Speculative Medievalisms: A Laboratory-Atelier

14 January 2011

10:00 am - 6:00 pm

King's College London

Anatomy Theatre and Museum

Co-Conspirators: BABEL Working Group, Urbanomic, Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies (King's College London), and the Petropunk Collective (Eileen Joy, Anna Klosowska, Nicola Masciandaro, and Michael O'Rourke)


Kathleen Biddick, History, Temple University

Anthony Paul Smith, Theology & Religious Studies, University of Nottingham

Nick Srnicek, International Relations, London School of Economics + Speculative Heresy

Eugene Thacker, New Media, The New School

Scott Wilson, Cultural Theory, The London Graduate School (Kingston University) + amusia + Journal for Cultural Research

Official Laboratory Program


Figures 1 & 2. Hieronymous Bosch, details from The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1504-1510)

So the medieval studies I am thrown into is a gravely levitating scholarly being, the lovely becoming light of weight in all senses: metaphoric, literal, and above all in the truest most palpable sense of the phenomenal poetic zones of indistinction between the two. This means, in tune with the Heraclitan oneness of the way up and the way down, not flight from but the very lightening of gravitas itself, the finding or falling into levitas through the triple gravities of the discipline: the weight of the medieval (texts, past), the weight of each other (society, institutions), and the weight of ourselves (body, present). Towards this end I offer no precepts or to-do list, only an indication of the wisdom and necessity of doing so, of practicing our highest pleasures, in unknowing of the division between poetry as knowledge and philosophy as joy, in opposition to the separation between thought and life that best expresses the omnipresence of the economy, and in harmony with the volitional imperative of Nietzsche's new gravity: the eternal recurrence of the same: Do you want this again and innumerable times again? This Middle Ages? This medievalist?

—Nicola Masciandaro, “Grave Levitation: Being Scholarly”

Speculative Medievalisms is a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project focusing on the theorization and practical development of the speculative dimensions of medieval studies. The term “speculative” is intended to resonate with the full range of its medieval and modern meanings. First, speculative echoes the broad array of specifically medieval senses of speculatio as the essentially reflective and imaginative operations of the intellect. According to this conception, the world, books, and mind itself were all conceived as specula (mirrors) through which the hermeneutic gaze could gain access to what lies beyond them. As Giorgio Agamben explains, “To know is to bend over a mirror where the world is reflected, to descry images reflected from sphere to sphere: the medieval man was always before a mirror, both when he looked around himself and when he surrendered to his own imagination.”[1] This sense of speculative, which also gestures toward the humanistic principle of identity between world-knowledge and self-knowledge, becomes crucial for the development and institution of medieval studies as a discipline oriented to the past as both mirror and inscrutable site of origin. Like Narcissus, who at the fount falls in love with himself as another, modern Western culture gazes at the Middle Ages as a self-image that impossibly blurs the distinction between identity and alterity. The speculative principle is accordingly written into title of the medieval studies journal, Speculum, published by the Medieval Academy since 1926. Speculum’s first editor E. K. Rand explained the aim of the journal via this principle in the inaugural issue as follows:

Speculum, this mirror to which we find it appropriate to give a Latin name, suggests the multitudinous mirrors in which people of the Middle Ages liked to gaze at themselves and other folk—mirrors of history and doctrine and morals, mirrors of princes and lovers and fools. We intend no conscious follies, but we recognize satire, humor and the joy of life as part of our aim. Art and beauty and poetry are a portion of our medieval heritage. Our contribution to the knowledge of those times must be scholarly, first of all, but scholarship must be arrayed, so far as possible, in a pleasing form.[2]

While Speculum’s contribution to our understanding of the medieval past continues to be essential and formidable, its editors’ and contributors’ fulfillment of these ambivalently secondary yet underscored aims (satire, humor, joy, art, beauty, poetry, pleasure) remains questionable at best. Rather, the journal has become an index of the aesthetic and libidinal disarray of medievalist studies, less a mirror of the “joy of life,” even less so a place to ask about, or risk, pleasure.

Are we enjoying ourselves? This is a primary question for the BABEL Working Group, a collective and desiring-assemblage of scholars (primarily medievalists, but also including scholars working in various disciplines in later historical periods and in cultural studies), who are especially interested in matters of embodiment and affect and the questions that currently pace and fret around the historically vexed terms: human, humanity, humanism, and the humanities. As an important corollary to this interest, BABEL is also deeply concerned with explorations of the nonhuman and the post/human, and with the possibilities of developing affective, cross-temporal (and intra-temporal) relations between different sorts of bodies, human and otherwise, animate and supposedly inanimate. To the question of pleasure and whether or not our historical scholarship could ever be “arrayed, so far as possible, in a pleasing form,” BABEL has been laboring to answer, theoretically and practically, with a definitive yes.[3] The question of course is not merely one of satisfaction, of simply being pleased with our research and teaching, nor of pleasuring ourselves through some sort of narcissistic scholarly practice. More crucially the question concerns the very how, why, and wherefore of scholarly practice and the realization of its individual (personal) and social value. Put succinctly: “the problem of knowledge is a problem of possession, and every problem of possession is a problem of enjoyment.”[4] It is here that the importance of speculation, as a constituent pleasure of intellectual work coinciding with the poetic vector of thought, the necessity of its ability to take creative leaps, becomes especially urgent. The speculative constitutes the dimension where discourse remains pleasurably and daringly open, both with regard to the nature of its object and with regard to its real, enworlded end, its ultimate for-itself.[5]

This is to ask for new forms of literary and aesthetic criticism that would attend to the ways in which, as Iain Chambers has written, artworks reveal “not so much a distinctive ‘message’ as a sense that is ultimately a non-sense, a refusal to cohere that opens on to that void which resists rationalization,” and therefore a “rationalist pleasure is not confirmed. Rather a border, an intimation of the sublime, the shiver of the world, an encounter with the angelic and the extraordinary, is declared. We are taken beyond ourselves into the eroticism of time and the subsequent sense of loss that proclaims an identity.”[6] This is to also ask for an historical scholarship where we would write, as the poet Joan Retallack has written, not to “deliver space-time in a series of shiny freeze-frames, each with its built-in strategy of persuasion,” but to “stay warm and active and realistically messy,” to “disrupt the fatal momentum” of linear histories.[7] BABEL is therefore also invested in the work of what Carolyn Dinshaw has called a “postdisenchanted temporal perspective” and what Elizabeth Freeman has termed “erotohistoriography,” which names the practice of tracing “how queer relations complexly exceed the present.” Against pain and loss,” erotohistoriography “posit[s] the value of surprise, of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from elsewhere, other times.”[8] Further, because we are scholars who work primarily with objects of the premodern past, we understand that we are often looking backward, but always with the awareness, as Sara Ahmed has written, that “looking back is what keeps open the possibility of going astray” and “where we can respond with joy to what goes astray.”[9] Finally, BABEL is also committed, following the work of medievalist Cary Howie, to the development of an erotics of scholarship as the practice of an intensification of certain materialities (of texts, bodies, affects, spaces) “in their very mystery and withdrawal,” which is also an ardent tracing of acts of traherence in which nothing really “gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from.”[10]

In exploring the dimensions and borders where historiography, poetics, affect, intensification, and leaping might meet, the Speculative Medievalisms project is informed by the contemporary post-continental philosophical development known as speculative realism. Speculative realism is less a school of thought than a confluence of diverse intellectual investments in the scientific capacity of philosophical discourse to know and describe subject-independent realities and in the necessity of speculation as the means of such knowledge (see Volume II of Urbanomic's journal Collapse, "Speculative Realism"). In dialogue with both the hard sciences and the humanities, speculative realist philosophers seek, from divergent topical trajectories, to restore and enliven the epistemic potentiality and empirical poiesis of thinking—the power through which, for example, Anaximander was able to ‘perceive’ without direct evidence that the Earth is not affixed to anything but surrounded on all sides by space.[11] Speculation in these terms must be distinguished from practical guesswork or conjecture, and even more strongly from the kind of discourse that stays within the supposedly transparent definability of terms and facts. Speculation is, instead, the rigorous exploration of the potentialities of the perceivable, the very foundation and condition of experience and experiment, and thus a practice that must directly engage the risk of ‘conscious follies’ that the journal Speculum has historically precluded from itself.

Even more daringly, perhaps, “speculative realism,” and what is sometimes called “object-oriented philosophy,” has displaced (human) language's privileged status, in Michael Witmore's words, “as the mediator between mind and whatever reality exists,” and therefore “things in the world are granted full mediating power: their interactions with each other are as real as our interaction with them and with other humans.” Nevertheless, although reality may always be “unfolding with or without a human observer or mediator,” it can still be “gestured at or alluded to with metaphors or other forms of linguistic indirection.”[12] Here is where Julian Yates speculates on the “speculative turn that a post-human literary history might take, following the passage of things themselves through human discourse, charting the networks or associations that form as things travel from hand to hand, in and out of texts, between and among different spheres of reference, describing a kind of Brownian motion of persons and things, each remaking the other as they are put to use, reanimating aesthetics as a contact zone in which the presence of things is understood to manifest via the installed thoughts and feelings of their human screens.”[13]

What the Speculative Medievalisms project desires, then, is fruitful dialogue and creative, mutual cross-contamination between medieval ideas of speculatio, the cultural-historical position of the medieval as site of humanistic speculation, and the speculative realists’ “opening up” of “weird worlds” heretofore believed impenetrable by philosophy—as Graham Harman has written, “the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone.”[14] The BABEL Working Group is especially keen to serve as a launch site of this dialogue because of its broad investment in co-affective (even co-poetic) forms of scholarship, that is, shared intellectual work that takes seriously the medley of personal and political desires that inform research and structure its academic and para-academic communities.[15] Speculative realist work, as the term would suggest, is broadly characterized by the self-contradictory intensity of a desire for thought that can think beyond itself. Yet it pursues this desire (as exemplified in the work of speculative realist auctores Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux) in thoroughly rationalist terms. At the same time, speculative realist work is gaining appeal and influence outside of the specifically philosophical academic community, among artists and literary scholars. This is due primarily to the palpable (albeit under-acknowledged) ethical, aesthetic, and even sensuous lineaments of speculative realist writings, which have the heroic-quixotic charm of works that, as the editors of the forthcoming volume The Speculative Turn (re.press) put it, “depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.”

From the perspective of the kind of present-minded medieval studies represented by the BABEL-affiliated journal postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, the wonderful (and ironic) thing about speculative realism’s humanistic allure, its attraction to persons who are not so concerned about constructing definitive arguments about the nature of reality, is that speculating about the nature of reality with “the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past” is not a bad description of what “we medievalists” do. In short, there is between medieval studies and speculative realism something like the space of a compelling, magnetized shared blindness that might be realized as love at first sight. The gap concerns the age-old problem of the boundary between poetry and philosophy, meaning and truth—in short, the reality of the image in the mirror of thought. A speculative medievalism, which could proceed from the insight that the desire for a thought that can think beyond itself is precisely the problematic explored in medieval theories of love (whence Andreas Capellanus’s famous definition of love as immoderata cogitatio, immoderate contemplation). In other words, speculation might be a mode of love, which then might also be imagined as comprising forms of intellectual work with medieval texts and objects that would work to (re)awaken the discipline of philosophy to the reality of love (philia).

Figure 3. Mark Ryden, Allegory of the Four Elements (2006)


1. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 81.

2. Cited from Gabrielle M. Spiegel, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 57.

3. In particular, note the following recent conference panels organized by the BABEL Working Group: Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship, 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, 6-10 May 2009, Western Michigan University (Description: For several years now, there has been a growing body of work, both in medieval queer studies but also in queer studies more generally on the practice of historical scholarship as a form of affective “touching” and “cruising” of the past and on “addressing history in an idiom of pleasure”; more currently, new work is emerging, by non-medievalists and medievalists alike, on the pleasures, which are also an ethics, of affective forms of scholarship and also on new temporalities that are opened by queer historiographies and queer reading practices. It is our intention to use this panel to highlight the voices of the medievalists who have been thinking and writing about affective scholarship, and to also bring medieval queer studies into contact with those working in queer studies who are not medievalists. Presenters: Cary Howie, Cornell University, “Pleasure and Praise”; Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, “Happy Babel”; Carolyn Dinshaw, New York University, “Pleasure and Hope”; Anna Klosowska, Miami University of Ohio, “Like We Need It”; Nicola Masciandaro, Brooklyn College, CUNY, “Grave Levitation: Being Scholarly”; Elizabeth Freeman, University of California-Davis, “Response: Affecting the Scholarly Life”); Knowing and Unknowing Pleasures, 35th Annual Southeastern Medieval Association Meeting, 15-17 October 2009, Vanderbilt University (Description: Building on BABEL's panel at the Kalamazoo Congress, “Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship,” this panel will address some of the questions we have raised since: what is useless pleasure, what is essential pleasure, what might be dangerous pleasure, and who or what decides? Is there class in pleasure—or, as Roland Barthes might say, “Einstein on one side, Paris-Match on the other”? What are the ethical conditions of pleasure? While some of the presenters will focus on fascist specters that haunt the ethics/aesthetics borderlands, others propose an optimistic “coexisting multiplicities” reading where pleasure is, as Deleuze has written, “between everyone,” like a “little boat used by others.” Further, is the question of pleasure best approached tangentially as the question of intensity? Collectively, we also ask: what are the temporalities and localities of pleasure—as Dan Remein has written, that “small weak thing that empties closed economies so they can be emptied and emptied again, not by being there but constantly passing through”? What relationships, constellations, or astronomical charts can be drawn between medieval definitions, practices, regulations of pleasure, and contemporary philosophy, for instance as articulated in the speculative realism of Graham Harman and in his definition of allure? And returning full-circle to the question of the Kalamazoo 2009 panel, what is the part of pleasure in medieval scholarship more particularly: as we locate ourselves, as Julie Orlemanski has argued, between “enjoying the past, judging it, curating it, and reviving it,” what parameters of pleasure do we declare or silently draw? How do specific ways of thinking about pleasure shape our present and future scholarly community, the nature and modalities of our collaborations, and our care for medieval texts and artifacts? Presenters: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, “I Wanted to See the Innermost Part of India: The Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle”; Anna Klosowska, Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, “Occitan Love Poetry”; Laurie Finke, Kenyon College and Martin Shichtman, Eastern Michigan University, “Fascist Pleasure: Masculinity and Medievalism”; Julie Orlemanski, Harvard University, “Pleasure in the Leper”).

4. Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Roland L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xvii.

5. Cf. “every inquiry in the human sciences . . . should entail an archaeological vigilance. In other words, it must retrace its own trajectory back to the point where something remains obscure and unthematized. Only a thought that does not conceal its own unsaid—but constantly takes it up and elaborates it—may eventually lay claim to originality” (Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D’Isanto with Kevin Attell [New York: Zone, 2009], 8).

6. Iain Chambers, Culture After Humanism: History, Culture, Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 2001), 4.

7. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 5.

8. Dinshaw cited in Elizabeth Freeman, ed., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ 13.2/3 (2007): 185 [177–195]; Elizabeth Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3/4 (Winter 2005): 59 [57–68].

9. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 178.

10. Cary Howie, Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 7–8, 112.

11. See Carlo Rovelli, “Anaximander’s Legacy,” Collapse V (2009): 50–71.

12. Michael Witmore, “We Have Never Not Been Inhuman,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010): 212 [208–214].

13. Julian Yates, “It's (for) You; or, The Tele-t/r/opical Post-Human,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010): 228 [223–234].

14. Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne: re.press, 2009), 213.

15. On this subject see the collection of “Manifestos-cum-Love Letters” penned by BABEL’s lead ingenitor Eileen A. Joy: “Beyond Feminist, Gender, Queer, Everything Studies: Notes Toward An Enamored Medieval Studies” (11 May 2007); “A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism” (Introduction to BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, no. 2: August 2007); “The Loving Hope of Working Groups and Humanist Desiring-Revolutions” (2 November 2007); “Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History” (Introduction to BABEL's essay volume Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan, December 2007); “Between What Is Ours and What is Not Ours: Claustrophilia, Anachronism, Attachment, Friendship” (7 March 2008); “Queer Times, Queer Bodies, and the Erotics of a Nomadic Anglo-Saxon Studies” (24 May 2008); “Silence Makes Up the Bulk of My Estate: The Burden of History—Not Then, or Later, but Now” (20 September 2008); “The Faded Silvery Imprints of the Bare Feet of Angels: Notes Toward an Historical Poethics” (7 November 2008); “Having the Stubbornness to Accept My Gladness in the Ruthless Furnace of the World: Cruising a Possibilistic, Potential Medieval Studies” (29 November 2008); “Faith of a Kind: Aggressive Hermeneutics, Felicitous Weak Ontologies, and the Possibility of Interpretive Communities” (14 March 2009); “Post-Institutional Assemblages and the Desiring-Machine of BABEL” (7 May 2009); “Some More Thoughts on Pleasure, Even More on Wonder, and Also, Some Regrets: Could Our Medieval Studies, the One We Want, Also Be a Pleasure Garden?” (17 May 2009); “Embracing the Swerve: A Fugitive Medieval Studies.”

Figure 4. Hieronymous Bosch, The Creation of the World (ca. 1500)