Author: rickgodden

Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election

Great collection of reflections put together by Kisha Tracy. I have a small contribution to it.

MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

After November 8th, finishing the semester for teachers of any age group of students became an arduous task. The same was true for me. From the day after, when I had to ask myself how I could face my students and what I could say to them, to the days following, when the usual routine was accompanied by the world seemingly making less and less sense, I have found myself asking if what I do truly has any impact. Teaching the pre-modern often brings out the naysayers who don’t see any significance in learning what isn’t “modern,” but, in a time when current events are in such chaos, those suspicions are even more pronounced, even as the ramifications of a lack of knowledge about the past are on display almost daily. In an attempt for some catharsis, I asked a group of medievalists from various institutions around the country…

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How Do You See Me?

I continue to be perplexed by this ad. In it, a woman with Down Syndrome begins narrating “This is how I see myself.” This narration overlays images of Olivia Wilde living her life, the full range of human experiences and emotions. It should be noted that Wilde is an attractive actress and has a striking appearance on screen. The narrator goes on to describe the events unfolding, the possibilities for her life. She says, “I am an ordinary person.” Inspirational music swells. At the end of the ad, the camera pivots in a 180 away from Wilde to show the narrator. She then asks us, “How do you see me?” This has spawned the #HowDoYouSeeMe hashtag on Twitter. In describing this ad, I noted the general attractiveness of the actress performing in it, and I do so not to draw a contrast between her beauty and the beauty of the woman narrating; however, I cannot help but feel that there is contrast being drawn nonetheless. The woman speaking and narrating, giving voice to worlds of possibilities, is disabled while the actress on screen does not share in that particular disability. We, the audience, are being asked to confront our preconceptions. But what about the ad’s preconceptions? This young woman sees herself as a normal, ordinary person going through life.  And why shouldn’t she? The ad’s view of “normal” at first does not seem to include disability. The disabled body is effectively erased in the ad except in the form of a spectral voice and the final image. This is a visual version of a statement I’ve heard again and again – “You’ve done so much despite your disability.”

I do understand it. Really, I do. I get a steady stream of patronizing and sometimes demeaning attitudes from people who only seem to see my wheelchair. And yet, I feel it is impossible to read this video as having any other message than “Inside every disabled person is a ‘normal’ attractive person just waiting to be recognized.” I’m uncomfortable with the insinuation of normativity that hangs over the ad. I do not think it is intentional, and I think this ad is, in fact, well-intentioned, but I agree with David Perry that it is an absolute failure.

Most importantly, I do not think it is possible to see past one’s disability, to extract those impairments and differences and prostheses from a person’s identity or sense of self. Nor do I think it is possible to experience life separate from one’s disability and difference.  For someone to say they see me and not the wheelchair is disingenuous at best, and a fantasy at worst. There is no there there. I can only speak for myself, and I cannot speak on behalf of of the Down syndrome community. But I do think there is a harmful message inextricably caught up in this ad, no matter how well-intentioned it is.

So, please no videos where I am narrating over Bradley Cooper doing mundane yet cool stuff. (Okay, if he wants to do a video for me to narrate I’m happy to do so as long as it’s not inspiration porn.)

Call for Papers, Kalamazoo 2016: “Erratic Letters” & “Kinky Grammar”

The Grammar Rabble

The Grammar Rabble will sponsor two roundtable session at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, at the University of Western Michigan, May 12–15, 2016. We are seeking short paper proposals on the following topics:

Erratic Letters

In geology, an ‘erratic’ stone is one that does not match the stones surrounding it, one that seems to have wandered in from another place. This panel would consider the ‘erratic’ letter—the letter that has failed to be pinned down, failed to maintain a constant materiality, or failed to keep its materiality in a persistent location. This session will seize upon such erratic letters—perhaps the letter transposed or misread by the copyist, perhaps the letter from a foreign alphabet unexpectedly placed in a new context—as a Lucretian ‘swerve’, a moment when the text becomes alive to new interpretive possibilities.

Kinky Grammar

Medieval European grammar was commonly associated with the straight line, as in…

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CFP for volume on monstrosity and disability

Embodied Difference: Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World, edited by Richard H. Godden and Asa Simon Mittman
Call for Papers (Initial deadline, September 1)

Volume Description

Medieval and Early Modern art and literatures are replete with images of non­normative bodies. Saints lives valorize physical challenges, fabliaux render them metaphorical, medical texts pathologize them, and marginal images make them subjects of amusement. Divergent bodies are viewed as gifts from God, markers of sin, or manifestations of medical imbalances. In many cases throughout Western history, a figure marked by what Rosemarie Garland­Thomson has termed “the extraordinary body” is labeled a “monster.”

In this collection, we wish to take on the challenge of examining the intersection of the discourses of “disability” and “monstrosity.” Bringing these two themes together is a timely and necessary intervention in the current scholarly fields of Disability Studies and Monster Studies, especially in light of the pernicious history of defining people with distinctly non­normative bodies or non­normative cognition as monsters. This collection will explore the origins of this conflation, examine the problems and possibilities inherent in it, and cast both disability and monstrosity in the light of emergent, empowering discourse of posthumanism.

Irina Metzler has observed that in the Middle Ages there was no conception of the disabled as it would accord with modern notions of embodied difference. In looking for figures of the disabled and the deformed, scholars in medieval Disability Studies have often fallen back on monstrosity as an overlapping or even equivalent category. We are looking for essays that address the imbrications of monstrosity and disability in provocative and searching ways. We especially encourage essays that do not simply collapse these two categories, but rather look to interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What is the effect of reading monsters as disabled and the disabled as monstrous? How does the coupling of these two Othered groups obscure important features? How does reading them together illuminate the social and cultural processes by which difference is constructed? How do the discourses of monstrosity and disability intersect with recent thinking on the posthuman? We invite essays from all disciplines and national traditions, and we welcome interdisciplinary, transtemporal and transcultural thinking, including medievalism.

We plan to include ten to twelve essays, framed by an introduction written by the editors and pair of brief codas written by prominent figures in Disability and Monster Studies. We invite essays based in the disciplines and discourses of medicine, literature, religion, art history, law, ethics, and on, that consider themes including visibility and invisibility, civilization and wildness, normativity and abnormality, vulnerability, processes, transformations, encounters, and enactments. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, “monstrous births”; “monstrous peoples”; “monstrous gender”; religious, social, and political otherness; physical, mental and cognitive difference; care and treatment of the disabled; disability, sin, and salvation; and positive, even celebratory depictions of disability.

Ohio State University Press has expressed interest in this volume.

Please send a 250 word abstract to Richard Godden ( or Asa Simon Mittman (, and feel free to contact us with queries, questions, and suggestions.

Editor Biographies

Richard H. Godden is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Tulane University, and has published in postmedieval and New Medieval Literatures. He is also co­author with Jonathan Hsy of “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages.” His current work focuses on the intersections between the political theology of the neighbor, temporality, and Disability Studies in medieval romance. He also works on the alliances between Digital Humanities and Disability Studies. He has presented numerous papers throughout the US on related subjects, and his research has been funded by the Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University, and Washington University. He is a founding member of the Grammar Rabble.

Asa Simon Mittman is Professor of Art History at California State University, Chico, and author of Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (2006; paperback 2008), co­author with Susan Kim of Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (2013, awarded a Millard Meiss Publication Grant from the College Art Association), and author and co­author of 22 articles and chapters on monstrosity and marginality in the Middle Ages, including most recently pieces on Satan in the Junius 11 manuscript (Gesta, with Kim) and “race” in the Middle Ages (postmedieval), in addition to several works in press and in progress. He edited the Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (with editorial assistance by with Peter Dendle, 2012; paperback 2013), and is co­director of Virtual Mappa, an interface to allow searching and linking among medieval maps and geographical texts, due to launch this fall. Mittman’s research has been supported by the College Art Association, the International Center of Medieval Art, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as grants from Arizona State University and Chico State. He edits book series with Boydell and Brill, and is the founding president of MEARCSTAPA and a founding member of the Material Collective.

Access, Publishing, and Unreasonable Demands

Ok, I wanted to write down a few quick thoughts that were proving too long for twitter. Inside HigherEd published an article about accessibility in publishing. In its presentation of the issue, issues of access are presented as demands, as an ultimatum. The language of “unreasonable” informs the response.

Lennard Davis, Catherine Kudlick, Margaret Price, Melissa Helquist and Jay Dolmage put together a one-page letter that encourages authors to solicit publishers to include accessible editions of texts simultaneously with the usual printed versions. The letter penned by Davis, et al. does similar work as the petition circulating recently that states panelists at academic conferences will not participate in all-male sessions.

From the letter:

As a scholar working in disability studies, I am dedicated to publishing work that is accessible to all scholars, including anyone with print-reading disabilities. For this reason, it is imperative that before agreeing to publish with [name of publisher], I have written assurance that materials will be available in accessible formats at the same time as any print copies.

It isn’t likely (to me) that most authors would submit such a statement to their publishers, but the existence of such a letter does much to raise awareness, and it also lists specific suggestions:

The technical specifications: Materials must be in EPUB 3.0 or later format with true, reflowable text embedded in them – not screen images. This makes it possible to resize the text (for readers with low vision) and read aloud (for readers using screen reading software). If DRM (digital rights management, which sometimes creates a barrier that makes it impossible for accessibility software to access the text) is going to be used, a DRM-free version must be available to persons with documented disabilities. The process for accessing a DRM-free version should be straightforward.

Currently the program “Adobe InDesign” – the program used by most large book designers – has built-in features for checking accessibility, but these should be test-run with actual users of screen-reading software since the tools for checking accessibility are still a work in progress.

It is important to remember that many charts and graphs are also unrecognizable to screen-reading software. Numeric tables replicating chart data should be provided. Instead of using color-coding for charts and graphs, differences in line style or “texture” should be used so that the chart can be understood in black and white. Data tables should never be converted into images, and basic accessibility guidelines need to be followed for table headers, titles, and so on.

Ideally, images, maps, and figures appearing in books should also be visually described, particularly when the images are central to the themes, arguments, findings, and/or narrative of the book. In this way, readers using screen reading software can still have access to these important features of the book.

These are good, practical recommendations for opening access. However, InsideHigherEd has a slightly different take on the issue:

The guidelines, a one-page template letter, read a little like an ultimatum. The letter opens by asking a would-be publisher to confirm in writing that print books and accessible formats will be made available simultaneously, then launches into an explanation of how publishers should handle everything from digital rights management to authoring software.

Lennard J. Davis, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the letter is meant less to threaten a boycott and more as a public service announcement. Some authors may not budge from the demands in the letter, he said, but others are likely to use it as a way to spread awareness about accessibility.

I am troubled here by the use of the word “ultimatum” and also the reference to “demands.” Yes, there is some direct language in the letter such as “imperative,” but these hardly read like demands or ultimatums. As someone with a disability, I have repeatedly, and throughout my life, been confronted with the fact that many view accessibility and accommodations as somehow unreasonable, that is they view them as demands being made rather than reasonable requests. Is it reasonable? This is often the question asked when considering issues of access or accommodation. We should ask, instead, is it needed? Does it include rather than exclude?

Prosthetics and the Dismodern Body in SGGK

Ok, so here’s my other, longer Kalamazoo paper. I’m returning to this later in the summer for a larger piece, so I’m very much thinking through things still. I am also apparently obsessed with Gawain right now.


Flirting with Integrity: Prosthetics and
the Dismodern Body in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain flirts with bodily integrity, or more to the point, with the desire for it. My use of “integrity” here cuts in two directions, gesturing not only to his ethical character but also to the state of remaining whole and intact. His arming as the pentangle knight conjures the fantasy of a body that is whole, not penetrated, complete; however, each of his encounters in the poem reveal that this seemingly intact body is really a body-in-the-making, or maybe even a body-in-the-unmaking, one that is always at risk of disintegration, dismemberment, and re-configuration. From the very moment that Gawain takes his uncle’s place before the Green Knight, our hero must confront physical and psychological vulnerability. To read this vulnerability, I look to the analyses of disability studies. And although the poem does not explicitly present a disabled or impaired body as we would often conceptualize it, its images of dismembered and incomplete bodies calls forth what Lennard Davis, a noted disability studies scholar, would call the dismodern body. Davis argues that we all begin from a position of disability, that we are all incomplete: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace.” In the context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, I would argue that the knight is incomplete without his armor, his bonds of fellowship and loyalty, his reputation, and perhaps even magical objects. The objects and technologies that complete the body are prosthetics, real and virtual devices that fit onto one’s person, yet the hinge or seam is often showing. In this essay, I read the poem through the lens of recent work in disability studies in order to lay bare the anxieties and desires that Gawain and his fellow knights reveal for bodily integrity, and by extension, for the integrity of the body politic.

Continue Reading

Neighboring Wastelands in SGGK

I delivered this paper at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium in April 2016


Neighboring the Wilderness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Richard H. Godden

During the New Chaucer Society meeting in Portland in 2012, I attended a panel discussion that endeavored to bring together two of the conference threads – Oceans and Neighbors. On one hand, these two could not seem further part: the former concerned with the oceanic, ecological flow, and the latter concerned with the bonds of antagonism and love that co-exist (if uncomfortably) between human actors. In the Q&A, I asked how it is that we could enter into a neighboring relation with the ocean. At the time, I was thinking more about environmentalism than ecology – I was thinking of good stewardship of the waters, and not interdependence. In the following remarks, however, I want to re-visit this question from a different angle. Rather than thinking about brighter tomorrows, I want to think darker ecologies. Moving from the ocean to the wilderness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I want to explore Gawain’s travels as being something other than a journey into and through the otherworld. I want to consider what it means to neighbor the wilderness.

While there have been several ecological readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, many have focused on the insistent greenness and otherworldliness (also associated with the color green) of so much of the poem.[1] But despite these green encounters, Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral reveal a terrain nearly devoid of vegetation or color (outside of the stark colors of winter), one that is alien and inhospitable. The landscape is so bleak that the narrator even tells us that “For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors” (726). [2] (HANDOUT 1) The inclement landscape, with its barren rocks, that he temporarily inhabits on his quest poses a greater danger than the beasts, monsters, and wild men he encounters. In this paper, I wish to do that which Gawain is loathe to do: linger among the “naked rokkez” (730) of the wilderness.[3] I do so to pursue not a green reading, but rather a “dark ecology” — as Timothy Morton describes — in order to ask what it means to neighbor resistant, uninviting landscapes. By extending Morton’s insights into the ethics of neighboring in relationship to ecology, I argue that neighboring nature in the poem reveals an ecological other that resists possession. The barrenness of the “naked rokkez” stands in stark contrast to fantasies of dominion. In doing so, these spaces dissolve the comforting and familiar invitation of land that so many medieval texts favor, instead providing alien, uncanny spaces that cannot be so easily inhabited. To approach the poem ecologically, I am dividing this paper into two sections: time and space, and I hope the two will come together.

  1. Time

As Morton Bloomfield once remarked, the poem is “soaked in time in all its aspects.”[4] We begin with the Brut-tradition, with the rise and fall of empires. In a quick sketch, almost like a “Previously On” on a tv show, we are told of the Fall of Troy, brought about by treachery, and we are told of the diaspora of Trojans who found the various cities of Europe, including Britain. We are brought up to the current moment in the text with the introduction of Arthur, but after such an opening, we must approach the ensuing narrative with some trepidation. We all know the story – Arthur falls, must fall, and so his kingdom will fall and another will rise.

Although this is a palpably familiar history, the Gawain-poet encapsulates this history within more dizzying experiments with time in the poem.[5] By this I mean the rapid escalation of temporal sequence, what Morton might refer to as time-lapse, which he describes as follows: “By speeding up the world, time-lapse photography makes things that seem natural reveal something monstrous or artificial, an uncanny, morphing flow.”[6] (HANDOUT 2) The sweep of history is, here, reduced to a list, a few feet of poetry. Such accomplishment passes by so quickly that I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar where the events of greatest magnitude for human history are shown to be contained within a single day of the year. Similarly, how many metrical feet would Arthur’s reign take up in a universal history?

The short historical precis that opens the poem marks one such instance of time-lapse, but the changing of the seasons in fitt II provides a touchstone for the temporal vertigo that I observe in the poem. This is a beautiful scene, cinematic and awesome as winter gives way to spring gives way to summer, and so on. In describing this scene as beautiful it does not yet seem particularly uncanny, but the lines that introduce the changing of seasons are (to me at least) quietly unnerving: “A ȝere ȝernes ful ȝerne, and ȝeldez neuer lyke, / êe forme to îe fynishment foldez ful selden” (468-69).  The year runs quickly, and the beginning and end rarely match. What should be a comforting meditation on the cyclical and enduring change of seasons is launched by an observation about alterity in time, the unforeseeable future.[7] Further, the changing of the seasons begins and ends in winter – a time not for renewal but for strange encounters, and for nervous meditations upon upcoming voyages into unknown lands. The changing of the seasons is also littered with anthropomorphic touches, imprinting human action – “Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne” (525) – upon the actions of the natural world. And yet, despite the attribution of recognizable human actions to the weather, the inexorable grind of time remains impersonal, detached from human yearnings and emotion. The seasons change and yet Gawain will soon have no choice but to begin his “anious uyage” (534). It would, perhaps, be better to say that these anthropomorphic details signal the inhuman, not the human, an unsettling recognition that alienates even as it invites.

If the changing of the seasons is still mostly beautiful, we might find a darker ecology in the next moment of time-lapse – Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral, or as the poet puts it, “contrayez straunge.” If this were an action movie, we would see Gawain scrambling over cliffs, traversing through black rocks, and notably, fighting an absurd, frankly parodic number of foes. We are told that

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,

Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,

Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,

And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle. (720-723) (HANDOUT 3)

So, for those keeping track, he fights worms (or likely, dragons), wolves, wodwos (or wildmen), bulls, bears, boars, and etaynez (giants). Any one encounter with just one of these creatures could serve as the climax of a scene if not an entire poem. The speedup of time-lapse renders this series of climactic moments as uncanny, piling one upon another until it almost cannot be taken seriously or as real. These monsters and other non-human creatures are what Morton might call strange strangers, those figures whose strangeness only increases the more intimate with them we become.

In tracing the the uncanniness of Gawain’s encounters, I am looking to find the neighborly in the ecological others of the poem. At first, this list of foes would seem unlikely candidates for the neighbor. George Edmonson, in his excellent book The Neighboring Text, offers the following gloss on the position of the neighbor:

Located somewhere between familiarity and anonymity, between the family unit and the polis, the neighbor stands as that intimate other whose recognition we crave, and with whom we can partially identify, but who also displays a strange, potentially hostile desire—a death drive—that uncannily threatens the dream of community. There is an amorphous quality to the neighbor, a kind of liminality, that fundamentally confuses our approach to the neighbor both in theory and in practice. The neighbor is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening; he rattles us even as he ratifies us.[8] (HANDOUT 4)


There seems to be little familiar in the dragons and other creatures that Gawain battles, except that they are reassuring in their ability to be defeated, to be conquered. Gillian Rudd, for instance, observes that “he needs the adventure in an Other world to secure his own identity as a questing knight of Arthur’s court.”[9] I would go further and say that, despite his increasing discomfort during the scene, Gawain, in fact, seems most like himself during these stanzas than perhaps anywhere else in the poem. This is the only time that we see him be truly successful. For the most part, he proves himself to be a valiant warrior here, unlike his failures at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel. And yet, the numbers of these creatures continue to multiply. The battles only seem to come to an end because he travels through the land. Had he stayed, presumably he would have continued battling dragons and giants and wolves.

Morton further describes the eventfulness of encountering these figures, “whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivants, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for.”[10] (HANDOUT 5) Relating the strange stranger both to Derrida’s arrivant and to Zizek’s invocation of the neighbor[11] (which Edmondson’s analysis is also reliant upon), Morton argues that, “If anything, life is catastrophic, monstrous, nonholistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative.”[12] We could compare such figures to the strangeness of the Green Knight, who begins as strangely strange but seems to become familiar by the end.[13] But, if we imagine the Green Knight as occupying just a half-line in that list of encounters, he becomes strange once again. Familiarity, perhaps, is temporary and fleeting.

  1. Space

While on his hunt for the Green Chapel, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe how injurious and inclement winter is for our knight:

For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,

When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,

And fres er hit falle myȝt to þe fale erþe;

Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes

Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,

Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,

And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.

Þus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde. (726-733)

Threatened from above by sharp icicles, from below by barren rocks, and from all around by the unforgiving cold, Gawain makes his journey in “peryl and payne and plytes ful harde,” a condition that pervades the entire poem. Gawain spends more than enough nights in this state. In fact, the narrator tells us that the parade of creatures Gawain faces were far preferable to the inclement desolation of the land and environment that Gawain is so uncomfortably inhabiting when he meets these foes. In the first part, I looked at time-lapse and the uncanny effects of swift time. Here, I want to think of the still-image (or at least a recurring image), this one vision of Gawain among the naked rocks.

The use of “naked” to describe the “rokkez” is an intriguing choice. According to the Middle English Dictionary, “naked” can mean “(a) Of ground: without fresh vegetation, barren; also, not covered (as with a carpet or blanket); of autumn: devoid of green vegetation, sere; of trees: not covered with leaves, leafless; ~ of leves, stripped of leaves” or “(b) not covered with tissue or flesh, bare.” Or, in a definition that initially seems inappropriate to this context, “naked” can mean “(e) of the heart: lacking human affection, unfeeling.” (HANDOUT 6) I suggest that the “naked” in “naked rokkez” constellates these meanings, drawing them together into a dense thicket of possible interpretations.

At its most basic level, we understand that the rocks are stripped bare, not covered by vegetation or other foliage. They are barren. But in their bareness they also evoke the fleshy vulnerability of Gawain, who, even enclosed in armor, seems as if naked before the weather and the world he finds himself in. I would also argue that the rocks here are indeed unfeeling, lacking human affection, much like the changing seasons. To put it more directly, these rocks do not reinforce the narratives we wish to tell about the land through which we travel. This can be best seen through a comparison. For example, compare the Wilderness of the Wirral to the description of Britain in Geoffrey of Monmouth:

At this time the island of Britain was called Albion.  It was uninhabited except for a few giants.  It was, however, most attractive, because of the delightful situation of its various regions, its forests and the great number of its rivers, which teemed with fish; and it filled Brutus and his comrades with a great desire to live there.  When they had explored the different districts, they drove the giants whom they had discovered into the caves in the mountains.  With the approval of their leader they divided the land among themselves.  They began to cultivate the fields and to build houses, so that in a short time you would have thought that the land had always been inhabited.[14] (HANDOUT 7)


Brutus encounters a lush, delightful land just waiting to be cultivated. The land Gawain finds instead is one despoiled, barren, unfit for inhabitation. You might think the land in Sir Gawain had never been, and more importantly, never would be inhabited. This comparison between the lush land Brutus encounters and Gawain’s strange yet desolate country might suggest a reading where the land has been progressively despoiled through time. Instead, I would suggest that this is not a tale of post-despoliation, but rather one that resists entirely the possibility that this land can ever be possessed.

To understand this further, I want to try to think about this desolation through the ethics of the neighbor. Morton observes that “The ecological thought thinks the strange stranger as the other mind, the other person, the neighbor, to use the Judeo-Christian term (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”).” In discussing the strange stranger as neighbor, Morton looks to the difficult strangers of Wordsworth’s poetry, but also, like Žižek, to the Muselmann, the “living dead” of the concentration camps whose zero level of being serves as an exemplary figure of the neighbor, this uncanny figure who eschews the beautiful, who is ultimately not inviting. However, in “Monsters and Other Neighbors,” Žižek also discusses the figure of Odradek in Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man.”[15] Odradek is a curious creature which looks like a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread”, and is made up of broken-off bits of thread, but yet still retains some human-like qualities, such as the ability to stand upright and to speak. Significantly, when questioned about where it lives, Odradek would reply “No fixed abode.” Instead, it occupies liminal spaces such as stairwells and lobbies. In Odradek, Žižek sees not just the neighbor, but jouissance embodied: “jouissance is that which we cannot ever attain and that which we cannot ever get rid of.”[16] There is a comforting fantasy that Žižek gives us, that the encounter with the neighbor happens in liminal spaces or in spaces marked off as non-human. But, as Morton would remind us: “The ecological thought permits no distance. Thinking interdependence involves dissolving the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ […] thinking interdependence involves thinking difference. This means confronting the fact that all beings are related to each other negatively and differentially, in an open system without center or edge.”[17] (HANDOUT 8) Strange strangers are everywhere, including at Bertilak’s court, but also, perhaps, in the naked rocks themselves. When thinking the neighbor, Žižek and others tend to look for the inhuman in the human. But, I wonder about looking to the space, the land itself as the inhuman other that we can neither attain nor get rid of. The final line of Kafka’s story is “but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” Instead of the inhuman Odradek, I would like to think of this as the land that survives us, whose survival is almost painful. The landscape Gawain traverses is one not possessed or cultivated. Unlike the comforting fantasy of dominion we get in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the characters in Sir Gawain have an uncanny relationship to the land itself. The time-lapse speed up of events in the beginning of the poem does not tell the story of land being variously conquered and possessed, but rather of land and territory unpossessed.

Gawain’s dwelling among the “naked rokkez” lays bare the difference to be found in stone. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, observes that “Something potentially propulsive unfolds within both frames at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic substantiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us, even as material continuity becomes palpable.”[18] (HANDOUT 9) Cohen would remind us that “rocks and people inhabit temporalities and magnitudes profoundly different.” To read the rocks as an ecological neighbor is to restore this multitude of temporalities to the poem. The land has its own history, and we feel vertiginous as we realize that we are not at home in it, that we are only dwelling, for a while.

III. Naked Neighbors

In closing this paper, I remain intrigued by the poet’s use of “naked” to describe the rocks. The poet uses “naked” only a handful of times, and only once is it used to describe something inhuman like rocks. For the other times, the adjective “naked” is mostly used to describe either the bare throat of Gawain or the same body part of Lady Bertilak, such as her “naked lyppez.” Closer to the description of “naked rocks,” the poet also uses “naked” to detail how punishingly cold the winter is when Gawain seeks the Green Chapel in fitt IV – “Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe, / Wyth nyȝe innoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene; / Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde” (2001-2003). (HANDOUT 10) The “naked,” that is, the vulnerable or poorly outfitted, will be harmed by the harsh winter cold. This one word, “naked,” brings together the many catastrophic elements of the poem. Gawain’s bare neck is emphasized, but so is the alluring quality of Lady Bertilak’s body. It consistently emphasizes vulnerability and seduction. In this one word, we can find the essence of the Arthurian story, at least of its ending. When Gawain comes back to Arthur’s court bearing the green lace as a sign of his untruth, Arthur encourages the court to take it up as a public symbol of the court, in honor of the young knight who has returned to them. Time speeds up again as this act forces us to consider how the ending of the Arthurian age is due to divided loyalties, betrayals, seduction, exactly the travails that Gawain experiences in the poem. In a poem framed by the translatio imperii of Trojan refugees conquering and possessing Europe, the uncanny spaces Gawain reluctantly lingers in tells a different story, of land and territory unpossessed. Ultimately, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dissolves the comforting and familiar invitation of land or sweep of history in favor of alien, inhuman vantage points. To neighbor the wilderness is to realize we are at home everywhere and nowhere.

[1] See, for example, Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2007). Also see Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 347–62; Alfred K. Siewers, “Ecopoetics and the Origins of English Literature,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), pp. 105–20.

[2] The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds. Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).

[3] Rudd takes a similar approach, focusing on the Wilderness of Wirral, though we come to different conclusions regarding the relationship between Gawain and these landscapes.

[4] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal,’ PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76.1 (1961): 7-19, p. 19. For further considerations of time in the poem, see John K. Crane, ‘The Four Levels of Time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Annuale Mediaevale 10 (1969): 65-80; Jane Tolimieri, ‘Medieval Concepts of Time and Their Influence on Structure and Meaning in the Works of the Gawain-Poet,’ Unpublished Dissertation, 1989; Richard H. Godden, “Gawain and the Nick of Time: Fame, History, and the Untimely in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 26, no. 4 (2016), forthcoming.

[5] For instance, see Ian Bishop, ‘Time and Tempo in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Neophilologus 69.4 (1985): 611-619.

[6] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 43.

[7] S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman, “The Passing of the Seasons and the Apocalyptic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” South Central Review 3, no. 1 (1986): 5–22. Clark and Wasserman argue that the ‘fourteenth-century poet not only knows that Camelot has fallen but also fears that his own society is likewise unraveling, and in his poem of Arthurian society’s failure–a failure in a line of failures stretching from Troy–he attempts to warn of impending doom facing New Troy, that is, London. Thus, the poem reaches outward from its own time to the present. In the same way, the present is reflected in the past of the poem, in that the apocalyptic worldview of the poet is the first cause of his portrayal of the crumbling world of the Arthurian court. In other words, the threatened collapse of the poet’s own society serves to explain the fall of Camelot’ (8).

[8] George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), p. 10.

[9] Gillian Rudd, “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 23, no. 1 (2013): 52–65, 60.


[10] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 276.

[11] Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[12] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 275.

[13] I’m indebted to Carolyn Dinsahw’s reading of the foliate heads and the Green Knight in “Ecology.”

[14] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1st edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 72.

[15] Žižek, pp. 159-160.

[16] Žižek, p. 164. He further describes Odradek “as an object that is transgenerational (exempted from the cycle of generations), immortal, outside finitude (because outside sexual difference), outside time, displaying no goal-oriented activity, no purpose, no utility, is jouissance embodied.”

[17] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 39.

[18] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Divergent Bodies and the Making of the Middle Ages CFP

Ok people, we know you want to submit a paper to our NCS 2016 panel!

50. Divergent Bodies and the Making of the Middle Ages
Organizers: Rick Godden ( and Dorothy Kim (
Paper panel
This session explores the presence of divergent bodies in its most expansive definitions–including both physical and cognitive impairment, as well as different sexualities, and racial identities – and how they matter for the construction of the Middle Ages. Presenters would attend to how divergent bodies–their presence or their erasure – are a contested site for forming national and local identities and bodies of knowledge. For example, how does the centrality of the imagined and real divergent bodies in Mandeville’s Travels create local identities as well as a larger international one? This session will open up a larger conversation about how medieval studies have used queer, disabled, multiconfessional, racial, and other bodies to create medieval literary culture. We would also welcome papers that examine the vibrant exchange between past and present, between the divergent bodies of academic medievalists and the subjects they study.

Submit here:

Charlie Hebdo and Neighborliness

Today, I began reading David Nirenberg’s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, and the attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the all-too-expected violence against Mosques provide an unsettling and imminent backdrop for what is otherwise some light research reading. Even if I were not horrified by these propagating acts of violence, my professional interests would already be raised in light of Salman Rushdie’s invocation of a “medieval form of unreason” as a way to describe Islamic radicalism. As many others have noted, the labeling of something as “medieval” is a comforting fantasy of casting the present (and our own responsibilities to it) into the darkened past. See this piece for an excellent take on it.

Of course, this event has brought back “The Clash of Civilizations” (as if it ever left). As a perfect example, Senator Lindsay Graham has stated that “Our way of life doesn’t fit into their scheme of how the world should be. If you stopped talking about radical Islam, if you never did a cartoon again, that’s not enough. What people need to get is they can’t be accommodated. They can’t be negotiated with. They have to be eventually destroyed.” It’s them or us.

These stark terms and boundaries, boldly-colored in lines of a rather cartoonish portrait, obscure the interdependence of Christianity and Islam. Nirenbeg describes this interdependence as “coproduction,” that religions coproduce each other in a dense network of identification and dis-identification. Another phrase he uses here is “ambivalent neighborliness,” an array of responses to the neighbor “ranging from love and toleration to total extermination” (2).

Senator Graham and many others would do well to heed Nirenberg’s analyses concerning the interrelationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:

My goal in them [the ensuing chapters] is simply to convince you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have never been independent of each other: that is as neighbors, in close relation to one another, that they have constantly transformed themselves, reinterpreting both their scriptures and their histories. Their pasts are not discrete, independent, or stable, and neither are their presents or their futures. (12)

Total annihilation–or the rhetoric of total annihilation–can never be good public policy, and most importantly, it’s a blood-tinged fantasy that ultimately seeks to forget how much our neighbors mean to us, even (and sadly, perhaps especially) when we kill them.

Becoming Human, Some Brief Thoughts

One of the best things about winter break is that I have had a chance to finish a few books that have been languishing on my desk (or rather in my Kindle app) since the summer. One book that I finished is Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. I started this book eagerly, and it did not disappoint. However, my initial approach to it was as if I were sipping a nice bourbon, slow and pensive. Over the course of the semester, I would get into it here and there, often finding some vibrant or provocative sentence that would set my mind spinning in new directions. As I finally got a real feel for the book, however, and with the openness of break, I devoured the final two-thirds of the book.

I do not believe I am alone in thinking that this is one of the most important books published in the field in the last several years. I also think it would make an excellent text for an Introduction to Medieval Studies-type course. Along with all of the cultural, historical, and literary work Mitchell does, he also provides excellent introductions to object-oriented ontology and actor-network-theory, among other theoretical approaches.  For myself, I have been aware of these approaches for a while, but Mitchell’s lucid discussion has helped me gain a much firmer grasp of these ideas.

The book is organized into three chapters – the first, “Being Born,” on the micro and macro understandings of the development of the child in the medieval period; the second, “Childish Things,” an exquisite study of objects mostly through a close analysis of a single pewter toy knight, and later a wonderful reading of Chaucer’s narratorial posturing and of Sir Thopas; the third, “The Mess,” an examination of our dependence upon and interrelationship to objects, specifically the table and how it organizes and subjects us. Of course, this briefest sketch does not do justice to how wide-ranging the book is.

For myself, I was most interested in the first and second chapter. Mitchell describes the constant becoming of the human (I am using the Kindle edition, which lacks page numbers–this is from the Introduction):

The concept of ontogeny (becoming) is a better category than ontology (being) for capturing the creative, conjugated forms of earthly existence. Analogous processes are at work outside of the womb in infancy and beyond, an equally contingent and creative period. A newborn is delivered over to social networks, regimens, and mechanisms (shaping, suckling, naming, baptizing, language acquisition , etc.), all the conditions of a life so conceived. Human reproduction is therefore a story of life incomplete and in process (“ neotenic”), which is to say eventful, ecological, virtual, and radically dependent on so many material supports. Human development posits a self-estranging , coagulating proto-body at the origin of being, exerting immense pressure on notions of human identity, distinctiveness , freedom, judgment, and so on. It is a precious, if precarious, time when creatures are barely alive, exposed to and extended in a potentially limitless field of ancestral relations, consisting of passing states and partial configurations. It is a kind of becoming that is nothing but creaturely life: for a time unformed, insensate, unclothed, anonymous, unbaptized, prostrate , and speechless, to name a few of the marked deprivations that will be addressed early on.

Later, in the first chapter, “Being Born,” he reads Thomas Usk, Dante, and Pearl together in order to lay bare how “natality and infancy outlast childhood and go to structure some of the most important relations one can have in public and private life. They represent virtual ontogenetic conditions that are perhaps never escaped. Medieval writers see that nativity and infancy constitute creaturely vulnerabilities and vibrancies that penetrate into the future without end.” In this emphasis on ontogeny as the basic and fundamental quality of being human, we can see how what we call the human subject is cast into a web of associations and networks, dependent yet also interdependent.

In his discussion of toy ontology, the disruptive yet constitutive energies of miniature objects, Mitchell continues to trace how ontogenesis is an on-going process, and specifically, the role that objects play in it:

it is useful to have recourse to what Lingis, following Merleau-Ponty, calls a whole “postural schema,” our embodied manner of knowing and encountering the world: the ways fingers hold a cup, the back leans against a chair, or the eyes see a face to advantage. 180 Postures, gestures, manners, gait all show the traces of the world playing off against the body. Playing with things has long been seen as a way of acquiring the right postures, as witnessed earlier in Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum. Giles is a medieval witness to the phenomenological observation that the bodily schema is developed over time, and, as Lingis would say, that the body is proof of exposure and involution in a material medium. Inanimate things trace their histories that way. Of course, Giles introduces a normative element into his account of play and games, his immediate interest being in exercising the body to sort out correct ways of operating mouth, ear, hand, shoulder, and leg. The child is elevated above beasts by physical deportment . Yet miniaturization is likely to throw off any such kinaesthetic equilibrium (i.e., the decorum that Giles describes as belonging to the princely or knightly body), compelling a body to reckon not just with the scale of an object but also with the size and sense of the human subject before whom an object presents itself. For one thing, human proprioception (i.e., the perception of spatiotemporal position of the body) may be at risk given what we have noticed about the speed and duration of scaled objects. It may result in vertigo.

Playing with toys, with the objects at hand, the child can learn how to be properly and normatively human, that is, to comport its body in the expected manner. However, the toy, so often a miniature, can threaten this normative process. We seem to be at risk of being unraveled in the very process of being fashioned.

I’m not aiming to do a proper review of the book, although I look forward to reading the many that will proliferate in the coming months; rather, I’m drawing together a few passages that I found particularly suggestive in terms of how the category human is shown to be so limited and incomplete.

As I kept returning to ideas of incompleteness and interdependency, I wished that he would engage directly with the insights and analyses of Disability Studies. But, while Mitchell has focused more on key terms such as object and ecology than disability, I think that he has made a contribution to that field nonetheless. Or, I might say instead, this book is beginning to help me see how there are some very productive alliances to be forged between Disability Studies, Ecological analyses, and object-oriented ontologies. For example, here is one more passage from the chapter, “Childish Things”:

A sovereign figure is deposed, falling to insurgent matter , introducing another regime of attraction. The toy itself seems to secure autonomy in a sort of anarchic materiality, having toppled the “monarchy” of the human again.

I wonder how these sorts of insights can be extended to consideration of the prosthesis in medieval culture. Although the prosthesis could be seen to complete the impaired body, to restore a sense of sovereignty, I suspect its materiality remains “anarchic.” More on this at a later date.

I think that this book is required reading for anyone in the field of medieval studies or someone who is interested in the material aspects of the human, but I also think the insights brought together here are important for continued work on medieval disability.