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On More Capacious Ways of Being: 5 Questions with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

February 9, 2018

Image source: Nathan Altman, “The Deluge,” 1933. Copyright The Center for Jewish Art.

 

This interview was conducted during Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s visit to Washington University in St. Louis on February 9, 2018. The interviewer, Sylvia Sukop, is an MFA student in the Department of English. 

 

“Our thought is that if we go back to the incredibly complicated history of Noah’s ark and the possibilities they convey across the millennia, we might find ways of creating more capacious modes of welcome in the here and now.”

 

Sylvia Sukop: What inspires your current work and how did you come to your present project?

 

Jeffrey Cohen: My current project is called Noah’s Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge, a collaboration with my friend Julian Yates at the University of Delaware. We are interested in thinking through Noah’s ark and the complicated stories that accompany it as a master trope for the narration of climate change. We also aim to recover alternative versions of that story, versions that open widened refuges rather than close down community. Both of us are concerned about the turn the world has taken towards the building of walls, creating more gated communities, saying ‘no’ to refugees, making shelter difficult to find for people who are not already inside structures. And our thought is that if we go back to the incredibly complicated history of Noah’s ark and the possibilities they convey across the millennia, we might find ways of creating more capacious modes of welcome in the here and now. So it’s a fundamentally ecological project that is about turning to the past to activate potentials for a more humane future.

 

SS: And all of that comes back to narratives and stories, both in terms of what you’re taking from the past and what you’re trying to create now.

 

JC: It absolutely does. For both of us, the project has offered a return to thinking about why humans tell stories – and why we shouldn’t necessarily be satisfied with the denouements these stories too often have offered. Noah's ark stows inside its structure a plethora of dissonant narratives that have gone divergent ways. It also represents a fundamental and abiding myth that has been with us from times long before Noah and his ark. There’s a version of the flood in Gilgamesh, for example, a story about how to survive severe and sudden climate change, how to either welcome people into community or exclude them from it, as well as the consequences of wide versus narrow welcome. Too often these days we tend to tell a constricted story of the ark, where we, like Noah, do not attempt to address climate change, do not attempt to stop the Flood.

 

“Too often these days we tend to tell a constricted story of the ark, where we, like Noah, do not attempt to address climate change, do not attempt to stop the Flood.”

 

One of the most interesting aspects of this project has been dwelling on the differences between the ambivalent Jewish estimation of Noah and the Christian praise for the patriarch. Christians generally extol him for being obedient to God. God says, “Make me an ark,” and Noah builds the vessel —he does not object, he doesn’t say anything. He constructs the shelter to precise specifications and follows every divine command in silence. There’s a long Christian tradition of Noah therefore offering a model of perfect obedience and submission that should be emulated. That compliance is maybe what makes him the hero -- but it’s also what makes him a jerk. You'd be hard pressed to find, ultimately, a very sympathetic Noah, only because he's inflexible and unquestioning. He submits to catastrophe. A slide occurs between an “ark” and a “patriark,” the man who lays down a severe law, with repercussions for how women should behave on the ark and in the world, how the animals are placed and treated, how children should be properly obedient to the father figure. All kinds of unwanted baggage gets conveyed. 

 

The Jewish tradition is far more complicated. Midrash notes that Noah, unlike Cain before him, or Abraham afterwards, or Moses at Sinai, does not argue with God. The God of Torah likes to be challenged. So, for example, when Abraham later in Genesis is told that Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed by fire — when God says, “I am going to destroy those cities utterly” — Abraham’s first reflex is to ask, “Ok, but what if I find 50 righteous people there? Would you still destroy a city that had 50 righteous people?”, God says, “No, of course I wouldn’t do that.” Abraham challenges God to compassion. He bargains the number down, and then obtains the chance to save people. Noah never demonstrates that impulse: he just builds his ark and leaves the world to drown. It has been interesting to explore art and narrative over the centuries that details the price of Noah’s obedience. Noah doesn’t think that catastrophe is something that you can allay. Catastrophe is coming: build the ark, just do it.

 

SS: Nor is God someone you can question.

 

JC: Right, certain things are inevitable, but not catastrophe, not always. Like Noah we too easily surrender to inevitability when it comes to climate change. Why are we so resigned? “It’s coming — let’s secure the borders, let’s protect ourselves as much as possible!” -- without thinking deeply about how we are responsible for the very decision to be resigned, and for not coming up with more capacious ways of being in the world. The story of Noah and his ark is a narrative for our times, and a cautionary tale.

 

“Like Noah we too easily surrender to inevitability when it comes to climate change. Why are we so resigned? “It’s coming — let’s secure the borders, let’s protect ourselves as much as possible!” -- without thinking deeply about how we are responsible for the very decision to be resigned, and for not coming up with more capacious ways of being in the world”

 

SS: What does the term ‘waste’ evoke for you?

 

JC: Because I’m a medievalist, it evokes two things. Etymologically, it’s the same word as “vast.” It’s a big space — it’s an expansiveness that seems to need filling. But waste is also something that is made, not something that arrives already empty. Devastation is related to waste: devastation is the process of making a place empty. A medieval wasteland is a place that has been made desolate, not a land that has always stood empty. So thinking about the Noah myth, the waste is what is made as a result of the Flood. Everything’s been scoured and rendered bare. Yet medieval stories often insist that a wasteland only appears to have been emptied: there will always be stories that linger from earlier times, stories that rise to the surface — histories that are dissonant from the main and comfortable plots. So wastelands always end up being strangely full of surprising narratives.

 

“A medieval wasteland is a place that has been made desolate, not a land that has always stood empty. So thinking about the Noah myth, the waste is what is made as a result of the Flood. Everything’s been scoured and rendered bare. Yet medieval stories often insist that a wasteland only appears to have been emptied: there will always be stories that linger from earlier times, stories that rise to the surface — histories that are dissonant from the main and comfortable plots. So wastelands always end up being strangely full of surprising narratives.”

 

SS: I was thinking of the image that you showed during your talk of all the corpses covering the land and I guess that was the sea bottom after the flood.

 

JC: Artists like to add nonbiblical details like floating corpses or a vacant cradle that no one in the ark sees, or a skeleton in the corner after the Flood as a reminder of the history that’s been lost. When you notice such a detail, the story changes: you have to dwell for a moment on the price of Noah’s rainbow, his resignation to a drowned world. There’s also a long tradition of people from before the Flood realizing that destruction is coming and desiring to send their story into the future. For example, the Roman Jewish historian Josephus writes that Tubal Cain engraved two pillars, one of brick and one of marble — one that can survive fire, one that can survive water -- just in case catastrophe happens, to send into the future how to make music. So musical notation will now endure the flood. There’s a medieval Irish legend about Noah’s granddaughter, who realizes the flood is coming and that she has no place on the ark. She is not content to drown. So she sails away with a fleet of her people and they make it together all the way to Ireland, which they hope is too distant to be submerged. Even though Ireland does get inundated and Noah’s granddaughter perishes with her people, before she dies she builds a monument there so that everyone after the Flood will remember that she lived and that she had a story that was worth passing along. 

 

 

SS: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of the materials you work with?

 

JC: With the Noah’s ark project the main challenge is the sheer diversity of languages and the immense span of time: we’re researching a myth that sails across millennia. That scale is in some ways exhilarating but it is in others ways daunting. Our response to that challenge is to resist the scholarly impulse to locate every story within a specific and bounded context so that stories are only allowed to speak about one moment of their culture. We want to trace how certain ideas and narratives are not quite timeless — everything’s time-bound — but keep crossing time, and reappearing, and transmuting, and disrupting. We are trying to stage a longer conversation across times and places that can seem disparate and yet that keep telling versions of a shared story. We’re interested in what records from ancient Babylon have to say to the here and now, how supposedly surpassed myths are in deep ways embedded in how we narrate anthropogenic climate change now. We want to remind our audience that just because something is temporally distant doesn’t make it irrelevant, or doesn’t make it something that we’ve left behind. We’ve inherited complicated histories from many sources, and sometimes as a deep structure of narrative or structure of myth. Sometimes that structure is so deep that we don’t even realize we’re replicating it, especially in a Noachic resignation to climate catastrophe. That denouement seems to be part of our cognitive process at this point.

 

“Our response to that challenge is to resist the scholarly impulse to locate every story within a specific and bounded context so that stories are only allowed to speak about one moment of their culture. We want to trace how certain ideas and narratives are not quite timeless — everything’s time-bound — but keep crossing time, and reappearing, and transmuting, and disrupting. We are trying to stage a longer conversation across times and places that can seem disparate and yet that keep telling versions of a shared story.”

 

SS: How have these particular challenges—such as languages, span of time—shaped your research and the way that you share your work?

 

JC: Those challenges – which are really invitations -- shape our research profoundly, and underline the importance of a collaborative approach. No human being, not even a group of human beings, is going to be able to do a thorough enough job on a topic that is this vast; it’s just not possible. But working so closely with someone else on this project at least doubles the odds of some success. Julian and I also are dedicated to presenting our work to wide publics, interfacing with audiences and keeping the conversation going so that the research in progress gets as much feedback as possible. We’re trying to conduct “Noah’s Arkive” as an act of public scholarship. We do not believe that scholarly research, at least in the humanities, should ever be solitary. Humanities research is not something that you do only in a library or an archive; it’s something that you undertake with other people, living and dead. We’ve also tried to publish a bit of the project ahead of time to get more feedback on it. The book is already under contract at the University of Minnesota Press and we are hoping to publish one chapter as an easily accessible book for everyone. Then the longer scholarly version will follow in a few years. We’re trying to think hard about how to make this project available to anyone who wants to read it.

 

“We do not believe that scholarly research, at least in the humanities, should ever be solitary. Humanities research is not something that you do only in a library or an archive; it’s something that you undertake with other people, living and dead.”

 

SS: Can you say more about the collaboration? How do you initiate it and how is it sustained, institutionally or otherwise? 

 

JC: The best work that I’ve done over the years has been collaborative – and I have worked with quite a few people. I love it. I also have four monographs, books that I've written supposedly by myself, but I think we kid ourselves if we suppose we write any book alone. We write in conversation, we write with collaborators who don’t even know that they’re collaborating. They’re family members, they’re friends, they’re audiences, they’re students, authors we’ve read — these are conversations that keep us energized and I think we should be more up front about that. Books are not heroic works. They’re works of community. But I also get a great deal of my scholarly energy from projects that are truly and fundamentally collaborative. I've done many edited collections in my life, which I think of as curated conversations. I love coming up with an idea and asking people to weigh in on its possibilities, talk about its potential together, and then see what we can make and launch into the world: here’s something to think about, here’s something to discuss. 

 

“We write in conversation, we write with collaborators who don’t even know that they’re collaborating. They’re family members, they’re friends, they’re audiences, they’re students, authors we’ve read — these are conversations that keep us energized and I think we should be more up front about that. Books are not heroic works.”

 

I recently completed a trilogy of ecocritical works with the University of Minnesota Press: Prismatic Ecology, Elemental Ecocriticism and the just-published volume Veer Ecology. The first volume I did by myself, the next two I edited with Lowell Duckert at West Virginia University, who’s just been an inspirational companion to think through ecocritical ideas with. Another recent book I did was Earth with a planetary scientist, Linda Elkins-Tanton. We decided that our book would take the very form that our collaboration unfolded within. So Earth starts out as a series of letters that we really sent to each other. When we got to the middle of the book and were trying to make a lot of progress, I relocated for a while to Arizona State University and everyday I went with Linda to her office in the School of Earth and Planetary Exploration (which she directs). We sat and we wrote in different modes. On the first day we composed by text messages, even though we were in the same room: we just sent them to each other across that small space. 

 

SS: Like a performance.

 

JC: It was. We liked the cadence of that exchange. While one of us was composing a long text, the other could be checking email or doing some research or looking off at the mountains. Then the text comes in, then it’s over to you, back and forth, writing together and apart at once. On another day we sat at a table together and recorded an informal conversation. Another day we took a hike together into the nearby mountains and recorded then transcribed it. After I returned to DC, we sent each other a series of emails that concluded the project, and the book is really in that form: letters, texts, transcriptions. For that project, this contrapuntal form was perfect because the book is dialogic. And now I am working with Julian Yates on the Noah’s Arkive. It took us a little while to find the best way to collaborate in our writing. We both have strong personal styles; they have many similarities but I think we each have a voice that can be easily distinguished by anyone who knows our writing. So to find a way to write together was a lot of fun! It turned out the best way to do so was simply to not worry about style anymore and to just write. Once a week we have a Skype meeting. Other than that, we type into shared Google documents and we give each other carte blanche to change or do anything. There’s lots of the writing in the book where neither of us can tell who “originally” composed what anymore -- and that just seems like a great place to be.

 

SS: What role do you imagine for the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities today and in the future?

 

JC: It’s hard for me not to wax hyperbolic, because I’m a strong believer in the environmental humanities as the future of the humanities more generally. To be an environmental humanist is for me an essential component of my scholarly identity. I recently became co-president with Stacy Alaimo of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). I believe I’m the first medievalist to hold that position. This is the environmental humanities’ big organization for the U.S. – and I’m happy and proud to have a leadership role in it because I believe so strongly in the mission of the organization. There aren’t enough structures or rubrics within the contemporary humanities for a diversity of scholars doing research and teaching separated by time and place to come together in conversation, but the environmental humanities is one of them. I am continually blown away by just how good the work being done under that designation is — I love reading in it, I love being in the field. I am moving to Arizona State University later this spring to become Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. One of the many attractions of this position is the chance to intensify and grow their environmental humanities program. I see so much potential for field changing work both at ASU and in the profession more widely. And I cannot help but to think that the environmental humanities offer the critical tools we need at this moment of crisis. 

 

“...the environmental humanities offer the critical tools we need at this moment of crisis.”

 

 

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