"St. Erkenwald is so hot right now": A SEMA Report

Well, I'm back from SEMA, and I had a pretty good time. There was a little mix-up about registration, which turned out to have been on the University end and not the conference end, and as a result, CEH and I get to have a nice chat with C-- A-- tomorrow or Tuesday about accounting for my presence at the conference. My paper went well, I think, although there was a bit of a debate with sharp-minded older gentleman who caught me out (rightly) in a bit of bad logic, which will be fixed in later versions of the paper; he also suggested another "economic debate" poem, which I'm hoping will turn out to be something really worth contrasting with W&W—i.e. it's too French, too late, too socioeconormative (who says late poststructuralist neologisms are dead?), etc.

Jeffrey's plenary was interesting, though I'll admit I didn't take that many notes; it was mostly cool just to see and hear him speak. He didn't sound quite like I'd imagined him when reading his work, but his voice does fit now: steady and quiet, yet persistent, and delighting in the wonder of discovering with you the awesomeness of the past.

Steven Kruger's plenary was more directly useful to me, though, because he talked about St. Erkenwald, a poem I'd been meditating on since I'd heard an interesting paper investigating its concerns with fame (and House of Fame) the day before. Steven also discussed different forms of conversion, and ways of reading "majoritarian" conversion (i.e. moving from a more secular to a more religious life within one's own faith community) as both like and unlike "minoritarian" conversion (e.g. of the Jews/Muslims/Mongols/Pagans/Heretics).

One curious thread uniting both these plenaries came not from their content but from Eileen's introduction of them. She described the work (and by implication, the lives) of both men as being "obsessed" with things: bodies (Jeffrey), queerness (Steven), time (both). Her use of "obsess," though, worries me, in part because obsession recalls to me compulsion as well, and with it the figure of not only, say, an Amadeus, but also a crazed, hoarding, untrustworthy person. Are we academics so far gone into our specialist cubbyholes that we can unselfconscioiusly refer to the work that we do as obsessing us, possessing us, causing us to give up our reason? I wholly doubt Eileen meant this, implying rather that both men find their own "red threads" that are persistent and fulfilling to discover, and perhaps, ironically, I have myself obsessed about obsession. Even so, it seemed slightly unheimlich at the time.

Other sessions were equally good: the session on Multimodal Teaching; the session in which CEH showed herself once more to be a fine scholar, and in which Lorraine Stock gave a cool paper on the afterlife of Geoffrey's Gomagog; the Chaucer panel in which I was forced to reconsider aesthetics, Sir Thopas, the role of Petrus Alfonsi in Chaucer, and my previous estimation of Carl Franks' work with Thomas Aquinas. Although I didn't get to hang out as much as I would have liked, it was nice to see people again, and to finally meet not only Steven Kruger and Jeffrey Cohen, but fellow blogger Karma, who actually made my afternoon by introducing herself to me.

I also got a mini walking tour of the surrounding area from St. Louis local and fellow SEMA-ite Lloyd (whose last name escapes me). I took lots of architecture pictures, many of which came out well and will soon be in their own album on my Facebook account.

For now, I'm tired, I have groceries to buy, books to read, papers to grade, and television to watch, probably in that order though no guarantees are made. For added fun, I'm coordinating the scoring of the Advanced Comp Exemption Exam this week, which means picking up the 400+ exams from the other end of campus, as well as spending three nights at campus until eight.


inthemedievalmuddle said...

You're absolutely right to worry about what it means for an academic to "obsess" about his or her subjects of inquiry. The slide to self-obsession is more than clear in the case of Cohen and his mini-empire. Obsession does not produce good scholarship; it produces only ouroborean work. And, from reports received from SEMA, there appeared to be a fair amount of tail swallowing on display.

Jacob said...

Thanks for the comment, though I will point out that I was concerned at Eileen's use of the word. I do not see it as entirely applicable to what either Cohen or Kruger do in their work, which is why it seemed an odd choice for her to say—but words are winged, after all, and I'm willing to let it slide.

While I'm in semantics mode, I might point out that I find your own use of the word "empire" to describe what is at most a theoretical enclave to be nearly as unsettling as Eileen's use of "obsession." An empire, even a "mini-empire," does not seem to be what Cohen et al. or indeed anyone I have met in the field or the academy does. We may squabble, we may bicker and bite, but we do not subjugate entire modes of production and groups of people to our small whims.

As for the tail swallowing, I point again to the fact that it was an academic conference. That is something I have seen in the academy, and I fear is a little endemic to the profession. So it goes.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

Eileen's use of the word, we would suggest, is not in fact odd at all. She has used the word self-referentially on multiple occasions, particularly with respect to her (as we see it) superficial work on Chechnyan women terrorists. "Obsession" has become a sort of mot d'ordre for those in the mini-imperial realms of Cohen's blahg and the Babbling Ones.

Endemic tail-swallowing perhaps should not be a practice one simply waves off with a "so it goes." Do you not aspire to something better, and what will you do to make that happen?

Cohen's belly has been bloated with his own tail for the last decade, as many are beginning to discover. In a recent review of the state of medieval cultural studies and the institutionalizing of shallowness, and in reference to Cohen's work specifically, we phrased it this way: "work of this kind appears to read into medieval culture only what theorists have evacuated from their own constipated mental systems."

Jacob said...

Well, I understand if you have problems with Cohen and his company, but I don't overall. The problem of a few "obsessed" academics is not as important as the problem of a lack of utopian thinking; attacking the academics doesn't help to spread hope and may instead take energy from that project. The best thing to do about the larger problem is to adopt the position of Chaucer's Clerk, i.e. the old "gladly would he learn and gladly teach" saw: I will teach my students the critical skills necessary, and write articles as best I can that express my utopian readings of texts.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

Utopian thinking, unless framed within very delicate terms, feeds the evasion of commitment and responsibility that academics as a group exemplify. We trust you have read Paul Hoggett's work. If not, google him now.

We challenge anyone to find something genuinely utopian in the "work" being done by theoretical medievalists. There is an abundance of lip-service to it certainly, but nothing approaching change. You know from Veblen's analysis of social class why this is so: the institutionalization of emulation that transpires in encounters among medievalists who, e.g., uncritically venerate superficial thinkers like Cohen or Kruger carries forward sociopolitical inertness. How could it be otherwise when the poster child for medieval studies, Eileen Joy, is capable of nothing more than spewing pastiche and coprophilically fiddling with cultural antiques? She lacks both the grace and courage to acknowledge (and deeply explore) true intellectual dependencies and then work utopically, if you will, for change. "St Erkenwald is so hot," indeed.

Eileen Joy said...

Hi Jacob: it's nice to see your reflections on the conference here [and thanks for noting, too, what happened, registration-wise; keep in touch with me on that via email if you want]. I didn't realize when we checked you in that "Jacob Lewis" and the author of the New Donestre Social Club were one and the same, but wish I had--oh well.

As to the use of the term obsession in my opening remarks for Cohen and Kruger, I guess I don't see that term as relating to the kind of psychotic compulsion leading to hoarding and loss of reason; maybe "continuing preoccupations" was the term I really meant, but at the same time, I still think I would retain "obsession," mainly for the ways in which it denotes returning to a certain place over and over again, which does not necessarily mean becoming so compulsive that one loses one's mind, or that an obsession has to be "worked through" and somehow released [such that the object obsessed over is finally let go and never returned to, never worried over again--it remains safely in the past, seen at a distance]. Freud might say an obsession is something to be "cured," whereas I really believe it can also indicate a deep commitment to working/laboring over a certain "problem" over and over again, with a kind of infinity of possible tangible answers or results or outcomes. Obviously, "obsession" has negative connotations in certain very, specific contexts, but I don't always see obsession in that way: I think it can be a positive gloss on a commitment to what is sometimes intractable in one's thought and life [even when it doesn't "make sense," like love, to be frank]. In any case, thanks for the feedback here and good luck with your work.

Jacob said...


While I have noted with some concern the use of "utopia" as an undefined buzzword, the best solution I have to that is to use it "right," which is to say, as carefully and explicitly defined as possible. Of course, as someone whose definitions of utopia derives from Ernst Bloch, I try to find the beneficial in everything, even the things that seem superficial and with which I might disagree. Huzzah for dialectics.

I thought about introducing myself, but I thought against it as being a little, well, too prideful—and good medievalist that I am . . . (insert standard humility topos here).

As I thought about it and discussed it with colleagues, I came to think that your use of "obsession" probably was closer to what you said here: a problem to be returned to, a problem never quite "solveable," a problem therefore all too human and thus filled with wonder. I'm glad to see you confirm that here. As I said to "muddle" above, words are winged, and as I argued in my paper, it is far better to work out the meaning of those words (bodies/discursive positions/ideologies, etc.) through dialogue than to go home mad.

You put on a great conference by the way, and let me add my small voice to the many who have already thanked you and your team for the wonderful job you did.

(I am slightly envious of the Tiny Shriner buttons, though. Ah well. To bathetically quote the Aeneid [as I so often do], unus erit tantum amissum quem gurgite quaeres.)

Karl Steel said...

I thought about introducing myself, but I thought against it as being a little, well, too prideful—and good medievalist that I am . . . (insert standard humility topos here)

By all means, Jacob, next time we all meet--Kzoo perhaps--please introduce yourself.

Jacob said...


I'd love to meet you (and I'm sorry I missed you this weekend), but K'zoo is out this year, as probably is SEMA next Fall. I'll probably be at the MLA in 2009, though, because I'll be on the market at that point (*cough* shameless plug *cough*).

Much as I would like to go to conferences, it's probably for the best; between comps, the dissertation, and trying to write publish-worthy things (and oh yeah, teaching and trying to do non-school things), I'm a little swamped.

Karl Steel said...

between comps, the dissertation, and trying to write publish-worthy things (and oh yeah, teaching and trying to do non-school things), I'm a little swamped

Nothing like a conference deadline to force you to shape that extra little bit of the dissertation into something presentable (or even just to WRITE that extra little bit of the diss.)! Also, excellent practice for job talks!

inthemedievalmuddle said...

The word obsession seems to have been emptied of any meaning here. Joy not only misunderstands the meaning of the word within the psychoanalytic tradition (e.g., it has nothing to do with psychosis and Freud was not sanguine about its treatment), but demonstrates for us just how easy, and mindlessly so, it is to appropriate a word and turn it into garbage. Obsession, as everyone knows, comes from obsidere, to besiege. To gloss it as a return to a problem seems unnecessary when Joy clearly meant, as she says, something as mundane as commitment to a scholarly question. This kind of anti-thought (Bion) typifies much of the work of a certain group of medievalists.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

Let's break it down, like Kimbo Slice. (Anyone see that fight, btw? What a can!)

The $10 question is why Joy does not say what she means. She uses "obsession" when she meant something mundane like, you know, "research" (a word that means "to circle round and round," and is thus actually addresses her desire for a word that means "to return...over and over"). Does she fear that if she doesn't appear oh-so clever, then others will see her for the mediocre thinker she is? Perhaps. Or is it just always better not to quite say what you mean, so you can slip out should anyone question you, or should we say besiege you? This seems to be close, and gets to the anxiousness just below the surface of the ego facade (think of Lewin's [1936] drawing of the American personality structure and it implications for why relatively close personal relationships are possible without deep personal friendship. Academics, anyone? Beuller? Anyone?)

Perhaps Joy will enlighten us as to why she does not say what she means. We've already heard the lame defense of why she used "obsess," which is an entirely different matter.

Eileen Joy said...

Jacob: I will happily send you a Tiny Shriner button. Send me your mailing address to my email: ejoy@siue.edu.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

Eileen: Kindly send us a Tiny Shriner button. If there any posters, tee shirts, coffee mugs, or temporary tattoos, I would like those as well. C.O.D., of course.

Eileen Joy said...

Hi [again] Jacob and inthemedieval muddle:

mea culpa, please, on my use of the word "obsession." I invoked this term in my opening remarks for both Cohen and Kruger, and these remarks were not wholly scripted in advance. I had been working on scripted remarks and then became really unhappy with them, so I say down with a notebook and sketched out some general things I wanted to say. The term "obsession" popped out of my mouth without any explicit forethought [although, call it weighted with significant, unconscious purpose, if you will, that's fine and I won't argue]. I was not trying to be trendy or anything like it but was more like a character in a bad Woody Allen movie who is spewing psychoanalytic cliches within a conversational context--cliches, moreover, which have moved from their etymological and clinical "originary" contexts to something more colloquial and, again, conversational. I have no doubt I overuse the term "obsession" and maybe not always in the proper way. I never meant to twist the term or to misuse it or to misrepresent anything; nor did I do it with forethought regarding the academic capital that would supposedly accrue to me. It popped out, quite literally. I actually like learning that the term "besiege" is part of the etymology of "obsession"--I think, in some ways, the could still be apt for what I was originally trying to get at although it has some slight connotations of a kind of violence [for which Toni Morrison's "Beloved" provides an excellent illustration, especially when Beloved and Sethe are locked together in the house at Bluestone Road at the end; others have written about this more eloquently than me and with more knowledge about Freud's writings on mourning and melancholia than I possess, but it certainly forms an important part of any conversations we might have about how to best render the history of traumatic pasts--sometimes I think the fiction writers, like Morrison, do the better job].

I am glad, Jacob, that you are invested in utopian readings of texts; there are great risks, of course, in calling a reading "utopian," which I imagine inthemedievalmuddle is calling your attention to via the reference to Hoggett, although he is not a literary critic but a scholar of political psychology and social welfare, but he could be helpful, of course. It would be important to think through, as I am trying to do currently, in murky fits mainly, what the utopian task of literary criticism might be [by which I do not necessarily even mean cultural critique or socio-political criticism or even historiography/historical scholarship, but *aesthetics* or maybe even poethical criticism, to steal from Joan Retallack]. The important thing would be to do this in an atmosphere where we could challenge each other's thought but with some regard for a collective purpose of a larger social good [the future health of the humanities, let's say, or the public university itself] and also with some regard for each other's welfare and well-being as persons and scholars. Perhaps on your weblog here, when--god knows, as a grad. student--you have the time, you could write a short piece about how you define utopian readings of medieval literary texts. I would be interested to read that.

Jacob said...


I appreciate the clarification, but please, don't feel like you have to justify yourself to me—I was happy with your initial explanation of the word. Again, speech is ephemeral, and some "battles" over words aren't worth fighting. Goodness knows (as do my students) I make some odd/unfortunate/hasty/silly linguistic choices from time to time.

As far as my use of the word "utopian" goes, well, yes, I will have to think more about it; I do tend more toward socio-political criticism, especially of the "what can we do with this reading in our own lives" sort. I have a feeling my readings might be a little more overtly (unsettlingly? shrilly?) political than some folks might like, but that's what I like. I'm also firmly leftist—if I'm honest, Marxist is probably right, though it's the theoretical/philosophical end of Marxism (Ernst Bloch is my biggest influence at the moment) but I'm still trying to figure out what that means for a medievalist, or at all.

That said, your suggestions for other ideas of the utopian are interesting, though I don't know how suited I would be to doing them—but I don't have to, either. That's what societies/communities/working groups/whatever are for, no? Working together to achieve what could hardly ever or never be done alone?

It's all vague I know, but so's the theory chapter of my dissertation. When I pull that together, I'll post parts of it here, you can be sure.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

A very tempered response, Dr. Joy. Nicely crafted.

Jacob, if we may suggest some theory up your alley, some of which you may have read, and some of which probably no one except we and Kimbo Slice are in a position to recommend:

David Harvey, Spaces of Hope

Patricia Huntington, Ecstatic Subjects, Utopia, and Recognition

Richard Bernstein, The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizon of Modernity/Postmodernity [This one Joy should pick up as well]

Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society

Karel Kosik, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study on Problems of Man and World

inthemedievalmuddle said...

SEMA: Like all seismic events, the surface ripples and the depths stay unmoved.

Reports gathered from other sources (i.e., not the hype-machine that is ITM and its babblers) suggest quite the opposite of a meaningful "seismic shift." Indeed, only those who are surface dwellers felt anything at all. Those doing the most deeply serious work in the field see nothing to praise or emulate.

We don't doubt that is liberating to play on the haptic surface of ideas, but we can also guarantee that nothing will have come of such play when looked at fifty years from now. Serious intellectual history is a stranger to Cohen, Joy, and the vast majority of those they have lobbied. For proof of this, ask Cohen for a copy of the best of the reader's reports he received for MIM, and then compare the published work to that document. Lines of intellectual history and theory not pursued spelled the difference between the mediocre book it is and the book it could have been.

sokho said...

I am first year graduate student and very interested in theory, medieval history, and the utopian genre. "Inthemedievalmuddle" has raised the issue concerning whether the work of Jeffrey Cohen and his colleagues is rigorous enough. Perhaps this is an issue because, as we probably know, many graduates are hungry for theory done by medievalists, and so it is a question of being a good role model. My advisors and professors do not like Cohen's work for the most part and dismiss it for some of the reasons "Inthemedievalmuddle" does. Though I have only read the Medieval Identity Machine and the Of Giants books, I too wonder if they are not superficial, and more poetical than critical.

Just 2 cents from a real beginner.

inthemedievalmuddle said...

Sokho- Follow your mentors, and you will go far. Cohen has been spinning his metaphor wheels for a long time, and that's not really news to anyone. His method is simple (so simple it is replicable by any graduate student--thus his popularity among the unread): take a metaphor or metaphoric system and, quite tendentiously, lay it over some historical artifacts. Then, perform readings where the surface of the artifacts makes contact with the metaphoric blanket. Result: A set of readings whose real substance has no necessary or intrinsic relation to the metaphor. In other words, it's all dressing, or, we as say in these parts, all condiment and no meat.

We think the real travesty here is that the graduate students and green professors who lack any deep knowledge of intellectual history (oh, 98% +/- .1%) glom on to Cohen's superficial methodology or, g*d forbid, Joy's indiscriminate pastiche and reproduce it themselves. We hope they will wake up someday, maybe with a copy of something genuinely smart, original, and rich like Smith's Arts of Possession in their hands. Perhaps that can only ever be a utopic thought given the full-court press by the Shriner-button-wearing herd.

Jacob said...


Good luck with all three, though I would suggest that a distinction between utopian genre and utopian function might be useful; see, e.g. Lyman Tower Sargent's "The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited" (Utopian Studies 5.1 [Jun. 1994]:1-32).

As for whether you find the work of Cohen "not rigorous enough" or "superficial"—I could weigh in with at least two things here: theory itself is often "superficial," e.g. the debate over formalism vs. theory in literary studies; rigor or lack thereof is often self-defined by the academic branch, or indeed by one's own sense of "is this a sufficient argument".

Whatever your decision, though, remember that disagreeing with someone's theory, methodology, conclusions, etc. is just that: you don't like the work. It is not, as many (including apparently "Inthemedievalmuddle") believe, an occasion to also "hate the sinner" as well as the "sin." If you disagree with someone in the academic conversation, prove them wrong.

You're welcome to post here, and you're welcome to offer suggestions and say what you like about anybody's arguments, but please try to keep the ad hominem attacks out of your posts. You clearly disagree with what Joy and Cohen are doing, and perhaps with them as people—but calling them names won't solve whatever problems you have with them.

Karma said...

Boy, did I miss all the fun here (eyeroll).

I just wanted to say, here, that it was nice to meet you, but now I have to say some other things about obsession. However, since they have turned out to be pretty long, I will say them at my blog.