Sunday, November 05, 2006

Futures of the Field: More on Hedgehogs. Also, Foxes.

Below you will find Kellie Robertson's remarks from the Futures of the Field symposium held at the George Washington University on October 27. I hope to have Kofi's remarks up soon as well.

According to Kellie, I am a hedgehog -- a suggestion at which initially I bristled ... but then I realized, I must be a hedgehog if I am bristling, right? Because that's what spiny mammals do. Anecdote: At Columbia University last night, just before the "Medieval Conversations" event, I was handed a double sided sheet of paper with quotations from my books, essays and blog arranged neatly into four categories -- fourteen years of work condensed into a tidy scheme. Kellie, you were right: I have seen the hedgehog and he is I.

I hope you enjoy Kellie Robertson's piece as much as my colleagues and I did.

On Hedgehogs, Foxes, and Medievalists

I appreciate Jeffrey’s invitation to think about the future of medieval studies, a topic that many people (including some medievalists) would consider to be an oxymoron.

Medievalists are, by nature, difficult. Contrary to the myth of “progress” that modern peoples ostensibly hold (and that good modernists work to debunk), medievalists are fonder of the ubi sunt theme. Like the medieval peoples we study, our first impulse may be to frame the question not as ‘where are we going?” but rather “where has it all gone?” For medievalists of a certain generation, the disciplinary glass always looks half empty rather than half full.

My thoughts on the future of medieval studies then will take the form less of prediction than of “retrodiction,” thinking about the past as uncanny prologue to the future. It will also, I’m afraid, indulge a quintessentially medieval passion for imitation and authority over invention.

For my auctor, I take Sir Isaiah Berlin; my materia, his well-known essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin’s title refers to a saying by the Greek poet Archilochus: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The world according to Berlin divides into two types of people: those who reflect on the complexity of life, following multiple courses wherever they lead—these are the foxes. And those for whom—to quote Chaucer—“all roads lead to Rome,” those who subordinate perceived anomalies to a more unified historical vision—these are the hedgehogs. Believing that life is too complex to reduce to a single system, foxes at their best are organic synthesizers whose diverse knowledges produce the cultural explanation we have all been waiting for (or, at least, the one we all deserve). At their worst, foxes are dilettantes: scattered, inconsistent, self-contradictory. Hedgehogs have the potential to become Kuhnian paradigm shifters, pointing out where we’ve been and where we are going. A poor man’s hedgehog, however, devolves into little more than a one-trick pony. Berlin’s alpha-hedgehogs include Plato, Lucretius, and Dante, while his foxes are Aristotle, Erasmus, and Shakespeare. A more recent example of this division can be found in the debate over the nature of populism that has erupted in the pages of the journal Critical Inquiry: on one side is Ernesto ‘the Hedgehog’ Laclau and on the other, Slavoj ‘the Fox’ Zizek.

Before we get too carried away with our sorting hats, Berlin himself acknowledged the limitations of this dichotomy, the absurdity that would ensue when taken to extremes. For Berlin--an expert in Russian literature—the dichotomy was useful for considering the case of Tolstoy’s views on history: was he “a monist or a pluralist”? more similar to Dostoevsky or Pushkin? Berlin concludes early on that Tolstoy belonged squarely to neither camp. Instead, Berlin argues that Tolstoy “was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog” (5). Tolstoy’s desire for “hedgehog-ness” not only led him to play false his own inner fox, but also to misinterpret his own work and world view, to do one thing, while consistently saying he was doing another. It is this insight that I believe can serve as a useful heuristic for thinking about the future of medieval studies, because it helps us to distinguish what we say we value as a field from what gets valued in practice, both personally and institutionally. Berlin can help us make sense of our desire to value multiplicity—interdisciplinarity, multiculturalism, comparativism, “knowing it all”—with our desire to tell cogent and compelling stories both about long-ago societies and about the present state of our own discipline.

Medieval studies was established by some venerable hedgehogs: Eugène Vinaver, the editor of Mallory and Caxton, Sir Israel Gollancz, editor of the Pearl-poet, William Skeat, editor of Chaucer and Langland, and the daddy of all medieval hedgehogs, Frederick Furnivall, who edited just about everything else. But we who follow stand on the shoulders of some distinguished and learned twentieth-century foxes: Georges Duby, Aaron Gurevitch, and, more recently, Peter Haidu. It is certainly the case that medieval studies has always been innately foxy in Berlin’s sense of that term. In order to “do” medieval studies, you supposedly have to know many things: paleography, Latin, literary theory, rhetorical theory, philosophy, ecclesiastical history, legal history; and, if you are exceptionally well-trained (or have an alarmingly high threshold for boredom), a smattering of codicology, diplomatics, prosopography, and archaeology. And yet often times knowing these many things gets put into the service of the one rather than the many: think of D.W. Robertson [no relation] for whom all of Chaucer became an allegory for the Christian virtue of caritas or ‘charity.’

So does the future of medieval studies lie with the hedgehogs or with the foxes? On the way to a contingent answer to this question, I’ll speak from my own disciplinary formation as well as my department’s recent search for a medievalist. Both cases, I think, highlight how our profession says it values foxes but, in reality, trains (and tenures) hedgehogs.

I went to graduate school to work with a brilliant and terrifying New Critic but also eventually ended up working with a practitioner of medieval New Historicism; my dissertation was directed by two deeply antipathetic hedgehogs. Things got even trickier when I decided that—unlike either of my advisors—I was interested in actual medieval manuscripts. I bullied my way into a Latin paleography class taught by a historian in the Beineke Rare Books Library (he tried to tell me that the class was full and that fire regulations would prevent my participation… yeah right). After my comps, I went to the UK for a year and a half where I adjuncted at the University of Leeds and spent my weekends in the Cambridge University Library manuscript room. The dissertation that eventually resulted from this work was on medieval translation—for those of you who know who Rita Copeland is, suffice to say, I was the poor woman’s Rita Copeland. I threw this dissertation away as soon as I landed my job as an assistant professor. Instead of the book on translation theory that both myself and my department thought I was going to write, I wrote one on labor history.

Unlike the New Historicist arch-fox who once famously claimed that he wrote out of a desire to [quote] “speak with the dead,” I write out of a desire to speak with the living. I chucked my dissertation because it wasn’t allowing me to have the conversation with modern critics that I wanted to have as a medievalist. The book I did end up publishing, entitled The Laborer’s Two Bodies, came out of reading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work on so-called “immaterial labor”—the contention that we live in a post-labor society marked by a movement towards intellectual and affective labor over productive labor. These claims made me want to investigate the historical partitioning of “material” from “immaterial” labors, particularly at the moment that the first national labor laws appeared in England.

As I discuss in my book, what was striking to me about Hardt and Negri was not that they read the changing relation of material to immaterial as the harbinger of a new labor era, but rather how much this new era of Empire (capital ‘e’) looked a lot like an older era, the Middle Ages. As the book ends of capitalism and colonialism—the premo and the pomo, the preco and the poco--the medieval and postmodern end up in cahoots. While the book Empire argues that the transition from imperialism to “Empire” marks the end of the medieval notion of translatio imperii, the book itself acts out a nostalgic medievalizing translation.

Negri reframes the incomplete autonomist political project of 1970s Italy in terms of Augustinian metaphysics, switching from linear, capital time to eschatological time. In Negri’s use of both medieval writers like Augustine and medievalizing writers like William Morris, we see a new sense that the medieval is not the displaced other of the present but is its likeness. Where twentieth-century critics like Hans Robert Jauss argued for the “alterity” of the Middle Ages in relation to the modern, Negri would see the medieval as twin of the postmodern. The medieval is no longer the pre-modern, rather it is the pre-postmodern. The dangers of this interest in the medieval as a category for analyzing modern labor relations is that it has the potential to obscure actual medieval labor practices or, moreover, that the medieval may be reduced to merely a trope for understanding our own position vis-à-vis a “post-capital” nexus of relations. Wanting to be a part of this conversation is what led me to slog through several centuries of labor laws and court records.

My new book, entitled Material Chaucer, arose from a similar desire to speak with (or perhaps more accurately, argue with) the living. The historian of science Bruno Latour has argued that it was in the seventeenth century, with the advent of Boyle and Hobbes—a new model of empiricist science met a new social theory—that the demarcation between the human and the nonhuman solidified. Because Latour and his audience are predominantly interested in defining where “modernity” begins, they have been less inclined to examine how this ostensibly more permeable boundary between bodies and things may have been sustained in the Middle Ages or, moreover, how it may have continued after the seventeenth century. Thus my book, which is a history of medieval materialism masquerading as a study of Chaucer’s poetics, seeks to show that, while the seventeenth-century laboratory may have been most obvious instantiation of this division between human and nonhuman, it was not necessarily its inception.

As you can see from even this brief summary of my work, I believe that the future of medieval studies lies in helping the present (whether defined as the modern, the post-modern, or something else altogether) think through the myths of origins that it uses to define its own identity, in speaking with the living as well as the dead; after all, the living are occasionally more interesting. But the question remains: is it the fox or the hedgehog who can help us do this work most effectively? Hiring a medievalist last year was very instructive in this regard.

Based on an unscientific sampling of some of my medieval academic friends, I can conclude that 4 out of 5 academics either want to be or already consider themselves to be foxes. And with good reason: who wouldn’t want to be the wily hermeneut in the face of monolithic hedgehog power-slash-knowledge? And yet Berlin’s fox-hedgehog binary does not map so easily onto a straight progressive/conservative divide. Some of the most fascinating and progressive work gets done by hedgehogs. I think Jeffrey Cohen, for instance, is a great example of a hedgehog in the best sense of that word. He has developed a compelling idea of what medieval society is by looking at what it systematically excludes: the monster, the Jew, the gender outlaw, the Saracen. (As you can see, this is my plug for the hedgehogs). In our departmental hiring, we interviewed many fascinating hedgehogs.)

It may come as no surprise, however, that the person we ended up hiring was a fox. The candidate’s dissertation examined the hidden affinities between academic medieval histories—studies like Stephen Justice’s Writing and Rebellion—and contemporary “alternative histories”—ostensibly non-fiction bestsellers like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Templar Revelation. Her work carefully re-considers medieval primary sources as well as contemporary literacy studies in order to theorize how readers and writers of this non-fiction genre interact. She regularly attends popular fan conventions, doing demographic work similar to that undertaken by Janice Radway on romance readership. Like most foxes I know, our new colleague is “self-fashioned”--to borrow again from one of the foxiest foxes around. As a graduate student, she learned paleography and manuscript studies while doing an MA at York; then went into a lit theory-heavy English PhD program in the US, where she also was awarded a fellowship in the contemporary social policy institute to pursue her work on contemporary fan culture. I describe her to you in such detail--not to encourage you to poach her from us--but to suggest how her foxiness stimulated our departments’ own sense of its synergies: the ethnography components of this candidate’s research appealed to the composition theory people; her ability to talk about contemporary literature appealed to the creative writers; while her interrogation of historical methodology and anachronism appealed to the Deconstructors and the recovering New Historicists.

And yet my hiring tale is also cautionary. While we all say we want interdisciplinary foxes, disciplinary training actually militates against their production. Rare is the PhD program that values textual editing equally with postcolonial theory. Sometimes, candidates can appear too foxy for their own good: we had a candidate who had published extensively on medieval literature in French and other romances languages. While most of my colleagues valued this aspect of the CV, it prompted another colleague to ask: “Whatever would I talk to this person about over coffee?” The profession may have decided to love foxes, but we still tend to train, have coffee with, and tenure hedgehogs. The future of medieval studies could look quite different if we accept that our desires for the future are not necessarily aligned with the way we train and tenure our colleagues, if we could do what Berlin’s Tolstoy was unable to do: value being a fox in a world that institutionally values hedgehogs.

To conclude: medieval studies is becoming more, not less, important, and it is so for reasons different than those that made it important 20, 50 or a 100 years ago. As humanities scholarship re-arranges its enabling chronologies—premodern, modern, postmodern, antimodern—it is also questioning major narratives such as secularization, modernization, disenchantment, and monodirectional hegemonic colonialization. All of these point to the Middle Ages. They are big, hedgehog stories, and there will be a need for medievalists—foxes and hedgehogs alike—to examine them.

My thoughts on the future of medieval studies have somewhat accidentally taken that most medieval of forms, the beast fable. And since every good fable has a moral, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll throw out a couple and you can choose whichever you think is most appropriate:

“Beware of foxes in hedgehogs’ clothing.”
“Don’t discount the hedgehogs, while valuing the fox.’
“Be suspicious of your desire for foxes.”
“Keep your foxes close, but your hedgehogs closer.”
“If it looks like a fox, talks like a fox, walks like a fox, it still might be a hedgehog.”

And finally:
“There are a lot more hedgehogs than you think.”

Or you may want to discount everything I have said as simply the ramblings of a hedgehog suffering from fox envy.


Anonymous said...

What a great paper! Thanks for sharing. JJC, perhaps this ought to be hyperlinked somehow to the "professionalization" entry: things to think about as a grad student: whether to professionalize, and whether to be a fox.

(and, happy birthday)


J J Cohen said...

Thanks, Liza. It was even better when delivered in Kellie's inimitable style.

I'll start a link cluster on professionalization next time I update the righthand links.

I look forward to the day, Liza, when we get to invite you to speak in a Futures of the Field symposium on Early Modern Studies.

Eileen Joy said...

It strikes me that much of the [very humane] impulse behind Kellie Robertson's desire to "speak with the living" in her scholarship has much in sympathy with the work of the historians associated with the Annalistes movement in France in the 1920s onward [Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Lucien Febvre, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, etc.]. They believed that the concerns of the present should always set the agenda for the investigation of the past, and in the words of Fernand Braudel, they believed that “[e]ach ‘current event’ brings together movements of different origins, of a different rhythm – today’s time dates from yesterday, the day before yesterday, and all former times.” History, for them, was always, simultaneously,a history of the past *and* the present, and they aimed for "whole" histories that would take into account the longest possible durations of time, while they were also attentive to all the ways in which different sorts of temporalities operated within the "longue duree." They were excellent hedgehog-fox hybrids. I know, I know--I'm always trying to resuscitate an interest in these guys. I can't help it.

But on a more pointed note, when Kellie says that she believes the future of medieval studies has something to do with "helping the present (whether defined as the modern, the post-modern, or something else altogether) think through the myths of origins that it uses to define its own identity," I say, yes, that's good--medieval studies as a kind of important corrective to all the ways in which, say, scholars of early modernity and modernity define everything against or beside the wrong or grossly oversimplified Middle Ages, or as a tonic for all the ways in which the Middle Ages have served as a myth of nationalist origins or primeval chaos or comforting tradition or the plave where nothing interesting [like the individual or capitalism or liberalism] had yet happened, etc. But I would also like to think that an interesting and *interested* and *engaged* present-minded medieval studies could also go further than this--in other words, that it could go further than just engaging with models of modernist-inflected liberal humanist scholarship that "gets" the Middle Ages "wrong" and needs to be revised, although this is a critical first step, to be sure. As to what that "further" is, I think Bruce Holsinger's talk might provide some clues [?], and I'm looking forward to it!

Cheers, Eileen