seven scholars from different fields, "each responding to a single object: a piece of skin, the relic of Mary Magdalene’s forehead in St Maximin, France, supposedly miraculously preserved because this was where Christ touched her just after he rises from the dead") to "Se7en Undeadly ScIeNceS: The Trivium and Quadrivium in the Forking Multiversity" (which asked "How might the trivium and quadrivium reconstitute “the university in ruins” as a Borgesian “garden of forking paths?"). Plenaries included talks by Carolyn Dinshaw, Jane Bennett, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Other events included an evening reading by Thomas Meyer of his newly published translation of Beowulf, before the working group's newly founded "caucus of radical conviviality" continued its discussions into a night of the best kind of scholarly insomnia.

Medieval Studies as Performance Art
The BABEL Biennale traces its roots to a manifesto for a different kind of medieval studies delivered by Eileen at Kalamazoo in 2007, when she wondered out loud if we were witnessing "the last passionate gasp of the last act of this performance art called the humanities." What has taken shape since then is an expansive, non-hierarchical collective of scholars (medievalists and early modernists especially), artists, poets, and activists, all deciding to commit to one another as fellow BABELers, in a moment when, we know, it's not always easy to find unadulterated joy in academia. But that is exactly the one core value that has animated the BABEL Working Group from the start, and it's how Eileen starts our conversation: "it has to be fun, otherwise why are we doing it?."

The sheer joy, excitement, energy, and pleasure that people take in the [biennial] conference is off the scale.

The BABEL Biennale ran with the idea that academics in the humanities -- medievalists and early modernists in particular -- might be able to practice what Eileen calls, "a more flirtatious mode of disciplinarity." She points to one of the plenaries as an example:

"When Jeffrey Cohen [a medievalist] gave the plenary talk in Boston with Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is a planetary geologist, that was unbelievable ["The Deep and the Personal: The Earth, Time, and Thought"]. And because she is in DC, I did ask them to maybe have lunch together. They did spend some time together before the plenary. But the purpose of their plenary was not to think the same way, or say 'this is what I can do for you as a humanist and this is what you can do for me as a scientist.' It was just, be in the same room, perform what you want to perform about your work. And maybe something will serendipitously emerge.

That's why we called the conference’s mode 'cruising,' because it's like what would happen if you just cruised by someone and accidentally stumbled over them. And hopefully relationships will develop and people will maybe collaborate, although it isn't a requirement. It's more about enlarging the conceptual spaces within which we work.

We also embrace the idea that there is such a thing as specialization, and we shouldn't throw that out. We do need specialization. We do need people who think really hard about certain things in quiet rooms and come to certain conclusions."

A Manifesto for Radical Optimism
I ask Eileen if she thinks she's tapped a kind of latent creative energy in academics that some of us might have been holding back, and that sounds right to her.

"There has always been a bottomless wellspring of creative energies, work that people want to do. You know, you wouldn't be in academia if you weren't talented. Academics are not just people who think about philology or cultural-historical contexts for Chaucer's work. They are very creative. And everybody has a personal bent or style that they want to put in their work, but they're told over and over again that they can't do that. And then after a while you forget you even had it. And you just churn out -- you know, it might be good, it might be smart -- but you're always leaving something out. So one of the mission of BABEL is to tap into what was always there."

Our conversation shifts to discuss the sense of crisis that might stifle academic creativity, and how the BABEL Biennale headed right toward this anxiety rather than evading it. I say, "You see these articles coming out [about the humanities in crisis], and you know, there are reasons to be worried. But it just seems like this hamster wheel of anxiety without something productive coming out of it, and you point to something that is actually …"

Eileen breaks in: "We are radically optimistic."

And she elaborates:

“Hope, as well as happiness, is an activity. It is not just a wish. It is a thing that you work on. This is part of the working group's motto: epistemological despair, radical creative hope. Yes, bring me all your facts and your statistics and your data about global warming, the future of higher education, and the crumbling pension funds of different states. That's epistemological despair. Nobody doubts the veracity of these things. But we promote radical, active projects of hope, even collective or civic erotic hope.

When we started BABEL, and when we unleashed it at Kalamazoo -- it had existed since 2004, but it was 2007 that we did our first manifesto -- I was asked to be on a panel with Carolyn Dinshaw and Stephen Kruger. I had never met them before, and I decided, I don't even care what this panel is about. It was technically about gender vs. queer studies, like feminist vs. queer studies, can they be allied with each other? It was a good question. And I said, ‘OK, I'm going to write a manifesto for BABEL, because Carolyn Dinshaw always packs a room.’

And I was right. The room was full. And it was full of everyone who's anyone. So I thought, ‘I'm going to write a paper,’ this was really sneaky on my part, ‘and the first couple of paragraphs will address the topic, and then it's going to veer into BABEL manifesto.’

Everyone was in there. Also who was in there: a ton of graduate students. And there were assistant professors in there. They're the ones who contacted me afterwards. My inbox was flooded with emails from graduate students and assistant professors who were like, ‘OK, I want this’.”

This is why Eileen anchors her hope for the future of the humanities (and maybe the future of universities themselves) in grad students and recent post-grads in medieval and early modern studies, those who might feel the most anxious about their own futures in academia.

"Grad students are not just the future in the corny old sense, ‘the young people are the future.’ No. They are making things happen. continent. journal, Speculations journal, The Hollow Earth Society. I could go on and on. All these journals and organizations founded by post-grads who have contingent labor jobs, and instead of waiting for a so-called ‘real job’ they are just making stuff happen.

We have to harness that energy and turn it into something para-institutional, that can actually sustain people's lives and work. Instead of saying to everybody, ‘Oh don't worry, in a couple of years the job market will get better’.”

Starting Over
One example of the "para-institutional" is the open-access press punctum books, for which Eileen herself, with the help of volunteer associates, publishes and designs books, from designing the covers to page layout to picking fonts.

EJ: Every book that we publish we build from scratch. In fact, I have 40-plus volunteers all over the world, software engineers and web designers, graphic designers, book designers, copy editors, proof readers, formatters.

CMEMS: And that gets back to the energy, skills, and talents that people just have that we're in touch with all the time. But maybe they're not using.

EJ: That's the big thing with BABEL: let's take over the reins of the modes of production of our work. Publishing. Conferencing. Let's take it all over and start again.

CMEMS: Yeah. At the level of fonts. Let's do it.

Starting over again is a skill that the BABEL Working Group wants to hone, as Eileen makes clear as we discuss plans for the group's future.

"Jeffrey Cohen is really funny, he said, one of our mottos should be: ‘if it ain't broke, break it.’

So we had this amazing success in Boston. It wasn't without its problems and not everyone was equally happy. But it was technically a resounding success. So we decided, specifically because it was, and also to address what did not go well, we will not do that again. In other words, when we come to Santa Barbara [for the next BABEL biennale in 2014], the conference that we're already planning under the theme “On the Beach,” it will not be like anything anyone in our field has ever seen. There will not be concurrent sessions because we want to maximize a certain intimacy and synergy and being-together-ness between participants. It's going to be structured as an "un-conference." We're bringing in artists who are going to create actual dynamic artworks that are part of the conference and involve the participants. All the sessions are going to be plenary and like plenaries you've never seen before.

Because we're doing it on the Pacific Ocean, we're going to have featured speakers who are medievalists and early modernists, but also humanities scholars in more contemporary fields, who work on ‘oceanic’ and ‘watery’ topics, but also climatologists, oceanographers, people who work on environmental pollution, artists who are working on the great pacific garbage heap. So the idea is, have 4 featured speakers each day in a room together with maybe 20 minutes each to speak, and you’ve got an early modernist who maybe works on ‘swimmers’ poetics’ with a contemporary literature person who works on marine-scapes with an oceanographer  and an artist who work with or on the sea. And they are all given certain keywords to work with, like surf, lagoon, drifting, marine, sun, etc. and they are asked to consider those terms their palette for their talks. And then the rest of the day flows out of those keywords. But no 20-minute papers. We have a planning committee that will be working all of these things out over the next few months, and shortly after, we’ll start making announcements.

We also formed a caucus for the academic precariat (graduate students and post-graduates without secure footing in institutional jobs or working with contingent status within the academy), so for the next conference in Santa Barbara, even more so than Boston, we're going to secure housing for, if we can, between 30-40 students and post-grads. They won't have to pay a dime for lodging, if they can just get there. So we're very mindful of that. How much is it going to cost people, and how can they get funding if it's an ‘un-conference’."

The Right to Care about Everything

So, we shouldn't expect BABEL to stay the same, but Eileen wants us to be sure one thing:

"BABEL will always be the safest place anyone can go to be themselves, to articulate what they care about with people who embrace the right to care about everything. And also the right to fail.

We have a right to fail. And the humanities should be savoring and cultivating our right to fail. Failure is an important process of the work done in the sciences, and it should also have that status in the humanities. It’s what we do: ‘we FAIL in here.’ So one way we're going to try to encourage people is to say ‘BABEL is a safe place.’ BABEL is a place where you can fall on your face. BABEL is a place where experiments can sputter out and not quite work. (And indeed, some members of BABEL, Asa Simon Mittman and Shyama Rajendran, cooked up an idea at the conference in Boston to create a new blog called FUMBLR, where persons can share the stories of ‘failure’ in their scholarly work.)

If your niche and love in life is just brushing the dust off Estruscan pottery shards, and you just want a place to articulate, not an argument about Estruscan pottery shards, but a position why that's what you do, you can do that with us. You don't have to be a poet, or a performance artist.

We're thinking really hard about a more durable organizational structure that would nevertheless retain all the things we care about.

I wanted BABEL to help transform medieval studies a little bit, and it kind of has. So this is really important. It's like the conference. If we have a really successful conference and we say, ‘let's not change the way we do that,’ I think we know what that means. It will just be the same thing over and over again. It will not be productive or lead to transformative change. And we need transformative change, like, every day.

I am most happy when something new is happening everyday. Spontaneity and surprise. Possibility. That's what makes people happy in their lives. It's knowing that tomorrow anything else could happen. Someone has to build structures to make that more possible. Everyone can't just do that on their own, because life is too hard. It's a collective endeavor and it's a messy one, because we all want different things.

But, we could work harder to help each other want the things we want with less embarrassment, less shame, and more joy."

We’ll have to wait another two years before we see the fruits of this labor at the BABEL Biennale in 2014 at UC Santa Barbara. Until then, on the west coast, we can watch for a symposium at UC Irvine in April 2013, “Create/Critique,” co-organized by the BABEL working group (Allan Mitchell, Julie Orlemanski, and Myra Seaman), Julia Reinhard Lupton, Elizabeth Allen and Rebecca Davis. The event will bring together artists such as the LA-based documentary filmmaker Thom Anderson, early modernists and medievalists who have artistic bents, including Aaron Kunin at Pomona, Bruce Smith from USC, Aranye Fradenburg at UC Santa Barbara, Brantley Bryant at Sonoma State, and many, many others.