The entremets* are the delight of the feast. The display that comes “between the dishes” and prompts gasps and exchanged glances and laughter on the way to realization. The noise you hear from far-off that comes closer and closer. The thing you perceive through other people perceiving it first. The machinery and effort that put wonders in motion: that flow the water and turn the gears and sound the bells of the Cleveland Table Fountain here. That make the reveler reach out for touch, turn to a companion to marvel, and return for a closer look.
The Material Collective was at the feast this year. The 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies stood up and delivered a rousing conference, and it’s the spirit of the entremets (the delightful disruptions that becomes the main topics of conversation) that I will pursue in this account of sessions with a Material Collective presence. Actually, the parenthetical above is the most important part of this post, because it gets at the glad and thrilling realization I had at this year’s Kalamazoo: that the conversations we used to have on the side, the ones that really warmed us up but weren’t considered part of the main conference, the passions and pulls we kept bracketing from the sessions – those have now become the main discussion: the Really Big Session, the heartiest laughter, the most shared ripple of recognition and community, the greatest momentum for the work we might do together next. And so…
The Future We Want: A Collaboration (A Roundtable)
It turns out that you can ask both for and of the future you want. You can clamor and beseech, speculate and hope, encourage and innovate. Prompted in part by the threatened futures of the humanities, the institutional cuts and undercuts, Jeffrey J. Cohen gathered us together under the banner of George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (GW-MEMSI) and said “Go.” We worked in teams and all the futures will be gathered together in a punctum book later this year. Karen Overbey and the Lothar Cross and I struggled within a lush future that can be collective beyond luxury. All the fervor (the attention to materiality, the vitality of things, the weight and presence and being of objects) of object-oriented ontology is still learning how to talk to all the fervor (the dignity of the human condition, the work for social justice, the articulation of civil rights) of the liberal democratic subject. “Oh!” we said at the beginning of a sentence we repeated twice we believe in it so much, “That is the future we want: an ethical relationship with objects that still allows for lushness.” A lush ethics. Stay tuned. And then there were other futures, here offered as glimpses in eager anticipation for the punctum books volume: Institutional Change/Paradigm Change from Eileen Joy/L.O. Aranye Fradenburg (a call for ornament and delusional spaces); Time Change/Mode Change from Allan Mitchell and Will Stockton-spoken-by-Eileen-Joy (consider scholarship as trauma, forgetting as fundamental to a humanities education); World Change/Sea Change from Lowell Duckert and Steve Mentz (who had swum in Lake Michigan at 6 a.m. that morning, who led us to images of calving glaciers and spoke us through a few of Fernando Pessoa’s seventy-plus heteronyms); Voice Change/Language Change from Chris Piuma and Jonathan Hsy (take note of modes and memes and containers for language and “spectral intervocality” and hey, “let’s overpopulate our containers”); and Collective Change/Mood Change by Julie Orlemanski and Julian Yates (and the Battle of Maldon (oh Aethelred the Unready!) and moodiness and the question that resonates: “How do you decide which collective to change yourself into?”). Each one of these futures was an encouraging “come join us” gesture to an entremet at past Kalamazoos: spoken around a table or over a glass of wine or during that last tired walk back to the dorms. When you hear the passion and the honesty and the joy and the immediacy of these futures, you wonder that they were ever not spoken centrally. But they weren’t. And now they are. And so yes, answer the call of Eileen Joy, and ask what the future wants, too.
Time and the Material Object
If you’re mesmerized by the RRRRRRRROLL Collective gif, that’s ok – stay a while. You’re already sitting still enough to read these words, why not marvel at the phenomenal variety of stillness and action around you. The computer you touch is still, but whirs within processing processing; your body is still (relatively) but your metabolism burns and thrives, processing processing; the building around you hums, that wooden pencil cracks just a little with age, the coffee gets cooler and cooler. Experiencing time through objects; the temporal experience of objects; the objecthood of time; the experiential time of objects. The permutations of the talks and discussion of the panel sponsored by the Material Collection involved the packed room in the entremets of time – those wondrous glitches that disrupt a slow and steady progression from conception to origin to stasis in a work of art. Reception of works of art through time is messy and driven by desire and is anything but slow and steady. The ending isn’t always in the museum; all of the papers in the panel argued (beautifully, expectantly) that there is no ending.
Beth Williamson Samways led things off and led us in with “Ductus and Duration: Physical and Sensory Engagement with Medieval Objects.” For yes we make objects, yes we manufacture them, yes we may activate them, but in actuality (in experience and in time), they lead us. Images, and medieval art objects especially, have a ductus – a path that they trace for us to take, be it narrative or liturgical, compositional or aesthetic. Considering this ductus through time becomes a very interesting proposition: you have to relax your grip on the absolute value of human agency, and consider the inter-action between object and user. We experience works of art temporally, and Beth’s paper opened up the interpretive possibilities tremendously: from the immediacy of musical correlation (heard then and there as the viewer tracks her way through a stained glass window) to the lifetime return of Matthew Paris’s yearning for Jerusalem through maps.
Sometimes the ductus will take you way off-script to unexpected places, like the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Athyn or Gloucester, Massachusetts. I include this image to herald Jennifer Borland and Martha Easton’s conjoined talk on “Integrated Pasts: Glencairn Museum and Hammond Castle,” despite its graininess and black and white coloring, because of the palpable love that Mildred is showing for the statue the family called the “Thin Lady.” Take the time, look at the website, let their ductus make you want to go. Beautiful, aren’t they? Easy to get caught up in the world of the handsome men and women who wanted it and made it happen. That desire is more democratically shared today at, say, Medieval Times (where I will never forget being told that I could “upgrade my experience to royalty for $10!” smile!), or, more poignantly, the Ozarks Medieval Fortress, whose building site has gone dormant for “financial reasons.” But Glencairn and Hammond remain. I loved the warmth and laughter that rippled through the audience as lush image after lush image of these American medievalist fantasies appeared: statues reset on capitals, heraldry invented, floors brought in from Europe, tiles, glass, stone, linen, jewels – entremets, entremets, entremets, an entire architecture of entremets collected, crumbs from the tables of a Europe not dreaming of the Middle Ages like these reveling Americans. That audience laughter goes deep: I laugh because of the simultaneous absurdity and possibility of such places. They’re “fake” and “artificial” and “wrong,” replete with artifice and pretension and maybe even naïveté. But they work. They do work. Precisely because they are entremets, delightful things dis-rupted from their origins, they can be savored, their materiality more present because it can never again be lost in a big picture, because it now stands reframed as its own picture – absurd, disassociated, but as such, treasured and available for whatever association you bring to it.
Brendan Sullivan set up a great problem of time and perception that will be perpetuated here. “Dress You Up in My Angst: Clothing in Medieval Depiction of the Past and the Problem of Historical Distance” is obsessed with a shoe, a green shoe to be precise, whose toe peeks out ever so slightly (but just enough!) from a dress amidst all the chaos and horror of Charles VI’s Wild Men performance going up in flames. Brendan saw it when he saw the manuscript “live,” when he was in its presence, when it pulled him where he hardly expected to go. What are we trying to do when we look carefully (when we study) medieval images? I’m not talking about the interpretation and the writing and the conferences and the publications. I’m not talking about the knowledge that we produce as a result of looking. I’m talking (provoked by Brendan’s eloquent insistence) about our experience of looking. Somewhere in that prolonged, hunched shoulder gaze is an attempt to see as was seen: to see as medieval viewers saw – not exactly, but at least to be looking at the “right” thing. A green shoe in the midst of the king’s demise is exuberantly not the right thing. It doesn’t lead to any new attributions or interpretations or conclusions. But it does create an in-sight, a realization of distractions and their presence and their pull in any viewing experience. What if we opened up our viewing experience to more than looking for the “right” way of seeing? How much more would we see of the hesitation, rebellion, delight, anxiety, objecthood, and materiality of our works of art. Try it: let yourself be distracted by the detail that doesn’t fit the mood, message, or moral of the bigger piece. Turn Morelli on his head and let the details lead you further into the mystery of the work.
First and foremost, reread Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins. Re-member Painted Stick and Conch Shell and Spoon and Dirty Sock and (oh yea) Can o’ Beans (poor man’s entremets). And re-consider with Ben Tilghman “The Still Lives of Medieval Objects.” Our fast and flurried motions around our works of art, all that fervor in gesture and hope and liturgy and praise – all of that eventually goes, and the object is left still, in its non-human time. If you look at, behold, an object for any amount of time, you will be unnerved by its stillness. If it’s figurative, this might happen all the more quickly in your desire to connect with those still eyes, will those still lips to part, yearn to see that still arm reach for you. We dismiss this as the stuff of nonsense today, tracing and retracing the line between animate and inanimate, but visions and miracles gave free reign that the desire to shimmer stillness. Ben makes a beautiful point of the sanctity of stillness: of incorruptibility of holiness as the ability to slow oneself to superhuman stasis. The saints are still. They approximate objects (and art helps them do so after they are gone). The audience seized up this idea of still objects and there were questions about how objects inhabit and thwart their own stillness, there was marveling about how objects make us move them around (how our desire for objects (calling Mildred!) exert our efforts of money and distance and labor in their favor) – how we might be vehicles, vectors (as we are for viruses) of movements for objects. The discussion made me think of how works of art carry their stillness with them. Their materiality collects about them and holds on; and we come forward, with gladness and anticipation, slowing down our human time to enter object time for that little bit of time that we crave and crave again.
Blunder (A Roundtable)
If you’re still with me, let’s blunder to the end together. The BABEL Working group called out for Blunder and the Material Collective responded in two pairs. This is the entremets that veered: didn’t go as planned, took off somewhere, lost control, was moved by God Knows What – in short, blundered. These, like the previous conversations, were conversations that had not had their say at Kalamazoo. Mary Kate Hurley proposed blundering as a way of moving through Beowulf, as a way that Beowulf moves “Blundering at the End in Beowulf;” M. W. Bychowski took up fruit and considered the “Fruit of Failure;” Maggie Williams and Nancy Thompson engaged in “Speculations,” performing a pastiche letter of rejection made up of lines pulled from letters received by the Material Collective in members’ publication attempts; David Hadbawnik encouraged “Scribal Blunders, Poetic Wonders: Reports from a Modern-Day Scribe” and seeks contemporary willing folk to engage in writing manu-scripts; Marian Bleeke and I sought to look the blunder of writing in the eye (ha!) in “Slices and Splices” and cut up conference papers submitted after a call on Facebook and let the phrases drive the poetry that emerged from the splicing; and Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran extolled the virtues (and the vulnerability and the pathos and the good will and the humor) of the academic “Failblog/Fumblr.” Each of these endeavors invited its own wayward path, and the audience followed in great trust, and with much laughter. It made me realize that blundering is not faltering – that there is a resoluteness in the blunder that we all came to admire by the end of the session. Once the waywardness has begun, go for it – maybe the path will shift for you, maybe the path wasn’t so great to begin with. “Speculations” hit a nerve with the audience. The first question launched right into a gladness and a thank you for acknowledging the unnecessary peevishness of many a rejection letter. You will see some of these lines (denouncing “imagination” as an unsound source; referring an author to her own dissertation; citing the reviewer’s state of being unconvinced as all that was needed for dismissal) in a Fumblr post soon. For now, for then, for that audience, there was a palpable relief at enunciating the lancing words that leave us all feeling like we’ve blundered, and might continue blundering for who knows how long. How to subvert this particular power play? How to make writing and publishing more humane? More of a relationship than a judgment? More of a conversation than a sentence? We wouldn’t (we shouldn’t!) dare grade that way – why are the imperious tones and impatient dismissals allowed? Strategies of resistance emerged: identifying yourself as a reviewer, editing (if you’re an editor) your reviewers or asking for their greater consideration, singing the praises of a review that helps, and making yet more fun of those that don’t. A worry that greater generosity would lessen critical thinking turned the conversation to a passionate argument for the possibilities of generosity as critical thinking, pushing the reviewer to think through the perceived problems, open up solutions, suggest new avenues. What about that? What about blundering through together? What about giving up a self-congratulatory authority in favor of a shared desire to know, experience, cherish, and sustain the texts and objects and images and ideas that we have devoted our lives to? Generosity and gladness are critical modes: they acknowledge the need for alliances in the futures we want so much for medieval studies; they call for stillness and heightened perception; they build the spaces and platforms and interpretations for the entremets that make the party come alive.
* With many thanks to Christina Normore for the inspiration to think upon entremets during a week-end devoted to her forthcoming book, A Feast for the Eyes; Art and Performance in the Late Middle Ages that was sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, and hosted by the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre-Dame.