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Posts from the ‘who we are’ Category


Radical Hope for Medieval and Early Modern Studies [an interview with Eileen Joy]

Michael Ursell, of the Stanford University Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, interviewed Eileen in the wake of the BABEL 2012 conference in Boston in September.

Eileen talked about BABEL, past and future, in terms of:

Medieval Studies as Performance Art

A Manifesto for Radical Optimism

The Right to Care About Everything

Starting Over


Find the interview here.


Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood, and I, I Took the One Less Travelled By: Why I Resigned my Professorship


I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and over again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: put your cards on the table.
~Amy Hempel, “Tumble Home”
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
~Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
Part I. Fear of Flying
For several years now, I have been engaging in various processes of what I am now calling de-materializing. Some of these were painful and not exactly self-willed. For example, in 2006, I separated from a partner with whom I had lived for about 14 years, and in fact, we continued on, in fits and starts until 2009, and somehow managed to part as friends, even while much that transpired between us from about 2005 to 2009 was incredibly sad, occasionally terrifying, and heartbreaking. But in May 2006, while on a mini-research trip at Cambridge University, I remember standing in the narrow hallway of a B&B on a communal wall-phone talking to my partner and realizing, this is it, we’re separating (and not because I wanted to; I did not want that, not then), my life is now officially over, and I have nothing to live for. Thanks to a beautiful best friend of 27+ years, I would have a place to live in the hills of eastern Tennessee for the rest of the summer, and indeed, she and her husband tended to me so carefully for the next 3 months, I will likely never be able to repay the gift of their kindness. They gave me an enchanted respite; they made me laugh; they “entertained” me; they surrounded me with good company, elegant dinners, and several tuns of wine.
I’ve always connected my love relationships to my work; when they are good, I can think and write and extend my affections to pretty much everything, and I only see the light in everything, but when my primary relationships are breaking down, I can’t think straight and I pretty much shut down. Everything goes black. It did not help that, at the same time that my partner was effectively breaking up with me, that my stint at Cambridge was not going so well. I had chosen Old English as my primary research specialty (having finished my PhD in Nov. 2001), and at the time, whether just imagined in my own head or not, I felt like this: “Wow, everyone in Old English studies, with 1 or 2 exceptions, really hates me.” A less self-absorbed (but still personal) version of this might have been, “Old English studies is never going to accept the kind of work I want to do, and maybe I should stop striving so hard to be a part of a field that isn’t welcoming the approaches I am trying to devise. Maybe I should just go away. Maybe medieval studies, and even academia, isn’t for me at all.” BABEL was partly founded, in 2004, out of the collective depression of 5 women — myself, Betsy McCormick, Mary Ramsey, Myra Seaman, and Kimberly Bell — who just weren’t sure anyone would ever pay any attention to us because we had no (or not much) institutional privilege, and maybe we should just do whatever the hell we wanted, anyway. Plus, we wanted to have some fun at conferences that struck us as stultifyingly boring. In addition, I had resigned my job at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in May 2005 in order to accept a job at my partner’s university in South Carolina [with the hope of repairing our broken relationship], and now, in May 2006, after a brutal bid to re-apply and ultimately win back my job at SIUE [which only happened because a courageous department Chair, Charles Berger, overruled the hiring and department’s executive committees to re-hire me, and let it be said, now, finally, and in public, what a debt I owe to him and others at SIUE who wanted me back, despite the “weirdness” of my having left to begin with], I was facing a scary and uncertain future. Read more »

These Are the Tiny Engines That Power the Sails of Our Adventure: Friendship as a Way of Life (Again, and Again)


It is now 2 days since returning from the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston last week, and I am still trying to recover. Following this blog post I am going to share with everyone the notes of the first-ever “think tank” of BABEL, held the Sunday after the conference, in which a group of us engaged in some strategic planning for the future of our conference, but also for BABEL as an organization that is getting larger and larger in terms of its activities and membership. WE NEED HELP. To that end, in the next day or two, I will share what we discussed at our day-long retreat and also invite everyone here to please pitch in ideas regarding the next meeting, to be held in Autumn 2014 at UC-Santa Barbara.

In the meantime, I would like to share with everyone here the edited and slightly expanded version of the presentation that I and my partner Anna Klosowska delivered in Boston as part of Brantley and Sakina Bryant’s “Impure Collaborations” panel, which they described this way:
This panel explores collaborations that challenge the customary professional expectations of academic being-together. What kinds of shared work beckon beyond the sanitized templates for “objective” (“pure”) and “professional” academic collaboration? How can we best make visible the ways in which that affinity, friendship, eros, identity, political engagement, and other off-the-CV connections give us ways of working outside of often constrictive and normative academic hierarchies and working conditions?
Friendship, and also “work” motivated by personal intimacy and love, was the topic Anna and I chose, and we understand the mine-field in which we tread. It is hoped that it is understood that we do not take our project of friendship [which we believe is deeply political and radical] as some sort of monolith: “we are all friends now! isn’t that groovy?” As if that “group” or whatever it is would not be striated by all sorts of differences, internal dissension, mixed motives, lopsided attractions, asymmetrical power dynamics, and the like. The project of friendship, in relation to the academy, is, for us, very much a Derridean and even Foucauldian working through of what is to-come, to-arrive. It is a project of radical hope, not a *thing* that already exists. It is not one specific group that insists on a sort of membership or set of rituals or personality types for being “in” or “out.” It is not a collective that absorbs nor threatens to absorb otherness and difference; it is an activity of clearing ground so that anything might happen, so that specific persons can feel safe to be exactly who they are, even if what that is might embody the wish to be “left alone.” It requires courage, because you have to be willing to allow yourself to be changed through your encounters with others. And without further ado, here are our remarks: Read more »


Fuck Pessimism: Embrace Youngsterism


To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.
–Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager

Thanks to Jeffrey’s recent post on Tweeting the MLA Conference [a conference, moreover, that included a concerted attention upon the digital humanities and its possible future(s)], a very lively set of comments emerged, and I’m glad they have because they arrived at the exact moment I was contemplating writing a post titled “Fuck Pessimism,” and gave me some extra fuel. Late December and early January is a queer time of year–on the one hand, it heralds [if even as a mirage] new beginnings and re-tooled ambitions and second [and third and fourth and so on] chances as well as a chance to pause and rest and refresh; on the other hand, for many of us working in literature, history, philosophy, cultural studies, new media, and foreign languages departments, it signifies that annual meeting [MLA, AHA, APA, etc.] where hundreds and hundreds of anxious and well-trained and talented job seekers gather to make the best pitch they can for some future job security, and this at a time when the economic picture for those in the humanities does not look so hot [although recent numbers do indicate a slight up-tick in available jobs], and the American economy in general kind of sucks, and everyone is admittedly worried about the future of academic publishing. Read more »


I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You: A Plea for Inextricability, for Staying Awake, and for an Insomniac Humanities


for Brantley Bryant

Every known object

as if:

b. keeping busy
c. stunned
(Rae Armantrout, “Arrivals”)

We address the question of our aliveness to the object of fascination because contemplating such an object allows us to suspend our aliveness without suffering from it; in reverie, in gazing, we are undead.
(Aranye Fradenburg, “My Worldes Blisse: Chaucer’s Tragedy of Fortune”)

leave your possessions, positions, ambitions at home,
temporarily quit the human race;
how long can we stay?
the fairies with the stars won’t say;
it all depends on your money . . . or your case.
(poem written by an anonymous American while incarcerated in a Chinese prison, from This American Life, Episode 448, Adventure!, Act I: “Chinese Checkmate”)

What we need is an account . . . of how the complications of praise may be thought, said, and sung together with the complications of truth and, yes, pleasure.
(Cary Howie, “Inextricable,” Glossator 4: Occitan Poetry)

Before beginning, a disclaimer and a frank personal aside: I am well aware that some people are afflicted by chronic and long-term bouts of insomnia, and that this can be a horrible thing to live with, and I am not meaning in any way with my post here to minimize or overlook that fact. For a brief period, when I was working on my MFA in the early 1990s and living in Richmond, Virginia, over a period of about a year, I had a terrible and long battle with insomnia that was also combined with an illogical anxiety that if I went to sleep, I would die. I never actually sought help for this (because I was young and stupid), but spent many late nights and early mornings riding my bicycle through the lamp-lit streets of the historic Fan district in Richmond in order to wear myself out, and also because I believed that, by cycling, I was keeping myself alive. I had a lot of interesting “visions,” epiphanies, “visitations,” and hallucinations on these bike rides, some of which made it into my fiction writing, and one of which convinced me I had cracked the “code” of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” but mainly, it was just a horrible period in my life. It didn’t help that, at the time, I was also — how shall I put this? — a total pothead. But I must admit, I have some nostalgia for those visions and visitations, which were, for lack of a better way to describe them, windows that momentarily cracked open to reveal to me the frail yet tender interconnectedness of everything, human and inhuman, past and present (Richmond is a truly Southern gothic city in which the past is always visible), as well as the shining beauty of the world. In short, even when sick and afraid, I’m an optimist [or is it” hopeless aesthete?]. Read more »


Everything We Think Can in Principle Be Thought By Someone Else: A Plea for Open, Collective Scholarship

by Eileen Joy

At the end of my working day, I am almost always depressed. Mine is not a straight path like an engineer’s, it’s not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials. . . . Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative.–
Theo Jansen, creator of the Strandbeests

Although it often feels otherwise, we do not think alone. We never have. Every second of every day, there is a virtual crowd inside of our head, multiple voices, all vying for attention, and even as babies we come into this world carrying the histories of previous generations and their experiences inside intricate chains of nucleic acids that inhabit every cell of our bodies. I’ve long ago given up on the idea of a unified, autonomous “self” [thank you, Derrida, Foucault, Francesco VarelaAndy Clark, and also Katherine Hayles], but every day, our particular and unique minds touch reality and become real, to paraphrase the political philosopher George Kateb [“The Idea of Individual Infinitude,” The Hedgehog Review 7.2 (2005): 42–54, at 49], while at the same time that “reality” represents, to cadge from Timothy Morton, an inescapable “mesh”: “a complex situation or series of events in which a person is entangled; a concatenation of constraining or restricting forces or circumstances; a snare” [Oxford English Dictionary]. I agree with Morton that “everything is interconnected” and therefore “there is no definite background and . . . no definite foreground” [The Ecological Thought, p. 28]. But as Morton also asks,

If there is no background and therefore no foreground, then where are we? We orient ourselves according to backgrounds against which we stand out. There is a word for a state without a foreground-background distinction: madness. [The Ecological Thought, p. 30]

The fact of the matter is, in order to guard against this “madness,” we imagine all sorts of background-foreground distinctions all of the time: we need them, and they are necessary, even consoling, fictions. A life has to be livable, after all. I feel the same way about love: I know I’m making this up as I go along with a lot of props from others in history who have also been making things up as they go along. The trick is not to stop believing in individual lives, or in love, or even persons, but rather, to generously expand our conceptions of what counts as a life, what counts as loveable, what counts as a person. The ultimate aim is to work toward increasing, as much as is in our power, the general well-being of as many inhabitants [animate, inanimate, whathaveyou] of this world as possible. Or as Pablo Neruda once put it, much more eloquently than I ever could, “I don’t know who you are. I love you. I don’t give away thorns, and I don’t sell them” [Love Sonnet LXXVIII]. Read more »



Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

The Red Queen to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Perseverance is more prevailing than violence; and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little.

Plutarch, Life of Sertorius

But when we sit together, close . . . we melt into each other with phrases. We
are edged with mist. We make an insubstantial territory.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves


The BABEL Working Group is a non-hierarchical scholarly collective and post-institutional desiring-assemblage with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom, and only a middle. Membership in the BWG carries with it no fees, no obligations, and no hassles, and accrues to its members all the symbolic capital they need for whatever meanings they require. BABEL’s chief commitment is the cultivation of a more mindful being-together with others who work alongside us in the ruined towers of the post-historical university. BABEL roams and stalks these ruins as a multiplicity, a pack, not of subjects but of singularities without identity or unity, looking for other roaming packs and multiplicities with which to cohabit and build glittering misfit heterotopias.

More conventionally, the BABEL Working Group, founded in 2004, is a collective and desiring-assemblage of scholars (primarily medievalists, but also persons working in other areas, such as early modern and Victorian studies, critical and cultural theory, film and women’s studies, new media studies, critical sexuality studies, and so on) in North America, the U.K., Australia, and beyond who are working to develop new cross-disciplinary alliances between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts in order to formulate and practice new critical humanisms, as well as to develop a more present-minded medieval studies, a more historically-minded cultural studies, and a new misfit multiversity.



Peer Review, Once More, But This Time With Feeling


Figure 1. Eco Pods, Boston

[Architects: Howeler + Yoon]

As some of you may know already,postmedieval is about halfway through a 2-month open “crowd review” of its forthcoming special issue on Becoming-Media, co-edited by Jen Boyle and Martin Foys, and you can see what has been happening with that, and also participate yourself, here:

Crowd Review: Becoming-Media Issue

In all honesty [and yes, I know I am an impartial judge], I have been thrilled with how this crowd review has been progressing thus far–if you follow the link above, you can see for yourself that, in just under four weeks, we have had a fairly robust response, with really thoughtful and expansive comments from a wide variety of commentators [the issue’s editors, junior faculty, more senior faculty, graduate students, and one imagines, some independent scholars]. Of course, we have to reflect that the essays were solicited in advance by the issue’s two editors and received some expert review by them before emerging into the crowd review context, and some of the essays may have received comments in other contexts prior to being received by Jen and Martin [I know, for example, that Whitney Trettien blogged and tweeted portions of her essay in the past and also maintains a public wiki where she keeps all of her notes, annotations, and bibliography relative to her various writing projects]. I belabor this point because it is not the mission of this crowd review to ask potential reviewers to assess whether or not these essays are worth publishing or not. To a certain extent, that has already been decided by the issue’s editors, although, just as with an edited volume of essays, all of the authors involved understand that the crowd review process does serve as a form of “external” review of their work for this special issue of the journal, and I assume they will revise accordingly with Jen and Martin’s expert guidance [but also with their own sense of which comments best serve the purposes of their separate essay projects: in other words, the authors still maintain sole control of the overall direction and content of their individual essays]. But something also really different and importantly valuable is going on here, and it is worth reflecting upon further. Read more »


You Are Here: A Manifesto

You Are Here: A Manifesto
Eileen A. Joy

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods
Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, George Washington University
11-12 March 2011
[audiofile available HERE]

The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with an act of love. . . . The authentic and pure values—truth, beauty and goodness—in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

I. Ideation Without Bodies/The Drowned World

The strangest thing is that I am not at all inclined to call myself insane, I clearly see that I am not: all these changes concern objects. At least, that is what I’d like to be sure of.—from the notebooks of Antoine Roquentin[1]

In J.G. Ballard’s short story, “The Overloaded Man,” the main character, Faulkner, is “slowly going insane.”[2] In a nutshell, he’s become dissatisfied with life in general, and having quit his job, he waits impatiently for his wife to leave every morning so that he can engage in his daily secret ritual. Living in a development called “the Bin”—a “sprawl of interlocking frosted glass, white rectangles and curves, at first glance abstract and exciting . . . but to the people within formless and visually exhausting”[3]—Faulkner is eager to de-materialize his surroundings. Read more »


while you’re here

why not take a moment and

    • if you’re not already a member, join BABEL by emailing a short bio about yourself to be added to the gallery of members. email seamanm[at]
    • if you’re already a member, then go check out your profile, which probably needs some updating and may be lacking a photo. email updates and/or a photo to seamanm[at]
    • donate to BABEL, which would be an enormous benefit as we gear up for the Speculative Medievalisms II conference in September, the annual party at Kalamazoo in May, and (especially!) the 2nd BABEL conference in 2012! Somehow, all of this requires money, and BABEL has precious little of it.

Donations can be made through Paypal by following the “Donate” button above, or the old-fashioned way by sending a check made out to “BABEL Working Group” to:
Myra Seaman, Treasurer, BABEL Working Group
c/o Department of English
College of Charleston
26 Glebe Street
Charleston, SC 29424

The BABEL Working Group is a non-hierarchical scholarly collective and post-institutional assemblage with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom, and only a middle. Membership in the BWG carries with it no fees, no obligations, and no hassles, and accrues to its members all the symbolic capital they need for whatever meanings they require.


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