Saturday, 1 December 2012

Longing for Vifgage

I recently found myself at a banker’s table signing an enormous stack of papers to refinance our house. As I wrote out my signature for the twenty-fifth time, I couldn’t help but wish for hot wax and a seal, something to make it all even more medieval.  Then upon a page appeared the word “mortgage” and perhaps due to distraction or just general waywardness I launched into how wonderful that word is in its French medieval origins. It was Friday afternoon and we were the banker’s last meeting and so he let me go on and on about the difference between mort-gag and vif-gage which I presented to him as the difference between something inert being held while a debt is owed vs. someone alive being held while a debt is owed. Warming to my subject, and to inexcusable neo-medieval fantasizing, I went on about duke’s nephews being held in vifgage while the duke paid his debts, and about how glad we are that it’s all mortgage today, no more vifgage.

Somewhere at some point I realized that this was more my financial fantasy that historical accuracy, so I looked a few things up. Arhum.  Vifgage… well, I have to give up my images of forlorn duke’s nephews in towers. Vifgage turns out to be the holding of a possession that is allowed to be lively and productive while a debt is owed. For example, if your land is held in vifgage, the products (the liveliness) of that land are allowed to pay off your debt.  If your land is held in mortgage, on the hand, the products of your land are used to pay off only the interest, not the principal, of the debt. Constance Berman explains this really well on page 380 of Medieval France: an Encyclopedia and of course made me want to read much more on this topic. For now, though, I newly understand that the liveliness in vifgage is the ability of the land’s products to free you of your debt; the inertness in mortgage is the dead-end arrival of your land’s products in your debt’s interest.

Two realizations occur at this point, aside from a serious talk I need to have with my neo-medieval fantasies of human drama.  The first is that the land’s products have a trajectory: they are not simply products of the land, they go somewhere, towards something, either towards the debt or its interest.  They have a fate, a narrative, that makes them more than transactional objects.  I’d go so far as to say they have a subjectivity, that there is a moral care for these products of the land. For, mortgage was seen as usurious, morally reprehensible, and exploitative – it was downright “condemned by 12th-century church councils” (Berman): condemned!  Which leads me to the second realization: are we so glad that vifgage is gone and mortgage is our state of debt? We still pay off the interest long before we pay off the principal of a debt. And, well, vifgage sounds interest-free to me, which would be nice. More than nice when you think about the activism of debt forgiveness for nations (or people!): downright ethical. I’m completely taken now with the idea of land freeing debtors of their debts, of the fruits of trees and the vegetables of the soil working to return to the possession, use, and tending of their original care-takers; of land and its moral agency.

Three realizations, actually: I owe a banker in Indiana a long phone call.
-Anne Harris

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wisconsin is not Michigan (Where's Troy?)

Last week, I posted a blog posting on "In The Middle" about an inventive re-imagining of Chaucer's "Troilus and Crysede" - Francesca Abbate's Troy, Unincorporated (2012) re-tells the story of love and betrayal through a series of lyric monologues, and the story is set in the present-day in a place called Troy, Wisconsin.

In my original posting, however, I misidentified the town in question as Troy, *Michigan.*  Let me assure you that I very much know that WISCONSIN IS NOT MICHIGAN and these places are, like, two totally two different states and everything.

This is not to make excuses for myself, but I might attribute my morning error to a late-night Facebook conversation: someone saw a link I had posted about Abbate's book and said that she wished the book had been set in Troy, MI, instead - but she came around once I her that there is indeed a real unincorporated town of Troy in WI, and that Abbate herself lives and works in WI. Perhaps that conversation made me dream of "Troy, MI" during the night and when I woke in the morning I couldn't dislodge that idea from my brain.

Of course, in Chaucer's day, Troy was already a strangely translated/transported city: London styled itself as Troynovant (New Troy), and the way Chaucer's representations of ancient Troy evokes his own contemporary London city life has been richly explored - see Sylvia Federico, New Troy (2003); Marion Turner, Chaucerian Conflict (2007); and Ruth Evans, "The Production of Space in Chaucer's London," in Chaucer and the City, ed. Ardis Butterfield (2006). Troy is always "here" and "not here," perpetually dislocated from itself. As far as the US is concerned, this "translatio urbis" (shall we say?) can be seen in the number of place-names: a search of US cities reveals *multiple* places named Troy (WI, MI, and 17 other states) but also Athens (14 states), Carthage (11 states), Rome (8 states), Ithaca (5 states), Jerusalem (2 states), and a solitary Thebes (IL).

Thankfully, Blogger allows you go back in and edit your postings - so I fixed this city-translation error at ITM. I can say I sincerely meant no offense to any Midwesterners (Michiganders *and* Wisconsinites) who saw the post before it was corrected!

-Jonathan Hsy

P.S. Thanks to Ben Tilghman - Wisconsinite and inventor of the name "Fumblr" - for bringing the "Troy, MI" error to my attention.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A revolting revolt

[Editor's Note:  This is an anonymous grad student fumble!  Other grads, send us your fumbles -- I, too, was once a grad student, and fumbled frequently (once unintentionally obscenely, even).  Asa]

I taught for the first time ever as a teaching assistant last year for a medieval literature survey class. I was teaching the students about Jean Froissart’s Chronicles and the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt. I had prepared by designing a lecture on the Peasant’s Revolt and had a handout outlining the main points of the revolt for the students. I got through the rundown of what the Peasant’s Revolt was just fine, and passed out a decent handout. Where I failed was in capably leading the discussion. I showed them a passage from the John Ball letters on the projection screen, and that’s when it started going downhill. For one thing, I didn’t take them through the passage, and attempted to jump straight into discussion--rookie mistake. I floundered through leading the discussion, and my (amazing) professor who I was TAing for jumped in to help direct the conversation, and we ended up co-teaching the class. Thankfully, my students gave me a break and were very enthusiastic and participatory during that particular class. I’m happy to say that my most recent teaching experiences have been much better- you live and learn I suppose!

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Failures of Symbolism

Reading a host of recent reviews of exhibitions and publications all relating to Symbolism, I was reminded of a really uncomfortable experience. Years ago, when I was defending my dissertation proposal, one of the members of my committee told me that I “didn’t really understand Symbolism properly,” and that this failure would cause serious problems for the project.   This was exactly the kind of comment a young and insecure scholar really didn’t want at such a pivotal moment.  And as you might imagine, it also pissed me off to no end, because of course I had worked very, very hard to master the complexities of the topic.  The diffuse, peculiar, murky late 19th century movement in art and literature loosely defined as Symbolism played a considerable role in my thesis and research into turn-of-the-century American art. Because it appeared in America very differently than it did in Europe, I felt this scholar had missed my point entirely.   The question, as I saw it, was not whether I did or didn’t ‘get’ Symbolism, but whether Gilded Age Americans did or did not ‘get’ it. “What temerity and arrogance!” I thought, soothing my wounded pride.  “They are wrong.  Not me.”

Moreover, this scholar did not seem willing to acknowledge that the ‘failure’ to understand Symbolism was in fact a pervasive problem, even for this movement’s leading practitioners, some of whom, such as Stéphane Mallarmé, seem to have regarded it as a kind of massive game of interpretive hide-and-seek. But, given the person’s expertise in the history of 19th century art, the comment made me think—very hard—about the stakes of my potential failure in this regard.  Was I just fundamentally wrong, and was the problem truly one of my own failure to understand? Or was this more a matter of their failure to understand the nuances of a field that was not quite the same as their own? Or, yet again, was the observation the result of an equally awful prospect:  my utter failure to communicate my point? What was the underlying nature of this rather discomfiting, and potentially devastating mutual misapprehension?

That eventually led me (after a friend and a strong cocktail had helped me to settle down), to think about how in many ways the entire Symbolist movement is still widely regarded as a particular kind of failure. To many observers, Symbolist art is unforgivably weird and will always remain so, as demonstrated by the wide-ranging critical opinions concerning the work of Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler, whose work is currently on view at the Neue Galerie in New York. As Markus Verhagen observes, some believe mystifying art such as Hodler’s is the result of “the worst impulses of the Symbolist generation, exploring ill-defined metaphysical questions in canvases that have come to look hopelessly dated and affected.”  In a recent review concerning Hodler’s contemporary Edvard Munch, Thomas Micchelli terms the diversity of Symbolism a product of its “florid hokeyness.”   Yet others suggest Symbolist works may look ‘dated and affected’ because the art produced in the Symbolist spirit was meant to be confounding and very difficult—hard for viewers to encompass in a way that forced them to strive towards forms of knowledge beyond the facile scope of material reality, during a historical period of great anxiety propelled by rising commercialism and technocratic complexity. And just as scholars today seem to have considerable trouble coming to terms with Symbolism’s many manifestations and styles, there were also plenty of individuals, in Europe and America alike, who similarly tried, and perhaps often failed, to understand the intentionally vague, ambiguous or hermetic modes of thought governing the spirit of the movement.  Thus, my committee member and I were both wrong, and both right:  Failure was built into the system.

In fact, as I mulled the stakes of ‘failure’ over more deeply, I discovered another question:  isn’t such a ‘failure to understand’ any historical mode of thought, or movement, or object, or attitude, the kind of problem that provokes us in the first place?  Is such an instance of ‘failure’ as the one I investigate—that is, the way in which Americans at the turn of the century ‘failed’ to look at Symbolism the way their European peers did—merely an alternative way of conceptualizing the movement in their own terms, and thus not a ‘failure’ at all? The deeper reasons for this apparent error in comprehension turn out to be far more interesting than I had initially realized, mired as I was in a crisis of utter confusion, irritation and humiliation.

In the long run, as I worked through the many consequences of my ‘failure to understand,’ I followed more investigations, worked through anxiety, thought deeply and—at last—reached an acceptance of the fact that I investigate a historical period that will always offer up such instances of profound discomfort.   To wish it were otherwise would be to wish away that aspect of the problem that continues to inspire me, as much as it remains a challenge.  And ultimately the nature of this scholarly misapprehension granted me some really valuable opportunities for insight regarding the complex, often competing claims of what ‘Symbolism’ was attempting to do. I am sure I will continue to fail to understand it, but those moments are the ones I welcome in anticipation of the worthy surprises they will reveal.  Thus the many ‘Failures of Symbolism’ are in fact some of its signature virtues.

-Emily Gephart

Saturday, 3 November 2012

John Wayne goes to Oxford

One year way back when, I was planning a research trip to the UK, with stops to see some manuscripts at the BL and the Bodleian. I had never used the manuscript rooms at either place, so I emailed to see how to get permission. The BL was fairly straightforward with directions, but the person I contacted at the Bodleian wrote that he’d have to check with Duke Humfreys about the MS I wanted to see.  He later wrote again to say that Duke Humfreys had granted permission to use the manuscript library.

Somehow, my American brain just assumed that “Duke” was a first name, kind of like Bo or Jeb, or Butch — one of those. Why I did not think “Duke” = nobleman and “Duke Humfreys” = ancient aristocratic benefactor of Oxford for whom library is named, I don’t know. Instead, I thought that Duke Humfreys must be a very powerful librarian indeed, since the other librarians apparently deferred to him.

So I wrote back expressing my gratitude to “Mr. Humfreys” for letting me use his library.

Oops. heh heh.
-Lara Farina

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

An Announcement From Your Friendly Fumblr Creators

Fumblr is now open to anonymous submissions, for those who do not feel comfortable attaching their names to their fails on the Internet. (After all, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.) We do want to keep the conversation about scholarly failure going and we simultaneously understand that some people- particularly graduate students and junior faculty- do not feel comfortable submitting if they have to claim authorship. We respect your right to your anonymity. Should you choose to submit anonymously, PLEASE make sure that you tell us that in your email, and we promise to maintain your anonymity. Send your submissions to Keep those fabulous fails coming!

-Shyama and Asa

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Failure is the New Black (Call For Papers)

A Call for Papers from Rachel Sullivan for the 2013 Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference (MIGC)
There’s much more to learn from the rough edges of failure than the short-lived sheen of success. Basking in the glow of achievement and accomplishment, other possibilities and voices tend to fade. What can we gain through studying the cracks, imperfections, embarrassments, and dark moments of history, culture, pedagogy, institutional practice, and lived experience? That’s exactly what the 2013 Midwest Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference (MIGC) aims to find out. MIGC will take place on February 15-16 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – it will be a lively two days of conversations and questions about the topic of failure. Who knows, some of the questions may even be answered!

As someone who’s been involved with the work of planning the conference for the last two years, I hope you’ll help me spread the word or—if you’re currently a grad student—consider submitting an abstract! MIGC is a wonderful experience that attracts participants from around the country (and the world!), and we’re excited to feature J. Jack Halberstam (author of The Queer Art of Failure) as this year’s keynote speaker. It’s a small, selective conference that allows for intimate discussions and a well-paced schedule of panels. There will also be a super-fun afterparty at a classic Milwaukee venue.

We’re looking for both creative works and traditional papers, and (as always) we welcome submissions from grad students at any level, in any discipline. You’ll find the full length CFP at Please note that the submission deadline is December 1!  Some possible topics might be:

- Failings of higher education
- Pedagogical success and failure
- Failure in film, TV, art, and literature
- Rhetoric of failure in theory and criticism
- Feminism and failure
- The “queer art” of failure
- Economic failure and debt crisis
- Failed states
- Digital technologies/humanities and failure
- Scientific advancements and failures
- Environmental disasters
- Legal failings, human rights, war, and genocide

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

We really do need to see these things in the flesh...

In my first book, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England, I say, regarding the images in the Vitellius A.xv (Beowulf MS), Tiberius B.v and Bodley 614 Wonders/Marvels of the East texts:
Returning to the blemmyes, we find that their skin, so human in tone, is not a painted color, but simply the real skin of which the page is made. 
I hadn't yet seen any of these three images in person, and was working with the black-and-white facsimiles in the EETS series (for Vitellius and Tiberius), and then with a few color reproductions I'd been able to track down.

I have since seen all three manuscripts, and it turns out that I was not only flatly wrong, but that the actual situation is much weirder:  The image of the blemmye in the Tiberius manuscript (online at the BL in, it seems, odd color, here, but the image in the current post is better) is indeed painted, but it is painted a shade of beige, of what Crayola, prior to the raising of consciousness of the civil rights movement, used to call "flesh color." I have asked Routledge to let me fix this, since they are still printing the book, but no dice.  The error is there, in perpetuity, when the bizarre truth is much more interesting.

There are losses to the image, and they are barely perceptible.  Why bother to paint the figure a shade that is almost totally indistinguishable from the color of the vellum?  Does this mean something?  Surely.  Another book,* another time.

*(Note of further fumble:  I intended to get this correction, at a minimum, into a footnote in a new book on the Wonders, but that is now done, and I seem to have lost that note, somewhere along the way...)

Monday, 8 October 2012

Prove Your Own Point by Doing. It. Wrong.

From Martin Foys:

I spent  seven years working on the Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition (BTDE), working through a lot of ideas about how  a New Media format helped free the presentation of this uber-long textile from the practical and physical confines of the medium of print. Along the way I developed an argument about the spatial and monumental nature of the work, and how it may have been displayed to end where it began, thus allowing King Edward and King William to be juxtaposed - a not so subtle hint about how to view the succession of William to the English throne. Books you see, never do this - they present the textile like they do a sentence - in a purely linear fashion, - so the Tapestry begins at one point and then many pages later, it ends at another.

So, you might imagine, I then programmed the BTDE so that when the display reached the end, it continued on at the beginning- it didn't just stop when you arrived at the end of the work, just like every book you've seen, right? Oh, ha,ah, heh, ho, oh, no . . . .no.

To compound this meta-critical myopia, at the time I was preparing the BTDE for publication, I was also reading Bolter and Grusin's Remediation, which argued that the logic of new media must first reproduce the logic of the older media before it can realize its own.  It was not until about a year later that I understood what I had(n't) done: I had precisely illuminated B&G's point by remediating the BTDE's digital functionality within the linear logic of the book, and this in spite of my very own critical arguments to the contrary.  I ruled. Or rued. Or something.

Killing is OK. Or not. Or both. Or neither.

From Karl Steel (with thanks for the First Fail Post!):

The second chapter of my How to Make a Human opens with this unfortunate sentence:

To the question of “Whether it is unlawful to kill any living thing” (Summa Theologica 2a2ae q. 64, a. 1), Aquinas unsurprisingly answers yes, explaining that in the natural worldly order “animals use plants, and men use animals, for food” (61). 

Try to get your head around that "yes." Yes it's unlawful to kill any living thing? That's definitely not the Aquinas we know. How about answering "no"? No it's not unlawful to kill any living thing? That's not much of an improvement. I feel into a weird syntactical trap and just couldn't get out. Thank goodness that it's in print forever. I blame scholasticism.

Welcome to Fumblr!

Sometimes ideas don’t work. Failure is an inevitable fact of life, and we have all experienced it—that teaching moment where the students look completely confused, that one paper with a logical hole in it the size of the (former) Soviet Union, that presentation that just did not fly. In the humanities, however, we do not often discuss our failures. So how can we understand the utility of being wrong?

In the sciences, when an experiment fails, the results are often published so that the scientific community can benefit from the errors, can learn from the errors, be they algebraic or conceptual. In the humanities, we are less often demonstrably "wrong," since much of what we offer is interpretive rather than factual. You might disagree with Asa’s reading of the Donestre in the Beowulf Manuscript's Wonders of the East, but you would be hard-pressed to conclusively invalidate it. Still, we falter and fail all the time. However, many of us in the humanities are still in our 19th-century paradigm of the lonely scholar, toiling in the solitude of a garret, perhaps with a glass of absinthe at the elbow. And so our failures are solitary, which renders them of less use than they might otherwise be. When I head down a wrong-headed path, I (hopefully) learn something. But you don't, unless I share my failure with you.

It is for this reason that we started “Fumblr,” a place for any of us to post our scholarly missteps for all and sundry to read and learn (and laugh) from. The name (thanks, Ben Tilghman!) grew out of discussions, in person, with the Material Collective, on Facebook (Join our group at The Material Collective.  No, not the knitting group.  The other one.), and on In The Middle, where several other great ideas were posted. We already wonder if we have chosen the right one, or began the project, perhaps appropriately, with a blunder.

Posts might be related to research, teaching, job searching or any other aspect of the academic world. Fumblr is about sharing those moments of tripping on the cracks with a community, and opening up the conversation about process rather than simply focusing on product. If we are serious about experimental approaches and risk taking, we have to be prepared to fail. At least on occasion.

We invite you to submit your own moments of “fail” to So what say you—care to stumble with us?

-Asa and Shyama