Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Race, Again

Race and its relation to the study of medieval Britain has been a perennial topic here at ITM, where we've wondered quite frequently (1) whether it actually exists, now or in the Middle Ages (2) what terms medieval people might have used for their identities, and what connections might be drawn between such terms and modern race, (3) whether it is anachronistic to invoke the word at all for the medieval period. For some of the conversation see:
That, my friends, counts as a full scale obsession. If you've been following this conversation along, you will want to read the following article in today's New York Times: Nicholas Wade, A United Kingdom? Maybe. The article quotes various professors who use genetic evidence to argue that, despite repeated invasions, the population of Britain and Ireland remained fairly stable, with newcomers contributing little to the genetic makeup of a pre-existing population. "Celts," "Anglo-Saxons," Danes, Normans ... The elites come and go, the masses remain the same. This is pretty much the model that historians call ethnogenesis, cultural changes imposed by minority populations on large subject populations that make invasions seem like they introduce far more people than they actually do.

Race is a fiction, but no less material nor less real for all that ...

9 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

My brain is swimming; the only comment I have to offer so far is that, even if Oppenheimer is right that later so-called "invading" tribes contributed less biological matter to English identity than previously thought, this does not diminish their political force and the various social and cultural effects of that force. The one thing the NY-Times article seems to lack is an awareness that many in medieval studies have not ascribed, for a long time, to a theory of English identity that rested on "blood" lines, but rather, understand that various ethnic identities are culturally constructed [and only later are seen as matters of blood and soil and descent--a kind of reverse geneaological history]. So, it will never ultimately be a question of how *many* non-indigenous peoples affected gene pool of England, but instead, how much power did *which* group have at any given time? To claim, as Oppenheimer does in the article, that "the historians' account is wrong in every detail," is obviously not to understand all the nuances of *different* historians' [and further, different archaeologists', anthropologists', sociologists', etc.] accounts. This is such a gross over-simplification of the supposed "opposition" to Oppenheimer's "breaking" news. Again, I would just say that, no matter how "minor" the adjustment in the supposedly indigenous DNA from, say, Germanic or Danish settlers, this will not necessarily reflect the enormous impact small yet powerful groups can have on a political scale, and/or how this impact filters down into all social and cultural and even personal realms, including down into psychically-grounded ideas about "ethnicity," "tribe," "family," "genealogy," etc.

J J Cohen said...

Agreed: it seems like the historians he is "arguing" with wrote a century ago. He needs to do a lot more reading in medieval historians writing about migration and conquest over the past four decades or so -- very different stuff that isn't really dependent upon numbers of invaders, and allows for the mutability of cultural identities.

Anonymous said...

Hi, this is a very important question, so do you think that post-colonial theory (especially using the term hybridity?) can be justifiably applied to a text like 'Bewoulf'???

RaeRae said...

alright, here's a question from the curious grad student... i don't know much about the development of social identity(at least I'm still learning the theories and things like that) care to point me in the direction of a good book to look at? This whole argument seems fascinating... I would like to read more into it but I'm not really sure where to look. Maybe something cross-disceplinary?

Anonymous said...

In my experience the mass media always does this. It always represents as shockingly new some theory that seems drearily old to specialists in the field. Perhaps the only surprise here is that this is print media, but I think it makes little difference. Media professionals that I have worked with are always clear that they need a 'hook' or a 'reveal': something brand new that they can bring in (typically at the end of a TV programme) in order to overturn all popular preconceptions about their subject.

Actually I don't think this is a bad thing. So what that the media is usually around a century behind specialists? We cannot all be experts in everything - and the approach does at least convey to the wider public that our disciplines are dynamic: that we do not already know everything we need to know about the past. That can only be a good thing - surely?

N50

ps. HUGE caveat: I have not actually followed your link and read the article. Just catching up on your blog over coffee.

Eileen Joy said...

Raerae--the subject of what might loosely be called "social identity" is a massive one, and is certainly cross-disciplinary as well as developed along more singular lines *within* particular disciplines. Although I've plugged this book so many times on this blog, I should have been shot for it by now, I recommend, first, to you a book that deals with this topic specifically in relation to social identity in medieval Britain: William O. Fraser and Andrew Tyrell, eds., "Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain [Leceister University Press, 2000]. On the notion of the constructivist aspects of social identity in theory [the idea, in other words, that identities are often culturally *constructed* versus being the outcome of inherent or inborn properties of the unique individual], see Judith Butler, "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity" [Routledge, 1990] and "The Cambridge Companion to Foucault," ed. Gary Cutting [Cambridge University Press, 1994]. You might also check out some books from Oxford's excellent "very short introductions" series: John Monagham, "Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction"; Catherine Belsey, "Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction"; and Gary Gutting, "Foucault: A Very Short Introduction." Well, I won't exhaust you with any more titles [for now].

As to Anonymous's question regarding how postcolonialial theory [especially the idea of hybridity] might be applied to "Beowulf," this is an area only just beginning to be explored in "Beowulf" studies. Two essays that take post-colonial approaches to the poem [mainly from the angle of how "Beowulf" reveals or doesn't reveal remnants of a post-Roman culture], written by Nicholas Howe and Seth Lerer ["Anglo-Saxon England and the Postcolonial Void" and "'On Fagne Flor': The Postcolonial 'Beowulf' from Heorot to Heaney," respectivly], can be found in Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams, eds., "Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages" [Cambridge University Press, 2005].

I personally think the question of postcolonial approaches to "Beowulf" to be a tricky one given the continual debates over the dating of the poem's composition and provenance [although I would maintain that the date of the manuscript itself--circa 1000--at least settles the question of at least one fairly definitive collectorship/readership]. We could say, somewhat tentatively, that the poem's inclusion in a circa tenth-century codice gives it an association with Alfred's post-Danelaw "England," and from that angle, one could begin to speculate about what is "appropriated" in the service of an emerging national literature--in other words, what in the poem that is definitively "other" [non-Christian, non-English, non-Anglo-Saxon, etc.] is "colonized" by the language under whose "sign" the story is conveyed and made recognizable. But would this really count as a post-colonial interpretation when the cultural document in question--the poem itself--is situated in a culture that is, itself, also hybridized, to a certain extent, between the West Saxons and Danes and other competing tribal/political "groups"? The problem, I think, with talking about postcolonialism and "Beowulf" lies precisely on the "post" side of the term: to which "colonialist" history is "Beowulf" post? Is it "postcolonial" because it is post-Roman, or because it is "copied"/"collected" under the shadow of an emerging, post-Alfred English nation [if it was written under Cnut as Kevin Kiernan has surmised]? In the absence of, say, a broadly hegemonic "nation" or colonial power, how is "Beowulf" postcolonial? In other words, especially in light of the recent debates in the field of genetics over England's supposed indigenes and "invaders," who marks the place of the colonialist in early England? One tentative answer to how "Beowulf" may have functioned as a work of art that subsumes and covers over an indigent, "native" population/subject [the Celts, or Britons] in favor of an emergent West Saxon dynasty/subject is Alfred K. Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building, "Viator 34 [2003]: 1-39; reprinted in "The Postmodern Beowulf" [West Virginia University Press, 2006].

Well, what does anyone else think?

Anonymous said...

Dear Eileen, thanks so very much for that, it was a really informative response, I think I agree with what you say, and will most definitely look into some of those essays you mention

RaeRae said...

Thanks Professor for your help.

Karl Steel said...

In the absence of, say, a broadly hegemonic "nation" or colonial power, how is "Beowulf" postcolonial?

Rather a busy morning, but I'd add to this excellent comment: I think what this biological "discovery" indicates is that we shouldn't get too hung up on colonizer v indigene narratives, at least if we think they directly reference some realia. Rather, we should understand, following (even echoing) Eileen, that certain kinds of violence and exploitation retroactively cause groups to (try to) coalesce into "broadly hegemonic" (or broadly suppressed) groups. Part of what poco theory allows us to do is to diagnose the cultural symptoms of the necessarily imperfect assimilation of these various groups into narratives of ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Beowulf strikes me as rather a good text for that; even better might be something like Njal's Saga, which I last read in, what, 1990, for reasons that I (checks time) can't explain just now.