2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university

20-23 September 2012

Boston, Massachusetts

[co-organized by the BABEL Working Group, Boston College, Northeastern University, M.I.T., postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and punctum books]

Figure 1. David Fried, Way of Words, No. 3: “A mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.”


Jane Bennett (Chair, Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University), author of Thoreau's Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (1994), The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, Ethics (2001), and Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010).

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University, Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute + In The Middle), author and editor of Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (1999), The Postcolonial Middle Ages (2000), Medieval Identity Machines (2003), Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: Of Difficult Middles (2006), Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England (2008), and recent recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for his project, Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages.

Carolyn Dinshaw (Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and English at New York University), author of Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (1989), Getting Medieval: Sexualities and  Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999), and How Soon Is Now? Problems of the Present, Medieval and Modern (forthcoming from Duke University Press), which looks directly at the experience of time itself, as it is represented in medieval works and as it is experienced in readers of those works. She was also the founding editor, along with David Halperin, of GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton (Director, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution for Science), former Assoc. Professor of Geology at M.I.T., Assoc. Editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, and currently working on NSF-funded projects on continental dynamics (Siberian Flood Basalts and the end-Permian Extinction) and on the chemistry and physics that control planetary evolution in the first tens of millions of years of the solar system. She has also been involved in spacecraft missions, including the SAGE Venus lander and the International Lunar Network.

David Kaiser (Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and Department Head of MIT's Program in Science, M.I.T.), author of the award-winning book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (2005) and How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011), which charts the early history of Bell's theorem and quantum entanglement. His edited volumes include Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (2005), and Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision (2010). He is presently completing a book entitled American Physics and the Cold War Bubble.

Marget Long (MFA, Rhode Island School of Design) works with photographs, video, and text to explore questions of historiography, representation and the physical experience of photography itself. Her work has been screened and exhibited at Anthology Film Archives, Exit Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Contemporary Artists Center, Cinders, American Cinémathèque, DGA Video in Los Angeles, and in a solo show at Safe-T Gallery in Brooklyn. Recent projects include A Daguerreotype Sideways: Re-Visiting Mathew Brady's Studio @ 359 Broadway, 2009-2011 and Bad Light.

Sans façon (Glasgow, Scotland), a collaborative art practice between French architect Charles Blanc and British artist Tristan Surtees who undertake diverse projects, both temporary and permanent, predominantly exploring the complex relationship between people and place.

Thus I propose an abandonment of disciplinary grounding but an abandonment that retains as structurally essential the question of the disciplinary form that can be given to knowledges. This is why the university should not exchange the rigid and outmoded disciplines for a simply amorphous interdisciplinary space in the humanities (as if we could still organize knowledge around the figure of “Man”). Rather, the loosening of disciplinary structures has to be made the opportunity for the installation of disciplinarity as a permanent question. . . . [which would] keep open the question of what it means to group knowledges in certain ways, and what it has meant that they have been so grouped in the past. —Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

We all know what severe pressures the University is under today—economic, social, and cultural—pressures that have led to a certain amount of disciplinary hand-wringing and jockeying in relation to the practical “use-value” (or valuable non-practicality) of some disciplines and fields versus others. Some have argued that disciplinary security is best assured when disciplines merge with each other and form new, cross-disciplinary alliances. And while faculty both distance themselves from and ally with each other over these matters, university administrators and state legislatures are de-funding departments and programs, weakening general education curricula, and undermining faculty governance of the University’s mission and programs of study. In his book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argued “the University’s ruins offer us an institution in which the incomplete and interminable nature of the pedagogic relation can remind us that ‘thinking together’ is a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than dialogue.” And what might be needed now is

not a generalized interdisciplinary space but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed so as not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine. Rather, disciplinary structures would be forced to answer to the name of Thought, to imagine what kinds of thinking they make possible, and what kinds of thinking they exclude. (Readings, The University in Ruins, p.176)

So, let’s not be interdisciplinary for a moment, nor necessarily anti-disciplinary. Let’s re-sound our disciplinary wells, while also, inevitably, bumping into each other and occasionally hooking up, like Democritus’s atoms. Holding on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger, let’s cruise each other. Let’s swerve, without steering, through the movement-filled “void” that is the university, cyberspace, society, the world. Atoms, monads, particles, singularities, seeds, souls, kernels, cells, events, appearances — gathering in molecules, crowds, assemblages, drifts, swarms, parliaments, strikes, clouds, hives, cascades, collisions, waves, one-night stands, spontaneous acts of metempsychosis, a fine spray of perfume through the atomizer, hanging in the night air. ATOM is from the Greek “atomos,” meaning “uncuttable” — don’t cut our budgets, don’t try to reduce us any further, to liquidate and consolidate what we do. We’re what’s irreducible in the university — so many modes and methods of being and acting, of chemical reaction, of natality, of swerve. As Lucretius tells us, the detritus of destroyed objects is the atomic dust that gives rise to all things. In 2010 we convened “after the end” of the post-catastrophe of everything. In 2012 we’re meeting in the post-post-catastrophe dust, to reassert the atomic weight of our respective fields, disciplines, and methods and, of course, to give rise to new things.

We are often tempted to demonstrate what the humanities can do for the sciences, and what the sciences can do for the humanities, but the 2012 Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, “cruising in the ruins,” proposes that the question NOT be, “How can the sciences be more humanistic?” or, “How can the humanities be improved through science” (the “merger” or “inter-” approach). Rather, how can we reconstitute our atomized projects in new ways as we collectively rethink the stamp, the style, the value of distinct disciplinary approaches to common concerns and questions, while also cruising each other's “bodies” of knowledge?

We seek medievalists, humanists of all stripes, scientists, social scientists, and artists to experiment with performing their respective methods in proximity to one another. This is a speculative practice because, despite being uncuttable or irreducible, we’re falling through space and time, falling into one another, and always in the process of swerving. What we do next is uncharted. So let’s not reduce disciplinary difference to one yawning crack between the humanities and the sciences. The divisions of disciplinary knowledge are legion and manifold, capillaried and filigreed. The idea is to have a conference in which disciplinary and field differences are sharpened as we converge on shared objects, subjects, terms, genres, tools, materials, concerns, methods, and approaches:

archive, body/embodiment, crux, gene, map, matter/hyle, memory, mind/mentality, museum, narrative, relic, trope, record, life, bios/zoê, surface/plane, autopoesis, geometry, encyclopedia, gender, trial, principle, disease, parasite, immanence, physics/physis, adaptation, speed, study, laboratory, element, animal, angel, posthuman, experiment, species, reproduction, genius, ledger, laboratory, classification, tool, semblance, earth/ground, recess, affect, demon, ontogeny, machine, deconstruction, ipseity, fold, frame, collective/assemblage, trans-, virus/viral, architecture, vein, geometry, depth, creature/creaturely, camera, set, ecology, dwarf, outside, exemplarity, network, cyborg, proof, book, time, immunity, web, surplus, logic, force, mesh, neighbor, environment, planet, contingency, psyche, liminal, digital, mineral, haeccity, architecture, ghost, word, page, pocket, artifice/artificial, humanism, dream, sovereignty, calculus, program, animate/inanimate, monster, residual/remainder, complexity, code, case study, plant, waste, anomaly, queer, being, speculum/mirror, form, intelligence, star, thing, self-organizing, space, dualism, history, abstract, image, person/homunculus, media, metaphysics, dynamism, tradition/history, organic/inorganic, vitalism, computer, prosthesis, wild/wilderness, perspective, velocity, avatar, chart, virtual, liquid, theorem, random, splicing, techne/technology, sex, chaos, etcetera.

The university and the disciplines traversing it (and the disciplines traversed by the university as super-structure) are phenomena with medieval roots and uncertain futures. Medieval university studies were ostensibly contained by the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), but the meanings of, and divisions between, these subjects were under constant interrogation and revision, even as older, newer, and alternate designations (dialectic, philosophy, theology, natural science, forensic, polemic, etc.) continually remade, and eventually unmade, the traditional taxonomies. “cruising in the ruins” seeks to engage both the architectonics and mobility of knowledge; the cleavages between ways of knowing; the impurities of cross-contamination between disciplines and fields and temporalities; the threat/promise of post/humanism and the post/humanities; the shape(s) of disciplinary crisis today; the aesthetics of scholarship; discipline & pleasure (and pain); the secession or amputation or orphaning of the humanities; how to foment disciplinary glamour; what the Situationists can tell us about pedagogy; DIY medievalist agitprop; the personifications of knowledge; intra-university affects; town and gown; the reservoirs of metaphors in other people’s jargon; what the “uni-” in “university” and “universe” might mean; what the “after” in “after inter-disciplinarity” might portend; what misfit heterotopias might be possible in a new multiversity; what the “cruising” in “cruising in the ruins” might invite.

Think about sessions as working groups, as demonstrations, speculations, drag shows, hypotheses, clinical trials, love letters, conservatories, plea bargains, theorems, performances, séances, salons, discographies, bills of sale, slams, manifestos, postcards, recording sessions, lab reports, embassies, mash-ups, and other experiments that aspire to make strange or re-estrange the chosen object of study via close-reading or any other techne currently practiced or yet-to-be-imagined: distance studies, the new materialism, materialist history, a demography of things, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, deconstruction, networkologies, genome mapping, hermeneutics, discontinuist histories, hypothesis, post-historicism, carnal phenomenology, vibrant materialism, guerilla metaphysics, morphology, Latourian sociology, anachronism, case study, queer touching, taxonomies, machine reading, dark ecology, eliminative nihilism, erotohistoriography, the fine arts, philology, science-technology studies, rhetorical readings, codicology, thin and thick description, flat ontology, new scholasticism, ludology, etc. — and let’s not forget the nominalists. And when in doubt, consult Bruce Mau's Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.

Please send us e-proposals for sessions by 15 December 2011 to Kathleen Kelly and Eileen Joy at: babel.conference@gmail.com. Our goal is to offer a variety of presentation and performance formats—anything but the standard panel with 20-minute papers, please. Sessions of 4-5 papers at no more than 10 minutes apiece would be ideal, but we’re open to any number of configurations that can be imagined. In your proposal, provide a title, name(s) and contact information of organizer(s), and a 250-500-word description of the session's aims, objectives, and format.

Conference Committee: Arthur Bahr (M.I.T.), Erika Boeckeler (Northeastern University), Alexis Kellner Becker (Harvard University), Diana Henderson (M.I.T.), Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), Kathleen Kelly (Northeastern University), Marina Leslie (Northeastern University), Julie Orlemanski (Boston College), Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), and Robert Stanton (Boston College).

The intimacy with an unknown body is the revelation of . . . distance at the very moment we appear to be crossing an uncrossable interval. Otherness, unlocatable within differences that can be known and enumerated, is made concrete in the eroticized touching of a body without attributes. A non-masochistic jouissance (one that owes nothing to the death drive) is the sign of that nameless, identity-free contact — contact with an object I do not know and certainly do not love and which has, unknowingly, agreed to be momentarily the incarnated shock of otherness. In that moment we relate to that which transcends all relations. —Leo Bersani, “Sociability and Cruising”

The BABEL Working Group, founded in 2004, is a collective and desiring-assemblage of scholars (primarily medievalists, but also persons working in other areas, such as early modern and Victorian studies, critical and cultural theory, film and women’s studies, critical sexuality studies, and so on) in North America, the U.K., Australia, and beyond who are working to develop new cross-disciplinary alliances between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts in order to formulate and practice new ‘critical humanisms,’ as well as to develop a more present-minded medieval studies, a more historically-minded cultural studies, and a new misfit multiversity.

Figure 2. David Fried, Way of Words, No. 1 : “Lose your mind so you have something to find.”