[illustration: Winter Shack with Child, photo by author]
by J J Cohen
The close of December is a difficult time of year for anyone whose identity is pure. The holiday that looms tomorrow is too secular; is being warred against; is too Christian; is too commercial; carries with it too much paganism; distracts from Easter; doesn't matter; matters too much; carries a weight it does not merit; should be replaced by the ten days of Newton; and so on.
I was going to compose a long post about hybridity versus purified identities, modern and medieval, Christian and Jewish. Some notes (or at least some URLs) towards that post are collected here. I thought I had the duration of The Care Bears Movie to get those words assembled, but a series of phone calls involving an unexpected saving of a stranger's life and the complications of a surgery have conspired to leave me with about three minutes before those polychromatic ursines save the day. Then I've obligated myself to construct a house out of frosting, graham crackers, and leftover Halloween candy.
So I'll say this. Over the past year I have been engaged in two simultaneous reading projects, some small fruits of which have appeared on this blog: surveying new work in the history of Jewish-Christian identities (e.g. Boyarin, Yuval, Elukin, Horowitz), and researching contemporary [youth] reinventions of Jewishness via media old (Heeb, Nextbook) and new (Jewschool, Jewdas, Jewcy and the like). The two projects have much in common, though I'm not certain that the scholars from group one would agree that they have fellow travelers in group two. Both movements redefine what Jewish identity means in the past or the present (and in Boyarin's case, both at once, especially in Border Lines. If Gloria Anzaldua read Talmud and patristics, she'd have composed Border Lines). Both groups have seen strong public reactions against what they propose: Boyarin condemned as anti-Jewish, Yuval having been informed it would have been better had he never published his research, contemporary movements feeling a backlash as in this article from n+1 or the predictable identitarian comments to this story. Two common emphases within this criticism are (1) the border line must be drawn somewhere in order to provide coherent identity, so why not draw the line where it has always been drawn? (2) those who refuse the inherited identity paradigm are actually rejecting the hard work that it takes to merit such an identity.
Neither of these seem to me particularly cogent critiques: if the identity border is arbitrary, then why retain the same-old same-old after all? This same-old same-old is typically NOT the timeless and unchanging identity it has passed itself off as being. A longer historical view provides effective counter arguments to both. And what could be more labor intensive than forging an identity out of inherited and new pieces? Nothing facile about that process...
You'll hear more about this history of hybridity and mutability in the future (though in a way you've heard quite a bit about it from me already, here and here). For the time being, though, I simply offer this thought, appropriate to the ending of the year and the completion of another twelve months of this blog.
The medievalist identity advocated at ITM, often implicitly, always with passion, is an impure one: practicing a contingent rather than a known-in-advance Medieval Studies, touching present and past, embracing the creative potential of both. We've never argued that codicology or paleography or philology or any other -gy ought to be denefestrated from the House of Medieval, but we do want to keep our doors open wide enough to welcome whatever rough beast, Tiny Shriner, Muslim punk, mestizo, or monster slinks our way. We want -- I want -- not so much to change the field, but to acknowledge that medieval studies has already been deeply and enduringly transmuted. If it ever had a stable and well bounded identity, that went out the window some time in the 1980s, when feminism changed its rules, made it a space more welcoming to strangers. Maybe the welcome arrived even before that, when atheist Marxists were grumbling against allegory-mad Robertsonians (or maybe that was just one doctrine replacing another; it is hard for me to tell). I've suspected that sometimes in my own work I've imported new shibboleths, turns of phrase and schools of theory implicitly necessary to belong to the reconfigured field: if you can't say extimité you can't drink mead in this hall, buddy. On this blog and in my work, I've now attempted to submerge the theory somewhat rather than cite it as frequently as I did in some of my earlier publications. I have worked towards a more congenial prose style, one that invites rather than simply sorts its readers, one that develops that lingua franca et jocundissima that I mentioned in my Kzoo paper.
This blog is an ongoing part of that project, and I thank you for being among its community this year. Whether you are in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, or hanging your stocking for Christmas, or festivating at the solstice, or doing the Saturnalia or holding a Molochmas or even if you are just enjoying the trickling away of the last month of 2008, Wæshail.
So, how are you celebrating? And if you feel like answering a much harder question, for what [medievalist] identity do you yearn?