Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The State of the Field in Anglo-Saxon Studies

by J J Cohen

Read all about it in a special forum at The Heroic Age. You will see some familiar names.

EDIT by Eileen [7/1 @ 6:30 pm] Oh, SNAP! Jeffrey beat me to mentioning the special forum, but allow me to also direct your attention, in that same issue, to the first entry in what will be a regular Heroic Age feature, "babelisms," and the first essay to be featured in that column [edited by me], Daniel Murtaugh's "Absent Beowulf." Over and out.

EDIT by JJC [7/2 @ 6:30 am in a more soothing color than Eileen's glaring red of last night] Also don't miss Eileen's excellent essay "Queer Times, Queer Bodies and the Erotics of a Nomadic Anglo-Saxon Studies" here. Note too that the Kzoo 2009 CFP is out, and Eileen is all over it. Who is this Eileen person and why is she everywhere? Does she possess clones? Ought we to do something about her sudden omnipresence? She's the Paul Newman of medieval studies -- just as you can't walk through a supermarket without his leering head confronting you from the labels of bottles of salad dressing, microwave popcorn boxes, jars of pasta sauce, and cans of soup, so Eileen Joy is ubiquitous on every brand of medieval-related scholarship. Is this saturation somehow related to the apocalypse?


Eileen Joy said...

Apocalypse? Hellllllllllll no . . . that's kid's stuff. I'm a *passive* nihilist, not an *active* nihilist [cadging from Simon Critchley]. I just like "branding."

irina said...

(Oliver Sacks, Eileen? For cripes' sake, I read Oliver Sacks as a teenager and wanted to *be* Oliver Sacks. Saw him speak at Columbia this spring, and realised that, after all these years, I still want to be Oliver Sacks.)

In reaction to the first two essays: I love die Herren Grimm and Verner as much as the next person packing a Clark Hall, but I couldn't figure out why, if history is something we should leave to historians and sociology to sociologists, we shouldn't also leave linguistics to.... well... linguists. That's what the word "language" was being used to mean, right? I think there was an attempt to imply that "literature" would somehow also be involved, but it turns out that the right and wrong answers are mainly about the linguistic part of it. Moreover, we are not only to turn to linguistics, but to a point in that field that was current about a century ago, and this is to empower the field in the intellectual marketplace and give it a better bargaining position vis a vis other fields in English.

Please understand me -- I happen to bring to the table many of the biases (or opinions, if you will) represented in these papers. I do think someone graduating with a BA in English, to say nothing of PhDs, should have a clue about how the English language works and what its development has been. I do believe there has to be a process in the university classroom by which ideas are rigorously and honestly evaluated, and then assigned a place on a graded scale between right and wrong, false and true. (Note I said a scale?) And when I wake up tomorrow morning I promise the first thing I will do is review my verb classes.

But that philological skills which, to my mind, ought to be handmaidens to textual study, should be made the main attraction.... this strikes me as a powerfully misguided notion. The brandishing of Verner's Law certainly won't make the Melville specialist appreciate Anglo-Saxon studies, because what the Melville person wants to know about Anglo-Saxon generally has to do with what was written with the language, with what strange and familiar fascinations the Anglo-Saxon imagination might offer a modern reader.

Please forgive what must be quite an incoherent message -- it's late where I am, and this tiny little composition window is less than ideal. Moreover, it's difficult to express my feelings about this topic since it requires me, in a sense, to argue against what I love. Part of the initial appeal of Anglo-Saxon for me, and of medieval studies in general, was the opportunity to learn something more "technical", more delightfully nerdy, alongside the literary studies. And yet the technical takes over too readily, it leaves too little space for the rest, and it's that rest that convinces me to stay in for the long haul. Because if there were really no more to Beowulf than Ablaut, I'd have switched to Milton, or Melville, or Morrison long ago.