Tuesday, August 01, 2006
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.