Joe Moshenska joined University College in April 2018 as Associate Professor and Tutorial Fellow in English. He was educated at Cambridge and Princeton, and before coming to Oxford was Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here, Joe tells us more about his interests, forthcoming monograph, and how the experience of writing for a non-academic audience has made him optimistic about the Humanities.
Joe, welcome to Oxford. You’re currently working on a book called Iconoclasm as Child’s Play; can you tell us what it’s about?
The word ‘iconoclasm’ – to me at least – conjures up mental images of grim-faced men wielding hammers and flaming torches. In the sixteenth century, however, at least some holy things taken from churches and monasteries were given to children as playthings – desacralized, at least in theory, by being made into toys. I was delighted and intrigued when I first stumbled across this fact, and I still am. I’ve tracked down all the examples of iconoclastic child’s play from the period that I can find, and my book starts from these instances but moves outward to consider child’s play and iconoclasm more broadly, looking both at early modern figures – Erasmus, Bruegel, Spenser – and at discussions of child’s play from ancient and Patristic writings all the way up to people like Gadamer and Gell. At its heart is a phrase from the anthropologist Michael Taussig: ‘the adult’s imagination of the child’s imagination.’ I’m intrigued by how children and their play get imagined, and co-opted into cultural processes.
Your research interests are quite eclectic in scope, covering a range of authors, topics, and styles of scholarship. Is there a common thread to the topics that grab your interest?
I certainly find myself circling back to certain authors and recurrent questions – most of what matters to me seems to be tucked away somewhere in The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost. I suppose that in the broadest sense my interests tend to bear in one way or another on the lived experience of the material world, the way in which literature gives a particular sharpness and intensity to the ways in which bodies interact with one another, and with objects. This is true whether the body is that of a historical individual like Kenelm Digby, smelling and feeling things in the eastern Mediterranean, or an allegorical personification or a doll or any of the other odd entities about which I’ve written.
You often make use of Theory in your work, reading Hegel alongside Spenser and writing about Adorno in your forthcoming book. In what contexts do you think texts and philosophies from different time periods best illuminate one another?
I’m not too comfortable with the idea of Theory with a capital T. My sense is that early modern studies is currently something of a methodological free-for-all, in a way that can feel either disorientating, or tremendously exciting. It no longer seems helpful either to identify oneself as, say, a New Historicist or a Deconstructionist, nor to reject these approaches outright. My approach to these issues has, to me at least, felt rather more ad hoc and pragmatic. Questions have begun to nag at me and make me curious: why did the writers whom I was reading seem both excited and worried by the sense of touch? Who was this man, Kenelm Digby, who kept making cameo appearances whether I was reading about Spenser or Ben Jonson or René Descartes? Following my curiosity has led me into the archives, and more ‘traditional’ forms of scholarship, in some instances, and to more conceptually driven approaches in other cases, depending on what seems helpful for satisfying my curiosity. I like to feel that each time I begin a new project I am starting entirely from scratch in terms of the materials that I will use and the way that I will write it, rather than applying a settled method.
Recently, you’ve worked on documentaries for BBC Radio and published in national newspapers; what role do you think public scholarship, particularly in the Humanities, has in the current higher-education landscape?
In my darker moments, when the Humanities feel beleaguered and constantly under pressure to fit into methods and values originating in the hard sciences or the corporate world, undertaking work aimed at a non-academic audience has been a welcome reminder to me that there are large numbers of non-specialists who care about the things that my colleagues, students and I tend to care about: art, poetry, history, words, ideas. My grandma read my Digby book, as did old school-friends with very different careers, which was a great feeling. I think we in the Humanities can feel optimistic about the potential for maintaining connections of this sort – while fiercely resisting the idea that all research has to be accessible, or have measurable impact.
When you’re not busy teaching, researching, and publishing, what are you most likely to be doing?
Mostly spending time with my children, who turn six and four this year; they seem excited about the move to Oxford, and have been won over by Univ thanks to the college tortoise and the riches of the fellows’ biscuit tin. When time’s available I like to spend it cooking new and occasionally elaborate things. My resolution after I start in Oxford is always to have a novel on the go, and always to be learning a new skill – I have my eye on the piano.
What are you looking forward to about being based in Oxford?
I’m going to be returning to Kenelm Digby and finishing the edition of his letters on which I’ve been working for some years. Oxford is the ideal place in which to do this, partly because of the abundance of material in the Bodleian (to which Digby gave a massive collection of medieval manuscripts in its early years – as well as a hefty quantity of timber for the building of shelves). More broadly, however, it’s the ideal place because of the proliferation of scholars working in areas relevant to Digby – the histories of religion, philosophy, politics, mathematics – as well as people in and beyond the early modern period working on letters and life-writing. One of the highlights of my first few weeks was the end of my first English Faculty meeting, at which three colleagues gave short talks on their books-in-progress – totally different from one another, and each one methodologically innovative and thinking in excitingly transnational and interdisciplinary ways. That’s an environment of which I’m delighted to be part.