Eileen A. Joy (ejoy@siue.edu)

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

Session 55 Getting the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives

Sponsor: George Washington University Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute [GW MEMSI]

Post-Institutional Assemblages and the Desiring-Machine of BABEL

Friendship is a condition of emergence, it is where my senses lead me, it is the fold of experience out of which a certain politics is born.
—Erin Manning, The Politics of Touch: Sense, Sovereignty, Movement

The BABEL Working Group began in the space of friendship, and it is my hope that it will dwell there for a long time to come. More specifically, BABEL came into being, from 2004 to 2005, partly as a result of ongoing conversations between myself and two friends in particular—Betsy McCormick and Michael Moore—over the profession of medieval studies, but also the question of whether or not humanism had a future, and if so, of what sort? My conversations with Betsy were fueled by our shared frustration over all of the ways in which we had been chastised by mentors and other “authorities” for the “improper” uses to which had put our medieval scholarship. It was a question of temporal boundaries, of course, and we were certainly interested in exploring some unholy conjunctions across the medieval-modern divide. We certainly weren’t the first to explore these sorts of conjunctions, or to make these border crossings, but we could feel a certain chill, or detached bemusement, in the air when we raised these subjects as topics for discussion at conferences. In short, presentism is a dirty, or at least a suspect, practice in medieval studies, and if you insist on making it your scholarly raison d’etre, you proceed at a certain peril. But, what is this “peril,” exactly, and how can we stop worrying about it, maybe even disregard it altogether and thereby found a new way of being or “being beside” in this so-called profession of ours? And if this is our profession, where is the feeling for each other—the feeling that we share this work and these labors together; the feeling that we are enmeshed with each other in this work that we do, and which we might hope to do, not against, but for each other.

This brings me to professional affects, because another part of the impetus behind BABEL was the sense that Betsy and I had when we were at conferences that we were surrounded by too much fear, anxiety, loneliness, posturing, negation, and elitism. And also, to be frank, a certain boredom, a certain exhaustion. In short, where was the enjoyment? We wanted to experiment with creating spaces where the cultivation of persons, affective amity, silliness and seriousness in equal measure, and wonder, would matter more than purely academic questions or status, whatever “status” might mean. If the political theorist Jane Bennett is right that affective attachments to the world and “the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life,” and that this mood of enchantment “can be fostered through deliberate strategies,” then we wanted to see if we could work on developing those deliberate strategies, especially with an eye toward mutual self-care and delight. In this respect, BABEL also embraces childishness, and agrees with the poet Joan Retallack that, “To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.” This raises the issue of skepticism and paranoia as well, and it goes without saying that BABEL is interested in helping to foster a convivial scholarly community that takes pleasure in each other and its subjects of inquiry (even those that ultimately lead “nowhere”)—this is a community that is not afraid to not be skeptical and paranoid, and whose members are interested in exploring what Bryan Reynolds has called a transversal poetics that defies “the authorities that reduce and contain meanings,” and that seeks to “understand and empower fugitive elements [in texts and other artifacts, and in particular spaces] insofar as doing so generates positive experiences.”

As regards “positive experiences,” it has been BABEL’s concern to work to maximize, in the words of Ivan Illich, “the enjoyment of the one resource that is almost equally distributed among all people: personal energy under personal control.” This is not work that we can do alone, however, and therefore, the question of what being-together means continually presses upon us. This also raises the specter of the question of who this “being” is in this “being-together”: are we still, or were we ever, “human” and why does this matter? And how might it still be possible, as Cary Howie has written, to “speak this fragile pronoun ‘we’ across temporal, spatial, and ontological distance”? This is where conversations, and even arguments, with my friend and former colleague Michael Moore, as well as with my collaborators at the weblog In The Middle and in other spaces, have been so critical in the formation of BABEL and its collective projects, and these are projects moreover in which BABEL has collaborated with social scientists, scientists, and artists, as well as with scholars working in the humanities in later periods. On the one hand, there is Michael urging a new humanism that “would be a valuable position, even a source of joy, because of its purposes: to provide resources for personal liberation and the confrontation of contemporary cultural and political reality with ancient alternatives.” This humanism would “rely on contact with the living and the dead . . . neither wishing humans away, nor idealizing them,” and it would affirm a “view of literature and scholarship as the deliberate unfolding of dimensions, and the search for possible connections to various traditions of the human past as part of our own efforts to achieve personal liberation, ‘penetrating this forest of ruins,’ in the phrase of religious historian Gershom Scholem, who sought to rescue the Jewish past from oblivion, and thereby to find a foothold in a terrible present time.” On the other hand there is the viewpoint, articulated most forcefully and relentlessly by Karl Steel, that, “If the human establishes itself as human by dominating animals, then, in another instance of the key insight of any number of postmodern philosophies, there is no essential human identity; there is only a fundamental conflict.” And as this is a conflict that has wrought a lot of damage—a lot of murder, a lot of suffering—in the world, then perhaps it’s time for the human, and the philosophies and practices of scholarly life that go under the name of humanism, to be over and done with. Maybe it’s time for a post-humanism or no humanism at all.

But we can never seem to be over and done with these conversations we always seem to be having—about the human, about humanism, and what it means to be together in these conversations. So, finally, the BABEL Working Group realizes its purpose as the continual foundation and re-foundation of floating intellectual “cells” or “group houses” or “undergrounds” available for any number of sub-leases by roaming, nomadic desiring-packs who would be perpetually committed to asking the question of what being-together means, and what the “being” in this being-together is, what it can do, and even more so, what it can do of good in the world, for ourselves and others. As Nicola Masciandaro once proposed at In The Middle,

. . . aren’t we, as enlightened intellectuals or as people struggling to be that, struggling with the difficulty of saying that in a manner that preserves the social authority of our discourse, that preserves its difficulty, our special right to make sense only to each other? Isn't Karl, in posing a problem about the relation between [humanist] discourse and domination, really re-proposing the question of the ethics of thinking? And isn't the problem of humanism in essence the problem of the humanity of the intellectual?

Risking naivety . . . I'd like to make an ethical pitch . . . for two things:

1. Service. Doing what one does best (following the inner whim) but in a manner that allows one's doing of it to be shaped by its teleological home in others. Ergo, the opposite of competitive-narcissistic scholarly production.

2. Honesty. With oneself and others, public and private. Difficult but essential. The sine qua non of all authentic discourse and action.

As to allowing our thought and scholarship to be “shaped by its teleological home in others,” and as to honesty, BABEL prizes the new spaces—such as weblogs and other dynamic online sites such as Facebook, Live Journal, and Second Life—within which we can engage with others in more synchronous, transparent, and processural scholarly collaborations, where our thought and work unfolds almost in real time alongside the thought and work of others who share with us the desire to have our work be for and with others who inhabit with us, or skate around outside, the ruins of the post-historical university.

So now, in my brief time here, I hope I have given you some sense of why BABEL began and what it takes to be its purview:

1. the development of an improper medieval studies that promiscuously crosses temporal and disciplinary and other boundaries, and which is for the present and future, yet never lets go of the idea that the past always matters, always inheres with us;

2. the cultivation of a more engaged and enchanted mindfulness of those who work alongside us in order to put into practice new relational modes that move us; the building of post- and extra-institutional spaces for collaboration with scholars in all disciplines and fields who might commit themselves with us to our endless ruminations on the human and humanism, with the idea that something—real bodies and their well-being—are at stake and should matter to us;

3. the practice of scholarship as a radical form of friendship which, in the words of Michael O’Rourke, would be “roguishly relational in its opening to . . . ‘an infinite series of possible encounters’ . . . open to the other, the future . . . the coming or love of the other”; and finally,

4. the collective invention of poethical wagers—in the words of Joan Retallack, “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment[s]” that would undertake particular kinds of inquiries that would be “neither poetry nor philosophy but a mix of logics, dislogics, intuition, revulsion, [and] wonder.” These would be “experimental adventures” that would form the “inbetween-zones” of “historical residue and hope,” and we can dare to hope that these experiments might have something to do with happiness as well—again, in Retallack’s words, “happiness as activity, as project, as agency . . . happiness as struggle as well as the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness.”

And if I, or we, fail in all this, well, as Joshua Glenn once wrote, “you’ve got to pick your failures—and I’d like to fail in good company instead of all on my own.”