[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?].
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:
- 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.]
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.