Medieval Materialism at the Zoo, Day 1: Bodies, Institutions, and Mediation

Day one of #medmaterialism was an exciting one, to say the least!

I’ve storified my tweets of the whole day here:

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To roundup all the panels I attended, only half of which were explicitly oriented toward materiality, here is a short list of where I went throughout the day:
  1. The BABEL Retrospective on 25 years of Carolyn Dnishaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics 
  2. Romance Materiality II: Romancing the Material
  3. Romance Materiality III: Materialize or Material Lies?
  4. Revisiting Remediation–with my paper!
What I found really interesting throughout the papers in each of the panels was their intense focus on both bodies–usually human–and signification throughout. For instance, in thinking about Melusine, Angela Florschuetz was emphasizing the way in which the material bodies of Melusine and her offspring were somehow not being taken as materially significant. They had serpent feet, lion claws coming out of their faces, misplaced teeth, third eyes, etc., and yet throughout the narrative there is no indication that these bodily deformities impeded their basic functioning in the world. Instead, these material realities were reduced to signs of the cursed “seed” from which the children came, a genealogy the family seemed unable to overcome.

Now, Florschuetz was certainly not reducing the material to just signs or symbols, but pointing to the way that materiality in literature can’t be taken as unproblematic “objects” or even “props” for narrative. Instead, it is layered with both textual significance as well as the significance that a materiality like that described would have had in a medieval context. What does a lion-claw-face do/mean in the Middle Ages?

Waugh’s paper on Sir Eglamore got at the same troubling significance of objects or things by reading things that feature in his text, primarily girdles. Jenn Bartlett also gets at this in her paper on the spices that are brought together in the textual table of the Thornton MS and its alliterative Morte D’Arthur. Bartlett, like Waugh, historicizes these materials pictured in the text, but she goes one step further and thinks about their spatiality in relation to the medieval table of Thornton himself, who would have had access to the various spices, meats and delicacies that traveled from all over the world. Bartlett’s paper in particular evoked the way in which the movement of real bodies and objects in the Middle Ages is necessary to understanding the medieval text. In this way, she’s very much in line with some traditional “Thing Theory” a la Bill Brown, as well as with Augustine’s theory of signification, in which signs always point to real things, which usually means material things.

Florschuetz’ paper and Timothy Stinson’s work on absent bodies, by inverting the relationship between the material thing and the sign trouble our simple order of signification. In Florschuetz, the sign that evokes a material body evokes a real thing–as far as I understand, the family about which this genealogical romance was written was a real, and by then defunct, medieval family–but a thing whose material reality was deeply problematic, both to medieval readers trying to make sense of the bodies of this family and to modern readers trying make sense of the medieval signs of their bodies. So, in Florschuetz’s paper, the bodies are impossible, and the way they came to be materially is part of what the romance is about.

In Stinson’s paper, on the other hand, the bodies are literally gone. After the expulsion of the Jews from England, Jewish bodies were not in England, though they seemed to continue to signify and even to figure prominently in certain kinds of texts and images. Adrienne Boyarin, for instance, has written extensively on them in Marian Miracles, and Steve Kruger on the “Spectral Jew,” which Stinson cites.

I was struck, though, that the way in which materiality mattered throughout all these papers was through bodies, which is not unproblematically synonymous with matter, things, or objects. Corporeality and materiality certainly share some stakes, and some physical characteristics, but corporeality is only one manifestation of materiality. It seems, however, that much interest in materiality is still mapped onto a “Bodies that Matter” framework.

Even in our papers on mediation, Peter and I were mostly paying attention to the way that signs are “materialized” in bodies. For Peter, he was interested in letters/characters, in particular Runes that appear in certain Anglo-Saxon contexts and which become impossible to re-mediate depending upon the time, culture, and medium. Here there is the lost symbol that cannot be supplanted by the new medium and the symbols it uses. My paper, too, though takes on materialized signs in codices, which I often refer to as “manuscript bodies,” and the corpus of the poem on which I work. The body, material and textual, that allows my “object” to exist, materially, in the world.

The question then becomes, does the material have to be bodily?

I think that the Dinshaw panel may actually help us to think about why it so often is, even if it need not necessarily be so. That, and a little stealing from Karl Steel.

In the Dinshaw panel, Carolyn aptly brought our focus back to our role in the production of knowledge in medieval studies, and in particular, the way that our bodies are at stake in this epistemological production. She noted in her response that her female, queer body was very nearly shut out of the institutional means by which she could signify–as a scholar, as a medievalist, etc. So was Mary Carruthers. And as we all know, that can’t have been, can’t be because their work wasn’t “good,” “rigorous,” or up to the regular academic snuff. We’ve got decades of evidence on their importance to the contrary.

Instead, it became about who was allowed to signify, that who determined by the body they lived in. So, in some sense, for us the materiality of signification is–or at least was–very much about bodies–ours.

Karl Steel would probably go one step further to point out that trans-temporal signification happens on a scale that is, well, bodily. Specifically, human bodily. Thinking about matter and materiality on any other scale is not only difficult, but may, according to Karl, actually be somehow insignificant–or unsignificant, or just outside what it is possible to signify altogether.

At the end of the day, then, I am left thinking about the relationship between bodies and materiality, and how might we be able to see/perceive/engage with one (matter) without the other (body)? Or perhaps, how can we simply trouble the reduction of matter to “bodies” when our own bodies are part of our apparatus?

Thoughts to continue thinking about on day 2!

Medieval Materialism at the Zoo!

As many of you know, several groups made a coordinated effort to plan a pseudo-thread of panels on medieval materialism for the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies starting tomorrow! The Medieval Institute responded to our desires by honoring our pseudo-thread in scheduling, which means, if your little materialist heart desires it, you can attend a materialism session for EVERY. SINGLE. SESSION. throughout the conference.

Woo hoo! Way to go Medieval Institute!

And that, my friends, is exactly what I plan on doing with two exceptions–the one where I give my own paper Thursday night at 7:30 on “Revisiting Remediation”–a panel taking up the question of whether or not the DH bubble has burst and what’s next for digital medieval studies. (#s169 Barnhard 205), and of course the one on Piers Plowman on Saturday afternoon (I’m looking at you Karrie Fuller working on Dd.1.17!! Can’t wait!).


Otherwise, I will be attending (or chairing) a materialism session for every single session and live tweeting our pseudo-thread under the hashtag #medmaterialism. I encourage other medieval materialists to also hashtag the same so that we can follow the conversation about medieval materiality on Twitter!

Below I will list all the sessions on materiality that may be of interest to materially minded folks. Some knew they were part of the thread, others are just participating in the materialist zeitgeist. If I’ve missed any material-oriented session’s you’re running or on, please let me know and I’ll update the list!

Thursday 10:00 am

  • Session 24 Romance Materiality I: The (Im)materiality of the Book Schneider 1335
  • Session 34 Bodies that Matter I: Miracles, Manuscripts and Medicine Bernhard 205

Thursday 1:30 pm

  • Session 71 Romance Materiality II: Romancing the Material Schneider 1335

Thursday 3:30 pm

  • Session 121 Romance Materiality III: Materialize or Material Lies? Schneider 1335

Thursday 7:30 pm

  • Session 147 Material Engagements with the Friends of God in Post-Roman Europe Valley II LeFevre

Friday 10:00 am

  • Session 216 Quantum Medievalisms (A Roundtable) by postmedieval Bernhard 158

Friday 1:30 pm

  • Session 260 Material Agency: Prayers, Ritual, Prophecy, and Prognostication by the Early Book Society Schneider 1320
  • Session 267 Transgressive Materiality by the Material Collective Schneider 1355
  • Session268 Material Iberia I: Devotional Objects, Devoted Bodies in Christianity Schneider 1360

Friday 3:30 pm

  • Session 323 Material Iberia II:Shaping Bodies in Literature and Art across the Abrahamic Traditions Schneider 1360

Saturday 10:00 am

  • Session 352 Gender and Materiality in the Middle Ages by Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship Fetzer 2016

Saturday 1:30 pm

  • Session 408 Mysticism and Materiality by Magistra Fetzer 1060

Saturday 3:30 pm

  • Session 477 Object Iterations Schneider 1140
  • Session 478 Materiality of Music by Musicology at Kalamazoo Schneider 1145
  • Session 500 Blurring the Boundaries in Medieval Literature: Bodies, Species, Texts, and Objects Bernhard 106

Sunday 8:30 am

  • Session 521 (Im)materiality in English and Welsh Medieval Culture Fetzer 1045

Sunday 10:30 am

  • Session 548 Materiality and Magic by Societas Magica Fetzer 1045

And that’s the current list, folks! Remember to tweet your session hastags (#s548 for example) so we know what’s happening and where!

Disrupting the Archive

I don’t want to be overly reflective, but I do want to take a moment to remark on what it was like to be on the “Disrupting the Archive” panel at #GWdh15, George Washington University’s annual Digital Humanities symposium that, this year, was on “disrupting DH.” As M Bychowski points out in her blog, the symposium itself was conceptualized as a way to think about both what is DH, and what is the power of DH?

What happens when academics, activists, and publishers join forces to rethink how we research, teach, and generate knowledge? How can digital humanists mobilize online media and social networks to radically transform the spaces of the ARCHIVE, the CLASSROOM, and the IVORY TOWER?

The first panel was specifically about DH in the archive, and the ways in which it disrupts the archive, with papers delivered by myself and Dorothy Kim (to be posted later). Continue reading Disrupting the Archive

A Little Digital Reading of SOTU

Ok, so not Piers at all, but a little digital quickie on the State of the Union address and responses by the president and a few others. I used the simple text-mining tool Voyant to check out some word frequencies and make a few basic comparisons: To begin, we’ll check out a word cloud of the full transcript of Obama’s speech: SOTUraw What you’ll notice is that most of the words with the highest frequency are, of course, basic words that make our language function: pronouns, conjunctions, articles, prepositions.  In order to filter those out, we choose to “edit stop words” for English and we get a cloud that is more reflective of the substance of the speech: Obama Continue reading A Little Digital Reading of SOTU

On Co-creation and Building IV:

This blog is dedicated to Karl Steel; I cannot think of a better person with whom I would want to build and collaborate and co-create.

Last blog I got carried away with the argument that

we must build to know.

And it’s true.  Whether it’s building an experimental set-up that allows us to collect measurements of some kind, whether it’s a form of art that allows us to see some aspect of ourselves or our world that we couldn’t quite see before, or whether it’s simply a palate of post-structuralist theories that allow us to analyze a literary text,

we all use an apparatus to produce knowledge, to take a “measurement” of the universe, in whatever way seems interesting or useful to us.

The thing I love about working across a few disciplinary boundaries, and using computational tools is that it allows me to invent the apparatus I want to  ask the questions I want to ask–which usually tend to be questions I feel vehemently that everyone should have been asking all along, and yet I find to my chagrin that they haven’t beenI mean really, how could we not have been talking about what Piers circulates with in the manuscripts? How is that not it’s most immediate textual context?  Doesn’t it seem obvious?  Well, I guess it isn’t.

Continue reading On Co-creation and Building IV:

On (Collaboration and) Building III: We Must Build to Know

In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad defines an “apparatus” as any configuration “specific material reconfiguring[] of the world that do[es] not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure spacetimematter as a part of an ongoing dynamism of becoming.” (142)

In Barad’s account, which spins of of Neils Bohr’s philosophy-physics, the “measuring apparatus” for an experiment is the specific set-up that is used to take a particular measurement.  What Barad points out, by way of Bohr, is that the apparatus itself is a part of the material configuration that produces a measurement.  She doesn’t simply mean what the social constructivists mean–that a phenomenon is “made” by the naming of it.  Rather I understand her to be pointing to the fact that a “measurement” becomes a possible articulation of the universe only when a measuring apparatus is in place.  And more particularly, that the type of apparatus one uses determines the type of measurement one can get.

In terms of the sciences, this is a very practical consideration.  Take, for example, the work on parchment surfaces that I put up earlier in the summer. In order to take a “measurement” of the parchment’s surface, I had to build an apparatus.  Ok.  I had to have a physicist build an apparatus (my days of building apparatuses in labs seem to be largely over…sort of…at least of building apparatuses with lasers).  Our apparatus only allowed us to take a certain kind of measurement, that was accurate on a certain scale, and that may or may not have answered the question we set out to address.

But the success of that apparatus is not really the point.  The point here, is that an apparatus had to be built in order to ask the question I wanted to ask of parchment surfaces.

Continue reading On (Collaboration and) Building III: We Must Build to Know

Visual studies in the Piers Plowman manuscript corpus.


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