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I've Got You under My Skin: The Green Man, Trans-Species Bodies, and Queer Worldmaking





The Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group and
The Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (UWA)
invites you to a public lecture with

New York University and
Distinguished International Visitor with the
ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions

Date:     Thursday 14 August 2014
Time:     6.30pm
Venue:   Arts Lecture Room 5, (G 61), Faculty of Arts,
              The University of Western Australia.
Contact: Joanne McEwan or Andrew Lynch

The eerie figure of the foliate head, at once utterly familiar and totally weird, was a decorative motif well nigh ubiquitous in medieval church sculpture in Western Europe. This imagined mixture of human and vegetable -- a head sprouting leaves or made up of vegetation -- became known in the 20th century as the Green Man. It has proven to be a powerful icon of boundary crossings (sexual and racial) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the US, UK, and Commonwealth countries. This aesthetically intricate, affectively intense image represents a body that is a strange mixture, a weird amalgam: it pictures intimate trans-species relations. Carolyn Dinshaw describes foliate heads in their medieval settings and then traces modern and contemporary uptakes of this imagery in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia (including work by Western Australian author Randolph Stow), focusing particularly on the traumatic contexts of HIV/ AIDS and of decolonization out of which new queer worlds are being imagined.

Carolyn Dinshaw has been interested in the relationship between past and present ever since she began to study medieval literature. Her 1982 dissertation, subsequently published as Chaucer and the Text in 1988, explored the relevance of new critical modes for older literature, while in her 1989 book, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, she investigated the connection of past and present via the Western discursive tradition of gender. In Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999), she traced a queer desire for history. In her most recent book, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (2012), she looks directly at the experience of time itself, as it is represented in medieval works and as it is experienced in readers of those works. In the classroom, she regularly teaches materials past and present, in courses ranging from Medieval Misogyny to Queer New York City.

In graduate courses such as “Time and Temporality in Medieval Literature,” she has explored expanded notions of history and time—affective history, embodied history, and the feeling of being a body in time—in texts ranging from Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle,” Derrida’s Specters of Marx and Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory. Dinshaw has recently taught "Ecological Approaches to Medieval Literature," in which students read medieval texts (especially those featuring a figure of Nature) in relation to theoretical materials by, among many others, Timothy Morton, Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, Catriona Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Her work in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis (where she is jointly appointed with the English Department) has provided a rich context in which to develop these ideas theoretically and cross culturally.

Dinshaw’s current research projects extend her interests into the visual field. It’s Not Easy Being Green focuses on the eerie figure of the foliate head – a decorative motif well nigh ubiquitous in medieval church sculpture in Western Europe that became known in the 20th century as the Green Man. This imagined mixture of human and vegetable (a head sprouting leaves or made up of vegetation) is the point of departure for her research on human/non-human relations, queerness and queer sexual subcultures now, "the ecological thought" (as Timothy Morton puts it), and what medieval literature can tell us about it all.

The second project, Exploring Nowhere: Mirages, Digital Maps, and the Historical Problem of Location, is undertaken with visual artist Marget Long. It is a project that explores paradoxical places where time and space operate differently from all other places on earth – “nowheres that are somewhere” (to adapt Alessandro Scafi’s resonant phrase for medieval representations of Paradise). Long and Dinshaw look to the optical phenomenon of the mirage—a strange and elusive "nowhere"—to explore the broad concepts of location and locatability. They investigate the mirage’s visual and cultural history through a wide array of materials: medieval maps and legends of Paradise (which was in at least one instance thought to be a mirage), early 20th-century Arctic exploration, and photographs and video works from Long’s project on mirages. Long and Dinshaw take a long view of the mirage—an illusion that prompts an irrational experience of time and space—in order to imagine (among other things) how to work and play with current digital mapping technologies intended to work us.

A foliate head in the shape of an acanthus leaf: a corbel supporting the Bamberg Horseman, Bamberg cathedral, Germany, early 13th century

Domreiter, Blattmaske Public Domain  (wikipedia commons)