Monday, August 29, 2016

Deviant Bodies and Animalized Humans

by KARL STEEL

Here's a post from my own website that I shared only through the In the Middle Facebook interface, thinking that it wouldn't draw much attention, and should therefore be left off ITM, which has, of late, found an increasingly larger audience. A mistake!
these are 'good numbers' for our blog

For our readers who don't use Facebook (and good for you!), I'm now offering my post here as well. This is the latest version of my work earlier this year on muteness and Cuthbert and animal gesture.


For several years I've wanted to write an essay on the way that 'mute beasts' communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede's Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.
And now it's basically done. I've submitted it to the medieval disability anthology, and then revised it a bit and submitted it again, and then revised it a lot more, because I'm sharing it at the University of Pennsylvania Medieval-Renaissance seminar this September 7. For the interested, here's the first part opening of my paper, my first real attempt to do disability studies.
Capture
Saxon Mirror, Mscr.Dresd.M.32 6r
For several medieval writers, differences in mental capability are partly an effect of particular kinds of bodies or environments.[1] For example, an eighth-century medical treatise by Qusta ibn Luqa (in Latin, Costa ben Luca), translated into Latin in the twelfth century, and listed as a Parisian university text in the thirteenth, holds that women, those too close to the sun, like “Ethiopians,” and also those too far from it all have souls that are “imperfectiores et debiliores” [more imperfect and weaker] than those of people whose internal heat and cold are in "perfectione aequalitatis" [perfect equilibrium].[2] Shape and size could matter as well as internal or external ecologies: Aristotle’s On the Parts of Animals held that since birds, fish, quadrupeds, and children were all “dwarflike,” their intelligence was inferior to that of upright humans. Michael Scot’s early thirteenth-century translation follows its ninth-century Christian Arabic source by omitting this specific comparison, but repeats logic, drawn from elsewhere in Aristotle’s treatise, that holds that “animalia sunt minoris intellectus quam homo” [animals are less intelligent than man], because they have more flesh in the front part of their bodies than humans do.[3] The thirteenth-century natural history of Thomas of Cantimpré begins its chapter on “The Monstrous Humans of the East” by proposing that although satyrs and onocentaurs lacked rational souls, they nonetheless could exhibit behaviors that seemed rational to the degree that that their bodies resembled those of humans.[4] And the discussion of the human worldly superiority in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon observes that well-proportioned limbs signify (“denotatur”) a good mind, and then adds that “inde sentatiavit Plato quod qualis animalis effigiem gestat homo, talis animalis sequitur mores et affectus,” rendered by one translator as “wherefore Plato 3afe sentence that man folowethe the maneres and affectes of that beste, of whome he hath similitude.”[5]
The possession of speech was a key concern. A thought experiment, repeated through the Middle Ages from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) to William of Saint Thierry (twelfth) to Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth), held that if humans had no hands, they would be quadrupeds, and therefore be forced to grasp food with their mouths, and as a result would lose the flexibility of lips and tongue that allowed for the production of rational speech.[6] A handless body, being unable to express its rationality, would be functionally irrational. Like an animal or stone, it would be mute. This word, mutum (to choose a declension at random), appears 469 times in the Patrilogia Latine, and accompanies the word “animal” 43 times: not more often than it accompanies surdum [deaf; 160 times], but often enough to attest to a widespread association of nonhumans and muteness across scholarly cultures. This association is not because animals were thought silent, but because what sound they made was understood as mere noise. Habakkuk 2:18 is just one of several scriptural mockeries of those who believe that the "simulacra muta" [mute idols] they themselves created possess divine power.[7] Augustine’s commentary on Psalms 144:10 applies the same adjective to stones and nonhumans alike when it insists that no one should "think that the mute stone or mute animal [mutus lapis aut mutum animal] has reason wherewith to comprehend God.”[8] The condition of muteness thus traversed those of human impairment, animal inability, and material inertness. It slid from irrationality into inanimacy, from a life whose noise could not be understood to one that has no life, no voice, and no agency.
Law reinforced this division. The Justinian code ruled that humans who were permanently “mutus et surdus” (mute and deaf) could not legally draw up contracts, as they had no more capacity for judgment than young children, the insane, and even the chronically ill.[9] This legal voicelessness could also be applied to humans whose bodies were marked as deviant. The thirteenth-century Saxon Mirror (which survives in more than 400 manuscripts) begins its discussion of inheritance law by likening kinship to a human body, so that, for example, “the children of legitimate brothers are located at the level where the arm connects to the shoulders,” with more distant relations located further out on this imagined body; it concludes this discussion by decreeing that property cannot “devolve upon the feebleminded, dwarfs, and cripples.” With one stroke, it cuts such people off from the legal, genealogical body and subjects them to legal conditions elsewhere applied to people unable to express their rationality in socially normative ways.[10] To be sure, Henry de Bracton’s thirteenth-century compendium of English laws nuanced the Justinian code by allowing the entirely deaf to validate contracts by means of “signs and a nod.”[11] But even this modification still preserved the fundamental notion, namely, that certain impairments reduced people to a functional status of stones or nonhuman animals, without legally recognizable agency of their own.
In effect, since the Latin word “animal” could simply mean a “living” or “ensouled” thing,[12] common medieval references to “irrational animals” could functionally encompass several groups: nonhuman animals, humans with mental or intellectual impairment, and, less often, humans with deviant bodies. The phrase “mute animal” could similarly encompass both nonhumans and some humans. Although no widespread medieval law collapsed the distinction between these groups, rhetorical comparisons between nonhumans and impaired humans were frequent. They appear in work by, for example, Augustine (“they differ little from the beasts of the field”), Henry of Ghent (without “intellect…they remain only an animal”), Aquinas (“so long as man has not the use of reason, he differs not from an irrational animal”), and Henry de Bracton, who declares that the insane “are not far removed from brute beasts which lack reason.”[13] Proverbs did similar work: in Middle English, one could be “deaf as an adder,” “mad as a goose” and blind “as a bear,” “as Bayard,” a common horse’s name, or “as a beetle,” a word that denoted either an insect or a hammer.[14] This logic at least implicitly asserted that nonhuman animals were impaired by their own natural capacities, while impaired humans were not quite human.
A humanist disability rights perspective would at least hesitate before these comparisons, because they disable impaired humans by reducing them to a condition of being animals or even objects.[15] It might argue that deviations from the normative human body should be understood only as deviations within the range of human possibility, not as animal degradation. Without denying the fact that humans can suffer deprivations to which humans are uniquely vulnerable (for example, an awareness of legal exclusion), and therefore without declaring, for example, that “humans and animals are really the same,” my work in critical animal studies and posthumanism encourages me to linger with these comparisons instead of simply decrying them. Of course I am not the first to argue in this way. Sunuara Taylor begins an essay about her own impairment, animal metaphors, and animal rights by listing animal insults used against her impairment and those of others; but she admits that when she walks, she really does “resemble a monkey,” in particular, a chimpanzee. These comparisons need not “be negative.”[16] Rather, Taylor argues that they offer an opportunity to rethink embodiment, dependence, and autonomy so that nonhumans might be included in what might be called a vegan community of impairment. With this work, we can recognize that the paired accusations of impairment against nonhumans and certain humans alike call not for a reassertion of precritical humanism and its hierarchies of significant vulnerability, but rather for a reevaluation of the social and ethical functions of impairment, disability, and agency. Mel Y. Chen’s Animancies carries out this work thoroughly. In case studies ranging from lead paint and burst oil wells, to furniture, to the insidious feline genius of Fu Manchu, to semi-domesticated chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, Chen tracks how certain groups and forms of life—particularly impaired people, racialized immigrants, and the sexually heterodox—are culturally invested with varying degrees of liveliness, agency, responsibility, and animalization. Chen prefers not to shift excluded people up the “animancy hierarchies” of “Western ontologies,”[17] however politically advantageous this reaffirmation would seem to be such groups. Rather, as with other feminist reevalations of materialism, agency, vulnerability, and autonomy, Chen prefers to “reside in this…negative zone”[18] to jostle aside the centrality of claims to agency and animancy in arguments for rights, justice, and care.[19]
Taylor and Chen’s work happily stymy one possible, straightforward argument about animalized metaphors of disability and the social animalization of impaired humans. This would be the assertion that nonhumans, being variously suited to each of their particular environments, are not in fact impaired, and that any supposedly natural animal impairment should be understood instead as representing multiple sensory and bodily norms, rendered “abnormal” and disabled only as an effect of environments and cultures built for other norms. Such a reading would effectively “deanimalize” animals by both freeing them of their negative cultural associations; it would invest them with the agency that uncritical humanism assumes them to lack; and it would simultaneously perform an analogous function for impaired people. Against these critical mistakes, I can also offer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “misfit” model of disability, which, by emphasizing material conditions fitted for certain bodies and capacities, deemphasizes the supposed personal bodily inadequacies of the disabled subject, so that “vulnerability is in the fit, not in the body.” Garland-Thomson argues that “fitting” requires a “generic body” in a “generic world,”[20] while I would push this point perhaps past the point of utility by arguing that any no fit can ever be perfect, because there is no perfectly generic world and certainly no perfectly adequate fit. The ineradicable vulnerability and ongoing unbalanced homeostasis of any entity means that no body, even those that belong to the community of “uniform, standard, majority bodies,”[21] can ever be perfectly fitted to its environment.
The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on an encounter that foregrounds and preserves such misfit moments. This is the meeting of Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens, which I offer as an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together, for both historical cultural studies and perhaps even more present-minded cultural studies. The encounter is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds by continuous effort). This encounter does not affirm any bodily or environmental norms. It instead emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it.





[1] Like all cultural studies that unsettle categories that “go without saying,” terminology is a central issue in disability studies. For useful recent surveys of terminological debates from a medievalist perspective, see Joshua R. Eyler, “Introduction: Breaking Boundaries, Building Bridges,” Joshua R. Eyler, ed., Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 1–11, and Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy, “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages,” New Medieval Literatures 15 (2013): 313–39. My chapter uses the social model of disability, in which “impairment” indicates the subjective experience or condition of discomfort, incapacity, illness, and so on, while disablement/disability occurs because of physical or social expectations and architectures that reduce or deny cultural participation to people with impairments (stairs rather than ramps are the classic example). This division between impairment and disability is analogous to the sex/gender division and vulnerable to the same critiques.
[2] Carl Sigmund Barach, ed., Excerpta e libro Afredi Anglici De motu cordis item Costa-ben-Lucae De differentia animae et spiritus liber translatus a Johanne Hispalensi (Innsbruck: Wagner’schen University Press, 1878), 138-39. Barach’s edition, which has the nonsensical “solari” living far from the sun, requires supplementing with other copies of the work; Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer 10, 245r, for example, reads "ut sclavi et mauri" [like Slavs and Moors], which respectively stand for those "longe distare a sole uel uicinare" [a long ways or close to the sun].
[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, trans. James J. Lennox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 686b23-9; the Greek is “νανῶδες.” Michael Scot, De animalibus: Michael Scot’s Arabic-Latin translation. Part Two, Books XI-XIV: Parts of Animals, ed. Aafke M. I. van Oppenraaij (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187–88. Michael Scot’s source may be drawing on discussions of body mass in Aristotle Parts of Animals 689a25.
[4] Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum: Editio Princeps Secundum Codices Manuscriptos, ed. Helmut Boese (Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1973), 97.
[5] Ranulf Higden and John Trevisa, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby, 9 vols. (London: Longman & Co., 1865), Vol 2, 180-81, anonymous English translation from British Library, Harley 2261. Trevisa himself says nothing about nonhuman animals, but instead says only “þerfore Plato 3af his doom, and seide suche ordenaunce, disposicioun, and schap as a man haþ in his kyndeliche membres and lymes, suche kyndeliche maneres þey foloweþ in dedes.” For several medieval assertions of the independence of body and mind, see chapter four in Irina Metzler, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).
[6] For sources, and a longer discussion, see my How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), 47–50.
[7] Scriptural translations are the Latin vulgate and, for the English, the Douay Rheims.
[8] Enarrationes in Psalmos, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) (hereafter PL), 37:1877. For a book-length discussion of the animancy of stones, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
[9] Paul Krueger, ed., Justinian’s Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLoed (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), II.12.13. Also see Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 5.1.12.2, 166.
[10] Eike von Repgow, The Saxon Mirror: A ‘Sachsenspiegel’ of the Fourteenth Century, trans. Maria Dobozy (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 69-70. For more on legal history, see Christian Laes, “Silent Witnesses: Deaf-Mutes in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Classical World 104.4 (2011): 451–73; Irina Metzler, “Reflections on Disability in Medieval Legal Texts:  Exclusion – Protection – Compensation,” in Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society, ed. Cory James Rushton (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 19–53; and Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).
[11] Henry de Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England, ed. George E Woodbine, trans. Samuel E Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), Vol. II.286. For evidence of the persistence of this law, see Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, 12th ed., vol. 4 (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1793), Vol. I, 304, "A man is not an idiot, if he hath any glimmering of reason, so that he can tell his parents, his age, or the like common matters. But a man who is born deaf, dumb, and blind, is looked upon by the law as in the same state with an idiot; he being supposed incapable of any understanding, as wanting all those senses which furnish the human mind with ideas."
[12] For an example of the word’s range of meanings, see Alan of Lille, Distinctiones dictionum theologicalium, PL 210:701A–B.
[13] I draw all these examples from Metzler, Fools and Idiots, 108, 114, 120, and 154.
[14] Middle English Dictionary online (hereafter MED; accessed 8 August 2016), s.v. “bitil” and “betel.”
[15] For an admirable example of this kind of work, see Licia Carlson, The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 160-61.
[16] Sunaura Taylor, “Beasts of Burden: Disability Studies and Animal Rights,” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 192 and 196 [191–222]; see also Sue Walsh, “The Recuperated Materiality of Disability and Animal Studies,” in Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 20–36.
[17] Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). The first phrase (sometimes under the form “animate hierarchies”) appears 33 times in Chen’s book; although the latter phrase is from page 127, references to “Western” thought abound in her book. Medieval studies help challenge sedimented, homogenized notions of what constitutes “Western” thought.
[18] Ibid., 17; for one sample of feminist approaches to these issues, see Bronwyn Davies, “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 30 (1991): 42–53.
[19] For further work in this line, see Eunjung Kim, who, in writing about the artist Marina Abramović, asks “in what way can an embodiment of immobility and speechlessness challenge ableism, which is firmly grounded on the criterion to control one’s body to determine whether one qualifies as human?”; "Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects," GLQ 21.2-3(2015): 230.
[20] “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia 26.3 (2011): 600 and 594.
[21] “Misfits,” 595. For homeostasis and systems theory, see the first several chapters of Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ecocritical Update

Ogunquit beach, not long after sunset
by J J Cohen

[please read the guest post by Michael Johnston and Alex Mueller on rethinking the format of book reviews first -- it is SO GOOD.]


Hello everyone, I'm just back from Maine with stone, sea and briny breezes on my mind as the semester looms. Here are a few updates and links related to ecocriticism that have come my way in the past week. Some are medieval, some are not, and all (I hope) are worth your time. I hope that the fall semester is off to a good start for all who have in fact already started.

The latest issue of PMLA includes the special cluster that Stephanie LeMenager and I co-edited on "Assembling the Ecological Digital Humanities" (which we wanted to designate EcoDH, but oh those PMLA copyeditors). The pieces that were contributed are all very good: Joni Adamson on "Networking Networks and Constellating New Practices in the Environmental Humanities"; Allison Carruth on "Ecological Media Studies and the Matter of Digital Technologies"; Siobhan Senier on "Dawnland Voices 2.0: Sovereignty and Sustainability Online"; and Nicole Starosielski on "Resource Operations of the Ecological Digital Humanities." Medievalists will be especially interested in the short essays by Jonathan Hsy ("Language Ecologies: Ethics, Community, and Digital Affect"), A. R. Bennett ("The Ecology of Art-iculation and Aggregate Reading"), and Emily Lethbridge and Steven Hartman ("Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas and the Icelandic Saga Map"). You may download the introduction here if you wish.

An exhibition at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore examines medieval recycling. Lori Talcott has an exhibit at the Bellevue Art Museum Biennial called Conjugation that riffs on the medieval idea of the heart as a book. If you are in NYC, I will be speaking at "The Keeper" exhibit at the New Museum on Thursday Sept. 1.

Although I've often taught courses that combine medieval literature and ecocriticism (opening myself to the charge of anachronism that Alex and Michael so deftly refute: what a block to thinking such charges erect), I have never done a straightforward ecocriticism course before. That changes this year, when I offer a graduate seminar on the topic, structured around the theme of Noah's arkive. Syllabus is here; let me know what you think. And I am always collecting Noah stories: if you come across one you think I may not have, please send it my way!

Last, two things about Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, my own small attempt to imagine an ecocritical Middle Ages. You can find a short interview about the book at the University of Wisconsin Press blog, as a preface to Paul Harris's thorough review of Stone in the latest issue of SubStance. The book was also just reviewed by archeologist Lesley McFadyen for TMR, quite an intriguing experience from which I learned a great deal for future projects. And if you haven't seen it before, a modified section of the first chapter was published a while back in continent: it's yours to access and share.

And now to obsess about the first day of class, and plan what to do during my scheduled bouts of weekend insomnia.

Kant in King Arthur's Court: Charges of Anachronism in Book Reviews

[Check out this important guest post on academic book reviews.
There are two parts: 1. a problem; and 2. a way forward. - ITM co-bloggers]


"Unicorn" [yosuke muroya; original photo via Creative Commons]


Kant in King Arthur’s Court:
Charges of Anachronism in Book Reviews
Michael Johnston and Alex Mueller

Foreword: This blog post arose out of a series of conversations between the authors, which took place over several years (at seemingly every Kalamazoo, NCS, or MLA we both happened to be attending). Mike served as Book Review Editor for Arthuriana from 2008–2011, when he passed the baton to Alex, who still holds this position. Our experiences reading several reviews that bordered on mean-spirited and unfair, and our guilt for having commissioned them, brought us to lament the review process and to seek, over the course of these discussions, a better way forward. And then, as our own monographs and edited collections appeared in print and were subsequently reviewed, our desire for a more dynamic and dialogic, to say nothing of generous, review process was felt all the more acutely. What follows, then, is the result of our reflections on this process, with a particular focus on the charge of anachronism—a charge that was leveled recently at an essay Mike wrote, and one that is frequently used in what we have found to be an undertheorized way in numerous reviews of scholarship on the Middle Ages.

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We are anxious as hell about anachronism. And for good reason. The charge of anachronism is so common and so promiscuously leveled in book reviews that just about any work of historical scholarship is vulnerable to it. By anachronism, we don’t mean the creative kind, such as Dante being quoted within the Arthurian age of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. We mean the sort where reviewers accuse reviewees of the “mistaken” use of a modern term for a medieval phenomenon or of making an “armchair” judgment about an ancient form of xenophobia. It is, after all, the hallmark of the reviewer’s expertise to be able to identify something out of joint and censure its presence as the result of uninformed, amateurish, or shoddy research. And while we believe it can be productive to question a scholar’s imprecise use of modern terminology to characterize premodern behavior or concepts, the charge of anachronism is often made in the name of indifferent moral evaluation. Rather than, for example, going so far as to label medieval accusations of host desecration and well poisoning as “antisemitic,” this modern condemnation of hate speech can be dismissed as “unknowable” to medieval people like Chaucer, leaving him and his contemporaries inculpable for their indulgence in this common fourteenth-century discourse.

At its core, this position of indifference is situated within a well-studied philosophical debate about making moral evaluations, particularly about cultures that are geographically or temporally distant from us. As a well-known critic of moral relativism, Bernard Williams qualifies his position in favor of making moral assessments to account for what he calls a “relativism of distance,” in which moral appraisals should not be made about the practices of ancient cultures operating within completely different and temporally distinct moral paradigms. To emphasize what he feels is the absurdity of such moral evaluations, he asks, “Must I think of myself as visiting in judgement all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical or political thought?”[1] These rhetorical questions are particularly compelling for those of us who work in medieval studies, especially the audience for this blog, which has long embraced such critical anachronisms in scholarly work, from postcolonial critique to queer theory to posthumanist analyses. Yet, this hasn’t stopped many of us from exclaiming “ANACHRONISTIC!” whenever we catch someone using “hacking” to describe medieval textual appropriations or whenever we sniff out some feminist critique of the misogyny of the “heroic ideal” of the Middle Ages. As readers of this blog well know, scholars who pursue the latter are additionally accused of being caught up in the dreaded “femfog” – a kind of anachronistic feminism that has confused their judgment about pre-feminist medieval values.  

We therefore want to examine two kinds of charges of anachronism, which paradoxically view our scholarly relationship to the Middle Ages from opposite angles. Both of these will probably be familiar to most medievalists. The first rebukes scholars who fail to imagine themselves in the Middle Ages, failing to constrain themselves to only those terms and concepts of which Augustine and Boethius would approve. When faced with an act of compilation, we better call it compilatio, and God forbid we call it a remix. The second criticizes scholars for arrogantly imagining themselves in the Middle Ages, condemning any medieval practices that offend their modern scholarly sensibilities. We can’t be Kants in King Arthur’s court, making judgments about ancient cultures that operated within different moral contexts. And while we believe the ubiquity of these two charges of anachronism could be demonstrated within many scholarly venues, including conference papers, articles, and monographs, we want to call attention to their persistent presence within book reviews. We have both served as book review editors and remain frequent reviewers ourselves, so we are acutely sensitive to the difficult task of reviewing books, which is often thankless, gut-wrenching, and uncompensated work. Despite its low status and priority within our profession, we both believe strongly in the importance of book reviews, particularly those that engage with the arguments of books and offer challenging, which sometimes means highly critical, assessments that continue the scholarly conversation at hand. Yet, we have become discouraged by how often reviewers engage in dismissive critiques of risk-taking books, too often tossing them into the dustbin of “anachronistic” work. We think it’s in all of our best interests to stop doing this.

To test our hunch about the invocation of “anachronism” in book reviews, we set our sights on our favorite, and arguably the most widely read, venue for reviews of monographs and edited collections on medieval topics, The Medieval Review (TMR). After reading through a number of recent reviews and encountering “anachronism” and “anachronistic” as often as we suspected, we ran a simple search on the journal website for all instances of “anachronis*,” which resulted in 241 hits. While many instances of anachronism are not used pejoratively – sometimes it is even used positively – its prevalence nevertheless reveals the hold it has on many reviewers’ lexicons. Among the numerous reviews we could discuss in this regard is Richard Raiswell’s review of Kathy Lavezzo’s book, Angels on the Edge of the World. Raiswell offers a number of engaged critiques of Lavezzo’s book, but nearly all of his objections constellate around the use of modern terminology and concepts to describe medieval phenomena, in this case literary interpretations of mappae mundi. The danger of this approach, he contends, “is to impose an exclusively post-Enlightenment reading on them, and, by extension, to court anachronism.” While we think all medievalists would agree that we should be as precise as possible in our analysis of medieval practices, which often means distinguishing the premodern from the modern, we also question our capacity or desire to vacate our own particular historical moment. During what epoch exactly does Raiswell expect us to be reading these things? To read it in the “now,” Raiswell seems to suggest, we are doing something invalid, “court[ing] anachronism,” a charge he levels twice. Raiswell’s complaint seems to be that anachronism per se is to be avoided, and that modern theoretical constructs can only be applied to understanding the Middle Ages if the constructs themselves would have been intelligible to people in the period. This leaves little room for theory’s real work—unpacking a text’s tacitness and gestures, while helping to elucidate what the text itself is unable, or unwilling, to say. If we believe that Lavezzo fails to consider important medieval contemporary contexts, then we should, of course, lodge that complaint, but this critique in itself does not negate or undermine the significance of using modern theories of the nation to enrich our understanding of the function or interpretive work of medieval maps.

To browse other instances of “anachronism” in TMR or other journals that host reviews  is to find similar objections to scholarship that allegedly fails to repress its modernity. Two recent books that have boldly thrown anachronistic caution to the wind are Kathleen E. Kennedy’s Medieval Hackers and E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots. In a review of both of these books in Medievally Speaking, Robin Wharton evaluates these monographs on their own terms and then broaches the subject of anachronism in a refreshingly productive and inquiring way: “[B]y deliberately embracing anachronism in their terminology, Kennedy and Truitt more clearly announce the immediate relevance of their projects beyond medieval studies. Further, the juxtaposition enacted in both titles between modern technology and the qualifier ‘medieval’ insists on difference, even as it leverages analogy. I did often question whether the implicit analogy between pre-modern and postmodern ‘hackers’ or ‘robots’ or ‘automatons’ was actually useful. To prompt such a reaction, however, may have been precisely what Kennedy and Truitt intended.” Rather than simply dismiss these books as irredeemably anachronistic, Wharton offers a challenge to the reader, one that asks us to grapple carefully with the relationship between current practices and terminology and those of the distant past. Some of us may indeed end up deciding that some of these terms dilute or collapse important distinctions between the medieval and modern, but do we really want to use anachronism per se as a litmus test for evaluating scholarship? Is it even possible to avoid anachronism in our work? Or do we want medieval studies to recognize anachronism as a necessary, and often even a productive, element of our investigations of the past?

While we are discouraged by how often we encounter objections to terminological anachronism, we are more disturbed by the second objection to anachronism, which condemns, ipso facto, moral evaluations of medieval practices. For an example of this, we turn to a critical response to a recent essay of Mike’s, “Constantinian Christianity in the London Manuscript: The Codicological and Linguistic Evidence of Thornton’s Intentions,” which appeared in a volume he co-edited with Susanna Fein, Robert Thornton and His Books: New Essays on the London and Lincoln Manuscripts (York Medieval Press, 2014). The vast majority of Mike’s essay consists of a linguistic analysis of the opening texts in the London Thornton Manuscript (London, British Library MS Additional 31042), which opens with selections of the life of Christ from Cursor mundi, which is followed by the Northern Passion, which details Christ’s crucifixion. Thornton then copied The Siege of Jerusalem, which details the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, painting this event as the Jews getting their comeuppance for having killed Christ. And then, finally, Thornton included two Charlemagne romances (around which he placed two short religious lyrics), in which the Muslims are defeated like their Jewish forebears had been. At even a cursory glance, it is clear that Thornton’s series of texts narrates a Christian historiography founded on the subjugation of the non-Christian Other. In his essay, Mike sought to ferret out, using the dialect layers of each text, how many different exemplars lay behind this series, and thus how much responsibility Robert Thornton had, as the manuscript’s compiler, for actualizing this particular literary sequence.

It turns out, Thornton was largely responsible for this sequence, and this struck Mike as significant, not only in terms of codicology and the history of the book, but also as a noteworthy example of a flesh-and-blood fifteenth-century English reader whose Christianity and historiography were predicated on supersession. So, as a parting shot in the essay, Mike cited Cornel West’s admittedly potted history of Christianity from Democracy Matters, in which West sees the Church, after Constantine marries it to the State, as being complicit in a host of oppressive and reactionary measures against various minorities. In this vision of salvation history, Rome neutered Christ’s radical egalitarianism, turning religion into just another institutional arm of the state. Mike cited only West in this regard, but it is worth noting that West did not coin the phrase “Constantian Christianity,” nor is he alone among modern scholars in using this as a heuristic. Such august theologians as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas (the latter arguably the most influential theologian of the last fifty years) have gotten great mileage out of it. In our neck of the woods, it underpins much of the scholarship of David Aers. So it did not strike Mike as particularly controversial or outlandish to use this category as a way to frame Thornton’s efforts to create a particularly anti-Jewish and -Muslim historiography.
            But one reviewer did not see it this way, remarking that

Upset by Thorton’s anti-Semitic polemics, Johnston comes to the awkward and anachronistic conclusion that “Thornton crafted his own unique combination of texts, one that speaks to the very worst impulses of medieval Christianity: the denigration of the non-Christian Other” (199). Johnston admires Thornton’s efforts, but at the same time calls his output a “morally retrograde product” (200). The absurdity of transferring our own moral values and our own concept of tolerance onto medieval individuals culminates in Johnston citing Cornel West’s complaint of what “Constantian Christianity” did to “women, people of colour, and gays and lesbians” (ibid.). It is really a pity that Johnston’s deserving investigation of Thornton’s editorial and scribal achievements results in such an arrogant and anachronistic assessment of Thornton’s personality.[2]

In the space of a few sentences, the charge of anachronism pops up twice, and we see this particular review as a perfect crystallization of what we are here identifying as the second form of anachronism, one that rejects the very idea of standing in ethical relationship to the past. The reviewer contends that it is anachronistic for Mike to have labeled Thornton’s anti-Jewish and -Muslim sequence as representing the worst parts of medieval Christianity. But surely, medieval Christianity had a virulent strain of anti-Judaism, and surely we find this repugnant. This is not to say, of course, that medieval Christianity, any more or less than the Christianity of today, was doctrinally, liturgically or intellectually monolithic. But surely it is well within the scholar’s remit to note when a historical figure went out of his way to draw liberally from the available well of anti-Semitic thought.

Such sentiments as this reviewer expressed would effectively erect a barrier between past and present, forbidding any sort of reflection on how our morality has developed over time. This is not a scholarly practice we would endorse, and it’s not the world of scholarship we would like to live in. But more to the point, we think such attitudes to historical judgment are undertheorized and unreflective. There is, after all, a large body of philosophical literature on this question, most of which has met with a resounding silence among medievalists at large, but particularly those among us who throw down the gauntlet of anachronism.[3] And while space prohibits an extensive lit review, it is worth drawing attention to a few major voices in the philosophical debates about the justification of passing moral judgments on the past. No less than Hegel wrestled with this question, insisting that while ethical systems of the past can be valid for their time, it is a separate matter altogether as to whether they are rational. Opening up a space between a past action’s validity and its rationality places a large burden on the moral judgment of the philosopher commenting on an ethical system’s rationality.[4] In a different but related vein, Miranda Fricker concedes that we cannot morally evaluate the actions of individuals who lived under entirely different systems of thought. But in place of the sorts of moral agnosticism towards the past that we find subtending most book reviews in medieval studies, Fricker proposes “a kind of critical judgement I call moral-epistemic disappointment. This style of critical judgement is appropriately directed at an individual agent whose behaviour we regard as morally lacking, but who was not in a historical or cultural position to think the requisite moral thought—it was outside the routine moral thinking of their day.”[5] Fricker’s suggestion offers a sort of middle-ground, one that respects the fact that ideology provides limits to what is thinkable, while simultaneously allowing us to register discontent with those who failed to see beyond the limitations of their day. Both Peter Singer and Steven Pinker ground notions of moral progress in evolutionary psychology. For Singer, the history of human evolution has been one of an ever-widening circle of concern, from kin altruism to group altruism all the way to today’s standard of universal human rights. One of the effects of the evolution of reason within human societies is the development of a moral sense, particularly putting the concerns of others on an equal footing to our own.[6] Likewise Pinker argues that violence has declined precipitously across human history, thanks to a combination of the still-evolving moral capacity within the very structures of our brains, alongside the development of human institutions (e.g., government, democracy) that facilitate cooperation.[7] Both Singer and Pinker unapologetically contend that humans have become morally superior as history has progressed.

We offer this brief foray into moral philosophy and evolutionary psychology not as an endorsement of any of these positions, but rather to underscore that the question of how we ought to view the past is more complex than reductive charges of anachronism would admit. How to judge the past has been a live question in philosophy for a number of years, and we in the world of literary studies would be well served to listen to their debates. But perhaps we medievalists didn’t need to look so far outside our discipline, for one of the gems of medievalism, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has been underscoring the message for us since 1889. Most of us will no doubt know the story well, but the point we wish to raise here is simply that Hank Morgan recognizes the absurdity of a good deal of medieval life, and he points it out to great comic effect. He is not afraid to engage in the sorts of moral evaluations of the past that many critics today would find anachronistic. But Twain never lets us forget the opposite side of that coin, for Hank’s own blindnesses and unthinking cultural chauvinism remind readers that 1880s America was in need of moral evaluation, as well. And perhaps a fear that we have our own moral blindspots and are thus in no position to be standing in judgment of other times and places is why, in the end, we cry “anachronism” when we encounter scholarship making evaluative claims. But perhaps the final lesson ought to come from Twain, who would license us to comment on the moral systems of the past, provided we remain open to an entirely different set of moral failings of the present. Both are necessary, and Twain would wince at the thought that we must remain silent about the ethical ideals of the past. As critics who engage with cultures of the past, we remain convinced that we are justified in labeling anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or whatnot, when we see it.

A WAY FORWARD: A PROPOSED SOLUTION

In conclusion, we are not going to be so bold as to offer a new scholarly methodology as a buttress against often reflexive charges of anachronism in reviews. Instead, we wish to close with some reflections on the process of reviewing in general, which we hope might remedy our current critical moment. In this moment, it is all too often that the charge of anachronism emerges when theoretically inclined work ends up in the hands of a less theoretically inclined reviewer. The less theoretically inclined reviewer ends with the final word, and we as scholars read far more reviews than actual books—using, that is, reviews to help us decide in which books we should invest our time and expendable income. We believe that, were the review process to be fixed (and it is currently broken, in our humble opinions), we could create a space for actual dialogue about the ideas in scholarship. Such a dialogue would, for example, allow scholars like Lavezzo, Kennedy and Truitt to engage their critics in a dialogue about anachronism. And it would, of course, allow all scholars to engage with critiques of any sort that might be leveled against their work. We believe that charges of anachronism, so often reflexive and undertheorized, have proliferated and become the fabric of reviews because the review process largely does not allow for such allegations to be challenged. As book review editors, we have published reviews that we thought merited responses, and as regular readers of book reviews, we have encountered reviews that we considered to be unfair, but the current format of most journals does not provide a forum for such a dialogue.


After the publication of a particularly mean-spirited and dismissive review of his book Translating Troy, Alex wrote to the journal’s book review editors to request the opportunity to respond. The editors refused, offering no other justification for their refusal other than “the journal has never published a response to a review in its entire history.” Alex explained that the review contained obvious mischaracterizations of the contents of his book, but to no avail. The very fact that the journal had never allowed for it in the eighty-plus years of its existence was reason enough. Mike, happily, reports a more positive experience, one that, we believe, points the way forward towards a more dynamic and positive engagement between reviewer and reviewee, and offers the chance for a more fruitful dialogue about the nature of anachronism.
In Mike’s case, “Reviews in History,” an online review venue published under the auspices of the Institute of Historical Research, commissioned a review of his Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England. In their review process, the editor of the journal sends a pre-publication copy of the review to the author, offering him/her a chance to write a response. Both are then published simultaneously on the site. What results is no longer the standard monologic, authoritative diktat of the reviewer, who issues forth his/her judgment in isolation, forcing the reader to rely on the auctoritas of the reviewer in abstraction. When the author can respond to the review, a dialogue—incipient and abortive, to be sure, but a dialogue nonetheless—begins to emerge.

What would happen, we wonder, if the book review process were opened up to include more than just one reviewer’s voice? We believe efforts like “Reviews in History” are steps in the right direction, but we think more could be done. After all, many author-responses come off as sour grapes, and journals usually allow such responses on an ad hoc basis, typically when passions within a review have run high or the review was particularly salacious. More important than the author’s reply, we feel, is response from the larger scholarly community invested in the work. This commitment to including the voices of all invested readers, after all, is consistent with calls for opening up peer review more generally,
a topic that Alex has addressed in a recent essay in InsideHigherEd.com. Most print journals would not be able to accommodate the sprawling format of multiple reviews and responses, but we can imagine open online formats, in which multiple reviewers could offer opinions of the book, either though annotations on open access works or through separately published reviews that would be open to commentary and response. Such a forum could also release the pressure placed on individual reviewers, distributing the responsibility to a larger number of readers. And given the current gift economy of the reviewing business, we believe such formats could relieve, rather than increase, the current burden for reviewers.

Perhaps we have failed to convict some of our readers that charges of anachronism in reviews shut down conversation precisely where it should be opened up. If that’s the case, we remain confident that a different bugbear has become problematic in the world of reviews as you see it. In other words, insert your pet peeve about reviews here, and it, too, could likely be disappeared by allowing multiple voices—including the original author’s—into the review process. Thus, it remains our hope that many, if not most, of us want to take part in a conversation about how to improve the post-publication review process. No matter what we do, we would urge all of us to recognize that we are working both within and without the Middle Ages, to embrace the delicate dance of historical scholarship, and to consider more carefully the inherent role of anachronism in our work.     

Michael Johnston is an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University.
Alex Mueller is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.





[1] Bernard Williams, “Human Rights and Relativism,” in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 62-74, at 62.
[2] Ulrike Schenk, Review of Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston, eds., Robert Thornton and His Books, in Anglia 134.1 (2016): 162–67, at 165–66.
[3] One recent exception to what we here term a resounding silence is James Simpson’s very recent and very provocative, “Not Yet: Chaucer and Anagogy,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015): 31–54. Here, Simpson proposes that we widen our sense of historicism to include not only the synchronic moment of authorship and publication, but also what Simpson terms diachronic historicism, looking at how texts are actualized in future historical unfoldings.
[4] Mark Alznauer, Hegel’s Theory of Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), chapter 5.
[5] Miranda Fricker and Michael Brady, “The Relativism of Blame,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 84 (2010): 151–77. Note that, although this essay is co-written, the part from which we here draw is authored solely by Fricker.
[6] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, 2nd ed. (1981; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
[7] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Assembling Arthur at ICMS 2017

by Leila K. Norako

Arthur, about to disassemble
the Giant of St. Michael's Mount.
By G. H. Thomas (1862)  
Greetings all! I am thrilled to be here as Blogger #5, and am currently fast at work on a couple of longish posts that I hope to share in the near future. In the meantime, I want to share a description of the roundtable session that Leah Haught and I have co-organized for Kzoo 2017. We're looking for more panelists/contributors, and would love to hear from anyone interested in Arthurian romance and "compilational reading." 

As that term suggests, Arthur Bahr's work was a direct source of inspiration as we created the session, and I'm beyond delighted to say that he's agreed to serve as a respondent. You can find the full description below, and are more than welcome to send abstracts our way (to lhhaught@gmail.com and lknorako@gmail.com) anytime between now and September 15th. 


Assembling Arthur


            When we teach classes on the Arthurian tradition, many of us rely on anthologies such as James Wilhelm’s The Romance of Arthur or collections such as the William Kibler and Carleton Carroll edition of Chrétien de Troyes’ “complete” Arthurian Romances for the Penguin Classics Series.  While indispensable to such courses, these assemblages present Arthurian texts in ways vastly different from how they appear in medieval manuscripts.  Many medieval Arthurian texts, for instance, survive in a single manuscript alongside non-Arthurian writings and images from a wide array of diverse traditions and styles.  Indeed, even when a single text is extant in more than one manuscript or a single manuscript includes more than one Arthurian text, the different materials surrounding these contributions to the larger legend highlight the numerous interpretive potentialities associated with Arthuriana instead of advancing a fixed meaning for a given contribution.  Drawing on Arthur Bahr’s recent suggestion that literary value can be continuously (re)discovered among the interchanges between “codicological form and textual content” (Fragments and Assemblages 2013), this roundtable seeks to explore Arthurian manuscripts, broadly defined, as compilations.  What insights are gained about individual texts and/or the larger legend as a whole when we accept Bahr’s invitation to read “compilationally”?  How might such exchanges between codicology and formalism open up new avenues for future study of Arthuriana?  And how might accounting for the complex realities of the Arthurian manuscript tradition in the classroom invite our students to participate in these alternate modes of critical engagement?  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales

Collaboration makes the goodness happen! From the Golden Munich Psalter.
by KARL STEEL

This is a post to encourage you to read, and to COMMENT, on the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales. Brought to you by the genius of its editors (in alpha order, Candace Barrington, Brantley Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman), its writers (which include these extraordinary people, including Jonathan Hsy and me), and YOU.

YOU, especially if you are a Chaucerian or a teacher of Chaucer, or a graduate student working on Chaucer, or a long time Chaucer fan of whatever sort. For the Open Access element of the project means that many of its contributors (like me!) have had their essays posted to be read by you, and to get comments from you, which will be used to improve them with your help. Right now, about half the project is online and available for your most welcome participation.

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales is written for the classroom; it's online, for the classroom; and apart from the labor, and the server cost, it's free, and so far as your students go, it really is a free resource. If you're a medievalist in an English department, chances are that teaching The Canterbury Tales is one of the things you often do. This project, this wonderful project, will make that good thing even better.

I'll let the mission statement speak:
This is, we hope, a radically innovative enterprise and a new way of making a scholarly resource. The goal of the OA Companion is to put together a high-quality companion volume supporting first-time readers of the Canterbury Tales, and to provide it in an open-access downloadable format that’s free to all. When completed, the OA Companion will be made available online under a creative commons license. The OA Companion is intended for a global audience of English readers from a wide variety of institutions (or extra-institutional locations), and it features editorial principles and set chapter formats that blend scholarly precision with pedagogical adaptability. It’s a project that aims to go forward in a new way, directly from scholars to the public. We are not working through a traditional press or university structure.  The OA Companion project is improvisatory and exploratory. To bring something like this to fruition, the current team needs as much labor, expertise, and goodwill as the medievalist community is able to spare: we seek volunteers willing to share their skills and time as crowdsource reviewers, proof-readers, web designers, and advocates for the project.
Click here and join in. If you're teaching the Canterbury Tales this Fall, consider doing some of your teaching with this project; consider having your students read it and let you know what works and what doesn't; why not have them comment as part of their participation grade? Even if you yourself want to comment just to procrastinate on writing your syllabi (as I am!), know that it's all rather bite-sized: the pieces are short (~3000 words), sharp, smart, and a pleasure to read.

This collaborative model of knowledge production and community making really does enact the ethos that I'd like to believe went into and continues to drive this blog, and its readers. Do join in.