For a long time now, within medieval studies, the Anglo- Saxonists have identified themselves as the tribe most reluctant to come out of the bush and face modernity. I realize that what I just wrote, quite purposefully, is about as politically incorrect as I could possibly make it on several different levels, and I also know that what I am about to write further may get me in some trouble, so let me begin with two disclaimers and a caveat:
Disclaimer 1. Some of the most brilliant, humane, and thoroughly "modern" people I know work [and have worked] in Anglo-Saxon studies, and I do not mean to imply in my remarks that all Anglo-Saxonists are of a particular philosophical bent or stripe--that would be purely idiotic and stupid.
Disclaimer 2. The thoughts expressed in this post are mine and mine alone, and do not represent the feelings or beliefs of either Jeffrey J. Cohen or Karl Steel, nor do Jeffrey or Karl lend to my post, ahead of the fact, their silent imprimatur or approval.
Caveat. Blog posts, by their very nature, and although occasionally written in a very high, polished, and academic style, are meant to be [I believe] somewhat "spur of the moment" and reactionary. In other words, we don't treat blog writing the same way we treat essays and articles published in scholarly journals, or even papers presented at conferences. My comments here are just that: reactionary, in the moment, off the cuff, and as tenuous as the wind, yet also truly felt.
Having said all that, I recently stumbled across a post, "More on the State of the Field," over at Unlocked Wordhoard (Dr. Richard Nokes), which is a response to a post, "Again with the State of the Field," at Wormtalk and Slugspeak (Dr. Michael Drout), which is a response to the post, by Tiruncula, "What does a healthy field look like from the inside?" at Practica, which is a response to Michael Drout's even earlier post, "State of the Field." And since all of this, Drout has added some more comments, "An Example," with more comments likely to come. Whew.
In a kind of nutshell, the "upshot" of all this is the well-worn caveat that Anglo-Saxon [or, Old English] studies are in real trouble because: a) they are not valued by departments of English who do not any more embrace nor understand the worth of philology- and textual-based studies, and therefore actual positions and even resources for Anglo-Saxon scholars are simply cut away or lack requisite funding and support, from both academic institutions and publishers; or, b) they have refused to engage meaningfully with contemporary critical approaches to textual culture and are therefore the true "left behind." So, either, Anglo-Saxon studies have been purposefully marginalized [and even, excised] by Others, or Anglo-Saxon studies has willfully marginalized itself. OR, yet another way of putting it, via Michael Drout, might be this: "Using an ecology metaphor, you might say that Anglo-Saxonists are like a species that's healthy, genetically diverse and parasite free but whose habitat is being rapidly destroyed." By which he means: within Anglo-Saxon studies itself, there is a healthy development of "new" directions and approaches and subject matter, which nevertheless cannot flourish because of certain long-held prejudices against the study of the past, especially the medieval past. But while Drout, and others, are quick to point to their approval of "new" directions in the field, there is always simultaneously a kind of lament for [and anger toward] the supposed abdication of what Anglo-Saxon studies should really be about: language study, and language study only; or no, that's not it somehow--rather: language study first, before anything else.
There are few brave souls in Anglo-Saxon studies [Allen Frantzen is one of them and his book Desire for Origins pretty much sums up this whole argument, circa 1990] who are willing to argue that "b" is the more likely culprit than "a" [and, in some situations, "b" leads directly to "a"] for the supposed "state of affairs" in Anglo-Saxon studies, and there are some--typically those Old English scholars ensconced at places like Cambridge and Toronto--who will argue that things have, actually, never been better for the field. But putting all that aside for the moment, I am more distressed to hear these kinds of comments coming from scholars working within the field [not just of Anglo-Saxon studies, but even medieval studies more generally]:
It strikes me that the problem is that we have abandoned literature. Too often, the study of Anglo-Saxon literature is that it has been abandoned for the practice of philosophy-lite and history-lite. . . .we already have people who do philosophy and do it better than those in English departments do it. We call these people "philosophers" and house them in philosophy departments. [Nokes]
Anglo-Saxon studies and philology are a highly irritating rebuke to most of the rest of the sub-disciplines in English because our intellectual practices are a direct refutation of one of the central dogmas of literary studies: that all "knowledge is situated and contingent." . . . The discipline of philology has, since Grimm (and maybe even since Rask and Bopp) built up a great deal of knowledge that is valuable exactly because it is not contingent and situated in any meaningful sense. . . .far too many English professors and graduate students don't really know much about how English works. Oh, they know all about how Language works, but this is all knowledge at an incredibly high level of abstraction (binary oppositions, prisonhouses of language). Ask a colleague to explain semantic shifts over time or phonological change or the influence of Old Norse on English and you'll get a blank look. . . . Anglo-Saxonists . . . do know how language works (and the most important thing about how language works is that it changes in certain regular, though complex, ways). But we are a distinct and embattled minority in English departments. And, I would assert, we are in such a minority position exactly because we possess knowledge and disciplinary practices that call into question the work that other members of the profession do, and so for them the easiest thing to do is to ignore and marginalize us. . . . [BUT] We practice, as one of my students said with joy and wonder, "English with right and wrong answers." We should show how this is valuable and how our colleagues do need us. . . . [what] we should do is to focus on language and how it works in a historical sense rather than an abstract philosophical sense. Literary studies suffers from a continuous pull in two directions: towards solipsism and towards politics--you end up with "that text means this to me" or "that text illustrates this political/social phenomenon." [Drout]
I am not making the argument that there should be no politics or sociology or philosophy in English. And I don't actually see how one could have language analysis without history. But those other disciplines should be subordinate to what we should be able to do best: analyze language, narrative and culture in ways that are not easily accessible to political scientists, sociologists or philosophers. Our game should be played on our home field. [Drout]
Michael Drout is by no means a conservative troglodyte in his scholarship, and anyone familiar with his work knows, as Tiruncula notes on her post [cited above], that he is not someone who just "does philology." He is as interested in politics and culture and history as he is in language, and he is adept at crossing disciplines in interesting and creative ways, but his comments above, similar to those of Richard Nokes, also cited above, belie a kind of lament for the idea that, somehow, language doesn't matter to us, as scholars of literature [whether medieval or modern], as much as it should, and further, that, somehow, language is so primary that it precedes everything else: history, culture, politics, identity, etc. And, like many laments of this type that I have tired of hearing ever since I was in graduate school [early to mid-1990s], it both exercises the either/or fallacy [either we're language study experts or we are pseudo-scholars pretending to know things we can't possibly know if we're not langauge experts first] while at the same time declaiming that what it really desires is both/and [of course we should talk about history and culture and politics and philosophy but only from the perspective of a language expert--wouldn't that be the best of both worlds?]. Because Michael Drout is, in fact, a language expert [much more so than I am, that's for damn sure], and I admire his expertise in that area, he is also very comfortable throwing around his disciplinary linguistics knowledge in order to criticize a paper he heard in the field of contemporary ethnic literature [see the link above to the post "An Example"]. Indeed, he claims that, due to that paper's seeming lack of engagement with "real" language study, it possesses a "hideous lacuna" at its center--while at the same time, he does not acknowledge work being done in the cognitive sciences that is challenging the idea that, as he would have it, language is not "situated" in any meaningful sense. For starters, it is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is fucking meaningful. And even if it's true that Grimm's and Verner's and other semantics "laws" supposedly point to always-verifiable-and-unchanging-over-time "truths" or "facts," what to do with such knowledge? Is language reducible, then, to a kind of mathematics--in other words, is it really that abstract? Are we really going to claim, after all this time, that language study is a science? In some ways, this points to what Drout's arguments are really all about: techne versus arche.
Just some observations and questions. And speaking of science, I believe my laptop battery is about to go "kaput." So that's all folks. At least, for now. Cheers, Eileen