On Creation and Building I: BABEL and the Tower

As I leave this most excellent and convivial conference of Babel on the beach, I have six long hours of lonely driving down the coast, past the Huntington, and out into the desert flats that long were my home to reflect on our time together On the Beach.  I am left with the familiar feeling I get after Babel or Babel-heavy conferences: one of a sense of purpose, belonging, and renewed “stoke” for what it is that I am doing.  It wasn’t until this summer that I even thought to be troubled by that feeling. It wasn’t until I was in Reykjavík, at the New Chaucer Society when Sharon O’Dair asked the Ecomaterialisms panel “what’s the use” of all our getting together to talk about these things?  What was the use of us flying however many hours, using however many gallons of fossil fuel to get to Iceland so that we could sit around and talk about how human beings are driving the ecomaterial world into ruin–while simultaneously ruining it? And I wondered…

what are we doing, I mean really doing about these things we’ve come all this way to be so concerned about?

Sharon made good points.  Others rebutted with good points as well.  But still I wondered.  And so, after this conference, on the precaricity and risk at the edge of the world, I wondered what we’d done to deal with that risk.  Of course, the answer was in the other half of the conference’s title: “Life, Affinity and Play at the Edge of the World.” And yes, what we are doing is radically life-affirming, recognizing the vitality in other forms of life and entering into a (queer?) relationship with it that subverts the narrative of human colonialism over the ocean, the minerals, and the very air we all breathe. We are learning to live together.

Before I left Santa Barbara, I sat on the beach reading Marina Zurkow’s The Petroleum Manga next to a hot pink piece of plastic bag that had washed up onto the shore.  In Max Liboiron’s piece on “The Platisphere,” part of the section on Anhydrous Ammonia, Liboiron Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.49.36 AMpoints out that “the vast majority of ocean plastics are less than five millimeters in size, called microplastics, and they are inextricable from the larger oceanic ecosystem.” Indeed, Liboiron goes on to explain that microplastics are so inextricable from the lifecycles of our plante that they are in us, a part of our transcorporeal ecosystem.  He explains:

All humans tested everywhere in the world, including Indigenous peoples in the far north and plastic-free American Mennonites, carry chemicals in their bodies that originate in plastics. Flame retardants, phthalate esters, and other chemicals migrate from plastic products and accumulate in human and animal tissue.  The most recent Center for Disease Control count has more than 98% of Americans carrying a body burden of over 100 industrial chemicals…[and] even people who live largely plastic-free lives have constant levels of [BPA] in their bodies. Most of these pernicious chemicals are endocrine distributors, meaning they do not invade the body like a poison…but instead act just like a hormone, fully participating in endocrine systems that regulate puberty, fetal development, fertility, obesity, heart health, and countless other systems. It is difficult, and often impossible to scientifically differentiate between the body’s natural hormone activity and the effects of plastic chemicals.

This bit, this realization of all the ways that I’ve been infiltrated, not merely by the air, the chemicals in the environment (all things I knew already, thanks largely to Stacy Alaimo and others of her ilke), but by plastic itself.  I’d gotten seawater up my nose as a beautiful wave burst over me. I was standing in the surf right where the waves break, just so I could feel the power of the break smash over me and fling my body backward, helpless to resist. All I could think about was that along with the sand in my crevices and the salt in my nose, I now had microplastics lodged in my sinuses, which emanated a salty almost taste from a place that was almost in my mouth. How do I learn to live with that? How do I and plastic live together? How do I learn to live not just with the ocean, with the trees, with the whales and all the bits of the environment that are so easy to love, so fear and fight on behalf of, but their inevitable, monstrous, chimerical step-siblings: plastics?

That is a serious question. And one that needs all the power of all the greatest minds that humanity can muster to even begin to answer it.  But it needs more than smarts–more than science and engineering.  If human exceptionalism got us into this mess, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that it will get us out.  It won’t. There is no “solution.” Really, there is no “problem,” either.  There just is what is, and we either learn to live with it or we die. And so, I would say that all of our not inconsiderable intellectual prowess spent on learning how to live together–with each other, with the trees, with the ocean, with the plastics and petrochemicals–is not wasted.

But more than that, what we do together, what we have done together, and what we did this weekend, was no mere intellectualization.  It precisely was the kind of posthuman love-in of activist scholarship and anti-conference crafting of the critical/liberal arts that Babel was built to do.

And as I came down out of Mountain Pass, the dry lakebed on the Nevada/California border opened up its once watery flesh before me,Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 11.23.07 AM65527_10204752089309319_946308210547768034_nand I thought about how far this rabble had come. How great this conference on the edge of the world had been.  How nascent everything felt at the first one in Austin.  I reflected on the fact that I had submitted my proposal to Maggie and Karen’s panel “Transparent Things” on a lark.  “Non-traditional papers” you say? Why yes indeed.  How I had proposed to narrate my first encounter with medieval manuscripts (an event that hadn’t yet happened) as a kind of exhibitionist performance of touching the past. How Asa Mittman asked an absurd amount of questions afterward. How Karen’s comments on iconography had provoked a new thought for me on medieval image- and thing-making.  How the art historians welcomed me to lunch after the panel where the Material Collective was born.  About a kind of Art Historian’s BABEL, if you will.  I listened as they all told me about how tired they were of  Art History that makes no theoretical intervention, that has no stakes, that has no vitality sometimes.  I think how lucky I was to be an unsuspecting fly on the wall of the creation of this collective, now with over 697 facebook members (as of 11:33 am PDT on October 20, 2014), all because I had decided to write a paper about manuscripts that was little more than a long string of dirty jokes about manuscripts.

I think of what grew out of that conversation: Karen and Kathryn Smith helped the Medieval Forum rethink Iconography and Illumination at the 2nd annual Medieval Manuscripts Workshop at NYU, with comments from none other than J.G. Alexander himself.  I think about how Medieval Forum became what it was in large part to that workshop, which has grown every year. I think about Asa coming out to NYU for ASSC, a promise made at that lunch in Austin.  I think about the bizarre paper I gave turning into my first publication, in Transparent Things: A CabinetAnd I realize what I’ve been seeing: I’ve not just been seeing people work as a collective, I’ve been seeing them build a collective, from scratch (with little to no help from little ol’ me, I might add). A place where people–not just art historians–can be interested in medieval things, thinginess, and medievalyness (so say we all).

And then I realize that the MC itself is a thriving offshoot of a bigger project, a monumental undertaking by a handful of master masons and the governing genius of the Master Architect(s).  Babel itself was a resistance.  It was life on the edge: on the edge of the academy, specifically the medieval academy (not the Medieval Academy, per se, but them too). It was a group of bored and marginalized medievalists who were fed up with all the rules of the ivory tower.  What began as a furtive rebellion in the dark corners and secret closets of the institution–and the houses of ill repute that were adjacent to them–sparked a full-scale rebellion with anti-traditionalist iconoclasts riding through the temples of historicism and smashing the faces off their idols.  What started as a bunch of punk vandalists turned into a movement: Occupy the Academy.

But so many marginal movements, when they get mainstreamed, when they build momentum, they simply become the institution that they fought so hard to resist.  They are a subculture that gets assimilated for capitalist gains; or they are a revolution that topples the government only to become a new “MAN”–meet the new boss, same as the old boss, where the parting on the left has become the parting on the right; they are the soldiers who lose their fight because there is no more institution to resist.  But how can a movement pick up the momentum it so desires without losing its soul? By building.

And that, more than anything, is what BABEL has been doing.  Defying the orders from on high, they have been building their own tower.  They have desired to touch the sky, to become gods, not to rule the world, but in order to work together to make a future where we can all–human and non-human alike–live together.  They have been building, they have been working, crafting, cutting, carving, setting one stone on top of another, one movement, one conference, one honest boozing at a time. WE have been building.  For that’s the great glory of Babel.   2014-10-20 11.57.37

Mankind simply desired to reach heaven, to achieve it here on earth. They learned how to make brick and mortar, and they learned how to put them together.  They learned how to cooperate, to achieve one vision, to shape their own future from the mud of the very earth they were bound to.  And what was it that scared the powers on high?  That they would reach heaven? That they dared to do so? Honestly, I never understood this story as a kid.  It always seemed so triumphant–mankind desired to be like god (a desire well-redeemed in other places), so they worked together, they learned, they cooperated, and how were they rewarded? God saw their cooperation, and it seems he was afraid. He said (in words I pull from the family Bible sitting in my parents’ living room near me), 2014-10-20 11.58.00

“the people is one…and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.”

And so he made it impossible for them to communicate, to collaborate, to build together. When they couldn’t articulate their shared vision, they stopped building.  It doesn’t say that the Lord broke the Tower; they just “left off building” and were scattered by the insurmountable abyss of language that had been placed between them.

Our postmedieval BABEL, then, has taken up the project after the scattering of languages and disciplines and fields and periods. It picks up the bricks, and it spans the distances that divide us.  It brings us together like so many grains of sand on the beach, that assemble themselves into castles. And this is the point of this long reflection–from a long drive down out of the mountains into the desert: to continue to resist, we must build.

Ten years ago, five women sat in a bar in Kalamazoo and wondered why medieval studies were so boring, why they had to be so uptight, why people clung to their disciplinary rigor like a life raft in a sea of meaninglessness, why we had to be so responsible to the dead white men–the authors and their critics…to Skeat and Kane as much as to Langland. And when they’d had enough, their talk, their words, their idle babble built something.  It built a community, a shared affinity for each other based on their resistance to the ivory tower as usual.  That affinity took root, it self-propogated in an autopoeitic intellectual movement that spread wherever the wind of other frustrated, disillusioned, or disenfranchised voices carried it.

And this is what BABEL’s critical liberal arts is about: BUILDING and CREATING, not merely sitting around, idly talking, or worse yet, tearing down with the sanctioned force of Crrrrritique! behind us. We are crafting: crafting conferences, crafting environments, crafting conversations.  But more than that, we are creating art, collecting for exhibits, setting dinner tables, and writing new myths through pirate performances (no, literally).  Marina’s manga is an artistic rendering of the life we lead in plastic–it is a creative expression of the state of the Plasicence.  Dear Climate is an art and yoga practice that makes us mindful of our new reality. We are building a new measuring “apparatus” in a tehcnoscientific discourse that allows us to make things matter in the material-discursive signifying register; that allows us to make things legible that have been relegated to a nondescript, non-agential, passive backdrop for the meteoric rise of HUMANITY and its valorization in Humanism.  We are building a community, an awareness, and a new world altogether through our art, our science, our words.


As I finished my short reverie on Leadbetter beach, I walked over to the outdoor showers where someone complemented my hair, and another person struck up a conversation about how warm the ocean water was.  It turned into a conversation about the ocean itself, and the state of it.  These two recreational beach-goers in Santa Barbara were as concerned as we all were about their life on the edge.  They, more than me, were a people of the ocean.  It was in their skin, in their hair, their speech, their way of life.  They felt deeply for it, and mourned its illness that they felt helpless to cure. I commented that we’d just finished a conference about the Precaricity of the Ocean here at UCSB, and they were so surprised and pleased.  I told them of some of the conversations that we–medievalists, artists, poets, carnivalesque intellectuals–were having, or trying to have.  I said my goodbyes by saying that they were welcome to be in touch, to find out more about what we were doing and left them with my conference program, in case they wanted to know more–about the conference, the people working on it, or anything else we’d done.  I pointed them in particular to Marina’s manga and her work with Una on dearclimate.net. I told them they could find any of the books available for free downloading on the internet.  I said, we want people to know, we want them to care, and we want them to take our stuff. They were thrilled to learn that they didn’t have to buy, didn’t have to invest, didn’t have to pay for access to all the great things we were doing.  In essence, I shared our stoke with them, and they were stoked in turn. We may have been three tiny grains of sand on a beach, or three indistinct drops in an ocean, but as most of us now know, even the smallest of things–when working in concert–begin to matter together.


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