In the narrow hallway of the Hotel Lombardy, heading to the Venetian Room for the last of a decade’s epic of Old Fashioneds after MEMSI events, a brilliant scholar of medieval French accused me of being an old fashioned humanist. At first I thought she was joking, since I punched my posthuman card years ago, but I had, it took me a few minutes to realize, given a pretty humanist talk earlier that day. So I tried to explain myself. My current premodern Anthropocene project, as I tried to communicate in one of the super-intense intellectual exchanges of this past glorious weekend in DC, wants to salvage ethical traces of the human amid the swirl and pressure of more-than-human environs. I’m not sure how persuasive I was, then on the low couches of the Venetian room or earlier in my presentation. I’m seeking out a hybrid stew of human longing and posthuman wonder, an openness to change and disruption that also labors to build refuges and radical hospitality. But do I have the language for it?
On the 7 am train back to New Haven this morning I’m thinking that the not-only-human humanism that I rhapsodized owes quite a lot to MEMSI itself, and to the spark of communities that assemble, blaze, and disperse. A decade is a long time for a Humanities Institute, in some ways of thinking about time, though barely a blink in others. How many things would not have been possible but for this!
Among the great innovations that Jeffrey Cohen & his merry band have supported through MEMSI has been a re-imagining and making-experimental of the robust ancient genre of the academic lecture. He saved a special treat for last this weekend. We spent most of two days sitting down to a hearty dozen talks on topics from San Francisco drag theater in the 1970s to twelfth-century Spanish legal structures to early modern bees and the market-fantasies used to sell expensive reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, among many other things. Then we followed all those presentations with an impromptu set of unscripted closing “Letting Go” comments, with each of the speakers, chairs, and some brave volunteers walking up to the front of the room to extemporize on what had preceded, and what might yet follow.
I loved all the talks, but these unrehearsed fragments were the best part of the weekend. I didn’t take notes, alas, and I’m pretty sure that what I’m remembering now, not much more than twelve hours and much wine and Indian food later, mashes up the more formal presentations with the closing snippets. But I’m going to try to reinhabit the moments, or maybe just bits of them.
Carolyn Dinshaw spoke at the start and end of the weekend about play, performance, and the desire of so many deeply textual and contextual literary critics to move beyond language into structures of feeling and physicality.
Julian Yates turned away from his bees and at the end off-the-cuffed with typical brilliance, reminding us that fetish-love for things past might not be so bad. He didn’t revisit it, but as he was speaking I thought of his brilliant fauxtemology for MEMSI itself, a name built out of equal helpings of mnemosyne the goddess of memory plus whimsey. Exactly right.
Joe Moshenka opened up the physicality of toys and playing, building on Carolyn’s opening move to think about what gets made into toys, who plays, what sorts of performances become public.
Anthony Bale, whose stunning talk the afternoon before about following Marjory Kempe into modern Palestine upped the stakes of how I think about embodied scholarship, pushed us at the end of the second day toward thinking about the public stakes of touching many pasts.
Ellen MacKay extended her brilliant engagement with the public restaging of history by reminding us of the need we academics have to speak to beyond the confines of narrow rooms.
Dorothy Kim, whose whirlwind weekend also included a plenary talk about the Medieval Academy in Atlanta, uncovered the visible politics of race from Middle English narratives of St Margaret to 21c century popular and academic cultures.
At the end of the second day, I offered the mixed temporal imperatives of play (present), recover (past), and imagine (future), and I tried to wrap them in an inhuman and oceanic package called “circulation.”
Peggy McCracken developed a wonderfully material and aesthetic reading of Pygmalion’s “ivory” statue and the assimilation of whiteness and warmth to ideas of beauty and femininity.
Stephanie Trigg returned to play and touch, our weekend’s keywords and master-metaphors, and her delicate analysis of the rhetoric of high-priced facsimile reproductions of medieval manuscripts showed us how similar and dissimilar these fascinations are to scholarly inquiry. The paradox of “entirely similar,” which phrase she drew from a marketing website, resonated with our own professional desire to touch a past that we can’t fully encounter.
Jesus Velasco, who I hadn’t met before this weekend except on Facebook, performed a glorious excavation of 13c Spanish legal structures to help us think about fantasies of “convivencia” and legal personhood in medieval and modern contexts.
Cord Whitaker, relishing his role as closing speaker (twice!), enjoined us to celebrate MEMSI’s flourishing and our shared dedication to the promises that can be unearthed from shared and hidden pasts.
The home team of GWU session chairs and MEMSI supporters, Holly Dugan, Jonathan Hsy, and Alexa Alice Joubin plus ex-GWUer Lowell Duckert, voiced the underlying mixture of sadness and celebration that subtended this MEMSI-closing event.
Endings don’t always close exactly when we think they will, and Cord’s second finishing chorus of “another chance to pronounce MEMSI’s final syllables” proved just one more prologue to Lowell’s heartfelt thanks to Jeffrey as we presented the wizard of refuge and experiment with two symbolic gifts: a handmade wooden ark signed by the participants of the weekend’s event, and a walking stick for future adventures, inscribed with words of wisdom in two languages —
A home, a limit, and a recurring challenge.
Ad astra per elephantos!
Passing now through 30th Street Station, I’m tallying up how much I owe to MEMSI for its inspiration, hospitality, and relentless imagination. I counted five events since the sparkling TemFest of December 2010, but Jeffrey’s better accounting punched me up to seven, I think because MEMSI helped bring me to DC to speak to his Folger seminar in 2015 and a few years earlier to serve as Lowell’s external examiner for his dissertation defense. So many long rides on the Northeast Regional!
I don’t want to get too sentimental, since the best parts of MEMSI’s vision and drive remain in circulation through and beyond our academic culture. Its end punctuates one inflection of premodern studies, but, as Dan Remein cogently remarked yesterday, MEMSI has already moved through many phases and changes. Surely the response most in-keeping with the spirit of the beast will be to kindle more experimental fires and keep changing. Arks of history bend through MEMSI, with whimsy, toward community.
Thanks to everyone, in and beyond DC this weekend!