In slightly different world, I’m riding horses, hiking red rock canyons, and visiting old friends and my two year old nephew in the American West this week. In the only world we’ve got, I’m digging out from the only measurable snow we’ve received in the CT shoreline this year, and blogging about the academic part of my Arizona trip. I do love tromping in my local woods in the snow, but…
I spent part of last week at Arizona State University in Tempe, where I traveled to give the inaugural lecture for their new Blue Humanities Institute. I was lucky, when I was there, to overlap with a visit by Erica Fudge, so I got to do a lunchtime conversation with her about the relationships between animal studies and blue humanities, as well as hear her great talk on Hamlet and “being edible” in the Renaissance. Another wonderful treat of spending a few days at ASU was getting to visit, at least briefly, many of the amazing people who are now making, as a current piece in The New Yorker shows, this large public university a vision of possible futures for the humanities. Back now in the chilly East, and having read through the long and overdramatic piece in The New Yorker, with the inevitable click-bait title, “The End of the English Major,” I’m left thinking about how Western ASU feels, in the American sense. The campus teems with new construction, and even its oldest buildings date to the late nineteenth century. It was unseasonably cold and windy when I was there, and we even got a bit of rain, but palm trees, saguaro cacti, and views of rocky peaks combined to make an easterner like me feel the landscape as openness, possibility, and perhaps a little disorientation. I won’t refer back to the NYer article all the way through this blog recap, but the unspoken thesis of the piece showcased Columbia and Harvard as stuck, while ASU appears active and onward-moving, even if all the answers might not yet be clear.
I went out to the Sonora Desert on the invitation of Sir Jonathan Bate, who is heading up the new BH Initiative. I’d not met him before, though his 2000 book Song of the Earth was an inspiration for me, as for many of us who turned toward literary ecocriticism in the 00s. Recent ASU connections (or acquisitions? it’s a bit hard to tell) to research centers in Hawai’i and Bermuda suggest that ASU’s Blue Humanities hub will be well positioned to speak across Atlantic and Pacific contexts. Maybe they need Indian and Southern Ocean toeholds next?
Since ASU, despite its surging novelty and the feeling that changes are being made, teems with Shakespeareans, including Ayanna Thompson who runs the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies as well as the Raceb4Race collective, among many others, I gave a Shakespeare lecture, focusing on the “Coast of Bohemia,” the infamous geographic error at the heart of The Winter’s Tale. In thinking about the play’s combination of fantasy and reality, I opened the discussion with Rachel Carson’s mid-century The Edge of the Sea in dialogue with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1970s lyric, “Bohemia Lies by the Sea.” The point was to introduce Shakespeare through both marine science and poetry. I also asked the sympathetic audience to listen twice to some descriptive phrases that I would apply to both real and imagined coasts:
It’s not a fixed place. There’s no real line in any coastline. Nothing stays still. It’s a jumble, a chaos. Always moving. Everything is re-made, re-imagined, at every instant. Things touch, but not in reliable ways.
That dynamism, alienation, and disorientation captures coasts as physical spaces and imaginative opportunities. I read those words aloud twice, asking everyone to think about the coast of Bohemia as both place and idea. My slide was my local CT coast with Whale Rock. I was so pleased when the playwright Madeline Sayet, who was at the talk, tweeted out that phrase that evening! It’s always fun to speak to a receptive audience.
Coasts of Bohemia are fictive opportunities that shift locations, change shapes, and flow unexpectedly. My local waters, even when forbiddingly cold as they are now, always open spaces for me. The most richly experiential water I found at ASU was in the Mona Plummer Aquatic Complex, where for a glorious half hour I had all the lanes to myself on a brisk Friday morning. I anticipate that the Blue Humanities Initiative will generate many watery insights and connections as it moves forward.
On my last day in AZ, after vacation plans had come undone, I spent a happy afternoon and evening hiking and sipping cocktails with my friend Jeffrey Cohen, who’s been Dean of Humanities at ASU since 2018, and who was described, in that national press article, as “buttery-voiced and bearded.” (Yes, I assume it’ll be on his business cards soon.) He’s one of the speculative engines behind ASU’s growth in the humanities, though he always says that his job is primarily to help other people do the things only they can do. I think of Jeffrey / Dean Butter Beard’s western swing as having grown out from his collaboration with ASU astrophysicist Lindy Elkins-Tanton on the 2017 Object Lessons book Earth. A book co-written by a planetary scientist who is currently leading a research expedition to the metal asteroid Psyche and a medievalist eco-scholar strikes me as exactly the imaginative and generative projects that humanities scholarship, teaching, and even administer-ing needs. Not all moon shots reach their destinations – but it’s exciting to see good things taking shape.