BABEL 2014: Experience and Allegory

From Vanessa Daws's book "Lambay Swim"

From Vanessa Daws’s book “Lambay Swim”

BABEL in Santa Barbara surged over me like (the metaphor is unavoidable) a breaking wave. We happy BABEL-isiti swam through the white water together – in fact on Thursday morning before the first set of plenaries I bodysurfed Hendry’s Beach with a full dozen other conference-goers, a neoprene-clad advance party. For the past three days we rode the waves. On Sunday the foam dispersed us into the morning breeze.

My drive south to the airport Sunday morning with a carful of medievalists rolled time backwards, traveling across my own personal history on Pacific shores & then reaching farther back, swooping out from my body, across the sloping shoulders of wave after wave in the sunglitter. We passed familiar names: Carpentaria. Ventura. Point Mugu. Tarzana. Sepulveda. Santa Monica. Venice!

In one of my talks I lamented not having a whale’s throat to swallow oceans whole. The BABEL-fullness that has followed me home isn’t pacific in the historical etymological sense, in which Magellan misnamed the stormiest waters in the world for peace. Heading home today, I’m stirred up, turbulent, low on sleep. I didn’t manage three meals during any of the conference’s three days. I’m unsettled, and couldn’t scrub the sand and tar off my feet in the hotel shower.

My first talk positioned bodysurfing between experience and allegory. Those two categories swam, talked, drove, ate, and questioned with me all weekend. They’re organizing my espirit d’aeroplane now.

Opening plenary (Th)

Opening plenary (Th)

  1. Experience is better than knowledge.

The heart of this conference for me was the time spent in the ocean. A hardy dozen scholars and artists, many of whom had never met before, gathered at Hendry’s at 7 am on Thursday, before the conference had officially started. We bodysurfed alongside two kids’ surf camps and inside a thick bed of kelp. In the surf I met Vanessa Daws, the swimming video-artist I found on Facebook via Michael O’Rourke & whose picture from the Lambay Swim inspired the four eco-swim poems I published last month. I’m glad we met in the water. Thanks to all our fellow surf-adventurers!

I went back each morning for pre-conference bodysurfing. Lowell Duckert, my partner in co-plenary adventures that also included a dawn plunge into the campus lagoon before the bodysurfing on Thursday, joined me Friday too. We had the gorgeous water to ourselves. No kids, and almost no kelp. The waves were big enough to give us a slight bounce when we plunged down their faces onto the flat water in front.

On Saturday I got to the beach right at dawn – around 6:30 – and bodysurfed solo for thirty precious minutes before being joined by Jeremy Gordon & Juliane Mora, part of a brilliant group of Indiana-based rhetoricians I met at the conference. At 7:30 one of my favorite people, Elizabeth Teare, who hired me for my first-ever teaching job in 1992 (?) in LA and later navigated the turbulence of grad school with me in New Haven, arrived for breakfast with her husband and daughter. We talked about the past, and weddings, and travels. So great to emerge from waves into personal history!

During lunchless breaks on campus both Friday and Saturday I swam with Santa Barbara’s Ocean Ducks, an open-water swimming group that Vanessa had made contact with before the confidence started. Both days BABEL-isti splashed alongside.

All told I figure that I spent over 4 hours during the three-day conference in the ocean. One-seventh of the total conference time? Not sure that’ll be an easy mark to beat!

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Immersion was also a subject of the Thursday morning plenary, in which Lowell’s lagoons and my bodysurfing anchored an over-full relay of conference intros and talks by Benjamin Bratton (on the cloud) and a pair of great Pittsburgh-based poets, academics, and activists, Robin Clarke and Josh Zelesnick, who explored academic precarity. (Robin told me on Saturday that she’d successfully taught herself to bodysurf after listening to my talk and going to Hendry’s that afternoon: perhaps the best compliment I’ve ever received after a lecture!) During the session, I fretted as the clock kept insisting that we were going over time. When Robin and Josh started talking I stopped worrying.

My point about experience has to do with the inadequacy of intellectual analysis to capture the world’s dynamism. The split I felt all weekend at BABEL’s core wasn’t something that could be spanned or unified. Experience is not knowledge & can’t perform the movements and create the coalitions that knowledge generates. Experience is the thing that precedes. It’s not always easy to talk about, but I felt as if I edged toward it near the end of the talk. Or maybe what really got at it was Lowell’s insistence on wearing his wetsuit all day? A suit for a plenary, he said.

Experience describes the abundant physicality of immersion, the uncatagorizable sensation of all that water and all that power surging around and with you. It trumps knowledge because experience is always excessive, there’s always something left over, that grain of sand up your nose or the salt water that’s right now still in my ear and won’t drain until sometime, I don’t know, maybe tomorrow, so if I don’t answer when you’re talking to me in a crowded bar later, please know that it’s the ocean in my ear, not you. Theorizing experience is like freezing a flower: you can do it, but what you’re left with isn’t the same as what you were looking for.

  1. Always allegorize!
Lines written in sand (Fri)

Lines written in sand (Fri)

I’m changing the phrasing of the second half of my big BABEL-idea, because I think that the exhorting imperative is more what I was hoping for. Allegory is action! Why not reach for those symbolic structures, flashing around us in the surf like silver fish? The last morning when we were bodysurfing at Hendry’s, Juliane pointed out a brown head bobbing in the swell nearby. The sleek creature stayed close as we all played in the surf. All seals are selkies, at least potentially.

Whether Spenserians, ecocritics, Material Collectivities, or surfer environmentalists, allegory is our shared practice. Every paper I heard at BABEL allegorized. I count 67 total talks in my itinerary, not including the sometimes-substantial introductions, the brilliant flash-exhibitions, and the Material Collective’s quite amazing Walk on the Beach, which, even though I ducked out in the middle of it to go swimming with the Ocean Ducks, was for me one of the great events of the weekend.

To allegorize ocean and beach means finding intellectual meaning in grains of sand – but that’s the easy part. The best sessions, for me at least, surprised with their allegorical velocities, their dizzying turns and dives. A splash, and then – floomph! – they’re gone.

I’ll attempt a hyper-compressed three-day narrative, with no apologies for its impossibility but anticipatory regrets for omissions. Come into the turbulence with me!


From clouds onto strands pricked the not-always gentle knights, organizing and bodysurfing ourselves across lacunae, rock-ruling invisible pools but finally unable to cross the beached verge. We faced down inequitous dragons whose defeat may be impossible – but what is impossibility but improbability, as a mathematician might say, squared? Sea creatures didn’t block us so much as organize our #bottlesNbones so that we soaked in seismic aquifers, borrowing sun block from Chaucer at the beach. Where was Ceyx when we needed her? Wracked upon neighborly rocks?


After the morning’s surf I woke inside a zebrafish heart where all was endless and Greek. Dissolving our acidified shells past time limits was a good idea: it exo-skeletized empathy until we arrived, at last, at the impossible heart of the matter. Still enraged by time I returned to the strand and tried to read ocean scribbles in sand. Brilliance surrounded me. An aesthetic coward, I plunged into my familiar blue, leaving clothes and art history ashore. I was happy to find both still there when I came back. My meager contribution to the flash exhibition was an instant photo that did not develop, on which I wrote with a sharpie: “This is an attempt to photograph what water writes on shore.” With joy and trepidation I joined thirteen super-heroes of SCALE to ring the day shut: Subatomic cosmic ocean sand square? relativity intimate foot flash abyss global fear. Hearing the words still make me happy.




Salt and sand clung to me during the last morning plenary as I thought about my grandfather, a 22nd- (or something, I don’t really know) degree Shriner (is that the same as a Mason? I don’t know, and neither does Karl Steel, who’s sitting across the aisle from me on our flight back to JFK) in a hall whose geometry screamed under repeated temporal strain. I wanted more: more fishes and more drawings and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novels reaching out of Indonesia. When I spoke my assigned speculative part of Dear Climate, I wondered how Una & Marina know me so well that they could write my lines as an acute self-parody. Am I transparent, like water? “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” In Cute Shakespeare I found refuge and some discomfort. A mid-day swim affixed tar to my left toe that’s still there today as I fly over Grand Junction. (What an evocative name – don’t all conferences aspire to be that Grand Junction, that place of connection, that high desert town facing west?) Anyone who missed the revolutionary work of young scholars in the Sous les paves session organized by Justin Kolb missed that which must now be sought for. So many things I love were there: Marina, Spenser, surfing, saint-seductions, amphibians. But maybe my favorite object in the whole weekend was the word-rope in the Sea Changes session, superlatively organized by Jodi Enders and Ellen MacKay, which included my last (and sixth) speaking part. The rope was braided out of printed words on paper, words each of the six speakers had written and still love and had sent by email to P.A. Skantze. She twisted the pages into maybe 10’ of rope, on which we all hauled and sang out a work-chantey: “Haul away, sea changers!” All the talks were brilliant & provocative, but there was something special in the music of that shared worksong. Glorious – but not quite the end, as we convened one last time in familiar plenaric confines for somewhat uncontextulized hymns of surf-love, and a last enmeshment in early modern poetic seas. Impending ending, plus exhaustion and salt-chapped lips, smoothed over possibilities.

That’s not really all of BABEL 2014 – there is no “all,” only allegorical circulations. I am hopeful that the conversations will surface soon in multiple forms and media. I look forward to seeing them. The things that I spoke of – bodysurfing, beach-walking, Okeanos, weather-genres, beach-revolutions, salty language – have long fetches to travel before their waves crest. I hope my fellow conferees will beat me to publication.

I’m not always a big fan of long sub-titles, but this years BABEL-icious combination of “Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World” opened wide the voracious maw of this conference. If the silver tube in which I now travel above Colorado must mark a return from disorienting utopia – a return from the waves, from beloved California, from a briefly-opened space between and across – perhaps there are things we can take home with us.

Dawn over Hendry's (Sat)

Dawn over Hendry’s (Sat)

I want the empathy that precariousness creates, the free-fall of risk, life’s formal variety, fluid affinities, and the evanescence of play on shifting sands.

I left early from all three nights’ parties, partly to be sure I’d get to the beach at sunup the next day and partly because my rocker powers are sadly diminished. As I fly over the Rockies and write, I’m conscious that, amid all the joy – puns & allegories always intended – and blazing imagination of BABEL, I’m looking forward to going home.

Toronto 2015 looms. Its non-biennial nearness appears (I’m sorry to admit it) a little forbidding. Its time will come, and be welcome. There is only one time after all, that time when all things happen. As the poet said about the iceberg: “now!”






BABEL 2014 Preview: Heading to the Beach in Santa Barbara

babel_biennale_2014I leave for the West Coast on Wed afternoon, just in time for the voracious whirlpool of BABEL 2016. Whenever I browse through the overflowing program I find something new I’m looking forward to: art installations! rooftop parties! epigraphs from Moby-Dick!

You might want to look at it yourself: On_the_Beach_Program_EBook

Having not been able to resist the wonders of the Calls for Papers, I’m going to speak five (!) times over the three days of the conference. I’ll be brief, don’t worry.

Here are some previews of the flood.

Thursday morning early I’m heading into the surf with some brave souls and neoprene as an immersive preamble to my 9:30 am Plenary talk, “Bodysurfing.” The talk will start with two mantras to guide my surf-theory and my BABEL-ing:

1. Experience is better than knowledge. (Samuel Champlain)

2. Everything is allegorical.

The next day I’ll meet the Material Collective just after noon for a Walk on Goleta Beach on the UCSB campus, which will lead into our double-session seminar/flash exhibition/presentation. A little piece of the CT Shoreline will travel with me.

I’m also going to serve as designated Flanuer for a 3:30 pm panel that afternoon on “Coastal Creatures,” which sounds excellent.

At 5 pm on Fri, I’m part of the overflowing SCALE Plenary session. My talk, “Ocean,” flows over 40,000km in just four minutes.

The hard thing about this thinking is scale. The great waters are too big, too close, and too flowing to hold in hand or mind. We have no whale’s throat to swallow them whole.

Saturday at 2 pm I’m chairing Justin Kolb’s panel, “Sous les paves, la plage!” — under the pavement, the beach! He’s kindly let me adapt his great CFP for my intro. He describes arriving in Cairo in May 2013 when the square was a beach.

When Tahrir Square became beach, its traffic circle was a vibrant democratic assembly, with possibilities and vulnerabilities that attend life on the edge of the world.

Last of all I’m contributing seven vocabulary words to Ellen MacKay and Jody Enders’s “Sea Changes” session on Saturday afternoon.

What if all our talking hasn’t been oceanic enough? I want to change our grounded terrestrial metaphors. What happens if we swap out terrestrial language for salt-water terms?

That doesn’t include plans for immersive adventures, breakfast Saturday with one of my favorite friends, plus hearing and seeing so many great-sounding talks and exhibitions that I don’t have space to list them here.

Flying home on Sunday morning I’m going to be pretty tired.



Three Caves in France with Olivia

In Peche Merle

In Peche Merle

The part of my trip to France this past summer that I’ve still been meaning to write about happened underground. We went down into three famous caves: Pech Merle, Lascaux II, and the Gouffre de Padirac. Three very different sunless worlds.

One reason I’ve not gotten to writing these visits up is that Olivia, as part of the utterly brilliant travel journal she kept during our summer travels in Iceland and France, beat me to the pen (or keyboard). She’s agreed to let me quote from her descriptions here. Really I don’t have that much to add. She turns twelve tomorrow — 10/10/14 — and, doting Daddy though I may be, I’m amazed by her sentences.

I’ll take the caves in reverse order of our descents.Lascaux sign

Cave #3: Lascaux II

We went into the replica, an artificial cave which was opened to the public in 1983. The famous cave drawings, often described as prehistoric equivalents of the Sistine Chapel, were overwhelmingly beautiful. Art historians estimate that there are over 2,000 figures in Lascaux, the majority of which have been painstakingly replicated in the replica cave. I’ll let Olivia describe what it feels like to look at them. I pick up in the middle of her journal’s entry on Lascaux, when she starts thinking about why the guide, who was deeply committed to a religious interpretation of the artworks, called it the cave of dreams:Lascaus animasls

That is why it was called the cave of dreams to me. I have talked of leaving the world of reality when I dream, and coming to rest on the shores of imagination where anything is possible. There in Lascaux, though I wasn’t sleeping, I left the world of reality.

In the world of dreams the bulls ran freely, and I rode on a stag’s back as it jumped for joy at having escaped the dungeons of truth to a place where anything is possible, and you can climb over the rainbow high into the ever-blue sky and when you climb down again there is a cauldron full of gold waiting for you. In that world frowns are hidden, and smiles permanent, and I ran wild with the animals of Lascaux for the afternoon.

Cave #2: Gouffre de Padirac

In the Gouffre

In the Gouffre

Our middle cave was artless. The Gouffre de Padirac is in the same region as many of the cave painting sites, but there are no surviving human traces in these wet caverns prior to the caves’ discovery in the late nineteenth century. It’s a massive limestone sink, with an underground river at the bottom which we crossed in gondolas on our way toward some amazing underground pools.

Olivia focused on the absence of humanity in that other-worldly space.

Do you ever get the feeling that you are in space floating among things that you don’t know, discovering things you didn’t know existed? That is what happened when I entered the Gouffre de Padirac.

Nothing else had ever trodden down these roads, breathed this air, and searched around with piercing eyes looking for secrets. I was brought back to the other cave with the paintings, clear marks of civilization before time. Here though, nothing touched this cave, no prehistoric creature had left its mark upon the wall, to be discovered, to be pondered over, to be admired. I was overwhelmed by the fact that the only living things in this cave were us. Nothing else, not fish, or insects, or other small creatures had ever breathed the fresh, cold air of the cave, nor seen the shining crystals within. I heard the whisper of the water moving quickly over

Looking up from inside the Gouffre

Looking up from inside the Gouffre


Cave #1: Pech Merle

The “other cave” was Pech Merle, a famous site of Neolithic paintings only about 20 minutes away from the lovely little village of St. Cirq-lapopie where we spent most of our two weeks in France. It was the first cave we visited, and one of the most intense art encounters I’ve had. Olivia called it the cave of lost time:

In the cave of lost time there is magic and power and forgotten wisdom waiting to be remembered. The cave dwellers left their marks upon the wall, and in the sparkling droplets of water secrets whisper, they laugh, they watch us as we pass, everything watches. They see us, but we cannot hope to see them, for man cannot penetrate that which is guarded in these caves.

Pech Merle

Pech Merle

I could picture the cave people making the curves and spots and circles with the black and red pigments mixing, perfecting, making a masterpiece that was to be remembered, and stared at for millennia after it was made. Did he know then that people ages after his time would look upon it? Was that his idea, or was it for pleasure? I wish I knew, wish I knew the answers that were buried in tombs when the ice covered all of Europe, never to be found, not yet at least, but never is a strong word, we can always hope.

The handprint and the wounded man were us, showing that even thousands of years ago we were there, fighting for our place in the world. Thousands of years ago we lived, and breathed, drank and ate, looked upon the world with the same two eyes we do now. What we thought then was a mystery, a mystery that was partly solved by the great paintings of old that stood before me, in all their glory. They were more royal than Buckingham Palace, stronger than all the armies in the world, more beautiful than all the dresses of queens, because they were man’s mark on the prehistoric world that was secret to them and animals and that is all. They swim before my eyes still, days later, and from them people thousands of years ago smile and wave at me, saying a last unforgettable goodbye.

When we settled on the Dordogne as our family destination within France, I was especially focused on seeing cave art. The kids grumbled sometimes when I gushed about my reading list: The Mind in the Cave, Juniper Fuse, some amazing picture books. When I read Olivia’s words in response to the three caves, I know I was right to have been excited.

Art hits the imagination with the mysteries of presence and persistence, things that are right there in front of you and have endured through time. There once was a human — perhaps not necessarily, despite Olivia’s phrasing, a “man” — who put his or her hand on that cave wall and blew red ochre pigment out of a tube onto it to create a lasting image. That artist is known and unknown to me, just like my writer-daughter who lives and grows in my home and turns twelve years old tomorrow.

Happy birthday, Olivia!

Olivia and her brother in the Gouffre de Padirac

Olivia and her brother in the Gouffre de Padirac

Pech Merle

Pech Merle


Tempest: The Tide is Rising (1 of 3)

Logo 2The post-Sandy productions of The Tempest are rolling into the low-lying streets of downtown. La MaMa’s staging the play three different times this fall. Director Karin Coonrod frames the first production:

At the edge of time and space the TEMPEST is set against a rising tide of awareness….The TEMPEST takes us backwards and forwards, but its urgency is now.

My favorite part of this show was Liz Swados’s gorgeous original music, played unobtrusively by a trio near the back of the stage. (“Back” might not be quite right for this unconventional space — but they were unobtrusive, anyway.) Feeding off the ethereal sounds, the production expanded into song often. Familiar numbers like Ariel’s “Full fathom five” and Stephano’s scurvy tune were given new life. Song also burst out from less expected moments: Gonzalo’s “plantation of the isle” speech, with its extended quotations from Montaigne, was a show-stopper. Miranda crooned her “brave new world” line near the play’s end, to everyone’s surprise and delight. That’s one way to deal with a cliche! Trinculo, played by the wonderfully funny Liz Wiscan, delivered almost her entire part in a fantastic jazz-rap hybrid voice. “Yond same black cloud, yond huge one,” she taunted, “looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor!” Deal with that, storm!Logo

Among the performers, the best bits were in the comic sub-plot. I’m a longtime fan of Tony Torn, the actor who played Stephano and who’s married to my St John’s colleague Lee Ann Brown. He rocked his part. Asking the band to strike up “Nobody Cares for Kate” when he first tottered onto the stage, Torn staggered and danced through the play with manic energy. The drunken butler shadows Prospero the magus, and the play’s structure insists that neither figure’s rule is as complete as either might wish. Torn’s Stephano managed to be both hilarious and touching, a drunk who seeks the orderliness that he can’t, finally, put his finger on. He and Wiscan’s Trinculo occupied the boozy, high-spirited heart of the show.

Slate Holmgren’s Caliban seemed a little shrill in his first scene, but blossomed during the drunken rebellion with Torn’s Stephano. Perhaps joyous servitude is more fun to play than bitter rage?

The production played with racial and gender tropes in casting the Italian aristocrats. Prospero, his daughter, and his brother were all of African descent, and while all the other castaways except Gonzalo were played by white men, part of the costume for every Italian aristocrat was white high heels. When Prospero re-dressed himself as “sometime Milan,” he mimed his pain on returning to civilized (and feminized) footwear. Every third thought would be his grave, but he looked as if he’d spare some bad words for his shoemaker.

Miriam Hyman as Miranda

Miriam Hyman as Miranda

Joseph Harrington, a teenage ballet star who played the lead in Billy Elliot on Broadway from 2010-2012, stomped, twirled, and danced Ariel’s way across the stage in combat boots. Miriam Hyman’s Miranda out-emoted Harrington’s Ariel, but the pair made an engaging combination, surrounding Reg Cathey’s Prospero with deep emotionalism and balletic flair.

It’s getting hard, these days, to play Prospero. Our sympathies flow to wronged Caliban and tearful Miranda. Ariel, Gonzalo, and even proud Antonio — played here with calm charisma by Earl Baker, Jr. — compel respect and fascination. But the wizard himself, with his impatience, paranoia, and fantasies of control, has become something of a problem.

Cathey didn’t help himself the night I saw the show, sometimes adding more feet than his verses would bear (“Dark backward and and the abysm of time”?). He leaned on his massive staff early and late, and in general didn’t match the other players’ emotional availability.

But maybe if I get back to the Ellen Stewart Theatre before Nov 2, he’ll do better. It was only a preview last Friday.

I’m looking forward to the other two Tempests in this trio also: a Korean version by the Mokwha Reparatory Company in November and Motus Theatre’s Nella Tempesta, which mashes up Shakespeare with Aldous Huxley, William Gibson, and Aime Cesaire, in December.

Tony Torn



Bruno Latour & Company’s “Gaia Global Circus”

The canopy

The canopy

At a certain point in the evening last Thursday I found myself standing on West 19th Street speaking with Bruno Latour. I assured him that I loved his play. It was, I said, “perfectly intelligible.” (What a strange thing to say!) I told him that I especially enjoyed its “exploratory flash.” (?) My words seemed to make him happy. I know I was happy!

I went to “Gaia Global Circus” at The Kitchen, where a crowd of (I suspect) mostly academics — my post-play beer party was two professors and five grad students — marked the U.N. Climate Summit with a play.

The star of the show was the set: a large rectangular canopy filled the stage, on which were tied 50-60 large helium balloons, so that the whole apparatus floated. It could be raised, lowered, held at an angle. The balloons exerted enough lift that the structure would slowly ascend if left untouched, but for most of the action at least some of the corners were tethered to the floor or held by actors. The four actors, who assumed multiple roles in the performance, told us at the start that the canopy was vulnerable to changes in the local temperature, to gusts of wind, and to being pushed and pulled around by the people on stage. At the play’s end the actors walked into the audience holding the canopy by four ropes attached to the corners and held it over us, so that we filled it with our applause.

This picture isn't from New York, but Latour was there last week

This picture isn’t from New York, but Latour was there last week

The canopy was the most powerful and resonant symbolic representation of “climate” I’ve seen: awkwardly large and ungainly, subject to human manipulation but not quite controllable, beautiful and unstable. In the Q&A after, Latour mentioned twice (I think) that he feels the biggest change in the age of global warming is coming to understand climate as an instability, not a constant. The big, beautiful stage-machine canopy represented slow change and instability.

(To my mind, btw, I think Latour’s phrasing, like Bill McKibben’s, exaggerates the felt stability of the pre-Anthropocene climate — but I’m not going to indulge my own ocean-fueled enviro-theories in this post!)

I was lucky to have gone to Gaia Global Circus with Henry Turner, not just because of his always excellent company at the show & during pre- and post- conversations, but also because he knows one of the directors, Frederique Ait-Touati, who was part of the team adapting Latour’s work for performance. (An early version of the play that I found on Latour’s website and read before the show is only tangentially related to what we saw on Thursday night. But it’s fun, if you want to look at it: KOSMOKOLOS-TRANSLATION-GB.) Capture d’écran 2014-03-18 à 21.05.48

Frederique, a theater director, performer, and academic who’s written a great-looking book on early modern science fiction, spoke about transforming philosophy into theater. Latour commented on that in the Q&A also, in what I took to be his own celebration of the transformation of his work. “It’s not an argument,” he said, “but a dance.”

The show consisted of vignettes, passed among the four actors (two men and two women) in almost stand-up style. (Frederique told us that all four actors were trained in commedia del’arte, which made perfect sense.) They performed a series of roles, including Gaia herself under several guises, one of which was a somewhat naive American scientist named Virginia.

Alongside Gaia ranged a series of figures for human knowledge, including Sherlock Hood the “goody” scientist and TED, the “baddie” corporate apologist. Prophets of doom sang out: Cassandra from the Trojan War and the prophet Philippulus from Tintin. Frank Wolff, named after the bad-but-ultimately-redeemed astronaut from Tintin, presented the story of being born to a Russian cosmonaut in orbit, with a star’s-eye view of our blue planet. Noah put on a good show as he sought funding for the Ark. King Midas showed capitalism at work.

A couple of scenes stuck with me. Around the middle of the show, the actor who played TED took a turn as a UN leader — President Obama? Secretary Ban Ki-moon? — who, obviously exhausted, reported that at last the politicians had come to a resolution to which all parties would bind themselves. “We hereby resolve,” he said, clearly relieved to have something direct to report, “to sully the earth, and leave the cleaning up to our children.”

The remnants of the balloon I left the show with, shown here atop the draft of my BABEL talk

The remnants of the balloon I left the show with, atop the draft of my BABEL talk

Not all the great lines were so grim. Toward the end of the ark plot, someone — not Noah, I don’t think, but I’m not sure who — imagined trying to build “an ark for staying, not going.” This vessel would be, another replied, the earth.

Other great elements weren’t verbal at all. In one scene two lovers met at a pier. They were ambushed by hundreds of plastic water bottles dumped on top of them, but they respond eventually by repurposing the bottles into art.

The last lines that I heard posed a question about the final celebration, in which the canopy covered the audience. “You don’t know,” someone said, “if you will marry the bride, or the cake, or the knife?”

The quick-paced and enigmatic movement from scene to scene didn’t lend itself to easy allegory. Some things seemed clear enough: we need more Sherlock Hoods, fewer TEDs, sympathy for Virginia/Gaia, and to listen to Cassandra/Philippulus. I loved the speed, urgency, and sheer beauty of the production, played out beneath 50-odd helium balloons pulling the canopy upward. The project wasn’t didactic but artistic, not an argument but a dance. Just keeping pace with it was enough.

Latour addressed the question of meaning obliquely in the Q&A. The object of the play, he said, wasn’t to figure out what to do about global warming. The object instead was to help us “to be up to the task.”

I’ve been mulling that phrase since Thursday night. What does it mean to be up to the task of global climate disruptions and an unstable environment? That we learn to match a disorderly world with complex art? That we don’t assume tomorrow will be like yesterday?capture5

The play’s two-night New York run ended on Thursday, and they gave away the balloons to members of the audience. Mine was black, about four feet around, with a noticeable upward tug as I walked out of The Kitchen with it in my hand. I wanted to bring it home to my children, but I’m sorry to report that I left it overnight in the car. It burst with the temperature change.


Oceanic New York: The Book

Slide1-300x225During this busy fall, one of my favorite tasks has been assembling the many wonderful essays I’ve received for Oceanic New York into a book. It’s hard to imagine capturing the energy and waywardness of that memorable night in Queens last September, but I think the collection we’ve got will do it justice, and extend some of the things we started that night.

Not everything is fully put together yet, but we’re close enough that I can reveal a probably-final table of contents. Look for these frothy pages sometime next year!

Oceanic New York

Table of Contents


Instructions: How to Use this Book

Poem: “Asymmetrical Kicking”

Essays: Salt-Water City

  1. Elizabeth Albert, “Silent Beaches”
  2. Granville Ganter, “Miss Newtown Creek”
  3. Lowell Duckert, “Arctic-Oceanic New York”
  4. Jamie Skye Bianco, “#bottlesnbones: tales of oceanic remains”
  5. Alison Kinney, “Groundswell”
  6. Bailey Robertson, “City in the Sea”
  7. Karl Steel, “Insensate Oysters and Nonconsensual Existence”
  8. Matt Zazzarino, “Super Ocean 64”
  9. Nancy Nowacek and Lowell Duckert, “A Short History of the Hudsonian Ice Age”
  10. Steve Mentz, “Wages of Water

Poem: “Two Sublimes”

Essays: The Water is Rising

  1. Steve Mentz and Marina Zurkow, “Instructions II: In Case of Immersion”
  2. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Sea is a Conveyance Machine”
  3. Allan Mitchell, “Soundings”
  4. Dean Kritikos, “New York, Oceanic City”
  5. Anne Harris, “Oceanic Valuation”
  6. Julie Orlemanski, “Tourism and the Phenomenology of Knowledge”
  7. Jonathan Hsy, “Watery Metaphor”
  8. Nancy Nowacek, “Citizen Bridge”
  9. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Allan Mitchell, “Oceanic Dispatches”

Four Swim Poems and a Picture


I’ll also add a little taste of my countdown intro. It’s thirteen paragraphs long, but I’ll just post the first two here:

Instructions: How to Use this Book

 13. I don’t imagine you need any rudimentary teaching in how to use a technology like the one in your hands right now. Books are familiar, whether they comprise sheets of paper bound and glued or pixels on a screen. But I’m going to ask you to operate this one differently. I want you, with this object in your hands, to imagine that these pages contain the Ocean and New York City. That makes it a three-fold artifact, Ocean and City and Book.

 12. If this Book were Ocean, how would it feel between your fingers? Wet and slippery, just a bit warmer or colder than the air around it, since the Ocean is our planet’s greatest reservoir of heat, a sloshing insulator and incubator girdling our globe. Oceans splash alongside Cities and continents. Perhaps you think that a Book can’t be an Ocean because the property of the first thing is that we can read it, and the property of the second is that it is too vast for comprehension. But I’m asking that we try. There must be a way to read the Ocean!


BABEL 2014: On the Beach

coverI’ve been dipping my toes into the disorienting and brilliant program for BABEL 2014 all weekend. The conference promises to be oceanic in scale, beachy in feel, coastal in location, and changeable in form. Just my sort of thing!

My salty eyes being perhaps bigger than my oceanic stomach, I’ve slotted myself to speak five (5!) times during the three-day event. That means either I’ll have more fun than anyone else or I’ll dissolve into a sandy puddle before I fly home. Or both.

The opening event will be the conference’s first Plenary session on Th 10/16 at 9:30 am. In collaboration with my glacier-hiking buddy Lowell Duckert, who’ll be talking about lagoons and lacunae, I’ll discuss “Bodysurfing” as a theoretical, physical, and ecological practice. Here’s the abstract from the conference program:

Bodysurfing (Mentz)

Treating Jane Bennet’s notion of “strategic anthropomorphism” as an enabling provocation transforms the sport of wave-riding into a physical and intellectual engagement with the substance of the ocean. Dispensing with surfboards entirely, this talk and the immersive practicum that precedes it [see below] examines three key moments in a bodysurfer’s ride: swimming into the wave, the instant of “the catch,” and many possible white-water aftermaths. Treating this three-part cycle as symbolic template and physical experience, the talk imagines the knowledge a wave-rider gains through immersion: swimming creates antithetical movements, the catch temporarily unifies those forces, and disorderly aftermaths cast them up on shore. Bodysurfing becomes, in a repeatable instant, a form of physical and intellectual sympathy with a post-equilibrium environment.

*Steve will take 12-18 persons bodysurfing with him at Hendry’s Beach [Arroyo Burro Beach Park] at 8:00am on the morning before this Plenary I session; wetsuits are optional but more than decent swimming expertise is a must. If you are interested in joining Steve for this venture, contact him at: 

We won't be using boards

We won’t be using boards

Please contact me if you want to come out early on Th morning to the beach! Cold Pacific surf is really the ideal way to start BABEL-ing.


Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe by Liam Semler (Shakespeare Now)

SemlerI like to keep an eye on Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare Now! series, in which I published At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean in 2009. Co-editors Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey have built a wonderfully varied series, with eight books in the “first wave,” including mine, and five and counting in the still-cresting “Second Wave.” I picked up the latest one, Liam Semler’s Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe: Learning versus the System when I was in Stratford last week. Who knew a book on education policy, among other things, could be so much fun?

Semler starts with two striking images of the pedagogical relationship: Hubert in Shakespeare’s King John, who’s given the task of putting out the eyes of Arthur, possible heir to the throne. That makes him a bad teacher, but perhaps also symptomatic. The second example is Marlowe’s Faustus, who wants to o’erleap all systems. I knew I was in good hands when the prose got aphoristic:

Education is a type of eye surgery (3).

Throughout the short book, certain phrases catch you sideways, unaware, with the suddenness of insight. A short review might work best just by glossing a few.

Formulae are systems’ teeth (13).

The book’s core argument explores an inevitable tension between “systems,” particularly educational / administrative systems that seek compliance and clarity, and the blazing surprises of humanist education. Semler doesn’t want to overturn the system entirely, just throw some aesthetic and stressful sand into its gears.

[T]he exam [too] may be beautiful (34).

He dreams and partly institutionalizes, inside and beyond particular classrooms at the U of Sydney, an “ardenspace” modeled on As You Like It that supplements and challenges administrative mastery.

Ardenspace is a type of dreaming (53).

It is also a type of dreaming that attracts ARC funding, at least for a while.

Semler builds new sub-systems because

The grinding sounds of system stress are what I live for (63).

My favorite part of the book comes when he re-imagines an upper-level Marlowe course with a more radical imperative:

It was time to burn it down (86).

In class in 2011 I declared Marlowe a vampire (117).

Shame is the big, silent brother of assessment (93).

Our language is always tainted by machine language (129).

There’s no final victory in a pedagogical war like this one, but Semler fights the good fight, and, I have no doubt, claims triumphs for his students and edu-landscape in Sydney.

It’s a smart, lively book, and I’m especially impressed by his creative engagement with the realities of the modern academic landscape. A book for all of us semi-experimental pedagogues!




A Swimmer’s Travels

I’m back after a month on the road to Iceland, France, and the United Kingdom. Lots to do at home, plus some more blogging about my travels. But first I want to sketch the story of my travels from swimming hole to swimming hole. Not quite as much long-distance swimming on this busy trip as I might have liked, but by my count six new places, a bit more than a dozen swims in all.

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon, Keflavik, Iceland

Nothing like a little silica-infused geothermal plant waste water to process that jet lag. The water was warm, milky, and only about 3 feet deep. I dug my fingers deep into a bucket of silica mud and pasted it over my face.

Silfra, Thingvellir, Iceland

The rift between the continental plates is a swimmer’s paradise, deep blue and ethereal. I’ve blogged about it already, and it’s now my Facebook profile picture, but I still can’t quite believe I pulled this one off. Looking down, into emptiness, I saw sand and gravel, piled into the expanding void. The most transitory beach in the world?

Landmannalauger Hot Springs, Iceland 

Traveling around Iceland with a tri-generational family party meant no long hikes, but we did get a dip in the geothermal springs at the trailhead in Landmannalauger. I inched myself close to the spot where the hot water trickled into the pool, but could not get too close. When you reach down through the gravel to the rock floor of the pool, the rocks feel hot to the touch.

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

Sundhollen, Reykjavik

Iceland is famous for its public pools and hot-tubs, and in between conference panels and back-country adventures I got a few good morning swims in at Sundhollen pool on Baronsstiger, just on the other side of the big church from downtown. It was one of the warmest and deepest pools I’ve swum in; no one worries about the cost of heating the water, since it comes out of the ground hot. There were a few others there swimming for exercise in the early mornings, but no lanes, just lines on the bottom of the pool. With no way to orient myself, I gave up on doing backstroke at all. A really nice place to swim, and then soak in the blazing hot tubs outside under a cool rain.




Plage on the River Lot

Plage on the River Lot

The River Lot, St. Cirq-lapopie, France

We partly picked our French village based on its swimming beach, but what we didn’t quite realize was how far “below the village” could be. It was a beautiful beach on a bend in the River Lot, but probably a good kilometer or more down a steep rocky trail from our lovely medieval house, just inside the Porte de Rocamadour at the lower entrance to the village. (St-Cirq is gorgeous, but steep!) I loved swimming in the River: clear, cool water, a healthy current which made any long workout wonderfully asymmetrical, a one-lane auto bridge between which and the small rapids I could make about 1000m “laps.” I didn’t get down there every day — it was cool and foggy most mornings, and by afternoon we were sometimes busy — but I did get some great swims in. The kids swam with me all the way upstream to the bridge, which was great.

Gouffre de Padirac, France


Stratford Leisure Center

No swimming in this massive underground natural cavern in the limestone, but I can’t resist including the Gouffre’s pool in my list of new-to-me bodies of water. The water runs in over limestone formations and then away in an underground river, forming an eerie and inhuman pool. No art in this cave, but lots of beauty.

The Stratford Leisure Center, United Kingdom

My last few swims during my last week in Europe were at the Leisure Center in Stratford-upon-Avon. An excellent pool, though a bit busy during the 7 – 9 am “swim 4 fitness” time. Unusually configured at 33 1/3m, it’s a good place to process yesterday’s pints before morning lectures. I imagine I’ll be going back to this pool for many years to come. I might even shift my Stratford B&B to get closer to it. The Applegarth looks promising.


Henry IV Part 2 and Roaring Girl: Stratford 2014 (2 of 2)


Falstaff and his jug

Thursday was Henry IV Part 2 at the RST.

It seemed to me as I watched Henry IV Part 1 that the passion for clarity that is the RSC’s house style might work better the closer to the center of the canon you get. It also helped to have a real star, around which everyone can rotate.


Two old friends

Antony Sher’s Falstaff owned the stage at the RST on Thursday night. Both plump and stately, he spent the production straggling with threats to his hedonistic independence, both from assorted legal authorities including the Lord Chief Justice and finally more drastically from his one-time protege Prince Hal. Sher’s expansive, gorgeous voice and patient, generous stage presence, whether expounding his own wit or the manifold virtues of sherry, filled the not-very-full theater. I was glad to be there, especially when he was talking.

There can be something a bit sad about seeing a good production in a not-full theater, and that particular pathos was accented by the best of the episodes in the play, the rural scenes with Justices Shallow and Silence. Oliver Ford Davies’s Silence, especially, presented a moving mixture of nostalgia and false bluster. I found his entanglement with his old Inns of Court buddy Falstaff — each tries to swindle the other, but each is also caught up in his own nostalgia-addled delusions — oddly touching. Falstaff wants the judge’s money, and Shallow wants Falstaff’s presumed court connections. Both end up empty-handed, but Shallow’s awkwardness, his excitable bouncing knee when he recalled the exploits of the bona robas, and his muted affection for both the new friend Silence and the old Falstaff, communicated real human emotion, albeit governed by misprision.

I wasn’t as seduced by Elliot Johns-Worrel’s Prince Hal. This is the play in the sequence where the roguish boy grows up, but in this production that maturity mostly entailed withdrawal and emotional deadening. Only in his denunciation of Falstaff, featuring the last of a long series of fat jokes — “know the grave / Doth gape for thee thrice wider than for other men” — did some emotion threaten to spill out of this performance. Not anger, so much as deep sadness and regret that cannot be allowed to become visible. It was as if the prince, too, realized that Falstaff was the star of the show, and in banishing him he was dropping the curtain on a whole dramatic mode.


The Prince and his crown

It may be problem that we love Sher’s Falstaff too much. He was so charismatic and lovable that he wasn’t a tangible political threat, so Hal’s exiling him seemed unecessary. The fat knight was plenty corrupt, believing the laws of England to be at his commandment, but the harshest of his crimes — swindling Shallow and misusing his authority to press men into armed service — were mostly played for laughs.

I did hear a new thing in the final confrontation: when Falstaff desperately climbed the rhetorical ladder trying to get Hal’s attention — “My King, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!” — Sher hit the intimacy of the form of address, which is what gets the Prince to turn and denounce. Kings don’t often get called “thee,” even by knights.

In our disillusioned, democratic, and largely anti-martial world, we love Falstaff, probably more than the play does. The virtues of sherry, wit, and pleasure speak to us more directly than conques, order, and rectitude. As Falstaff dominated this play, however, I wonder about the distribution of stage charisma between prince and knight. Hal of course dominates the next play in the series — but I wonder what would happen if he really made a forceful attempt on this play also.


Friday was The Roaring Girl at the Swan.


Moll Cutpurse

Last was best, much to my surprise. I’d heard mixed-to-bad reviews of this production, and I even wondered if I would have been better off changing my seat to watch Henry IV Part 1 in the RST. I didn’t switch — I’d never seen The Roaring Girl before, though I used to teach it sometimes — and I’m glad. What a joyous, energetic, exciting production to waft me back over the Atlantic!

Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse was the star, and she played the part with charismatic flair, but she didn’t big-foot the other actors as Sher nearly did. I came away thinking about the joys of a real ensemble performance, in which every part, no matter what size, owns its moments on stage. Moll was the center of a complex mix of deceptions, seductions, and interlocking sex-and-money plots, but she didn’t cast her shadow over the other players. Opening and closing the play on stage alone, smoking, she facilitated and also stood apart from the city comedy love plots.

More than any of the four plays I saw this week, I felt the RSC’s mania for clarity really helped this production. It’s a sub-plot rich environment, with lots of swindling and deception, and the professional clarity was welcome. But unlike The White Devil, in which I felt the RSC actors were fighting as hard as they could just to get the plot out on stage, in Roaring Girl they danced all of it, with happy bounces in their collective steps. Maybe a satiric comedy is easier to play joyfully than a revenge tragedy, or maybe — as someone suggested to me at lunch — the White Devil cast is still in previews and hasn’t really gelled yet. In any case it was great to see a show that felt complete. It reminds you what theater can do at its best. Even among the grumpy professoriate, almost everyone walked out of the theater and over to the pub happy.


Roaring Girl dance party

My favorite scene was also probably the hardest to perform: Moll and Trapdoor’s dialogue in Thieves’ Cant (5.1), the possibly historical secret language of rogues and card-sharps in early modern London. (Way back in 2004, I worked on a project on Elizabethan criminals, and used to know this vocabulary pretty well.) It’s a linguistically difficult scene, even though Moll translates most of the cant terms, and I wondered if they could pull it off without confusing the house. In a wonderfully goofy move, they staged the cant exchange as an epic rap battle, and turned the scene into a dance party, which they also reprised at the close in a faux-Elizabethan disco jig.

Really a great way to end the week at Stratford!