Sunday, September 29, 2013

Today's (Art-Historical) Damage

Visited the Met today. Books were 20% off for members. Bought these. Now having them guarded by a fuzzy heraldic animal that is extremely pointy at five of six ends.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Paved Paradise and Put Up a Dorm

I don't walk down 12th St. between 4th and 3rd especially often, and I'd never noticed this building before today. It looks like NYU sliced the back off a church and put a dorm up in its place. This is just a quick snap from my iPhone; since it's an NYU dorm I didn't really feel comfortable going back and lurking around and taking pictures with a better camera. But here are some, along with an explanation of what happened. Turns out NYU sliced the back off a church to put a dorm.

This Post Brought to You by the Letters F, E, R, P & A

I carried out a very interesting thought exercise in the realm of low-level computational linguistics this morning while grading my students' first essays. Unfortunately, because I'm blogging under my own name and because my seminar is so small, saying anything at all about it could identify the student and place me in violation of FERPA (also just be a huge pedagogical misstep). So, here I am, thinking deep thoughts about writing and teaching, and all I can do is tease you about just how cool they are. There have only been a few moments when I've regretted the decision not to blog pseudonymously, but I think this is one of them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Love, Literature and Lunacy

The most recent kerfuffle over gender and authorship has taken off now that David Gilmour, a Canadian novelist who teaches at the University of Toronto, explained that he only loves the writing of "serious heterosexual guys" enough to teach it.

Oh, except for Virgina Woolf, but she's just too confusing for undergraduates.

Forget for a moment the wrong-headedness and the literary insensitivity required to love only books written by straight men and to consider them the only "serious" ones. Forget about the completely uncritical categorization of literature as "serious" or not.

It was a damned stupid thing for him to say beyond all those reasons because of the blow it dealt to those of us who believe that love is and by rights should be a criterion in studying literature. Don't get me wrong. My teaching is critically rigorous; and I don't only teach works that I love. In fact, there's one major canonical medieval Spanish work (that shall remain unidentified) that I *hate* but I teach it anyway (and do a really good job of it) because it's the professionally responsible thing to do. Maybe professional irresponsibility is a luxury that can be afforded by a single individual who is one of several covering one linguistic-literary tradition from one general time period, but I'm still not sure (to put it mildly) that it's a good idea to take advantage of it.

I'm a scholar who shamelessly loves her poets and her translators. I'm also a teacher who sometimes begins class by asking students whether they liked what they read and using that as a point of entry into a more critically informed discussion. And perhaps paradoxically, I don't love literature uncritically.  The L-word is a bad one in certain critical circles; and I fear that by conflating love with shameless bias and ignorance, Mr. Gilmour has made it a bad one in even more.

ETA, 11pm: In response to Gilmour's claims that he was quoted out of context, the full transcript of the interview has been made available online. The man who claims to love only serious literature describes Chekhov as "cool."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Umayyad, Underwear, Upper Class...

This is a post to celebrate Banned Books Week. The most challenged book in America this year was a children's book called Captain Underpants. Because, you know, children might find out that people wear them. Turns out that people wore and wrote about remarkably similar ones in the Middle Ages.

From the index of Y. Stillman. Female Attire in Medieval Egypt. 1972.

Umayyad, underwear, upper class.

Even if you've decided to bear with me through the repetition of the end of the index of Yedida Stillman's (z"l) dissertation, you might already be thinking: This is going to be complete pants! But please let me explain why I've used the word "underwear" twice — no, thrice — already in this blog post; I promise I'll be brief.*

If you're looking, as I have been lately, to read about medieval outerwear in A Mediterranean Society, you'll find it in a chapter on clothing in volume IV, after several pages about, well, innerwear. And in perusing it, I have noticed that, perhaps without even realizing it, Goitein documents more than ten attestations of tighty-whities in the Genizah society.

Yep.  Just like Eli the fanatic would do from the pages of Philip Roth's fiction nearly a millennium later, tenth-century Cairene Jews wore BVDs. (So, yes, this is really more about Fatimid underpants rather than Umayyad undergarments.) 

Goitein writes:

"Only in a marriage contract from the little town of Damsis in the Nile Delta are the pants listed, but in Hebrew, as we would circumscribe "unmentionables" by writing the word in Latin. The price, half a dinar, was exceptionally high. As illustrations show, the underpants of working people were short and tight, those of the middle class and women longer and fluffy, but entirely different from the later Near Eastern breeches, sirwal, which were excessively wide in their upper part but corded up beneath the knee" (Med Soc. IV.ix.B.1, p. 162).
To parse this observation out, what is being described here is tenth-century tighty-whities, worn by members of the lower class, in contrast with more comfortable and luxurious underwear worn by women and men in the upper echelons of society. Goitein seems to be relying heavily on visual evidence here (citing Richard Ettinghausen, in particular), though I am dying of curiosity to know what Arabic word he had in mind when rendering "fluffy" in English; there are about ten documents that contain references to underpants that could be chased down for adjectives.

As a matter of historiography, I am deeply curious about the circumstances under which Goitein and other scholars of his generation would be writing about garments in English and then find themselves switching code in order to write the already-tamed unmentionables in Latin. I suspect that it was rather a different sensibility than the one that moves people to pull Captain Underpants from libraries. Nevertheless, call in the censors.

*I have never in my life so acutely felt the need for a snare drum and cymbal.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

To Gift the Gift of Neologism

"Necessity," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "obliges us to neologize," thus defending the idea of a living language and also creating the meta-coinage to neologize.

Neologisms are a favorite whipping boy of linguistic prescriptivists, people who hold high the standard of a pretty frozen canonical sense of a language; and they bash people over the heads (usually only verbally) who suggest that usages that depart from this standard, rather than choosing to observe and describe language as it is actually used in a variety of contexts and registers, from the literary to the colloquial, and acknowledge the inherent grammaticality even of non-standard forms of a language. (It should be pretty clear which side I come down on.)

In the same way that stupid criminals and inept terrorists make me feel better about the state of the world, ignorant prescriptivists make me feel better about the state of thinking about language: they're dinosaurs paving the way to their own extinction. (Not to mix metaphors or anything. I mean, it's not like a T-Rex could use a cement mixer to pave anything with those tiny little arms.)

I've been cognizant of this phenomenon lately because I just submitted an article to a journal that contains several occurrences of a word that is not a neologism, but is rather a relatively new revival of a usage that dates back to Shakespeare's time; yet it is, nonetheless, a favorite rallying cry for prescriptivists without a sense of history: the verb to gift. People who dislike the word tend to single out Apple, in particular, for special scorn for verbalizing the noun gift in its iTunes user interface.

But they're sorely wrong, as the word is attested as a verb as early as the sixteenth century and commonly in the seventeenth.

The revival of the usage of gift as a verb in common parlance is almost definitely related to iTunes selecting it as the verb of choice to indicate the action of paying for music or videos to be sent to somebody else in the same way that Netflix is neatly responsible for the restoration of the word queue to the American English vernacular.

It's definitely not new, though.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I'm Not Dead Yet!

I'm cognizant of the fact that I've not been updating much and that recent posts haven't been hugely content heavy. Beyond the usual start-of-term chaos, I'm chalking it up to my readjusting to the classroom after fifteen months on research leave and having to remember how to manage my research time while teaching, to the high holidays, and to a variety of personal nonsense. I have about five half-finished posts and a bunch of semi-academic books to review here, so this is just poking my head up above the water line with a brief plea to bear with me. I'm still here, and I'll get back to being interesting very soon!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Week in Links (Breakfast Edition)

I'm starting out with the very best link ever: An Arabic translation of Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky. I hate to criticize, because it's fantastic, but the tradition of Arabic poetics is so rich and deep that I think that with a few tweaks, this could have been made even more impressive. That said, it still is worthy of best link ever status:

Jabberwocky in Arabic

Moving on from made-up Arabic, here is a brief post on region-specific reasons not to conflate Modern Standard and Classical Arabic:

Anachronistic Arabic in Algeria

In re: regional dialects, though in English, this is a really interesting quiz that measures the respondent's accent and usage against very narrow regional bands of English.  It's long, but very accurate (or completely fabricated and just using the data from my cookies). At the end, it asks you your current place of residence and the city where you grew up before giving a list of the five cities whose accent and dialectal features most resemble your own.  My top two were given as New York, NY and Stamford, CT. It's eerie because I listed San Francisco, CA as my childhood home — in other words, New York and San Francisco were the only two geographic data points that the quiz had about me — but I was born in Stamford and lived there until I was 10 years old. Some of the questions did make me wonder about the extent to which the quiz was measuring for class as much as for region, but I'd have to read the documentation to be sure.

Full Dialect Quiz and Survey

Short Dialect Quiz and Survey

From computational linguistics to computational literature. I don't believe it's the end-all and be-all, but I do think it can yield some interesting results, especially for understudied corpora:

Computational Linguistics an Literary Scholarship

O, German existentialists! The Americans you have to worry about are not the ones who have embargoed PhD dissertations, but the ones who invent their PhD out of whole cloth and have no dissertation, embargoed or otherwise:

Why Care About the O'Bagy Affair?

Jonathan Franzen is preciously horrified that writers he previously respected might deign to use Twitter. Not directly in response, Mary Beard explains its value:

What's Wrong with the Modern World?

Why Tweet?

The fact of the matter is, nobody's writing schedule/system/approach (and that includes medium-stakes writing and thinking and decompression time!) looks like anybody else's. For example, I blog in the morning because it helps getting the juices going, while for many people I know, that would represent a waste of their most productive time of the day.  I love Peter Ackroyd's books, and there's something about his writing schedule that makes me reassured about my own:

Peter Ackroyd's London Calling

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Week in Links (The I Hope I Have Something Interesting To Say in this Space Soon Edition)

I've been saying pretty much since my first entry into it that the peer review process is really badly broken. Here's an unusually frank discussion of a really concrete breakdown in that process:

Reviewing JDH Roundup

This is a web exhibition put together by last year's Katz Center fellows with objects from the Penn library collections. The exhibition is about as weird as the group of fellows was. (I say that mostly affectionately):

Thirteenth-Century Entanglements

And an interesting post on a lone Algerian Isagoge manuscript:


From medieval in Algeria to medievalism in present-day Cairo:

Back to School, Cairo 2013: A Return to the Politics of Fear?

"I'm not saying Palin is fluent in the language, but she did use the Arabic word "Allah." She could've simply used the word "God" instead of Allah since it has the identical meaning. (Christian Arabs use the word Allah when speaking of God in Arabic.) I think deep down she wanted to show off her language skills.But Palin went with the Arabic. Why? Because I think deep down she loves the language. And I bet Palin knows even more Arabic words such as humus, falafel and possibly babaganoush."

This is a good article that touches upon two issues: Why it is inappropriate to substitute the word "Allah" to talk about God in Islamic contexts; and the possible medieval origins of the phrase "kill them all and let God sort it out."

Sarah Palin's Offensive Remarks About Syria

In the wake of a recent sex scandal in the world of academic philosophy (and sadly, hardly the only recent sex scandal involving older male professors and younger female graduate students) the New York Times has published five pieces about women in philosophy. Since Arabic and Islamic Studies is still a pretty male-dominated field that sees some of the venerable fathers of the discipline wondering aloud whether women can be competent Arabists, these are of particular interest to me:

Women in Philosophy? Do the Math

What's Wrong with Philosophy?

The Disappearing Women

Academia's Fog of Male Anxiety

The Double Bind

And sadly, the last of a breed has died in New Haven:

Typewriter Stalwart Dies at 96

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Codicological Factoids

I spent all of last week at Stanford attending the Islamic Manuscript Association's Introduction to Islamic Codicology workshop, taught be the expert in the field. I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject matter. The approach of the course was largely taxonomic, but that meant that we worked systematically through all of the relevant technical vocabulary insofar as it is currently understood (read: a lot less well than for western European codicology).

It doesn't make for a hugely compelling post, but here are a few of the punchiest, pithiest factoids I gleaned:

  • Arabic has a verb — zakhrafa — the base meaning of which is "to forge," but which can be used used more specifically to mean "to forge Qur'ān manuscripts in polychromatic ink."
  • Kabīkaj is the jinn of papyrus, invoked at the beginning of copied codices to protect the book from insect damage.

  • Opening supplications are often genre-specific formulae. For example, an astronomical text will begin by praising the God who created the heavens and earth, whereas Qur'ān commentaries will begin by praising the God who ennobled the reader with His book or who caused the truth to be known.
  • "The best way to read a difficult passage is not to freak out."