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CFP: 2014 Meeting

3rd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group


[all images from Joni Sternbach, Surfland]

~ On the Beach: Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World  ~

16-18 October 2014

University of California, Santa Barbara

Call for Presentations*

*the sessions in Section A below have been provisionally approved for the 2014 meeting and are open for submissions; the sessions in Section B are closed

For those interested in submitting an individual proposal for any of the open sessions below, please send your query and/or short proposal (of no more than 300 words) directly to that session’s organizer(s) at the email address(es) given below NO LATER THAN APRIL 15, 2014. We will not be able to consider random, individual proposals; all proposals must be designed to meet the theme(s) and frameworks set by session organizers. If you have any questions or concerns, contact Eileen Joy here:

Description of conference’s overall themes HERE.




Steve Mentz (St John’s University, NY) + Lowell Duckert (West Virginia University)

Robin Clarke + Joshua Zelesnick (Adjunct Lecturers, Union Organizers, Pittsburgh, PA)

Benjamin Bratton (University of California, San Diego)


Stacy Alaimo (University of Texas-Arlington)

Marcos Novak (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Morteza Gharib (Gharib Research Group, California Institute of Technology)


Laurie Finke (Kenyon College) + Marty Shichtman (Eastern Michigan University)

Marina Zurkow (Tisch School of the Arts) + Una Chaudhuri (New York University)

Teresa Shewry (University of California, Santa Barbara)



Beachcombing: An Exercise (Day 2)

Organizer: Lara Farina, West Virginia University

Proposals to:

When we walk the shore, “combing” the beach, we sift through wreckage lovingly, sensually, caught by the sparkle of broken glass, the smoothness of driftwood, the salty stink of seaweed, the clicking of shells tossed together. The beachcomber’s peculiar combination of distracted wandering and intense focus guides her through a shore/archive of fragments, enabling the collection of an idiosyncratic treasure. As a metaphor, beachcombing captures the work of medievalists: we pick through chance survivals resurfaced in new contexts. This session, however, will attempt to invoke not just the idea of beachcombing but also the beachcomber’s affective and phenomenological experience as it might be practiced in relation to fragments of the medieval past. To do this, I will assemble, with a high degree of randomness, a “shore” collection of textual passages, images of artifacts, and musical excerpts. I ask that participating combers discuss their experience of encountering this collection. Beachcombers often speculate about the history of things they find on the beach, of course, but rarely do they attempt to return the found items to their earlier place or shape. Thus, I am not looking for explanations of the items via their historical contexts. Rather, I encourage participants to reflect on their own processes of composing and curating the treasure they find in the collection, considering questions such as: How does chance facilitate or erode the charisma of certain fragments? What types of sorting and arranging are most satisfying? Do certain pieces have a toxic effect on the collection? How might we consider the “worth” of idiosyncratic collecting? How can we share the care of/for treasures?

Any number of people can participate in this session, but I’d like to gather 5-10 confirmed discussants. Non-medievalists welcome. Hoarders, plunderers, blunderers, neat freaks, fetishists, flaneurs, amateurs, tourists, and sand-eaters embraced.

Chaucer at the Beach: Cultural Fantasy and Ecological Reality (Day 1)

Organizer: Paul Megna, University of California, Santa Barbara

Proposals to:

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen sets Aurelius the seemingly impossible task of removing  “alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon” from the coast of the British isle (“endlonge Britayne”). Her motives for doing so are explicitly anthropocentric—he is to remove the rocks “[t]hat they ne lette ship ne boot to goon”—and motivated by her anxiety that her husband, Arveragus, might sail across the sea only for his ship to hit a rock and sink within sight of home. Of course, Dorigen’s command that Aurelius make “the coost so clene / Of rokkes that ther nys no stoon ysene” presupposes that human concerns (i.e. her love for her husband) trump any ethical commitment to preserve the natural environment. The question of whether or not Chaucer himself espouses such anthropocentric views, however, is quite certainly open for review. In another Canterbury tale, the Man of Law’s Tale, the Sultan of Syria’s wicked mother places Custance on a rudderless ship and casts her out to sea. Although the Man of Law initially attributes the agency that causes Custance to wash up on the Northumbrian beach to the sea’s waves, shortly thereafter, he tells us that the “[t]he wyl of Crist” moored her on a sand dune until the turn of the tide. If Dorigen advocates the alteration of the landscape for the sake of anthropocentric ends, the Man of Law suggests the coast shapes itself through anthropocentric means—the will of Christ. Once again, the question of whether Chaucer’s poetry participates in such latent anthropocentricism or satirizes it is open for debate. If Chaucer wasn’t exactly an ecocritic, he was certainly concerned about man’s effect on the environment. Although the poet did not share our concern that increased carbon levels equate to higher sea levels, the Miller’s Tale clearly indicates that Chaucer and his contemporaries at least acknowledged the possibility that human behavior can engulf the entire world in a watery grave.

This panel seeks papers that explore the manner in which Chaucer’s various depictions of coastal regions assess the interdependence of cultural fantasy and ecological reality. How do Chaucer’s characters construct the beach? How does the beach act as a liminal space in Chaucer’s poetry? How does Chaucer’s theological worldview effect his conceptualization of the beach? Do Chaucer’s fantasies regarding the beach anticipate our own; or do they demonstrate our departure from the premodern past? Any proposals that deal with Chaucer’s treatment of coastal regions are welcome.

The Retro-Futurism of Cuteness (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University) + Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University)

Proposals to:

Cute cues: infancy, youth, helplessness, vulnerability, harmlessness, play, enjoyment, awkwardness, needs, intimacy, homeliness, and simplicity. At other times, cuteness is cheapness, manipulation, delay, repetition, hierarchy, immaturity, frivolity, refusal, tantrum, and dependence. Cuteness is a threshold: “too cute” is a backhanded compliment. Or, cuteness is a beach where forces congregate. A dolphin breaching in the ocean may be cute, but not a beached one. And more than the pop cultural kawaii (literally, “acceptable love”), “cute”—the aphetic form of “acute”—also carries the sense of “clever, keen-witted, sharp.” The Latin acutus embraces the sharpened, the pointed, the nimble, the discriminating, and the piercing. To be cute is to be in pain. Cuteness is therefore a figure of Roland Barthes’s punctum or Georges Bataille’s point of ecstasy. As we gather at the Pacific Rim, let us, a la Takashi Murakami, recast the premodern in cuteness. The OED cites the first reference to “cute” in the sense of “attractive, pretty, charming” as 1834. Sianne Ngai, in 2005, offered a critical study of the cuteness of the twentieth-century avant-garde. But was there ever a medieval or early modern history or historiography of cuteness? Is it possible to conceive of a Hello Kitty Middle Ages, or a Tickle Me Elmo Renaissance? Has the humanities, or the university, ever been cute? Cuteness is the cheap bastard child of beauty: what’s beautiful may not be cute, but what’s ugly and monstrous may be.

This panel will feature curated materials (images, videos, texts, essays, sound bytes, trinkets, texts, objects and artifacts from the premodern and present) as a pre-session, submitted 2 to 3 months in advance of the conference and made available online (space provided by conference organizers); and a conference 40-minute dialogue, preceded by 5-minute “flash talk” show-and-tells where participants re-introduce their curated pieces.  Pres-session curated materials will also be part of a media exhibit space associated with the conference. We welcome a diverse range of approaches (including but not limited to): aesthetics, material culture, affect, gender, queerness, childhood, youth, disability, camp, Sado-Cute, and Superflat.

Horizontality (Day 2)

Co-Organizers: Gaelan Gilbert (St. Katherine College) + Patrick Gilbert (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Proposals to:

Horizons intersect and connect the edges of worlds. Bisecting the vertical, invocations of the horizontal idealistically distribute egalitarian contingencies. For this panel, we invite submissions that explore the concept and experience of horizontality: As a purely pictoral image, the horizon exists as a juxtaposition of hues. Given context, knowledge, and progress, it has come to not only symbolize but actually be a point beyond which we as humans cannot transfer through. In both forward and upward directions, it shows us that by being on earth, we are actually in the meeting point between the‘heavens and earth’. It is only when we view a horizon with clear definitive characteristics that this is allowed into our consciousness. In reality, we are living nearly every moment within this transitory and turbulent meeting point: the point where weather as we know it is created and brought to its climax. It is not a point or a long line, but rather endless spherical segments or loops that make up the image of the globe. Nothing above us is solid besides the passing meteorite or planet. It is daunting and most likely terrifying when truly explored. For our abiding Ptolemaic phenomenology, the moon does rise and the sun does set into the sea. Political horizontality is no less elemental, whether in the uncompromising imaginations of anarchic syndicalism or in Deleuzian rhizomatic networks that demand a subsidiarity of function and form. Art-historically, while with iconography the third dimension had been constituted by the vanishing-point of the viewer, the pictorial centrality of the horizon marks the advent of a post-Giotto perspective that privileges spatial mimesis. It becomes the ambiguous curvature of futural nostalgia—the chronotope of chronotopes—beyond which the adventure-hero must ride. Horizons symbolize the limit and limitlessness of vision, the utmost extent to which theory can aspire to dilate its critical gaze. Horizontality names an unattainable, ever-receding aim and meridian – the space of thought.

Some related questions may include: What hazards and reductions accompany the bracketing of the vertical & transcendent? On what theoretical meridians can new interdisciplinary projects align? How do natural states (solid, liquid, gas) meet cultural realities (earth, water, sky)? Does horizontality necessarily imply curvilinear purity, or vanishing infinity? Does the ineluctable horizon between past and present suggest that we’re always already on a temporal beach strewn with the flotsam of selective memory and periodizing methodologies? Should we organize a clean-up?

This panel seeks paper presentations and artistic work that broadly address horizons and horizontality.

Idiorrhythmy: Mining the Fantasy of How to Live Together (Day 3)

Organizer: Roland Betancourt, Yale University

Proposals to:

From my window, I see a mother pushing an empty stroller, holding her child by the hand. She walks at her own pace, imperturbably; the child, meanwhile, is being pulled, dragged along, is forced to keep running, like an animal, or one of Sade’s victim’s being whipped. She walks at her own pace, unaware of the fact that her son’s rhythm is different. And she’s his mother! (Roland Barthes, December 1, 1976)

The scene that Roland Barthes observed from his window late in 1976 would reemerge in his first lecture course at the Collège de France in 1977. His course, “How to Live Together,” centers around the notion of isolation and cohabitation, forms and techniques of temporal belonging that construct spaces of human existence. In Barthes’s own words, the goal of the course is to explore a specific fantasy: “not all forms of ‘living together’ (societies, phalansteries, families, couples) but primarily the ‘living together’ of very small groups, where cohabitation does not preclude individual freedom.” Barthes’s fantasy for this course first took form upon a chance reading of Jacques Lacarrière’s L’Été Grec (1976), where he encountered the notion of idiorrhythmy. This concept describes the processes by which certain monks on Mount Athos in Greece mediate between their idiosyncratic, personal rhythms and the rhythms of their larger monastic communities. This Byzantine concept allowed Barthes the ability “to mine the fantasy,” that is to begin to do
research across medieval monastic texts and contemporary literary examples. Considering a variety of novels, such as Robinson Crusoe and The Magic Mountain, Barthes explored (paradoxically) moments of “living-alone” in figures such as the castaway, the hermit, and the monk, which create spaces of their own driven by their particular idiosyncratic rhythms. In the end, the course does not explore the utopic space of living-together, yet explores moments where its tensions emerge.

Building on recent investigations on temporality and playing on the themes of institutionality, thriving, dissent, and friendship, this panel asks participants to take Barthes’s lecture notes for “How to Live Together” and seize them precisely as they were intended—as a cue for speech. The panel incites presenters to generate their own investigations from this material, which for a medievalist is riddled with many homologies and affinities, yet nevertheless beats to a different drum. Structured as a roundtable discussion, panelists are encouraged to approach the subject from both a historical and historiographic perspective through short 5-10 minute position papers that mine the fantasy of rhythm and the creation of communal space, particularly focusing on art, visual culture, architecture, and music. The lecture notes for Barthes’s course will then serve as a template for the discussion as an informal script, per se, that will be mined.


Intertidal Zones (Day 1)

Organizer: Kate Koppelman (Seattle University)

Proposals to:

This session invites short meditations on the place, precariousness, and hardiness of literary studies as it currently exists or might eventually exist in/on the ever-shifting sands of the university. Meditations should take on the metaphor (or reality) of the intertidal zone:  the space between the shore and the sea; a space of extremity and a changing marker of the periphery; a space exposed to the baking sun and the sweeping waves; a space open to predators from the land, the air and the sea itself; a space subject to the whim of the predictable yet inconsistent tide (regular in its arrival and departure, yet unpredictable in what it will bring and carry away). Creatures that exist in the intertidal zone are varied and are often considered “simple,” yet they all share an ability to withstand this extreme and severe environment. There are many examples that might provide participant meditators with productive metaphors:  The intertidal zone supports the barnacle, an hermaphroditic filter feeder capable of completely closing itself off during hot, dry low tides. It supports the periwinkle snail, a creature that clusters together for protection at the edge of the spray zone—capable of staying out of the water entirely for up to 2-3 months at a time.  It supports limpets—grazers, like the snail, but with less flashy shells. As one moves closer to the sea (towards the mid-tide and low-tide zones), creatures become predatory (the sea-star) and far more aggressive (the anemone). All of these creatures must be able to survive, to various degrees, desiccation. Though many are mobile, most must stay if not secured to a single site, at least restricted by the borders of their environment.  All must negotiate predation from fellow intertidal creatures, but also from birds and small mammals.  All are susceptible to complete destruction at the hands (feet) of those who come to the intertidal zone to “explore”: humans.

This session envisions participants who are willing to offer brief introductions (10 minutes) to the ways in which the image of the intertidal zone might encourage new readings of: particular literary texts or characters; well-known or hardly known authors; notions of disciplinarity/field specificity; the place of the literary in the liberal arts curriculum; the place of the literary in the non-liberal arts non-curriculum. Introductions should encourage session attendees to ask questions, add their own thoughts to the meditation, and create a wider, broader, more thriving intertidal zone.

Marooned (Day 1)  **THIS SESSION IS NOW CLOSED**

Co-Organizers: Arthur J. Russell (Arizona State University) + Benjamin “Bobcat” Ambler (Arizona State University )

Proposals to: +

This session is a search and rescue. What, or who—we ask—has been cast away or lost at sea?

As we sail Critique through time, we call fresh theories to deck to plot our courses through cultural waters, and plumb their depths for erudition. In the course of the many critical “turns” we’ve taken over the last few decades, however, itineraries have been left unexplored, and certain individuals abandoned in foreign ports. So, what happened to those alternative routes and those who advocated for them? And what about the captains we mutinied against? Where are they now? And what about us, here, now? Are we all accounted for? The wager of this session is that some of the theories and methods we’ve tossed overboard may still be useful, though perhaps not as they were once intended. Think: humanism, folklore, philology, D.W. Robertsongrands récits, Hegel, antiquarianism, semiotics, narratology, formalism, historicism, et cetera.  What else has grown shaggy and unkempt, marooned on isolated shores? Whose critical flares have gone unnoticed and unanswered until now? Might some of these paradigms and figures still be desirable? Might they want rescuing? If we unstop our ears can we hear a call to safe harbor—or a siren’s song? Further, we we wonder, are all hands on deck and able-bodied? Of theory-wrights queer, feminist, ecocritical; postmodern, postcolonial, posthuman, post*—has anyone been washed overboard whom we thought was still beside us on deck? Have any been marooned on the atolls of the (micro)epochs they were charged to chart? Or are any present but haggard—unable to spot the new memes that develop between generations of Life?

This roundtable seeks at least four performances (about ten minutes each) of acts of rediscovery, rescue, repurposing, or reclaiming.

Nature of the Beast/Beasts of Nature: Monstrous Environments (Day 2)

Sponsor: MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: The Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology Through Scholarly Theory and Practical Application)

Co-Organizers: Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico + The Material Collective) + Thea Cervone (University of Southern California)

Proposals to: +

Medieval studies embraces ecocriticism, looking at how culture and environment—imbricated, mutually defining and dependent categories—shape one another. Such breakdowns of seemingly oppositional pairings are central to monster theory, MEARCSTAPA’s focus. As BABEL heads to the beach, a liminal zone where elements and environments alternately crash together violently and gently lap at one another’s edges, we want to see what would happen if we were to collide monster theory with ecocriticsm, letting them wash over one another and grind each other down, just a bit. Beaches are places that give and take, bringing unexpected surprises to society, and pulling essentials away from it. We want to explore what the environment reveals via monster theory, what it makes visible or accessible to humanity and what it draws away from it. Nature is a vital monster of contemporary culture, at once violently destructive and sympathetic; its actions are not without provocation. We want to explore the monstrosity in, of, and generated through the very definition of nature. There is, in many narratives, an apocalyptic longing, a yearning for the moment when humanity gets its comeuppance; through this paradoxical desire, we sympathize with the monstrous and draw away from humanity. We want to press beyond Grendel’s mere or Guthlac’s fen, past the monster-filled edges of the world, to explore instead how we might reconceptualize our understanding of the volatile environment we cannot help but exist within and cannot exist without. In addition, we wish to invoke the cyclical/seasonal, bounded/apocalyptic spaces of natural time. Monsters have their cycles, appearing at certain times, or under certain environmental circumstances. Learning to read the monster’s environmental signs often helps humans determine the scope of the monster’s place in the eco/cosmic timeline and defeat it—for now, and until the whole epic cycle inevitably repeats; monsters live and live and live. Through them, we confront our tiny time between monstrous catastrophes: Deluge and Apocalypse. Only with a recognition of otherness (as Levinas argues) is ethics even possible. Standing at the edge of the continent, at the location where the boundary between elements is in constant flux, we wish to examine the routes we take toward our boundaries, even as they inevitably recede from us. Staring at the shoreline while waves roll in, we hope for messages in bottles, but the same waves wipe away our messages on the sand. Every wave deposits and erodes, and each motion may bring our monstrosity to the surface. Does the monstrous lie underneath humanity so that erosion exposes it? Or is monstrosity attached to humanity like barnacles, clinging parasitically to our underbellies?

We invite short 10-minute talks that embody the various slippages invoked here: nature-culture, monster-human, eco-monster, medieval-modern and, in all ways, us-them. We invite presenters to conceptualize our otherness from non-human (ethical?) perspectives, and give voice and/or face to the monsternature/ nature-monster, in whatever form fits: hymns of love, screeds of hate, litanies of catastrophes, songs of celebration. Calling all monsters: MEARCSTAPA will see you in the moonlight, where the land meets the sea.

Otium to the Grindstone (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: Sharon O’Dair (University of Alabama) + Alexandra Cook (University of Alabama)

Proposals to:

One sign that the valuation of the contemplative life has declined is that scholars now compete with men of action in a kind of precipitate pleasure, so that they seem to value this kind of pleasure more highly than they do that to which they are really entitled and which is in fact much more pleasurable.  Scholars are ashamed of otium. But there is something noble about leisure and idleness. If idleness really is the beginning of all vice, then it is at any rate in the closest proximity to all virtue; the idle man is always a better man than the active. But when I speak of leisure and idleness, you do not think I am alluding to you, do you, you sluggards? (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1896)

[T]he fear of idleness in Europe up to the eighteenth century was so strong that otium could only be accepted if strongly qualified as honestum, a leisure which yielded ‘fruits’ in works of literature, poetry, philosophy or history. . . .Leisure as a valid state in itself, something that the citizen had earned, and was free to dispose of as he choose, hardly existed before 1700. (Brian Vickers, “Leisure and Idleness in the Renaissance: The Ambivalence of Otium“)

Leisure, idleness—otium—has had a rough go of it. Perhaps especially if Nietzsche and Vickers are at all ball-parky in their datings—can we imagine otium’s apotheosis between 1700 and 1900? Probably not.  Perhaps we could divine some rolling movement in norms, a wave that crested, improbably and without notice, and then receded. But unevenly. Unevenly. For scholars, perhaps, the wave broke sometime around 1971, when, if you can imagine yourself riding with Hunter S. Thompson, or landed with him “on a steep hill in Las Vegas,” you could “look west and with the right kind of eyes you [could] almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” We will be in Santa Barbara, not looking west from Vegas, and what do we see? Do we have the right kind of eyes? The right focus? Do we see scholars who, a century and more after Nietszche, relish even more the active man’s “precipitate pleasure” rather than the pleasure of otium, that which edges them toward vice and thereby virtue? Do we see academic millionaires and adjuncts in precarity? Or do we, with straight face, pose otium as corrective to neo-liberal intellectual regimes, to speed-up and the ante-up, to MOOCs and managers?

Otium is a vice for the Romans; a sin for the Christians; and not to be countenanced by the capitalists. For this panel, on the beach in Santa Barbara, we seek contributions in any form, any medium, that begin or end or do not end in otium. We want submissions not ashamed of otium, contributions that drift or shift, that flow or escape, that, perhaps, unlearn the lessons that put the University in ruins. Let’s edge toward vice—squatting, partying, playing, smuggling—or toward virtue—humility, contentment, retreat, peace. Let’s ponder how to achieve what Agamben, in The Open, calls “the supreme and unsavable figure of life”—otium—“a human nature rendered perfectly inoperative,” workless, but not worthless.


Sand in Your Face (Day 2)

Co-Organizers: Valerie Allen (John Jay College of Justice, CUNY) + Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University)

Proposals to: +

Before the mystic writing pad, before the page, there was sand. From Foucault’s announcement in The Order of Things that “Man will be erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” to E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Sandman,” from which Freud takes inspiration in his essay on “The Uncanny,” sand is a material that has entered cultural imaginaries on many levels: at once solid and impermanent, playfully mobile and yet capable of being transformed into brittle glass, it is associated with time, memory, uncertain foundations, sleep, and even castration. We seek short papers/collaborations/sandkickings (7 minutes) on medieval and/or early modern topics that address any aspects of: the end of mankind, first pages (writing in the sand), memory, the sands of time, the uncanny, the sleepy, irritation (sand in uncomfortable places), composition (sandcastles), the granular, the littoral, the glassy, and more.

Sand to Land: The Fluidity of Islands (Day 2)

Organizer: Jesús Rodríguez-Velasco (Columbia University)

Proposals to:

This roundtable session will explore how legal thought wants to leave its imprint on the sand by legislating it, by turning sand into land. Legislating, in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period means, very often, redefining the concept of persona—that is, considering which human beings, animals, objects, can become involved in a juridical procedure (Yan Thomas). During the Middle Ages and the first years of the “invention of America,” there were some passages from Roman Law that were debated time and again. In them, the legislators mentioned that it was rather infrequent that a new island appeared in the middle of the sea, but not so rare that a new island appeared in the middle of a river. Whether the island emerges in the middle of the sea (like the wandering islands on the Catalan Atlas of 1375, by Jewish Majorcan cartographers Jafudà Cresques and Cresques Abraham), or in the middle of the river (think of Bartolo’s De Insulis), the questions raised are equally important: Who is their owner? What is their legal status? What are the legal fictions that govern legal thought about them? How did that erase the traces of men who used to practice the space of those particular beaches, only to be replaced with new ones? How does naming/renaming the island contribute to this erasure and re-inscription? How does legal thought articulate theoretical languages, concepts, ideas of the common, about those emerging lands? What is the place of fertility in this legal questioning? Texts may include (but please suggest others) marginal glosses in Latin to Civil and Canon Law, the Latin Commentaries of Bartolo de Sassoferrato, Baldo da Ubaldis, and Francisco de Vitoria, vernacular texts like Lo Codi or Alfonso X’s legislations, texts from the Halakhah, the Shari’ah, or from local customs, cartographies, chorographies, etc.

Sea Changes (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: Jody Enders (University of California, Santa Barbara) + Ellen McKay (Indiana University)

We invite short, polemical interventions of no more than 5-6 minutes each from interlocutors who seek a paradigm-shift in the work of medieval studies (intellectual, disciplinary, etc.) or of a cognate field. Panelists would join Jodi Enders and Ellen MacKay to discuss the circumstances and practices that make sea changes within academic fields and disciplines possible.

Shore Community/Wretched Outcast: Flyting for the Future (Day 1)

Co-Organizers: Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) + Kathryn Starkey (Stanford University)

Proposals to:

What does it mean to belong? Who decides who’s IN and who’s OUT? What happens to those on the crumbling edges? What happens when we fail to play the game?

This Flyting (ritual, poetic exchange of boasts and insults) aims to provoke thoughtful reflection by encouraging participants to debate the practices of inclusion and exclusion in the profession, in institutions, and in the field of medieval studies broadly. Seven precisely-timed flyters, for six minutes each in a sixty-minute session, will present gritty position papers verbally combatting what they have seen of injustice, sexism, hierarchies, inequity, opacity, intellectual imperialism, obfuscation, and derision; they will then turn instead to inspiring suggestions of better ways forward for educators and scholars. Medieval literature, with its emergence from communal effort, social memory, and collective reference, might provide the stimulation (can we move beyond what for many has become wic wynna leas, “a place deprived of joy”?): or the reworking of the medieval in the socialist endeavor of the later nineteenth century and beyond could suggest an antidote to contemporary practices that reinforce elitist and conservative working environments. Can we, then, create”‘an isle in the sea of woodland,” as William Morris describes in The House of the Wolfings? Could there be a sufficient groundswell of murmuring, shouting, persuasion, disturbance, utterings, cajoling to insist on sustainable change?

Of particular importance in this Flyting will be the victory of the positive, such that flyters will declare the manner in which community can be forged sufficiently strongly to bring home willing exiles and outcasts (including perhaps a problematic “wretched outcast” like Ezra Pound, from whose Seafarer the phrase is taken). Since in flyting the choice is heroic or ludic competition, contributors can choose their mode of delivery. And since in flyting there must always be a winner, the collaborative and participant audience will decide (in fun, but with a prize!) whose idea is best professed to inspire new models of neighborliness, equity, integrity and kindness within and between the many performers in the world of medieval studies.

Sirens: A Cabinet of Curiosities (Day 2)

Organizer: Christine Neufeld (Eastern Michigan University)

Proposals to:

Both fish and fowl, denizens of earth, sea and sky, sirens embody entanglements not only of species, but of environments. The siren lures us to entanglements we might not survive, her hybridity appearing to us as a promise, rather than a warning about the precariousness of the in-between. The sirens’ cultural legacy is rife with paradoxes: the song of knowledge they offer the Classical hero has by the Middle Ages become the seductive power of the voice as antirational; and yet our portrayals of their sensual irresistibility must focus on their visual rather than aural charms; and even then the fascinating beauty that makes the mermaid a mainstay of popular cryptozoology results only in the hideous concoctions of circus sideshows. The siren, it seems, is always somehow out of her element: a marvel collected for our delectation, whose song we prefer to listen to, like Ulysses, without risk. This panel proposes the figure of the siren in art history, literature, and popular culture as a muse to contemplate the kinds of risks she poses for those willing to listen to her song. Participants in the panel will be asked to read a text in common (perhaps Maurice Blanchot’s “Song of the Sirens” or the second section of Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era by the Greek poet, Stathis Gourgouris), as well as to introduce a visual image, literary excerpt, or physical artifact as a focalizing point for the ensuing conversation.


Sous Les Pavés, La Plage (Day 3)

Organizer: Justin Kolb (American University in Cairo)

Proposals to:

In Cairo, the sidewalks around Tahrir Square have turned into a beach. The paving stones were pulled up and thrown during the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and sand has blown in and filled the space between the curbs. The slogan “Sous le pavés, la plage!”—”under the pavement, the beach”—emerged from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Hard, still stone would give way to soft, shifting sand, discovering a better, freer, more playful and less ordered world just beneath the certainties of life as it is. This spirit can be found in many modern protest movements—from the Wisconsin Capitol to Zuccotti Park to the streets of Athens and Tunis—that occupied public spaces during the heady year 2011. That year saw Tahrir transformed from a traffic circle into a vibrant democratic assembly—and later the site of horrific assaults against women. As I write this, on 14 August 2013, occupations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood have been dispersed by the military regime in a day of shocking violence.

Is the beach a space of freedom and play, or is it a place of chaos and vulnerability? Is it the womb of the new world or merely the grave of old? Once the paving stones come up, are we on holiday or cast away? I am looking for projects that address this aspect of the beach: the anarchic space, at once exhilarating and terrifying, lying just beneath or beyond the structures of civilization. Relevant topics could include utopias, like Cockaigne, Utopia, the City of the Sun, or the commonwealth described by Gonzalo as he stands in the sand on Prospero’s Isle in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Or the beach as place of dangerous uncertainty, a place outside civilization’s comforting confines, where an exposed life must adapt or be extinguished, as in a castaway Viola’s uncertain prospects at the beginning of Twelfth Night or poor Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale, who sees all his old certainties swept away before he is eaten by the bear on the fantastical seacoast of Bohemia. As the rising sea encroaches on our cities, blowing sand down their streets and washing their walls away, what shall we build out of the sand?

The nature of the session will depend on submissions, but I imagine a round table, with four or five presenters giving short (10-minute) presentations (which can be traditional papers or some other medium) followed by an open discussion.

Temporal Estrangements (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: Elizabeth Allen (University of California, Irvine) + Rebecca Davis (University of California, Irvine) + Seeta Chaganti (University of California, Davis)

Proposals to:

We propose a working group that will engage in a process of discussion and revision leading up to a moderated conversation during the conference itself. Members of the working group will share drafts of current work with each other, discussing them in an e-forum. They will then revise work in response to these conversations, making the resulting pieces available to all BABEL participants in advance of the conference. At the conference, rather than reading these papers, the working group will engage in a moderated conversation about the issues raised in the course of the preparatory writing and discussion. The working group aims to deploy non-medieval texts to cast into relief the skewing of time within medieval texts. We seek participants who wish to read medieval works through the heuristic lens of other literary and cultural moments. Such readings might involve, for instance, the juxtaposition of medieval texts with contemporary art; the identification of virtual space in medieval spectacle; or the temporal reversal of source study models: using an early modern text to read a medieval one, or a medieval text to read a classical one. Through readings in this vein, we hope to ask: how do temporal disjunctions between texts illuminate the uses of temporality within medieval texts?

We are particularly interested in textual or artistic settings framed by the sea, a spatial zone that both organizes and disrupts time. Narratives at sea move in and out of different “temporal spaces,” as it were, suggesting different ways of inhabiting space and time even in the midst of continuous action. How do we understand narrative representations of moments of movement-in-stillness, temporal suspensions and cross-hatchings, virtual presence, material bodies that resist temporal process, and objects as portals joining temporally and/or spatially distant worlds? As we investigate these moments of temporal estrangement, the working group will also embrace contemporary critical frameworks like memory studies, temporality studies, and virtuality: these create new spaces and times for exchange with the past and among ourselves. We believe that as readers of the medieval, we must create temporal disjunctions in our reading practices in order to see the temporal disjunctions within the medieval.

Trans-Medievalisms (Day 3)

Sponsor: Global Chaucers

Co-Organizers: Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University) + Candace Barrington (Central Connecticut State University)

What happens to the Western Middle Ages when it crosses into diverse, concurrent times, languages, and cultures? How does “medievalism” take shape in multiple spaces across the planet—including cultural habitats where the Western Middle Ages are no longer the “‘zero point’ of orientation” (to reroute a phrase from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology)? What cultural work do “the Middle Ages” perform as they infuse modern-day modes of global media and cultural production—textual, visual, musical, performative, cinematic? Our session is inspirited by our work on the “Global Chaucers” project, a utopian scholarly endeavor that seeks to gather, back-translate, and analyze all non-English translations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work. Our scheming with scholars around the world has so far revealed Chaucerian adaptations in places as far-flung and interconnected as Latin America (Bolivia), East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), Europe (Denmark, Flanders, Spain, Hungary), the Middle East (Israel, Iran), and Africa (Nigeria), as well as works in invented languages (Esperanto).

For this session we aim to gather together 5-10 presenters and/or performers. This session may include a few invited participants working on Chaucerian adaptation in non-English contexts (possibly with a focus on cultures from the Pacific Rim). We would like to invite additional proposals from people working on any aspect of medieval appropriation in “global” contemporary culture (however conceived). How might plurilingual, transoceanic, and intercultural orientations provoke new modes of engaging with the past? How can we create a dynamic, multi-site community of cross-temporal scholars and enthusiasts, a fluid collective that thrives across disciplines and borders? We welcome non-medievalists, amateurs, and enthusiasts, including creative work by poets, playwrights, musicians, and/or interpretive dancers. We highly encourage collaborative submissions.

Transatlantic/Transtemporal (Day 2)

Co-Organizers: Donna Beth Ellard (Rice University) and Melissa Gniadek (Rice University)

Proposals to:

This session explores movements across and between land and sea in relation to movements across and between various temporalities.  Specifically, it engages objects and ideas that board ships and travel across the Atlantic and, in their transoceanic passage, reorient both terra-centric worldviews and period-centric scholarship. As a recent special issue of Atlantic Studies claims, the emerging field of oceanic studies serves as “a methodological model for nonlinear or nonplanar thought.”  This session enacts this methodology, conceiving of the Atlantic Ocean as a watery, “nonlinear” and “nonplanar” space that joins together distant lands and distant time zones. For example, one presenter discusses the exportation of trade goods from North American peoples to European consumers during the sixteenth century, shipments that yoke the early modern consumption of “new worlds” to ideas about new world encounters that persist today. Another presenter examines the passage of intellectual ideas to nineteenth-century America in books about the Anglo-Saxons that are imported from Britain. The ideas within such books inflect American narratives about the indigenous histories of North America and the relationship of those histories to the young American Republic. In each of these instances, historicist concerns regarding the movements of a material object or an intellectual idea point towards the influence of the ocean as an active participant rather than a mute surface upon things that travel across it. Consequently, transatlantic histories provide new, unique opportunities for trans-period encounters. As a panel made up of scholars of Anglo-Saxon, Early Modern, and nineteenth-century American studies, we seek to radically disrupt conventional boundaries of periodization, showing how the mobility of an oceanic or aquatic framework facilitates the trans-temporal conversations that, we argue, will allow each of our fields to remain co-relevant.

We envision our session not as comprised of discrete papers but as one fluid presentation that moves back and forth between ideas, prompting conversations between our objects and periods of study.


Walk on the Beach (a material ecology) + Things from the Sea (a manifestation) (Day 2 + Summer Seminar)

Sponsor: The Material Collective

Co-Organizers: Karen Overbey (Tufts University) and Maggie Williams (William Paterson University)

Applications to: +

This session+ is an exploration of things and our relationships to them, as well as a collaborative meditation on chance, discovery, subjectivity, beauty, and ecology. The session+ is in three parts: a beachwalk and a flash-exhibition during the BABEL meeting in Santa Barbara, and an online seminar in the summer before. We seek 10-20 participants committed to active preparation and performance in all three parts; the walk and exhibition will be open to all conference attendees. Walk on the Beach takes place at low tide on Friday October 17, during the conference lunch break: we will walk together on Goleta Beach, take photographs, and collect objects from the beach. Following the walk, the seminar group (see below) will gather for a discussion of what we’ve found, and plan for our exhibition. The exhibition, Things from the Sea, will be held at the Friday evening reception. This flash-exhibition will display our collective material, and will be collaboratively curated by the seminar participants. Together, we may choose to organize the exhibition around a few key terms or issues; we may choose to manipulate, photograph, or otherwise interpret our beachcombed bounty. We may be inspired by cabinets of curiosities, scientific taxonomies, art galleries, exploded diagrams, ethnographic museums, archives, pilgrimage shrines, ex-votos. During the flash-exhibition, curator/participants will engage each other and visitors in conversations, short monologues, performances, and inquiries through and around the sea-thing collections.

The Summer Seminar is an online discussion in which our group of 10-20 beachwalkers/curators will share and explore inspirations, issues, and ideas to inform our collective project. We are inspired and provoked by so many things: oil spills off the California coast; the performance-walks of Richard Long; scuba diving; medieval whalebone objects and maritime trade; childhood vacations. We seek collaborators who can also envision this project, or a portion of it, and who will help to shape it in the months before the UCSB meeting. Our discussions (online and on-site) and the resulting exhibition might ponder: How are things from the sea entangled in our land-based ecology? What is a “useful” object? What is a “beautiful” object? Are things from the sea unlimited? If so, how? How do we categorize objects? What makes an object an art-object? a scientific specimen? An anthropological artifact? What is collecting/collection, in both a personal and an institutional context? How might the conference “keywords” such as Drift/Shift, Flotsam/Detritus, Flow/Scape, Submerge/Emerge, and Theft/Reclamation help shape our encounter?

One aim of the walk+exhibition is to explore varied approaches to the sea and its things; we want to nurture conversation among artists, scientists, historians, poets, archivists, surfers, philosophers, and pirates. So we seek proposals of participation from a wide range of fields and specialties, both medieval and modern. To join, send a one-page description of your interest in the project, including two or three inspirations you will bring to the collaboration: these might be texts (critical or literary), artworks, objects, films, photos, exhibitions, or events—medieval, modern, or somewhere in-between. Inspirations might also address various agendas and ideologies of display/exhibition/collecting, both personal and institutional. During the online Summer Seminar, we will share and discuss these texts and objects, assembling a collective (though not homogeneous) pool to inform our material ecology.

Waves of Mutliation: Wounding and Healing in Surf Studies (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: Michael Ursell (Emory University) + Trey Highton (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Proposals to: +

Him so transfixed she before her bore

Beyond his croupe, the length of all her launce,

Till sadly soucing on the sandie shore,

He tombled on an heape, and wallowd in his gore. (Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 3.4.16)

According to an allegorical tradition with touchstones in the medieval and early modern periods, the surf heals but it is also the place of wounding. In the passage from The Faerie Queene quoted above, the knight Marinell, son of a sea nymph, patrolling a shore, is run through with a spear and then taken to the equivalent of an underwater hospital where the wound is healed. Before Spenser, Dante placed himself on the shores of purgatory where psalm-singing human souls land on a beach and are led by an angel toward spiritual purification. In the 21st century, the surf offers what some might call a deep karmic scrub, but it is also a place where humans and non-humans are wounded. The surf and surfing encourage both healing work and fantasies of cataclysm. In the present day, Wounded Warrior programs introduce surfing to veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (modern-day Marinells) as a way to work through trauma. Similar programs, such as Ride a Wave and Mauli Ola, work with special-needs children to make the waves—and the therapeutic properties of the surf, with roots in 18th-century European ocean bathing traditions—accessible to them. Surfing organizations in Indonesia were among the first responders to the 2004 tsunami. While healing humans at the shore, surf culture also tends to the vulnerable non-human elements found there; the Surfrider Foundation, for example, attempts to heal the human impact on shoreline ecosystems.

you’ll think I’m dead, but I sail away

on a wave of mutilation (The Pixies, “Wave of Mutilation”)

This open roundtable invites participants to reimagine long established representations of the surf by placing interpreters of literature, history, history of visual art, and film studies in the same room as surfer-activists. We bring together members of activist organizations and those who practice various forms of surf studies to collaborate with scholars of the “new thalassology” (trans-Atlantic, Pacific Rim, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean Studies). Texts could range from Dante to Spenser, from The Odyssey to Escape from LA, from waves themselves to climatic events on a planetary scale, from allegorical to literal shores. The surf (and surfing) will transform in the anthropocene. This roundtable will look for new allegories of healing and wounding in the surf, in anticipation of always-evolving and ever-rising seas. Participants will pre-circulate short written pieces before the meeting.

Writing the Unreadable Text (Day 3)

Co-Organizers: David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY) + Chris Piuma (University of Toronto)

Proposals to: +

Some texts defy standard models of reading and writing. Brisona, in the romance Frondino e Brisona, sends a letter to her lover “scrit sus neyr papier / ab color de blau fi” (“written on black paper in deep blue ink”), a nearly illegible color combination. The scribe Adam Pinkhurst notes at the bottom of “The Cook’s Tale” in the Hengwrt manuscript (The Canterbury Tales), “Of this Cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore,” one of several lacunae in the manuscript that signal its having been received, according to Ralph Hanna, “in an incomplete form.” There are Iberian altarpieces that depict documents written in a deliberately fake Hebrew; there are poems overrun with neologisms; there are hopelessly corrupted textual traditions; there are lost and destroyed texts. These all represent various kinds of unreadability with which scribes, editors, and early readers had to contend. Critical editions of such texts often aim to make these illegibilities legible. Any modern edition, as Elizabeth Scala notes, represents “that hypostasized historical Real that remains the ultimate ground of ‘history’ and one of our deepest fantasies. For it is, of course, the ‘corrupted’ scribal copy—and not a modern edited version—to which medieval readers had access.” But even medieval scribes might make things legible; Catherine Léglu notes that, although the unique manuscript of Frondino e Brisona replicates the text of Brisona’s letter, it does not reproduce its illegible blue ink on black paper.

How do we, we who love to read, read these “unreadable” texts? How can we, we who write within and around disciplinary structures, write with these texts so as to not merely write about them, but to take up the challenges of their “unwriterly” writing practices?  This panel will explore both medieval and modern responses to the “unreadable” and the “unwriterly.” We encourage discussions of texts from any medieval language, time period, or region, especially discussions that encourage “unreadable” medieval and (post)modern reading and writing practices to assemble, confer, and proliferate.



#bottleNbones: The Intimate and the Alien + Pharos (Day 1) (a joint performance session + installation)

a. #bottlesNbones: The Intimate and the Alien

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University) + Joy V. Fuqua (Queens College, CUNY)

#bottlesNbones is a project that investigates the New York City inlet known as Dead Horse Bay. Dead Horse Bay was the site of New York City’s horse rendering and bottling factories and the primary waste disposal zone from the 1880s through the 1930s. Some decades later the trash was “capped” underwater in the bay. Years later this cap exploded, throwing 100-year-old garbage, mostly bottles and horse bones, onto the beach. Further, Dead Horse Bay sits directly across from The Rockaways, a fully inhabited barrier island that constitutes the southern boundary of Jamaica Bay. Human infrastructure on The Rockaways was catastrophically damaged by Hurricane Sandy and by the severe nor’easter storm that followed one week later. The debris from The Rockaways landed on the beach of Dead Horse Bay, now making it a contemporary and historical waste disposal site. The beach bears the debris of human consumption practices and bygone industrial forms of labor. This place is a strange and unbeautiful beach where broken glass cracks underfoot and where feet step on the leg bones of horses that were once the primary source of transportation for the City of New York. Now Dead Horse Bay collects in its strange inventory the debris of a recent catastrophe, Hurricane Sandy. Once a historical site of industrial waste production, management, and recycling, Dead Horse Bay now collects remains of contemporary disaster capitalism and the unnatural disasters of global warming. Adding to the uncanny and the effects of global warming, on Christmas Day, 2012, a 40-ton, endangered, and emaciated finback whale mis-navigated and beached on the shore of Breezy Point, directly across from Dead Horse Bay where scores of horses became the corpses of dead transportation. Dead Horse Bay offers alluring and affective object orientations. It is an object fulcrum for the waste and byproducts of industrial and informatic capitalism for the last 130 years.

#bottlesNbones: the Intimate and the Alien takes its title from these objects of encounter and from philosopher Alphonso Lingis. Our practice at Dead Horse Bay responds to “the summons to come dwell here … a summons that is in the place itself” (Lingis, The Imperative 43).  #bottlesNbones: the Intimate and the Alien is a constrained practice of visitation and media capture at Dead Horse Bay. Starting in October, 2012, we have made regular field trips to Dead Horse Bay, Breezy Point, and the Rockaways. These visitations operate under strict constraints/rules for media and material capture as well as journaling, documentation, and traditional research practice. In each visit a collection of objects is made, extensive informatic and affective notes are taken, a meditative dialogue is recorded, and a video is produced. These practices generate inventories out of which #bottlesNbones: the Intimate and the Alien is composited and algorithmically generated, as web-based texts, multimedia performances, and media installations, generative and iterative enunciations produced through algoRhythmic selection from the inventories (personal journals, found object collection, video and still photography, sound, archival documentation, municipal records, and scholarly texts).

b. Pharos

Dominic Pettman (The New School for Social Research) + Merritt Symes (Filmmaker/Artist, NYC)

Pharos will be a dramatic (and comedic) reading of Pharos, by Dominic Pettman. This is the strange tale of an unnamed prisoner forced to spend his unspecified sentence in solitary confinement as a lighthouse keeper on a forsaken beach. This as yet unpublished manuscript is a sequel of sorts to In Divisible Cities (punctum / Dead Letter Office, 2013), which also deals with psycho-cartographic ebbs and flows. The reading will be punctuated by two or three short films by Merritt Symes, creating an intermedial resonance machine with the story. The audience are encouraged to bring their own starfish.

Coastal Creatures (Day 2) (roundtable session)

Organizer: Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

In contributing to this roundtable, we collectively produce a natural history, in its capacious premodern sense, for six creatures inhabiting coastal regions: cultural amphibians (translators and/or bicultural people), “petermen” boating on the Thames, beached sea monsters, saints, sonnets, and the resources of the transatlantic book trade. We aim not only to describe the naturecultures of these creatures (lineaments, customs, lore, and laws), but also to theorize what it means, in terms of embodiment and temporality, to be “coastal,” or a creature of the coast. In an effort to foster a common theoretical vocabulary for the roundtable, we’ll read Julia Reinhard Lupton’s “Creature Caliban” (2000), as well as short excerpts from Brian Ogilvie’s Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (2006) and Elizabeth Jane Bellamy’s Dire Straits: The Perils of Writing the Early Modern Coastline from Leland to Milton (2013). We’ll frame our remarks with these materials. We do so in the generous spirit of dialogue: to explore, elaborate, reconfigure, and reimagine the parameters of the roundtable’s key words. We also want to share our readings with audience members, so we hope to find an online platform for making these readings available.

Confirmed contributors: Joshua Calhoun (English, University of Wisconsin); Sarah Crover (English, University of British Columbia); Stephen Guy-Bray (English, University of British Columbia); Jonathan Hsy (English, George Washington University); Louisa Mackenzie (French, University of Washington); and Cord Whitaker (English, University of New Hampshire).

Composing With the Shore (Day 1) (dual multimedia exhibition + discussion/exchange + installation)

Christien Garcia (McMaster University) + Jean-Thomas Tremblay (University of Chicago)

If “beach reading” has solidified into a genre that articulates its own economy of leisure, pleasure, and abandonment in relation to an elaborate configuration of gender, race, and class, “beach writing” remains underexplored. This session aims to tackle the notion of writing at the beach or, more accurately, of writing with the beach; as such, it contemplates modes of multimedia and post-disciplinary composition that engage with the affective atmospheres engendered by “the beach,” “the harbor,” “the shore,” and—more broadly—“water.” We are interested in occupying the tensions that the coast and the edge presuppose—the simultaneity of their being as barrier and opening, or as termination and infinity, for instance. Some of the questions we pose include: What potentialities, soothing or anxiety-inducing, are triggered by a horizon that carries the double promise of absolute substance and absolute emptiness? How do the continuities and fissures of the beach penetrate the realms of the visual and the sonic in representational and non-representational ways? Finally, how do the shape, texture, shadows, and smell of the shore attune themselves to form in processes of composition? Our session is a hybrid object: it comprehends two interrelated pieces (20 minutes each) followed by an open discussion revolving around the theoretical issues raised by the encapsulation, through various media, of the materiality and immateriality of the beach and the shore. While both pieces are conceived as case studies or experiments in “composing with the shore,” the discussion, not a Q&A but a collaborative exchange, is intended as a meta-reflection on the creative and descriptive processes deployed through such modes of composition.

First Piece: “Anxiety/Toxicity” [Jean-Thomas Tremblay]

Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s piece is a critical mapping of the discourses on blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, in the Hamilton harbor, in Ontario, Canada. Tremblay’s project centers on anxiety and toxicity, two affective configurations which, he argues, enable a nonlinear account of the temporality of everyday life, in addition to inducing a fluid understanding of materiality and immateriality. His theoretical frame implies two gestures: first, the extension of toxicity into the social (which evokes tropes such as “toxic [social] environment” and “toxic relationship”), and second, the extension of anxiety into the realm of biota and inanimate objects. Anxiety, in Tremblay’s frame, designates the inability of matter at large (including assemblages such as ecosystems) to project itself into a blurry future due to the instability of its toxic present (Ngai 209-10, 227). While anxiety destabilizes the “projective devices” that sequentially organize past, present, and future, toxicity annihilates the distinction between contaminator and contaminated, polluter and polluted, active and passive (Chen). Tremblay’s piece considers cyanobacteria as a “hyperobject,” to borrow from Timothy Morton’s terminology, meaning that it makes itself ubiquitous via the production of its own temporality and spatiality. The core component of Tremblay’s presentation is a video installation that conveys the logic of disrupted projections that characterizes an anxious and toxic ecosystem as well as the posthuman modes of sociality thereby prompted.

Second Piece: “Still” [Christien Garcia]

In the narrative of the family trip to the sea, it is customary, especially for the child, to take something of the landscape home. A vial of sand, a collection of stones, a pearly shell—little souvenirs that are for keeping but also for losing, so that among the debris of the passing years they might, perhaps suddenly, be found and the beach and that vacation taken many years ago remembered. As this little script suggests, the beach is an important discursive site for the distances negotiated by vacation and home, memory and present, desire and materiality. The beach is as much as anything an experience of being away from the beach. As Adam Phillips says, “we live our lives forward but we desire backwards” and the lore of the beach is indebted to that returning impulse. In “Still,” however, Christien Garcia frames the beach as having to do not only with the recollection or desired repetition of past experience but also with the concomitant struggle of having something or nothing to say in the present. A collection of stills from a family home video (once lost, now freshly digitized) depicting his first trip to the sea as a six-year-old is presented alongside orated excerpts from the scripts of two “old Hollywood” films that use the littoral landscape as the threshold for romances about to begin and about to end (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, 1955; and The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946). These films lend drama to the tedium of a long, plotless home video but more importantly they help absolve it of a predetermined narrative. They help Garcia to think in the present the capacity to disrupt and remake—to think memory as a kind of starting rooted in stillness.

“Composing with the Shore” is, then, an inquiry into how multimedia composition deals with the beach and the shore but also into how the beach and the shore inhabit multimedia composition to make themselves felt.


Derridaffective Ecologies (Day 1) (roundtable session)

Organizer: Hannah Markley (Emory University)

The stone is without, the animal is poor in the world, man is world confirming . . . (Martin Heidegger, World, Finitude, Solitude)

Taking  as his point of departure Heidegger’s meditation on worlds in World, Finitude, Solitude, Jacques Derrida writes:

Neither animals of different species nor humans of different cultures, nor any animal or human individual inhabit the same world as another, however close and similar these living individuals may be … and the difference between one world and another will remain always unbridgeable, because the community of the world is always constructed, simulated by a set of stabilizing apparatuses, more or less stable, then, and never natural, language in the broad sense, codes of traces being designed among all living beings, to construct a unity of the world that is always deconstructible, nowhere and never given in nature.  Between my world, what I call ‘my world’ … and any other world there is first the space and time of an infinite difference, an interruption that is incommensurable with all attempts to make a passage, abridge, an isthmus, all attempts at communication, translation, trope, and transfer that the desire for a world or the want of a world, the being wanting a world will try to pose, impose, propose or stabilize.  There are no worlds, there are only islands. (Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. 2: 8-9)

At least part of Derrida’s wager here is that the very concept of “world,” the hinge upon which Heidegger makes his divisions between man, animal, and the inanimate, is not only delimited from a certain desert island we might call anthropocentric, but also “ the limits of this ‘world’” become “the very limits we must cross in order to think” (Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. 2: 198). Derrida puts into question the hegemony of the man as a world constructor by revealing that the very construction of this island-world would only “be the structural limit of an insular contour” that established relations to other animals and things by “perceiving, interpreting, and projecting everything solitarily, solipsistically” (2: 198). But, what if, Derrida suggests, the island-world could be thought past and through its limits on the shores of disintegration?  These beachy edges constantly erode and recapitulate their boundaries, moving and reshaping its contours in ebbs and flows. These multiple shores—stone, animal, man—become points of contact wherein the Heideggerian world itself is constantly and concomitantly  subject to the affectively charged flows of thought beyond the ipsocentric contours of a stabilizing interiority.

These limitrophic tides mark out the sandy collusion of the mineral, the animal, the vegetal in a constant ecological exchange of thought and perception. These delicate ecosystems and tidal pools generate spaces of precarity through which we might reimagine ontologies as themselves bound up in unprecedented and unpredictable affective exchanges. What happens when affect becomes the very shore of our movements in thought that might allow us to theorize the contingency of such a venture? How might we rethink affect as very precisely that which manages and breaks open the solipsism of a Heideggerian world? And, indeed, if affect becomes a matter of ecological movements, negotiations, and atmospheres between people, animals, and things how might our beaches provide the in-between spaces for a reformulation of our relations to the world, and, necessarily, ourselves?

Confirmed participants: Hannah Markley (Emory University); McKenna Rose (Emory University); Asher Haig (Emory University); Michael O’ Rourke (Independent Colleges Dublin); Karin Sellberg (University of Edinburgh); and John Ryan (Glasgow School of Art).

A Mythopoetic Maritime Meandering (Day 3) (performance/game)

Sponsor: The Society of Rogue Studies

Co-Organizers: Jeremy Gordon (Indiana University) + Jennifer Heusel (Indiana University) + Martin Law (Indiana University)

And so castles made of sand melt into the sea, eventually. (Jimi Hendrix, Axis Bold As Love)

The Odyssey begins with a petition to sing of “the man of twists and turns driven . . . off course,” a sea-faring figure in Calypso’s aquatic embrace, one who is on the verge of winds, whirlpools, Siren songs, and “sea-wolves, raiding at will.” Like heroic odysseys, board games are cultural products that tell tall tales of adversity and difference in waves of competition and domination. The crests of the sensus communis of the board-game-as-heroic-epic—a Herculean contouring surveyed by Giambattista Vico and early Atlantic colonial capitalism deemed divine in the image of Bacon’s demi-god conqueror of the many-headed hydra—foster a scholarship of brutal, Kraken-slaying heroism. “To cite the myth [of Hercules] was not simply to employ a figure of speech,” writes Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, but “to impose a curse and a death sentence” on motley crews of hydratic rogues and commoners, anyone off the map. Setting out on stranger tides, The Society of Rogue Studies leads session attendees in the initial play of a board game that engages the poetic logics of shared precariousness and how mythopoieic crafts and crafting keep us afloat as hydratic communities on waves of contingency.

We play to drench Herculean cartographies of board games and scholarship to embrace the possibilities of an oceanic oikos. Our game steers clear of final dockings and spearing victories, asking crews to respond to the unfamiliar, the strange, and the contingent by favoring Steve Mentz’s “magical lens of the sea.” In an enlivened and enchanting mythopoieic seaway, our game floats an embodied odyssey of seafaring saying, singing, sniffing, salting, hearing, holding (breath), tying, and tasting, all toward a bodily collective playing in the waves of Mentz’s “new thalassology,” a swelling of the sea’s cultural presence. Those on (the) board rely on mythic detritus and remnants to lash together a rickety vessel on which we make our board’s thalassology as we sail. Improvisational mythic unmastery of the sea, swirling in mythic currents without a pre-ordained map, unsettle stable shores and inventively imperil land-locked wisdom and Hercules’ footprints. Our collective mythōkeanos is buoyed to nautical commonplace, but we get salty in our pelagic play. As we give over to communal drifting, swaying to error in interpretation, augury amiss that takes us far from victory, we catch wind of our game’s ethic: to play for as long as possible before dropping anchor. Rather than epics ends, our odyssey sings of twists and turns off course. Such might be the pagan piracy At World’s End, where Jack Sparrow follows a compass unhinged from Peters Projection, sea-ing that Sparrow sees fading in the eye of a beached Kraken. Following Sparrow, our motley crew drifts from the presumed absence of the Kraken, summoning monstrous mythoi for a swelling mythōkeanos, all the while belting, as the shanty goes, “give sailors their grog and there’s nothin’ goes wrong, so merry, so merry, so merry are we . . . no matter who’s laughin’ at sailors at sea.”

Rogue Studies Crewmates: Miles Coleman (Communication, University of Washington); Jeremy G. Gordon (Communication and Culture, Indiana University); Jennifer Heusel (Communication and Culture, Indiana University); Gwen Law (Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University); Martin Law (Communication and Culture, Indiana University); and Juliane Mora (Communication, University of Utah).


SCALE (Day 2) (flash session)

Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University)

This session will examine the multiple meanings of the word SCALE,  but will focus especially on why the very small and the vast are so difficult to apprehend—as well as why during escalating ecological crisis they must be relentlessly and critically examined. Terms to be contemplated as part of the project might include the epoch, spontaneous generation, the anthropocene, post-sustainability, secularism, elementality, the abiotic, Big Data, the parasite, musicality, ichthyology, sliding scales, justice, leprosy, close reading, miniaturization, diagramming as a creative art, metrics, intimacy and performance. Questions to be asked include: at what size do things start mattering (in the dual sense of that word)? At what size do they stop? Is there a subatomic ethics? A theory of enmeshment that can do justice to the Milky Way, the light year, the Permian extinction, the overwhelming vastness of the microbiological? And so on.

Confirmed participants:

  • Patty Ingham (Indiana University): “Epochal”
  • Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges Dublin): “Justice”
  • Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY): “Subatomic”
  • Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio University): “Cosmic”
  • Steve Mentz (St. John’s University): “Okeanos”
  • Ben Tilighman (Lawrence University) + Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico): “Sand”
  • Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio): “Relativity”
  • James Smith (University of Western Australia): “Overview”
  • Eileen Joy (BABEL Working Group): “Intimate/Close”
  • Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University): “Register”
  • Stacy Alaimo (University of Texas-Arlington): “Abyss”
  • Dan Vitkus (University of California, San Diego): “Global”

Styles of Memory (Day 3) (roundtable session)

Co-Organizers: Kathy Lavezzo (University of Iowa) + Hannah Johnson (University of Pittsburgh)

The 1290 Expulsion of England’s Jewish population is unique not only as the first of its kind in medieval history, but also in its relationship to the sea and aquatic currents. While subsequent exiles tended to enforce a migration over land toward Eastern Europe, expulsion in England by and large took the form of compelling Jews to travel from their homes to the coastal borders of Britain and then journey from those shores elsewhere.  The most notorious of such watery migrations is that of a ship that traveled from the Thames in London to its opening onto the North Sea at Queenborough. There, taking advantage of the estuary ebb tide, Captain Henry Adrian lied to his passengers that they had been grounded and encouraged them to stretch their legs on the exposed wet sand.  As the Jews found themselves overcome by the returning waters of the Thames, Adrian taunted them to seek from God the same parting of the waters enjoyed by Moses. In part, the fate of the Jews, all of whom drowned, on the coastline of Queenborough epitomizes the unstable relationship to place suffered by Jews in diaspora. A rabbinic tall tale might also be said to treat such questions metaphorically: land-hungry passengers disembark from a boat onto what they think is an island but is in fact a moss and dust-covered fish. Making themselves comfortable, the Jews start a fire to cook meals, but when the fish felt the heat of the blaze it turned over, tossing all of the occupants in the sea. In both the tall tale and the historical episode, watery tides, marine flows and oceanic engulfment speak to the startling and lethal uncertainties of diaspora, as well as the failure of identificatory relations between groups. Yet as work on diaspora by Édouard Glissant and other post-colonial theorists of the Caribbean demonstrates, aquatic currents, waves and fluidities can be marshaled as an empowering means of conceiving of a mobile and interconnected network of such identificatory relations.  Seizing upon both meanings immanent in aquatic fluidities—e.g., the tragic and the productive—this roundtable brings together a diverse array of critics and poets to consider how different styles of memory enable our understanding of medieval cultures caught in the ebb and flow of fluid contact.

Confirmed participants:

  • Steven Kruger (The Graduate Center, CUNY), “’These Waves of Dying Friends’: Paul of Burgos Reflects on the Massacres of 1391 and on His Conversion”
  • Eleni Stecopoulos (poet-scholar; author of Armies of Compassion, Palm Press, 2010), “Cellular Memory Theater”
  • Kathleen Biddick (Temple University), “Stranded Ottoman Memories at The Breakwater of Psychoanalysis: Muslims as Psychoanalystic Subjects”
  • Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico), “’In number they are like the sand on the seashore’:  Fears of an Eschatological Jewish Threat Past, Present, and Future”
  • Lisa Lampert-Weissig (University of California, San Diego), “‘With reverted look’:  Expulsion, Memory, and Agency”
  • Kathy Lavezzo (University of Iowa), “Queenborough, Fish-Isles and Diasporic Fluidities”
  • Hannah Johnson (University of Pittsburgh), “Traces in the Sand”

Teaching at the End of the World (Day 1) (roundtable session)

Organizer: Christopher Schaberg (Loyola University, New Orleans)

The literature faculty at Loyola University New Orleans—precariously perched at the edge of the world, where the porousness of our boundaries which on a geological level lack even the obvious liminal/transitional space of a beach, in favor of those oh so oxymoronic “wetlands” that defy clean separation—have recently developed a new sophomore-level literature sequence called “Reading Historically.” This two-course sequence substitutes careful study of a small number of anchor texts for the traditional bits-and-pieces survey. But how can we teach with “anchor” texts in a depthless sea? Or, to put it another way, how can we rely on so-called foundational texts when we know that all foundations are subject to decay and crumbling, especially in a moment when the humanities are on/under fire? And how do we justify the study of historical literature at the edge of the world and at the end of time? Panelists involved in the development and teaching of these courses will offer a workshop with discussion on teaching historical literature on the margins and shifting tides of time and place. Individual panelists will present five-minute meditations on their engagement with issues of temporality, ecology/environment, disciplinarity/post-disciplinarity, technology, and activism in the literature survey before engaging conferees in an open discussion about teaching at the end of the world.

Confirmed participants: Hillary Eklund, Laura Murphy, Christopher Schaberg, John Sebastian, and Tim Welsh (all of Department of English, Loyola University, New Orleans).

Wave. Particle. Duality. (Day 2) (working group)

Organizer: Angela Bennett Segler (New York University)

Quantum mechanics posits that all matter paradoxically exhibits properties of both waves and particles. On the one hand, everything from light to compound molecules can be observed as particles—discreet bodies that are unique, finite, and (in most cases) material, i.e. locatable in space and time as a delimited, quantitative object. On the other, all of these microcosmic elements are similarly waves—or mere oscillations in an undelimited and dispersed medium that carry some kind of energy as they propagate through that medium. A wave is an entity of pure form and activity, a shape that self perpetuates and moves through a medium but is not defined or entirely confined by it.  Particles, in contrast, are units of matter confined by their location in both space and time and unacting without outside influence. The proposal that all matter is always simultaneously both is, according to quantum physics, the foundational paradox of universe. This duality—wave and particle, form and content, universal and particular, moving and stationary—and the attendant collapse into singularity brought about by observation is inherent in the nature of all matter, supplanting every classical physics that once described “reality” or the “nature of Nature.”

In 2013, a small group of medievalists and associates embarked on an intellectual experiment. We undertook a virtual collaboration to delve into Karen Barad’s work Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. The group was itself an interdisciplinary experiment, bringing together medieval and non-medieval scholars alike, and putting us in conversation with Barad and other physicists to foster an exploration of materialism informed by the best of both the hard sciences and the humanities, and to find the fantastical universe in which they meet. One of our primary objectives was not merely to discuss what does New Materialism, and Barad’s quantum brand of it in particular, have to say to the humanities and medieval studies, but also “what do the humanities have to say to physics?” This session will present the results of that experiment at BABEL 2014, in a non-traditional format of intellectual performances that include reflections on materiality, the quantum imaginary, existing in duality, the unified (classical) individual versus wave-like dissemination in space-time-matter. Each theme—“wave,” “particle,” and “duality”—will be explored individually and in concert with the others in a multitude of registers. We hope to produce a fugue repeating and varying each leitmotif through explorations that are wide-ranging and which offer new perspectives, new marriages of ideas, and a cacophony of philosophizing about matter and mattering.


BABEL Planning Committee: Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University), Brantley L. Bryant (Sonoma State University), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University), Lowell Duckert (West Virginia University), David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY), Lara Farina (West Virginia University), Laurie A. Finke (Kenyon College), Brianna Jewell (University of Texas-Austin), Eileen A. Joy (BABEL Working Group), Kathleen Kelly (Northeastern University), Anna Klosowska (Miami University), Jacques Lezra (New York University), Nedda Mehdizadeh (George Washington University), J. Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico), Christine Neufeld (Eastern Michigan University), Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin), Karen Eileen Overbey (Tufts University), Daniel C. Remein (New York University), Dan Rudmann (University of Texas-Austin), Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), Martin B. Shichtman (Eastern Michigan University), Karl Steel (Brooklyn College), Christopher Taylor (University of Texas-Austin), Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne), and Maggie Williams (William Paterson University).

UC Santa Barbara Planning Committee: Nicole Archambeau, Heather Blurton, Maurizia Boscagli, Julie Carlson, MJ Davis, Jeremy Douglass, Aranye Fradenburg, Jonathan Forbes, Jamie Friedman (Westmont College), Bishnupriya Ghosh, James Kearney, Rachel Levinson-Emley, Paul Megna, Shannon Meyer, Megan Palmer-Browne, Constance Penley, Jordan Rainone, Teresa Shewry, and Kathyrn Wilcox.

Tower of Babel [Brueghel]


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