Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve and the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize

by J J Cohen

Alongside the lively discussion that recently unfolded over periodization, a related conversation commenced in the same social media about an essay in the LA Review of Books by Jim Hinch on Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters. Hinch's piece is bracing, and important, but not for its corrective power. Detailing the factual errors and shallow history in Stephen Greenblatt's prizewinning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is not new. Kellie Robertson did it before the book was even published (see her excellent essay "Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto" in Exemplaria 22 [2010]). Of Greenblatt's thesis that Lucretius inaugurated modernity after a long period of medieval darkness John Monfasini, for example, observed that "the problem is that Greenblatt has virtually no evidence to justify this assumption, while a massive amount exists for constructing a different story." After pointing out its numerous methodological errors Monfasini concludes that The Swerve is "an entertaining but wrong-headed belletristic tale." Jim Hinch documents several more of these errors but prefaces them with this prescient plea:
as American book lovers gear up for another awards season — the National Book Award this month, followed by the PEN/Faulkner Award in March, then the Pulitzers in April — the acclaim showered on Greenblatt’s book about the discovery of an ancient poem raises profound questions about just what these awards really mean. Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies. That such a book could win two of America’s highest literary honors suggests something doesn’t work in the awards system itself.
And now comes the news that the MLA, the scholarly organization which represents those of us who teach language and literature at the college level, has awarded Stephen Greenblatt the James Russell Lowell Prize for excellence in literary or linguistic study. This is the third time the MLA has awarded him the same prize (he earned an honorable mention in 1973 then received the prize for Shakespearean Negotiations in 1988).

There's been much shock expressed on Facebook and Twitter about the award. It's discouraging. When Greenblatt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book I thought: OK, it's a general audience, and maybe any attention on the past is good attention. But now that the MLA has given a work so devoid of nuance in its account of a long span of human history -- a book that in its relentless reductiveness and lack of complexity (or even humane impulses towards those who find themselves locked in 1000 years of unremitting and untextured darkness) offers a negative example of how to form an ethical relation to history -- well, I just wonder about what the prize really means. Is it OK to compose caricatured history that reaffirms common prejudice and conveys factual errors rather than work that might make the past more unstable, variegated, intricate, alive?


Addendum
Check out Elaine Treharne's smart post, Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period
AND
Medieval Meets World (Swerving into the Fray)
In Romaunce as We Rede (Musings of an InterSwervist)
Bookfish (Swervin': Modernity Is Not History)

19 comments:

Rob Barrett said...

If I think of this as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarding Pacino an Oscar for "Scent of a Woman," then it all makes more sense to me. HOO-AH!

Gilbert Ratchet said...

It's more like the AHA awarding Michael Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for _Arming America_, i.e. if it's in accord with our prejudices, who cares if it's complete BS?

Andrew Seal said...

Well, the AHA doesn't hand out the Bancroft, for one thing, and for another the Bancroft Prize was rescinded after the accusations surfaced.

Ashby Kinch said...

I'd resign my MLA membership in disgust, but I did that already. And I agree, Jeffrey, with what you said on Facebook about the importance of not giving into a facile cynicism here. Bad books get written, but bad books from a respected scholar with this big of a platform--and getting bigger with all of the awards--need a rhetorical counter-weight in the public sphere. I've been asking myself in the last couple of days about the medievalists named in Greenblatt's "Acknowledgments." What role did they play as readers? Like many medievalists, I've been puzzling over this strange fascination that EM scholars have with this rhetorical push-off point for their work for two decades, since early in my serious study of the medieval period. Like a lot of medievalists, I get mad. But lately I've been returning to a psychological reading of it all: isn't it an instance of the "return of the repressed"? Isn't it expressive of an inferiority complex that Renaissance scholars need so desperately to abject the whole medieval period? Sure, the discourse of the "modern"--whether the "moderni" of the 12th century or the modernists of the 20th--always needs a past to reject. But why do contemporary American literature professors at Harvard need an abject medieval period? Why does this whole field need this sense of "innovation," especially since the 150 years since Burkhardt's _Civilization of the Renaissance_ have seen massive cultural changes that make the Renaissance look like a minor blip on the human scale? To other early modernists, I say, "Welcome to the pre-modern ghetto! Enjoy your own abjection! And stop trying to be a model minority by beating us up. And try to learn a lesson in humility from the Classicists from whose work you constantly steal. They've been here much longer...

Julie Orlemanski said...

I finally had a chance to read Hinch's review and was particularly struck by the passage he singles out for symptomatic reading, as he tries to account for The Swerve's glowing reception & popularity:

"The ordinary self-protective, pleasure-seeking impulses of the lay public could not hold out against the passionate convictions and overwhelming prestige of their spiritual leaders. Beliefs and practices that had been the preserve of religious specialists, men and women set apart from the vulgar, everyday imperatives of the “world,” found their way into the mainstream, where they thrived in societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria. What was once in effect a radical counterculture insisted with remarkable success that it represented the core values of all believing Christians."

Hinch reads this within the logic of the culture wars, but tell me that it doesn't encapsulate with deft economy the logic of neo-liberal anti-Muslim rhetoric as well. To wit: the "ordinary self-protective, pleasure-seeking" public of the Middle East has become uniformly and completely contaminate with religious extremism; modernity must save/destroy the radicalized religious populace so that "ordinary" neo-liberal selfhood ("self-protective, pleasure-seeking") can flourish. I've been spending time reading justifications and defenses of the drone strikes in Pakistan, and it is this kind of logic that underwrites, for instance, the fact that all male casualties of "military age," killed by drones, are considered enemy combatants -- no matter who they are, no matter if we know nothing else about them. To be alive in the FATA region of Pakistan means that you "could not hold out against the passionate convictions and overwhelming prestige of [your] spiritual leaders" and you are therefore defined by "hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife." You are the enemy of modernity....

Matthew Gabriele said...

I take Julie's point but isn't the move to conflate all persons in a group just a simplistic, lazy stock move, not particular to neo-liberalism (or its enemies) but common to both?

That passage reads more like Greenblatt trying to sell more books by invoking the prejudices and preconceptions of his lowest common denominator reading audience.

Julie Orlemanski said...

Sure, Matthew, totalizing is a stock move, but the urgent question to me is why this narrative should be so appealing to readers and prize committees right now; I’m sure its appeal doesn’t lie just in its lazy gestures of lumping and totalizing. Rather, (I’m hypothesizing) part of what makes it a satisfying read in the present is its specific account of religious extremism (that is, its implicit sociology of religion), of how “radical” religion finds its way “into the mainstream” and as a result a whole society is impoverished, stupefied, vitiated, and fixated by (I have to quote it again) "hatred of pleasure-seeking, a vision of God’s providential rage, and an obsession with the afterlife." I don’t think I’m saying anything new, as Holsinger and others have well unpacked the “neomedievalism” in the War on Terror, etc. But I was struck by how eerily close are the two accounts of religious extremism, Greenblatt’s and those I’ve been reading re: Pakistan -- in which (1) religious extremism is given an origin in “religious specialists” and “spiritual leaders,” (2) these leaders’ authority and influence shape the yielding collective consciousness of the people, (3) this perverts the people into acting against their own “ordinary self-protective, pleasure-seeking impulses,” and (4) they then need to be saved from themselves. Something like that is an account of fundamentalism very much in circulation right now and that undergirds a lot of our foreign policy (so it has an evident “world-making” force); I’m suggesting that it makes sense to think about the appeal of Greenblatt’s book in light of that.

Unknown said...

Unwittingly (that is, before I read about the LA Times piece), I asked undergraduates in Western Civ 1 their view. I have spent a lot of time in lectures noting continuities between before and after 1400-1500. Two essays on the final ask if the medieval and early modern periods are genuinely different (one question on warfare, the other on religion). Shall we see how many of them choose to reject swervitude?

Karl Steel said...

yes please! feel encouraged to report back.

Unknown said...

As a lay reader who enjoyed the book, the immense appeal for me had everything to do with the great story of Poggio finding the book and, even more than that, reading and learning about Lucretius was a sublime experience. It's a great story! I read Lucretius after reading the Greenblatt book, so he encouraged at least one person to learn more about an amazing thinker. And that ain't nothin'. Greenblatt has a nice writing style, too. I wish there weren't so many errors. I like reading Big Books by scholars. I guess I'm to believe they are always arguing from authority and I am surprised to hear of this development of problems with Swerve.

Patricia Ingham said...

Thanks to ITM for the h/t to Kellie Robertson's Exemplaria essay on Lucretius & the Middle Ages. If anyone would like to read it, we've made it available (for FREE!) here:
http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/exm/2010/00000022/00000002

Patricia Ingham said...

Thanks to Jeffrey and everyone at ITM for mentioning of Kellie Robertson's Exemplaria essay (manifesto!) on medieval materialism! It is truly great!

We've made the essay available for free on Ingenta Connect:

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/exm/2010/00000022/00000002

Eileen Joy said...

I've been very tied up on a short fellowship leave in Australia [part of the ARC Centre of Excellence on the History of Emotions in Europe, 1100-1800], and it's been difficult to comment much online these past few weeks, but thanks to Jeffrey and others, I have been following with fascination ALL of the online conversations linked to here re: discussions over periodization in general and Greenblatt's book and its [possibly mis-awarded] awards more particularly. Having just spent three days at an intensive and fascinating "collaboratory" at the Univ. of Melbourne [organized by Stephanie Trigg and Stephanie Downes] on "Faces of Emotion: Medieval to Postmodern," which asked its participants and presenters to analyse various expressions and communications of emotion, using the face as a central medium, and to also think about these wider questions:

• historical change: what narratives, patterns, contrasts, or contradictions emerge over time? What mental, social and cultural processes help us order and recognise faces and emotions?
• racial, cultural and linguistic encounters: how do European and Indigenous understandings, representations and definitions of facial emotion compare or conflict?
• textual, performative and visual representations: how might various forms of art, past and present, translate facial emotion? Does formal portraiture hinder or flatten emotion?

Although the collaboratory was dominated by scholars working in literary and historical studies of the Middle Ages [esp. in English], many other fields and periods were also represented [from psychology to philosophy of mind to art history to film/media studies to post-colonial studies to political science and so on]. What emerged for me [and others] in the course of the 3 days is that no history of the "faces of emotion" is possible that is not comparative and that does not take cross-temporal ontological "layerings" into account [phrase from Paul James, our respondent] when thinking about the structure of but also approaches/relations to and understandings of the "face" [human and otherwise] over time. A true history of the face, esp. vis-a-vis emotional life, would need a 1,000+ and more *global* time-frame.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...

[continuing]

And this got me thinking, too, that even when we say cross-temporal [which is a cool catch-phrase, but . . . .], what do we mean by this [?], because it is partly dependent upon assuming that there are certain, somewhat bounded time periods that one can stitch together or "cross" between, etc. When we talk about periodization, maybe we just abolish periods altogether, NOT because we don't need historical periods at all or because they do no good intellectual/historical work at all [here, I agree with Steve Mentz that even when we recognize modernity as a "narrative," we still *need* those narratives, and hopefully more than one, and if you talk to biologists or geologists who looks at massive time-frames of millions of years, certain patterns of events, which might also be called "periods" do appear into view from the proper distance, as Lindy Elkins-Tanton beautifully demonstrated in her talk on mass extinction events at the BABEL meeting in Boston in September], but because our more narrowly-delimited literary-historical periods limit so tremendously what we notice and what we do not notice, and even more importantly, they put up stop signs, such as "pre-" and "post-Norman Conquest": do not go beyond these limits [or your field] unless you want to risk the label of dilettante, etc. I do believe we need specialization in the humanities [and the university more broadly], but I wonder if we might not define our specialties differently in a way that ignores historical periods, traditionally defined, altogether -- something akin to what David Wallace and company are doing with their collective/digital "Europe: A Literary History" project which, albeit it has the temporal boundaries of 1348-1418, is trying to be attentive to the development and movement of literature/culture in "transnational sequences of interconnected places," and which thinks of literary history in terms of the "event" that cuts across certain geographic and traditonally-defined "national" boundaries, such as the Plague [1348]. The event is not the focus of the study so much as it provides a matrix of activity, upheaval, movement, disruption, and catastrophic time within which different things can be *seen* and traced than if you were only studying something called "English Renaissance literature." [And maybe this is why no one attempts, or very rarely attempts any more, big and broad intellectual histories: they are difficult to fund, difficult to execute, and difficult to publish, and perhaps should be done via collectives, not just one scholar.]

http://www.english.upenn.edu/~dwallace/europe/

Perhaps we need to rethink how we "specialize," such that forms, genres, events, movements, motifs, terms, etc. would guide what we study and look at through "deep time" lenses [i.e., the novel, the lyric, the performance, terms/motifs such as "American," "arcadian," "the face," etc.], rather than specializing in one period, one author, one nation, one language, etc. Nor would we let one thing [whether period, language, whatever] become the "container" within which we situate ourselves, such that, for example, I might study 3 different languages but what they have in common is that they all circulated in France in the 12th-13th centuries, such that I am limiting the horizons of what I am able to see. I think this is where thinking more seriously about distant reading, as Julie Orlemanski discussed at the NCS meeting in Portland this summer [and posted about here at ITM], becomes more pressing [again], while we keep in mind that it is not only machines that can do this:

http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/08/the-descriptive-turn-scales-of-reading.html

In this scenario, practices of description [making things "perceptible"], also, might be more important than so-called "critique."

Jonathan Hsy said...

YES to everything Eileen says. And the "Faces of Emotion" collaboratory at Melboure that you describe sounds fascinating. Both of your comments do signal a more collaborative mode of scholarship that allows for multiple narratives to coexist and interplay. The difficulty is how to manage the concurrent threads of such narratives - "having a narrative" certainly does serve a purpose, but it's also important that we can have one narrative among many.

Jonathan Hsy said...

e.g. not all that useful to be telling ourselves the "same" narrative over and over in different ways - more compelling (to me at least) to be able to also "hold in play" other concurrent narratives and see what happens.

Christopher Swift said...

As a tenured professor at Harvard, Greenblatt has been afforded oodles of time to catch up on fifty years of medieval scholarship that has sunk the boat of the dark "Dark Ages." How did he miss the sinking boat? Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that as a functional New Historicist, Greenblatt should probably not bother to consider counter-narratives, since, in the end, the currents of history and history-telling will inevitably push us where they will, despite our own best efforts.

Joe Mancinik said...

Yes, thank you Jeffrey for this discussion. Not to embarrass you in this forum, but I took your course on medieval (excuse the generality) literature. After noticing the gauzy awards affixed to the cover of the body of work in question, I immediately thought of your course and your challenging notions of continuities and ideas of sex, race, desire, etc. Your pedagogy, along with others, has helped enlighten me, pardon the pun, and enabled me to distinguish between textured and surface readings of history and literature. I also enjoyed the lively discussion on this topic. Awards, and this may hinge on my own views about the author, are consumerist by nature. They assign and dissimulate rather than open up and texture, much as MLA itself does by affixing a notion of style to language. That notion may be more of how modernity is assigned and does the work of assignment, than actually forming some idea of continuity. I also may be stretching a bit.

Tim O'Neill said...

An excellent discussion - many thanks. Some of your readers may be interested in my critique of Greenblatt and analysis of his book as an example of the Whig Fallacy writ large.

http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/stephen-greenblatt-swerve-how-world.html