Sunday, September 20, 2009

Embracing Miracle-Making

Agamben's pearl, transgressive puppets, Paul(s)...these are not just materials but messianic time-machines.

Each of our presenters on Thursday -- Kathleen Biddick, Jonathan Gil Harris, and Julia Lupton -- challenged us to reconceive the "time" of messianic time as something rather untimely, all three embracing the un- as a site of energetic potential instead of a point of polarization, foreclosure, or a reminder of a dead and therefore irretrievable past. Call it miracle-making. Yet as Biddick spoke against the typological one, Lupton introduced us to Paul Shakespeare, and Harris celebrated the temporality that is not one -- the futurity of the now -- it became clear that the key is not in fixing mechanicity but in embracing it. The compulsion to love in Romeo and Juliet, the opening of Shakespeare to the other Pauls of the Jews and the philosophers, the perverse act of neighbor-love for excarnated Jews and Muslims...these are the traces of the miraculous in the messianic machine. As teachers and students, perhaps even as human beings, we might lose track of this miraculous potential. And for three papers interested in figuration, I think it is appropriate that Biddick ends her essay with the image of a threshold through which "the untimely and undead could pass." The seminar was a success largely due to the presenters' and the audience's participation in exploring its possibilities.

Thank you to the roughly forty attendees from various institutions and disciplines, those who helped organize the event, Twitterers, blog-posters (including a stimulating question about names), and, of course, our prophetic presenters.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Seminar Success

The Messiah may not have arrived, but some terribly smart people did. Thanks to the 35 audience members and three presenters who made it a success, and check back here soon for the wrap-up post. In the meantime, catch a glimpse of the seminar in action at Thinking with Shakespeare and on Facebook.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Seminar Reminder: Messianic Time and the Untimely

The GW MEMSI Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely
will take place Thursday September 17
3-5 PM
, reception to follow
English Department Seminar Room (Academic Center, 801 22nd ST NW, Rome Hall 771)

Registration has closed and the seminar is full. You can still download the three papers and their attachments here.

We will have short presentations followed by open discussion. The presenters are:

Messianic Time and the Timely

by J J Cohen

Tomorrow the GW MEMSI seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely convenes. I offer the following in reaction to the three rich papers by Kathy Biddick, Julia Lupton, and Gil Harris ... and as a way of continuing some conversations we've had at ITM as well.

The untimely is the antidote to the contextualizing bent of historicism, the guarantor that while something may be of its time, it can also carry within a polychronicity that wrenches it out of any meaning system built upon mere synchrony. In its temporal explosiveness messianic time is intimately related to the untimely, since it can activate the past within the present to perturb the arrival of any predetermined future (and by that phrase I mean any future that is either an infinite projection of the present into time to come, or any desired culmination of present events according to which the present moment is one step on a progress ladder that must result in and be given meaning by that coming time). Biddick's paper is the strongest argument that messianic time is not as untimely as it makes itself out to be, pointing out that Islam is inexcluded from (evacuated from, but through that same gesture installed within) both medieval typology and Walter Benjamin's thesis. This vanishing act is a concern of Harris as well ... and perhaps has to do with the fact that a point of overlaps between Christianity and Judaism is in the person/event of the Messiah.

I've written a bit on this blog about the 13th C travel narrative known as the Book of John Mandeville and its depiction of Jews: how a component of Mandeville's imagined Englishness might be his antisemitism; how the book itself perhaps contains the mechanism to critique that lapse in tolerance. As part of my Leeds keynote on Christian-Jewish neighboring, I looked closely at a Messianic passage from Mandeville that has earned endless critical scorn. Here is an excerpt from that talk:
John Mandeville, a travel writer so cosmopolitan that he renders comprehensible even the promiscuous nudist communist cannibals of Lamory, nonetheless has nothing good to say about Jews. The Book’s repeated narration of the Passion makes clear that the Jews are guilty of deicide. In relating a story about a tree in Borneo that bears poison, Mandeville states that a Jew once confessed to him that his people had attempted to eradicate all Christendom with that toxin. He describes the ten lost tribes of the Jews, Gog and Magog, enclosed within the Caspian mountains by Alexander the Great. In this remote prison they await a self-prophesied liberation during the reign of the Antichrist. Cut off from the stream of change that is time, the immured peoples speak only Hebrew. Jews living among Christians therefore teach that language to their children so that when their brethren escape captivity they will be able to communicate:

It is said that they will issue forth in the time of the Antichrist and commit a great massacre of the Christians. And therefore all the Jews who live in all lands always learn to speak Hebrew in the hope that when those of the mountains of Caspie issue forth, the other Jews will know how to talk to them [and lead them into Christendom in order to destroy Christians] … and Christians will yet be in as much and more subjection to them as they have been in subjection to the Christians.

A people without a homeland, the Jews plot to divest all Christians of dominion.

Despite supposedly writing from a post-Expulsion England, the Mandeville-author consistently and innovatively demonizes Jews. Stephen Greenblatt describes this “ungenerous” attitude as the “most significant exception to the tolerance that is impressively articulated elsewhere” (Marvelous Possessions). Iain Higgins writes that the Book’s conspiracy theories might seem future-focused, but they are formulated “to incite ill-feeling against Jews in the present … a hostility verging on paranoia” (Writing East). Benjamin Braude describes Mandeville’s narration of the enclosed Jews and their future triumph under Antichrist as “a blood-curdling passage … a warrant for genocide" (“Mandeville’s Jews among Others").

I wonder, though, if there isn’t more to the story than that … and I wonder if we might even find in Mandeville’s tale of the enclosed Jews not only a paranoid fantasy of how different a proximate Other might be, but an example of Christian attentiveness to the discontented desires of those neighboring them. When at the end the of world the ten lost tribes of the Jews escape their distant and rocky enclosure pour crestiente destruire, to destroy Christendom, we can glimpse no friendship in this stark vision, no coinhabitance or commingling … or can we?

Yes. In this apocalyptic imagining of Christian dominion’s termination we can hear not just an anti-Jewish fantasy of an imperiled Christian world, but an actual Jewish fantasy of such an end – a vision of the future that suggests that Jewish voices from the Middle Ages resonated not just with scholarly wisdom and tearful commemoration of tragedy, but with anger at the smallness of the spaces in which they often found themselves consigned. Israel Yuval, in a remarkable work of revisionary scholarship (Two Nations in Your Womb), has mapped the ways in which Jewish residence among Christians shaped Jewish religious practice. Like Daniel Boyarin, Elliott Horowitz, Ivan Marcus, and David Biale, Yuval’s work stresses that despite the inherited assumption that Jews and Christians inhabited different worlds, both faiths were profoundly changed by living together. Both remained not frozen in time but mutable, open, alive.

Urban adjacency might lead to neighborliness, as we saw in Matthew Paris (a Christian crosses a Jewish threshold to play with friends of another faith) -- or it might not, as when that same threshold is declared by a man like John of Lexington to be the demarcation of another world, one where modernity ends and an ever-repeating past begins. Yuval provides the angry response that could come from that other side of the door once Jewish space has been violently trespassed, once the occupants of a Jewish house are allowed to voice something other than “a Christian fantasy,” as in Copin’s self-condemnation through ventriloquism. This voice might appraise the present in ways very different from its Christian framing, and might speak a passionate desire for a future utterly different from Christian “modern times.”

A prayerbook of English provenance composed no later than 1190 contains this fragment of the Alenu le-shabeah:

[Christians] bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save – man, ash, blood, bile, stinking flesh, maggot, defiled men and women, adulterers and adulteresses, dying in their iniquity and rotting in their wickedness, worn out dust, rot of maggot [and worm] – and pray to a god who cannot save.

Remember the young Jew of Oxford, the mocker of Saint Frideswide, who killed himself while speaking unrecorded blasphemies? Could these lines offer us a glimpse of what he might have said? Anger at one’s neighbor held no Christian monopoly. Sometimes this Jewish ire took the form of an aggressive fantasy of vengeance in which the King Messiah finally arrived. In a role borrowed from Christian crusading polemic, this Messiah would smite the enemies of Israel and drive them from the land. Keeping in mind that the “Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist” (Yuval 289), the story narrated by the Mandeville-author suddenly becomes a little more complicated.

The prophesied liberation of the enclosed Jews and their termination of Christian world dominion contains something of an extant Jewish vision of revenge, a vision apparently taken into Jewish eschatology from Christian materials. Yuval has persuasively argued that the liberating and vengeance-wielding King Messiah was dreamt by medieval Jews as they overheard their Christian neighbors speak in their polemic of Crusader kings and the reclamation of the Holy Land. Christians in turn overheard Jewish neighbors talk of a Messiah who would deliver them from exile, and dreamed an Antecrist. This Messiah/Antichrist is therefore at once Christian and Jewish – or better yet between Christian and Jew.

In his tale of the future liberation of Jews locked in distant exile, the Mandeville-author may be narrating a paranoid and antisemitic story. Yet he is also recounting angry Jewish words – or words that blend Christian and Jew into a hybrid discourse, an interspace where the relations between the one and the other might be intractably complex, but the anger at subjection and violence to which this vision gives voice is impossible not to hear.


This medieval Christian Jewish antichrist Messiah is a figure of anger, vengeance, blood. The explosiveness of Messianic time is everywhere evident in him ... and like all explosions triggered by those too ardent for a reconfigured present, this violence has its innocent victims, its neighbors who were simply carrying on with their lives. In its specific language (of Crusade, of worldly kingdom) this Messianic time is time-bound, just as Benjamin's figure of the automaton Turk might be in part contemporary Orientalism, in part a meditation on (as a commentor suggested) Charlie Chaplin.

But I don't think Messianic desires need end in anger, vengeance, blood. Rather, I'd point out that what we witness taking shape in the space between Christian and Jew in Mandeville is something more than hostility. It is also the unfolding of a hope so simple, so essential, so common that I would call it untimely: the hope that the present become more capacious, that the future not repeat the constrictive orthodoxies of the day. It is towards that as yet unknown future, the future in which the Messiah never arrives, that the complexities of Christian-Jewish-Muslim neighboring propels us, even now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Calendar for 2008-09

  1. September 17, 3-5 PM: Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely. Registration has closed, but please participate in the e-discussion here.
  2. October 23, 11:30-1 PM: Gina Bloom, lunch seminar: “ ‘What’s Trumps?’: Onstage Gaming and the Epistemology of Male Friendship.” Paper will be circulated one week in advance. English Department seminar room.
  3. November 13: Seminar on Cary Howie's book Claustrophilia. Preliminary details here.
  4. December 10: book launch celebration for Leah Chang, Into Print: The Production of Female Authorship in Early Modern France. English Department seminar room, 2 PM.


Gateway Lecture series
These public lectures introduce a critical field or subdiscipline within medieval and early modern studies. They provide an opportunity for both beginning students and advanced researchers to learn about emerging research topics and methodologies and to have a conversation about their impact. (Times and places to be announced)

  1. January 29: lunch seminar with Alf Siewers, author of Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape
  2. February 12: one day symposium on "Early Transnational Europe"
  3. March 26: Lunch seminar with Marissa Greenberg (University of New Mexico)
  4. April 17: "New Worlds" graduate student conference at University of Maryland College Park

Thursday, September 10, 2009

E-Seminar on "Messianic Time and the Untimely"

by J J Cohen

The electronic portion of the seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely has begun at the blog In the Middle. The live portion will be held at the George Washington University on Thursday September 17, 3-5 PM. Registration has closed and the seminar is full.

The papers may be downloaded here. Any comments made at In the Middle will form part of the discussion on Sept. 17, and a follow-up post will be published. Eileen Joy may also Twitter the proceedings.

Our three presenters are Julia Lupyon, Kathleen Biddick, and Gil Harris. Some information about each of them may be accessed via this post this post.

The comments are open. Please post!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

CFP: Negotiating Trade


Negotiating Trade: Commercial Institutions and Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Medieval and Early Modern World

An interdisciplinary conference presented by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Binghamton University (SUNY)

September 24 – 25, 2010

With the ongoing development of trans-regional commerce, trade in the medieval and early modern periods required an increasing number of institutions (social, economic, legal, and administrative) to mediate between local and foreign merchants, and among merchants, state officials, creditors, money exchangers, and brokers. Such institutions protected those who traveled long distances and assisted them in unfamiliar systems of exchange even as they permitted local polities to control and profit from the activities of this growing merchant class. Alongside these institutions may be counted the increasingly international systems of credit and banking, which operated above or beyond the sphere of states issuing currencies, and a growing class of agents who served “on the ground,” as it were, translating local languages and practices for traveling merchants.

The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS) at Binghamton University invites papers for a conference to be held on the Binghamton University campus on September 24 and 25, 2010, to explore the institutions that facilitated and accommodated long-distance trade and the globalizing of capital in the medieval and early modern world. The conference organizers conceive “institutions” as a broad category that includes formal, informal, permanent and temporary organizations, associations, conventions, and practices. The scope of the conference is global; papers may concentrate on particular localities or regions, or they may present cross-regional comparisons and convergences. We encourage submissions from a broad range of disciplines, methodologies, and perspectives.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

-Permanent sites of trade, such as harbors, marketplaces, customs houses, banks, and exchanges

-Hostels, warehouses, and other spaces used by merchants for temporary residence and storage

-The development of regional markets (urban and rural) and international fairs

-Permanent and ephemeral architecture associated with trade

-Social and economic conventions that governed commercial transactions

-State administrative policies relating to trade and commercial travel

-Supra-state networks of trade (social, cultural, geo-political and economic implications)

-Cross-cultural systems of banking and credit

-Translation across linguistic and cultural boundaries

-Modes of determining creditworthiness across regional boundaries

-The practices of brokers and creditors

-Methods of accounting and documenting transactions

-Strategies (individual and corporate) for adapting to foreign systems of trade

-Modifications in commercial institutions with the expansion of early modern trade networks

-The politics of merchant tribute

-The relationship of merchants, companies, banks, and brokers to states minting currency

-The emergence and operations of legal institutions adjudicating disputes concerning trade

-Religious stances towards cross-cultural commercial endeavors

-The representation of commercial institutions in art and literature

Proposals for individual papers (20 minutes maximum) should be no more than 500 words in length and may be sent by email, with a current CV, to (Re: 2010 Conference). Those wishing to submit hard copies of the proposal and CV should forward them to: CEMERS [ATTN.: 2010 Conference], Binghamton University, P.O. Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000. We also welcome proposals for integrated panels. Panel organizers should describe the theme of the panel and send abstracts with names and affiliations of all participants along with current CVs. A panel should consist of no more than three papers, each twenty minutes in length. Selected papers may be published in Mediaevalia, a journal of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Submission Deadline: Please submit abstracts by October 30, 2009.

Please send all inquiries to For information about CEMERS, please visit our website (

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely: Papers Available for Download

The GW MEMSI Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely
will take place Thursday September 17 3-5 PM
English Department Seminar Room (Academic Center, 801 22nd ST NW, Rome Hall 771)

Registration has closed and the seminar is full. You can still participate, however, by downloading the three papers and their attachments here.

On Thursday Sept. 10, an e-discussion will start at the blog In The Middle. Comments posted at the site will become part of the live conversation on the Sept. 17, and a summary of proceedings will be posted as well. Eileen Joy has agreed to live twitter the seminar as it unfolds.

On September 17, we will have short presentations followed by open discussion. The presenters are: