Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Of "Lithic Coils" and "Petric Pregnancies" - _Stone; an Ecology of the Inhuman_ by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Fossils in Viollet-le-Duc's
gargoyles of N-D Paris
I've just closed the pages of Stone, an Ecology of the Inhuman, a book written (given, it feels) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. And so this isn't a review of the book, with measured time and thinking and synoptic thought. This is the desire to stay in the book, to remain readerly and to not quite re-emerge from the "lithic coil" (87) wherein Albertus Magnus finds himself when thinking about the tiny fossilized shellfish he sees in the limestone of medieval (and modern (see image!) in the persistence of stone) Paris; to keep walking on the beach with Augustine as he makes temporal and theological sense of a fossilized tooth he finds in Utica (93); to think of Merlin as "an artist of estranged materialities" (176); to consider how many of the works of art I study I might conceive of now as "deracinated souvenirs," (204) objects wrenched from one world and triumphed into another; to never stop reveling in the "petric pregnancy" (240) of the stone paenita as described by Marbod of Rennes. The gifts of words rapt of stone gleam throughout the book. Within its entanglements and enmeshments, language and the lithic are both immemorial to the human perception of time - and yet both immediate to our perception. To make stone present through words, to make words as present as stone: this is one of the many wonders of the book.

Caillois's collection at the
Galerie de Minéralogie, Paris
It's hard to leave the book because it's hard to leave its fellow travelers. You enter a company of strugglers: those who have come up against stone and tried to understand intimacies, scales, and narratives provoked in the encounter; those who have come up against the uses and abuses of stone: when to lapidify is to racialize, when metaphors of stoniness curtail the human, when stone is reduced to resource. Understanding sifts down through layers of stone and becomes proposition, meditation, legend, strange love, unresolved science, enduring activism. Bennett, Latour, Bogost, Deleuze and Guattari, Joy, Alaimo, Morton, Iovino and Opperman join Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gower, Chrétien de Troyes, Noah, Gerald of Wales, John Mandeville, William of Newburgh, Marie de France, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chaucer and the fellows in the previous paragraph and others and others and others join Roger Caillois (whose collection you see gathered here) and Jean Kerisel (who heard stones suffer, who invites their struggle) join the efforts of the builders of Stonehenge, the architects of cathedrals, the designers of the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, and the builders of hearths in Iceland. A good deal of the sense of companionship, I think, comes from Jeffrey Cohen counting himself as one of those strugglers. Each "Excursus" did not, for me, wander from the path of the book: each excursus marked the way for thinking as completely and vulnerably as one can upon the very hardest things. It's within each excursus that I began to think of the companionate struggle of stone and human, that I was able to fold back that thinking into the powerful claims of the chapters: that, for marvelous example, "stone invites a more ethically generous mode of worldly inhabitance" (250), that "every stone desires" (237), that stone is "always on its way to artwork" (135).

A persistent amethyst
Sainte-Chapelle Treasury
This book, with which (even in writing this I realize) I will live and think for a long time, leaves me in a quandary that I relish puzzling through. In clearing space for stone, Cohen writes "This book, however, takes as its focus stone that may be hewn but has generally not been domesticated into cornerstone or sculpture, into a display of human craft." (13) How do I, as an art historian and a beholder and teacher of medieval visual objects, keep them and their materials from which they are not separate from being domesticated? not only by human craft but by iconography and symbolism and transcendence - by all the disciplinary tricks we have come up with to control and still images. The works of art that have persisted since the Middle Ages have a hold on the human imagination that escapes its control. For the book convinces me absolutely that stone (and bone and ivory and all the searching materials that come into visual form) is harder to domesticate than we have led ourselves to believe, even in our finest mimesis, even in our grandest constructions. Theologians may make pronouncements on art about anagogical readings and ladders of transcendence, but romances and lapidaries tell very different tales of vibrant matter. A work of art isn't enduring because it has been infused by some human or divine force; it endures because it matters - this will have to be argued, I know. My own work now has me thinking more of the impress of material upon artist than that of artist upon material. The amethyst above, carved with Caracalla's portrait and inscribed with Greek letters, surviving the fall of the Roman empire to resurface in the Treasury of the Sainte Chapelle where it was inserted into the cover of a magnificent Gospel book - how can I think through its own domestication of its human handlers? How can I pursue the material persistence, the unruliness and "allure" (133) of stone (and ivory and paint and parchment and all the media fervently emerging in the Middle Ages) within "human impress"(13)? Is (isn't?) the divide between raw material and wrought form a human one? Maybe there is a way to think of the transformation from the raw to the wrought as a series of enmeshments and beholdings - this is certainly the project of my work. And so I am so grateful for the calls of this book - to "materiality in action" (228), to "a life of embeddedness, artistry, and ethical relation" (192) and to the phenomenal meditation on art and nature provoked by Albertus Magnus as he suggests the "force and inspiration of the stars" on both, and Cohen writes so beautifully of "humans and rocks... stirred to action by astral magnetism" (170-1).

Montneuf, always
I will also miss the spaciousness of Stone. One of the elations of reading it was how spatial it was, how often I found myself thinking through expansive places: on the beach with Augustine (a long, long walk, fossil in hand); in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany (its stones bedecked in moss and hosting wonders); near and far and in and around Stonehenge (and there and back again with Geoffrey of Monmouth); in medieval and modern Paris (and Jeffrey's writing is generous, it invites your own imaginings and memories); in Scotland perched atop Arthur's Seat; and, magnificently, at the end, in Iceland. Stone calls forth in these expansive landscapes not as boundary, but as dense world, memory holder, portal, witness, survivor, fluid and fragile within a temporal expansiveness that defies human perception, powerful to us in our tiny time, companion, fellow traveler, presence. This book - its gifts and struggles, the company it keeps, the trouble it bears, and the beauty it gleans - I hope that you will read it, that you can join its endeavors and "plumb the petric" (10) with its wondrous author.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Lost in Thought" at Kalamazoo

Just returned from a truly wondrous Kalamazoo medieval congress. Not quite able to let go of the powerful experience of speaking on the "Lost" panel, gathered by Jeffrey Cohen and peopled by an intensely attentive audience and speakers who shared beautiful ideas and writing with a gladness and vulnerability that will stay with me for a long, long time. Here was my contribution.

There's a phrase in French when you're out at a restaurant and the food is too salty: "The chef is in love!" Growing up in Switzerland, I remember older aunts and uncles, stunned at the sting of their super salty fresh lake perch, saying "Ah ben là, le chef est amoureux!" For a long, long time, I would think of love as a salty thing, a surprising too much that shocked older relatives and awakened a winking secret. It was only much later that I understood the scenario behind the phrase, the chef in love over-salting the food because of being lost in thought – mind gone to blissful memory or sublime fantasy, while body performed mundane tasks in repetitive rote for ordinary things like people and food; a Cartesian divide in the kitchen.

But what if it's not a divide? What if it's a trust? What if it's the body's desire to be suffused with memory or fantasy? The mind's yearning to materialize touch and daydream? And objects, then, become portals, agents of transfer, from one time and scale to another. When Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot follows the lady-in-waiting off trail in the forest, he is "pest de son panser qui molt li plest" ("lost in his thoughts which please him very much"). He is completely taken with the ivory comb he finds upon a rock, its gleam glinting with the flaxen strands of hair intertwined within it, and he stands there, "molt longuemant," holding it, feeling its weight, thinking the weightlessness of the hair. He stands there so long that the horses start to paw the ground and the lady-in-waiting laughs – and teases him out of his reverie and into a delirium when she reveals that the hair is Guinevere's. Lancelot almost loses it, almost faints, is almost really lost in thought – but the maiden catches him before he falls from his horse, brings his body and his mind back to their here and now, and they continue in the forest.

We joke about being lost in thought, or gently laugh at those who are, calling them back, because the thought of being truly, irrevocably lost in thought is pretty scary. Those we can't call back, those who don't return to find themselves in the mainstream of time and space, are deemed… different, unabled, mentally ill. My father lived the last eight years of his life with a brain injury that left him lost, deep in thought, his body mis-guided by his mind soaring in all directions. At some point in conversations with him about North Carolina waterways, the Hong Kong dollar, Fidel Castro in the hills, the not-so-zen paradox of being lost only if you can or want to be found again, came to me. Are you really lost if you've forgotten to be found? My father's wanderings, his ramblings and roamings, and his circumlocutions (and that's a technical term of traumatic brain injury, but it's also what I love most about what we're all doing here at Kalamazoo in gathering and tendering words to each other), his circumlocutions, were rationalized for us with various metaphors: "His mind and his brain are just taking off in different directions;" "He has all his marbles, they're just scattered" – metaphors meant to create a rational distance between our normal and his weird. There was one that truly helped: "He can't see the forest for the trees." I tried to be lost with him, no longer beholden to a big picture, to walk with him among endless metaphorical trees free of the discursive frame of forests: elephants on the beaches of Ceylon, bringing buttermilk to someone named Solomon, snatches of Portuguese, his long silences.

And so when Jeffrey's lost pine branch came to me in the mail, I felt for the first time I think, the collapse of metaphor into reality. This twig was, might as well be, from my father's expanse of forestless trees. This twig could skip, might as well travel, through arboreal generations and literary time, and elide with those in the paths of all those knight errants stumbling through forests: dear delusional Don Quixote brushing up against trees, scattering needles; the Fisher-King brooding by the shore, the trees of his domain parched and barren behind him; Yvain sleeping on twigs and branches in an endless forest, eating hermit's bread. Sometimes, the allegory reaches up for the reality: in the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, René d'Anjou's dreamer and his Heart are two knighted companions on a quest for Lady Mercy. They wander lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, tricked by Jealousy; Desire comes to give them companionship and encouragement, and helps the Heart disarm and lay aside his sword. And Desire and the Heart, lost in the forest, talk long into the night beneath an aspen tree.

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers her take on the etymology of los, the Old Norse word meaning the disbanding of an army. "This origin suggests," she writes, "soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." Loss, lost, losing, loosening – that moment of disbanding, not necessarily to find home again, maybe just to wander a wide expanse, to get lost in thought. There are those who seek to be lost: the mystics lost in the thought of Christ, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing - persistent questers of lostness.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins in the mind of a brooding God, hovering over everything, sweeping over the waters. What unknowns stretch out within its hesitation? Maybe the tehom of the deep in the original Hebrew, the etymological descendant of "radiant Tiamat" of Mesopotamian creation, was so beguiling and wondrous that God stopped rushing in, stilled the wind, and remained suspended – a lost god, unsure. A doubtful, distracted, day-dreaming deity before the time of days, poised over the deep, intimate with darkness, lost in thought, without sign, or referent, or scale. And then God stopped trusting His lostness, and started making distinctions and divides.

Later, much later, after the tree and the apple and the accusations and the denials and the wailing and the leaving, there would be gathering around a fire, and dazed by survival, we humans would start to stare into the hearth: its crackling warmth, its mesmerizing dancing flames, its complicated light. Gaston Bachelard, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, prized the reverie we enter when we stare into the fire and become lost in thought. He called it a "hypnotized form of observation," wanted us to think about it as a way of seeing the world. In reverie, we might well see the world in all its salty love and grief among trees and forested wanderings; we might well re-emerge within the trust to be lost in thought.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By the river with 7th graders, Mary Oliver, and Fafnir

There was an outing today. 150 kids, the entirety of the 7th grade, a drive out of our small town, and through Amish country to one of our glorious state parks. Warm, breezy, clear air redirected by cries of glee and teasing, kids running ahead, kids lagging behind, the incredible energy of this age. So here, a few impressions of working with these children who live on a thrilling cusp, somewhere between wonder and self-consciousness, moving across the gulf from 12 to 13 years of age. Mac said it beautifully, about what it was like for some of them to read the poem by Mary Oliver with which we started  - "It's as though some of them didn't want the words to be fully in their mouths." They spoke hurriedly, brushing over the sounds of their own voices - feeling (maybe) the words too strange, the idea of standing by the river in a circle reading one line of the poem each too disorienting. Much rejoicing at the invitation to make structures. The river was too high for us to have access to the stones that make good cairns, so we expanded our materials. The circle above of big and little standing stones surrounding seashells was made when the mud was still soft in the morning. We all loved thinking about how far the seashells had come - to wash up in crazy, misplaced plenitude on these inland shores.

The science teacher had suggested this next idea, which was an intense one, actually: stand blindfolded for five minutes and observe the environment around you without the sense of sight. I started thinking "There's no way that I could do this with college students" and I'm still not entirely sure I could put my finger on why. Bigger discussion, but I am wary of making my students too vulnerable - somewhere between 7th grade, and college, hurts and distrust accumulate. Here, there was willingness - and these kids' trust was very poignant to me. Those who wanted to stand in the quiet rush of the river were the most still. I thought that that was so cool: to purposefully stand where the ground would shift beneath your feet. Then, after big gasps of air as the blindfolds came off, they wrote (of birds and water and sensing others nearby and many many things).

There were three Sigfrids, one for each group of kids who gathered to hear the tale from the Völsunga Saga. Each time, when Mac called for a hero, one stepped forth. And a human Fafnir and a dragon Fafnir, and birds and Ragnar and Otter and the Other Brother and more. Sometimes (here) a crutch was the sword, others a stick long dead. Each time, Fafnir met his doom and then we'd all line up on the beach and throw rocks (Fafnir's gold) into the river at the same time, the sinking stones' expanding circles disassembled by eddies swirling past. The third time we did it, Sigfrid from the second group came back to join in the story again - to hear once more about gold making men mad, and dragon's blood revealing the language of birds, and wild throws by the river's edge.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Concerted Effort

A predecessor of my wonderful
biochem professor, teaching
geometry (key for structural
diagrams!) in a 14th c.
Euclid mss. (British Library)
Today was the last day of Biochemistry for me. The students will valiantly review for their exam on Wednesday, and I will be walking away with my head full of a new language. It's been very interesting to learn the language, rather than the practice, of biochemistry. I have not spent time in the lab, spending the past month thinking about the work (operations) of art (really, visual surfaces) in Chaucer's dream poems, and the idea of being "lost in thought" as well as the insistence of matter in medieval art. But I've consistently been trying to find my footing within biochemistry's language about the structure and function of proteins. Having studied amino acids and enzymes and carbohydrates and all kinds of saccharides and lipids and finishing up with RNA and DNA, I walk on the very dynamic ground of millions of biochemical reactions a second. Looking at these reactions up close, in human time and scale, I can understand how a protein folds, how RNA can be self-folding - all sorts of things. I can understand that there is a tremendous amount of randomness and reactions that go nowhere, and I can understand that what makes my body work is an enormous series of things "recognizing" each other, and fitting together to produce the reactions that we call living.

Zodiac Figure within
cosmological and
molecular possibility;
Très Riche Heures, 15th c.
(Bibliothèque Nationale)

Where wonder supplants perception is in my inability to conceive of these millions of reactions happening all at the same time, and in concert. I know that they are happening, as I think and type, but I cannot possibly keep track of them all. And yet, because reactions at the cellular and molecular level are happening in concert, I live and breathe. A comment made by my collaborator on this article about how humans live with/overcome/negotiate the (poignancy of) the limits of human perception comes back with full resonance now: cellular reactions don't stop happening with death; cellular activity is as frenetic and energetic as in life - but now, the effort is no longer concerted. Death is, indeed, disconcerting. The idea that hydrophobic amino acids keep right on clustering inside the cell, that carbons are still looking to attach or disconnect, that proteins are still probably somewhere folding is different for me to think through than decay and decomposition. Those two sad terms are written from the point of view of human life. We would need other words to describe cellular activity once it is no longer in concert for the sake and experience of human life. Metabolic persistence? Molecular stamina? Cellular reactions keep happening arguably forever after death. They are eternally persevering in their energy and randomness; they "recognize" each other, however, for purposes other than human living. There is perhaps no greater presence of the post-human than in our own cells. We are always (yes, already) displaced by the energy that preceded us and will endure beyond us. Knowing more about how enzymes operate in antibiotics and laundry soap (for example), opens up thousands of other questions, blunt questions asked obviously. What are the biochemical reactions in operation when I cry? when I feel pleasure? when I'm tired? when I remember? How can I begin to conceptualize the permeability of what I call my body to biochemical reactions in my environment? (microcosm-macrocosm is a start but after that? we are very, very permeable indeed - at all times, in every moment). What are the worlds (let alone proteins) unfolding within the concerted effort of my person without my knowledge or control?  How much of my existence is beyond my perception? That one we've been asking for a while, but it really never gets old, and there are always new answers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Taking Leave of a God

One of my sabbatical treats to myself was to read an entire issue of Speculum because (true confessions), I have never done so. It was a great thing to do: felt a bit like going to a dinner party where each guest is pretty fantastic and brings great stories (here's the current Table of Contents). Christopher Abram's essay, "Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives" opened up the confusion and intensity of conversion of Hallfreðr, an Icelandic poet, dubbed "troublesome" by the Norwegian king, Olaf I, who converted him to Christianity in 996. Abram's essay goes well beyond what Hallfreðr is known for: the five so-called "conversion verses" in which he struggles with his leave-taking of Odin, the god he's known his whole life. It was my first time reading them, though, and I can't quite leave them. [Here's a link to an article by the scholar who translated the poem in full that provides the verses in translation].

Viking Stele, 8th c.
The conscious and mournful leave-taking of a god. That loss. "It was different in former days, when I could sacrifice to the mind-swift... Odin himself." I think of intimacy, and ritual gestures, and surges of emotions, of a god who is mind-swift, coursing through thoughts, quickening a consciousness. I think of the honesty of this loss, this staring into new voids - none easily replaced, all felt gone. I think of Hallfreðr's having known Odin, of his trying to put his intimacy and knowledge (and love and admiration and thrill) of Odin somewhere. Where does a god like Odin go when a king like Olaf comes? Hallfreðr tries places. In words, which used to trip from his mind in praise of Odin. In sounds: I count how many times he says Odin's name in these verses meant to signal the god's negation. In memory, of course, in remembering ceremonies and pleasures that are now banned by Olaf, "the Sogn-men's sovereign." In the pathos of living with inexorable doom: "All mankind casts Odin's clan to the wind" - a god swept away, betrayed, longed for, dispersed back into a landscape (think of Iceland!) that waits to receive him. And it isn't just Odin, of course, it's the waft and weave of his clan, all the love and knowledge and fury and past of a god. "And I am forced to leave Njörðr's kin, and pray to Christ." In Hallfreðr, Odin and Christ co-exist. It's that simultaneity, which Hallfreðr maintains through the painful remembrance of what must somehow cease to exist for him, that keeps me circling around these words. It's Hallfreðr's knowledge of both, his intimacy with both; those two divine entities in one human psyche. It's this simultaneity of beings that also holds my fascination for the time when two genetically distinct hominid species interacted: when Neanderthal and homo sapiens were in contact with each other, when two hominid entities existed in one ecological psyche. I've circled around that loss, too: around knowing that we weren't the only human species, around never knowing what it was like to experience or communicate with a proximate consciousness. There was no leave-taking of that other species, no good-bye in song (is this when we debate Grendel?), was there mourning? Two gods in one poet - it will be a long time before I stop thinking of Hallfreðr's trouble.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Musca pictura

A nice little slew of deadlines have successfully been met and thus an hour's play with an old friend opens up. The fly that sits (oh my goodness, where?) upon the painting, and the sill, and the frame, of Petrus Christus's Carthusian Monk from 1446, now at the Met, pulls us to strange margins. Its presence is both interference (a fly!) and mastery (a fly on a painting that measures 8.5" by 11.5" inches - yes, the size of a piece of American notebook paper!) - both pesky and prodigious. It is also simultaneously mimetic (fly shown actual size!) and in violation of every mimetic convention: its position performs a spatial morph between the actual world of the viewer and the represented world of the painting habitually granted to gold, inscriptions, or Christ's hands in other paintings of this period. No matter how close you get (the closer you get), it's impossible (the harder it is) to pinpoint the place of the fly: the sill it sits upon is in the space of the monk and can belong to his world; the inscription it sits atop of is in (on?) that of the painting and puts a claim to the fly being in our world. It is, of course, in both - though we seem to notice it more than the monk does. Or (my favorite gambit) is the monk depicted ignoring the fly? - eschewing its disturbance with his penetrating gaze. And yes, there's a quick moral message that could be made about the grandiose human with his deep thoughts and the negligible fly with its mundane presence, but let's not reduce this marvel to a meaning - somehow Petrus Christus has used mimesis to make us question the surface, depth, space, and time of our mimetic abilities and expectations, and so (to attempt an anamorphic reach without anamorphosis), I'd like to try to have the fly's spatially- and temporally-complex point of view mess with my own.

I wouldn't see the fly as temporally complex if it weren't for the following lines of questioning: 1) the persistent questioning of periodization that Jeffrey Cohen and Steve Mentz enact in their work (which makes the observational prowess Christus brought to the painted fly not the triumph of a moment in Renaissance time, but rather a continuous fascination with representation and illusion) and 2) the continuing shockwaves of reading Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon Is Now? (which will forever change how I think about any observation or knowledge that comes out of love and enthusiasm and is not meant for academic production). Wait, add to that 3) Keith Moxey's brilliant meditation on painting and time in Visual Time (which remembers the painted fly as part of an object that itself travels strangely through time, even as it sits now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York). All of these take the ephemeral alighting of Christus's fly and stretch it in time: to the painter's actual experience of a fly alighting on his work and to the painter's actual experience of deciding to paint a fly; to the monk's depicted experience of a fly alighting in his space and to the monk's willful or sincere ignorance of its presence; to the viewer's illusionistic experience of noticing the fly and to the viewer's struggle to place it, both visually and intellectually. That fly has no business being there, and so we feel compelled to find a business for it: a moral business (mundane fly, human devoted to heavenly thoughts), a historical business (Christus humbly vying with Zeuxis)... It is very, very hard to just let the fly be there - in any kind of time. A fly in our lived experience is meaningless: an annoyance at best, a carrier of disease at worst. A fly in our experience of illusion is pulled to meaning: see above in an eternal loop of worry about under- and over-interpretation. Are simultaneities enough to break down binaries?

The fly cannot know itself as I know it (insert something smart and snappy about Derrida and his cat here) (not an editorial note-to-self, just me eschewing an enormous series body of animal studies because I only have 10 minutes left to write). But I can use its spatial and temporal morphs to hear Emily Dickinson when I see Petrus Christus. I can go down the Linnean rabbit hole and revel in its scientific denomination: Musca domestica - the only creature I've found thus far that has "domestica" as part of its scientific name ("musca" being just the Latin word for fly - "domestica" being then a scientific nomenclature based uniquely on the human experience of observing flies in houses). I can reach up and find that the constellation Musca shines in southern skies charted (and named) by explorers on the first Dutch trading expedition to the East Indies in 1595. I can marvel at all the flies I know (buzzing poetic illusionistic allegorical scientific stellar imagined sung avoided). I can continue to think on about resistance to meaning in the midst of wonder.  Some of this is where the networked knowledge of Google takes my curiosity, some of it is old, old hauntings (I've never been able to shake that poem by Emily Dickinson). A lot of it is a moment very far away from anywhere else that is insistently here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Storied Matter

The past few days days have been a mess of eroding civil rights, further stratification, bad faith, false pieties, nasty politics, worse governing, and general awfulness. Here is an excellent analysis of why Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by our ignominious governor Mike Pence this past week, is so awful. Facebook has been alight with anger and frustration as our hopelessly jerrymandered state was twisted by its legislators into a place in which a business could now legally, in the name of its owners' religious "freedom" (ack! I can still barely write this nonsense), turn away an LGBT person. There's been much talk of "Christian florists" and "Christian cakemakers" as of course this is a right-wing response to the thriving of marriage equality. There's been tremendous protests, and businesses pulling out of the state and events canceled, and lots and lots of call for repealing the law. We'll see. I'm very cautiously hopeful: it's clear the people of the state don't want it, but the legislators (Pence foremost among them), all have their sights set on political careers that might benefit from snuggling with the extreme right. Fools. Hateful fools. Pence backtracked a mile this morning (even claiming that he "abhors" discrimination, that he was a Democrat (gasp!) in high school, and that he's been to Selma - Lord), so maybe, maybe there's a turn coming. Again, we'll see. In the meantime, everyday life here sucks: there was doubt and mistrust everywhere over the week-end, as customers and businesses both are trying to figure out who is what to whom now. Being straight, I can ask if a business is willing to serve LGBT customers with impunity - a nasty privilege. Being a decent human being, I can't believe we are having to deal with this idiocy. A bright, weird connection was made for me this week-end to the theoretical issues of a paper I gave this past week-end in Minneapolis (more on the conference in another post) on "storied matter." The term comes from Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann's brilliant introduction to the spectacular collection, Material Ecocriticism and prizes the "configurations of meanings" that emerge in the interdependence of material forms. I was thrilled to find a resonance with this idea in Linda Seidel's Legends in Limestone, in which she characterizes the tympanum of Autun as "material narrative" - memory and story moving into matter. For me, this week-end, in the very mundane act of grocery shopping, the intersection of storied matter and identity came into painful contact. The food I eat, the people I've spoken to casually these past fourteen years of living here, the businesses and restaurants I've frequented with friends, for projects, in the company of the kids - all of them exist on shifting ground now; all of them are taking on another layer of story. With not a little anxiety, I composed an e-mail to the farmer of our CSA, who is a very devout Christian who home-schools his children (a sign of conservatism if coupled with Christianity around here) to ask him about his intentions around the law. His eggs and vegetables totally matter to our family - I know that something so small and mundane shouldn't (especially as I am inspired to think of these things out of a paper on precious objects), but in their smallness and mundanity, they shape the reality of our everyday lives, they shape the trust of our bodies. Before I could send the e-mail, the farmer sent out an e-mail to his entire CSA and spoke gladly of love and of not letting legislators dictate Christianity to him, of providing for all and of Happy Easter. I think that there will be more moments like that than the other kind, and maybe I don't have to fear that our little (really little, 10,000 people) town will pull apart, will polarize around this issue. None of this is over, as the state legislation gathers to "clarify" the language so that it does not allow for discrimination. In the meantime, I felt apple, asparagus, and bread come alive differently beneath my fingers, as I wondered about the beliefs of those who brought them into being. There's an intimacy, to food especially perhaps (and I think of the trust that we all bring forward when we sit down to share a meal in public or in private), that is startling here - that was amplified for me by the intersection of "making and becoming" that I talked about in my paper. If you have an especially big cup of coffee, you are welcome to stay for the paper. Otherwise, just please hope that civil rights and human decency will prevail in Indiana.

“Declarative Materiality: Inscription and Artistic Process in Medieval Art” (I would now subtitle it: "Making and Becoming in Medieval Art")

"Letters are shapes indicating voices.  Hence they represent things which they bring to mind through the windows of the eyes. Frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the absent." When John of Salisbury made this declaration in his Metalogicon from 1159, he engaged the multiplicity of voices and identities involved in the experience of writing in the Middle Ages. By no means confined to the manuscript page, medieval letters projected the voices of authors, scribes, artists, patrons, supplicants, saints, and God himself from an array of surfaces including metal, stone, wood, ivory, and even gems. This dynamic of voice and materiality exemplifies what Jeffrey Hamburger, in his book Script as Image, has called "the plenitude packed into medieval representations of letters," (57).

In many instances, inscriptions on works of art spoke to the artistic process itself. For our work together, I have chosen two inscriptions from the High Middle Ages, one of an intimate the other of a communal scale, that are variants on a phrase of making: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made") and GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this"). These inscriptions will hold our attention because of the particular placement of the inscriptions upon the work of art, and what it might reveal to us about the act of making by the artist, and about the event of becoming for the image.

Both inscriptions occur at crucial transitional spaces of the art object: wrought in gold as its frame, or carved in limestone to frame two distinct spaces. Knowledge of gold-smithing, and sculpture are re-marked upon by the presence of the inscriptions, and consequently draw attention to the material process and boundary of the image. In occupying these liminal sites, the inscriptions, I will argue, collapse a series of binaries we have come to expect in art history, between subject and object, representation and presence, animate and inanimate, human and non-human, and material and discursive. The result, I believe, is a call for us to reconsider how being attentive to the making of images can provoke a welcome entanglement between artist, audience, and art. In seeking these moments of "entanglement" provoked by inscriptions, I am inspired by the language and ideas of the material ecocriticism of Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman, whose call for a materially shared existence presents a productive way to keep the making of art part of its perpetually emergent becoming – an art historical mode to which I will return in my conclusion.


The Alfred Jewel, betw. 871-899
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
During his reign from 871 to 899, King Alfred the Great of Wessex made a series of gifts to all the bishops in his realm to invigorate, some have said to instill, readership in his leading clergy. Accompanying King Alfred's own Old English translation of Pope Gregory the Great's Cura pastoralis (On pastoral care), each bishop received an aestel, a "little spear" from the Latin hastula – a pointer for reading. Designed to be both cradled in the hand, as well as slid along the surface of the manuscript page, this pointer guided the reader across the letters of sanctified writing and amplified the sacrality and authority of the text. This remarkable aestel is now known as the Alfred Jewel both for its material splendor and for its inscription reading AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made").

The letters are both binding and boundary to a rock crystal from Roman antiquity re-carved to cover an enameled figure, long thought to be Saint Cuthbert, but now, through iconographic corroboration, more usually identified as the allegory of Sight. The wide eyes of the figure of Sight are amplified by those of a dragon whose mouth would have held the ivory, bone, or wood pointer that tracked the reading.

To hold the Alfred Jewel is to join hands with a master goldsmith working in 20k gold, a high level of purity of the material that indicates its import, most likely from the Middle East, Spain, or southern France. Anchoring his hold on the dragon's head with his fingers, and feeling the rock crystal hub of the aestel press against his palm, our bishop reader would have felt the aestel 's insistent, and wondrously transformative materiality, even as it guided his spiritual reading. The soft bumps of the meticulous filigree that ropes around both the bottom and the top of the inscription are reconfigured to become the texture of the dragon's skin in the filigreed surface of its head animated by the reader's gestures dragging the aestel across the manuscript page. The aestel is a "moving" work of art in all sense of the word: it is seldom still, perpetually engaged in the emergence of its own letters and forms, of the text beneath its pointer, and of its owner as reader.

The letters of the aestel themselves are not only molded in a proportionate harmony that stretches all the way around the rock crystal, they are also marked with interior lines to accentuate their volume and fullness, materializing their words in resonance with the materialization of the words enabled by the medieval practice of reading which called for enunciation out loud, in contrast to our silent reading today. Citing the notable difficulty and expertise of the craftsmanship, Ben Tilghman has suggested that the inscription be translated not only as "Alfred had me made" but rather as "Alfed had me worked" which aligns even more closely with the old English wyrcean (to work). The painstaking work of the aestel may be not just a sign of luxury, but also one of labor, and the legible, tangible traces of the artist's hand (in the expert work of filigree, re-carving, setting, sculpting, and inscribing) project an expertise and a labor of making. When considering only the static object stilled by a museum display, it is the aestel itself that speaks most immediately: "Alfred had me, the aestel, worked." But when the object emerges into its function as a pointer for the reading of valuable text, the experiences and identities of the artist and the reader are brought into play, and we can start to consider how the artist was "worked" or "made" by such an important commission; as well as how the bishop is being "worked" or "made" into the reader King Alfred desires (nay, ordains) him to be. The knowledge of the aestel, in its intimacy with the text, the knowledge of the artist, in his intimacy with the materials, and the knowledge of the reader, in learning the content of the sacred text become interdependent. Making is entangled with becoming; labor, effort, and expertise materialize as endeavors shared by the aestel, the artist, and the reader.

Fluid ontologies, in which one thing becomes another energize the poems that have come to be known as "Anglo-Saxon riddles." Written down around the year 1000, but in existence through oral tradition for generations before then, the riddles begin with one state of being of a material and traces it through its manipulations and manufactures as it becomes another entity entirely. Thus, Riddle 24 begins in the voice of the animal whose hide is used to make a manuscript and ends in the voice of the holy book that will save a man's soul. Throughout the poem, the "I" is constant, even though the identity is fluid. So, too, I am suggesting, the "me" of the Alfred Jewel fluctuates in identities, even as it remains the same making a distinction between subject and object (between artist, aestel, and audience) moot.

The effort of the aestel in being made, that of the artist in making, and that of the reader in becoming are entangled around the object so that, while here I can hold them apart through analysis, in the act and gestures of reading, making and becoming become enmeshed for all three. By picking up the aestel, the reader becomes a part of a community of readers, authorized by the king, sanctified by precious materials, and sealed by knowledge.


The tympanum of Autun cathedral was sculpted in limestone in the 1120s and 30s. Depicting a Last Judgment with a Heaven and Hell frenetic enough to provoke the cathedral's canons to plaster the entire surface over in the 18th-century, the material presence of bodies writhing in apocalyptic agony was too insistent even 600 years after their sculpting. Autun's tympanum continues to stir passions and provoke controversies,

few more passionate and controversial than what and whom are meant by the inscription GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this") which succinctly wedged itself amidst the words of Christ at the Last Judgment. The 1999 publication of Legends in Limestone by Linda Seidel questioned, and some will say over-turned, the heroic narrative that a single artist is signified by the phrase, a narrative which had had traction since it was first suggested by George Zarnecki and Denis Grivot in 1960. Wresting "Gislebertus hoc fecit" from the status of a signature to that of an inscription, Seidel's research argued for the phrase carved into the tympanum as a "stone charter" within what she calls a "material narrative" – a heavily material inscription meant to evoke the name of the last Carolingian duke of the late 10th century in a region still tumultuously ruled by the Capetians in the 12th-century of the cathedral's construction. Medieval art historians have been grudging about giving up the unified identity of the "medieval Michaelangelo" as Gislebertus-as-artist had been dubbed. Gislebertus-as-ancestor is a much more fragmented identity, as Seidel's argument positions it, diffused across memory and history. But even, or I would say especially, as an inscription signaling a donor rather than an artist, "Gislebertus hoc fecit" speaks to the effort of making as it elides with that of becoming in the after-life.

As with the Alfred Jewel, though on a radically different scale, we stand before a work of art that announces the effort of its making. The figures of Autun cathedral still sway and stretch with detailed and unusual torment. There is writhing even in Heaven, as resurrecting souls cling to angels' wings in escaping the call of a trumpet of the Last Judgment, and seize the hands of St. Peter in a final plea. A particularly burdened angel is embraced around the hips by a desperate soul while hoisting another wriggling soul's insistently heavy "body" into the architecture of Heaven above.

One of the most poignant scenes in Hell performs the sculptural and acrobatic feat of positioning a figure on the supports of the Scales of Judgment, as he calls out (oh to hear those words!) to the Heavenly side, leaning against the scale, willing and weighing the scales to lean in St. Michael's favor against the grappling demons. In these scenarios of reaching and striving, the making and carving of the limestone sculpture is insistent in the weight and effort of the figures. Angels' wings are thick with stone; hopeful souls are heavy as rock; saints' robes stretch up in slabs. Once again, the effort of the artist is amplified, and identities become fluid, not by and with a reader this time, but through the yearning figures on display for a viewer hopeful or even fervent for salvation. The figures of Autun exist in the dynamic tension between the transcendence of reaching for Heaven and a world weighed down by pathos.

The stone inscriptions speaking the words of Christ in this heavy Heaven take on a significant role as the only element containing the emerging masses of resurrecting souls from their heavenly or hellish destinations. Christ is framed by his own words on the mandorla that encircles him: "I alone dispose of all things and crown the just, those who follow crime I judge and punish."

"Thus shall rise again everyone who does not lead an impious life and endless light of day shall shine for him" reads the inscription separating Heaven from the resurrection.

"Here let fear strike those whom earthly error binds. For their fate is shown by the horror of these figures" stretches out beneath Hell, at one point punctured by the grasping claws of a devil snatching a soul even before its judgment at the scales. These words become material in their enunciation, for as they are traced with the eye or read aloud by a voice, the internal rhymes of the disyllabic leonine hexameters of the inscriptions emerge.

·      Omnia dispono solus meritoque corono
·      Quose scelus exercet me iudice pena coercet

·      Quiseque resurget ita quem non trahit impia vita
·      Et lucebit ei sine fine lucerne diei

·      Terreat hic terror quos terreus alligat error
·      Nam fore sic verum notat hic horror specierum

As the visual space is crowded with figures, so the words around the tympanum are made thick with rhyme. In the midst of this structured, rhyming language emerges "Gislebertus hoc fecit" as a disruptive presence – neither rhyming, nor coupled, unattached, a signifier floating more than ever since Linda Seidel unmoored it from the heroic narrative of the solitary artist. Who speaks these words? Would Christ interrupt Himself in thundering his leonine rhyme? The time and place of the speaking remains open-ended, blurring distinctions of the here-and-now and the hereafter, stretching across past time and future time, sustaining multiple states of being. The Gislebertus inscription bridges words and worlds, collapsing human and divine time and space, and offering immediacy through the knowledge and insistence of its own heavy making.


These two brief excurses around inscriptions that speak (to) the making of their objects seek to expand our understanding of the artistic process in medieval art, not just in the act of creation, but in the lasting fascination with making and becoming. Inscriptions keep works of art "in progress" – they keep the act of making current and perpetual through their evocations of what I have called "fluid ontologies," those identities and states of becoming (of artist, audience, and art object) that gather around matter as it coalesces into event. In articulating the ideas of "material ecocriticism," Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman look to matter as a site of entanglement between what has been kept separate as the human and the non-human (building on the work of ecocriticism that seeks to undo the damaging binary of nature and culture). The gold, enamel, rock crystal, and limestone we have been discussing this morning constitute what Iovino and Opperman call "storied matter" – an "interchange of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites." (Material Ecocriticism, 21). When, in the solitude of his study, the bishop picks up his golden, enameled aestel encased in rock crystal and feels the edges of the letters of its inscription in his palm, he engages the king's favor, his own religious knowledge, and an intimacy with materials that join in the concerted effort of making him (into) a reader. When, in the narrow, crowded viewing space of the tympanum of Autun, the pilgrim looks up to the bodies of souls yearning within stone and hears the inscriptions read aloud to the community around her, she becomes entangled in the time and place of the here-and-now and the hereafter, her own knowledge of Heaven and Hell made vivid by weighty stone, and the potentiality of her being in salvation. "Storied matter," here as highlighted by inscriptions but with a multiplicity of possible applications to works of art, has great potential for art history in the Material Turn, as the field opens up the concept of making to include the "shared becoming" of artist, audience, and art.