Today our second annual ITMBC4DSoMA, a communal reading of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, comes to its close.
CD's book has passed so thoroughly into the conversations of contemporary medieval studies that it is difficult to visit the text anew. Don't get me wrong: GM has been neither surpassed nor assimilated. But as our posts and discussions here have made clear, the volume continues to be a catalyst for some of the most important interchanges in the profession. Less than a decade after its publication, the book is well on its way to status as a classic.
So, some closing thoughts. What GM most leaves me with is its productive utopianism based in affective, heterogeneous communities. CD writes:
We can make alliances across conventional boundaries. And as we try to recontextualize the debates, to empower different players and audiences, I see the necessity of doing what I am doing here: preaching to the converted. (181)"The converted," she warns, "is never a single, monolithic category":
Everyone reading this, I would hazard, already believes in academic freedom. But not everyone reading this, I imagine, is queer or queer-friendly ... And (in the spirit of Margery Kempe) all of us -- not just the elect -- can preach: each of us can embrace the project of building coalitions (those postmodern communities). (181, 182)She concludes her book with what in the Middle Ages would be called a benedicite:
Getting medieval: not undertaking brutal private vengeance in a triumphal and unregulated bloodbath ... not turning from an impure identity to some solidity guaranteed by God ... but using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future. (206)Nine years after reading these lines for the first time, they still leave me dizzy: the vertigo of experiencing temporality in creative and nonlinear ways; the intoxication of their sheer affirmativeness; the (hopeless?) romanticism of believing that we can have a community beyond brutality, vengeance, purifications, boundary guarding -- beyond, that is, what medieval studies can be at its worst: intent on establishing a disciplinary cordon sanitaire, delighting in enforcing a licit ambit and using the anonymity of peer review and other mechanisms of the profession to police that territory.
That is not a vision of medieval studies that will be familiar to many of this blog's readers, thank goodness. Medieval studies is far more congenial now than it was a decade or two ago. Attempts to circumscribe narrowly what the discipline ought to be have not, however, wholly vanished: they are alive and well, and many of us have stories to tell of reader's reports or reviews in journals or comments in blogs. But even though I could tell many such tales myself, I must admit to finding them, ultimately, tiresome. They can come to seem the reality of the field when in fact -- take it from someone who has been working here for sixteen years -- they are only a small fragment of an expansive and, for the most part, convivial discipline.
Mary Kate recently called my attention back to a brilliant essay by Gillian Overing. Composed in 1993, the piece is a response to a paper by Tom Shippey and was delivered immediately after his remarks at an MLA panel. Shippey was, to put it mildly, ungracious towards the works he lingered over and then dismissed. Old English studies, he insisted, was headed in all the wrong directions, with scholars mired in their own narcissism, asking questions to which they were providing the answers. His paper contains statements about Overing's and other scholars' work like:
I often find myself rewriting her sentences ... Isn't this a case of starting with an ideal and turning over a literature till you find a match? ... But as a general rule I would say that any modern investigator who looks back at Old English and finds in it confirmation of a cherished modern thesis should check, and wonder whether this isn't too handy to be true. Also, of course, too familiar to be interesting.To such an unsympathetic -- not to mention inaccurate -- account of what Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf attempts or achieves, what is there to say? I suppose, like Kempe, like CD at a pivotal moment, Overing could have said Don't touch me. Who would blame her?
Instead she does something absolutely breathtaking. Mary Kate describes it, spot-on, thus: "in grand style, [she] was amazingly professional in her response ... she used her final paragraph not to excoriate, but as she puts it, to celebrate." I quote some of those words here, because ever since Mary Kate brought them back to me they have been foremost in my mind:
I come to this MLA in an unusual frame of mind--for I am here to celebrate. This session itself, and the reasons which occasion it, are cause for celebration. The developing body of recent critical scholarship in our field presents us with exciting perceptions and challenges, and enlivens and enriches our discipline overall, both our professional exchanges and our work in the classroom. I welcome it, and I would also add "about time." In the not-too-distant past I have been one of those who has lamented--and complained about--the tardy admission of new critical methodologies into the field of Old English. But I have changed my tune, because things have changed; we are changed by this new work. .... I wish to emphasize the connectedness of our work as scholars, and once again, to celebrate the ways in which this new body of scholarship in our field validates and affirms those connections between our present and past academic history, and between our own histories and the texts we study and create.With their affirmative challenge, Overing's words resonate well with Carolyn's at the close of Getting Medieval. They are laden with possibilities for a feminist-postcolonialist-queerly inclusive future for the field, and they -- not the negative critique and boundary-drawing words to which they responded -- were the true prophecy for the field's best future. The graciousness that Overing's words possess is something that also characterizes CD's writing. We strive for something like it as well at ITM. I would be the first to admit that I often do not succeed. I removed a post recently because of such a failure. But for me it is important that scholarship take risks. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, and it will hurt like hell. At rare times a book like Getting Medieval will be the yield of your hazard.
So I close, like Gillian Overing, with a celebration ... of friendship, because I find that word better suited to what I attempt here and in my own work than CD's community and coalition. Cicero, one of the many figures who have touched me across time, composed an essay on friendship, De amicitia. Here are some lines that have always been important to me:
When friendship has put itself forth and revealed its light, and has seen and recognized the same radiance in another, it draws near to that glow, and receives in return what the other has to give. From this convergence love [amor], or friendship [amicitia] -- call it what you will -- is ignited. These terms are, after all, equally derived in our language from loving.Amor/amicitia. You will have gleaned already, readers, that even though we did not know each other well before we started blogging together, we four ITMers have fostered an amity that now lives as much off the blog as on. Recently I wrote to my co-bloggers: "Let some people dislike us. Whatever. We know what we value, and we hold to those values. Primary among these values is friendship, and the best thing about ITM is working and worrying with and celebrating with -- and also, simply, knowing -- you." With Carolyn Dinshaw's closing benediction still ringing in my ears, with Overing and Cicero likewise touching what I have tried to say, let me extend that last sentence and include you, the one who reads these words, whether you comment here or not. Knowing that you form part of an audience that is at times touched by "our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future" make this enterprise, this work that can sometimes seem without reward, worth every moment spent upon it.
Here is to queer touch. Here is to affirmative challenge. Here is to amicitia, and amor.