Thursday, May 17, 2012

I'll Take My Medieval Studies Flash-Mobbed and Viral and On the Rocks, Please


[please get the loose change from under your sofa cushions and instead of buying more lattes, which are overpriced, donate to BABEL]

Jeffrey has shared with us HERE his comments from Exemplaria's roundtable session at the Kalamazoo Congress on "Literature, Theory, and the Future of Medieval Studies: Middle English and Its Others," and now I will share mine [see below], but first let me also throw out what I thought were some of the more memorable comments from the other presenters: Theresa Coletti, Donna Beth Ellard, Karla Mallette, Deborah McGrady, Zrinka Stahuljak, and that Jeffrey Cohen guy -- and please correct me, anyone who might be reading this who was in the audience or at the so-called podium]:
  • Deborah McGrady: why is French the "other" to medieval studies when Francophone studies and French theory have loomed so largely over the humanities as a whole? Are French studies in French departments [as Deborah has heard people say] really "quaint" and "parochial"? Cadging from Homi Bhaba's ideas of mimicry within postcolonial contexts [and this was an AHA! moment for me, Eileen, because I thought: wow, in a sense, medieval English studies really have colonized everything else and while some may call this "comparative studies" or "postcolonial studies," situated in departments of English or Literature, with a capital "L," it is not necessarily a good thing and anyway, it's an empty comparativism if the language experts aren't leading its "edges," I really believe], the "gaze" of French studies could be "the same that is not the same" ["repetition with a difference," Judith Butler might say]; if Middle English specialists are going to teach Marie de France and Chretien in their classes, in translation, maybe medieval French specialists should teach Chaucer in French in their classrooms in order to demonstrate a more capaciously multilingual vision of the Middle Ages?
  • Jeffrey Cohen: we have Jeffrey's comments in his previous post, of course, but I think it is worth highlighting [again] what I took as some of the most salient aspects of his comments -- that, for example, we should always remember that theory itself is actually communalizing and brings disparate disciplines together, that we should be "promiscuous" in the practice and dissemination of our scholarship and in the "confederations" we forge, and that we should not be so "modest" about what we do; therefore, we need an "insistent" program of "outreach,"  we need "a playful sense of mission," and "we need to be willing to step into spotlights" in order to "form the largest and most vigorous collectives possible and get over our own modesty." What I liked best about Jeffrey's comments, which in some ways dovetailed with mine, is that our mission has to be about the more broad humanities as much as it should be about the future health and vigor of medieval studies -- the two are connected and we should never forget that.
  • Zrinka Stahuljak: Zrinka called our attention to the fact that, in the Middle Ages, French was a transnational [therefore, not tied to specific nations that thus would have somehow had some sort of dominion over the language], decentered, multilingual, and traveling set of "tongues" -- how then, has it come to be taught and understood in such monolingual ways, under rubrics such as "The French of England" [to cadge from two book series recently launched by Fordham University Press and ACMRS Publications]. Although the moniker "the French of England" is, according to the ACMRS website, supposed to replace Anglo-Norman, with its associations of an "older nationalizing history, based on post-medieval geopolitical configurations," Zrinka deftly traced the ways in which these "translation" projects and others like them, situated within medieval English studies, merely reinforce the idea of monolingualism and also reinscribe the misleading binary between "language" and "culture." What we might need now is a newly invigorated Francophone studies, made more rich and multivalenced by its development in medieval cultural-historical contexts that would helps us to see better that languages are always transnational and on the move [and I was thinking, naturally enough, of the transcultural medieval Mediterranean studies that I know Zrinka and other scholars, such as Karla Mallette, have been developing recently]. I also recalled Zrinka's brilliant plenary address at the BABEL meeting in Austin, Texas in 2010 about "fixers," where she argued that, for "an accurate perception of medieval translation practices and effects, our research cannot continue to privilege only contact between texts, but must add the dimension of contact between people(s), facilitated by 'fixers'—interpreters, local informants, guides, or negotiators—whose hybrid, intercultural identity mediates political, economic, and religious conflicts." Also called to my mind were Gerry Heng and her collaborators' Global Middle Ages Project as well as David Wallace and company's Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418, which eschews "conventional, anachronistic organization by national blocks -- English literature, French literature, etc." and instead "considers literary activity in transnational sequences of interconnected places." Its vision of Europe is one that is always "on the move." I personally find this sort of work very heartening as it attempts to capture something Heraclitus once said that really does feel like the defining feature of all of culture and history: "everything flows."
  • Karla Mallette: Karla described her comments as a sort of "wedding toast" to the marriage of philology and foreign languages, and in this toast she asked us to consider the linguistic "density" which inheres in all languages and the idea that there is no such thing as a "native" tongue because no one language can ever really be separated from any other one language, and there are no "mother" tongues, only "mistress" tongues; there can therefore never be a monolingual position from which to speak or read or study -- there is only a continual and compulsive exchange between languages which defines the traditions of the Middle Ages; thus, let us consider Lady Philology's genius in making language and the texts we study "strange," allowing us to "flirt" with texts and other languages; why not treat all languages as "dead" and start bringing them, with philology's help, back to life?
  • Theresa Coletti and Donna Beth Ellard: forgive me for placing Theresa and Donna Beth together like this at the end [the last 3 speakers on this panel were Theresa, myself, and Donna Beth, and at that point my note-taking energies had flagged a bit and I was actually very absorbed by what the two speakers sitting closest to me were saying, given their physical proximity, so I reconstruct this here mainly from memory]; I do so partly because, from very different routes, they both raised the question of what it means to be "other" to ourselves, disciplinary-wise and also period-wise. Theresa mentioned the special double-issue of Religion and Culture, "Something Fearful: Medievalist Scholars on the Religious Turn in Literary Studies" [issue 42.1-2: 2011], edited by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Jonathan Juilfs, which offered "scholarly reflections on the challenges encountered by professionals whose religious views (including agnosticism and atheism) inform and shape the questions that anchor their own scholarly investigations," and she asked us to consider both the negative and positive implications of supposedly being "after" [or "post"] the time period that we study [this reminded me, too, of something Carolyn Dinshaw wrote in an essay published not too long ago in New Medieval Literatures, that "The peculiar temporality of interpretation -- the time of hermeneutic contact -- is out of linear time. In view of such inevitable hermeneutic conditions, medieval studies is not -- as we must not pretend that it is -- so entirely separate from the spiritual phenomena it discusses." And this leads, in a paradoxical fashion, I think, to Donna Beth's plea for the importance of historical "forgetting," especially with regard to medieval studies, which is often seen as an "historical overdose" to those working in later fields in English studies; at the same time, Anglo-Saxon studies are the bulwark of the foundation of the very field of English studies, which often "forgets" this, but, and here was Donna Beth's brilliant [I think] point: maybe this could be a productive site of "forgetting" for those working in all fields [even medieval fields!] since periodization comes with so much over-determined baggage [Kathleen Davis's work on the history of periodization is obviously apropos here and was cited by Donna Beth]? Maybe what we need now is something like the "bending" of historical time in order to see our texts and objects from fresh, historically unburdened perspectives that will also move us closer to scholars working in more contemporary fields with whom we could form productive alliances. In other words, sometimes, history can actually be harmful to our ability to wrest history from itself [and this reminds me too of something that Christopher Nealon once wrote, that we should locate history in the "seams" of its "becoming-history," or something to that effect; otherwise, is progress even possible?].
And Donna Beth's comments about "bending" time [along with Jeffrey's plea for promiscuousness, Zrinka's emphasis on how everything travels and is inflected in its cross-cultural travels and thus language is always "multi," never "mono," and Karla's injunction to "flirt" with texts] bring me to something I would also like to add here before sharing with everyone the full text of my own commentary -- that we need a convivial, traveling medieval studies that aims to flirt with and actively seduce other fields and disciplines, of course, but EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY [please please please hear me on this one]: we need to better flirt with and seduce each other, and -- hello? -- we have to want to be seduced. In short, we actually need to care about each other -- about our respective work, of course, but also about each other as persons who SHARE a discipline, who SHARE a historical period, who SHARE a field of study, and who should work harder to do so with a lightness of being and touch, with amity and affection, and a sense, even, of playfulness, of adventure, of adventuring in each other's [hopefully] kind company. 

I mention the word "kind" specifically because of Elaine Treharne's searing and, frankly, deeply felt emotional plea in the BABEL Working Group's "Fuck This: On Finally Letting Go" session to be more KIND to each other. In her remarks she detailed some of the nastier and more heinous things people have said in reviews of others' work [including her own: quite risky to put herself out there like that, and I admire her so much for doing so], and she also even admitted that she had felt quite "clever" being a little "snippy" earlier in her own career. And she shared an anecdote about overhearing one medievalist say to another about yet another medievalist, "he's shit." Not: his work is shit, but HE'S shit. The larger point that I think Elaine was trying to make was, "it's not just the work, it's persons." There are PERSONS working here, in this field we share: actual persons. Yes, okay, we sometimes might need to disagree with each other about all sorts of things, and we need to work, with diplomacy, to push each other's work to be the best it can be, but is it necessary to say about someone else's work, "they shouldn't have bothered at all" or "they clearly don't understand anything at all about X" or "they must be really stupid?"? Should we assume, every time we find a mistake in someone else's work that it must be because of that scholar's willful carelessness and supposed lack of good training and inability to "measure up"? In light of an institutional climate in which maybe, as Elaine averred, no one cares at all about medieval studies, could we maybe care a little bit more about each other -- about those to whom we are professionally closest? Be KIND, Elaine implored us, and honestly, shouldn't we be?

If we want to have the sort of charisma that Jeffrey believes will get us noticed in other fields and disciplines, then we have to genuinely love what WE do, meaning all of us, from the theorist to the philologist to the archaeologist to the historian to the French specialist to the New Historicist to the Anglo-Saxonist to the Lacanian to the Italianist and so on. When we love, and maybe even more importantly, enjoy each other better, and when we pursue, as the Material Collective urges us, "a more humane, collaborative, and supportive process of scholarship," we will edge closer to being more loveable beyond our disciplinary borders. More importantly, we will have worked to make our field more liveable for more persons: that is about well-being and flourishing [eudaimonia], which thanks to the work of Aranye Fradenburg, Jane Bennett, and others, I am becoming convinced is the entire point of the humanities. So serve me some of that, and put it on the rocks. And without further ado, my own comments from the Exemplaria round-table:

#Occupy Humanities
  • What kinds of intellectual losses will medieval studies sustain as faculty lines and entire programs are lost or enveloped into larger units? . . . Does theory offer us models for envisioning a future in which the boundaries and specificities of traditional disciplines are maintained, even as medievalists blaze new trails in interdisciplinary, intertemporal, “rhizomatic” scholarship? [These were some of the questions Noah Guynn posed to all of the panelists.]
As might be expected I take an optimistic view. I also think our so-called state of affairs looks different in different institutional contexts. In some places, medieval studies is thriving and expanding; in others, shrinking or disappearing altogether. But we can play this numbers game all day and I suspect the overall trend, measured over decades, similar to global warming, will not be consoling. More important, for me, is to not just make this about medieval studies, but about the humanities more broadly, and ask ourselves how we might engage in more collective maneuvers and projects with faculty, students, and independent researchers outside of medieval studies as one route to sustaining a more vibrant and diverse medieval studies. And yes, I’m well aware that, for the past thirty or so years, medieval studies has increasingly meant, especially in the context of the American university, Middle English studies, with scholars trained in medieval literary studies, especially, predominating on the intellectual scene and in teaching positions. Comparative studies are, I really believe, a must and something we should really be insisting upon in our programs of study and in our colleges of Arts & Sciences, the Humanities, and the like; one question I’d like to ask here, actually, of my fellow panelists and the larger audience, is: what happened to comparative studies? Why did important programs of newer comparative studies, such as the ones pioneered by scholars such as Edward Said (and that’s just one example and I’m well aware how problematic it is within the longer history of comparative studies and also in relation to those who work in foreign language departments), but why did these newer comp. lit. initiatives not lead to jobs and the development of more degree programs in comparative studies, especially in the 1990s?

But increasingly, I’m personally trying to think and work and collaborate in what I’m calling para-academic and para-institutional contexts, where medieval studies might actually take a leadership role, while also effacing itself as medieval studies as such, in the vanguard of various intellectual, or what I think of as alt-cult-lit-theory-art movements, made up of faculty, students, independent researchers, artists, and others who are committed to, as the grad. student editors of the fabulous new open-access journal continent. put it, “mapping topologies of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, politics, and art.” Or as we put it at punctum books, let’s start fostering and cultivating “radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage,” while also reinventing or recasting the “medieval” as a resource for neo-traditional forms of thinking and composing. For myself, it means starting new journals (plural) and presses and conferences and also educational initiatives that would, in a sense, flash-mob and infect and imprint everything with some trace of what we call medieval studies, without, again, calling it medieval studies as such. Within the institution itself, we might return to Bill Readings’ call, in the University in Ruins, for a community that would “abandon” both “expressive identity” and “transactional consensus as a means to unity,” and which would also commit itself to a “certain rhythm of disciplinary detachment and attachment which is designed so as to not let the question of disciplinarity disappear” or “sink into routine.”  We would need to argue to administrators that resources should be “channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research . . . which would be disbanded after a certain period, whatever their success” before they become “modes of unthinking participation in institutional-bureaucratic life.”

On one level, we just have to start doing things and making things happen, regardless of whether or not there is broad institutional or even disciplinary support. I think one marvelous example of this is the Averroes Project, a small collective of faculty and students at the University of Michigan and Miami University of Ohio, led by Karla Mallette, who, on their own time but with some institutional and external funding support, are tracking the translation and transmission of the writings and ideas of Aristotle from Greek through Arabic to Latin. They are working together to re-assess the cultural interactions and exchanges among Greek, Arabic and Latin in the Mediterranean at critical points of contact, including al-Andalus. Investigating these transactions, their agents, and resulting documents and texts is their shared focus, and they are amassing important documentation that dismantles the previously accepted narratives of the rise of humanities in a way that escapes the long-standing East/West dichotomy. Their project demonstrates that translation, especially across a so-called global Middle Ages (to cadge from Gerry Heng and others) demands collaboration across disciplinary, temporal, and language divides.

As to theory, even Terry Eagleton, in After Theory, says “[w]e can never be ‘after theory,’ in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it. We can simply run out of particular styles of thinking, as our situation changes.” This is also to remind ourselves that theory is not just for texts, or for the journals and books we publish, or the programs we found. Theory is about rewiring our engagements with and affects in the world. Medieval studies can be enlivened, I really believe, in a way that will amplify and help sustain its so-called “minority” fields, by radical departures to the Outside, or to the Other(s) of intellectual and cultural life. It should realize that training, and thus learning, can occur anywhere, and that it should seek to be everywhere. My personal goal is to get medieval studies into everything and every place, so that, pretty soon, within the university, but also beyond it, one can’t think or write, without sensing the tempo of its soundtrack in the background. In this sense, we don’t maintain boundaries; we level them, while still insisting on specialist modes of thought such as “medieval studies.” In short, we hold tightly to our texts and other objects as “singular” modes of transport, and then we start infecting and contaminating everything, like a virus.


Jonathan Hsy said...

Thank you Eileen for these copious, detailed notes (and your imbedded responses within them). Wow. I wish my flight had arrived earlier so I could have attended this one!

It won't come as a surprise to people who know my work that I *couldn't agree more* with this discussion of multilingualism and transnational studies here - and that we should attend to intermediary "fixers" in medieval society, and flow of languages and cultures already-always in motion. I've admired Karla Mallette's work for quite some time and must say she's right on the money: we need to think of languages beyond any "mono" linguistic perspective and remain an orientation that is always-already across tongues. You're right to note that people like Karla and others in Mediterranean studies have been at the forefront in this regard, and I'd just like to add that North Sea studies - as well as work on the medieval Atlantic - increasingly conspires with Mediterranean studies (so to speak), showing how transnational/lingual flow throughout an interconnected space/network can inform diverse modes of literary analysis.

The challenge for literature scholars, I think, is to sustain analyses that attend to local linguistic features (i.e. philology) *while also* pursuing what you provisionally call "rhizomatic" modes of interconnectivity with other disciplines and domains of knowledge. Doing this is easier said than done. Collaboration is, I believe, one way for this to happen - but I also hope that we can can all be more open to considering *ourselves* as multitaskers, finding ways to ground our own readings in local philological rigor *while also* engaging with global/theoretical frames. Yes, in this regard, theory (in my view, a marriage of postcolonial theory and sociolinguistics) could be the way to go. I could say more but I'll stop right now - people who want to know more about what I have to say about this can read my book when it comes out! [shameless plug, I know - LOL]

Jonathan Hsy said...

And when I write about thinking of ourselves as multiaskers I don't mean we're back to where we started, when we all work in isolation. This posting gives so many great examples of what happens when we all put our heads together, and what I was trying to suggest is how the transdisciplinary endeavors we launch with others can and will *also* inform what we do as individuals.

Karl Steel said...


Man oh MAN do I wish I had been at Kzoo. And in Paris, too, but also in Kzoo.

Just this morning, in re: Treharne, I was skimming reviews in the latest issue of JEGP and I thought "nasty reviews are a reminder who's standing in the way of a better medieval studies," to which I added, rapidly, "this goes for my nasty reviews too." (and, Bruce Boehrer, if you're reading this: I'm sorry).

The wide distribution, on fb and, to a lesser extent, twitter, of a nasty review of a recent book on disgust just appalls me, in part because I laughed at it the first time I read it. Not linking to it, by the way. This raises a larger question for those of us who review books more or less frequently: what should we do when a bad book crosses our path? I think the most generous and community building approach is, obviously, not to shut it down, and certainly not to puff up our ego by bullying it, but rather to determine what the book wanted to do and to help those insights along. In other words, when we review a book we can't admire, perhaps we can treat it like we would the striving-but-perhaps-incomplete work of our students? And we can treat it as we would in a world in which each medievalist, each scholar, is a precious, fragile thing (seriously!) in a world that doesn't value scholarship. We can write not as if we're going to be showing off for our peers, but rather write as if we're having a drink, or having coffee, with the writer, among friends.

Karl Steel said...

One more thought: you know that last bit where the reviewer (almost always) sadly lists typos and missing punctuation, that bit that often starts with "no book can escape proofreading errors"? Can we call that the Asshole Paragraph? Because, seriously, why do we need it? To me it just says: hey, jerks, look how closely I read this book. It's like greeting a job candidate by telling her she has a stain on her jacket. Let's have a moratorium on such paragraphs, okay?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for bringing Eilaine's remarks about nastiness in book reviews into this conversation. They were inspirational.

The strange thing about the Thursday morning Exemplaria session to Friday morning MEMSI session arc of five sessions is that I felt like we were having a sustained conversation -- a long, intense, sustained examination of the future of medieval and humanities studies.

Josh Eyler said...

This is such a terrific post, Eileen! I wasn't able to make it to this session, so I appreciate seeing what others have said about the future of the field. I am particularly struck by Elaine's comments, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. We need more empathy and humanity in the humanities, I think, and we need more community too. I am always enlivened by the sense of community I feel at Kalamazoo that is always then undercut by the tone I see in published work and reviews (both in journals and of my own and others' work). I was probably guilty of this kind of tone earlier in my career, but I really want to work to help this field that we so love to be open, accepting, collaborative, kind, generative, sustainable. I'm on board with any effort that can help make this more of a reality.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry: It's

Religion & Literature 42.1-2 (2011)
Religion & Culture

Chris said...


Maybe I'm being naive here, but I don't read the review you linked to as being all that nasty. Sure, it could have been phrased a bit more supportively. But I didn't leave the review thinking that, were I interested in reading on the subject, this would be a toxic book to avoid at all costs, or even a ho-hum book to not waste time with; instead I got information about what the author is doing in this book, and information about what other people are doing in other books that I might also want to read.

The review, after all, isn't being written for the author (even though the author will perhaps be its most devoted reader), but for the reader who wants a summary of and a context for the book. No need for anyone to be a asshole about it -- I loved Treharne's remark to the effect that medieval studies was simply not important enough to justify anyone being so cruel -- but as a reader I certainly would want some form of your last paragraph to be in a more humane version of reviewing.

But not the typo-lambasting Asshole Paragraph; that's both assholic and a waste of the review-reader's time.

Guy Halsall said...

Thanks for this post. I hadn't really thought about 'The French of England', oddly since it has some links with my own institution, but now you mention it, the explanation for the avoidance of Anglo-Norman does seem odd. Surely the 'French' of England' eternalises/naturalises the two 'nations', their links with particular territories and the difference between them?
On nastiness and reviews, I felt chastened by Elaine, as I have written some bastard reviews in my time. Sometimes I think that most academics are located somewhere on the autism spectrum; sometimes (sometimes? often) I look back and think 'Guy, didn't you realise how that would sound/be read/how the other person might feel? What were you thinking?' In all that I think we (we British blokes from non-genteel backgrounds in non-genteel subjects anyway) need the Elaines of the world to tell us how to behave; not to be such utter shit-heads.
Sometimes it's just that things look harsher in the cold light of print than they were meant to be.
Sometimes, mind you, I'm not in the slightest embarrassed. I've given negative reviews to books that weren't (or weren't just) bad scholarship but were downright offensive in their argument/assumptions/language/treatment of other writers. I don't feel bad about giving the likes of B. B*chr*ch both barrels. I'm sure I should but I don't. My bad - as they say.
Nor do I feel bad about saying (and blogging) that someone would surely have to be a bit stupid to write a particular sentence/argument and not realise how it read and how it could support nasty racist views of immigration - unless, of course, they actually held such views. That got me into big trouble, but I feel worse that I gave into the naked deployment of cultural and professional capital and removed the post than that I posted it in the first place. Sometimes, especially when cultural capital etc works in particular ways within particular discourses to prevent change (where decades of polite disagreement have made not the slightest jot of difference), one needs to break out of the accepted modes of conversation to make a point stick. I think that point (a punctum if you will) has stuck. Now, you could say that if dialogue was normally more supportive such a breach, such an act, would have more force, would avoid being able to be painted as just the usual rudeness. There might be something in that.

Eileen Joy said...

Anonymous: sorry about the screw-up in the journal name; I know it's Literature and Religion, but sometimes those typing fingers have a mind of their own. It's a fantastic double-issue, too; Jeffrey plugged it here on the blog when it first came out.

Guy: you've reminded me of something I was thinking about shortly after the session in which Elaine gave her remarks--I am for the most part against being nasty, period, in reviews or elsewhere, if by "nasty" we mean something like sneering, condescension, and the like, BUT, there are very important times within the so-called academic publishing sphere where writers are putting forth arguments that might actually be filled with hatred, racism, purposefully mangled facts, and the like, and we certainly have to reserve some room to come out strongly against that, and in print [while also being mindful of tone, as you yourself point out]. I've often said, among friends, that I'm not against anything except people who are against things. I've written a couple of posts myself [especially related to issues of historicism and historiography] where I've been a little upset/angry over other people's views [views that go something like, "I don't think medievalists have any business doing X," and such, or "what we need now is the sort of historicism that honors the past's difference], and I want to argue *strenuously* against that, but hopefully, in the right tone. Every now and then, anger is necessary, but knowing when that is can be awfully hard to tell sometimes.

Eileen Joy said...


Religion and Literature

See, the mistakes just proliferate!

Anonymous said...

Before it becomes somehow ensconced that a list of errata at the end of a review be dismissed with the term “Asshole Paragraph,” please keep in mind that for many responsible, methodical scholars there many good, defensible reasons for publicizing errata: you record corrections in the book (and I’m not just talking about the author here—anyone using the book, even library copies) so that in using the book going forward, basic factual errors/typos are not passed on as the book is used in subsequent scholarship. This is particularly true and valuable for reviews of editions, but it holds true for monographs and essay collections as well. Also, errata are useful for a responsible author in case a work goes into a second edition/reprints and corrections are needed (again, very important for editions and textbooks, for example). My personal practice if I have netted errata in a review is to send them privately to the author rather than include them in a review, if there are only a few; however I think it is completely defensible to publish them more broadly: not to “shame” the author, but to collaboratively make the work as accurate as possible once it becomes part of the public record in published form. If one is silent about errors and then ten, twenty or thirty years down the road, someone is quoting from a book with inaccurate dates or places or translations or names, that’s not very responsible on the part of the reviewer. It may be painful for the author’s ego, but isn’t there a greater responsibility to future generations of the scholarly community?

What I’ve said above pertains to the typical small number of errata a reviewer might find; however in those cases where something has gone very, very wrong (and it does happen) with either the press or the author or both, and the work is truly riddled with factual errors (e.g., mistranslations, typos, etc.) doesn’t the scholarly community have a right to know that this may not be a book one can unreservedly recommend to a student or colleague without caution about its content?

I know this comment will probably result in my being blasted as an evil reviewer here, not sufficiently collaborative/kind/loving/open/accepting/empathetic/generous, etc., etc. I think there are all sorts of ways to write a bad review and more attention to the form is needed in (for example) graduate school training. But I believe errata have a place, properly expressed.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, sorry to have hijacked (?) your post with this book review conversation.

Since I wrote my comment yesterday, I've reƫvaluated it a little. I'm really hesitant now about that 'treat it like bad student writing' thing, mainly because of the *condescension* of that--let's pat you, bad book, on the head and say, 'good enough, but here's what I would have done.' Isn't it better to be disagreed with vigorously, like a peer, rather than gently nudged, like an acolyte? Still thinking it through, and hoping not to end up exactly where I started.

Chris: In re: the McGinn Disgust book (might as well name it, so here's the review; and here's another one, of a very different sort): one thing is that I didn't know the context. I didn't know McGinn was a big-name philosopher, one noted, I've since heard, for writing nasty reviews. I didn't know the reviewer was a postdoc doing a brave or foolish thing in going after a senior scholar who had written a book on disgust while arrogantly ignoring the VERY large body of literature on disgust from the last, oh, 30 or 40 years. There's something admirable, then, in seeing McGinn called out, if only for the sexism of his jewelry comment.

But there's a kind of empirical reductionist quality to the review that, to my mind, serves as a gatekeeper, barring McGinn and maybe scholarship in general, from speculation, from imagination. Two examples:

Karl Steel said...

"McGinn’s theory does not merely bypass the received wisdom amongst empirically-minded scholars of disgust; it bypasses the received wisdom amongst moms and schoolmarms about basic hygiene."

(it's thinking like this, I think, that leads to evo-psych explanations of the apparent reproductive advantages of long hair on women--to cite an argument I saw on fb recently--or to empiricist, practical readings of Biblical dietary laws. I'm not in favor.)

"The brain 'resembles nothing so much as a mound of dung', a proclamation that forces us to ask whether McGinn has ever actually seen a brain. 'The rectum is a grave [obviously!]... but is the grave also a rectum, with corpses featuring as large turds?' These are the questions McGinn is not afraid to ask, not that the answers could be anything other than nonsense."

Setting aside that "obviously!", which at least suggests an unfamiliarity with Bersani, what can we do with that "could[n't] be anything other than nonsense"??

That's the tone of the negative review I'm objecting to. I don't see that there's a good reason to persist in writing reviews like this.

In re: my call to shut down negative reviews entirely. Of course I have to retreat from that, now that I've given it some thought, and now that I've been pressured. Guy and Eileen are right: what do we do with, well, nasty people with nasty ideas?

We have to argue against them. I suppose my problem is with EGO. And even among friends, we should accept and encourage a little grit in the smooth workings of things. This is the simplest lesson we can draw from S. Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness (a book I just love).

Karl Steel said...

Or, to go at things from another route: I don't object to professionalism and professionalization. I don't object to wanting people to do the work to get things right, and not to waste my time by half-assing what they publish. I don't object to reviews that point out substantial, important errors. I do object to gatekeeping, to declaring what kinds of work are permissable and what isn't, and I object to reviews whose tone is: I'm the expert here, and you can't join my club (which is, basically, how I think I come off in my Boehner review I link to above).

But even this doesn't work perfectly! Still thinking things through.

One more thought: In the conclusion to my AVMEO essay, I observe, basically, that no attention can ever attend to everything, and that no community can ever include everything. Kind of a duh point, but I think it's one that's often forgotten.

One of the things I like about Aelred of Rievaulx's On Spiritual Friendship, for example, is how it demonstrates both the inclusive and exclusive dynamics of community: its third book, iirc, sees Aelred and a couple of monks conversing while scurrying away from other monks, because they know their little community can't sustain any more members, or at least it can't sustain the inclusion of something not simpatico to their intellectual and spiritual project.

My calls for community building, then, have to be made with the full knowledge that every community has its borders. We shouldn't 'be nice to everyone', nor *can* we be.

Korsair said...

Thanks, all, for your comments, at Kazoo and here. I wanted to add my 2 cents worth - well, two cents *more*, technically - on the topic of disciplinarity. It seems obvious that our peculiar difficulty lies in the fact that we're working in the European languages, and it's especially the European languages that are suffering just now. If you look across the university at other campus units, you'll find that no other discipline organizes itself as we do, with individual languages hived off into self-contained units; where the scholar studies a single linguistic tradition in isolation; where we are scholars of literature and literature only. In other departments and campus units (Near Eastern Studies or Middle Eastern Studies; African Studies; Asian Studies in their various regional configurations), the scholar is expected to know more than one language (one of them quite well). And historians are not expected to study one aspect of history in isolation - only literature, for instance, or only social history. The historian specializes in a field, but is expected to use multiple archives to situate her/his historical analysis.

This, I think, should be food for thought for those of us who work in European traditions - particularly as the old departmental models erode, as departments become ever more presentist, as emphasis shifts to global languages (global English, Spanish and French) rather than the national languages of "old" Europe (farewell, Italian and German!). One could argue that the European Union is making things so interesting for itself these days that we might push for a new departmental configuration on the area studies model (like those departments of Middle Eastern or African Studies) - but the area studies model seems to have been so thoroughly discredited, for various reasons, as to be irredeemable at this historical moment. Yet I yearn for the best of what those departments have: a disciplinary model in which no scholar can be monolingual and in which (for instance) no literary scholar can ignore social history.

Certainly, I think that we should exploit what we as pre-modernists have: intimate, affectionate knowledge of a literary tradition *not* grounded in a national language. Because our languages aren't national languages. In their formation, they are much closer to the cosmopolitan languages of antiquity and the Middle Ages than to the national languages of European modernity. It's easy to forget that simple fact if you read medieval texts looking forward toward modernity, but that (for all kinds of reasons) would be the wrong way to read medieval texts.

This, at least, is my working hypothesis. I wish I knew how to translate it into institutional reform!

ntbw said...

I write reviews fairly frequently, and I sometimes write negative things in them. I try not to be nasty, and I try very hard indeed never to write reviews that say bad things about the author directly as opposed to saying negative things about particular points of a book or an argument. However, I was once called out as being insufficiently feminist because I wrote a generally negative review of a work of feminist scholarship in a feminist venue. I think that's a problem too, one that can damage the field in perhaps different ways, but ways just as significant as the practice of writing of toxic, nasty reviews. If we can't have an honest critical conversation, feminist scholarship would seem to be a very fragile thing indeed. And I think the same might be said for any kind of scholarship. Reviewing should not be a perpetual mutual admiration society, after all. We as scholars disagree, and I think outlining differences in methods, approaches, and interpretations, if done respectfully, is perfectly legitimate in reviews. People certainly have taken issue with, and criticized, aspects of my books in reviews, and while I of course love the reviews that are full of praise, I have no problem with other reviewers' right to criticize and disagree.

tenthmedieval said...

Jinty Nelson, a mentor (mentrix? grammatically correct but somehow more of a breath mint than a social position) of mine, once advised me when I was dealing with an article I thought was very badly done and needed to be called out and replaced with a better paradigm, that the most important thing was to be "comradely". I think kindness as Eileen phrases it is tremendously important: the whole discipline only survives because people give of their free time, help people, do favours, forget things owed or snubs given, forgive early mistakes, encourage, nurture, and in many *many* cases feed people. Seriously: how many times in your penurious graduate years did an established scholar get you lunch? If you resisted this, well done for your independence, but those of us who accepted more shamelessly are even now still trying to pass this, and all the other kindnesses, down the chain to the next generation, perhaps in the hope that somehow the gods will find us worthy to be patrons with a salary rather than well-wishers without, but all the same... It all runs on kindness. BUT its structure is rigour, is that when something is done it is done well enough to be useful (and if possible not hurtful) to others, and that's why we hit a contradiction here. Sometimes you can't be kind, and that's where Jinty's advice comes in. I have not always managed to follow it, and I regret some of those cases. Not all, but I'd probably regret them all if I met the people affected and remembered that they too are in this same army or endeavour and up against the same threats, more or less, of ridicule, short prospects, economic exclusion and self-doubt. Small wonder some of us give short measure, but even when that needs pointing out... they're still comrades. What you've written here reminds to me remember Jinty's advice more often.