Bodysurfing considered as a historical practice

What a piece of work is a wave!

Last Wednesday in golden afternoon light, I spent a perfect hour bodysurfing the Jersey shore with my daughter. We’d swim into the curl and plunge down the face into white water that would carry us over the elongated beach of low tide. Sometimes — if we stayed with the wave til its end — we’d be brought up short by a final thump into broken shells and a more steeply slanting beach. We’d laugh, flip ourselves over, and head back out for the next wave.

My father taught me to bodysurf the beaches of Bay Head, NJ, when I was younger than Olivia is now. I’ve been splashing over the same sand since the 1970s, though this past week was my first trip back there since my prophetic parents sold the beach house two years before Hurricane Sandy tore up the shore.

End of the ride

Bodysurfing memories are mostly physical: the vast shudder with which the wave lifts you into itself, a sudden plunge down the face, the pressure on my hands when I hold them together in front of me, knifing through the white water. To keep from scraping my belly, I end each ride by jamming the heels of my hands down into the sand, arching myself up as the last inch of water surges past.

I’m a head-down bodysurfer, in a New Jersey style that almost broke my neck when I tried it at my college room-mate’s home in La Jolla, CA, in 1989.

Heading back out

“You hold your hands together in front of you,” I told Olivia last week, as my Dad told me four decades ago. “Your hands work like the prow of a boat. They hold you in the wave, while the wave pushes you forward. Between the two, you can ride all the way up to the beach.”

I’ve bodysurfed lots of other places. Coogee Beach in Sydney, in the last few months of 1989. Venice and Point Mugu on either side of LA, in the early ’90s. Carpenteria, CA. Jacksonville, FL, where my parents live now. Rhode Island. Portugal. I unlocked peak academic ocean-nerdiness one early morning at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara, when I lured a bunch of professors and grad students into wetsuits for a pre-plenary bodysurfing session at BABEL 2014. One especially memorable afternoon in  July 1996 I bodysurfed the usually too-cold waters of Muir Beach, CA, the day before I got married.

But for me, and to my great good fortune also for Alinor and our two now-teenage kids, there’s no place that combines surf and history quite like the Jersey Shore.

What kind of human histories can waves tell? Stories that overflow with patterns and changes, without solidity, reforming themselves at each tide yet recognizable, familiar, even early in the season when the water is still cold.

On Saturday morning we needed to be out of our rental by 11 am, and two days of ocean breeze had churned up a surf a little bit, so I was the only one of the family to join the many surfers in the morning swell. I didn’t go all the way out for the bigger waves with the board-riders, but I caught a few nice ones.

I must be underwater somewhere

My favorite image — the first one in this post — shows me in the lower left walking slowing back out into the surf, through waist-high chop toward one small swell, a bigger one beyond it, and into currents of grey-green blending with fog and sky. I love the scale and density of this image. As somebody almost said, What a piece of work is a wave!

Photo credits Alinor Sterling 6/17/17

I can’t see my face, but I must be trying to read something.




Slices from Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

Just a few days ahead of the June 10 deadline for collecting the Nobel Prize (and its prize money), Dylan fulfilled the only requirement by recording a 4000 word / 27 minute variation on the theme of a laureate lecture. He Dylans the whole thing pretty hard, especially on the gravel-voiced recording, backed by solo jazz piano. Is the music a nod to his most recent albums of Sinatra-era standards? It’s hard to know with Bob.

The core of the talk features plot summaries of Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. They have have a book-report-ish air about them, and he implausibly claims that he read all three  in “grammar school,” along with Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. They kept those kids busy in the Iron Range!

I think the point of the plots is co-opting by summary: the singer’s job, Bob almost says, is to restyle old stories, to circulate them and celebrate them. It’s a compelling argument against originality, made with typically unmistakable obliquity.

I like to read Dylan by flashes of lightning, so I’m going to dish out some slices and see what adds up to —

Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story. 

He ends where Homer begins, with an explicit donning of the poet’s mantle. The more I think about it, the more the whole lecture sounds like Dylan handling the literary canon the way Renaissance humanists say that a mother bear licks her infant cubs into their bear-shapes, forming their bodies into new shapes with love and saliva. The last section of The Odyssey that Bob picks up to play with describes the meeting of Odysseus and Achilles in the underworld, and Achilles’s wish to be  “a lowly slave or a peasant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is — a king in the land of the dead.” Sounds as if he’s not interested in epic directness and loss, but romance’s circuity and weave.

When I first received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.

It’s usually a mistake to take him at his word, but I can’t help feeling that he’s seriously interested in the question that launched a thousand web takes back when the Prize was first announced. What is the relationship of songs to literature? What message did the Swedish Academy want to make picking Dylan in October 2016?

Everything is mixed in.

He’s partway through his half-step summary of Melville when he gets to this one, but all of a sudden the floodgates of wonder-world swing open. Isn’t all art about only and obsessively mixing? Might Bob know this better than most? A serial plagiarist, the most widely generative writer of his generation, and a still-obsessed practitioner of the communal art of live performance in his late 70s — who better than Bob to name art’s heterogeneity while retelling for us that old story about the white whale?

There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad.

Here he’s on the road with Odysseus, taking us along for the long ride. And just when we reach for the interpreter’s hatchet, he jumps out ahead. “In a lot of ways,” he rambles, “some of these same things have happened to you.” He’s not the wanderer, he insists. You are.

I don’t know what it means either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.

This one’s in response to an aside in which he out-of-contexts a couplet from “poet-priest” John Donne. What I like is the attention to sound, including Donne’s rhymed couplets and the slow-jazz piano in the background of the audio recording. Perhaps meaning isn’t the main thing?

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ in back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

These aren’t only Bob’s stories, and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this kind of American mythology, this Wild West-ing of story and tall tales that provide a kind of demotic and democratic undersong to the literary canon of Melville and Homer. This stuff, Bob’s insinuating, belongs next to the other stuff, up on the same prized shelf.

Our songs are alive in the land of the living.

Or maybe he doesn’t want to put any of these songs or stories up on any shelf. Maybe he’d rather take them out of the underworld-library and sing them, night after night, in a tattered old man’s voice. “They’re meant to be sung, not read,” he says. I thought about that bifurcation a lot this past spring semester, when my Intro to Literary Theory class started off day one listening to a younger Bob croon, “Won’t You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” which I explained as an image of the theory’s gambit. Each week we’d start classes by reading or listening to a “Weekly Bob” song, paired with “Weekly Emily” poems. Sometimes we wrestled with the language. Other times we listened to recordings. We discussed the early-form video of Subterreanean Homesick Blues. I’m not sure if we ever figured out whether it was better to read or listen, or how many of my students thought Bob was just old white-guy professor music anyway.

Read it if you can.

He says this last one about Moby-Dick. But it’s not only about Moby-Dick.



Earth, by Jeffrey Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton (Object Lessons)

How did this review get so long and so late? Bloomsbury sent me an advance copy of this gorgeous planetary addition to their Object Lessons series some time ago. I read it instantly, but haven’t found time to organize my many thoughts about it until now. Maybe I’ve enjoyed writing about it too much?

The Earth on my table takes an impossible problem —  our planet’s inhuman scale — and responds to it with multidisciplinary conversation. The book’s words and images can’t quite banish scale’s disorienting shifts, but interweaving planet-sized ideas with human words and emotions opens doors.

Planet on my table

Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far of Earth discuss the novelty of the co-authorship between Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist who directs the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor who founded the Medieval and Early Modern Institute at George Washington University. In reading and thinking about their collaboration – I was lucky to be in the audience for their joint BABEL plenary lecture in 2012, the initial spark for this shared project – I’m struck not so much by the disparity of their fields as their shared curiosity and commitment to generative and generous thinking.

One of the things that fascinates me about this book is its flexible structure, which both highlights and performs its interest in dialogue and mutual questioning. The book combines multiple forms of exchange – email, instant messaging, recording a conversation while hiking in the Arizona desert – and demonstrates its commitment to being “faithful to the mode in which it was composed” (2). That fidelity is both a matter of practical convenience – it’s hard to imagine any other way for two busy academics to co-write a book when they live and work nearly 2,000 miles apart – and also an opportunity to think extemporaneously about how mediums change messages, and how the generosity of our interlocutors can complete thoughts we didn’t quite recognize that we were thinking.

I’ll splash through some moments in the book to explore how it embodies its communicative ambition and imagines possible futures.

1: Prologue: Genesis

We hope that this book invites you into the conversation, as partner and as future (3).

The opening pages envision the book-as-conversation. That mode not only describes the form of the chapters, which reconstitute eighteenth-century epistolary structure via email and IMs, but also its invitation. Readers read as though overhearing a conversation into which we are invited to join.

2: Orbit

Earth is a home, a limit, and a recurring challenge (5).

Probably my favorite of the many resonant lines in the book, this triple list miniaturizes the three directions in which the book’s conversations develop. Earth is home, in the sense that it comprises our physical environment and is the substance (“ground”) of so many of our metaphors. The planet is also limit, in that it places boundaries and shapes – spherical shapes – on our imagination. Let man’s soul be a sphere, intones John Donne. Let the sphere be the most profound form of the Western imagination, theorizes Peter Sloterdijk.

But Earth – the planet and the book — remains a recurring challenge because none of our representations do it justice. The planetary nature of this rock in space spurs a core human imaginative desire that this book finds in the works of classical geographers, poets, scientists, and even NATO’s upcoming voyage to Pysche, Venus’s metal moon, the primary investigator of which is Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Humans want to see the earth whole. We crave escape upwards into space and want to look back upon our global home. Earth‘s gorgeous cover, and the flip-book series of illustrations in chapter 4 (pp 37-57) tease with repeated versions of this global fantasy. So many earths: blue marble, T-O map, mappa mundi, Ptolmaic and Copernican models, from the sixth century BCE to 1972.

3: Ground (why Earth?)

To my surprise and pleasure, much of the first substantial chapter takes up a pet issue of mine, the physical and symbolic nature of water, the substance that makes our blue marble blue. Lindy Elkins-Tanton starts off this conversation by talking about a controversy in planetary science between an old theory that the our planet’s water arrived from comets sometime after the formation of the earth, and a newer model, to which she subscribes, in which water was contained in the rock that formed into a planet, and over time it was forced out onto the planet’s surface. In her understanding of the process, water is not alien and might in fact be somewhat common among planets of similar chemical composition to ours:

I’m now an evangelist for planets getting their water through their common formation process, and not by later chance, and so rocky planet throughout the whole universe have a chance at water oceans, and therefore life (19).

Jeffrey Cohen, with typical wit, suggests that rather than calling our planet Ocean (as people from Arthur C. Clarke to, well, me, have suggested) we might choose “the more humble Puddle” (24).

When I think about Earth-as-Ocean, I conjure the vastness of the planet’s surface (70% salt water) and the biosphere (something like 90% water, and the rest of it, like human bodies, pretty wet). What I love about the Puddle reformulation is how its shift in scale away from the biotic environment (the planet’s surfaces, wet and dry) and down into its rocky volume allows for a reinterpretation of what water means. Water is an alien and threatening environment for the premodern sailors and poets about whom I write. Water, to a physical geologist, is life:

Two planets on my table

We’re surviving and swimming in a puddle-thin layer of wetness painted over the surface of a dry, hot rock, and shielded from the tearing solar wind by very little indeed. (23)

The shift from one perspective to the next, from one scholarly voice to the next, founders or soars on the challenge of scale, which to me always seems the greatest challenge of cross-disciplinary thinking between the humanities and the sciences. What to do with a problem like scale? That, of course, is the question of Earth‘s next chapter.

4: Scale (barriers to understanding)

Where to start. What is a billion, really? (36).

I’m a humanist by training and practice, though I dabbled in math and chemistry in my undergraduate years. It’s hard for humanists to think with numbers rather than stories, and on some level I always want stories to contain and contextualize the numbers. But the truth about scale is that it’s bigger than human story-capacities. The shocking vastness and precision of geological time – so many years, and each of them as endless and indefinite as each now, now, very now! – unsettles us. From the “discovery” of deep time in eighteenth-century geology to the computations of paleoclimatologists today, humans founder on large temporal scales.

So: what to do with scale? Earth‘s answer: have a conversation about it!

Scale seems to me the hardest problem this book tackles, and the one that seems least obviously susceptible to the imagine-and-converse method that the two authors brilliantly employ. Like earth, perhaps, scale is a limit and a challenge, though it feels the opposite of a home. (Or maybe that’s wrong too; maybe shifting scales are a home, the only home we have, no matter how occasionally inhospitable?) The sudden expansion or contraction of scale dislocates and disorients, as we see – which we can only just bear seeing – the puny size of the human in the cosmos.

But along with scale’s terror comes a literary pleasure that writers both classical and Romantic term sublime – and that Jeffrey Cohen discusses in a lovely phrase: “the cognitive gravity of beautiful things” (59).

5: Radiance (Earth’s beauty)

Beauty makes her appearance via Instant Messages across an office at the School of Earth and Space Exploration  room in Arizona. The shift in media re-marks the conversational intimacy, and interestingly the dialogue soon turns to risk, including the risks of cross-disciplinary conversation, and to the sublime.

And maybe the sublime is a risk in another way: that if it opens us to human insignificance in the cosmos (that question of scale again!) then we forget that feeling overwhelmed is a recurrent and maybe even transhistorical emotion (69).

The play between human and planetary, self and Earth, creates something like beauty, but this earthly beauty is always under construction and destruction, sometimes morphing into the sublime’s terror at human tiny-ness, other times solidifying into claims about beauty in scientific research. Beauty for scientists is, Lindy Elkins-Tanton explains, “the reason we all do what we do…because lava is beautiful and the notion of interrogating the untouchable heart of the planet through incandescent molten eruptions appeals to our unconscious understandings of human relations and our place in them” (72).

From Lyell’s Principles of Geology to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, humans want to soar above earth and look down and back into its past. Beauty comes from wanting to escape what we can’t escape, unless we are, like Scott Parazynski who blurbed this book, astronauts.

I kept thinking about this dream and its backward glance throughout the remaining chapters of Earth.

6: Gravity (Earth’s pull)

After the instant messages comes a conversation in Tempe.

I’m wondering today about Earth’s gravity. Is gravity merely a physical force or is it also a pull that we can think about as an

emotional draw as well? (82)

What if scientific phenomena such as gravity all have emotional affective forces that latch onto us as we encounter them? Surely this must be true — all physical forces also make stories and churn emotions. Gravity, scale, and the earth itself foster imaginations as well as physical forces.

7: Interlude: A hike around Piestewa Peak

Next comes a conversation recorded on an iphone that starts with descriptions of a flash flood in the desert and ends with James Tanton’s voice:

Welcome to mathematics! (102)

I think a lot about mathematics when I’m reading poetry, not because I’m especially skilled at prosodic numerology but because my introduction to the serious study of literature came as a by-product of my falling out of the world of intensive math, which was my first choice of college major. Somewhere in the abstraction of a course named “Real Analysis” I discovered that I cared more about Paradise Lost than number theory. By coincidence, the same year in the late ’80s when I defected from math to English was also the year James Tanton arrived from Australia to do his PhD in math at my alma mater. Near misses everywhere —

8: Imagination

Returning to DC, Jeffrey’s next to last missive to Lindy cherishes having been “a member of your household for a while” (105). That’s the way I think about this book — an invitation to house-holding, to shared conversations about unaswerable questions, and to imagining homes capacious enough to contain scientific data, mathematical elegance, poetic vision, and the messiness of historical contingency.

The final collective imperative of the book arrived via email on Christmas Day, and then morphed into a Facebook update, a blog post, and two versions of the closing chapter. The repeated closing mantra perfectly captures the achievement and promise of the book: “Let’s start” (117, 121).

* * *

Thinking about it all together, Earth responds to dreams of communication by casting word-ladders across the abyss. They may not reach all the way. Remembering that scales are always ascending or descending, it’s hard to imagine any ladder that could reach across the gaps, though a word-ladder is perhaps more flexible than any other kind.

I’m also reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story told by (or about?) Richard Feynman, in which a student asked the great physicist if he could explain turbulence in plain language, without complex mathematical models. Feynman asked for a night to think about it. The next day he regretfully told the student that he could not explain turbulence in plain language – and he added that he believed that meant he did not fully understand the process. He’d need to keep working on it. “Let’s start,” he almost said.

Will Lindy and Jeffrey’s Earth help us solve the problem that is global thinking in the Anthropocene? It’s not clear what “solve” would mean in this context, though I suspect the answer must be, “yes, a little bit.”

It’s clear enough what each of these brilliant thinkers will continue to do in their own separate disiciplines. Lindy Elkins-Tanton will be the Principal Investigator in a NASA mission to Psyche, a Venetian moon made almost entirely of metal. (The project’s long application process punctuates the book, and its success in the hyper-competitive world of interstellar research funding was announced just as Earth appeared in print.) Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s writing will continue to argue for a deeply historicized Anthropocene which writes on our bodies, histories, and cultures in languages of flood, stone, earth, air, water, and fire.

Thr Earth these two have made together touches tangentially on each of these larger projects. Two copies — the one Bloomsbury sent me, and the one I had pre-ordered some months earlier — sit on my desk now. They invite me to imagine scale as possibility rather than obstacle. Their pages testify to a hope that sees the violent disruptions of our history and our present, but in the face of that devastation chooses to toss word-ladders across chasms.


Theater at the End of the World: Happy Days (Tfana) and Venus (Signature Theater)

Julieta Cervantes for the New York Times

Now that Cheeto Voldemort has used his office to thumb America’s nose at the earth, I’m thinking about how art responds to catastrophe. In particular, I’m thinking about the combination of rage and impotence that defines my current experience of environmental politics.

(I know the answer to helplessness is activism. I know that environmentalism does not only work on the national level, especially in the US. I even know that the Paris Agreement is a tepid brew of weak tea, with its purely voluntary targets and non-existent enforcement mechanisms. It’s always been true, as Elizabeth Kolbert reminded us yesterday in the New Yorker, that “the sad fact is that the U.S. has never been a leader in addressing climate change; this is one of the main reasons that the Paris accord is so weak.” But it’s infuriating to watch the President of my country choose to foul our environment in the service of macho illusions and corporate profits. Narcissists don’t really believe in the future.)

But as it happens I’ve been seeing plays about betrayal and the end of the world recently, so I’ve got some performances to think alongside.

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, notorious as the play in which an almost-solo female star is immobilized by being buried in the earth for the full duration of the show — up to her waist in the first act, up to her neck in the second — constructs an almost-too-obvious visual symbol for the limits of human power to change our world. Winnie, played with comic genius by Dianne Wiest at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, crooned against her imprisonment. Like Jesse Green in the Times I thought Wiest was pretty fantastic, “heartbreaking” (in Green’s word) and also poignantly direct in her willingness to approach the script’s paradoxes head on. “Another happy day!” she said, and meant it. What does her optimism mean? Can we follow it?

Even in the shorter second act, when earth up to her neck confined Winnie and prevented her from seeing even herself, her voice searched for “those unforgettable lines” — which, of course, she can’t quite remember. The play’s hashing of English poetry, especially Shakespeare and Milton, almost does what Winnie says she wants it to do: “That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.” But does it really help? It’s hard to tell, on this dark day for environmentalists, if Beckett’s vision of words against the void cherishes scraps of poetry or recognizes that they can’t rescue Winnie and in fact may only serve to whistle against despair. Winnie reported that one of the few other people mentioned in the play, Mrs Shower (or Cooker), said to her, “What’s the idea of you?” The question lingered. Can Winnie’s performance mean something other than leveraging words to make time pass?

The play ended with Winnie singing a fragment of the duet “I love you so,” from The Merry Widow, possibly to her mostly-silent husband Willie, or maybe just to herself. She’s a hard act to follow. Can Beckett be the muse of climate change?

After Beckett’s abstraction, I saw a reprise of Suzan Lori-Parks’s 1996 play Venus, about the tragic life of Saartje “Sarah” Baartman, an African woman exhibited in England and France under the name “Hottentot Venus” in the early 19th century. The production began with the actor Zainab Jah putting on a full-body padded suit to simulate Baartman’s famous figure. In a painful sense, that body suit defined the play: the audience stared at her exaggerated curves, the other cast members stared, her successive captors, from the (Dutch?) man who brought her from Africa to her madam “mother” to the French anatomist who seduced and later dissected her, all stared. The historical Baartman became in the late 20th century a symbol for anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and feminist activism; her remains, which had been on display in Paris until 1974, were returned to South Africa and buried in 2002. In the performance, however, all anyone did was stare, and sometimes touch.

Photo by Joan Marcus

More even than our interpolated gaze, the full force of this show announced itself through the way the small cast (including the always-excellent Tony Torn) assembled and re-assembled their bodies to build human cages around the star. The play itself, in assuming the name Venus and repeating the phrase “Hottentot Venus” throughout, performed the racist history under which Baartman suffered. There was no escaping it. Even during intermission the show went on, as the French doctor performed excerpts from his dissection notes to the half-empty theater. The ten other members of the cast repeatedly surrounded Jah’s Baartman, as fellow member of a carnival show, as an English jury, and as French scientists who wanted to be sure that they could compare the physical measurements they took of her body against those of her skeleton after her death.

The unrelentingness of the play’s representation of injustice was probably starkest in John Ellison Conlee’s second act portrayal of a French anatomist the Baron Docteur, partly based on Frederic Cuvier, who claimed to love Baartman and plied her with chocolates while all the while planning to dissect her corpse. Perhaps the most powerful speech in the play was Baartman’s almost-closing hymn to chocolate and its pleasures. In one of the few moments in which she was nearly alone on stage, and her only extended monologue, she detailed the imperialist history of the arrival of chocolate to Europe from the Americas and its role in the Baron Docteur’s manipulation of her.

The play constructed a painful balance between condemning and representing Baartman’s exploitation. The repeated announcement by the chorus that these events took place after England’s 1807 outlawing of the slave trade drive home their hypocrisy, and ours.

What do these stark plays have to offer an environmentalist reeling after June 1, 2017? Nothing simple. But to the extent that I believe in narrative as a counter to cruelty, and in the partial ability of humans to recognize and redress injustice, perhaps these were good plays for in dark times. What else are plays for?



The Global Ocean: Racial Geographies and the Oceanic Humanities: URI, 4/12/17

It may have been foolhardy of me to join an intense full-day symposium and workshop just three days after the madness of #shakeass17, but the gates of the wonder-world only open so often. Such a flood yesterday at URI!

Hosted by Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz Program on Literature and the Sea, the event brought together four scholars actively working in the oceanic humanities to discuss works in progress and the state of scholarly inquiry. The short takeway for me is that “oceanic humanities” covers a lot of water and lots of ground too. The precirculated papers and short talks were varied, brilliant, and inspiring. The day’s juxtaposition of a series of vexed terms, including “global,” “racial,” and “humanities,” emphasized that the tasks oceanic scholarship has set for itself, including thinking past or at an angle to national, religious, linguistic, or geographic collectivities, remain difficult and valuable. I was especially struck, as sometimes I am not in in-group conversations among theory-minded ecofolk, about the unsettling valences of the term “posthuman,” and why it’s necessary to interrogate that category as we employ it.

Taking our speakers briefly in the reverse of the alphabetical order in which we spoke at the end of the day —

Ketaki Pant, a post-doc at Brown who’s heading off for a job in sunny SoCal next year, presented brilliant work on merchant families from Gujarat whose travels and business connections spanned the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa through the Arabian peninsula and the subcontinent. Exploring multilingual poetic compositions that she translated herself, she unfurled a terraqueous network of distance and connection, finances and emotional poignancy.

I spoke about “wet globalization,” a term that also appears in Shipwreck Modernity. I’m planning to use the phrase in my introduction to The Cultural History of the Sea in the Renaissance, a volume of essays I’m editing for Bloomsbury (due out in 2021!). The publishers will support illustrations, so I’ve been thinking about resonant objects and images through which to explore the inexhaustible waters. I came away from yesterday’s event convinced that I need to keep exploring the tension between “wet” experience and early modern “globalization” as both historical event and intellectual challenge.

(Side-note: when teaching a small slice of the work of the Africana studies scholar Kevin Quashie last week I came across a great new motto for what scholarship aims to do: “There is nothing promised by work other than more work.” We want generative, creative, world-opening scholarship; we hope for the changes that education creates and perhaps also for political progress, but scholarly labor is seldom about neat “solutions” or about finishing coversations.)

Jason Chang from UConn spoke about “sea coolies,” Chinese sailors who ran afoul of the U.S. Exclusion act of 1882, but their essentially maritime nature — they were not immigrants, just sailors on leave who got entangled with the authorities — seems to have convinced American courts that these were men whose “home is the sea,” which made them exempt from, or differently subject to, legal prohibitions. It’s a great project about oceanic identity and mobility in the Pacific during the emerging American imperium. I look forward to seeing more of it!

Monique Allewaert from Wisconsin-Madison opened up our talks with a preview of a new project, “American Atlantis,” which takes the sea’s third dimension — depth — as a key to its meanings. The new project about 18c rearticulations of Atlantis looks quite amazing, as does the essay she circulated on the Haitian maroon Francois Makandal. The Makandal material derived an alternative interpretive practice that used Charles Pierce’s notion of “indexical signs” to reconsider Makandal’s fetish objects, as well as his life, death, and afterlife. She also connected these indexical reading strategies — stunningly — to the poetics of Emily Dickinson.

These are all great, original projects. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to them and their authors and have had a chance to think intensely about them through the invitation of the Rumowicz program. At the risk of generalizing too quickly, I’ll offer two meta-ish points around which my thoughts are swirling today:

  1. Racial justice and posthuman circulations: These projects each in distinctive ways reemphasize the scalar, ethical, and conceptual tension between the human and the ocean. I sometimes think about this issue through the visual image of a swimmer’s body in a vast sea, but the ethical urgency of racial and social justice on human and political scales also strains against the rush to ocean-ize. I recognize that tidal pull as a risk in the practice of oceanic literary studies, very much including my own work. Monique’s effort to bring together materialisms both old (Marxist) and new (Latour-ish) seems a compelling response to this challenge. She reminds us, in terms that recall Quashie’s motto, that newer theoretical methods never quite displace, only supplement, old and intransigent questions of politics and power.
  2. Plurality of expertise: Whenever I present with historians, I’m always amazed by archival breadth and erudition. Ketaki’s linguistic acumen and Jason’s legal historiography showed me ways to engage archives that are quite alien to someone like me who spends a lot of classroom and writing time with Shakespeare’s plays. Our desire to create and support intellectual plurality — in materials, methods, conclusions, and projects — will require consciously expanding our networks of scholarship and collaboration. That’s why I’m glad to have worked intensely for ten hours yesterday at an oceanic humanities conference while still feeling sleep-deprived after a weekend with the Shakespeareans!

Finally, some quick OED-noodling that may be useful eventually (with the reminder not to trust the OED’s dates too much!):

Human – as distinct from either animals or God, from around 1450

Humane – variation on “human” that emphasizes kindness, from around 1500

humane letters – from around 1610

humanist – description of an academic working in classical languages, from around 1589 (Harington, Bacon, etc)

“the human” – from 1840

posthuman – from mid-20c sci fi, including H.G. Wells’s “posthuman monsters” in 1940

Thanks again to Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz program for hosting this great event!


#shakeass17: Queering our Futures

Update #1: I’ll add audio and video of the sessions as they become available.

Queer Natures audio

Color of Membership audio

Update #2: Plus three Storify stories from the eagle-eyed Kim Hall

Color of Membership, Part 1

Color of Membership, Part 2

After the Color of Membership


Taken together, our shared experience of #shakeass17 in Atlanta included storm-caused rupture. Despite much erudition, innovation, rage, and love, the impersonal hand of the tornado-razor that sheared away nearly a fifth of our swelling number defined our time together and punctuated most of our conversations. So many were missed, throughout the whirlwind. Usually in storms, I’m with the Boatswain: “Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!” But too often this year there wasn’t room at the airport.

As a member of the Program Committee who helped assemble this year’s paper sessions and seminars, I felt a little nervous that the good ship SAA would ride out the storm. I was anxious to see the success of the Friday morning plenaries, Queer Natures, which I had a small hand in instigating though Karen Raber did the hard work, and also the first iteration of #shaxfutures17, a three-year initiative that is the brainchild of the awesome Erika Lin, and which all of us on the Program Committee – chair Natasha Korda, Lucy Munro, Barbara Fuchs, Erika, and me – are hoping to see flourish now and in the future.

Not everything went right this stormy weekend, but those two panels did.

What I loved about the two-plen morning – the most exhilarating morning I’ve spent in 20+ years of SAAs – wasn’t just the individual brilliance of the nine papers, or the sinuous entanglements among and between the two panels. It wasn’t just the passion of Arthur Little’s exfoliation of academic culture’s racism or the deftness of Laurie Shannon’s reorienting of the most familiar lyric in the language.

The best part was the blaze of possibility that I felt in the room, and in my imagination, and compiling itself rapidly through the #shaxfutures17 hashtag.

Thinking about the panels now, on little sleep and with SAA pixie dust still between my toes, I’m trying to extend and understand that brief gap of time, to codify and prosify it, which inevitably means to falsify and dampen it, perhaps also to mansplain it. Apologies in advance for all that I garble or misremember. I speak only for myself, as I’m trying to make sense of the past few days. To push forward in experiment, I’ll entangle the two panels, pairing the speakers from Queer Natures with those from The Color of Membership.

Joe Campana; Dennis Britton (read by David Sterling Brown) 

The opening papers plunged us into uncomfortable modes of communal identity: swarms that dominate and control, and white traditions of Shakespeare scholarship that exclude geniuses such as Nikki Giovanni.

Dennis explored Giovanni’s desire for Shakespeare and to be a Shakespearean, which motived her publication of an essay in Upstart Crow in 1990. The great African-American poet wanted to get through her art what the dead white Bardfather gets every day from us and from our mainstream culture. Giovanni sings out a poet’s ambition, the motivating fire that makes art and perhaps all writing. “All we have,” she concludes, “is constant change.”

The bees of Joe’s swarms re-hived our pretty fantasies of community, making us into something both alien and (sometimes) sticky-sweet. Stings and honey!

Arthur Little; Vin Nardizzi

The necessary anger and precision of Arthur’s already-legendary talk (see responses on the official twitter hashtag #shaxfutures17) picked up where Giovanni left off, pushing hard against exclusion and the legacy of genteel whiteness that disfigures our profession. His words won’t be soon forgotten, I hope.

What response does such eloquence and exposed injustice make possible? What can we build or rebuild atop this past? Its ugliness shocks, whether in G.K. Hunter’s words fifty years ago as quoted by Arthur or, as Mike Witmore reminded us at the start of the panel, in the anti-immigrant racism that animated  the first Director of the Folger in the 1932.

The #shaxfutures initiative seeks to incubate some answers, or at least to provide a forum for new possibilities. On Friday morning I was also thinking about the intimate pluralities that Vin’s paper on “Fruits and Vegetables and Flowers” unfurled in Queer Natures. It’s not easy to connect a paper on posthuman hybrid bodies with one on racial injustice, since the desire to move past the merely human is not a straightforward match for the urgent need to recognize the full humanity of all the people in the room, and the people excluded from it.

The fruit-bodies of Pyramus, Bottom, and Archimboldi surface plurality alongside dreams of solidarity and community. It may be, or perhaps it can sometimes be imagined, that bodies are not only what they seem to be and have been. They and we can become other things.

Jyotsna Singh; Karen Raber

Humans crave difference, as the scrolling sideshow of images of Renaissance horse-art behind Karen’s brilliant talk showed us with visual abandon and gorgeous excess. The “equeer” desire she unraveled was marked by differences to which our bodies are inadequate and also desiring.

Might the theatrical stages and cross-cultural productions of Shakespeare of which Jyotsna spoke represent, in ideal if nearly always not in actuality, venues for engaging difference without asking it to resolve into sameness? Can we ask the SAA to open itself or indeed to become such a venue?

Karen’s semi-defense of the Dauphin’s horse-love in Henry V imagines utopian pluralism as a dream of embodied flight and extension of the human capacity to embrace difference, even at the risk of having it all crash back to bare forked earth when the rider leaves the saddle.

Laurie Shannon; Jean Howard (read by Patricia Cahill)

At the heart of our profession, the best things we do involve ethics and generosity with that most precious educational commodity, attention. Jean in absentia gave a master class is how a teacher continues to learn and change and extend herself into the futures we want to create. To be (in her phrase) “productively self-conscious” as an old white guy teaching Othello and Audre Lorde and Spenser to students of all colors in Queens: Jean has given me an apt language to describe what I need to keep trying to do better.

Laurie’s achingly suggestive talk closed Queer Natures by repurposing “nature’s changing course” in Sonnet 18 to gesture toward the queer and painful rain that wets Lear to the skin. The love poem’s capacity to entangle human emotion and natural sensations becomes — inevitably? — a scene of ecological extremity. Why do we want to compare our love to a summer’s day? Reason not the need!

I also can’t help mentioning, though I know I’ve already gone on too long, that amid so many stunning papers, I was deeply impressed by and grateful for the nearly-invisible labor of David Sterling Brown and Patricia Cahill, who read papers for Dennis and Jean, both absent-by-tornado. It’s not an easy thing to voice a paper you’ve not written and probably only seen for the first time that same day. These two readers – I’m reminded that we often call many things that we do as professors “readings” – carried us through the storm.

Joyce MacDonald

The concluding paper of The Color of Membership, which as the fifth doesn’t have a partner from Queer Natures, returned to the ethical and emotional audience to which we communicate our profession, our students, only some of whom join us at SAA. Joyce reminded us that we owe them love and truth, including disturbing truths and a love that challenges them to be open to things neither we nor they (yet) know. That’s the Futures part of #shaxfutures, which is the important part.


I could say more about these papers, the questions that followed, and the overflowing bowl of the rest of #shakeass17. I’ll write something separate about Craig Dionne and Lowell Duckert’s great #shaxanthropocene seminar, to which I was respondent Friday afternoon. The NextGenPlen was sizzling and plural, employing a dizzying range of methodologies and archives including book history, nonsense verse, and a polytemporal theorizing of racial difference. I could say more about an excess of cocktails and deficit of sleep, predictable accompaniments to every SAA. I could talk about the furries next door at the Marriot, though Andy Kesson has already written eloquently about them. I might make a note to myself that when Jeffrey Cohen finds the location of a 24-hour diner at 3 am, things are only going in one direction.

More later, but first I want to take time to express my hope about the possibilities that blazed across Friday morning. I sat in the front row like a fanboy for both plenary sessions, next to Natasha and Erika, not far from Heather and Ayanna and Lena and many others whose work and imagination make the SAA go. As the second plenary finished, the line from Shakespeare that came to mind as we stood and ovated – a line from Shakespeare always comes to mind, right? – was from Coriolanus:

Ladies, you deserve / To have a temple built you (5.3)

That temple, I imagine and hope, will be an SAA that, following Nikki Giovanni’s maxim, continually changes and gets better.

The theatrical context of that Rome-hasn’t-been-burned moment in Coriolanus might not bear too much scrutiny, but my comfort on it is that I hope that at this historical moment the SAA is not at the exhausted end of a violent tragedy but plowing through storms onto changing seas.

Thanks to all who were there, all who were stormed out, and everyone who made #shakeass17 and #shaxfutures17 possible

Next year in LA!





Dead Horse Bay event at Urban Glass Sat 3/25

Anyone who’s been to any of the Oceanic New York events or students from the “Open King Lear” course last fall who remember our trip to Dead Horse Bay with guest lecturer Craig Dionne might enjoy coming by the gallery Urban Glass in Fort Greene this Saturday 3/25 at 3 pm.

The event will celebrate the final weekend of the exhibition The Glass Graveyard of Brooklyn, and will feature poetry about the Bay written by a gathering of contributors to Underwater New York. I’ll be reading a poem about a doll’s leg that was recovered from Dead Horse Bay and featured in Elizabeth Albert’s exhibition and book, “Silent Beaches, Untold Stories.” 


Tempest @ St Ann’s Warehouse

In Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Harriet Walter, the set has always been the same: a women’s prison. Before each performance, a siren sounded in the lobby and then the cast, shackled and in grey prison sweats, was marched through the crowd under the watchful eyes of uniformed guards as well as audience members. In Julius Caesar in 2013, guards and inmates snarled at each other. In Henry IV in 2015, Hal’s pre-show announcement — “I’m gettin’ out!” — set a trap that finally snapped shut with Falstaff’s show-ending wail to the now-king, “Don’t you fucking leave me!” In both cases, the shows were brilliant as performances of Shakespeare, but they also played compellingly with the prisonhouse exterior.

Last in the trio comes The Tempest. The drama of forgiveness and reconciliation lacks the angry critique of male egotism and violence that served as spine for the previous two war stories. But the play’s language of bondage and liberation, shared by Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda, as well as the Italian castaways, resonated in the setting. Even more consistently than the previous two shows in the trilogy, this Tempest repeatedly emphasized the extra-Shakespearean identities of the inmates. Thus Harriet Walter’s Prospero was also the “prison character” Hannah, who was in turn (according to an insert in the playbill) based on the true story of Judy Clark, a onetime member of the Weather Underground who has been in prison in New York State since 1983. The prison-story toggled back and forth with the Tempest-story, with guards helping with scene changes and requiring, for example, that the Neapolitan aristocrats change from regal to prison garb.

Jade Anouka as Ariel
(New York Times)

There was a lot to like about this production, much of it centering around the brilliance of Jade Anouka, who also stole the show as Hotspur in Henry IV. Playing Ariel this time, as well as (at least the night I saw it) one of the prison guards, she (as it were) “flamed amazement.” Dancing, singing, rapping, teasing Prospero and mocking the castaways, the spirit dominated the stage. Working with music by Joan Armatrading, Anouka represented the heart of what I liked most about this Tempest and the whole trilogy: the whirling energy and relentless drive of the staging, acting, and production. As she said of her storm and her performance: “Jove’s lightning, the precursors / O’th’ dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary / And sight-outrunning were not!”

Anouka’s performance wasn’t the only theatrical highlight of the evening. The lovers were much better than they sometimes can be, energetic as well as sweet, with a slightly goofy loose-limbed enthusiastic performance as Ferdinand by Sheila Atim and a wonderfully lively Miranda by Leah Harvey. Pouting when her father made her beautiful prince carry those boring heavy logs (or, in this case, the recycling), Miranda’s teenage rebellion and eagerness recalled in happier terms the scene in Henry IV when the sullen teenage prince Hal put on dark glasses and Beats so he could ignore his father’s war council. Sophie Stanton’s Caliban was also wonderfully funny and engaging, if perhaps lacking a bit of the bite of her Falstaff in 2015.

The balloons Prospero will pop
(New York Times)

Many reviewers, including Ben Brantley in the Times, who called this production the “most entertaining Tempest I’ve ever seen,” loved Harriet Walter’s Prospero more than I did. Her performance only really moved me once, when she punctuated “Our revels now are ended” by running around the stage popping the dozen or so huge balloons onto which a cheesy vacation-masque montage had just been projected. Searching for the last balloon to pop, ranging about the stage amid startled actors, she hit the familiar lines with real fire: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Pop!

I kept thinking about the magic island as a prison, and wondering how that meshed with the play’s utopian lyricism, in Gonzalo’s rehashing of Montaigne’s fantasia about the cannibals of Brazil and Caliban’s “sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” I was also thinking about the harsh force of the end of Henry IV, in which Hal but not Falstaff got out of jail.

The last turn of the stage-prison surprised me, in a good way. I’m still thinking about what it means. Prospero, once again in the prison character of Hannah, was the one left behind. All the other inmates waved to her from the stage doors on top of the bleachers. She has drowned her book of spells in a plastic garbage bag, but has a paperback to read, Margaret Atwood’sHag-Seeda brand-new revision of The Tempest. Alone, she sat on a bare cot on a bare stage. With Ariel, Miranda, and the others all gone, her island lacked magic and music.

I didn’t love her performances, but I did buy her book

Not all wizards escape.


#mla17: Hope amid Cleverness

Into cold water

I woke this morning to single digit temperatures in snow-blanketed CT. No heat, no water, no wifi. #frozenpipesarenotjustanallegory. Reflecting on the aftermath MLA and the plumbing in my home, I wondered: what’s the best way to get everything flowing again?

Training north out of snowy Philadelphia early the day before, I had been thinking about Hermione Granger. A lover of scholarly pursuits like the thousands of academics who gathered for #mla17, she values other things more —

Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and — (1.16.287)

Might the core virtues of adventure fiction — solidarity and courage — be things we academics need as much as books and cleverness, in the face of coming storms?

I went to MLA this year seeking radical hope, and I came back with some things to hold onto.

Signs of Hope

  1. My panel on hope buoyed me up during Saturday afternoon’s snowstorm, and no part more than the Lynne Bruckner‘s gorgeous and moving talk on “Hope and Breath in The Rape of Lucrece.” Lynne’s been a longtime leader in the early modern ecostudies community, and — as she courageously announced to the audience — this was her first public talk as she recovers from a traumatic brain injury. She was nervous beforehand but assured throughout. In a stunning conclusion, she performed the intake of breath that punctuates the caesura in the last line of Sonnet 18 — “So long lives this, [take a breath in] and this gives life to thee” — and demonstrated how perhaps the most familiar sonnet in the language can still stir new feeling. It was one of those talks during which you feel fortunate to be in the room.
  2. Books! Like Hermione and yet unlike her too, nothing entrances me more at MLA than the hopeful assemblage of books. So much beauty and cleverness on display! I came back with bags stuffed and lists ready for the University Library. I even saw, for the first time, a new volume with my name on its spine, alongside that of my wonderful co-editor Marty Rojas. The cover image shows a polar bear diving off an iceberg into cold water. We leave the allegory as an exercise for the reader.
  3. Patsy Yaeger’s “The ocean as quasi-object”: The essays in the book originated at the Hungry Ocean conference at the JCB back in 2011, and the almost six years between then and now have been a windy road. The most shocking loss was of our contributor, keynote speaker, and inspiring colleague Patsy Yaeger. With the support of Patsy’s husband and several of her colleagues, we’re very proud to have been able to complete and include her brilliant and generative essay in the book. I wish she could see what the next generation of ocean-scholars will do with her work: “Swimming with Marx and Latour brings us up to the limits of both theoretical perspectives, and possibly past them into a different model entirely. Ultimately, it may take poets to show the way” (167).
  4. Ecologies everywhere! I went to lots of sessions, but could not keep up with all the premodern ecocritical and Anthropocene panels. Among many favorites were Karen Raber’s “The World is Flat: Ecomaterialist Perspectives in the Renaissance,” and Jeffrey Cohen’s multiple sessions, including “Ecomedia” and “Extro-Fictions” (which I missed), and a great roundtable on Ecological Catastrophe that packed the house at 8:30 am. There were two Shakespeare enviro-sessions, on “Eco-rhetorics” and “Climatology” — plus many other sessions in and around the field, not all of which I could hear or overhear via twitter. Perhaps ecocrit has really arrived?
  5. Futures: The best kind of post-MLA feeling, other than the luxury of a good night’s sleep, is the sense that multiple good things are peeking above the horizon and many bubbling pots are being carefully tended. Despite the orange cloud rising soon in Washington, “something good” — to borrow from the wisdom of Plenty Coups — will also come.

And yet…

MLA always casts a melancholy shadow, as the conference rolls above a vast grey river of job-market misery. The human cost of the river of suffering seemed slightly less visible this year compared to a few years ago, perhaps because many first round interviews are now done via Skype, but our profession continues to devour our young. To the extent that I’m insulated from such melancholy, it’s due to being old & tenured & without a lot of students at MLA.

It feels cynical to feast on brilliant books and talks and imaginative excellences while keeping only one eye attuned to the plight of those who the “market” churns up. Even the word “market” seems dishonest, as academic job culture bears little resemblance to an economist’s ideal marketplace.

Today the MLA approaches a crossroads, with the search beginning for a new Executive Director and the long-central place of the MLA interview shifting under technological and financial pressures. Can the organization become a force to support its precarious members as much as it already does those (like me) who are comfortable? That’s the task. I hope whoever steps into the leadership role knows it.

Though I recognize that feeling able to choose is a privilege, I’m going with the hope that motion gives over despair at the academy’s frozen pipes. I’m also thinking about Hermione’s priorities: friendship and bravery over books and cleverness. Like most MLA-ers, I love the latter two things to distraction. What’s better than beautiful books and clever words? But we need not to forget the first two. We need friends and the courage to build better futures.

The Schuylkill, as I’m heading north

A little later on this chilly morning I learned that warmth, time, and patience can open blocked conduits. Plus I was pleased to benefit from whatever magic Comcast does to make the wifi reanimate. By 10 am my home was flowing and hopeful again.





Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies #mla17 #s598

Out of the ashes of 2016…

Crawling out of the wreckage of 2016 into the New Year, don’t we all need a little hope? Come join us at session 598 on Saturday at the Convention Center (Room 112B at 3:30 pm).

Here are the abstracts and presenter bios. Featuring Lynne Bruckner, Dan Brayton, Jen Munroe, and Tiffany Jo Werth!

Here’s how I’ll open the panel, explaining what we mean by radical hope.

When we proposed this panel last winter, we didn’t know how much we’d need hope in early 2017. We were concerned then and now with environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present, which seems to oscillate between tragic visions of apocalypse and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electric cars will save us just the way we are. This panel on premodern literature aims to historicize the relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment. Seeking alternatives, we offer the abundance of historical difference.

Our title comes from philosopher Jonathan Lear’s 2006 book, Radical Hope, which unfolds the story of Plenty Coups, the nineteenth-century Native American Crow leader who guided his people to accept the end of their traditional way of life. Plenty Coups’s dilemma – “How ought we to live with this possibility of collapse?” (9) – resonates with the dire pronouncements of environmental doomsayers in the Anthropocene. Plenty Coups shows that it’s possible to reframe breakdown as futurity: “We must do what we can,” Lear ventriloquizes the Crow leader, “to open our imagination up to a radically different set of future possibilities” (93). Plenty Coups’s vision of the Crow people enduring without mobility, wealth, or war may parallel our prospects in the face of climate change.

Facing the unknown kindles fear and stimulates courage. The required stance, as Lear interprets Plenty Coups, is deceptively simple. “Something good will emerge” (94) insists the leader who turns forward into catastrophe. The form and shape of the good remain unknown and unknowable. Preserving optimism when facing a blank constitutes heroism. This stance is also, Lear emphasizes, a “traditional way of going forward” (154) – not because Crow traditions had any experience with a world without buffalo, but because Plenty Coups used traditional cultural resources to generate not-quite-articulable hope.

We early modern ecoscholars use this hope to historicize the Anthropocene. But as 2016 has turned out, it is not only the nonhuman environment that needs a dose of radical futurity. In the rawness of the November 21st issue of the New Yorker, the novelist Junot Diaz reached for Lear’s book in the Age of Trump. “Radical hope,” Diaz writes, “is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence. We academics butter our bread by cherishing imaginative excellence, though like everyone we sometimes shy away from disorienting openness. My hope is that this panel will plant flexible seeds in our thinking and our teaching. In time, they will grow into flowers that we didn’t expect and have never seen before.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in Philly!