Please re-direct your browsers there; the site here serves as the online archive of the activities of BABEL from 2004 through July 2011.
a simulacrum of an early warning system
[BABEL = broken.archival.bildungs.excavated_from_the.long-ago]*
*you don't really believe that's our acronym, do you? we don't believe in acronyms
Figure 1. folio 5v of 14th-c. Egerton Genesis (British Library, Egerton MS. 1894)
Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
(The Red Queen to Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland)
Perseverance is more prevailing than violence; and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little.
(Plutarch, Life of Sertorius)
But when we sit together, close . . . we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an insubstantial territory.
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves)
just get yourself high
(Chemical Brothers, "Get Yourself High")
The BABEL Working Group is a non-hierarchical scholarly collective and post-institutional assemblage with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom, and only a middle. Membership in the BWG carries with it no fees, no obligations, and no hassles, and accrues to its members all the symbolic capital they need for whatever meanings they require. BABEL's chief commitment is the cultivation of a more mindful “being-together” with others who work alongside us in the ruined towers of the post-historical university. BABEL roams and stalks these ruins as a multiplicity, a pack, not of subjects but of singularities without identity or unity, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit and build glittering misfit heterotopias. We seek to build desiring-machines for which no “join” that can be thought is overlooked, and in which “joins” a more capacious and generous humanism might arrive, and if only briefly, come to dwell in the queer space that is among us.
More conventionally, the BABEL Working Group, founded in 2004, is a collective and desiring-assemblage of scholars (primarily medievalists, but also including 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 among 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 and a more historically-minded cultural studies.
ITEM #1: The BABEL Journal
Everyone is reading postmedieval:
A note of thanks to all who made this journal possible: "On Natality and the As If"
Follow postmedieval on Twitter!
ITEM #2: punctum books
punctum books is an open-access and print-on-demand independent publisher dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage. We specialize in neo-traditional and non-conventional scholarly work that productively twists and/or ignores academic norms, with an emphasis on books that fall length-wise between the article and the monograph—id est, novellas, in one sense or another. This is a space for the imp-orphans of your thought and pen, an ale-serving church for little vagabonds. See full press release release, including vision statement and editorial board, HERE.
Follow punctum books on Twitter!
ITEM #3: The BABEL Manifestos-cum-Love Letters [It is understood that BABEL's Manifestos-cum-Love Letters collectively represent ongoing whimsical hopes and dead-serious aims articulated in the shifting sands of specific times and places; each document here arrives with the codicil, “In whatever time you are reading this, the author of this document wishes she had known then what she knows now.”]
ITEM#4: The BABEL Theme Song: An Imaginary Mash-Up Between Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy" and Oasis, "Champagne Supernova"
ITEM #5: The BABEL YouTube Video: Keepon and Spoon, "I Turn My Camera On"
ITEM #6: BABEL & Tiny Shriner Adoration Society Paraphernalia [follow 2nd link below for "BabelWorkingGroup" in order to view all available items]
ITEM #7: The BABEL Piggy-BankFor the most part, BABEL runs on martinis, WD-40, ramen, loose change, the kindness of strangers, old Talking Heads albums, matches, a glitter ball, and chewing gum. But every now and then, we appreciate whatever donations our members and friends may be willing to spare. Whatever donations BABEL receives are used specifically to help us defray: a) travel expenses for graduate students to participate in BABEL-sponsored conference events; b) travel expenses for featured speakers in BABEL-sponsored conference sessions and other events, such as BABEL's newly-inaugurated biennial conference (see below); c) operating expenses associated with BABEL-sponsored conferences and other symposia, such as those related to our Speculative Medievalisms project (see below); d) costs associated with BABEL-sponsored social events (such as our annual party held at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan each May). Donations can be made through Paypal by following the "Donate" button above, or you can make a contribution the old-fashioned way by sending a check made out to "BABEL Working Group" to: Myra Seaman, Treasurer, BABEL Working Group, c/o Department of English, College of Charleston, 26 Glebe Street, Charleston, SC 29424.
ITEM #8: Past Events & Ongoing Projects
Figure 2. Rose Street Market, Kalamazoo (postmedieval launch party, May 2010)
a. an online list-serv (email@example.com), which is a "news-only" list-serv, where members can stay informed of BABEL's current projects, upcoming plans, calls for assistance and heresy, etc. Those interested in being added to the list-serv should contact Eileen Joy at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
b. the launch, via medieval trebuchet, of a BABEL Working Group pumpkin (go here for video of launched BABEL pumpkin, which, we are pleased to say, flew in the opposite direction of where it was intended to fly--somehow, this just seems right).
c. streaming intellectual-gangster collaborations with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University), Mary Kate Hurley (Columbia University), and Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY) on the medieval studies group weblog In The Middle, and with Noreen Giffney and Michael O'Rourke of The(e)ories: Critical Theory & Sexuality Studies.
d. interlinked round-table discussion sessions at medieval and non-medieval conferences (regional, national, and international), featuring dialogue between medieval and more modernist scholars (and also scientists) on various "states" of the field(s), and also on post/humanisms, biopolitics, embodiments, affectivties, poethics, and any rabbit holes we find we have recently fallen into (follow links below for more details regarding individual participants, titles of papers, and in some cases, full texts of papers):
e. the publication of the edited volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (Palgrave Macmillan, New Middle Ages series, December 2007)
f. a special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory (vol. 37.2), "Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project," co-edited by Eileen Joy and Christine Neufeld (Summer 2007)
g. a regular column, edited by Eileen Joy, in The Heroic Age, "babelisms" [premiering with Issue 11: Spring 2008]
h. the co-sponsoring, with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Saint Louis University, of the 34th Annual Southeastern Medieval Association Meeting, 2-4 October 2008:
i. a book volume, Fragments Toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism [under review at Ohio State University Press for the series, Interventions: Studies in Medieval Culture]
j. a National Endowment for the Humanities [N.E.H.] Faculty Humanities Workshops Grant, "Premodern Humanisms, Modern Sciences, and the Posthuman Humanities" [submitted September 2007; not funded]
k. "The Multiple Histories of Virtue," a grant proposal to the University of Chicago's Arete Initiative project, "A New Science of Virtues" [submitted jointly by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Eileen Joy, Jessica Palmer, and Jonah Lehrer; March 2009]
l. The First Biennial BABEL Conference: after the end: medieval studies, the humanities, and the post-catastrophe [4-6 November 2010; University of Texas at Austin]:
m. "Speculative Medievalisms: A Laboratory-Atelier I," co-sponsored with Urbanomic and the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King's College London [14 January 2011; Anatomy Theatre & Museum]
n. "Speculative Medievalisms 2: A Laboratory-Atelier II," co-sponsored with The Graduate Center, City University of New York [16 September 2011; Segal Theater, The Graduate Center, CUNY]
o. The Second Biennial BABEL Conference: cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university [20-23 September 2012; Boston, Massachusetts]
Figure 3. the cover photo for BABEL's first album when it makes one
Official BABEL Poem
"Babel" by Rae Armantrout
(from Versed, winner of the 2010 Pultizer Prize; reprinted here with permission of the author)
"Let us go down
and confuse their language
so we may distinguish
from our thoughts."
Could it be true
that the baby is afraid
to gobble us up
has been realized
Hard to say
since we've thrown our voice
into the future
and the past.
ITEM #9: The History, Part I
The first spark of the fire of the BABEL Working Group was lit at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Diego, California (2003) when Eileen Joy was wandering through the book exhibits and stumbled across the Winter 2003 edition of the journal Critical Inquiry, which featured the statements presented by twenty-seven of North America's finest scholars of criticism and theory at Critical Inquiry's 11-12 April 2003 symposium (held in Chicago), which had been organized, in the words of W.J.T. Mitchell, "to discuss the future of the journal and of the interdisciplinary fields of criticism and theory that it addresses." No academic papers were presented, only short statements that were submitted and circulated among the speakers weeks in advance of the symposium, so that the entire affair could be constructed as a critical conversation. The symposium was divided into two sessions: a public "town meeting" that was attended by approximately 550 people from the academic communities of Chicago and beyond, and the event was covered by major newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and a closed meeting of the board and editors, which was itself subdivided into sessions on theory, politics, and technology. In his original "Call for Statements," Mitchell indicated that the journal was interested in creating a forum whereby the editors could "spend two days brainstorming about the possible, probable, and desirable futures of criticism and theory in the human sciences." Further, Mitchell asked the following questions: "What transformations in research paradigms are on the horizon? How will technology change the transmission and production of knowledge? What will be the fate of the humanities, of literature, the arts, and philosophy, in what is widely hearlded as a posthuman age? How will the very notions of criticism and critique change in the epoch and in the current state of perpetual crisis and emergency? What will be the relation of the coming criticism to politics and public life?" Mitchell also provided five suggestions around which respondents could possibly frame their statements:
After the symposium, in his preface to the volume of Critical Inquiry in which the symposium's proceedings were published (v. 30, no. 2 [Winter 2003]), Mitchell commented on the fact that, at the time of the symposium (earlier that spring), the U.S. war on Iraq had just been launched, despite the massive public protests against it--national and international--which raised even more questions for Mitchell, such as, "What can criticism and theory do to counteract the forces of militarism, unilateralism, and the perpetual state of emergency that is now the explicit policy of the U.S. government? What good is intellectual work in the face of the deeply anti-intellectual ethos of American public life . . . . What can the relatively weak power of critical theory do in such a crisis? How can one take Edward Said's advice and speak truth to power when power refuses to listen, when it actively suppresses and intimidates dissenters, when it systematically lies and exaggerates to mobilize popular support for its agenda, when it uses slogans like 'war on terror' to abrogate the civil liberties of its own citizens?" In short, in Mitchell's mind, Critical Inquiry's symposium on the so-called "crisis of theory" was happening in "a moment of profound political anxiety." Eileen felt that this special issue of Critical Inquiry was nothing less than important, but she also wondered, where were the medievalists in this conversation? How could questions concerning the fate of the humanities, literary studies, philosophy, and even the "human person" be debated and ruminated without the medievalists (or without the early modernists and the classicists, for that matter--well, okay, Stanley Fish is kind of an early modernist, but . . .)? While Eileen has always been passionate about the ethico-politics of literary (and, cultural) studies, she is also mindful of the wisdom in Stanley Fish's comment at the symposium that, "politics do not require our professional assistance; texts do." Maybe literary criticism was never meant to be "revolutionary"; at the same time, hasn't the realm of the aesthetic, historically, always been the refuge par excellence for wildly subversive gestures, and even, for the "playing" out of the possibilities of alternative pasts and futures? Is the aesthetic realm also not the site where history is registered in slow time? If we wanted a "history" of such notions, of such registers, we would need the medievalists, wouldn't we? In fact, if even the question of history matters in this debate, don't we need the medievalists (or the premodernists more broadly)? Yeah, we do.
Figure 4. Fridgehenge (Sante Fe, New Mexico)
ITEM #10: The History, Part II
As some already know, Eileen is fond of the website, Edge, which represents the online home of The Reality Club, a somewhat loose confederation (or "informal club") of some of the most well-known figures in the sciences and the arts, such as Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Elaine Pagels, among many others, whose motto is, "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves." John Brockman, one of the founders, along with the late Heinz Pagels, is especially interested in promulgating Edge as "The Third Culture," an outgrowth of the idea, in Brockman's words, that "A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s." The Third Culture is partly an extension of C.P. Snow's book The Two Cultures, in which he argued that, some time in the 1930s, literary intellectuals split off from the scientists and created a culture of intellectual letters that effectively did not consider how various scientists, such as Norbert Weiner or Werner Heisenberg, might contribute to the current cultural dialogue and debate. In his second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow suggested, in Brockman's words, "that a new culture, "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists." Brockman somewhat demurs with Snow's prediction because, as he puts it, "Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists," and further, "Scientists are communicating directly with the general public." According to Brockman, whereas academic humanities discourses have become "the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class," contemporary scientific discourses "affect the lives of everybody on the planet." Brockman's statements may be ultimately unfair to contemporary humanities scholarship and also hyperbolic regarding the public impact of certain esoteric science discourses, but nevertheless, he and his cohorts have created, through the conversations published on Edge and The Reality Club's commissioned lecture series (videos and texts of which are also available on Edge), an energetic and not-to-be-missed forum for exploring what Brockman has termed the most important themes of the post-industrial age. For 2006, Edge posed the question, formulated by Steven Pinker:
WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
Over 119 brief essays, written by Edge's contributors, have already been written in reponse to the above question, and can be accessed here. It's heady and exciting reading and one should beware of the possible loss of cabin pressure. The responses range from the musing of Clay Shirky that, "In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable," to Sherry Turkle's idea that, "After several generations of living in the computer culture, simulation will become fully naturalized. Authenticity in the traditional sense loses its value, a vestige of another time." Regarding Edge's annual questions, BBC Radio 4 reported that they are "Fantastically stimulating . . . It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world. . . . Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." The crack cocaine of the thinking world. Eileen does not believe that humanities intellectuals should turn away from science when asking "the big questions" (and . . . have they really done this?--much recent work in the humanities would indicate otherwise), but neither does she want the scientists believing they have an obligation to take the important socio-cultural conversations away from intellectuals whose work, in Brockman's words, "is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real gets lost." Brockman's just plain mean and wrong here, but one can't deny that the contributors to Edge, mainly scientists, are asking (and attempting to answer) the most important intellectual (and more practical) questions of the twenty-first century, and once again, Eileen felt, where were the medievalists in this conversation? Further, Eileen also posed the more dangerous question to herself: what if medieval studies could be the crack cocaine of the thinking world?
Figure 5. BABEL Graffitti at Taylor Grocery & Restaurant in Oxford, MS (October 2006)
ITEM #11: The Tim Spence Experiment
Figure 6. the official BABEL album
ITEM #12: The History, Part III, and Something Like a Mission Statement
Figure 7. Found artifacts from a late night at the Meantime Lounge
Picture, if you will, a late night at the Meantime Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina, some time in 2004, shortly after the MLA meeting in San Diego. Eileen Joy and Betsy McCormick are drinking, for no apparent purpose other than drinking's sake, multiple "Mandinas," a concoction of bourbon, Grand Marnier, and gee, we forget what else. It's funny, but after a lot of liquor in a bar in a town where the ghosts of Black Mountain College are always hovering nearby, one begins to see things and have visions. With the kind of courage one often finds at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, Eileen and Betsy began fomenting the idea of a scholarly collective that could provide a home for the kind of work we wanted to do in medieval studies--on that night in particular, that meant writing essays about surfing and Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (Betsy) and about suicide terrorism and Beowulf (Eileen). But what else? How could we work on creating new venues--an online journal? conference sessions? a series of connected conference sessions around the world? an entirely new anti-conference conference? special symposia? a biennial scholarly retreat? a scholarly love-in? N.E.H.-sponsored faculty workshops? small print-run scholarly "novella" chapbooks? performance art-style "events"? experimental films?--for a medieval scholarship with a decidedly presentist- and cultural studies-type focus (heavily inspired by the Annalistes in France and their ideas regarding the "longue duree," "whole histories," heterogeneity, and the history of mentalities) and that is also intent on levelling traditional chronologies, "periods," disciplinary boundaries, and temporalities? How could we also work to promote scholarly work that is political in nature, in the sense that Simon During, Stuart Hall, and other British cultural theorists have described under the rubric of "engaged cultural studies"-- engaged, moreover, with public intellectual discourses already in progress? Finally, 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. It was (and is) our feeling that many of the debates currently ongoing between the modernists, and between the scientists, regarding such subjects as "the future of literary studies" or "the future of the human," could benefit immeasurably from the "long" (or, "longer") historical perspectives of premodern studies, and moreover, premodern studies could benefit by being, not merely poachers of contemporary critical thought, but one of its many co-agitators. 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.
After many fits and starts and retreads, and the launching of two volumes of essays co-edited by founding BABEL members (The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook and Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages), it was decided that we should have particular emphases (or pointed questions) which we would dedicate ourselves to over extended periods of time. After some debate and discussion we settled on the topics of corporality, affect, posthumanism(s), and biopolitics, to which we plan to devote ourselves for quite some time (possibly forever). Here's why:
In recent years, there has been a growing body of discussion and literature on corporality and the so-called crisis of the category "human," both in modern and medieval studies, and while medievalists have often taken their cues in this field of research from modern theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guttari, Judith Butler, Thomas Lacqueur, Michel Foucault, and the like, with the sole exception of what has become a kind of de riguer nod to the work of Peter Brown and Caroline Walker Bynum, modern theorists rarely turn to premodern studies for insights into questions revolving around what the sociologist Bryan S. Turner has called the "sociology of the body" and what many scholars are now terming "the turn to the body." In fact, in The Hedgehog Review (the journal of the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia), in a special issue devoted to "The Body and Being Human" (Summer 2001), Jeffrey D. Tatum indicates that "Interest in the interplay between body and society has a long history," by which he means, it begins with thinkers like Marx, Engels, Weber, and Freud. Further, in the bibliography appended to Tatum's essay that highlights the supposedly best and most important scholarly work devoted to the human body since the 1960s, not a single work from classical or medieval studies is included. And yet, in recent years there has been an explosion in medieval studies in work on corporality, "humanness," and the sociology of the body, and it would be an immense undertaking to list all of the titles here. How, we asked ourselves, might "the turn to corporality" in premodern studies join "the turn to the posthuman" in more modern studies, in order to help modern ideas regarding the human body "turn" once again, toward "history," and by implication, toward a deeper (if irregular) temporality? Much of the contemporary debates over "the posthuman turn" have mainly focused on the ways in which new biotechnologies and new findings in cognitive and neuro-sciences have complicated how we conceptualize and enact our "human" identities, and have also ushered in the language of "crisis" over the supposed destabilization of the category "human," in its biological, social, and political aspects. [This same "posthuman turn" has also, in some science circles, led to the language of giddiness and elation over all the ways in which we--whatever "we" might be--might finally be able to escape or transcend the death-haunted "trap" of our corporal bodies.] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has argued, provocatively, that the Middle Ages were already posthuman, for it was a period fascinated with composite and monstrous bodies, and with the transformations between human and inhuman, corporal and more abstract substances, and there are a multiplicity of medieval texts which demonstrate that, even in the Middle Ages, human identity was--"despite the best efforts of those who possess it to assert otherwise--unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous" (Medieval Identity Machines, p. xxiii). In addition to creating some new bridges for medievalists and scholars working in more modern fields to converse with each other about corporality and posthumanity, we also decided that we wanted to address one area that has been seriously "un-plumbed" in relation to all this: how the various discourses--within the humanities and the sciences--might ultimately impact upon how we define what we mean by "the humanities" and what we think "the humanities" is, or should, be for? Therefore, we formulated the following questions as jumping-off points for further discussion:
Figure 8. abandoned hotel in San-chih, nort coast of Taiwan
ITEM #13: The Site of Perpetual Addenda to our History and Mission
Addendum #1: A brief word regarding IDEOLOGY: at the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, held on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan from May 4-7, 2006, the question was raised by one of our "humanisms" round-table participants whether or not he was really "arguing against us," and why, therefore, did we want him as part of our group? It has to be stated unequivocally that BABEL has NO coherent ideology, only a passion for certain questions--as in, what is the future of the humanities, and what is at stake in either having or not having a humanities in the future? If we have one philosophy at all it is to devote ourselves endlessly to proposing all the possible answers without ever exhausting the political energy of the questions. Indeed, we seek to keep our primary terms--"human," "humanism," "the humanities"--perpetually open as sites of investigation and analysis. But even beyond that, to keep asking, insistently, and to never want to stop asking the question of "being-together" together--that is our chief raison d'etre, our philosophy, our ideology, our mission. And that brings us, also, to why we chose the name "BABEL"--because we embrace the idea of a multi-perspectivist, multi-voiced, babble-icious scholarship. BABEL roams and stalks as a multiplicity, a pack, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit. In this sense, we seek to build desiring-machines for which no "join" that can be thought is withheld from our embrace. This does not mean, however, that we advocate an "anything goes" morally vacuous pluralism (although "pluralists" we most decidedly are), so:
In addition to all of the serious ideas and objectives narrated above, part of BABEL's mission is also to try and insert the ideas of humaneness and playfulness into our profession [which partly follows from Betsy's continual question: why aren't the humanities more humane?]. We want BABEL to be a space within which the cultivation of the person and affective amity matter more than purely academic questions or status, and to that end, we refuse negation, arrogance, posturing, snobbery, false modesty, and every other tried-and-true technique for the inducement of academic anxiety, intellectual homicide, and self-loathing. Further, BABEL is interested in exploring what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called "two images circulating in political and social theory. The first is the image of modernity as disenchanted, that is to say, as a place of dearth and alienation (when compared to a golden age of community and cosmological coherency) or a place of reason, freedom, and control (when compared to a dark and confused premodernity" (The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, p. 3). For Bennett, it is important to investigate the history of these two images and also to locate in modernity "sites of enchantment" because "affective attachments" to the world and "the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life" (p. 3). According to Bennett, "Enchantment is something that we can encounter, that hits us, but it is also a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies. One of those strategies might be to give greater expression to the sense of play, another to hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things" (p. 4). Following Bennett, BABEL seeks to deliberately formulate and practice strategies for an "enamored" and affectively engaged scholarship and also to cultivate, with and for each other, sites of enchantment. And on this note, see also:
"Here Now Is one Who Will Increase Our Loves: On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities" (yet another BABEL manifesto)
Figure 9. Betsy M. and Karl S. sing "Careless Whispers" (Kalamazoo 2008)
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.
Addendum #2: For a somewhat bracing dialogue and debate over the subject of "What's Real? Does What We Do [humanities study/theory] Matter?" between Eileen Joy, Jeffrey Cohen, Karl Steel, and Anonymous in Austin, TX [also known as Emile Blauche] and various other persons on the medieval studies group weblog, "In The Middle," follow the links below to the various parts of the conversation, which unfolded, in fits and starts, over late May through October, 2006 [and for all we know, may still continue]. This conversation has important implications, we believe, for further developing BABEL's mission:
Part I: The Shock of Recognition
Part II: The Spectral Jew
Part III: Reply to Emile Blauche
Part IV: From Eileen Joy: Towards Future Conversations
Part V: Someone Get A Medievalist! Here Come the Morlocks!
Part VI: Human Beings Will Not Split Into Two Groups
Addendum #3: After looking through the papers presented at several of our "premodern to modern humanisms" panels [see below], Jeffrey J. Cohen asked me, "do you see an emergent set of unified or semi-unified questions being posed about humanisms at this date? I can tell . . . that much discussion revolves around ethics and responsibility (esp. social and educational). I'm wondering, though, if there has already come to light a core cluster that might be labeled 'what's at stake'? Humanism and its futures is potentially so diffuse." I responded this way:
Your question is, admittedly, a tough one for me, and there are several ways to approach it. The first is a kind of purposeful deferral of the question, because from the outset of these panels . . . I always emphasize how important to me it is that the presenters feel completely free to ruminate the terms, singularly or in any combination, "human[s]," "humanism[s]," and "the humanities" in any possible [creative] way they can think of, with no restrictions on where they carry or how they figure their thought. The idea, on one level, is to leave all three terms open, not as statements of historical/cultural fact or reality, but as questions: human? humanism? humanities? For me, the BABEL project [at this stage, anyway] is to, again, pose these terms [and their various inter-relationships] as questions, without contingent framing provisos of any kind, and see what kind of provisional answers might be suggested by different sorts of humanities and non-humanities scholars, artists, and scientists. This is also partly why we devised the title "working group"--partly pilfered from the scientific community, but also to say: the purpose of our organization is to always be working on the questions [sometimes I think of BABEL as a kind of perpetual question machine]. So, first, create a kind of intellectual chaos around the terms, then look for certain emergent patterns of "what's at stake," upon which patterns we can start building more purposeful discourses aimed at reformulating a "new humanities." The project is utopic, on one level, but also hopes to become more practical as well, leading, hopefully, to, let's say, a new journal, a new conference, general education curriculum reform, a new discipline, a new university.
I would say that, for now, the matter of deferring the idea of a definitive answer to what might be called the current "problem" of the humanities [are they good for anything? and how?] is extremely important, because I believe the most productive intellectual discussion is only possible in a space without pre-defined "final" objectives--to ask the questions of "what does it mean to be human?", "what kind of a thing is humanism and what kind of work does it do in the world?", and "what/who are the humanities for?" as if the answers will always be multiple, endlessly multiplying, and productive of even more questions, is to situate ourselves in a space that is more about "becoming" than "being," which also constitutes, I would argue, a type of political commitment to the future [a future, nevertheless that does not neglect the past].
So, that is one answer to your question. But it would be dishonest [or disingenuous] of me to not admit to certain prejudices of my own regarding what might be "at stake" in these discussions, and for the BABEL project more generally. I am committed to the terms "human" and "humanism," and regardless of all the good reasons [mainly put forward in post-structuralist thought and queer thought and "new science"] for discarding the terms, or ideas, or conceptual worlds, I think we have to hang onto them and reformulate them, reinvest them with new, more beautiful [ethical] energies. I think the humanities, in the words of fellow BABEL-er Betsy McCormick need to be "more humane." I think we are in dire need of a "new humanism" and a "new humanities" that would argue for the importance of a more radical and more capacious definition of what "human" means and can do in this world [and as a medievalist, who stands alongside other medievalists in this group, I believe that the texts of the Middle Ages, but also of the classical world, still have much wisdom to offer regarding what might be called "the fate of the human" in the future]. Because I worry that certain scientists really will take up the "big" philosophical questions without our assistance, and will decide, without consulting us, that "the human" is something that doesn't need a body, or doesn't need language, or isn't ever singular, or can't possess will, and might even be a category of being devoutly to be wished over, I think humanities scholars need to pay more attention to the research and discussions among scientists and to also enter into more productive collaboration with them. Such is the case of the philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, recently profiled in The New Yorker [12 Feb. 2007], who have radically changed the way we think about the operations of the mind by paying attention to research in neuroscience, but who, nevertheless have the frightening idea [to me anyway] that language somehow stands in the way of truly understanding ourselves and our experience and wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where you didn't need language? And where would the humanities be in that? Do we really need the Churchlands to tell us how inadequate language is at conveying "reality"? We know that already. The more important question might be: why do we need it so much? And what "reality" do we prefer, and why, and how do we make that "reality" livable and maybe beautiful as well and accessible to all who desire to live there? These are some of my own concerns.
As to "core clusters" that have started, let's say, to just naturally appear in the course of our panel discussions, you are right to note ethics and responsibility--I would add to that, the importance of individual freedom and expression [and the impact of technology/new science on what it means to be an "individual"]; the importance of art & literature [and therefore, obviously, language] to defining/enacting the human; the importance of history in defining/memorializing the human; the transgressive possibilities inherent in the human, and how those transgressive possibilities help us to see how "human" can be redefined as something "open" and not "closed" [and how such has always been the case]; and the question of what might be called a human collectivity [what is the value, or peril, of being human-together?].
Figure 10. the staples of a BABEL diet [note the 3 bottles of mineral water to every 1 bottle of champagne]
Addendum #4: follow the links below to post-Kalamazoo 2007 conference conversations at In The Middle, unfolding from May 2007 onward, for more of BABEL's perpetual fashioning of its mission:
Lonelyhearts Ad: Hetero-Queer BABEL Seeks Other Hetero-Queers
What Does Caninophilia Matter?
Two Conversations Are Unfolding Simultaneously
Ant Love: A Question for Karl
The Conversation Continues
Addendum #5: follow the links below for a round-table discussion and reappraisal at In The Middle (in August 2008) of Carolyn Dinshaw's 1999 book Getting Medieval, Sexual Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, which touches upon many of the obsessions of BABEL:
Touching Carolyn Dinshaw
The Ruins in the Past
The Past in the Past
Time is the Question of the Subject Seized by His or Her Other: The Intensities of an Ardor of a Different Kind in Dinshaw's Queer Historicism
[Noli] Me Tangere
Official BABEL Sonnet:
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.
"What I'm trying to capture is . . . perhaps the soul. In any case, a truth which I myself haven't found. Maybe time that flees and can never be caught."--Krystof Kieslowski
Figure 11. A Sketch for an Imaginary University
Figure 12. BABEL Pileup (Kalamazoo 2010)
Word-Cloud generated at http://www.wordle.net. Images of Wordles are licensed Creative Commons License.
Last updated: 11 August 2011