Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Talking Ferguson in a Medieval Classroom


Continue reading Mary Kate Hurley below, and join the conversation in the comments.
This evening's master's course was supposed to discuss Geraldine Heng, Richard Cole (on Jews in Old Norse Lit), and Jeffrey J Cohen. We were supposed to mop-up last week's Mandeville class by returning to his geographic imagination and "spherical ethics," with references to Walter of Metz (eg) and this fascinating medieval map from a Carthusian Mandeville epitome. But, as we're a course on race and representation, I proposed that we start with 10 minutes close reading of Darren Wilson's testimony, drawing out the connections we could make to other readings over the semester. I got the idea from David Perry, who, along with Rick Godden, developed an excellent and very welcome framework for discussing Ferguson.
Perry writes:
There are serious questions about the believability of [Wilson's] testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.
I used this as my model, having in mind Godden's comments on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [next day edit: see Rick Godden's write up here and for still more on demons, see here, by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi at The New Inquiry]. I directed them to particular pages (212, 214, and 225). No surprise, 10 minutes turned into 45, easily, especially as students started supplying other passages from their own extracurricular reading of Wilson's testimony (have I told you recently how great it is to teach at Brooklyn College?). I let the students run the discussion as much as I could, though I did observe that I'd seen what happens to a face when it's punched at full force twice. This was when I was 16 and rescued from a mugging on a city bus. The rescuer smashed my mugger's face, transforming it with two great blows from a face-shape into a quasisolid mass of mucous, blood, and spit. The brokenness and swelling endured for ages, long enough for me to spot him -- a fellow student! -- at my high school several days later. So let's just say that in my experience Wilson's face doesn't look like the face of someone who was punched hard twice by a giant.
Students focused on the "demoniac" and animalized Muslims of the Song of Roland; they talked about how they mocked Gerald of Wales and Mandeville for their superstitions, and how they then found themselves gaping at Wilson's comparison of Brown to a grunting "demon," wondering what the future might say about 2014; brilliantly, they compared the 6'4" Wilson's grotesque self-infantalization to the Prioress's own (But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse), which we then connected to the "child" as a grotesque core form of the "normative body," at once innocent, helpless, perfect, and useless, the opposite of the excessive giant body. In this body politics, we wondered where there could be space for an adult body, the full subject of rights, obligations, and care all at once?
One student referenced the following passage from Heng:
Medieval time, on the wrong side of rupture, is thus shunted aside as the detritus of a pre-Symbolic era falling outside the signifying systems issued by modernity, and reduced to the role of a historical trace undergirding the recitation of modernity’s arrival.
Thus fictionalized as a politically unintelligible time, because it lacks the signifying apparatus expressive of, and witnessing, modernity, medieval time is then absolved of the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative, without modern meaning, because occurring outside the conditions structuring intelligible discourse on, and participation in, modernity and its cultures. (263)
Linking this to other comments about time and the medieval over the course of the semester, she observed that recently (even today?), she had been told she belonged "in the Middle Ages" because she wears a head-scarf. I then built this into the way that religion -- a "racial" category in the Middle Ages -- continues to be raced, with many people unable or unwilling or uninterested in distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims, as if they were one and the same. I remembered how I've heard some people render the title of my colleague Moustafa Bayoumi's book as On Being Young and Muslim in America.
Perry writes:
One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.
My students -- many of them teachers themselves -- jumped at the chance to talk about this in class. I know yours will too, and I can only hope the conversation goes as well. I made a point of thanking them for talking about it with me, and loved how this turned into an inadvertent, and melancholy, review of the course readings. Highly recommended.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks so much for this post, Karl. Your students are fortunate to have you as their teacher. The classroom can be a shelter from a harsh world, but it's better when we acknowledge that we can't actually close the door.

My Chaucer class had been scheduled to read Middle English together, each person choosing their favorite ten lines, telling us why they like them so much, and then reading with enthusiasm. I decided to bring my students breakfast, and we kept it informal, sitting around and chatting. As they explained their choices of passage a quiet commentary emerged around having a voice at all: they were drawn to the Wife of Bath correcting inherited authority; Emily praying for the to opt out of the plot of the Knight's Tale; Griselda's Niobe-like grip upon her children, and what the gesture speaks. Then because we had some time left we talked about why study a Major Author and a medieval guy at all. They had some good answers (they like getting so intimate with Chaucer, and they like how complicated his work is), but mostly it came down to: they like each other, they like the community that has unfolded around probing these texts with such slow attentiveness, they like having a space where the issues that preoccupy them can be thought in other terms, but thought closely and with care.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: Thanks so much for writing this and @Jeffrey your story is quietly moving in its own way.

I'm really glad that we medievalists are doing what we can to bring the "outside" into our classrooms and think about the ethical stakes of this.

FYI Rick Godden has followed up on David Perry with an expanded entry on his blog ParaSynchronies (Godden's blog may very well be of interest to ITM readers more generally):

Heather Blatt said...

Karl, thanks so much for this post and your suggestions about how to open class discussion on the topic.

I used it as the inspiration for addressing the Wilson testimony today in my class on medieval monstrosity, and a lively, energetic discussion developed: we spent about forty minutes analyzing how the testimony's reliance on the discourse of monstrosity and physical otherness inverted the initial power dynamics of the Wilson-Brown interaction in ways that probably contributed to the jury decision. Students were particularly interested in drawing parallels between the testimony's fragmentation of Brown's body and the fragmentation of Grendel's body, and how this fragmentation further others them in ways that are used to rationalize and justify the use of excessive violence.

I don't know that I would have figured out a way to address Ferguson so usefully in the classroom without your description of how you approached it, so thanks again!

Karl Steel said...

Heather, that sounds amazing! You're welcome, and your class is an inspiration.

Merrill Kaplan said...

I'm wrestling with whether to bring Ferguson to a lecture on Ragnarök in my Norse Myth class. There is so much to be said about the systematic exploitation of the jötnar (giants) by the Æsir (gods), and the ultimate conflict is easily read as the jötnar finally revolting against that exploitation. The people whose myths these were knew that the kind of subjugation shown in the narratives was not sustainable. Add in that the jötnar and the Sámi were sometimes conflated ... But 1) I don't have time to do it justice, and 2) part of me feels that involving Ferguson this way would itself be more exploitative than not.

Jeb said...

" part of me feels that involving Ferguson this way would itself be more exploitative than not."

I would feel the same I suspect or at least it would be a concern (I don't teach).

Plenty of other ways you can introduce the subject. Reading through this I was strongly reminded of the footage I have just been watching on Edith Sitwell, explaining her 'traditional ancestral' dress and sense of style and then dealing with her perception of accusations of her 'savage nature'

I would have no problems deploying that example so may just be a casse of finding something you are comfortable with.