Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Medieval/Age of Enlightenment/Any Excuse to Wear a Codpiece Faire*

Somebody posted to the Medieval Club of New York's Facebook page that the Society for Creative Anachronism was going to be having jousting in front of the Cloisters. I'm not really into the whole creative anachronism scene, but I thought that in that setting, it might be worth a visit. It turned out to have been a whole medieval faire thingie, and the jousting in front of the Cloisters was — a real missed opportunity — sort of down the hill from the museum rather than in front of it.

The falconry was pretty nifty, though.

Click to enlarge any of the images.


This poster is currently on the side of the NYU German House. I assume that the slogan was chosen after they had rejected the alternative: Learn German or DIE.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dissertation Advice vs. Book Advice

A piece of advice that I got while I was writing my dissertation was that at the end of every week, I should step back and assess the new work I had done and its place in the bigger project, and then write a new, maybe even a totally reorganized, table of contents that would better suit all the new work rather than just shoehorning it in. It was advice from a professor who was very invested in the readability of academic writing and in innovation in the scholarly monograph as a form.

And as dissertation advice goes, it was actually pretty worthless.

(Pause to be struck down by lightening arranged for by the now-deceased and very-much-missed advice-giver.)

Because my own dissertation was such an extreme version of a quick scramble to finish, I don't know that I could articulte why, in any broad sense, it would be such a pointless exercise. Perhaps because dissertations are just one of those conservative forms of writing that don't benefit from a lot of creative reorganizing? Perhaps everybody is just scrambling to finish, even if it's on a slightly less compressed schedule than mine and if the only good dissertation is a done dissertation then anything more than a basic organization isn't a top priority?

It turns out to have been great book advice, though.

The weekly TOC reivision wasn't something I had activley thought about until I realized in the last few weeks that it was, more or less, what I have been doing as I make a final push to finish up my book manuscript. I'm not revising my TOC weekly, but as I do even what I would consider to be superficial editing, it is making me think, to a surprising degree, about the structure of the project. I have done a lot of shifting around of the order of the chapters (which turns out to have revealed a really major flaw in my tagging system for Zotero — when you've tagged a bunch of references as "chapter two" and it's suddenly chapter three or four, you still have to keep track of the old organization and sync it to the new one). I have had a chance to really consider what ought to be in a general introduction and what a first chapter is for, anyway. Where the little-picture editing has been especially helpful in the big-pictures is in allowing me to generally tighten up the parameters of the project, which has most recently manifested itself in my definitive decision that the book will be five chapters and not six (or even the seven that it was for a brief period this winter) because a subsequent reception history can, for a project like mine, be handled responsibly in a single chapter even if it could be the subject of its own book.

Every time I've made a change I have rewritten the TOC and saved the newly-reorganized document as a new file. And even though in the most recent reorganization I've added sections to several chapters, the ultimate overall effect really has been to tighten the project up and give it more focus with each incremental change. It does make sense that better organization should have that effect, although I'm not sure that the mental process has been quite as linear as that.

Just my two cents about reflecting on dissertation advice from the perspective of being pretty far along in the dissertation-to-book process and filing procedural things away for later even if they don't help at the time (all of which reminds me of something else I was told while dissertating that was as true then as it is now: It all comes together in the last few months).


Any dissertation advice that you got that was awful as dissertation advice but turned out to be really helpful for the book? Or vice-versa?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Voir Dire

I’ve been summoned to jury duty next month.

I know that nobody ever wants to do jury service (with one serious, fabulous exception I can think of), but the idea of having to go down there and get empaneled (because the City and County of New York, unlike the City and County of San Francisco, does seem to empanel most people) while I’m on research leave seemed to me like a special sort of dreadful. It got me thinking about the absolute extent to which being on the tenure track skews one’s priorities. I know jury service is important. I know that smart people are exactly the ones who shouldn’t try to get out of it. I know that the obligation of women to serve on juries is barely older than I am, from a constitutional-legal perspective (Duren v. Missouri, 1979), and that women serving is tremendously important in ensuring trial by peer. But all of that logic keeps circling back to: But, while I’m on research leave? For my first book? My tenure book? Now? Trying to finish up my book manuscript has turned me into an incredibly tedious person. I'm not proud or happy about the fact that I care less about a lofty ideal of justice for the people who breathe the same air that I do than about some kind of historical-narrative justice for their 800-years-dead familiars. There's a lot of talk about justice and the academy these days — not in these terms, but I think it's another manifestation of the bigger problem. 

I’m looking forward to having my head and a slighter wider horizon back. But for now, in my current frame of mind, this is how the voir dire, the jury selection process, played itself out in my head last night:

— Have you served on a jury before?

--- Yes, sir.

— Did you think the outcome was fair?

--- Hard to say, in the end.

— Did you think the process was fair?

--- No, sir, I didn’t. It was a civil case. We were determining damages for a personal injury case that had already been decided. We weren’t even talking about orders of magnitude of difference and we just didn’t have a frame of reference for what might have been the right decision. It seemed like the sort of thing that a judge or an arbiter could have decided faster and probably more fairly. It wasn’t fair and it was a colossal waste of time.

— The plaintiff was entitled to have a jury decide.

--- Yes she was, sir.

— Do you think the criminal justice system has the capacity to be fair?

--- I think it has the capacity to be fair, sir, but most of the time it isn’t. That’s what I think, anyway. I think that if you’re not white, it’s hard to get justice and hard to be treated fairly.

--- I think that the current jury system brings out the worst in people. It incentivizes acting like a nut in this setting. The last time I was called for jury duty, there was a woman who was either acting nuts or only pretending to be a nurse, or the Mount Zion HIV/AIDS clinic has a real problem because she claimed to be a nurse for them. And I’m not proud, but you are talking to someone, you are about to empanel someone who cares more about her career right now than about justice.

— What is your career?

--- I’m a college professor, sir.

— What days do you teach this semester?

--- I’m on sabbatical, sir, so I don’t have regular classes that I’ll miss, but actually, that would be easier. I could ask a colleague to fill in or reschedule two, or even three meetings with my students for later in the semester. But if you take me away from my research for two weeks now, that’s two weeks that I’m not going to get back. I’m at a point where two weeks matters, where it could make the difference between finishing my book in time to submit it for tenure or not finishing in time. I know jury duty is important but I don’t want to lose my job.

— You can’t be fired for serving on a jury.

--- That’s not how tenure cases work, sir.

— You don’t want to be here, then.

--- It might be that I don’t give a damn anymore, but it might also be that I don’t give a damn again yet. I hope that’s all it is. Let me postpone to 2017 and we’ll see.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brooklyn Book Festival

I have wanted to attend the Brooklyn Book Festival every year I have been in New York. It's an annual kick-off to banned books week, that I've never managed to get myself across the river to because, well, my own book. This year, since I'm really trying to strike a better balance between work and life, I took a few hours and went.

I bought these three books:

The top one is a bilingual anthology of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry. The book is a beautiful object, but I've already caught a pretty egregious typo in the Arabic of the first poem I opened the book to, so I'm a little less optimistic about the typesetting. The bottom one is a novel about Cuban exiles in Madrid which I didn't realize until I got home had been written by a language lecturer in my own department (and in view of the recent discussion in the Twittersphere about the high level of qualifications of many adjuncts, let me castigate myself: bad, oblivious tenure-track faculty member!).

The middle book is the one I"m most excited about. It's the memoir of a man who grew up as a bit of a rogue, learned the bookbinding trade in Italy and went on to become one of the most important antiquarian book dealers in North America. My conversation with the woman at the booth where I found this book went as follows:

Her: Do you collect antiquarian books?
Me: No, I'm a medievalist.
Her: [Stunned silence.]

Monday, September 15, 2014

Translation Diary, Entry #16

"Por dondequiera que iba lo buscaban espías y ejecutores de sus enemigos..."

The word is literally executioner, but that's not quite the right English word to use. It implies something more stable and stationary than the situation described in the text so I need a slightly different word. We're talking about the Abbassids here and so I either really, really want to call them assassins or I really, really don't want to draw that into the mix.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Carnivalesque 105

"I'm not saying it DEFINITELY wasn't meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it's unlikely."

And so begins the September 2014 edition of Carnivalesque!

The above quotation is drawn from a post by Kate Wiles in the post, "But What About the D?" she examines the stray mark in the marginal annotation that caused a stir many months back when it emerged as the first attestation of "fucking" as a derogatory adjective. After a considered discussion of the hand, the stray marks, and the smudging, she concludes that the scribe was only moderately infuriated by the abbot, rather than completely, brimstone-invoking outraged at him.

In further news of insightful analyses of interesting manuscripts, Erik Kwakkel has a new blog! All hail! And Adam Carter McCollum resolves some Old Georgian scribal abbreviation issues in a recent post (that is best viewed in browsers other than Safari).

We began by covering pre-modern swearing. Now on to pre-modern peeing: Don't be put off by the fact that Jennifer Sherman Roberts' post includes the phrase "collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup"; In "Great Globs of Glowing Urine" she reviews the process by which phosphorous was initially isolated. And even though it was done so as a part of the now-discredited science of alchemy, this overview, as well as the embedded video, should still be be enough to convince the cranky physicists of the world that the history of pre- and early-modern science is cool, interesting, and deeply worthwhile.

The Renaissance Mathematicus wrote a two-parter, also broadly in history of science. "Galileo, Foscarini, the Catholic Church, and Heliocentricity in 1615," part 1 and part 2, offers an overview of the collision between science and Scripture at the start of the seventeenth century and the consequences of that explosive interaction.

The new Thor is a woman, which has generated lots of discussion about the representations of women in pre-modern societies and their mythologies in comics, video games, and movies and the extent to which those representations are grounded in history. Into the fray leapt some archaeologists who pronounced that fully a half of Viking warriors were women. Professor Grumpy writes two posts in which he takes an in-depth look at the funerary evidence; in a response, David Perry grapples with the evidence itself as well as the implications of the different modes of interpreting it in his post "Viking Women Warriors and Diversity in Literature."

This is not the only recent thread of online discussion about diversity in medieval studies, medievalism, and representations of the past:

The group blog In the Middle Medieval has been hosting a series of guest posts on various aspects of diversity and the lack thereof in English Medieval Studies and in Medieval Studies and the academy more broadly. In reverse order of their appearance in the series: Jonathan Hsy's post "Intersections: On Annoyances, Mistakes and Possibilities" focuses on two major topics: the place of Asian bodies in MS, and how, as teachers, we can accommodate students with a range of disabilities and differences (without putting those two in the same category) and acknowledge our mistakes along the way. Helen Young's post, "Re-Making the Real Middle Ages" focuses on the neo-medieval fantasy that the Middle Ages was all very, very white and how to introduce medieval racial diversity to a popular and student audience. Dorothy Kim, in her post "Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies" writes about the slowly shifting demographics of Medieval Studies and the micro- and macroagressions and policing faced by medievalists of color. And finally (or firstly), Michelle Warren writes about "Diversity and #medievaltwitter."

Further discussion of #medievaltwitter can be found in Sjoerd Levelt's post "Twitter at Historical Conferences: How to introduce it to those who are not #twitterstorians themselves." Building upon other recent writing about using Twitter at conferences, he explores some of the issues that tweeting a conference can present (or might seem to present for people who are unfamiliar with the platform) and writes specifically about how he aimed to address these issues at the recent International Conference on the Medieval Chronicle. The post includes some helpful templates.

And finally, from medievalist to neo-medieval: Atlas Obscura now includes a post about growing a neo-Gothic cathedral in the forests of Bergamo, Italy.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Memoriam, Always Already

The view from my apartment complex.

Esta bala es antigua. 
En 1897 la disparó contra el presidente del Uruguay un muchacho de Montevideo, Arredondo, que había pasado largo tiempo sin ver a nadie, para que lo supieran sin cómplice. Treinta años antes, el mismo proyectil mató a Lincoln, por obra criminal o mágica de un actor, a quien las palabras de Shakespeare habían convertido en Marco Bruto, asesino de César. Al promediar el siglo XVII la venganza la usó para dar muerte a Gustavo Adolfo de Suecia, en mitad de la pública hecatombe de una batalla. 
Antes, la bala fue otras cosas, porque la transmigración pitagórica no sólo es propia de los hombres. Fue el cordón de seda que en el Oriente reciben los visires, fue la fusilería y las bayonetas que destrozaron a los defensores del Álamo, fue la cuchilla triangular que segó el cuello de una reina, fue los oscuros clavos que atravesaron la carne del Redentor y el leño de la Cruz, fue el veneno que el jefe cartaginés guardaba en una sortija de hierro, fue la serena copa que en un atardecer bebió Sócrates. 
En el alba del tiempo fue la piedra que Caín lanzó contra Abel y será muchas cosas que hoy ni siquiera imaginamos y que podrán concluir con los hombres y con su prodigioso y frágil destino.

This bullet is ancient. 
In 1897, a boy from Montevideo fired it at the president of Uruguay after spending a long time in solitude so he would be known to have acted alone. Thirty years previous, the same projectile killed Lincoln, in the criminal or magical act of a thespian made Marcus Brutus, assassin of Caesar, by Shakespeare himself. At the turn of the seventeenth century, vengeance used it to deal death to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the midsts of the public catastrophe of battle. 
Before that, the bullet was other things, because Pythagorean transubstantiation is not only the domain of men. It was the silk cord that Oriental viziers met; it was the artillery and the bayonets that destroyed the Alamo's last defenders; it was the triangular knife that slit the queen's throat; it was the dark nails that pierced the flesh of the Redeemer and the wood of the Cross; it was the poison that the Carthagean general kept in an iron ring; it was the placid cup from which Socrates drank one late afternoon.
At the dawn of time it was the rock that Cain threw at Abel. It will be many more things that we cannot yet fathom but that will be able to put an end to men and their prodigious, fragile destiny. 
— Jorge Luis Borges. In Memoriam, J.F.K. English translation mine. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Love Letter to Judah ibn Tibbon (Or, a Paragraph that Probably Won't Make the Final Cut)

The third chapter of my book project is about the poetics articulated across the oeuvre of Judah ibn Tibbon.

It ends with a final section that I am terming an excursus that examines the poetry written by an author so actively engaged with the literary-critical traditions of Arabic poetics. Even though the first three chapters are currently out for review, I had not yet written the excursus. It doesn't really interrupt the flow of the book one way or the other, and it is set up as something of a stand-alone section; so I didn't begin to write it until this morning.

I expect that the first paragraph that I've written won't survive in the final version. I'd like it to, but love isn't a response permitted to literary critics and cultural historians, especially the ones who are trying to prove themselves in their first books. Writing in one's own voice is not something that is supposed to happen in academic monographs. And so this is what I shan't say in my book about Judah, the terrible poet whom I've come to adore:

One of the pleasures of undertaking a project such as this one is really getting to know the subject and to begin — in a historiographically and literary-critically problematic process — to feel a real kinship with him. In this case, I have come to appreciate above all else Judah ibn Tibbon’s reserved, wicked sense of humor. Eight hundred years dead, he can still make me laugh. And so when I say that Judah ibn Tibbon was a terrible poet, I do so with a real love of the man, a genuine sympathy towards his intellectual program, and an ongoing appreciation of his style. He was a great and engaging and thoughtful prose writer and that is what has made it possible to live with him in my head, as I have, day in and day out, for almost the last five years. But a poet he was not (though I love him all the same). He falls into the category of historically — and even literarily — important but bad poets, where he is joined by the likes of Meir Halevi Abulafia, leaving behind a poetic legacy that must be contended with  if not enjoyed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

There's No There Halfway There

It is not a promising sign when a very serious work of literary theory starts to sound suspiciously like the academic satire of the moment, in this case, Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway and The Big Bang Theory, respectively. It is even less promising when a reader finds herself wondering whether the book isn't just an elaborate, as-yet-unrevealed latter-day version of the Sokal hoax.

At 500 pages in length, the book isn't so much  tl;dr (too long; didn't read in dismissive internet parlance) as much as dr;tifmtkgwtiotwaidrwtiabdafhpbdfsohs (didn't read;too infuriating for me to keep going without throwing it out the window and I didn't really want to injure anyone by dropping a five hundred-page book down five stories onto Houston St.). In gamer parlance, I rage-quit the book. If you look at my own copy of it, my hand-written notes in the margin get progressively messier and darker as I gripped my pencil harder and harder as I read on. My comments here are, thus, restricted to my infuriated impressions of the introduction of the book rather than being a full-on book review.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Random Bullets of Neo-Medieval

  • I had to tell someone walking down Bleecker Street today to watch his sword hand.
  • I am succumbing to all of popular culture (or, more precisely, to the fact that they are filming season five at the Alhambra so I sort of feel obligated) and beginning to watch Game of Thrones.  Further bulletins as events warrant.
  • I will be hosting Carnivalesque, the pre-modern blog carnival, in this space in just ten short days. Please submit your favorite recent pre-modern blogging here.