As we all head into end-of-term grading, a lovely post about encouraging our students to fail:
Happy failures to you all!
Wednesday 2 October 2013
Sunday 28 July 2013
This seems of interest to FUMBLR readers (who should send in some new FAILS, by the way!):
Mistakes, Mishaps, and Medieval Moments of Failure
Session for the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 2014) sponsored by the Medieval Studies Workshop at the University of Chicago http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/medievalstudies/
We often say that history is written by the victors. But what of the losers, the mistakes, the campaigns lost, the scribes who erred, the catastrophic or minor moments of failure in medieval art, history, and literature? Many such failures result in the loss of lands or reputation, misunderstandings, and even now-comical images (e.g. the horned Moses). Other modes of failure have been recognized as more obviously productive, including the purported failure of art or language to adequately describe the divine in much of medieval Christian theology. Scholars ranging widely from Judith (Jack) Halberstram to Denys Turner have rightly advocated for alternative ways of knowing that do not just privilege narratives of hegemonic success. However, it appears that the place of failure still occupies a particularly fraught position in medieval history. Failure is at once recognized as central to techniques of confession, self-improvement, and personal humility while also dismissed as the unrecoverable and unimportant flotsam of history, demonstrated by the dearth of studies on mistakes and errors of persons, texts, and images. We hope in this panel to implicitly question our own methodological approaches through studies of failure in the Middle Ages and to consider the multiform and even contradictory ways that failure was construed by medieval audiences. We welcome papers from all disciplines that investigate or theorize failure in the medieval world.
Please submit paper proposals and participant information form http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html#PIF to Medieval Studies Workshop co-coordinators Jenna Timmons and Nancy Thebaut at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org no later than September 15, 2013.
Posted by ASM at 15:20
Tuesday 28 May 2013
This post began as a session at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, MI, known to all far and wide as KZoo or, simply, the Zoo. The session was called "Blunder," and was organized by the inimitable Eileen Joy, for the BABEL Working Group. The call went out as follows:
Then, with chaos and blunders encircling my head, / Let me ponder.
~ Oliver Goldsmith, “Retaliation 21″
This session features short presentations that explore medieval texts and other artifacts, and/or any aspect of scholarship on the Middle Ages, that engage, practically and theoretically, consciously or unconsciously, in blunder and blundering — defined as confusion, bewilderment, trouble, disturbance, clamour, discomfiture, turmoil, mistakes, stupidity, carelessness, bumbling, errancy, confounding, foolishness, foiling, stumbling, perturbing, mayhem, fracas, and noise. It is hoped that presentations will trace some of the ways in which “blunder” has served as an historical actant, “making things happen” (for good or ill) that could not be anticipated in advance and which (somewhat and somehow) escapes full human control.Shyama and I thought this sounded mighty FUMBLR-ish, so we threw our (dented) hats into the ring. The session was filled with enjoyable failures and foibles (my damned
"Blundering at the End in Beowulf," by Mary Kate Hurley [
"The Fruit of Failure," by M. W. Bychowski [
"Speculations and Rejections," by Nancy M. Thompson and Maggie Williams
"Scribal Blunders, Poetic Wonders: Reports from a Modern-Day Scribe," by David Hadbawnik
"Slices and Splices," by Marian Bleeke and Anne Harris
"Failblog/Fumblr," by Asa Simon Mittman and Shyama Rajendran
Posted by ASM at 12:00
Before I begin, I’d like to make a couple of surprising assertions.
Critics who study Beowulf as a career (and I see several of my fellow Anglo-Saxonists in the audience today) don’t agree on much. This might come as a shock, but there it is. Who wrote Beowulf? Where? When? Do we care? (the answer to that last is – of course, but for wildly different reasons). We do all agree on one thing, however.
Again: It comes as a bit of a shock, perhaps, but there it is. This poem does not end happily. Very few of its characters live through the last battle, and those that do are destined to destruction as the result of a feud they did not begin and will not live to finish. If there were a moral to the poem, it might be, simply, “everybody dies.”
Blunder might just be the best word for it, and appropriately, blunder seems to imply something catastrophic. Think, for example, of Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Ever intent on the linearity of his thinking (so that P would lead inevitably to Q), his inability to penetrate the secrets of his scholarly world leads Ramsay to repeatedly cite that most catastrophic of blunders, The Charge of the Light Brigade. “Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred.” With Ramsay, then: someone, indeed, had blundered.
And yet, a gentle stroll through the OED and MED suggests a slightly less harsh origin for the term. Indeed, in the pre- and early modern periods, blunder had somewhat less emphasis on the familiar “to move, act, or perform stupidly or blindly.” Rather, its earliest meanings – mostly obsolete now – have to do with confusion, but not in the sense merely of something not-as-it-should-be. The definitions include ideas of mixing and mingling, of “stirring up.” It is in this sense that I wish to consider blunder today: as an act that operates in a non-linear logic. I would suggest that in the blundering plunder of the thief who steals a cup we might also identify a wayward act of connection through which we can reimagine Beowulf. No longer only a sad poem, then (although it is that), Beowulf becomes a meditation on interconnections – of past and present, of thieves and gold and earth, and even -- yes – of humans and dragons.
And so, we blunder toward the end of Beowulf.
The central events of the final third of the poem revolve around the various uses of treasure – for men, for monsters, even for the ground that holds it. But before we’ve even seen the treasure, heard its story, or seen it interred in that most elegiac of laments – the Lay of the Last Survivor – we see it put to use, and not just by a man.
The hoard is buried, and the path to find it is not, we presume, well marked:
stig under læg
eldum uncuð. Þær on innan giong
nið[ð]a nathwyl(c, se ðe n)eh g(eþ[r]on)g
hæðnum horde; hond (eðe gefeng)
(searo) since fah. (lines 2213b-2217a)
(the path below lay unknown to men. Some sort of man went inside there, found his way to the heathen hoard — his hand [...] inlaid with jewels.)
The state of the manuscript here is pretty clear from the divergences between the two edited versions of the Old English text. Initially, at least, the specifics of what the thief stole, and why, are difficult to apprehend. What is clear, however, is that this is not an easy hoard to find – when this thief – or servant – or some sort of man (niðða nathwylc) – stumbles into the hoard, the path below lay “eldum uncuð” – unknown to men. It’s important here that we note the location of this contruction as part of the alliterative line – the primary stresses fall on eldum, uncuð, and innan – and the primary positioning, of course, is on eldum – the dative form of the noun. The path is unknown to or for men. Keep that in mind: to or for men. Like everything else in Beowulf, it comes back later, perhaps catastrophically.
And so the thief blunders into the hoard, but what he does there is simultaneously carefully calculated and a terrifying mistake.
sylfes willum, se ðe him sare gesceod,
ac for þreanedlan þe(o) nathwylces
hæleða bearna heteswengeas fle(a)h,
ærnes þearf(a), on ðær inne (f)eal(h)
secg syn(by)sig (…) (lines 2221-2226a)
(Not for his own sake did he who sorely harmed him (the dragon) break into that worm-hoard, or by his own will, but in sad desperation some sort of slave of a warrior’s son fled the savage lash, the servitude of a house, and slipped in there, a man beset by sins.)
As Klaeber articulates, “the slave of an unknown person attached to the Geatish court (þe(o) nathwylces), driven by sore affliction (for þreanedlan), steals a costly vessel from the dragon’s hoard, presenting it to his master to obtain his pardon” (Fulk et al, p. 237). (to the left, note how many of the major words in the section are extremely hard to read; below, note how the word “þe(o)” is almost impossible to read.) When the thief steals the cup from the dragon, he does so with a clear purpose. He brings it to his lord, in order be granted a favor (bene getiðiad, 2284). The cup is used as a price for entrance into human community; however, the cup bears other associations with it that are not centered in or on humans, including one with the hoard, and the dragon that guards it.
The dragon, who begins burning the countryside as a result of this theft, is simultaneously imagined as a threat to humans and a natural – or at least naturalized – creature. The logic of the poem itself allows for this reading: a shift in tone accompanies the dragon’s arrival in the hoard, and the fantastic creature is treated with a stunning familiarity. In lines reminiscent of the gnomic verse of such texts as Maxims I and II, or even the strange likenesses proffered by the riddles, the lines neutralize – or at the very least least, naturalize – the dragon’s actions:
He gesecean sceall
(hea)r(h on) hrusan, þær he hæðen gold
warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel. (2275b-2277)
It is his nature to find a hoard in the earth, where, ancient and proud, he guards heathen gold, though it does him no good.
The final line – which can be more directly translated as “he is not a whit the better for it” – at first seems a damning interpretation of the dragon’s ill use of treasure. The judgment passed on the dragon is, however, very clearly situated anthropocentrically—and a human frame is not the only view-point from which such action can be perceived in Beowulf, a poem where monsters live alongside the humans who shun them. The dragon’s non-human uses for hoard treasure, then, and the consequences for humans who act in ignorance of its possession, serves as a powerful reminder that for all the actions of human heroes, the erstwhile backdrop for such action is far from inert.
The narrative juxtaposition of the thief’s action with the dragon’s rage highlights the insufficiency of a purely human vision of community. The disparate events by which the hoard, the dragon, the thief, and the Geats are linked bring to light a larger network of associations, which includes humans and human communities but is not limited to them. The poem articulates this network most explicitly, perhaps, in its final lines. As Wiglaf and the Geats bury Beowulf: “forleton eorla gestreon eorðan healdan, / golde on greote, þær his nu get lifað / eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror wæs” ((they) let the earth hold the treasures of earls, gold in the ground, where it yet remains, just as useless to men as it was before, 3166-68). The most important part of this statement is the final line: “eldum swa unnyt, swa hit æror was,” as useless to men as it was before. In this line, both the alliteration and the primary positioning emphasize eldum – the dative construction (again) meaning “to men” or “for men.” The suggestion, then, is not that the treasure is not useful—rather, it is only not useful to men. As we have seen, men are not the only, and in some cases not even the primary, entities that matter in Beowulf.
Blunder might thus be imagined as an organizational principle: the blundering plunder of a thief in a hoard leads not only to the destruction of the Geats, but also to the revelation – for Beowulf’s audience and more tragically its characters, that humans cannot escape the world that surrounds them. It can be a motivator for rethinking Beowulf’s world, but also our own: an ethical injunction to acknowledge, live with – and sometimes, die with – life’s most basic fact: we are not alone.
 This paper is culled from a couple of sources: A. my job talk, which is on “Beowulf’s Collectivities” (probably better as “Beowulfian Ecologies,” but I hadn’t gotten there yet when I wrote it, and B. the massive hole in my dissertation chapter on Beowulf, in which I managed to talk about everybody but the thief and everything but the manuscript. I may have made a very lame joke about the session title when explaining this in the panel. Thankfully such ephemera are not preserved.
 insert Dr. Who “Everybody Lives” reference.
 Text is from Klaeber’s Beowulf, 4th ed. Translations are from Roy Liuzza’s Beowulf, 2nd ed.
 This was a fun blunder of my own: I’d gotten the MS page in question, but not saved my powerpoint. Some very quick searching on my computer (and Roy Liuzza’s fantastic 2nd edition of his translation of Beowulf) saved me.
 In the longer version of this argument, I also examine the Lay of the Last Survivor in a sustained reading of the ecologies implied by the poem’s sustained examination of the hoard and its environs.
Posted by ASM at 11:30
Friday 24 May 2013
Can we fail yet? Where and when does failure direct us? To answer this I ask yet another question: What fruit is this?
Experience provides me with information, sensations, instances of fruit that are like it, fruits that I have handled and tasted, but those fruits are not this fruit. Those fruits provide formal and sensual representations which may serve as a kind of utopic ideal of this fruit, but the particular reality of this fruit, let’s say its taste, resists incorporation and conflation with these expectations. These expectations are bound to fail, to be replaced by the assertion of the unexpected particulars I experience when biting into it. That is what reveals that these other fruits are utopic, because they are not topical here and now. The real presence replaces the ideal present. In this way, realism through contradicting the ideal, through failure, disturbs our sense of the potential towards material possibilities.
Failure rhetoric as of late has tended to be utopic, in Jose Munoz’s line of thought, revealing what is missing or failing in present realities and thus opens us up to change. This does not go far enough. I argue that the experience of surprise and failure in the topical reveals the reality that is missing in the imagined present --- directing us towards changes which have already occurred and towards a greater investment in the possibilities of the present, rather than the potentials of the future. Put another way, failure is an object-ion to a form of phantasmal subjectivity. Revolution is already underway, but it may be enacted and directed by the fruits of the object-laden universe.
An imagined theoretical proof of this I draw from the speculative medievalist work of CS Lewis from the 1940s, drawing on scenes from the Great Divorce where the narrator is brought to paradise through a dream vision and from Peralandra where the protagonist is brought to paradise through angelic intervention. In both cases, Lewis’s paradises bring the reader from a present day world into an aesthetic suggesting the medieval aesthetic suggesting an unreachable elsewhere time and place in existence. Drawing from medieval accounts of paradise, Lewis furnishes both with signature ecological pieces, giving particular attention, not surprisingly, to trees and fruit which uniquely disturb time and space.
In the Great Divorce, fruits disappoint a consumer attempt to collect, sell and make them into capital gains by asserting a distinctive space. In Peralandra, fruits disappoint a sensualist’s attempt to continually repeat a pleasure by asserting of distinctive time. In these ways, he provides object lessons on transformation through experiences of fruits and failure, on how the critique of failure that Munoz claims makes the now into a not now, may be instead imagined through speculative realism as failures which find the Utopic in the here and now, where we may better attend to and work with real material possibilities.
Lewis’s speculative work, what he called his “supposal” literature, were aimed he claims to alter our experience of the now by imagining our own reality shifted in time, space or quality. The Great Divorce follows in the tradition of the medieval dream-vision, offering a sleeper who travels to paradise in real time and encounters things-in-themselves, a world where the essential being of things have flourished to such a point as to make blades of grass, leaves on trees, and fruits on the ground to definite that they resist hardily change, even in location, through a kind of ontological persistence. In the preface to the Great Divorce, Lewis writes, “[A thing] does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different… from other good” (Lewis, GD 465). This “ripening” thus defines difference and distinctiveness of matter.
Taking the case of such essential ripening to actual fruit, the dreamer in the tale encounters a scene where another stranger to the land discovers a tree which has just dropped a pile of these hard as diamond apples in front of him. Working towards the scheme he shared with the dreamer earlier, he attempts to pick up as many as he can to bring back home and sell as a whole new category of product to sell. Failing to lift the pile, he attempts to just pick up one and carries it a little way until he gives up and traveler and fruit fall to the ground.
Suddenly, the water-fall beside the tree begins to speak to the traveler, saying "Fool… put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it [somewhere else]. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you" (Lewis, GD, 492). The dreamer then turns away from the scene as Duns Scotus, the 13th century theologian literally appears to give a lesson on haecceities and how the “this-ness” of a thing can serve an impetus for more pragmatic ontological and ethical relations to the world. Lewis, revealed as the dreamer, admits his love for Scotus before an orgasmic vision of the manifold coincidence of time and space in the moment of the real shatters his vision and awakens him.
The majority of Lewis’s other supposal literature take the form of a there and back again narrative, where persons from the nominally real here and now travels to another world, usually imagined overtly or covertly, expect for those familiar with his sources, as a kind of medieval-ish other time and place. The most familiar instance of this occurs across all the Chronicles of Narnia, but are also present, much earlier, in his Space Trilogy, of which Peralandra forms the second installment.
In this tale, Ransom is carried away from his English cottage by an angel, where CS Lewis literally watches him disappear into the heavens. From there he is carried to Venus, which he discovers has recently awakened into life as a new Paradise. It shares critical similarities to medieval visions of Eden, including one man, one woman, a tempter, and a plethora of fruiting trees and non-violent animals. Lewis however introduces key differences into this Paradise which distinguish it both from traditional visions of paradise and from the one imagined in the Great Divorce. Peralandra, rather than embodying the essential, persisting being of things, instead emphasizes the sensual, transforming becoming of things. It is an entirely aquatic planet where the only lands are floating islands
with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it… A photograph, omitting the colors and the perpetual variation of shape, would make them look deceptively like landscapes in our own world, but the reality is very different; for they, are dry and fruitful like land but their only shape is the inconstant shape of the water beneath them… furnished what would have been a dozen landscapes on Earth-now level wood with trees as vertical as towers, now a deep bottom where it was surprising not to find a stream, now a wood growing on a hillside, and now again, a hilltop. (Lewis, P., 36-37).
This instance on the “now,” always different than any other “now” is an ethical, as well as ontological, imperative for change, with Peralandra’s one and only rule that no one may live on the planet’s one fixed land-mass.
This ontology of perpetual change meets ethics for the protagonist after he discovers an orchard of trees on one of these floating islands, where he tastes his first fruit, “so different from every other taste…a totally new genus of pleasures,: something unheard of among men” which he could only ever describe as “not like that.” Such an object is a refusal of what Graham Harman calls the “undermining” and “over-mining” impulse (Harman 8-11) to view it as an instrumental part of some-thing else, a topical failure in the utopic dreams of the present’s relation to potential futures:
[As he was] about to pluck a second one…for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day… he stood...wondering how often in his life on Earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire...as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards… of arresting the unrolling of the film. (Lewis, P., 43).
What Lewis did with the spatial particularity and hardness in the Great Divorce, he here does with temporal particularity and inconstancy in Peralandra, demonstrating that each thing in each moment is so real that trying to subsume it into a kind of ideal type which can be exchanged across the world or sustained throughout time. Having experienced this scene, Ransom turns and meets “the Green Lady” who explicates this principle:
One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit... One joy was expected and another is given… at the very moment of the finding there is. a kind of…a setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished/you could keep it there… after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other. (Lewis, P. 53).
Failing to hold fruits across time and space reveals a disjuncture between the ideal & failed now. Things we encounter are ever changing, never what we knew or expected; failures disturb us from a utopian present to dwell-in-the-world here and now; to taste its strangeness; All attest we don’t know what fruit this is, but we can learn from it. Rather than look for potentials on the utopic horizon, let us attend to the possibilities in the failure of the here and now, for utopias that are not also topical will do the work of building for as Lewis writes, “Other things, other blessings, other glories...But never that. Never in all worlds, that" (Lewis, P., 65).
Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Washington: Zero Books, 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “The Great Divorce.” The Complete Works of CS Lewis. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1946
Lewis, C.S. Peralandra. New York: Scribner Inc., 1943.
Thursday 23 May 2013
This blog post provides the text of our handout and the script of our performance. Unfortunately, we do not have a video of the performance, but we included a few still photos to capture the mood. PLEASE comment on what you read and keep the conversation going!
What you will hear today is a dramatization. Except for the opening salutation, the text of this presentation is a collage of actual quotations from letters we--and our colleagues in other areas--have received in response to articles submitted to peer-reviewed publications in the field of art history. Often, the critiques that appear in those letters are unnecessarily cruel, not constructive or helpful, and motivated more by politics than true collegiality. For many specialized areas, there is also the problem of content versus method, in which reviewers are experts on a given topic but potentially prejudiced against an alternative approach to that material. In many cases, the anonymity of peer reviewing is virtually impossible given the small pool of experts in a given field. Today, we hope to draw attention to these issues by highlighting some of the withering critiques that have heretofore remained hidden away in the shameful dark corners of our file cabinets.
Here is a partial list of some blogs and websites that are bringing similar letters to light:
(types on a laptop)
(pushes back from computer, sighs)
Ooh, I can’t wait to see what my peers think of my work!
(haughtily reading over her glasses, marks a paper feverishly while groaning in disdain. She then puts the paper down on the desk and picks up another sheet of paper, from which she reads)
Dear Professor Thompson,
Thank you for submitting your essay “A Postcolonial/Feminist/Ecocritical/Vital Materialist/Phenomenological Reading of Some Medieval Works of Art” to the esteemed Journal of Medieval Studies. Although none of our reviewers are familiar with the “theories” that you have explored, many of them have spent decades immersing themselves in the minutiae of the period when the works were produced. They have weighed your paper, and, unfortunately, found it to be lacking.
As you are no doubt aware, letters like this one are often comprised of a basic template, with some specific criticisms interspersed. In order to expedite the process, we have compiled a synopsis of critical comments which we hope you will find helpful:
(Actual quotes begin here:)
- On the one hand, the basic premise of the essay is both interesting and worthy of exploration, and the author brings some useful insights. On the other hand, the article as a whole is rather unsatisfying. In addition to needing the usual careful editing for grammar and typos … I find the rhetoric an odd combination of hyperbole (at the beginning) and overreliance on secondary sources (throughout) used in unsophisticated ways....I find the references to/juxtapositions with modern thought here and there annoying, but that is perhaps more a reflection of my own stylistic predilections. More seriously, the introduction of the figure of Moses is poorly done, and besides, “Medieval Codex 312” (a manuscript I know something about!) has the earliest horned Moses, not “Medieval Codex 313”, which undercuts some of the force of the essay’s rhetoric (and reliability). I may as well point out too that while perhaps Babel was associated with Nimrod as a giant, that is not what is in the picture as far as I can tell. Finally, the essay doesn’t really bring the conclusion home in any satisfying way. ....
- I'm unconvinced…
- The author's most original contributions are the speculations about the multiple meanings of [the objects]... These speculations, however, are not based on any contemporary literary sources and derive entirely from the author's imagination. I question whether this is a sufficient source for a published article.
- I believe this sort of approach has little value. It would be far better if a chronological and comprehensive review of the medieval interpretation of [the objects] was attempted. A compilation of literary sources is necessary first.
- So the argument is really a set of assertions, with 'might haves' and 'could haves' instead of evidence.
- Violation [of the manuscript] begets a certain type of empathy? But this should not be confused with scholarship.
- The author needs to consider the possibility that visual similarities might reveal workshop links, (or, alternatively, common doctrinal/theological preoccupations)
- Professor Thompson needs to read the most important dissertation in this area, a recent work by.... Nancy M. Thompson.
- the work lacks the necessary scholarly apparatus
- the essay is methodologically unsophisticated
- You seem to cherish a sentimental attachment to your object of study that is distracting at best and, taken at its worst, conveys a lack of the critical distance necessary for a serious academic study
- the author comes across as overly earnest
- Most problematic, however, is the author's assumption that all her readers are Christians -- or even all Protestants since she dumps on Catholics, too. This is deeply offensive to all her academic readers. ... Finally, the topic, although a woman writer [sic], does not cover issues of gender or women's place.
- ...perhaps, but I remain unconvinced.
In conclusion, one of our editors would like to add that she is very sorry, not least because she’s devoted a tremendous amount of her own time and effort to get your paper to where it is, and she hopes this won't discourage you from submitting other work.
I’m sorry to say that we have decided not to publish the paper, although we did enjoy reading it.
Posted by ASM at 18:01