Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility - Keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2018

I have the distinct honour of giving a plenary paper at the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (GMS) (8-10 January 2018). This will be the first year that this long-running conference has included a plenary from an early-career researcher, and I am delighted/thrilled/terrified to have been invited for the inaugural slot. My paper, entitled 'Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility', presents key arguments from my first book, in particular the Introduction and Chapter 3. Handy reminder: see my earlier blogpost to find out how you can download a .pdf of the full Introduction for free, and to snag a voucher code for 20% off the listed price of my book (valid till 1 February 2018).

In my GMS talk, I first sketch the theoretical foundations for my consideration of hagiography as media, setting out my terms of engagement. Then, I discuss in depth the ways in which the politics of visibility are central in the creation, consumption, and lived experience of female identities. In particular, I bring the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century celebrity icon Kim Kardashian West into dialogue, analysing the ways in which the pair attempt to self-produce 'acceptable' exceptional identities in their respective contexts. Finally, I discuss the role of visibility in the academy today - for early career researchers, and for medievalists more generally. Flicking through the slide deck below should give you a feel for the material. I look forward to seeing all those who can make it in Oxford!   

My Avatar, My Soul: When Mystics Log On

Last month I headed to Las Vegas for a conference, this month it's Los Angeles, California (USA). Ah, the cosmopolitan life of a medievalist, eh? This dizzying international pinball is obviously what life is mostly like as a medieval scholar, just popping over the pond every few weeks to another academic shindig. Yeah, no. This is highly irregular - but utterly lovely, darling - scheduling for me. I'm looking forward to the sun (if not the wildfires) in LA, and the chance to share some material from my book. I'm presenting excerpts from Chapter 4 of Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, which considers medieval visions in terms of twenty-first-century experiences online. The blurb below covers the Chapter's main contours, which I'm abbreviating for the LA conference. In this paper, I'm focusing more squarely on the way in which the figure of the avatar - understood simultaneously as the online embodiment of the user's offline personhood and a manifestation of the divine  - works as a means to think through key issues in the material from both eras. Scroll to the bottom of this post to leaf through the slide deck I'll be using for the paper.  

Chapter overview:

The medieval saint interacts with God in her mind, in mystical vision space – yet these mental experiences are figured as having meaningful corporeal consequences and tangible outcomes in the earthly realm. The online environment of Second Life (SL) offers parallels of modern Christian worship to meditative medieval piety. SL is a three-dimensional online virtual environment designed to allow users to live out a simulated version of life via their avatar. The avatar is a visible version of the self that is wholly controlled by the offline user. SL Christians participate in recognisable religious rites in the intangible (‘meditative’) space of the internet, and these rites significantly affect the user’s offline body. I argue that SL Christians’ modern worship experiences shed light on the experiences of medieval mystics, and vice versa. 

 

Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears

In short order, I'll be flying out to Las Vegas (USA) to speak at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference. I'm presenting as part of panel 1401, 'Celebrity Worship I: Sensual Practices', with a paper entitled 'Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears'. In this paper, I'll be talking through some key analyses that I present in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (mostly ch. 3). For the ATHE, I'm centering my comments on the co-incidence of "ugly" crying in the lives of the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West and the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe. To give a flavour of the paper, I've posted a content synopsis and my slides below. 

Paper synopsis:

Kim Kardashian West’s “ugly crying face” is a viral online sensation. In a 2008 “confessional” from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kim’s sister Kourtney declared: “I start laughing at Kim when she's crying because I just can't help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes”. This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe (d. after 1438) is the Ur-example of “ugly crying”, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV. The Book of Margery Kempe¸ composed in the 1430s, catalogues the various spiritual endeavours of its protagonist, including intense mystical visions and pilgrimages. The hallmark of Margery’s piety is ceaseless weeping. Her tears are the lynchpin of her religiosity, the primary means with which she visibly enacts her elevated spiritual status. But those around Margery reject and mock her lachrymose displays, finding them irritating at best, and heretical at worst. The woman is widely rebuked for her self-proclaimed religiosity, and driven out of various towns. At one point, even her husband has had enough: faced with her endless wails, he abandons her. The Book’s primary – and unsuccessful – aim is to make a saintly star of its heroine. Why does Margery’s “ugly crying” fail at making her a saint, whilst Kim’s “ugly crying” functions to underline, and re-inforce, her celebrity status?

This paper analyses the performative aspect of tears in the lives of the two women. Though separated by centuries, the pair are united in their explicit hunger for fame, and their dynamic bodily performances. Tears (bodily “evidence”) are not enough to cement Margery’s spiritual fame. The significance of her crying is at odds with the whims of the clerics around her. What’s more, she is known to us only through text, as text – a work which was co-created with various scribes and male collaborators. By contrast, Kim presents and re-presents her body on her own terms, at least some of the time. She has a secret weapon: the ability to produce her celebrity identity directly and through social media and carefully organized reality TV appearances. In other words, Kim acts as her own talent manager. With the hermeneutic of “ugly crying”, then, we tease out the various dynamics at play in the production of (celebrity/saintly) identity in the digital and medieval age.

CfP: Sponsored Panel on Disability & Sanctity at International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2018

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

 

Panel title: "Sanctifying the Crip, Cripping the Sacred: Disability, Holiness, and Non-Normative Bodies"

Sponsored by: Hagiography Society

Conference: International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2-5 July 2018

 

In her 2006 monograph Disability in Medieval Europe, Irina Metzler conducted the first in-depth analyses of medieval miracle narratives in the context of disability studies. This ground-breaking work demonstrated the ways in which such an approach productively expands – and complicates – out understanding of medieval impairment and medieval hagiography alike. This panel seeks to harness the methodological vigour of Metzler’s intervention, and move the discussion forward to reap the benefits of the efflorescence in medieval disability studies that has taken place since 2006. What can frameworks from disability studies add to studies of medieval holiness, and vice versa? What happens when we sanctify the crip, and crip the sacred?

gwen - 'St. Roch's, various plaster feet'. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .  Plaster feet hung on a wall, left as devotional offerings by supplicants in search of miraculous cures, in the St Roch (d. 1327) chapel and shrine in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA).

gwen - 'St. Roch's, various plaster feet'. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Plaster feet hung on a wall, left as devotional offerings by supplicants in search of miraculous cures, in the St Roch (d. 1327) chapel and shrine in New Orleans (Louisiana, USA).

A vast amount of our knowledge of the experience of impairment in the Middle Ages comes from religious works. An important manifestation of a presumptive saint’s holiness was their capacity to perform mystically curative healings, to return their devotees to an able-bodied state. But medieval saints did not just tend to those with impairment. Some saints were themselves explicitly physically impaired, either permanently or temporarily. Saints’ ascetic self-mortification could also lead to impairment. In all instances, the saint’s body is divergent to the able-bodied norm of those around them, the non-saintly. It operates as a vector of the divine in miraculous healing of others; a receptacle of the divine in their ability to withstand extreme ascetic degradation.

What is at stake if we consider the medieval saint’s body as impaired, disabled, emphatically non-able-bodied?

 

 

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words, and a brief bio to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] ucl.ac.uk), by 25 August 2017. Please also stipulate your audio-visual requirements in your submission (e.g. projector, speakers, and so forth).

 

N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Leeds. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference.

 

[Updated 08/08/17 to reflect extended deadline for submission.]

CfP: "Nonhumans & Politics" - International Conference on Non-Anthropocentric Perspectives on Politics (Hannover, Germany; 22-23 January 2016)

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (v² ! g)" by Jef Safi. Via  Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (v² ! g)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

In the last two decades non-anthropocentric theories – whether posthumanist, neo-materialist or transhumanist – have attracted growing attention from scholars in a wide range of fields. Despite their interdisciplinary output, the question of the relation between non- anthropocentric theories and the concept of politics has been to a large extent evaded. This is somewhat understandable considering that the concept of politics is a highly anthropocentric term that sits uneasily with non-anthropocentric ontologies.

The conference’s aim is to investigate the juncture of nonhumans and politics:

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via  Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

  • What does it mean to talk about politics in respect to nonhumans?
  • Who/what is the ‘subject’ of posthumanism, of animal rights, of environmental politics, of technological advancement (particularly in case of Artificial Intelligence)?
  • If the path in thinking ‘nonhuman politics’ through ‘subject’ and thus through ‘political subject’ is counterproductive then what are the alternatives?
"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via  Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

One of the key interests of this conference is then to investigate if the notion of 'nonhuman politics’ – whether viewed from ecological, animal studies, neo-materialist, transhumanist or posthumanist perspective – is conceptually possible and what would this imply on a practical level:

  • What would the conditions of possibility of such ‘nonhuman politics’ be?
  • What theoretical requirements would need to be fulfilled in order to be able to propose such a concept and fully explore its potential?
  • Perhaps a certain amount of anthropocentrism is in this case unavoidable. And if that is the case then the question to be posed is to what extent are we willing to accept a limited form of anthropocentrism and basing on what grounds? 

This conference does not expect to come up with definitive answers to these questions but rather explore these issues in more detail.

That is also why the conference welcomes contributions from scholars working in various fields of non-anthropocentric theories that wish to engage with the juncture of politics and nonhumans: Ecology, Environmental Studies, Animal Studies, Transhumanism, Posthumanism, Neo-materialism, Philosophy of Technology, Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, Literary Theory, Literature, Visual and Performative Arts etc. It wishes to consider how ‘politics’ and ‘political subjects’ are conceptualized across different non-anthropocentric fields. The main purpose of this conference is then to bring together scholars interested in investigating the diverse ways of conceptualizing politics.

The conference will take place on 22–23 January 2016 at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie in Hannover, Germany.

Please send your proposals (of no more than 500 words) as well as a brief biographical note (100 words) to Dr. Iwona Janicka at iwona.janicka[at]cantab.net by 15th October 2015 with the subject line: Nonhumans and Politics_Abstract_Your Name. Notifications will be sent out by 1st November 2015. Papers should not exceed 20 minutes in length and should be held in English.

CfP: Panel on "Holy Celebrity" at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (USA), 2016

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

Panel title: “Holy Celebrity: Saints and/as Social and Economic Capital” – sponsored by the International Hagiography Society

Conference: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (USA), 12-16 May 2016

Organisers: Alicia Spencer-Hall (Queen Mary, University of London) and Barbara E Zimbalist (University of Texas at El Paso)

"La última cena" by Juan Felipe Rubio. Via  Flickr

"La última cena" by Juan Felipe Rubio. Via Flickr

Scholars have often commented on the link between sanctity and celebrity. Both the saint and the celebrity are elevated above the everyday, with identities carefully crafted by cultural producers to respond to the needs and desires of an audience, region, or temporality. Sacralisation/celebrification entails a series of processes which (re)formulate a subject into a product fit for social, political, and economic consumption. Yet sanctity/celebrity is not simply exploitative, but  enjoyable and perhaps even empowering. What does it really mean to be a medieval celebrity? How does celebrity intersect with sanctity? What does such a categorization add to the study of hagiography? Can fame resonate on both a social and spiritual level, and how does the medieval idea of fame generate, overlap with, and inform contemporary discourses of fame, celebrity, and sanctity?

Relevant topics for this session include:

  • Saints as commercial products and/or economic agents
  • The construction of Sanctity and Communal Identity
  • Audience reaction(s) to a saint and textual reception
  • Power dynamics between celebrity/saint and star-maker/confessor or hagiographer/cleric/scribe
  • The social function of celebrity/sanctity
  • Film theory’s contribution to the study of sanctity more generally


If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words and a Participant Information Form (PIF), which can be found at http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html#PIF.  

Deadline for submissions: 1 September 2015. Please email your abstract and PIF to the panel organisers, Alicia Spencer-Hall (aspencerhall [at] gmail.com) and Barbara E. Zimbalist (bezimbalist [at] utep.edu). 


CfP: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings” - Panel at SFS 2016

Panel title: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings”

ConferenceSociety for French Studies 57th Annual Conference, University of Glasgow, 27-29 June 2016

Organiser: Alicia Spencer-Hall, French Dept., Queen Mary, University of London

In the last decade or so, pre-modern disability studies has emerged as a productive and important field of enquiry for scholars from a host of disciplines, including literary studies, history and sociology. The fallacy of any monolithic form of disability has been incisively critiqued by academics unpacking the specific historical context(s) of pre-modern narratives which feature disabled bodies. This represents a welcome dismantling of a paradigm of disability which continues to influence discussions of modern disability, whether these discussions take place in the academy or in the mass media and public consciousness. 

Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via  @KarlSteel  on  Twitter

Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via @KarlSteel on Twitter

The meaning accorded to being disabled by dominant society, and by the individuals living with disabilities themselves, is not fixed. Rather, what a given impairment “says about” a subject shifts according to multiple factors: gender, ethnicity, socio-cultural situation, historical moment and so on. Narratives showing disabled bodies, the attitudes of others to such marked bodies, and the disabled subject’s own intellectual and affective stance to his/her body, are not inert or solely reflective of “real life”. Rather, such narratives work to shape identities of those to which they speak, giving the disabled and non-disabled alike ways in which they might formulate a response to impairment in their lives. 

Impairment demands a response, as disability demonstrates the precariousness of “whole” or “normal(ised)” bodies. The non-disabled must thus take a stance in relation to the destabilising potentiality that the impaired body represents to abled society and culture. Often times, though certainly not always, responses fall between othering of the disabled body, enacting distance, or a fetishisation of the disabled body, a closeness which titillates because it is transgressive.  Reactions to disability are ambiguous just as much as disability itself represents an ambiguous state, defined by a host of socio-cultural, ideological, and historical factors. 

Disabled knight, from  Arthurian Romances , New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via  @DamienKempf  on  Twitter

Disabled knight, from Arthurian Romances, New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via @DamienKempf on Twitter

This panel brings methodological and theoretical approaches from pre-modern disability scholarship into the French context. “French”, in this case, refers to both geographical area (i.e. France as a region) and linguistic identity (i.e. francophone texts produced outside of France). How do French pre-modern texts deal with disability? Can we discern a specific approach to disability used by French authors, or in francophone texts? What kinds of meanings are given to disabled bodies? What kind of language is used to describe disabled bodies, and how does this language mould reader responses? What kind of narratives are offered to the disabled, and why? 

Relevant topics for this session include:
•    Differences between pre-modern and contemporary understanding of disabilities
•    Linguistic choices for denoting disabilities, and the ways in which such choices shape readers’ attitudes, in both modern and pre-modern periods
•    Reactions of readers to disabled characters in narratives, and reactions of those around a disabled character in the text
•    Social constructions of disability and their contexts, including permutations relating to specific locales, politics, ideologies
•    Differences between interpretations of disabilities in religious (e.g. saints) and more secular (e.g. wounded knights) frameworks
•    Differences in depictions of invisible and visible impairments
•    The ways in which French pre-modern texts can contribute to developing the field of pre-modern disability studies

 

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words and a brief bio, containing your postal address. Deadline for submissions: 1 September 2015. Please email your abstract and bio to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk).