Friday, May 17, 2013

Kalamazoo 2013 - Marginalia

There are several advantages in attending Kazoo, which you might view as a kind of Comicon for medievalists. First and foremost you are placed in the immediate proximity of a couple thousand often very smart people who frequently have similar or related interests to your own. A professional conviviality arises that is unobtainable elsewhere, since at home you are likely regarded as an eccentric or a social deviant, and there are probably not enough medievalists resident at your institution to even form a committee. 

An ongoing concern with medieval studies is the relentless quest for sources, and here you have a chance to examine the presenters to see if they’re on to something you’ve overlooked or haven’t yet discovered. I do this constantly, and sometimes it really pays off. The luminaries in the profession often show up here, the people you’re always quoting in your footnotes. It’s fun to see and hear them, and even talk to them as much as the objective circumstances permit. 

Of the 250 sessionsit's the biggest academic conference in the U.S. about two dozen are scheduled simultaneously, meaning that no matter how much you hustle, you will never attend more than ten per cent. You spend most of your free time trying to make up your mind from the catalog which sessions to visit. Nonetheless there inevitably comes the moment when you’ve exhausted your own interests, so you show up at a session concerning something about which you know absolutely nothing. And it’s exactly these encounters that open new doors, point to new directions. 

In contrast with much of academia, the study of the Middle Ages is not so much hard-wired as it is endlessly diffuse. Almost everything that humans get interested in, almost every sphere of human activity you can imagine—from numismatics and bee-keeping to interstellar travel has some kind of medieval correspondence, in some cases also its point of origin. And that’s the advantage of Kalamazoo, where one really gets close to this vast ocean of strangeness and alterity. It's like a distant planet situated both behind and before us, one which recedes from view the closer we get to it, as we marvel at its blurry, colorful enormity. It is truly a wonderment. 

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 “Runes and Gold Bracteates: The Futhark Sequences as Mythic Mnemonic.”

“Doing It Doggy Style on Medieval Seals” 

“A Typology of Pre-Tailored Men’s Garments Based on Key Measurements and Proportions, or, How Tall Was Saint Louis and Who Wore His Shirt?” 


The almost non-existent shuttle bus service between the buildings completely sucks, compared with previous years when the bus ran every ten or fifteen minutes. 

The soft ice-cream machine in the cafeteria was down on Day Two. This must never happen again. 

There should be introduced a bus service that goes to the Kazoo train station at 1pm on Sunday to meet the Wolverine back to Chicago. 

Kalamazoo 2013 - 4/4


Up betimes to prepare my presentation entitled “The Gargoyles of Yerba Buena: Medievalist Architectural Innovation in San Francisco 1900-1940” at the morning session. Unfortunately it coincided with the one event I really wanted to attend this year: a roundtable entitled “The Future We Want,” presided by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whom I’ve corresponded with but not yet met.

The purpose of my own paper was to show what was distinctive about the profusion of medieval buildings that went up in San Francisco after the fire in 1906, and to argue more generally that medievalist architecture of the 20th century—because of the innovation of cast concrete as a construction technology and the new kinds of buildings in which it was employed—e.g. office buildings, high schools, Laguna Honda Hospital, SF Art Institute, etc.—deserves to be studied separately from either its Gothic Revival (1840-1860) or its Victorian Gothic (1870-1890) predecessors. In other words, medievalism in the 20th century had different things to offer than in the 19th.

Trinity Episcopal Church at Bush and Gough is the best example of castellated church architecture in San Francisco. Surely the ghost of Hamlet's father would feel at home on these lonely battlements, which may have been erected for defense against raids by the Unitarian-Universalists, who are located in a likewise medievalist church building just two blocks away.

The fact that one had to present this in a twenty-minute time slot, the norm for most academic conferences I’ve attended, is completely ridiculous. Still I thought it important to make my complete argument, which seemed to go over pretty good, and I was asked interesting questions. I am grateful to SF State Univ for sending me to spread word of the glory of medieval San Francisco.

Trying to provide an interesting presentation in twenty minutes is like trying to fly with one’s wings clipped, and it has the annoying effect of causing speakers to rattle off their learned discourse at breakneck speed, for fear of exceeding the time limit. This makes it often hard to understand what they’re talking about. I think there ought to be two thirty-minute presenters, followed by a brief pause to allow the disenchanted to escape, and then thirty minutes of discussion for enthusiasts.

In the afternoon I attended two BABEL sessions about “Plunder” and “Blunder” organized by Eileen Joy. We began with a talk about the motion and the vectors (travel paths) of “things,” such as the relics of  San Marco during the Venetian Republic, and then we looked at hordes of “things” that that possess auras and signify lost utopias, ranging from the dragon’s hoard at the end of Beowulf to the objects collected in a Masonic Temple museum somewhere in Massachusetts that houses—quite uselessly, since nobody ever comes to visit—a host of “things” that functioned as symbolic ritual objects during the golden age of male fraternal organizations in America.

A dozen or more short presentations followed on a variety of topics that concerned other things besides “things,” and the afternoon concluded with a lengthy and animated audience discussion about what to do about the process of peer review in journal submissions, which in its present condition seems to upset everyone (myself included, don’t get me started).

Eileen Joy made the altogether sensible, if unlikely suggestion that we should aim to construct publishing as a means of conducting a free and open conversation amongst ourselves wherever we are located as humanities students, and that the criticism from or among reviewers and editors should follow this goal.

But one could argue I think that a male-oriented, adversarial sensibility is at the historical core of the academic process, just as it operates in the Anglo-Saxon judicial trial system and in parliamentary party politics. Just think of the tradition of university debates and medieval disputation—going back to Peter Abelard, who wandered the streets of Paris like a lone samurai questing for philosophical combat.

In general I thought the BABEL workgroup folk obviously enjoy projecting their self-image of something resembling a Parisian street mob during the French Revolution, intent upon demolishing academic hierarchies and traditional shibboleths* such as certain traditional vectors of peer review in the publication process.

But being a Sixties radical myself, their position, if the Babelites collectively may be said to have one, seems far too conservative. After all, when I first went to grad school in America, there weren’t even any women present, and because of the existing institutional censorship there were all sorts of things you couldn’t even begin to talk about in class—including for example why there weren’t any women or minorities present.

My hat is off to the Babelites anyway. Incidentally, if you're involved with Critical Theory in medieval studies, these are the people to hang out with. It seems pretty much absent elsewhere at Kalamazoo.

*Hebrew shibbōleth: literally, freshet, a word used by the Gileadites as a test to detect the fleeing Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh  (Judges 12:4–6).


Kalamazoo 2013 - 3/4


This was probably the most productive day for me, due to a small epiphany I experienced at a talk given by Jonathan Couser concerning emotionality (or evidently more often the lack of it) in the letters of St Boniface. He spoke of Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of “emotional communities,” and asked if one might be able to contemplate a “history of the emotions” for the Middle Ages. Patrick Geary mentioned separate rhetorics involved with modes of emotional expression—for a rough example: one might choose a different vocabulary when one talks with teachers or priests. I had an interesting conversation with Jonathan at lunchtime the next day to refine the matter a bit.

I had written and also presented (at a Medieval Association of the Pacific conference in Santa Clara last year) about the “poems of male friendship” and the homoerotic imagery richly, indeed outrageously present in the letters of Carolingian churchmen. It occurred to me that I could revisit this whole topic conceptually in terms of an existing emotional community, which from my perspective is doubtless the most blatantly emotional within the entire E.M.A.

In the afternoon on to Fred Astren’s paper on the activities of rabbis in the medieval Mediterranean, followed by a whole bunch of other interesting stuff. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Kalamazoo 2013 - 2/4


A morning session featured a discussion of relations between the French and the papacy in the 11th century, and a presentation about Bonifatius (St Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon who converted many Germans, and founded monasteries and helped organize the German church in the early 8th c.). This scholar seemed knowledgeable about every single contemporary clerical comment written down about the indigenous heathens, worshipers of Odin/Wotan.

I asked if one could identify some kind of turning point following the Reform Movement after the Concordat of 1122 when the popes, having deposed the German emperors from leadership of the church, decided to mix it up with French. There clearly are plenty of good reasons why the popes would want to, but what exactly triggered their interventions in French affairs?

Then I asked what the condition and organization of the German church was at the time of Boniface and if anyone had found out when the first German monastery was founded, following Clovis’ conversion  ca. 500. (They used not to call them the Dark Ages for nothing.) As I  anticipated, the answer in both cases was no, but this is the kind of question one can profitably ask at Kalamazoo, just to confirm one’s own perceptions while ignoring the taint of public humiliation over one’s putative ignorance.

In the afternoon I heard Richard Matthew Pollard, Univ British Columbia: “Identifying the Men behind the Popes in Early Medieval Rome: An Exercise in Methodology,” which I found really brilliant. I can’t recapitulate the argument here, but the idea is roughly that through analysis of Latin prose rhythms we can determine (for example) which letters Pope Gregory I. wrote himself, and which he assigned to his chancery, and this is turn may inform us about which matters he held most important.

Having come to medieval studies only six years ago after a long career teaching English and German, I have lacked any real opportunity for manuscript studies, and I am full of envy for Richard’s experience and expertise. I spoke with him afterwards, and I was surprised that he remembered me from our brief conversation at Kazoo in 2009, when he was still a doctoral student at Cambridge with Rosamond McKitterick, the great genetrix of modern Carolingian studies. Richard totally made my day when he mentioned that he had used my Walafrid Strabo translations in a class he taught.

An evening session devoted to Walter Gofford’s one-hour contemplation of Charlemagne’s conscription policies conducted me also into the physical presence of early medieval military historians Bernie Bachrach and Kelly DeVries, hitherto known to me only from the printed page.
Dr Gofford impressed me as more than a little snarky, which I suppose at his advanced age is understandable. He spent a full five minutes castigating Timothy Reuter for writing that Charlemagne’s armies were conscripted from “magnates and their followings,” when (if I understood correctly) Reuter might have more accurately written “magnates and allodial landowners,” so as to include the participation of the liberi (freemen).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kalamazoo 2013 - 1/4

MAY 9-12, 2013


The flight to O’Hare proceeded without incident, and I had the satisfaction of riding the marvelously anachronistic Chicago Elevated Railway for 50 minutes into the city in order to transfer at Union Station (ticket =$5). Unhappily both the elevator and escalator at Clinton were out of service, compelling me to schlepp my impedimenta four flights of stairs skywards, an unwelcome challenge since I banged up my knee a couple  years ago in the SFSU parking lot and have been hobbling around with a cane ever since.

I collapsed into my seat on the Amtrak Wolverine and prepared for the two-hour journey to Kalamazoo. Compared with the California Coast Starlight, it was a remarkably fast and smooth ride, comparable almost to the better European trains. We passed through the industrial ruin that Gary, Indiana, has become—Hephaestus’ forge is apparently extinguished in these precincts forever—and, after a few tantalizing glimpses of Lake Michigan in the distant twilight, we pressed on to my complete surprise past one of the most adorable Richardsonian Romanesque railroad stations I have ever laid eyes on, in the town of Niles, MI.

Niles Michigan Station. Photo: Poul Thor Hansen. Clicking embiggens.

In a mad moment I was severely tempted to pull the emergency brake and run out to photograph it, but according to a loudspeaker announcement we had achieved our maximum speed of 110 mph—beat that California Coast Starlight!—and I feared that at this dazzling tempo the train would never be able to come to a stop before we had come half-way to Kalamazoo.

On the bus from the train station to the Western Michigan University campus I fell into conversation with a young archaeologist from Ireland named Fiona who had come a long way to present about a dig she was undertaking somewhere in an Irish county whose name was unfamiliar to me. It happened also that Fiona was not only cheerfully conversant but also drop-dead gorgeous. Crazed from the stress of travel and falling victim to a sudden attack of courtly love, I felt like throwing myself to her feet and saying: “Take me, Fiona, I am yours forever, do me with me as you will, I will serve and obey you in all things and never desert you, etc., now explain to me every little detail about your marvelous Celtic excavations.”

Figuring that given my current age group—ridiculously, I have now become 73— not much might arise from my abruptly conceived infatuation, I wearily trudged off to my assigned accommodation. This year I decided to play the disability card with my house assignment and was given what must be considered an executive suite compared to the jail cells they stash the unfortunate undergrads and the other conference visitors in at this place. The cafeteria is just downstairs, and I don’t have to share the bath with anyone, all for the same thirty clams per day they charge everyone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Medieval angst about climate change?

Sea is swallowed, flaming burn the heavens,
Moon falls, Middle Earth burns....

                              Muspilli, v53-54

Extinction-grade cataclysms require official authorization to support their imagined arrival. Muspilli, the Weltuntergang, the annihilation of Middle Earth, the Flood, the Fire-next-timeall end-of-the-world scenarios achieve legitimacy through the agency of a Grand Signifier. For the Middle Ages, this could only be the Bible; in our time it is "science" that fills the same function. Those who support political action to reduce global warming will argue that "most scientists agree that...," while those opposed will say that "scientists are unable to demonstrate that...," and so on. What remains constant from medieval to modern is the underlying fear that indeed our precious yet precariously positioned world will someday come to a terrible end.

Other ruminations about  Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 28. f. 66v can be found by Jeffrey J Cohen and others here.

A willing servitude

It's true I suppose that blog writing has been gradually going out of fashion. I suppose also that we are all owned in one way or another by Google, a willing servitude in my case since I have been making use of their Blogger product free of charge for a few years now.

Last Fall however Google "monetized" my blog by inserting ads into it, without any warning or endorsement from me, which in no case would have been forthcoming since for starters I'd not buy any of the ridiculous junk they were advertising.

Unwilling to yield to corporate fascism as I've been compelled in so many other areas of my life, and not knowing what else to do about it, I simply stopped writing. I left the blog intact, because I get about a hundred hits a day whether I write or not, mostly Googlers I suppose who are searching the topics I've written about. And I do still receive comments, one from a woman in Stockholm who had never been to San Francisco but had seen the movie Vertigo and enjoyed my post about it.

Now I notice that the ads have disappeared
Google must have thought I died or somethingso I am going to start blogging again, and we'll see what happens next.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Buddha's Army — Part Two: Shirahige Shrine at Lake Biwa

There has always been an instinct in East Asia to clone objects of Buddhist veneration for the purpose of acquiring merit -- for example the endless reproduction of mani stones in Tibet, the ritual copying of the Heart Sutra with ink and brush, the countless stone-carved Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that adorn the temples and cemeteries.

Stonecarved Buddha statues are ubiquitous in Japan, found not only on holy ground but in also quite unexpected places: one can go for a hike in the mountains and stumble upon a little stone shrine next to the trail, a propos apparently of nothing at all.

The little statues can be centuries old, and more often than not the tourist will encounter them in small assemblies, where they have been collected to make use of the land where they were first erected.

There is a particularly nice congregation gathered at the Shirahige Shrine at Lake Biwa. The statues are considerably larger than normal, and the little park integrates a traditional Shinto shrine as well, which is somewhat unusual in Japan since Buddhist and Shinto sites generally maintain a respectful distance.

Each figure retains its own individual personality, in contra-distinction to Southeast Asia,
where standard canonic forms are conventionally reproduced. 

The famous tori-i stands directly opposite the Shirahige Shrine.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Buddha's Army — Part One

The surprising discovery early this year of about 3000 Buddha figures buried in a riverbed in Hebei Province will be a source of fascination to anyone interested in East Asian Buddhist iconography and archaeology. This photo which accompanied an article about the find in the National Geographic Daily News from April 12 might represent the future Maitreya Buddha in a traditional contemplative posture as he cogitates upon ways to assist mankind in its restless quest for  enlightenment:

This sculpture is technically sophisticated enough to have originated in the Tang period, yet the theme is as old as Northern Wei, and the gesture universal in appearance, even if  considerably less agonized than Rodin's grunting thinkers.