Friday, March 07, 2014

Medievalism Grad Seminar? Some ideas, ou, épater les racistes

by KARL STEEL

The ongoing and frankly undignified kerfuffle with the Dark Enlightenment/HBD types, well documented in comments to my post below, has inspired me to use my particular set of skills to do something about it. And I use "something" in what's probably the weakest sense of the word possible: a GRADUATE SEMINAR.

One thing these Dark Enlightenment/HBD people have in common -- apart from their love for the racial Thing, and apart from their men's rights movement, ethnic heritage, antidiversity, antihistoricism, genetics-as-hobby, antisemitism, &c, and apart from their certainty that my post below means I'm an enemy of "science" and "reason" -- is their admiration for the Middle Ages. Many of them are bothered that I'm a medievalist and thus treading on territory they believe theirs: I wouldn't measure up to the "real men" of the Middle Ages, etc.

So, maybe in 2015 or 2016, I plan to do a grad seminar on modern medievalism, with an emphasis on the territoriality about the so-called authentic medieval heritage.

The course might be called: Who Owns the Middle Ages? or even just Whose Middle Ages?

Not all of it can be about the more embarrassing or horrific stuff, but some of it can. The trick, which I'm sure has been done in medievalism seminars before: teach the modern culture by, say, having the students track online communities, in combination with deep readings in medieval sources.

Obviously, the neopagans would be a focus. So would various kinds of "modern chivalry." Obviously, we'd read Dinshaw's How Soon is Now in its entirety. We would need more units, though, and we'd have to keep the class from, well, chortling at nerds. That wouldn't be dignified or good, sympathetic scholarship.

How have the rest of you taught classes like these? What have you done?

update to this blog post to call attention to a new journal, The Medieval Globe, whose areas of interest will be "the modes of communication, materials of exchange, and myriad interconnections among regions, communities, and individuals in an era central to human history." Especially notable for a seminar like this, see item #3 below from its interest areas:

  1. the direct and indirect means by which peoples, goods, and ideas came into contact
  2. the deep roots of allegedly modern global developments
  3. the ways in which perceptions of “the medieval” have been (and are) constructed and deployed around the world.

10 comments:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Not many people that I know have explored the racist vectors within contemporary medievalism as well and as unflinchingly as Laurie Finke and Marty Shichtman, whose work is exemplary in its refusal to look away from the ickiness that comes with fantasies of the Middle Ages as originary. It'd be interesting to match their work with more positive, recuperative efforts, like How Soon Is Now? (which has a bit on race and difficult history in the last chapter but is mainly affirmative)...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Also, you will find deep deep resources for thinking about race in the middle ages so close to home. Much of it does not shy away from the an exploration of how fantasy subtends race, and provide a philological corrective to the racist Twitterati you've been arguing with.

Karl Steel said...

Excellent Jeffrey!! Of course.

(and now you've just volunteered to be Skyped in as a visiting speaker. mwahaha)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It was interesting to me to see that race (and specifically, disabusing readers of certain fantasies of race that trace origins to a Middle Ages that never in fact existed) have been such a long preoccupation of this blog, with *substantial* contributions over the years from you, me and Eileen. I think that is as it should be -- otherwise we risk forgetting some of the unsavory origins of our discipline.

Fridrikr inn gamli Tomasson said...

First, this is a seminar that I'd love to be part of. Second, would "Medievalisms," by Pugh & Weisl be on a reading list? It deals with manifestations of the medieval in modern, non-academic life. Finally, the illustration is a great one! Thanks for mentioning the Dinshaw volume. It has gone straight to my Amazon list.

Tom Delfs

Peter Buchanan said...

Oh man. So, I'm a huge fantasy nerd, so you need not necessarily tread down these paths, but there have been all sorts of practical debates in fantasy in the last few years that would tie into this really well, I think. And it need not be chortling at nerds, because people who have been pushing back are also typically nerds.

One interesting place to start would be the debate about the value of violence in fantasy, with people like Leo Grin in www.breitbart.com/Big-Hollywood/2011/02/12/The-Bankrupt-Nihilism-of-Our-Fallen-Fantasists arguing against the work of people like Joe Abercrombie that the medieval past in fantasy should be used to create ennobling narratives of good versus evil, and Abercrombie responded by arguing about the value of violence, moral ambiguity, and modernity in fantasy: http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2013/02/25/the-value-of-grit/.

Another thing is the very large brouhaha about the representation of women in fantasy, which began with a cover of the SFWA bulletin of last year showing a very racy picture of a woman and a column by a couple old writers talking about the good old days, in which lady editors and lady writers looked pretty and slowly but steadily escalated from there. It's a bit thorny, but this site provides a useful timeline: http://www.slhuang.com/blog/2013/07/02/a-timeline-of-the-2013-sfwa-controversies/. In particular it would probably be useful to look at N.K. Jemisin's speech in Australia and some of the Mary Robinette Kowal stuff. What's really at the heart is the tension between the pulpy, often sexist and racist past of fantasy, and the desire of many authors to write more inclusively now.

It may also be useful to look at tensions between urban and epic fantasy, with the former having been much more accessible to women as authors and main characters but also typically viewed as less artistically important, although things have been changing. One of my favorites is Seanan McGuire, whose October Daye and InCryptid series both have strong female protagonists and who has had to push back against people who assert that narratively, these characters should be raped or sexually assaulted at some point.

Another thing that might be useful in a different vein is the very disturbing French-Canadian movie Martyrs, about a group that kidnaps and tortures young girls in order to use their dying visions to access divine revelation. It can be quite hard to watch, but I think pairs well with some of the violence and horror of medieval accounts of virgin martyrs like those in Aldhelm, and also brings up useful questions about the aestheticization of violence in service of both religion and art.

Karl Steel said...

PETER, this is hugely useful. Thanks a million.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, I don't know how far back you want to go, but years ago I was starting to look into Old English and Anglo-Saxonism, and the horrifying way the teaching of Old English in the antebellum South was implicated in all kinds of racism. Would be interesting to compare ethnography in those old textbooks to those in stuff like Bede or the Orosius, as a kind of historical analogue to this other stuff. I can probably find the stuff that I was looking at at the time, if you want. When I'm not travelling..

Karl Steel said...

Mary-Kate, that would be hugely useful and you have until 2015 or 2016 to get that stuff to me. SO GET HOPPING.

Peter Buchanan said...

You could also discuss metal bands whose imagery is rooted in medieval paganism. On the positive side, many members of such groups also have ties to groups that are attempting to revive folk traditions of various countries and also are heavily involved in learning how to make medieval instruments. This has mostly been my experience, but I also have the sense that there is a nativist, racist strand as well. Cult movies like the Wicker Man, with that great singalong of "Sumer is ycumen in" at the end, might be an interesting thing to talk about too.