Tuesday, August 01, 2006

post NCS post

These reflections upon the New Chaucer Society conference, just concluded in NYC, owe much to conversations that unfolded outside of the panels and sessions: an evening of drinks at the Abbey Pub with some very smart graduate students (thank you, JKW, for arranging); Indian food with two friends who, among other things, publish queer medieval studies; over wine at the conference's official receptions, where I cornered or was cornered by four prominent medievalists who happen to be Jewish, and where we had a conversation about what a non-Christian Middle Ages might look like, within or against the conference's frame; during cocktails at the Hudson hotel bar (no, I am not an alcoholic) with some elegant and merry members of BABEL, as well as the next evening in the same place, this time with with several graduate students. In other words these are not reflections I thought up by my lonely self as I sat in attendance at the conference's papers (many of which are obviously behind this post as well). A garrulous community stands (or imbibes) behind what follows.

Since this is a blog, and all blogs most promote blogs, a word about blogs and NCS. I earlier mentioned that David Wallace in his presidential address briefly cited Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog . As Wallace went on to detail some of the "New Chaucer Topographies" he has been mapping, it occurred to me that had he lingered over the Chaucer blog he might have found a cultural artifact as important as any text or performance he did discuss. As Stephanie Trigg well argued in her paper later that day, separating the medieval from medievalism, the scholarly kosher from the fluffily popular, is neither easy nor always desirable. Trigg wondered what is at stake in maintaining such demarcation zealously. Looking at something as unprecedented in scholarly circles as the Chaucer blog, it's difficult not to agree with Trigg's assessment. The blog - take my word for it - is not composed by a Langlandian ABD. Its author is a scholar who has thought deeply about what - besides the hawking of extremely clever tee shirts - the forum given by the blog might accomplish in the larger world. Because Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog has been publicized through viral emails (can you tell I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's overearnest The Tipping Point at NCS?) and through notices on other blogs and internet publications (e.g. Boing Boing), it has been able to bring the attention of many, many readers to Chaucer. The specific Chaucer these readers encounter, moreover, foregrounds the place of enjoyment in the study of and artistic encounter with the Middle Ages. The Chaucer that the blog offers, it strikes me, is very different from the Chaucer of the NCS conference. Whereas the latter is serious, pious, ponderous (the vast majority of papers I attended focused upon the most sober of Chaucer's works), Le Vostre GC of the blog is joyful, playful, cutting, inventive. My guess is that the blog's ebullient version of Chaucer is going to have a strong if quiet impact upon the visions of the author that future scholars will dream.

The Chaucer blog's careful satire crosses historical lines so gleefully that the whole project can be called temporally impure (I mean that as a compliment, in the same way that Carolyn Dinshaw found affirmative possibility in the heterogeneous temporalities that she described as coursing through medieval Christianity). A scholarly talk aspires to become a scholarly essay, a piece that will appear in Studies of the Age of Chaucer and will then be filed on a library shelf, yearning to attract the occasional scholar. The Chaucer blog, on the other hand, will long survive its own termination; the internet has a way of never allowing the writing disseminated into its spaces to vanish. Just as important as the blog's single-author main text, moreover, is the forum's openness to reader commentary and, in some cases, reader intervention. Also not to be neglected is the blog's sidebar of outlinks. By connecting Chaucer to socially progressive concerns like Gay Men's Health Crisis and Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the blog proposes a version of this poet who has something of relevance to say to contemporary identities, crises, politics.

So much for blogs. Another strand of thought that emerged for me against some of the conference was where, in the answers to questions like "What is the future of the field?" is the place of the non-Christian? By that I mean the medieval non-Christian, textual and actual; the non-Christian critic of medieval Christian texts; and the non-Christiancentric accounting of the Middle Ages, one that doesn't take "The Triumph of Christianity" as having always been a foregone conclusion but allows that ascendancy contingency and critique. Several scholars, when meditating upon interpretive practice, invoked "faith" as if a transparent term, but not every creed (even within itself) understands faith in the same way. Nor does every religion value faith as Christianity does. It was wonderful to hear the Holocaust-inspired work of Levinas invoked during one of the Ethics panels; it was a bit troubling to have Levinas's notion of the retroactive pardon applied to the Pardoner, at least without some slight acknowledgement that the persecution of Jews can't be completely unlinked from the desires and legacies of medieval Christianity. Carolyn Dinshaw spoke movingly of the multiple temporalities that inhabit Christianity. One of those temporalities within Christianity is a specifically Jewish time (Steve Kruger has written eloquently about this complicated time-space where Jews were made to dwell). What happens when that temporality you never chose is the one you find yourself locked inside?

Some new Chaucer topographies are easily discerned, especially from afar: postcolonial rewritings of Chaucer, like postcolonial rewritings of Shakespeare, are excellent food for thought. They are especially appealing because they are timely. Other topographies, like the electronic reanimation of a long dead author in an artistic and participatory medium that didn't exist until very recently, or the collegial questioning that unfolds in a conference's peripheral but most convivial spaces, are so close to ground level that they are not quite as easy to spot. Like all events that take hold in the substrata these are likely to have profound effects on the futures of the field, especially as we look beyond the ambit of the near future and try to glimpse the Chaucer -- and the Middle Ages -- of a decade or more hence.


Eileen Joy said...

In his post-NCS comments, JJC wrote:

"As Stephanie Trigg well argued in her paper later that day, separating the medieval from medievalism, the scholarly kosher from the fluffily popular, is neither easy nor always desirable. Trigg wondered what is at stake in maintaining such demarcation zealously. Looking at something as unprecedented in scholarly circles as the Chaucer blog, it's difficult not to agree with Trigg's assessment. The blog - take my word for it - is not composed by a Langlandian ABD. Its author is a scholar who has thought deeply about what - besides the hawking of extremely clever tee shirts - the forum given by the blog might accomplish in the larger world."

It has never ceased to amaze me that those who take as their primary object of study the *artistic* productions of the Middle Ages are often incredibly zealous in guarding the so-called historical "authenticity" of those same subjects, often draining in the very same process, the subversive intellectual/emotive energies that, in all times and places, are necessary to the creative process. So, we *study* art, but we cannot allow ourslves to be overtaken by artistic impulses, nor can we allow "Others" [non-scholarly types] to appropriate "our" material and do something "ahistorical" or unserious or iconoclastic with it [like "Irishize," as Heaney did, "Beowulf" or turn "Beowulf" into a 25th-century sci-fi epic or, god forbid, cast Angeline Jolie as Grendel's mother in the soon-to-be-in-production film version of "Beowulf" or write Margery Kempe into a contemporary pornographic pseudo-memoir, as Robert Gluck did, and so on and so forth]. Well, it's not that we don't *allow* it so much as we often disparage these artistic appropriations of medieval texts as "interesting, yet ultimately silly" or "interesting, yet so historically inaccurate that we should adopt a kind of 'on guard' historical custodian stance toward them." What "we" do is serious historical work and what "they" do is engaging and amusing but ultimately not "important."

In order to truly understand the artist of any age, one has to try and inhabit his [or her] creative process and the ways in which their art, when it is very good, is always pushing the limits of what is expressible in a particular time and place, often by changing the rules of genre, fiddling with conventional narrative expectations, reinventing medium and language and form, and generally "making visible" the not-yet-thought. "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog" is, in my mind, a brilliant artistic experiment in time travel and performance art that is, at the same time, excellent scholarship. The person writing this blog [and I don't care what his/her "credentials" are as that is, simply just one more example of how we can't see the forest for the trees] has managed to take what is obviously a very deep understanding of Chaucer's life/career [such as we know it] and work and applied it to imaginative contemporary-yet-also-past historical contexts. One of the best examples of this was "Chaucer"'s interview of "Parys Launcecrona," who is obviously a stand-in, albeit in 14th-century garb, for Paris Hilton. In this one blog-post we get a brilliant satire, not only of our own obsession with vacuous celebrity, but also of an emerging bourgeois culture in the late Middle Ages. Once could call the "Chaucer" blog "intertemporal"--in the best sense.

How to get *into* the mind of a brilliant artist like Chaucer? Begin with mimicry of a highly learned sort. Mix up the contexts. See what happens. It wouldn't be so funny if it weren't also so smart. And that kind of humor is always *political*. We need more art in our scholarship.

Eileen Joy said...

I want to clarify something in my previous post--I did not mean to imply that there was a dismissive tone in Wallace's speech at the NCS meeting re: "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog" [albeit, there may have been--I wasn't there and am mainly reacting to JJC's comments post-the-facts]. Because I know that Wallace, and others [like Trigg] at the conference, were attempting to address the issues of the "timeliness" or "hipness" of Chaucer studies, or of "medievalism" in general and what medieval studies can learn from or *do* with popular-cultural appropriations, my main interest in all of this has mainly to do with calling into question, as I think JJC does, the ways in which we mark off, say, "scholarship" from "culture," and I think we do so in ways that are often strangulating to not only our scholarship but also to the ways in which we conceptualize the possibly productive relationship between historical work and contemporary art. The artist has always been an historian, and the historian has always been an artist. We just won't always acknowledge it. To do so more openly would not only be truthful, but freeing.

J J Cohen said...

I'm with you Eileen, and hope to post later in the week about my own abandoned attempt at some kind of scholarship-art hybrid. That monster wasn't pretty, and died horribly, mainly because of my own limited artistic skill.

As to David Wallace, I don't mean to be unfair to his wide-ranging remarks by focusing on a single, toss-off line. The analysis he gave of PoCo rescripting of the Canterbury Tales had an abiding appreciation for the meeting of critique and creativity.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, I know I've been guilty of scorning medievalism, and for years on the blogs, I got huffy whenever anyone said anything about the Middle Ages. I got most anxious, though, when I couldn't find anything wrong. I've been getting over it in recently.

It strikes me that the issue, the problem is sacrifice. I've sacrificed, or thought I sacrificed, myself to scholarship and have put in a lot of work. Sure, there's pleasure, but I feel as though I'm getting more out of it if I tell myself I'm not doing what I do for fun. That's an insidious lie, of course, and the ground of all kinds of nasty behavior (eg, deliberately sex-starved people who want to prevent the implementation of the HPV vaccine: thankfully, the FSA finally approved it...). And the fact is that, barring grading, I like my job. I even got a lot of pleasure out of reading Prick of Conscience and Cursor Mundi. Why? I guess my training lets me notice odd things about it.

So I suppose the point of all this rambling is not to be afraid of pleasure in scholarship, mine or anyone else's. And what harm does someone else's interest in the Middle Ages do me so long as it's not linked to some nasty nationalist program? I'd like to think that my role, now, is just to correct, nicely, those people who want to make the Middle Ages the locus of everything bad.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--I understand your comments about "pleasure" [or the lack thereof] and scholarship. It often seems that we are not allowed both simultaneously [or something like that--please, no bad jokes in reply to this]. Scholarship can be very hard and rigorous work, indeed, and sometimes art [or popular culture more generally] just seems . . . more fun [and therefore must be frivolous?--let's suspend this question].

I don't want anyone to think that I am making the argument that "anything goes" in historical scholarship, where the "truth"--however you want to define that--really is at stake. But Simon Schama, an historian who is famous for often blurring the line between "fact" and "fiction" has said that the study of history is "a resistance against oblivion, against loss. It tells you about what it was like to be a human being." This strikes me as well as a very apt description of art, which is not to say that all scholars can also be very adept artists--some will be very good at one or the other, some at both, some at a category of intellectual-artistic "being" that cannot be described in conventional terms [this is a question of "talent" as much as it is of "discipline" or "field"]. As someone with an MFA in fiction writing and a Ph.D. in medieval literature, I am attracted to the idea of a more artistically-inflected scholarship, while at the same time, I want to be as "true" to the historical record as I can be [this is where ethics comes in, but also historiography]. Ultimately, however, I think we have to find new ways to value the creative process and imaginative thinking more generally in our historical work as well as of embracing a more polyvalent scholarship that moves us beyond a thesis/antithesis dialectic towards a version of history that admits a more capacious pluralism of explanatory models [i.e., for every "effect" there are multiple causes and multiple ways of "explaining" those causes and effects].