Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies

by DOROTHY KIM [Guest Posting]

Here's our second posting in a series on #diversity and (medieval) academia. The first in this series was by Michelle Warren. This posting comes to us from Dorothy Kim.

Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies

            Since Kalamazoo, I’ve attended probably half a dozen conferences, talks, workshops in the US, Canada, and the UK. I have also listened in on several other conferences via Twitter. I will come back later this month with thoughts about what I am observing in medieval Digital Humanities (linked-open data is your friend+the importance of federated sites) and what a summer of conferences has told me about the state of medieval English studies. But this post is about diversity and medieval studies, or as I have titled it, “Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies.” This is one in a series of posts that will consider non-normative bodies and their presence in Medieval Studies.
            I saw more diverse bodies at the Medieval Congress at Leeds and New Chaucer Society in Reykjavik, Iceland this summer than I have ever experienced at a Medieval Studies event. My expectations, and usually this is the norm, are that I will either be the only POC (person of color) or non-normative body in the room at a conference or one of a tiny group. Very rarely do I attend a Medieval Studies conference that includes POC, visibly differently-abled individuals, and non-gender normative folk. So my expectations are that the conference will have a high proportion of white, cisgendered men of a certain upper-middle to upper-class socioeconomic background. This does change when I attend something more focused on questions of gender—for example, this was not the demographic at the International Anchoritic Society conference in late April.
            However, as I happily saw at Leeds and New Chaucer Society, the demographics are shifting, and these two conferences have been the most diverse conferences that I have attended in Medieval Studies. I was not alone or even in a small group of non-normative bodies. What a wonderful thing. But not so wonderful is what the increased presence of divergent bodies may mean in our field. What does it say about the potential for abuse and what is needed to move beyond just saying diversity is a good thing.

Divergent Bodies and Abuse

An increase in non-normative bodies in a traditionally white, cisgendered, male field also comes with an increase in abuse. The abuse directed towards those bodies causes irreparable harm. They can range from daily microaggressions to more aggressive, violent stalking, threats, and physical abuse. The point of the abuse is always for the same reason—to put the divergent body in its place—and specifically in Medieval Studies as not in any way an “authority” in this field. This is about both actual medievalist bodies (those who work on medieval studies) and also the bodies we study within medieval studies.
            Many people have written about academic microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality, disability [numerous IHE and Chronicle articles in the last two years: for instance, this advice on mentoring minority faculty members]. There is even a very well-received and excellent book devoted to this topic in relation to class, race, and gender in academia called Presumed Incompetent; see also the newest one). Social scientists have even made this into a topic of study in considering the psychological and physical effects of everyday microaggressions related to gender, race, disability, etc.[1] There are numerous resources, articles, studies, discussions, cartoons, and even a web series (Tales from the Kraka Tower) out there to read, reflect, research. In addition, as critical race theorists and numerous public news articles have discussed, racism (along with sexism, ableism, etc.) is structural. If you are at all following the Twitterfeed from #Ferguson, this should be incredibly apparent. This is not about individual choices and beliefs, but systematic structures that create inequity and harm. Or as one recent article in the Seattle Times explains in an op-ed discussing intention over impact: “We are taught that racism must be intentional and that only bad people commit it. Thus a common white reasoning in cross-racial conflicts is that as long as we are good people and didn’t intend to perpetuate racism, then our actions don’t count as racism. But racism doesn’t depend on conscious intent. In fact, much of racism is unconscious. Further, when we focus on intent we are essentially saying that the impact of our behavior on others is irrelevant.”

            Our field has a complicated history in relation to divergent academic bodies—and by this, I mean those that are not white, cisgendered male, able-bodied, upper middle-class/upper class, and European. But on an everyday, daily level or in a larger more concerted way, medieval studies has not addressed what the presence of divergent bodies may mean to the field.
As I have previously written, medieval studies has had a long history of divergent bodies as part of the field’s history including the presence of the first Pierpont Morgan manuscript librarian—an early member of the Medieval Academy of America—who passed as Portuguese and white, but who was African American.  More recently, the field has splintered over whether to boycott the MAA’s Arizona conference because of SB1070. Our field’s history has never been exempt from dealing with race and the politics of divergent bodies. It is high time we as medievalists begin to address what the visibility of more divergent bodies means to our field more directly, more robustly, with more active voices.

Abused Bodies: Everyday Microaggressions

             One recent example of how racialized bodies are abused happened recently. At the New Chaucer Society Conference, I spent a portion of my conference tweeting one night at #NCS14 in a “twitter rant” or “PSA.” In it, I related the incident of another junior colleague who had an incident happen to her at one of the NCS cocktail hours. In it, a cisgendered, male, able-bodied, and white junior colleague decided to articulate vocally his surprise that she, a WOC (woman of color) medievalist, had such a “good job.” Likewise, he also proceeded to school her in how she should be a medievalist by suggesting that she should teach “ethnic fantasy literature” to undergraduate students. My colleague replied, I have neither expertise in ethnic literature nor in fantasy fiction. However, even this clear response did not seem to stop this male white medievalist from explaining her place in the academic world. And her place is apparently not one of authority in medieval studies—where she has completed a Ph.D., written peer-reviewed articles, and obtained an academic job—entirely because her body is non-normative.
Intersectional racism/sexism means that my colleague’s non-normative body will always have questions and “advice” like this lobbed at her (and yes, also lobbed at me). Likewise, no one will ever ask or “advise” this white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied white junior faculty member to teach ethnic fantasy literature or wonder surprisingly or loudly about the fact that he has obtained a tenure-track job in medieval studies. This is a classic example of white, male privilege. And yes, his comments to my WOC colleague are a form of racism (racial/gendered microaggressions). The structures within academia and our field have imagined authority as white, male, upper-middle class, and cisgendered. Divergence from this standard operating body is imagined as a disturbance.
After my #NCS14 PSA discussing this incident, I had several senior colleagues ask if I was OK the next day. I replied, oh yes, that PSA was not about me and I am currently fine, thanks for asking. But on further consideration, I wish I had said, actually, what happened to this other medievalist colleague is a normal everyday microaggression that happens to a group of us in medieval studies and the academy more generally.
This incident and others like it are a regular occurrence to medievalists with divergent bodies in the halls of academia, in medieval conferences, seminars, public spaces. This incident is “normal” and medievalists who are POC, gender non-normative, disabled, etc. have these everyday microaggressions occur regularly. And as a regular, often daily occurrence, it depletes us. As the studies show and as so many academics of color have discussed, all of this is exhausting; it creates everyday physical harm. It requires us, the divergent bodies in this field, extra labor to combat these constant attacks on our authority, our place in the academy, and even our safety.

Abused Bodies: The Policing of Medieval Studies

            Everyday microaggressions are one part of the abuse thrown at divergent bodies in medieval studies. If this is at one end of the abusive continuum, at the other end is the kind of stalking, harassment, threats, and physical abuse that happens. Recently, the very popular Tumblr medievalpoc has opened up about the death threats she has received as a POC discussing and showing non-normative medieval bodies on the Tumblr site (see here and here). She has been threatened, digitally stalked, harassed, and sent death threats. All because she dares to be and shows divergent (i.e. POC) bodies in mostly medieval images.
Her Tumblr is genius and a constant reminder that the medieval past has not been nor will ever be a neutral space. She has worked tirelessly to spread these images to the public. She has started to accept donations for her work on Tumblr, I encourage every medievalist to support and broadcast her efforts and also donate if you can. The medievalpoc Tumblr is an incredibly important node in our field. It needs support, encouragement, and defense against those who wish to tear it down. Non-normative digital bodies and abuse on Twitter and Tumblr have been well discussed in the following articles (here, here, and here). And as #raceswap amply showed, switching one’s digital avatar—one’s digital material face to the world—completely changes the dynamics of how even digital interactions happen.
            But if the ongoing abuse at the medievalpoc Tumblr is one example of what happens to divergent bodies in medieval studies and the academy, then one should also consider Professor Ursula Ore and her physical assault on the Arizona State University campus because she happened to walk across the street from a building to her car after teaching a late class.

Bodies matter—whether digital or materially in the flesh—and divergent bodies in a field that has been predominately white, cisgendered, able-bodied, and male stand out. Our divergent bodies by our very presence create small and large waves. The reaction to our bodies is often abuse from everyday microaggressions to more serious death threats and physical assault.

Pushing Back and Refusing: Bodies that Count

But what can medievalists do beyond reaching out with sympathy and useful advice? I once discussed with a colleague how feminism is an everyday practice; likewise, saying you are committed to diversity should be an everyday activity. This means you must think about how to make all of our bodies count.
Sara Ahmed discusses how counting citations and considering gender inequity is a way to push back from masculinist genealogies. Likewise, you must consider counting the bodies on your academic panels, collected volumes, editorial boards, executive boards, departments, fields, fellowship and grant panels. If you want to see medieval studies become diverse and the academy become more than another preserve for white, male, cisgendered, male privilege, then you must begin to count. Counting can be a radical act that can push back on normative operating practices where the default setting is white, cisgendered, male privilege.
As this article discusses, even as black women’s bodies in academia have been under assault, administrators and faculty colleagues have remained silent, not supported, not fought back even when they have had tenure, protection, and more privilege. And many people, in the days since #Ferguson, have begun to ask what is the price of silence, what is the complicity enacted when one is silent. This excellent piece from Audrey Watters lays out some of these issues in relation to academia.

Medievalists, and particularly tenured medievalists, need to do more counting, more pushing back, more daily acts to work for diversity within your departments, scholarly societies, academic units, universities and colleges, and the academy at large. Otherwise, imagine that microaggressive incident at New Chaucer Society in the undergraduate classroom. Imagine what shooting down the interests of non-normative bodies in medieval studies will mean to this field. And to flip that scenario, imagine how students may treat non-normative bodies in the classroom.
For the small number of us in Medieval Studies with divergent bodies, we are often the only divergent body in the classroom. The experience Liana Ford writes about in the Chronicle for Higher Education is actually more common for divergent medievalists than the opposite. As Ford states in these situations, “the truth is, the presence of my body in that classroom was disruptive enough.” So imagine that not just in the classroom but across your entire professional field. I can vouch for myself, but I am sure my other colleagues with divergent medieval bodies will agree, that we count bodies daily. We have to in order to survive, to reassess, to recalibrate our approach into public spaces, professional spaces, academic spaces, classrooms.
If colleagues consistently and without impunity question the authority of divergent bodies in Medieval Studies, how do you think students and the general public react? What do you imagine academics asked to assess our work will consider when evaluating these divergent bodies for fellowships, grants, promotion, and tenure? Paige Morgan recently wrote about going through a Ph.D. as a game in which a player gains special skills, points, gifts to level-up in order to more deftly deal with obstacles to get to the end of the game—i.e. a completed doctorate. Likewise, I believe you can imagine the entire journey in the academy—from student to full professor—as a game with numerous obstacles. As this excellent piece recently in Feminist Wire explains, the playing field is never level for non-normative bodies in the academy because the academy was built for only certain bodies—male, cisgendered, privileged ones—it was not built and it has not changed enough to comfortably accommodate others. As the article quotes Ahmed, “privilege is an energy-saving device” (Ahmed, (2013; from Feeling depleted? feminist killjoys). The rest of the article intimately, on a very daily basis, explains how much the academy creates these daily harms because it’s default setting is to only read male, white cisgendered, privileged bodies “as smart, as academic, as belonging; smartness is already mapped onto his white, male, able-bodied self.” In the game of academia, non-normative, divergent bodies have layers of extra obstacles that deplete their energies before they can get to the obstacles that allow them to move forward.
         While in London, I ended up watching a BBC2 program on the Hundred Years War. Though the program had a female medievalist as host, every single one of the medieval “experts” where able-bodied white men. Even to a public audience, the authority of medieval studies is imagined only for these bodies. Medieval studies needs to address how comfortable we are with the face of our field: the quintessential face of white male privilege (down to the plummy and “appropriate” British and American accents). We need to fight in little and large ways if we want this face (and voice) to change. Of course, my assumption is we do want this to change, but I know there are medievalists that do not see the need for these demographic shifts. That belief is what critical race theory labels structurally white supremacy and I have nothing to say to those bodies who feel this way.
I want to finish by quoting Nguyen and Catania’s powerful Feminist Wire piece because it encapsulates so much of what I am trying to frame: “Thus, we urge every-body, but especially those in positions of power (i.e., tenure-track and tenured faculty) to name oppression. To name sexism. To name ableism. To name racism. To be cognizant of how these -isms intersect to violently oppress and privilege particular bodies and identities.” Particularly with recent events (#Ferguson) in the United States and the clear way this country’s and its institutions anti-blackness have been laid bare, I think it’s time to end the silence, to end the complicity, to be more vocally mindful and reflective of how divergent bodies move through the academy.

This blog and the following blog postings on this topic will be a way to publicly reject silence on this topic because as Audre Lorde so eloquently states, “your silence will not protect you.”  

[1] Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Briefly Noted: Reorienting Disability at #NCS14


Hope all our readers are doing well, enjoying the last days of summer and (if you're teaching) preparing for the beginning of the new academic year.

The New Chaucer Society Congress held earlier this June in Reykjavik was a memorable conference; KARL blogged on-site about "whale not-watching." JEFFREY offered his reflections on ice and magic rocks; and we had a guest-posting by Boyda Johnstone about twitter at #NCS14.

Here (better late than never!) is an informative blog posting by Julie Orlemanski about the "Re-orienting Disability" seminar that she and I co-organized at NCS. If you weren't able to attend the conference (or were attending one of the other concurrent seminars or poster session), here's a chance to find out more: ‪

P.S. Stay tuned for more in these blog-threads at ITM:
  • A discussion of race, heritage, and the legacy of the "Vikings" [Read Part 1 and Part 2 of KARL's postings on this topic]
  • A series of posts about diversity and "things medieval" (including academic medieval studies). [Read Michelle Warren's posting launching that thread]

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Lure of Vikings, The Lure of Home


(we're in the midst of a series at ITM about diversity and (medieval) academia! First post is below, by Michelle Warren on "Diversity and #medievaltwitter." Definitely read that first, and please keep coming back to see how the series develops. Consider what follows a bit of ancillary programming, part II of my recent post on Vikings and Heritage)

A couple of days ago, World News Daily gave us this: “USA: Viking Ship Discovered Near Mississippi River.” While they admit that “all news articles contained within are fiction, and presumably fake news,” there’s nothing in the article that smells of satire. It’s just a lie, or just Tabloid journalism, without any of the winking that would make it a joke, illustrated with mislabeled images of an eleventh-century Danish longshipa sword from the Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial, and, lending gravitas, a photo of Professor Nicolò Marchetti from the University of Bologna (billed here as the invented James Milbury of the University of Memphis). For what it’s worth, Marchetti is, in fact, an archaeologist, although not one much concerned with Nordic boats, imaginary or otherwise.

World News Daily’s “presumably fake news” is presumably just looking for web traffic. It’s succeeded, outrageously. When I last checked, the article reports 1402 retweets and 283,621 Facebook interactions. Assuming that’s true, that’s a lot, even for World Net News: by comparison, “Pakistan: Cannabis Discovered in Prehistoric Tomb” got only 201 retweets and 17,719 Facebook interactions. People love Vikings. The question is why?

Viking AgeSearching for quotations of the article gives one, obvious answer: I found the article reprinted on “occidentalenclave,” “a community for Ethnic Westerners,” on Stormfront, a (the?) preeminent white supremacist website, and on what, if Google translate may be trusted, is an anti-immigration, anti-gay rights blog from Sweden.

The comments on World News Daily itself give a more nuanced answer: the first praises Odin and trashes newfangled religions like “Christianity,” and unlike “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, [and] Buddhists.” Conversation heats up fast, with the community ensuring that our Odinist understand that Christianity predates Islam. Fair point, but they miss why the claim was made at all. One commentor below suggests why: “Well, being able to trace my ancestors back all the way to the Vikings, and knowing many others around here who can do the same, I can testify to the fact, there`s nothing we would like more then fight the muslims out of our country! They are the scourge of our time.”

What’s at stake is heritage: a sense of home, of belonging, of feeling the present isn’t enough in itself, and that the past offers a purity to cure the ills of the present. If the present is one where the left forces diversity on otherwise pure nations – or so goes the fear – then the white supremacist cure is to discover the originary, lost purity, before the imposition of a weak, Semitic faith and before mixture of any type (hence, perhaps, the praise of Viking rape in the deep comments: what’s so vulnerable as desire mixed with love instead of violence? next day edit: this is a point that will need to be leaned on a bit, but what's suggested here is that the fantasists think of sex as a way to impose their will, violently, indifferent to or against the consent of the person they're having sex with). What they want is autonomy and the barbarian freedom that goes with it, while they bind themselves to race fantasies and their demand for purity and their nervousness about disorder. What they want, in America especially, this land thronged with immigrants, is to feel at home. And they want to feel that they got here on purpose. They want to feel that their home is under assault, which explains the love in these legends of Norse discovery for "Indian massacres" (like the one "recorded" on the Kensington Runestone, or "reported" in the World New Daily site). Vikings in America, rather than, say, the Vikings in the Orkneys, give these people the simultaneous mastery of violence and sense of victimhood that they crave, with results whose nasty effects we can witness, most recently, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, I’m not being entirely fair to all the commentators at World News Daily. The site is only accidentally, I think, in cahoots with the homesickness of the white supremacists; and some of its commentators thankfully point out that “we’re all from Africa. So wish what you may.” Nonetheless, the site’s picked up eagerly by the white supremacists and by people who may not be aware of their own alliances. My goal is to go deep into why, for an audience of nonmedievalists.

My secondary goal: Annette Kolodny and Geraldine Barnes have both produced very fine work on the cultural afterlife of the Norse in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglophone writing. However, I find them both too optimistic. Towards the end of In Search of First Contact, Kolodny writes that “in contrast to the celebratory effusions of the nineteenth century, most Americans today read the sagas as the tacit preamble to a tragic and very American tale.” Meanwhile, the Viking missions to Mars displace “the old paradigm of race with a prideful image of national technological supremacy.” Barnes’ contribution to the “Medievalism of Nostalgia” special issue of postmedieval, "Nostalgia, Medievalism and the Vínland Voyages,” similarly observes that “the darker side of the story – the consequences of European expansionism…preoccupy contemporary writers” on the sagas.

I don’t doubt that that’s true, in that limited milieu in which the Viking Missions feel contemporary and for that group, comprising Thomas Pynchon, Jane Smiley, and William Vollmann, graced with the label of “contemporary writers." They’re certainly better than, say, Ottilie Adeline Liljencrantz, but I’m not convinced that Liljencrantz is all that much better than the many, many fans of that World New Daily fraud. 283,621 Facebook interactions! We need to pay more attention, and as wonderful as queer asynchrony can be, and as foundational as asynchrony is to any considered experience of time, we need renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.

With that in mind, here’s part two of my paper on Vikings and heritage, which is, confusedly, the paper’s very opening. Thank you, thank you a million times to Michael Collins for sharing Historic Newfoundland with me at Kalamazoo 2014:

Lure of NewfoundlandThe very first lines of Historic Newfoundland, a tourist brochure first printed in 1955, are “Come to Newfoundland! It is the cradle of white civilization in North America.” I quote from the second printing of its 1968 revised edition, published in 1969; still more recent printings exist, running into the late 1980s, though as yet I don't know if they also begin this way. The brochure’s author has the unlikely name of Leo English, a former Newfoundland school inspector, deeply interested in the discoveries of Jon Cabot; from 1947 to 1960, he ran the Newfoundland museum. Writing in a Newfoundland that had been, in 1949, recently absorbed into Canada, English obviously aims to argue that Canadian history proper and indeed that of North America began in Canada's newest acquisition. Come to the east, the brochure cries out; come east and meet your ancestors!

Or, rather, meet them in the middle, as they sail west. Here's the brochure's cover: a Viking ship, complete with a dragon-headed prow and warriors outfitted in horned helmets. Historic Newfoundland CoverAs soon as we pick it up, we’re in the world of fantasy, with the wrong helmets and the wrong boat, a warship instead of the mercantile knorr more likely used by Newfoundland’s Norse arrivals. Most charitably, this is just good marketing: Vikings are exciting. It's the same logic that justifies calling a recent textbook on Old Norse Viking Language and decorating it with its own dragon ship.

But starting Historic Newfoundland this way also tells a story about where and how "history" starts: with the freedom of the open sea, and with a violence that can count as historical. We have been called upon to identify with the Norse not just as settlers or fishers, but as Vikings, which means identifying with them raiders, thieves, and killers, and then to erase these deeds as crimes by calling them the founding acts of “white civilization.” This is what Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" called a "constituting violence," because this violence constitutes itself after the fact as legal. Law and civilization and history all start here, in a violence that retroactively erases its foundational illegitimacy.

As in many accounts of America, what this violence erases is nothing, as the erasure has happened already by the time the brochure’s opened. Notably, its second section, not its first, concerns the Newfoundlanders already present when the Norse showed up. English describes these people, perhaps the Beothuk, as "strange," "remain[ing] in their primitive barbarism," that is, without any possibility of entering historical time, and as decorated in "trinkets," worthless trash, abased rather than beautified by their culture. The Beothuk are in Newfoundland only because they have been "pursued [there] by other warlike hordes across the American plains." Losers as soon as we meet them, having run as far as they could, Newfoundland is their end, just as it is the beginning of North American white civilization. Out of time, the Beothuk “vanish,” victims to famine, to Mohawks, disease, and the “white man,” whose arrival seals what English calls their “fate.” Fate, you’ll remember, is one of the most distinguishing concepts of the Norse sagas: characters feel their doom coming, and know there is nothing they can do to avoid it, as if they were conscious of being bound into a story bound to be told repeatedly. In Historic Newfoundland, though, fate is what the first Americans suffer, while the Vikings, their first European enemies, the masters of fate, full of life and warrior vigor, inaugurate history.

This is one way that heritage starts. According to English and his ilk, when the Norse arrive in Newfoundland, they bring with them a heritage worth the name. The brochure tries to stir up attachment to a place and to a race, inviting Canada to return to its “cradle” to find what it really is. Like all heritage sites, this one’s embattled – a baby is a fragile thing, after all – and connected to the present, since the child, as the cliché goes, is the father of the man, still present in the father so long as the father – “white civilization,” in this case – still lives and still keeps up his family obligations. What Historic Newfoundland offers, then, is attachment, whiteness, and, with its Vikings, freedom, three points I’ll consider in turn for my contribution to this conference on “heritage.”

Diversity and #medievaltwitter

by MICHELLE R. WARREN [Guest Posting]

[Hello readers! This is the first in a series of blog postings on diversity and (medieval) academia that we will feature on this site. This posting comes to us from Michelle R. Warren. Stay tuned for more perspectives. - The ITM co-bloggers]

Diversity and #medievaltwitter

"When things break, make collage." I made this my Twitter motto when my students convinced me to branch out and open an account. Never could I have predicted that tweets would bring me to a blog post on this space, sharing some of thoughts on racial and ethnic diversity in the US academy. For the past four years, I've served as the faculty director of Dartmouth's Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF), a research and mentoring program for students committed to diversity issues and curious about earning a PhD. The fellows pushed me to those first tweets. Almost immediately, a bunch of medievalists—friends, acquaintances, strangers—followed me. It was exciting. I ignored them. I had joined for other reasons.

Recently, those distinctions collapsed, and all for the best. In MMUF, I engage students (most of whom identify as minorities in one way or another) to consider the "hard choice" of an academic career. While I help demystify academia for them, they help me identify the structural barriers and individual concerns that make diversifying the professoriate difficult—time to degree, expectations from family, presumed incompetencestereotype threatemployment prospects, lack of mentorship, etc. Numerous programs, policies, and organizations are dedicated to countering these pressures, supporting individual success while working toward institutional change. So my ears perked up when a medievalists' conversation (as retweeted by Jonathan Hsy) turned to academic diversity. And instead of ignoring them, I chimed in. Then, in a reply to the thread, Adrienne Boyarin retweeted an announcement about the Faculty Diversity Program at SUNY: immediately I sent off a nomination for one of our MMUF alums. Now everything is connected.

"Lead from wherever you are." This is one of our mottos in MMUF. Many people feel helpless in the face of the numerous problems that plague the education system; few of us have direct influence on hiring practices. But everyone has influence on something. The potential to diversify the professoriate is affected by many things that happen well before anyone gets to college. Change seems slow and uneven at best. The pipeline is not flat. So just about anything can be a contribution (I'll leave aside why diversification matters). Transformation is possible—whether it's teaching something you don't know, speaking out against injustices, finishing that dissertation…or even just sharing a tweet.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bad Heritage, Immediacy, and Vikings

Mort aux Juifs - Cassini Map 47, Auxerreby KARL STEEL

Please read this beautiful post below, on collaboration, death, and beauty, first, if you haven't yet.

Maybe you saw an article recently about renewed attempts to change the unpleasant name of a clutch of two houses and a farm in the Loire Valley: here in French, and here in English. The name? "La mort aux juifs," that is, "Death to the Jews." The mayor of Courtemaux, to whose jurisdiction La mort aux Juifs belongs, refuses, saying that it was already tried 20 years ago ("Un conseil municipal précédent, il y a au moins vingt ans, avait déjà refusé de débaptiser ce lieu-dit"), and, anyway, the name has aura of heritage:
C'est ridicule, ce nom a toujours existé. Personne n'en veut aux juifs, bien sûr....Pourquoi changer un nom qui remonte au Moyen Age, ou à plus loin encore ? Il faut respecter ces vieux noms.
It's ridiculous! This name has always existed. No one has anything against the Jews, of course ....Why change a name that dates back to the Middle Ages, or even further? We have to respect these old names.
One of these claims may be true: for what it’s worth, the name does appear on an eighteenth-century Cassini map (pictured), and it’s recorded as early as the seventeenth century. The hunch that Jean le Bon may be responsible for the name strikes me as probably correct.

The story caught my eye because of the matter of heritage. Next month, I'll be speaking at a symposium on Heritage in Transcultural Contexts. I'll be talking about the North American afterlife of the Norse encounter with the Americas. I've read (Brooklyn College alum!) Annette Kolodny's In Search of First Contact, and some other good work (FrakesMancini; and our own Jonathan Hsy's Kzoo14 paper on disability and the sagas).

Why the love for these people, generally, and disturbingly, called "Vikings" (despite their being on what was, clearly, a trading rather than raiding mission)? Why the frequent references to them as "blue-eyed" (here or here or here or here) or "yellow-haired" (here)? Why the emphasis on the Nordic freedom in the democratic Thing, and why the argument that the Norse were free of the despotism of Catholicism? Why the sense that North American history, proper, begins with the arrival of the Northmen? And why the emphasis on Leif Erikson, far from the most important figure in the Icelandic family sagas?

The answers may all be obvious, but remember that I'm speaking to a crowd of nonmedievalists. My interest will be in the more negative aspects of "heritage," in part my own (given my own family roots in midwest Scandinaviana: whatever the other lines, my mother tended to identify as Swedish, and my father Norwegian), and in part that of White America, especially in the North. I'll be complicating questions of time, belonging, and, I hope, whose violence gets to count as "historical," and who gets to count as a victim.

With that, here are my initial efforts to frame the question:

The only unarguably authentic archaeological remains of the Norse in the Americas is on a Northern tip of Newfoundland, at L’anse aux Meadows, discovered in 1960, and now designated as one of 1007 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (but also see). It is one of 17 in Canada, 7 of which, including this one, memorialize a specifically human activity or culture. UNESCO's designation guidelines explain how heritage officially works: primarily, items must have an "outstanding universal value," "so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity." I am, however, interested in the local rather than the universal qualities of heritage. While heritage sites may need to claim a universal interest, a heritage designation requires a choice and a boundary, a separation from universal generality: heritage sites exist and indeed justify themselves first only through particularity. I'll offer four working proposals on this point.

First, marking a particular moment and location as having heritage at least implicitly excludes inauthentic elements that might contaminate that heritage. Heritage identification therefore requires purification. A heritage requires identifying some groups or development as invasive, whether invasive species or bad migrants or nonnative architecture. I'll just note here the irony of a heritage designation for the Norse, the great invaders, and perhaps the most fearsome of Northern Europe's "bad migrants."

Second, heritage identifies a particular segment in time as the antique moment worth preservation. Generally, antiqueness provides its own justification. What counts as “antique” depends on the historical consciousness of the defenders or even the generators of heritage. It may be sufficient that the site or practice seems “old,” and that it be thought to have just emerged organically or communally, without any particular choice being made to get it started.

Here's two examples of how this works, selected as representative, universal examples rather than for their particularity. The first is from a case in Florida of a mother accused of kidnapping her own daughter: she's a neo-Confederate and gun nut, fond of taking pictures of her two-year-old with boxes of ammunition. When a Family Court judge challenged her on this, she explained "We have a heritage; we haveheritage not hate a tradition." The language comes from images like these (FLAG IMAGE), which I poached from, of all places,

To say something has heritage is to place it outside argument. It can't be reasoned with; it must be respected. Its existence is its own argument. And its existence is an existence across time that erases time as a succession of differences.

Second example: recently, in the Loire valley, efforts are being made again to change the name of a clutch of two houses and a farm to something less objectionable than La Mort aux Juifs, “Kill the Jews.” The responsible party, the mayor of Courtemaux, refuses, saying that it was already tried 20 years ago, and, anyway, the name has the aura of heritage: "It's ridiculous! This name has always existed. No one has anything against the Jews, of course ....Why change a name that dates back to the Middle Ages, or even further? We have to respect these old names." So far as the mayor's concerned, no one can be responsible; rather, the blame is laid on the Middle Ages, which is to say, the case has been passed on to another judge, that of Time Immemorial, and Time Immemorial has judged the case as one might expect.

I’ll propose that few times are more Immemorial than the medieval. This era, whenever it was, tends to function as paradoxically older than both the modern and classical eras, since, at least for Western Europe, it's the oldest time that could conceivably still be attached to the present. Other times might be forgotten, but the Middle Ages still offers a connection. The Middle Ages, after all, is where the moderns like to imagine their national, religious, and linguistic boundaries arose (herehere; and, without any endorsement, here). And, at least to nonmedievalists, it's a time that is less known than both the modern and the classical eras: who knows what people were up to in those dark ages? Generated in particular sites, without the universal claims of the classics and the moderns, the medieval tends to stand for low rather than high culture, local rather than international tastes, organic rather than cultivated habits, tradition rather than choice, and at once as a point of origin and a sign of a forgotten foundations. And it's all the more sure for that, as the forgotten origin has the ontological reality of things that are “just there.” It's where people, some people, find their roots.

Third, a “heritage site” is a site it is at once distant, as a foundational moment in the past, and also here, in the present, identifiably connected with this past point to such an extent that it can barely be separated from it. This is the key temporal paradox of “heritage”: not only that the heritage point has to be selected arbitrarily -- frozen, purified, and walled off -- but also that the heritage has to have existed at some point in the past, but that it still has to be here, having repeated itself with minimal change across time and space. A heritage site offers immediacy. Connection. A heritage site offers an origin without a difference, or even an origin without an origin. If an origin requires a break, it requires some relation to what had been there before, which in turn might be offered up just as legitimately as a heritage site. The ideal heritage must emerge without this marked break, organically, naturally, and inevitably. What had been there before must just vanish or give way, like the Native Americans before the white man (note: not a position I'm endorsing! this is a reference to an earlier part of the paper, not included in the blog yet), while the heritage itself is, again, ideally, not so much selected as just felt.

My final point in this abstract tour of the problem of "heritage" is that a heritage site purports to offer immediate and authentic access to the uniquenesss of a particular heritage. That is, a heritage site is a non-reproducible, originary site, distinct from the mass-produced simulacra of transnational capitalism. The heritage site, being singular, cannot be exchanged. A heritage designation protects ways of life against lifestyles, enjoyment against exploitation. Visitors to a heritage site are able, for a time, to actually be somewhere by being in a place and time that cannot be found anywhere else, one that the modern world has “passed by.” By getting out of sync with the present, visitors to a heritage site can feel more connected. In this sense, heritage is about marketing, scarcity, and nostalgia, and also about the preservation or generation of community in the face of the increasing obsolescence of small communities.

Consider the Kensington Runestone, discovered in 1898, a hoax (for example) witnessing to Nordic, Christian exploration of Minnesota in 1362, and to the massacre these Norsemen suffered at the hands of the natives, a point whose obvious implications I'll come around to in more detail later. I can briefly mention the equally obvious matters of ethnic pride: the stone was turned up, and maybe produced, by a Swedish stonemason during a period of particularly intense Scandinavian immigration into the American Midwest, so the stone’s discovery is a kind of beacon to Scandinavians that they, more than any American immigrant group, belong in the Midwest and by extension to America. The continued pride -- or performance of pride -- gives the small Minnesota towns associated with the runestone a continued reason for existence in an era of intensified small-town poverty (cf 12): thus Kensington Minnesota, population 292, features an Our Lady of the Runestone Catholic Church, located on Runestone Drive, while nearby Alexandria, Minnesota, population 11,000, devotes a museum to the runestone itself, and greets visitors with Big Ole, an outsized statue of a Viking.

[so! roadmap: what happens before this is a discussion of a Newfoundland Tourist brochure that calls Newfoundland the "cradle of white civilization in the Americas." The brochure, produced shortly after Newfoundland was absorbed into Canada, and printed at least into the late 1960s, makes a claim that Canadian civilization proper begins in Newfoundland. This leads to the question of heritage. What follows the above is a discussion of how the Ice/Greenlanders in Eric the Red's Saga and the Greenland Saga would have thought of themselves (spoiler: not as "white"!), and then, finally, a discussion of the weird time of Viking Heritage, which is at once an obligation to foster "white America" and also a promise of liberty, freedom, and openness to the future. This point will finally intersect with the weird question of "agency." My enemy here, and I'll make this as obvious as possible, is white supremacism. Current reading? Dinshaw How Soon is Now. About 60 pages in.]

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hang On to the Emails: Collaboration Across the Divide, In Life and In Death


I am thrilled to announce today the publication, by punctum books, of The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, co-authored by Alexander Doty and Patricia Ingham. As part of punctum's Dead Letter Office series, this book means a lot to me in terms of a certain niche that I hope punctum is helping to develop and cultivate: shorter-form work that is brilliant and creative, but very difficult to classify in terms of scholarly genre, and even in terms of audience, and that is also longer than a traditional article yet not long enough to constitute a book-length project. In this sense, works within the DLO series are like "missives" that have no fixed addressee, and I think many of us have projects like this, almost finished or half-finished [and half-baked], that we cared enough about to research and write up to a certain point, but could never fathom where they might be sent. We write a precis version of the work, maybe even present it at a conference or two, and then it lands in the dustbin of a hard drive, or in a drawer somewhere. Maybe we even expand upon it and "finish" it and send it to a place or two, but the response is something like, "this is smart, but we can't quite figure out how it fits within the parameters of X and Y subject area, or X and Y methodology, or X and Y temporal period."

Alex and Patty's book proceeded in a similar fashion -- beginning with an co-hatched "idea!" in 2000 and a cross-disciplinary team-taught course [medieval studies/film studies] at Lehigh University in 2001, and then a co-authored article on Val Tournier's film Cat People as a result of that course, and then the idea for a book on Christensen's Häxan, with many starts and lapses and re-starts and lapses until beginning the work again in earnest in 2012, when they completed a manuscript and sent it to punctum for review. Crossing back and forth between medieval studies, early modern studies, film studies, psychoanalysis, monster studies, gender and sexuality theory, and cultural studies more broadly (of both a medieval and modern bent), The Witch and the Hysteric is especially singular as well for representing a collaboration between a medievalist [Patty] highly regarded for her work in psychoanalytic and post-colonial medieval literary studies and a pioneering queer cultural studies theorist [Alex] who wrote seminal books on queer film theory and gay culture. Collaboration within specific disciplines and temporal fields is not unusual [although it is more rare, perhaps, than we might like, partly because it is not "rewarded" in the same way as single-authored work, but I also hope this is changing], but collaboration across disciplines and temporal periods is not something we see very often -- one imagines that there are certain difficulties, but also immense pleasures [and long-term benefits], in undertaking such a collaboration, as Alex and Patty did [and more than once!]. Such a collaboration would have to become and be, on some level, also a friendship [if even difficult at times] and might even begin in amity and mutual admiration and friendship, as Alex and Patty's did.

And what if the friend and collaborator suddenly departs in the midst of collaboration, as Alex did, when he was struck and tragically killed by a motorcycle while vacationing in Bermuda in August 2012, just 2 weeks before punctum sent Patty 2 readers' reports on the completed manuscript along with a green light to publish the book after some revising? Although it was a difficult decision, Patty decided to undertake the revisions on her own, but always with Alex's "intimate, winking, writerly voice" in her ear -- not at all an easy task, fraught with doubts, and in Patty's words, "exquisitely painful." From the standpoint of punctum's editorial offices, the resulting work is a smashing success, if also tinged with the sadness of Alex's loss, and we asked Patty if she would be willing to write a post for us here at In The Middle on the difficulties [and joys] of a long-running and also suddenly fractured collaboration. Happily, she agreed, and we publish that here today on the occasion of the book's publication:
Collaboration, or, On Being Steamrolled, Just a Little

Patricia Clare Ingham

My most exciting and enjoyable work is, in the best sense, groupified. I like to play with others. Thinking back over the past twenty or so years, I can call up a host of treasured collaborative moments: shared confusions (or galloping insights) bouncing around the seminar table in grad school; slices of intense thinking in real time during classes I’ve taught; the toils and treasures of team-teaching; everyday debates and conversations in offices, or bars, during car-rides, or walks or over coffee.

And I have had some truly astonishing partners: my friend Madelyn Detloff (now professor of English and Gender Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio), with whom I co-taught Women’s Studies 101 back in the day at UC-Santa Barbara; the generous and brilliant Michelle R. Warren (now professor at Dartmouth) who, upon discovering in 1996 the complementarity of our scholarly work on discourses of the nation and stories of King Arthur, invited me to collaborate on a conference and then an edited volume. (The result was Postcolonial Moves.) And then there are my Exemplaria co-conspirators, Noah Guynn, Elizabeth Scala, Tison Pugh, and Peggy McCraken. I could go on and on. An entire company of colleagues. Teachers, thinkers, writers, readers, friends at the academic institutions that I’ve called home: Loyola Marymount University, Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, UCSB, Lehigh University and, now, Indiana University, Bloomington. I feel lucky, and grateful. But today I want to reflect on my most persistent, if also now most bittersweet collaboration, with the brilliant, witty, and fabulous, Alexander M. Doty.

Thinking about my work with Alex reminds me that what’s been most maddening about collaborative work generally may also be what’s most delightful about it. Collaboration has a tendency to steam roll over borders or limits. Sometimes, and maddeningly, havoc is wreaked on things near and dear: work-life balance, organized schedules, tidy timelines, or too easy confidence that I’m the one who knows what’s what—the “gal with the plan” for how best to proceed. At those moments one can feel destabilized, frustrated, furious, or just plain stunned. But, of course, and also more excitingly, collaborative collusions also steam roll less enabling fences: of generation, of institution, of class, of discipline, of “field,” of time, or place, of stymied ways of thinking. Professional, political, and personal, such relations take on a companionable life all their own, flouting efforts to “balance” anything, as work spills into the “overtime” of play; and dinner parties, vacations, or evenings “off” get regularly enlivened by some writing or thinking problem, excitedly filled with plans for the next paragraph, or chapter, or research archive.

Whatever else they have done, my most treasured collaborations have always caught me by surprise. In the case of my collaborative time with Alex, nearly ten years of delightful surprises—a fantastic and fun team-taught class; an essay on Val Tourner’s Cat People; visits filled with writing, viewing, researching, and the occasional (!) manhattan; dinners, day-trips, discoveries, hilarious email exchanges—were followed by a final unrecoverable, and devastating shock. The news of Alex’s serious accident while on vacation in Bermuda came to me just two years ago this week. This was an accident from which my dear friend would not recover. Talk about being steam rolled. He was cheated, as are we all.

How to keep faith with an exciting collaboration when the beloved partner is gone, the work unfinished? Even when it was frustrating, writing with Alex was all kinds of fun. That first essay entwined our voices in what now feels like a kind of magical hybrid. Sitting on the couch in my (at the time) New Jersey living room, every Tuesday night—laptop on a TV tray, my aging terrier Ivy resting her beautiful head on Alex’s feet—we hammered out prose, sentence by sentence. I thought up the framing of the piece, but Alex was the funny, incisive, and irreverent stylist. And he came up with its fabulous title: “The Evil / Medieval: Gender, Sexuality, and Miscegenation in Cat People.” Working together with him, I felt excited, given a new lease on thinking, and a larger sense of the possibilities for style and substance in my writing.

Future writing would proceed more slowly, with less intense frisson. We were in some ways, unlikely collaborators, in different fields, working on materials from different centuries and cultures, in different media. Our very different intellectual temperaments soon became apparent: me, quick with the big idea and impatient to figure out how all the details fit; Alex, quick with the mot juste, and skeptical of ideas that came too big, too fast. But we were intrigued, and committed. And what we shared turned out to be even more important: an interest in thinking, willy-nilly, across time; quirky habits of association; a passion for debate (and chocolate); an impatience with assumptions about identity or desire; a willingness to mix it up; a love of Lucy, and an appreciation for the wonders of Shari Lewis and Lambchop.

So working in his absence has felt exquisitely painful. How to keep writing now without his laptop tap-taping next to mine, without his bossy instructions to roll my eyes over or ignore, without his inimitable voice cracking witty asides, and cracking me up? The difficulty has preoccupied me over the past months, as I have worked—slowly, not always easily, or successfully—to bring into print some part of our remaining work in progress. Remaining. What a terrible word. How to keep faith with the project we dreamed up and co-designed? Faith is precisely the thing I haven’t been able to keep: with each revision, with each sentence or phrase I change, I feel utterly unequal to the task. I just can’t bear to be without Alex, much less to channel Alex’s intimate, winking, writerly voice. Left on my own, I now so want him to tell me what to do. I so want him to interrupt me in mid-sentence (one of the habits I used to find overwhelmingly irritating); to disagree with me; to (gently) insult my prose; I want to fight it out. I became so worried (that I was betraying Alex at nearly every turn) that I could barely keep myself working on the piece.

And then, in what felt like another one of those happy surprises, I came upon a cache of emails, lovely little jewels, letters and notes filled with Alex-isms, providing lots of wisdom as to how to proceed, and more than a few phrases perfect for our revisions. Even a hilarious snide remark or two. These notes conjured our collaborative past in all its tarnished glory. Not, perhaps, as vividly as I would have wished, but a much better conjuring than I had dared hope. The email archive took the focus off faith or betrayal (off me and my obligation) and put it back where it belonged: on the relation itself, on our work together. In the process, the liveliness of memory, the ways that Alex worked not only with me but also on me, could be sustained. The evidence kept coming: in the pages of my notes; in his amazingly complete files (given to me by the Doty family); in the postcards, framed posters, or photos he wrote, or made, or took; in the labels of old VHS tapes written in his hand; and in the ways that thinking together made us each different. All this testimony to my collaborator: the Alex I miss so terribly and whose voice I still hear in my head.

So here, as we come around a second time to the anniversary of Alex’s untimely death, and as I reflect on how glad I am that we wrote and thought together, there are three things I want to say about collaboration: 1) Let yourself be steam rolled, just a little; 2) Believe in what springs up between you—when you’re cooking as well as when you’re stuck; 3) Hang on to the emails.