(readers may first want to read comments here and here if they have not been following the conversation so far)
A long time ago "Emile Blauche" and I were making similar arguments, and we were enduring similar critiques by scholars who thought our arguments were worthless. This was in Ye Olde Days of the Internet , a legendary time of theory wars and heated argument over methodologies. It seemed like you couldn't disseminate anything in a forum like Interscripta without someone telling you that your argument lacked value from its very starting point, or that it was unethical, or was simply not as good or as noble or as pure as the kinds of analyses in which that critical someone was engaged (typically aesthetics, old fashioned historicism, and/or vaguely Christian didactic criticism). Emile tended to be more of an absolutist, and I more of conjunctivist when it came to these interchanges, but we both thought the future of medieval studies mattered.
Emile no longer feels that way. He's left the fold, under circumstances that were -- to say the least -- unhappy. I'm glad that he has found fulfillment and a sense of mission in social work and psychoanalysis. I'm saddend that he has begun to deploy a vocabulary of critique that he used to be at the receiving end of, a critique that devalues from the start the endeavors of scholars who do not satisfy themselves with inert texts ansd unpeopled worlds. His words against disability studies or literary critics who write about trauma echo nearly verbatim criticism that was once aimed against the two of us and against other then-young medievalists who were bringing cultural studies and continental philosophy into the field.
Emile now asks me to compare what I do with my reading and books and blog and classroom to what he does as he counsels the families of suicide victims or writes chapters on geriatric care for practical textbooks. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin: I admit from the start that in the grand scales of cosmic justice, I with my decadent volumes and love of history and inclination to lose myself in philosophical abstraction cannot compete with how he helps veterans, hospital patients, children. When a college professor shoots himself in the head, no one is going to place me on the trauma team that rushes to assist the grieving family. So, Emile, I think that means you win.
But I'm not sure what you win, mainly because I never understood professors and social workers to be in some kind of competition to determine who is best for the ailments of the contemporary world. What I do as a medievalist and as a professor of English isn't often ameliorative. In fact I frequently aim to make my auditors and readers uncomfortable. I don't aspire to give anyone a better life. I cannot heal psychic wounds. I do have a strong sense of justice, but it is as often addressed to the dead and their textual traces as to the living.
Emile knows this. And yet Emile haunts this blog. His rhetoric has startled me, I admit. It's loaded with tired accusations, now launched from a different disciplinary base. But it is still an argument about boundary drawing. It is still police work, an attempt to discipline what others do -- because these other people do crazy / useless / unethical / wasteful things, unlike the Things That Patently Matter, things like helping the families of suicide victims, or aged vets; or because these others delude themselves into thinking that what they do is ethical, or useful, or world-changing. If they would only admit their own lack of worldliness, their love of the study over society, Emile writes in one of his first postings, he would be much the happier.
Eileen Joy answered Emile with more aplomb and insight than I could ever muster. A tack she did not take, though, was to question the supposedly self-evident superiority of Emile's new disciplinary grounding. Emile and I could in fact play all kinds of games in which we poke fun at the jargon of each other's field and talk about the production of useless research, the dissemination of empty knowledge, and the deployment of non-practical methodologies. We'd mainly be aiming at easy targets, as Emile does in his blanket condemnation of CFPs or as my colleague Margaret Soltan does at the University Diaries when she ranks psychology with leisure studies, communications, and spa studies as fields that are inherently not deep (she calls it "the flagrante stupido that is psychology"; see here for some UD links on the subject). Social work, let's be frank, is just as capable of manufacturing fluff, pablum and bullshit as any other academic field. It is not a discipline especially well known for its rigor or its philosophical depth. That says nothing about Emile, of course, just as Emile's invocation of self-deluded professors thinking that they are changing the world through scholarship says nothing about me or about Eileen Joy. But then again the invocation of such creatures does its rhetorical work.
Emile's venom for disability studies particularly irks me, because it reminds me so much of the sharp words I heard in grad school as queer theory was ascending, as feminism was making permanent inroads into literary studies. Emile might say that academic feminist and queer theory never helped real women and queers; I'd argue otherwise; he'd point to a plethora of esoteric articles about the queer feminisms of 19th C novels and ask me how such articles ever aided abused women or assisted stigmatized lesbians and gays ... and so on. We could get locked in an everlasting loop of intentional mutual misunderstanding, but at the end of the day I predict Emile would still believe that disability studies is useless, and I would believe it a philosophically weighty outgrowth of queer theory and feminism and all those other brilliant "-isms" that academics ponder so thoughtfully. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Robert McRuer, Michael Berube, Lennard Davis (to name just a few) are intellectuals whose work I greatly admire, far more so than the therapists and psychoanalysts that are the objects of Emile's ardor.
So why does Emile haunt this blog, considering that he evidently does not find much of value here? Steven Kruger's words in The Spectral Jew about the Christian idea of supersession come to mind. Medieval Christianity often thought of itself as having put Jewishness in the past, for Christianity was modernity itself. Yet that linear progress narrative was always interrupted by the fact that some Jews remained alive and seemed profoundly uninterested in conversion. Worse, there was even a lingering tinge of Jewishness in Christianity itself. I criticized Emile for his harsh binaries once before. I'll now add that even after Saul became Paul there was still a lot of Saul left in him. That lightning bolt from the sky wasn't quite the final revelation it announced itself to be. Emile, you remind me of Petrus Alfonsi, converted Jew, dismissing with icy words the blind Moses he used to be. This spectral Moses was silenced in the end, of course, but the brilliance of Kruger's book is that it so well demonstrates why Moses never in fact completely deserted the Peter who could no longer love him.
I'm not much given to negative critique. For the most part I find it nonproductive, even embittering; too often it amounts to a call for silence from its scorned object, like Peter dismissing Moses. As a consequence, I am certain that if you did a search of the word "brilliant" on this blog you would have to conclude that I am the most enthusiastic and uncritical of medievalists. That's not really true, of course (or at least I hope it is not true), but I will admit that I tend to quietly pass over that which fails to interest me. A critical praxis that is not affirmative isn't worth embracing. But that's just me.