Showing posts with label temporalities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label temporalities. Show all posts

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Time of Medievalism

At the NCS congress in Swansea, it was clear that there was a renewed interest in medievalism. There were a couple of panels on the topic, echoing the series of panels organised by David Matthews at Leeds, the previous week, while Carolyn Dinshaw's paper on Michael Powell's 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, as a meditation on time and spatiality in our connections with the medieval, really gave the field a new impetus, though David Wallace's Presidential Address at NCS in New York two years ago, had similarly made a strategic point of affirming the interest of medievalism to medieval studies.

Of course there is already a journal, Studies in Medievalism, devoted to the subject, and an annual conference, and all; but work in this field has tended to take place adjacent to, rather than in much dialogue with, medieval studies. It's interesting to see this new wave of interest.

On a more personal note, during one of the medievalism panels at Swansea, my co-author and I were both in the audience, dithering in different parts of the room as to whether we should stand up and draw attention to an essay we had recently published, that rehearsed some of the moves being presented in that panel. We maintained our scholarly modesty, and did not do so, though it is by no means an unheard-of thing to do. Just seemed a bit unseemly, is all.

But what the hell? A blog is different; and I'll self-promote here if I want to.

In the latest issue of New Medieval Literatures (volume 9, for 2007), Tom Prendergast and I have an essay, "What is Happening to the Middle Ages?" It derives a little from the talk I gave at NCS in July, 2006. We talk about the opposition between medieval studies and medievalism studies, and argue that medieval studies often abjects the latter as involving too much pleasure to be taken seriously. The real "work" belongs to medieval studies proper. "Contemporary medievalism is now tarred by the same brush that in conservative circles continues to dismiss cultural studies as mere chat about television, cinema and the Internet; that is the accusation that there is too much pleasure, too little work in its study." We also suggest that while the opposition between the medieval and the post-medieval is a crucial component in the formation of the modern subject "who thus emerges as capable of both forgetting and remembering the past," this dynamic also characterises the relationship medieval men and women had with their own past; that the medieval is just as often medievalising, as it is not. That is, that the opposition between medieval and post-medieval, medievalist or even, we might say, the non-medieval, is never as crystalline as the strictest medieval scholars might like to maintain. That in fact, the medieval is always being made, by medieval scholars, as well as by popularising medievalists.

And, what's more ... the essay is followed by a response from Carolyn Dinshaw, which in part takes up some of her paper given at the New York NCS, on Rip van Winkle, engaging with the pleasure of this text, and its "temporal heterogeneity", courting the dangerous threats to one's professional identity as a medieval scholar that might ensue from engaging with popular fiction. What's not to like about that?

I'm just saying...

Friday, April 04, 2008

Signing up to the Tower of Babel

I'm pleased to say I've just joined the BABEL working group - an engagingly engaged and non-hierarchical network of scholars interested in ... all sorts of things. The ideas that intrigue me most are their interest in pre-modern cultural studies, in multiple temporalities, and in the subjectivity of the humanities scholar. Their website is brilliantly energetic. I've never met Eileen Joy, but she is clearly a dynamo. Lots of people talk about re-thinking the hi-falutin' formality of literary studies, but this looks like a place where a different kind of work might be done.

Here's some of what they say:

... how could we have a collective that could act as a lever for a new discourse within the academy aimed at reformulating and redefining what we think we mean by "humanism" and "the humanities," such that we could also advocate for the important role of humanities study in the post-historical, post-human, hell, post-everything university, and also in public life? We also desired to be able to undertake this venture, as well as engage in various collaborative activities, with scholars working in more modern humanities fields, as well as with artists, and also with scientists working in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnologoy, robotics, artificial life, particle physics, etc. ... Finally, how could we create a space where, following Bill Readings, "the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question" (The University in Ruins, p. 20). After much scribbling of all of this on Meantime Lounge cocktail napkins, BABEL was born. Well, kind of.
As to another reason why we are attracted to the Tower of Babel as a source of inspiration, we begin with the image of the Tower in ruins. As historians, we are the sifters of the fragments of this site, but we are not its rebuilders. We are collecting these disjointed fragments and we are bearing them to the present, not as artifacts of the past, but as tablets on which new possibilities can be written, read, and even lived.
And here is the official BABEL Sonnet (oh! Friday poetry blogging! a convention I might try to activate on Humanities Researcher):

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

(William Shakespeare)
How neat is that?

But best of all, I followed the link on Pavlov's Cat and did the What Tarot Card Are You? test last night. If I sometimes follow such links, I don't always paste the results, but this is irresistible. I know almost nothing about the Tarot, but the synchronicity of this result is perhaps a good argument for finding out more...

You are The Tower

Ambition, fighting, war, courage. Destruction, danger, fall, ruin.

The Tower represents war, destruction, but also spiritual renewal. Plans are disrupted. Your views and ideas will change as a result.

The Tower is a card about war, a war between the structures of lies and the lightning flash of truth. The Tower stands for "false concepts and institutions that we take for real." You have been shaken up; blinded by a shocking revelation. It sometimes takes that to see a truth that one refuses to see. Or to bring down beliefs that are so well constructed. What's most important to remember is that the tearing down of this structure, however painful, makes room for something new to be built.

What Tarot Card are You?
Take the Test to Find Out.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

OMG There's a teenager in the house

Thursday night.

It's the eve of J's thirteenth birthday. He says he's happy for me to blog about this event, and tomorrow may even make a photo for the blog. I'm overly protective about posting images of my son on my blog, though I will post the photos I found he has already stored on my laptop, from a few months ago, in which he appears suitably deformed...

This night, thirteen years ago, I hardly slept for excitement. We knew we were heading into the hospital in the morning for an elective Caesarian, for J was a seriously breech baby: head up beneath my ribs and not going anywhere. We didn't know he was J, though. Given that everything else about his birth was completely known, right down to the hour, it seemed important not to know too much about the baby.

When they plucked him out — knees first, according to Paul — they laid him next to my head, and he started talking, saying "ah ah ah", as if he were just continuing the conversation we had been having while he was still in utero. And ever since then he has remained a great conversationalist. I remember lying with him next to me all day and some of the nights, for the week I stayed in hospital, his peachy little head nestled close to my ribs. He was only about six when I told him about these memories, as he snuggled up close one day. I told him how he used to lie with his head against my heart. "Music to my ears", he said.

When I tell that story, it reminds me of one of the great mysteries of time, and of parenting. J has the language bug in spades, and has always had a good vocabulary and great syntax. One of his first full sentences was adverbial. We were at the zoo, watching the giant tortoises lumber about. "Tortoise ... moving ... slowly", he said carefully (and trochaically). I used to write some of these gems down, but as a record, they tended to lose their point quite quickly, as they only made sense as examples of his growing maturity, relative to how old he was. So as time went by, the great leaps and bounds of language acquisition became blurred. But emotions stepped in to do the work. Around about this time, we put his cot back in our room while we had visitors, I think, and I can remember hearing him stirring, then standing up and holding on to the bars, and saying clearly, "I wake up". And what I also remember is the pleasure of that moment, the child so clearly starting his own day.

This seemed prodigious to us at the time, but I suspect most of our excitement was just at the novelty of his learning. But it is surprisingly hard to measure your child's growth and development, and to work out where the time goes between birthdays.

A few weeks ago, I found an old email. It describes a day when I was working at my desk, and J and his dear friend E were playing together. I started transcribing their conversation, and sent the email to Paul and to E's parents. When I found this email recently, I sent it on again, collapsing time, and trying to measure the miracle of these two children, both on the verge of teenagerhood, and also to measure the time of our own parenthood: three of the four of us are turning 50 this year. Here's what I sent.

J and E have just come in to my study, each with a couple of toys. You know how it is, you hear snippets of the presiding syntax, which is, "let's pretend we did such and such", but then they drop the "pretend", and wander around, narrating their actions in the past tense. So, they came into my room, saying, "and then we came into a strange land"... "and then the monster had decided to go and find a different land" " and then I had my own little cave and had to fold up to get inside" (crawling under the futon), "and then everyone came to visit me because I was so famous" "but then the ghost decided to move out to a different house" "and you thought I had betrayed you but I was just in my house for a long time" "and then friends came to visit us but we didn't say anything because we were too sad" "and then you saw me and apple and blackcurrant up on the mountain having a picnic." More and more and more of this: a kind of dual stream of consciousness...

I'm going to keep this email and send it on to the three other parents, every few years. The kids would have been about five or six at this time, I think. What great dramas they were enacting here, and what serious play: fantasy kingdoms, fame, ghosts, betrayal, misunderstanding, disfunctional grief, solitude, regimes of spectatorship. Both are only children who often used to spend one or two days each weekend together: they are perfect mutual analysands!

Anyway, J is turning thirteen. I know it's supposed to herald the beginning of a ghastly period of adolescence, but at the moment such turmoil seems unimaginable. We still have great conversations; I am in awe of his musical ability; and English is his favourite subject. He will have a small party at the end of the school holidays in two weeks: a trip with six friends to the Game On exhibition of video games at ACMI; a meal at a Chinese restaurant; and then a sleepover party.

March 21 is also the first day of the astrological year, the first day of Aries, and the birthday of J.S. Bach. How's that for auspicious?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Calling all medievalists...

Get ready to run, fly, swim to Hobart for a pre-Christmas treat. Seriously, Carolyn Dinshaw is simply one of the most exciting medievalists going around at the moment. She's a brilliant speaker and this will be a rare opportunity to spend a day or two with her in beautiful Hobart (place of my birth: ahem). As you can see from this outline (click to enlarge), her current work engages a "queer history" of temporalities, and I think this will be a conference Not to Be Missed. You'll have made your Christmas pudding well before then, anyway.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Happy Blogiversary, dear humanities researcher ...

Yes, my dear blog turns one today. It seems well more than a year ago that I began this blog with my very earnest intention of charting the progress of my new grant application. A hundred unexpected things have happened since then, and of course, I never actually submitted that application (just the re-submission of our "near miss").

Time, then, to reflect on the passing of the year.

First up, and looming largest in my mind, I got cancer and got as near to cured as they can get me. There's an unknown quantity of a 7%-10% risk of recurrence over these first ten years they can't control, but I'm doing my best with diet and exercise and a generalised intention of staying calmer, and trying to live a little more simply. It's not that I think I got cancer through working too hard; but I do find my health is better if I can keep anxiety and stress at bay.

This is pretty difficult in the academic sector, of course. And especially in my corner of it. What with the massive re-structures and widespread curriculum reform at Melbourne, the re-organisation of my ancient and ramshackle department into a program within a much larger school, and the disastrous budget deficit in my faculty, my workplace is barely recognisable from what it was twelve months ago. There are lots of things that are exciting about the new structures and plans; but much that's alarming, too.

Academic work often seems open-ended or provisional. There is a lovely finality about seeing an article published, or holding your book in its shiny and handsome covers, but you know you can nearly always do it better. You've almost never done enough, or it's the wrong kind of thing, or you've published it in the wrong place. One of the things I've learned about being sick, though, is to put all this stuff into a different time-frame. I've done hardly any writing on my Order of the Garter project these last twelve months. I'm sure I'm not the only scholar in the country whose work doesn't fit neatly into the time-tables we draw up for ourselves. But I'm not worried about this, and am starting to approach that project again, obliquely, so it doesn't notice me creeping up on it. I'm just going to do what I can, when I can.

And even with being sick, I've still done a fair number of things in the last twelve months. I've given papers at four conferences (New York in July, Adelaide in February, London in April and Perth in July), travelled to St Louis to start working on the Chaucer conference before I had to resign from the committee, and convened a day seminar at Melbourne in February. (I missed the Piers Plowman conference in Philadelphia but only because I knew I wouldn't be able to write something from scratch: if I'd had a paper written, I probably would have got myself to that one too.)

But it's true that life no longer stretches out into an infinity of endless health and energy. Given the limits I now find, I'm sometimes surprised to find myself still blogging. But it's part of the great mystery about how work gets done. Blogging doesn't stop me writing: it's a clearing house for ideas and reflections; and it helps me feel in touch with the broader community of readers and writers. That community is truly a virtual one, though. I know one or two colleagues and perhaps three or four postgraduates at Melbourne who read my blog. If others are, they aren't letting on. That's absolutely fine. I kind of like the mysteriousness of not knowing who reads and who doesn't.

For the record, I'm currently averaging 58 readers a day, and have received a total of 12,494 visitors (that's not counting my own visits). More than some, fewer than others. But unlike other forms of bean-counting in academia, this set of statistics isn't going to be used for me, or against me.

I'm currently reading the account by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford Redesdale of his mission to Japan in 1906 to take the Garter insignia to the Emperor Mutsuhito. He writes of a ball at the British Embassy:

Princess Arisugawa brought her daughter. It was her first ball, and very much she seemed to enjoy it. Being in Japanese costume she could not, of course, dance round dances, but she did take part in quadrilles. As for me, when I see these things I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I have been asleep, and centuries have passed over my head.

Redesdale's comment is striking. There he is as a modern ambassador for the medieval Garter, with its own centuries of ritual, commenting on the implicitly medieval scene of the princess and her daughter. For once, the Garter stands for the modern. The obvious contrast, this week, is with the brouhaha surrounding the Queen, the BBC and Annie Liebovitz. Reading between the lines, do we detect the Queen, after all her years of service to court rituals, tiring of it all? The picture shows the eighty-year-old in full Garter regalia, and it would not be surprising that getting kitted up like that, with tiara and all, would pall after all this time.

Apparently the BBC documentary shows scenes of the Queen walking down a palace corridor and telling her lady-in-waiting: "I'm not changing anything. I've had enough dressing like this, thank you very much".

Snippets like this remind me, in the end, of how lovely it is to love one's research.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Two Slightly Distorted Guitars: An Exercise in Time Travel

What was it that led me, this afternoon, as I dusted and swept and vacuumed up the builders' dust, to play Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells at top volume? I'd bought this CD a few months ago, in the middle of the summer of radiotherapy, as part of Joel's musical education, and I remember then lying on the couch in nostalgic rapture at its melodrama. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still blown away by Vivian Stanshall's sonorous voice as the Master of Ceremonies announcing the instruments, from the proud "Mandolin" to the enigmatic "Two Slightly Distorted Guitars" and then finally the triumphant "Tubular Bells". At the time I was struck by the music's affinities with things like Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Ravel's Bolero, or even Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; as the instruments each made their distinctive entrance.

Today, though, this music has done different work for me, of a slightly odd kind. I had actually been planning to blog, today, about the winter solstice just gone. It has been the year's midnight, though not St Lucie's day, and after several days of low-lying cloud, today dawned crisp and blue. The birds along the creek this morning (blue wrens, willy wagtails, bellbirds, honey-eaters, cormorants, ducks of various kinds, and also the bright blue kingfisher I saw yesterday) have been making as if it were spring, and I was going to blog about the odd seasonal effect of seeing baby cormorants — small, pink, and grey, but with that distinctive head movement back and forwards — in the middle of winter. Whose day is it, if not Lucy's? Philip hasn't updated his journal so I can't tell yet, and that's the nicest way I know to find out, so I'm not going to google it...*

But instead of thinking about the seasons, I'm thinking about the years; and in particular, 1973, the year Mike Oldfield cut this first version of Tubular Bells, to become Virgin Records' first production. At this time I was living in London with my family, attending Barking Abbey Comprehensive School, studying for my O-levels. Yes folks, an Essex girl at heart (thanks to DW for this reference!). I remember being intrigued every time I entered one of my friends' houses and stepped into their tiny kitchens (small by our luxurious Australian standards): there was always chocolate or sweets lying around. To my shame, I can also remember taking a long time to realise that the people who lived in small council flats weren't just living there temporarily... It was the era of speckled, textured wallpaper; coarse shetland wool jumpers; the heyday of Steeleye Span and Genesis; and we were given the day off school to watch Princess Anne's wedding. Because I was exotically Australian, I got to hang out with some of the older A-level students (did we call them the lower 6th? quite possibly), and I remember being invited to someone's flat to listen to Tubular Bells when it first came out. I bought my own copy and played and played it.

This music has been sampled over and over, for the Exorcist, for Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope and some other track recently I can't recall. Oldfield didn't seem able to leave it alone, either. If you look it up on the iTunes library, it's worse than trying to sort out the manuscripts and versions of Piers Plowman.

As I listened today I thought about those small apartments as I cleaned up our comfortable house. I thought about Liz at Spinning Tumor who has just had to sell her house to pay for cancer treatment, and the difference that a half-way reasonable national health care system makes.

It's been a weekend where I haven't worked much, in line with my new resolution. So I read (pace P's Cat) one of the stories in Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver's new MUP Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, drawn to William Hay's "An Australian Rip Van Winkle" (after Carolyn Dinshaw's paper on the original story and medieval temporalities at NCS last year) and thought about the gothic haunting of the Australian landscape, and the relation between the medieval and the gothic, and the various translations of time and space that structure both those modes, in this hemisphere, and the other.

This afternoon it clouded over again, but we headed off on our bikes to ride along the Merri and then the Yarra, past ghostly river gums and steep cliffs, down to Dights Falls, where I remembered that last summer, about the time I bought my CD, a girl had been killed and left by this junction of the two rivers, not far from where Joel was playing cricket with the under 12s. There were still a few flowers and memorials left at the spot, and all I could think of was Raymond Carver's "So Much Water", Jindabyne, and Paul Kelly's "Everything's Turning to White" - another example of cultural translatio from the US to Australia? We then rode past the "Protectorate Station" where William Thomas in 1843 used to distribute rations and teach school and religious classes to Aboriginal people. For a brief history of this park and some old photographs, go here.

The last thread in this network of music and time was the episode of the British TV drama "Life on Mars" we watched. We missed the first few, but the premise seems to be that a policeman is injured and falls into a coma, but in his mind he is transported back to Manchester in 1973. In this episode, a man who worked as a caretaker in the newspaper building had taken the journalists hostage: a quick search of his small council flat showed he had medievalist delusions of heroism and chivalry: like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, someone said.

Is this what happens when I give myself the day off from the computer? that threads and allusions, times and seasons come out to play like this?

Where were you in 1973? Or, for the young paduans who don't go back this far, what music *does* take you back like this?

*Update: June 21 was St Aloysius's day. Not that I expect the Christian year to map onto the seasonal one; in fact it's interesting to see how it doesn't, particularly. Or at least, not in this hemisphere.