Thursday, June 22, 2006

From Eileen Joy: Towards future conversations

Eileen Joy writes the following, a useful attempt to sum up some of the discussion here and to open up its possible futures. I bring it to the front as a post because that important conversation has been slowly receding behind other posts and expanding new interests. I like this comment as a punctuation mark that is not a period:

Emile B. wrote:
"I find it remarkable that there is no shortage of literary academics who will claim for their work some political or social value after the fact of its creation, but there are precious few who will claim that their work was written with genuine political or social intent in mind before its inception."

Emile B. also wrote:
"I have always presumed throughout this blog debate that the best scholars are those who could do something other than read texts, attend department meetings, publish, and teach. In other words, they can and do choose to do something else. Of course, I've argued there are more meaningful things to do, but at the very least it would be refreshing to see a scholar overcome his or her ego investments and admit he or she chose to do something less meaningful than something else. This is another version of my overarching argument against moral vacuousness."

It may be that we are approaching the law of diminishing returns, or perhaps just circling and circling and making no *real* headway in this discussion, and I think what I would ultimately like to see is an even more formal debate, or set of debates, that would actually move us--"ultimately ultimately"--in the direction of something like humanities curricula reform [which BABEL is aiming at], and even a re-envisioning of various ways in which cultural critics and artists can work together toward real social change, while at the same time, we'll have to cut some of our so-called "losses" and run with them--i.e., yes, yes, yes, some of us are not saving people in burning buildings or working for NGOs in Sudan or counseling war veterans and we do not want to argue that writing about Shakespeare and Foucault is more important, or let's say "socially useful," than those things--but this may be a moot point if we start all over and say something like, "it's not about deciding who is doing *real* cultural-social-political work and who is not, but is pretending to [after all, doesn't this smack, just a little bit, of the kind of privileging that can simply shut down possibly beneficent avenues of intellectual and other kinds of "work"?]; rather, it's about each individual recognizing what their true talents and gifts are, as well as commiting themselves to developing those talents and gifts in deep ways, and then plying their particular chosen 'trade' with as much ethical commitment as possible and also with the *hope* that what they do might matter somehow." It's a question of a seriously committed ethico-critical POSTURE as much as it is of supposedly measurable RESULTS, in other words. And yes, I'm talking about virtue. Which is not to say virtue cannot be measured--I realize that it can be, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Now if, as E.B. argues over and over again, that he just wishes people would "own up" more to what it is they are really supposedly all about [i.e., stop claiming your work is social or political when it's just writing about literature and has no "real world" effects], have you forgotten about Stanley Fish? Hell, he "owns up" to that all the time, and as a reult, is always rankling his critical theory/literary studies cohorts. Plenty of scholars own up to it all the time. As to those who do not, let's divide them into two groups, and say that one group spends a lot of time loudly declaiming the socio-political intent & impact of their scholarship, and get a lot of career mileage out of that as a result, and spend no time worrying about the fallout from the fact that they have't helped anyone but themselves, and they have expended a lot of ink and silicon chip power on words, words, words, words, words for . . . nothing [but hey, probably an overtstatement on some level, nevertheless, since the laws of physics teach us that any kind of expended energy at all has to "go" somewhere and "do" something, but still . . . .]. Let's say that the other group, which I very much believe includes myself, JJC, Kofi, Dr. Virago, and quite a few others, do in fact write their work "with genuine social intent in mind *before* its inception." [...]

To be moved, however slightly, out of oneself, is the beginning of ethics. If we can achieve this in an hospice or the quiet of a scholar's study, it is a small miracle. And I say we have to do both, and when E.B. asks us to consider doing both--of course. Let's keep considering it, but together, and not apart, with amity, and not with rancor, with regard [and love] and not dimissiveness. Yes, it's important every now and the to call bullshit "bullshit" and to tell the emperor he is naked, but then . . . what next? Let's get together do that "something else" E.B. is referring to . . . together.

Cheers, Eileen

[edited later in the day to remove some praise of my own work -- the post wasn't supposed to be about me, or a horn-tooting occassion, but about moving onwards]


Anonymous said...

Eileen writes:

the other group, which I very much believe includes myself, JJC, Kofi, Dr. Virago, and quite a few others, do in fact write their work "with genuine social intent in mind *before* its inception." I can't read a book like Prof. Cohen's "Medieval Identity Machines" and not see, because it is so obvious, that even though he may be writing about fictional (but also real) "characters," such as a Lancelot or a Margery Kempe or a Roland, that the work is written out of the very real desire, and I would even say, ethical hope, that his meditations upon and analysis of the culture and history of the Middle Ages can "open" those Middle Ages to the present in such a way that the present itself can be "thought differently," and therefore, also "lived differently." Even IF the audience for the book is likely "only academic," those are still lives in need of ethical and critical inspiration, and different persons, in different times and places, are in need of different sorts of ethical attention and care.

I could not disagree more strenuously with Eileen's well-crafted prose extolling some allegedly ethically utopic dimension of MIM.

It's easy to nod one's head in agreement with Eileen's gloss on MIM precisely because it affirms what literature scholars want so desperately to believe.

If Jeffrey is agreeable to it, in a couple weeks time, I'll be able to publish on this blog an extensive reading of MIM that directly refutes claims about its value for encouraging ways to "live differently." My argument will be framed within the book's own terms; that is, I will resist the temptation to compare it to books that truly are ethically meaningful. I could toss off a number of observations about MIM right now, but I'm going to hold those and place them within a larger architecture.

Anonymous said...

Before we get all carried away with reviewing "Medieval Identity Machines" in order to demonstrate in great detail exactly why it does not live up to the claims I am making for it, let me try to restate [somehow, I hope] exactly what that claim is. I am not trying to argue that Prof. Cohen sat down and wrote "M.I.M." with the specific intent of "changing the world" or "changing how people live" [or encouraging his readers to "live differently"], nor am I claiming that--voila--regardless of Prof. Cohen's intentions for the book, it did, in fact, "change the world, one scholar at a time." But what I *am* trying to say is that when a scholar approaches his subject matter, and also the audience he assumes will be reading his work, with a certain *affective care* and *ethical regard* [i.e., with questions like, "how can I approach this historical subject--Margery Kempe--in a way that *opens* the possibilities of understanding her life and *her* intentions?" and "how can I move my readers, through various imaginative strategies, to *see*/understand history and perhaps even themselves differently?"]. I also believe that when a scholar like Prof. Cohen concerns himself with what might be called problematic socio-cultural questions that perdure over time, relative to identity, racism, sexuality, violence, etc., that he therefore concerns himself with questions that *matter* to us--then and now--and any way in which we can be helped to revisit, encounter, confront, work through, address, over and over again, these questions can be helpful to us, not just professionally, but personally [and if it's just a scholar-to-scholar exchange, or teacher-to-student exchange, that's fine--isn't just the desire to communicate an idea sometimes, that one feels is important, with a certain rigor and passion, itself an ethical act, no matter how small, like saying "I love you"?]. I do not think all scholarly books are written with such affection for their subjects, and for their readers.

Anonymous said...

What are 'fire-fighters' and the like saving the world for? So that we can all be full-time fire-fighters?

Anon - (the nearly 50 with nearly dead SO anon - N50 for short).

ps. EB's training in the humanities seems to have given him a great command of both critical thinking and rhetoric - both of which clearly have immense value.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Emile, could you please not provide an extensive review of my work -- at least not here? Place it on any blog you like. I'd even encourage you to start your own -- you'd be good at it. But I'm not interested in hearing more. You made your point very quickly quite a while ago, and with too much hauteur.

Anonymous said...

Eileen, I don't question the passion that went into MIM; I question the point of that passion. Passion per se is not ethical. One can be passionate about his or her racism and racist practices--hell, the most dangerous bigots are. And one can do it out of, say, an avowed love or intense affection for white people.

Great Caesar's ghost!:

MIM somehow fulfills its passionate mission just because it allegedly asked questions like "how can I move my readers, through various imaginative strategies, to *see*/understand history and perhaps even themselves differently?"

In saying this, you said what I thought you were arguing before you offered a clarification: MIM is productive of changes in readers in terms of understanding history and self-understanding. I would argue a qualified "yes" to the first and a resolute "no" to the second.

I have much higher aspirations for the world than changing it "one scholar at a time." If this is the true extent of your ethical care, regard, kindnesses, whatever you want to call it, then I weep (again) for the future. If the stakes are truly that low, the battle has been long lost to the likes of a Dinesh D'Souza or a Mike Adams.

Jeffrey: Look back over the blog. I can point to about 25 pointed (and different) questions/challenges I've asked/made to which I've received no answers/replies. I can only work with what is thrown out here. And, with the exception of Eileen's posts, it's been weak, which is not to say it hasn't been instructive. I didn't drag MIM into the discussion, but now that it's out there, and claims are being made for it, you want suddenly to foreclose discussion? Even after I stated I would stay within the book's own terms? I can show precisely how the book collapses ethically according to its own theoretical apparatus. You can say you're not interested in such a critique, but then you contradict Eileen's description of you as someone who's concerned to "revisit, encounter, confront, work through, address, over and over again" issues that matter.

Anonymous said...

You imply, JJC, that EB has made just one point, and that he’s repeated it. I think that is simply wrong and unfair to EB. Maybe that is all that you heard, but I have heard some very useful and thoughtful points (emphasis on the plural). Sure, his main challenge is to we literary types “to stop the nonsense” (and I think he’s right we *do* engage in a lot of nonsense), but I think he’s shown how difficult it is for us to justify what we do. I don’t think of my own work’s primary purpose as contributing to some “network of knowledge,” so that argument struck me as alien, but I do think of it as encouraging others to think more critically about their world, their surroundings, etc. I guess I would say that I do that in my teaching mainly, and I have to wonder, given what EB’s been pointedly arguing, if my books and articles really helped anyone see the world more closely. Do Deleuze and Guattari help us see the world more clearly or critically? Maybe, for those who can read & understand them. Does a book that uses D&G help us see the world more clearly? I suppose it could. I guess what I hear EB asking us is why should we be happy with just doing a reading of Margery Kempe that uses theory when we could be writing something that might reach a bigger audience with issues that people might really connect to.

Karl Steel said...

I guess what I hear EB asking us is why should we be happy with just doing a reading of Margery Kempe that uses theory when we could be writing something that might reach a bigger audience with issues that people might really connect to.

I'm not sure EB is speaking to writing that we medievalists can do. He's speaking against pretensions of political investment and efficacy in medieval scholarship and literary theory more generally, particularly when the interests of that scholarship run parallel to, but lag far behind, far sharper work being done, I guess, by the positivist sciences. Right?

Now, I suppose we could do writing that "really" "connects" with "people." Some academics do do that. I just read Donna Haraway's (so-so) Companion Species Manifesto, which is published in Prickly Paradigm Press. A press whose books go for 10$ a pop and are given over to big theoretical issues seems to be a good venue for reaching people outside our discipline. I think of Semiotexte Press in that regard, too. There's always writing in venues of cultural studies/politics/journalism such as The Nation and the New York Review of Books. Lots of good academics there: Eric Foner, Said (RIP), etc. Zizek just did a pro-atheism piece for the NY Times, even. Juan Cole--whose expertise is admittedly directly political useful these days--does a great blog, lots of readers, work that killed the Yale job he was just offered and condemns him to finish his career in Michigan.

I suppose my question is: what good does all this do? The problem is still that we--and all these people--work in the written word and require that our readers meet us part way simply by being interested in hearing what we have to say. Lord knows the Xian (or any other stripe) Fundies won’t hear us no matter how much work we do to reach them. Furthermore, given worldwide inequities in distribution of knowledge, of access to being able to speak and be heard, given the ease with which the powers-that-be (powers among which we might be numbered) can continue to ignore us, let alone given the fact that popular scholarship is simply not professionally useful for those of us who are just about to go on the market or who are junior faculty, given all this, what can be done, except to do our scholarship, to try to lead ethical lives w/in the contexts of careers, and to use some of what time left we have to make the world better, whether by donating money where it will do some good, by joining a CSA (as sustainable agriculture is my passion), by volunteering, etc.. While our scholarship might inform some of the work we do in categories #2 and #3, these three activities don't strike as activities that can be made coincident, at least without tenure.

I suppose to a degree I'm counseling a kind of cautious despair.

Anonymous said...

I am a "queer" who, for the most part, despises "queer studies," but nevertheless, "Medieval Identity Machines" got me to think differently, not just about medieval history and literature and what might be called academic "queer studies," but also about my own identity. And incidentally, there is a lot in that book I do not agree with--Deleuze and Guattari's machine-assemblage bodies and "inhuman circuits" frighten me and I do not consider the "merely human body" a "lonely residence." I do not celebrate, either, the subject whose borders "blur and seep" such that "it is no longer clear where one organ, body, or subject stops and another begins." In other words, against many queer theorists, I do not find this kind of discourse--whether from Cohen, Elizabeth Grosz, or D&G--personally liberating [any more than I applaud when Hans Moravec tells me I will finally be "free" when he can down-load my brain into a machine and I can finally be rid of my messy corporality]. Nevertheless, reading Cohen's book gave me much food for thought--not just about Chretien de Troyes or medieval literary demons or "real" Muslims, but also about what it is we think we mean when we say we are "human."

So I ultimately disagree with you, E.B., that a book like "Medieval Identity Machines" [or, substitute other academic books I admire, like Jane Bennett's "The Enchantment of Modern Life" or William Connelly's "Neuropolitics" or Emmanuel Levinas's "Totality and Infinity" or Michel De Certeau's "Writing History" or Terry Eagleton's "After Theory" or Giorgio Agamben's "Homo Sacer" or Slavoj Zizek's "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" or Eduardo Cadava's "Words of Light" or Elaine Scarry's "The Body in Pain," etc.] do not just illuminate for me certain arcane areas of intellectual thought or history or texts, but also figures forth the world to me in such a manner that can, in fact, guide me to new and deeper understandigs not just of academic subjects, but of the world in which I live and my place in it. But it isn't just scholarly works--the good ones [at least, for me]--that can help me do this. So can poetry, novels, non-academic non-fiction books, music, films, conversations with friends, newspapers and magazines, everyday experiences, etc. I know I made this argument already, but isn't it better to encounter as much as possible as opposed to narrowly restricting one's focus to only very particular areas of writing and thought? E.B. has said there isn't time for everything [and why waste it on nonsense?], and I agree, but I still say, mix it up a little. If that makes me a dilettante, so be it, but I will always value the multi-perspectivist vision over the more narrowly focused one.

Also, please don't weep for the world, Emile, just because you believe my ethical aspirations don't extend beyond changing the world "one scholar at a time." Since you have rightly asked that the many and varied [and often cogent and important] arguments you have made here on this blog not be reduced to just "one thing" [as if you have only been arguing one thing over and over again--not true!], please don't reduce my arguments, either. I would hope, by this point, that it were clear that my ethical aspirations extend beyond that [and that when I mentioned the passion of desiring to communicate certain ideas, of course I meant the "good ideas," not the bad ones], but it is important to me to restate that I *do* very much believe that scholarship, practiced a certain way, can be ethical, political, and socially important. I'm not going to back off from this idea, or say something like, well, I guess I can do my literary studies, try to beneficently affect my students somehow, and if I also give money to the poor, too, then I'm off the hook as far as Emile B.'s arguments are concerned. I'm just not going down that road. At least, not yet.

Anonymous said...

Don't soft-pedal, Eileen. I just think your latest "why can't we all work together" postings lost some of the edge I know you're capable of. Conciliation is premature, while there are scholars out there who believe that writing a book using Gilroy is politically engaged, socially relevant, and ethically unimpeachable.

Check this out:

I stumbled on it while searching for something entirely different.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

From Geoffrey C's interview with Parys Launceton (word association):

GC: Professirs of literature?

PL: Vntil they owene up to havynge no ethical use, ich shal nat respecte them.

HA! - now that is a brilliant blogge!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One point? Wrong and unfair? Yes: Emile has many related points, all of them prodding and excellent to ponder. And the stakes could not be higher. I was indeed unfair to reduce his many posts on ethics, scholarship, passion, world change -- and so much more -- to a monotone.

That doesn't mean his critical mode doesn't get monotonous, though, at least for me (others will disagree). When I in an exasperated moment declared my lack of interest in hearing his review of MIMs, I must admit it was because a certain predictability to his comemnts had begun to wear on me, and I thought, "How tedious would that review be???" Again, that's me at my worst, and I shouldn't have allowed ennui to enter into my own comments.

And here is another admission: it is really tough, since I know Emile, for me to NOT think about what work his critique does for him.

I sometimes discern an iconoclast's glee that may or may not be there, but it does make me wonder about the happy frenzy of smashing the idols, of reducing former gods to lifelessness. I would hate to think that MIMs is simply another avatar of those gods, but then again how could it not be? I think it is an easy book to smash, and that may be why -- for a moment, at least -- I wanted to cradle it. It has always seemed to me like an unloved child (it is by far the least noticed, least purchased, and least well reviewed of my seven books; and I only love the unloved).

So there it is. I will need to review this long conversation at greater leisure and respond. For the time being, I have to close my laptop and take the kids to the beach. I probably won't have internet access again until I return on Monday, or shortly thereafter.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

To be clear: the ennui I spoke of also reflects my lack of enthusiasm for a critical voice that strikes me as supercilious, rigid, dismissive. The tone rather than the substance grates. The content of Emile's posts can be predictable at worst, but at their best these posts are spurs to a deep meditation upon the field and its stakes. The latter I applaud, and would not want to silence or belittle.

Back to the brine.

Anonymous said...

Throw that damn laptop in the sea and give those children the best holiday ever. Blink and they will be all grown up tomorrow. That's the most ethical thing (either of) you could do right now.

Work Widow

Anonymous said...

Point of clarification: I never announced that I wished to do a "review" of MIM; I indicated that I would do a "reading" of it. These, to my mind, are different modes of critical engagement.

If I review it, I might be inclined to skate more over the text's surface and then, in my predictable ways, assert its social nonrelevance.

However, I had no intention of doing that. It's too easy, and would end up being a rhetorical gesture about as empty as urging readers of "the fantastic in the arts" (whoever they are) to go out and examine spectral Indians. (I mean just finding a spectral Indian is challenge enough...hehe.)

Anyway, it doesn't really fucking matter much, does it? In the big picture....

In the little picture that is medieval studies, MIM is one of my favorite books, but then I'm a very selective reader: I only read Cohen, Fradenburg, Smith, Holsinger, and the people who send me their stuff to comment upon.

My own work up to this point has been shit of the worst kind. There have been glimmers of something more in a footnote or in a well-placed subordinate clause, but that is about it.

The "ideas" book I'm writing now is much better, though it too will need to be framed in such a way that it matters. We shall see. I'm in no hurry.

The "practice" book is satisfying in different ways. It is under contract to be written rather quickly; it will have a distribution that dwarfs anything I've done in the past, and is intended to be helpful to practitioners in health care.

I'm gonna go think about the Zoo now.

Anonymous said...

"I hesitated, and finally decided not to address this exact question to kofi, as I was interested to hear what difference gay Caribbean writing makes, even to those few hundred people who actually read it (you know, when it's not assigned). I'm sure he doesn't have an empirically-based answer (i.e., he has no data, thus no real clue)" - the stupidity of this answer at first made me not want to address it, but i decidede i might as well. it might make a difference to 5 or 6 people, or less - that's enough for me. and if you don't realize that literature has the ability to reach and affect a lot of people, once again you're an idiot - ask Nadine Gordimer why she wrote, if she was just going to affect a few hundred people. i mean, if you're claiming that literature has NO effect on the world you're an idiot, and if you're claiming that it's rare for it to affect widesperead transformation, well then so is it rare for social scientists to affect widepsread transformation - if, on the other hand, you're talking about helping one person or a few people at a time, like a firefighter does, then of course literature can do that as has been demosntrated in this discussion time and again, although you seem to keep ignoring those examples and not really mentioning them again. when you DO mention them, it is to ask, "do YOU compare yourself with edward said?" of course not. do you compare yourself with mother teresa? what's yr point. if it's about making widespread changes, both mother teresa and said have done that - if its about helping one or five at a time, both the humanities and the "real world" social scientists have done so. if all you want to do is talk numbers then ok, emile, you win - on a dialy basis, you guys make a bigger difference to individual people - that's not what i do or want to do, or else i would have become a social worker like my sister. i am interested in the ways in which literature intersects with the world and can change it, and so that's what i did. you claim that you hae no interest in changing the world one person at a time, yet u cite suicide-prevention workers as examples of people doing good things - they change the world one person at a time. your argument is, despite what others have said, getting repetitive - you want number and data you can use to compare usefuleness - that is a social science method of measurement, by which measure, as i've said, yes, social scientists will come out on top.

"I find it remarkable that there is no shortage of literary academics who will claim for their work some political or social value after the fact of its creation, but there are precious few who will claim that their work was written with genuine political or social intent in mind before its inception" - did you READ my post - that's what i'm hoping to do with my anthology - awareness is power - again, ask Nadine Gordimer and the former apartheid governemtn of south africa.
and the entire reason i began to study literature was because i wanted to change the world - Edward Said is the reason I became an english scholar, so not only my individual work, buyt entire career is/will be based on "genuine political and social intent" - i'm sure i'm not the only one. and before you start throwing around staements like that, poerhaps YOU'D care to back it up with numbers and data (none of which i'm sure you have), to use your own stupid trick against you. in my experience, MANY literary scholars want to change the world - most of us won't, but without that desire nothing will change - for you to suggest that people should stop doing work that is potentially useful (which u yourself have admitted many times) makes no sense to me. is there only ONE type of good work, that which is immediately measurable?

the fact is, jeffrey is completely right here i think - you have ALL the air to me of someone trying to knock down their former gods (humanities, not me). the problem is that you also seem to be a complete noob in terms of the arguements of your new discipline - any social scientists who points to data with such relish without realizing the inherent flaws in data systems and interpretation, who in fact suggests that all data is hard and indisputable and absolutely NON-discursive - every social scientist i know (and i've shown a few of them your arguements here) dismissed those portions of your arguemtns, and many others as well -they, not new to the field and thus with nothing to prove, are more than willing to admit that everyone does their part, everyone does it differently, and that they're happy to do their thing. you remind me more than anything else of my sister who, in her 2nd year of undergrad psychology study, became convinced that she could analyze the entire world and explain it to the rest of us- ie, she was too new to realize how little she knew, and thought that what she knew covered all their was to know. i'll say to you what i said to her - grow up (although she was older than me, as you are metaphorically). there's more to the world than your petty philosophy and ego.

eileen, perhaps some of my last post explains my absence from this discussion lately. like you, i feel it has pretty much run its course in this forum (although i love the idea of a roundtable - i was going to suggest it myself). this discussion becomes increasingly reductive, i think, and face to face is the only way to continue it i think. part of the reason for this is the distinct lack of civility on emile's part - i dont expect everyone to be nice all the time and play along, but he seems to have such a personal axe to grind that he becomes far too insulting and condescending and full of himself - this in turn makes me angry and makes me react in a likewise insulting manner (ie, this post), an instinct i try to fight but which sometimes gets the better of me. i love arguing, but i dont like doing it with insulting people who use condescension in the way of replies to your arguments ("i was going to aks kofi this, but he obviously would have no answer that's good enuff for me...').
so it seemed to me that nothing new was going to be said at this piont, and that thus the insults were no longer worth it. i will keep checking back to see how things are going, but i suspect this is my final post - i will even do my best to ignore's emile's inevitable claim of having chased me off through the efficacy of his arguments.
and if the kalamazoo thing works out, i'm there with bells on.

a final though - emile agreed to this readily, in regards to a field which people immediately dismiss as being alien to the "modern" world - i wonder if he'd be so ready to accept an invite to argue the inutility of literary study at a postcolonial conference?

Karl Steel said...

EB, let me put my last comments a different way. What would you have us do as medievalists?

I'm asking for a positive vision rather than an answer that prods us to stop doing things. I'm also asking for something more than "read the social scientists."

Anonymous said...

Karl: As a medievalist, do your work, collect your paycheck, and enjoy your summers off. Above all, live the ethical life you, for example, outlined in a previous post. Continue to think about the reasons it is damned hard to live a genuinely ethical life in the academy. Persist in asking what can be done to overcome that disjunction. Read Coles’s The Call of Service. If you think it is good, then recommend it to others.

I don’t know what kind of medievalist you are or want to be, Karl. From what I’ve gathered you read omnivorously outside the field of medievalism as more or less institutionally defined. I did (and do more than ever), and I applaud that. As you continue to do that, I will bet that you will find it increasingly difficult to avoid making ethical judgments about what truly matters and what is truly meaningful. You’re likely not avoiding those now, but what I’m betting is that your ethical sense will become refined. There will come a point when, for example, a claim that there is one big universe of knowledge and discourse and isn’t it grand that we can all contribute to it each in our own humble way won’t really satisfy you. You’ll seriously question, given the breadth of your reading, why some ideas stay around and some pass as fads, why some should stay around and why some should pass away, why some ideas need to be resurrected from the dustbin, and why some, no matter how popular, need overhauling, and so on. As medievalists, we have what I’ve always thought was an advantage on other disciplines—a keener sense of history (skepticisms about periodicity, and so on) and a set of tools (critical and linguistic) that can afford us opportunities to approach the important questions with a wider view. So, what can we do, as medievalists? We can open up fundamental questions like What does it mean to be human? or What is an emotion? and so on, and do so in a way that not only reaches other PhDs outside our field but reaches others—ordinary people—through the way those ideas are/can be/should be translated into some kind of social practice, intervention, or politics. As medievalists we can supply ideas at the very least. I have put myself in a place where I am able not only to supply the ideas but also to put them into direct practice.

Anonymous said...

kofi: I have no problem changing the world one person at a time (and I do change it thus); what I would wish to avoid is changing it only one scholar at a time. I should think that was clear.

Again you’ve distinguished yourself by generating more gibberish in the form of assertions (buried, as usual, in clumsy prose and typos). I found your attempt at insulting me to be most entertaining. The only problem is that you’re as poor at insulting as you are at reasoning.

Let’s get back to the main event, shall we? I see you’ve studiously avoided my questions about your claims to relevance made on behalf on literature professors who supposedly toppled Apartheid, and I note that you’ve avoided all questions about your anthology which is supposed to change the lives of Carribbean gays. I suspect that you know bloody well your claims for relevance are so weak that to answer my questions would be embarrassing. And you should be embarrassed. You should be embarrassed every time you send off another article to Exemplaria, when you know damn well that an argument about Bevis of Hampton isn’t useful to anyone for improving the lives of those about whom you profess to care. You should be embarrassed every time you spend your department’s and your own money to fly off to a conference on postcolonialism attended only by literature PhDs and grad students rather than use that money in a more directly helpful way like contributing to a fund for AIDs drugs. You should be embarrassed every time you deliver a paper to a group of people who think exactly like you do. Do you get the picture?

Your world is tiny. I have no doubt about that. Anyone who became a literature scholar because of a single thinker is narrow-minded. Your work, as much as I have read, fails even to live up to the label of a “petty philosophy.” You are no Said, and I have to wonder if you even possess the intellect to have carried his briefcase. You’ve brought up Mother Teresa twice as some model of humanity (I take it you haven’t read Hitchens’s The Missionary Position) first to measure gerontologists against her and denounce those professionals as posers (brilliant argument, that), and then to measure me against her. Although sainthood is out of the question for me, by the end of my life, I’ll have come much closer to the good with which she is credited as having achieved than you will to the effects of a Said on the world.

Anonymous said...

Gee, kofi's "final though [sic]" slipped my mind when I wrote the previous post. And such a powerful thought it is.

Am I supposed to be scared of the big bad postcolonialists? Maybe some scholar of transnational hybridities (in diasporic writing, of course) will hurl a Homi-Bhabha-like meaningless sentence at me, and send me reeling. Ooohhhh, scary.

Anonymous said...

And here’s something that’s just fucking irksome: kofi claims repeatedly that I think the social sciences are better because they are, in part, in the business of measuring “realities,” whether those be behavioral, mental, or affective.

It is an indisputable fact that the social sciences attempt to measure those realities. It is indisputable fact that they attempt to improve and refine those measurements, usually with each study. It is an indisputable fact that literature professors very rarely work with such measures, and they very rarely contribute in any direct ways to improving those measures. Now that that’s cleared up:

First, that’s a small part of a larger argument I’ve made regarding real world engagement. I have said that if you want to measure outcomes, social science is the discipline to which you’d turn, not English literature. Literature does not offer an alternative(s). So any arguments you want to make about social science coming off better because it is the discipline that is carrying out the measurements is absurd. This is why I have asked you to name some outcomes that you think are unique to the kinds of effects that literature and its scholarship has on the world. You have named none. Furthermore, you have not shown why social science would be inherently incapable of measuring those outcomes or even why literary disciplines could measure them better.

Second, you admit that when we talk numbers, I win. You’re right, I do win. Show me how other categories of outcomes might function in such a way that I do not win. Oh, you don’t have any. Again, I win.

Third, the most you’ve produced so far is some abstraction called “the network of knowledge.” This is not measurable, I take it, at least according to the argument you want to make. I’ve already granted that there are networks (plural) of knowledge, and I have stated that it is an ethical responsibility to weigh those networks, rejecting those that are harmful and preserving those that are helpful. I have also asked you directly why you would want to preserve those that are at best neither harmful nor helpful.

Fourth, you then produce a claim that your anthology is intended to improve the lives of gay Caribbeans. That’s great, but how will you know if that happens or not? Gut feeling based on your good intentions? You’re going to count the emails you receive? Puhleeeze.

Fifth, you misquote me and wilfully misconstrue my points regarding data analysis. I have stated nowhere that analysis is flawless or that data is indisputable. Indeed, I have two forthcoming articles on spirituality measures in chemical dependency treatment and recovery that examine precisely why better measures are called for and why previous analytics has overlooked certain key features of spirituality as it is lived and experienced by recovering addicts. What I have said is that I suspect you believe the world is entirely discursive and that I believe it is not. Perhaps that was too subtle for you. I’ll be more blunt for you: when I say the world is not entirely discursive that is not the same as saying that it—that all data about it—are non-discursive. What has clearly happened is that my pushing you on the question of data has forced you to take a reductionist view of my true position. Discourse can be misleading, eh?

Sixth, your charge of “noob” I read nothing more as an attempt to mirror back my own characterization of you as intellectually immature. Produce something that shows you put some thought into it and I’ll revise my opinion of you. Until then, you’re the worst kind of poser.

Karl Steel said...

No time--thank god--to be involved in this argument!

EB: You mention Smith, Cohen, etc.: why don't you read the historians? Did you exclude Biddick and Dinshaw deliberately for rather obvious reasons?

Thanks for the serious reply EB. It's funny, your point We can open up fundamental questions like What does it mean to be human? because that actually hits my work headon. My dissertation (and a forthcoming article in Exemplaria! hah!) tracks the way the human constructs itself at the expense of the animal. My guides in this have been Derrida and--minus his confidence in an "Enlightenment Subject" different from earlier "premodern" subjects--Cary Wolfe's Animal Rites. His 15-page conclusion is a good place to absorb the book. Some of the ways this work has marked my ethics can be seen here.

Anonymous said...

As someone de-lurking for a moment, I want to start off by thanking Cohen for letting his blog be "hijacked" by this discussion. I have found reading it fascinating, irritating, insulting, and invigorating--all at the same time. The general position around which all this talk circulates seems to be one that I agree with: literary criticism and literary studies produces no direct effect on the world (for good or ill) and, in this sense, it is a struggle for its practicioners to defend it as an ethical activity in a world so devastatingly painful.

I am not going to address anyone's comments in particular, but I would like to point out one interesting omission in the discussion. I find it shocking that teaching, as a practice, never gained a foothold as an important defense of what folks professing in the humanities do.

I don't think that my dissertation or my other scholarly writing has any chance of doing good in the world and I don't intend it to do so when writing. However, I do think that teaching is a dimension of this job that is political (which is not necessarily the same as activist or as "like the helping professions"). When I teach, I don't think of it as me simply transmitting "knowledge" to a select group of students. Instead, it is a venue for struggling over ideas with others, a struggle that, at its best, is about conflict, tension, insight, and the emotional experience of ignorance (for everyone in that room including me). At Columbia, when I teach Literature Humanities, I often begin the year by outlining specific themes we will track as we read the literature. One of those themes is always marriage as a social institution and I contextualize it by noting the way the government wishes to limit this institution by excluding gays and lesbians from its benefits and responsibilities. I rarely offer my own views on the marriage debate, mostly because they might alienate my audience too much. But I also don't think their arguing about the meaning of marriage (is it about love? money? benefits? spirituality?) needs my "supervision." While their arguments might not be the most fascinating ones with regard to the topic, they often argue their positions passionately, challenging each other in this way or that. I do think that when my classes have this type of discussion based on reading a literary text, what happens in the classroom can have political effects. Are the effects I claim direct, immediate, visceral? No, not at all. I suppose, as a gay man, I hope that chipping away at the very simplified discussions that pass for the public debate on marriage, a very small and very limited contribution can be made to complicating that debate. A wish on my part is to perform some kind of act of de-mystification without neessarily imposing my own values on audience; it is a difficult feat to perform. I do wish the students to understand that marriage is not simply a personal choice about love or the fulfillment of a spiritual compact. At the very least, I insist that, as a class, we apprecaite that the meaning of marriage changes, its practices vary depending on historical period, region, and culture.

Again, will this save other queer folks a hassle? I highly doubt it. But that doesn't mean that it is utterly futile. Admittedly, I can't quantify the effects, nor can I use it to justify my job in a hypothetical competition with other jobs, like a counselor or a pediatric oncologist. But I do think the omission of teaching from this discussion limits these reflections on the value of the humanities. [A footnote: my partner works in what are classified as "high needs" schools in Manhattan, the ones that are vividly and violently part of the "school to jail pipeline," as critical educators call it. I am acutely aware that the work he does in poor and non-white neighborhoods teaching math exceeds anything I might do at Columbia in terms of teaching impact (what he does is, I think, more ethical than what I do). But I haven't committed my life to Columbia (and never would). Where one teaches, I think, conditions the political and ethical efficacy of teaching.

While rather long-winded, my point is that teaching as a part of what scholars in the humanities "do" hasn't really received the kind of attention it deserves in an argument about the utility of the profession. I don't think teaching "resolves" the ethical problem, but it does complicate it, especially if one considers the role of education in the maintenance of particular and sometimes pernicious ideologies. The complications multiply if one considers how difficult it is to encourage students to open their beliefs to examination, to allow their views to be subject to debate and query. But such difficulties, for me, only make the pracice of teaching more interesting.

To limit this argument to books read and articles written is to impoverish the debate, especially since the audience for these books and articles is, frankly, very, very small. Here, I think my colleagues in fields like history have better options: they can write a book of popular history that might, just might, have a wider audience than an academic one and, in this highly mediated chain, might affect more people as an audience. Literary departments don't really produce books that cross over so well unless the person is a poet, novelist, or essayist (and even then ...).

Again, this debate, it seems, has focused too much on reading and writing as forces shaping the beliefs of others and not enough on the third aspect of our work: teaching.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely spot on derrick. Critical thinking (philosophy) and rhetoric are ACTIVE VIRTUES of a fully civic society and maintaining them through research and teaching is of fundamental importance to maintaining any ethical system at all. As I said before, EB has clearly benefited from his exposure to humanities teaching hugely.

Anonymous said...

Tomorrow morning [Sunday] I head out into the blue beyond of part 3 of my adult life, and will not be able to post much for a while [although I will be reading from the fringes when I can]. Suffice to say, starting tomorrow, I am literally "starting over," from complete scratch, and I am both grief-stricken and elated. Yes, it's possible to be both. I will be hiding out in the mountains of east Tennessee, before eventually heading to St. Louis, but I wanted to post some last thoughts [even though, admittedly, the post at the beginning of this thread was *supposedly* already my "last thoughts"].

First, I wanted to tell Derrick that I agree with everything you write about teaching in your post, including your comment, viz. your partner's job, that, "where one teaches . . . conditions the political and ethical efficacy of teaching." Derrick, the reason I have not discussed teaching in my posts [although I did refer to the classroom and the university on more than one occasion as "places"/sites where ethical care-giving is both needed and also taking place], is precisely because that is, for me, the moot point. I do not want to make the argument that it is in the classroom where I have [hopefully] the most socially beneficent effect on the largest number of persons [although that isn't, as you rightly point out, always measured properly], because I know that, at the end of the day, that is, of course, likely the case [i.e., I have the ability to affect more people through my teaching than through my scholarly articles or conference papers]. Remember, too, Derrick, that the better your scholarship is [the more you dedicate yourself to the rigor and intense questioning and thinking of your particular research interests], the better teacher you will be--period. But It is precisely for the reasons you outline, that I think the case *does* have to made, however, as to how our scholarship might also have a more broad socio-cultural [perhaps also, political] effect. Again, it is precisely because that may NOT be the case, that I feel we have to, not make an *argument* that it does, per se [just because we *feel* it does], but rather, ask ourselves, what can we do to move our scholarship in a direction where it is more--to borrow a term from Anglo cultural studies--ENGAGED. Some of us are going to say, well, it simply isn't and never really will be, and that's that, but I can affect my students and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity on the weekends. For me, personally, that route is altogether too easy--Jonathan Kozol, one of my heroes whose book, "Death At Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools," I have read so many times the covers have fallen off, had a phrase for that route: "empty care" [a kind of hollow ethics that satisfies itself by saying, "I care, isn't that enough"? or "I gave somebody something, isn't that enough?"]. I'm not going to devote 50% of my energies [which I do, and then some] to a scholarship that ultimately has little social use-value [and I'm a highly-rated teacher, by the way, who has taught in prisons and community colleges and urban youth centers and adult ed. programs as well as in universities]. I simply have to work on this problem of how my scholarship [and the scholarship of my medievalist and other colleagues] might matter *more*, and I will continue to do so with anyone who will help me. This brings me to E.B.'s response to Karl's question, "What would you have us do *as medievalists*?"

E.B.'s answer, which I concur with 100%, was, "As medievalists, who have a "wider historical perspective . . . we can supply ideas at the very least." And also, "Continue to think about the reasons is it damned hard to live a genuinely ethical life in the academy. Persist in asking what can be done to overcome that disjunction." Here I see an opening for further, more formal discussions, for grant proposals, for multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary collaborative work leading toward curricular reform, but also toward the reform of how we write our scholarship and for what and whom we write and present it, as Walter Benjamin might have said, "with throbbing heart." The world, as Barry Lopez recently told me, is literally "on fire" all around us and the predominant zeitgeist can be summed up, in the soon-to-be-published words of E.B. as a kind of "zombification" brought on by "global capitalistic sensurround," and what are we going to do to restore to ourselves and our students a sense of affective wonder at and ethical care for the world and Other persons? Barry Lopez, I would like to point out, who I met last semester, and who is NOT an academic and never has been [he is a naturalist, explorer, writer, poet, etc.] has crafted, with E.O. Wilson [Harvard] an amazing five-year undergraduate program that combines the natural sciences and the arts in a way that does just that [hopefully]. It has been instituted at a few universities, including Texas Tech. and Portland State [in Oregon, where Lopez lives]. The collaboration between Lopez and Wilson is one place to start thinking about new collaborations between the arts and sciences, between the "real world" and the academy, that are aimed at social change and curing the so-called moral ills of, in my own words, a world gone mad with sensual purposelessness.

So, no, Emile Blauche, I am not soft-pedaling. I want it all--the small victories and the larger ones. But I want to be realistic, too. I can't let go of the idea of "la petite bonte," while at the same time, I think we in the academy, especially those of us who have been blessed with the lighter teaching loads and the summers off and the NEH fellowships, etc., have an obligation to do more with those "ideas" you say we can "supply." And perhaps, as much as I often deplore them, I can end with a suggestive personal anecdote from about a week ago when I was in D.C. visiting my family? I met up, while there, with an old friend--I'll call him "Boy Nevada," as that was his stripper name, supplied by me, when he lived on Fire Island--who I had not seen in over 15 years. In the mid- to late eighties, Boy Nevada and I had worked on Capital Hill together, but not in the way you might think. We worked at My. Henry's on Pennsylvania Avenue [a well-known gay bar] and we were quite the partyers. We did every drug known to man, danced every night, and slept until noon or later every day. Yes, we were in Act Up, we saw the AIDS quilt the first time it was displayed, we were among the first to see the Mapplethorpe exhibit when it was shut down at the Corcoran and had to be transferred to a basement gallery on F Street, we marched and protested with the best of them, and we saw many of our best friends die. But we weren't really activists, in the sense that we were always more interested in the so-called "tea parties" at the clubs and who was fucking who at any given moment. I think I was permanently drunk and/or stoned from about 1984-1990. I actually thought Boy Nevada would end up dead, either from AIDS or a drug overdose or alcoholism, but it turns out he's thriving and has had a serious life-change that was mainly brought about by 9/11. He was living in SoHo at the time, working as a hairdresser in a very high end salon and also selling drugs and he told me that, at one time, he had $100,000 stashed in his apartment in small bills in shoe boxes, and basically, his life was crazy--as always. No big epiphanies here about terrorism or patriotism or anything like that, but he was walking his dog when the towers were hit and came down, he saw people jumping out of the buildings, etc., and afterward, he decided to volunteer to clean up debris and he also took in dogs and cats that has been displaced by their owners who had died that day. No, this isn't the story you think it might be, about my friend Boy Nevada "the saint" who did something "real." It's about, rather, how he left New York and came back to D.C. and got a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Dupont Circle and also volunteers for SMILE, a group that works with familes who are dealing with AIDS [infected parents, children, etc.] and doesn't drink or do drugs anymore, and how we were sitting in the butterfly garden on the Mall and trying to tell each other about our lives and how, ultimately, while I can understand everything he is doing, trying to explain what I do to him just seemed . . . insane. Boy Nevada never even finished high school, and what *I* do for a living? Well, just forget about it. And yet, it was also like nothing had ever changed between us. We talked for hours, and what about? Well, as it turned out, Boy Nevada wanted to share with me his "new" idea about affecting other people, and how important it is to devote one's life to helping others, whether it is the waiter you work with or the teenager with AIDS or your dog. It can be the smallest thing, he said, but it matters. But do you think it's true, I asked him, what they say, that "one person can make a difference"? He argued the "ripple effect" [I know that everyone here knows what that means]. I argued "la petite bonte," and then we reached an accord on something: the world really *is* likely going to hell and a lot of chaos and suffering is all around us. Very likely, our small ethical gestures will not change that, and talking "revolution" just doesn't have the same *zing* it used to. What then, can we legitimately have hope for? We didn't use his words, but the following from Italo Calvino ["Invisible Cities"] sums up how we ended our conversation:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Anonymous said...

For Eileen, and for anyone else:

Eileen raises the vital question of how to restore affective wonder and ethical care in students and ourselves. The "ourselves" is probably the taller order, but there is a book that kind of disappeared under the radar that addresses at least the first of those concerns--i.e., how do you resore in pedgagogy and in the humanities more generally "moments of intensity" (the author's term), via a new epistemology, in this case, one based on presence?

The book is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence (Stanford, 2004).

The fourth chapter is particularly good, for one reason, because it is tied to pedagogy.

Anonymous said...

Karl: you ask about "the historians." Of course, I've read, and indeed quoted several times in print, Biddick, Partner, Bynum, among others, and even Dinshaw, who is of course a lit person.

In general, I don't read medieval historians unless they're relevant to a current project of mine. In the last two months, however, I've been reading a lot of Schorske, Janik, Gay, Luft, and Sengoopta, in order to get a handle on turn-of-the-century Viennese thought.

I would say say this about opening up the "big" questions, in order to narrow a bit what I had urged earlier: I think it depends a great deal upon how and where you perform your scholarly treatment of the ideas. I don't mean simply audience; rather, it's a question of how ideas are framed and in what context they appear.

Here's a positive example of what I mean, just a chapter that crossed my path while reading in the extensive literature on PTSD. Jerome Kroll, psychiatrist, wrote an important book on the intersection of PTSD and borderline personality in therapy, and the fourth chapter is co-written with a medieval historian (Bernard Bachrach). That chapter is a historical and cross-cultural examination of self-injurous behavior as it manifests in those with borderline PD. It's an example--far from the best one I might produce--of a medievalist lending his skills in a direct way to a project ostensibly far outside his expertise but to which nonetheless he supplies a crucial piece of the puzzle of diagnosis & treatment.

This is not mere "cross-disciplinarity," a phenomenon which, especially in literature departments, has become utterly anemic. Nor is it an example of the incest, parasitism, or cannibalism that characterizes the majority of literary study.

The question becomes how, as medievalists or as those with highly specialized skills and knowledges, do we contribute to questions that have utility or might have. Nussbaum, though not a medievalist, is a paragon of how specialized knowlege (e.g., classical philosophy) can actually take the lead in formulating crucial questions of social and political relevance.

So, it comes down, in part, to the question of whether, as medievalists, we are content to follow rather than lead and whether we are content to talk mainly to ourselves. I hope more of us are discontented.

Anonymous said...

This is what we should not be content with. More boilerplate rubbish, that seems to be called into existence because "hey, no one else has looked at these issues before." Notice that both of these calls are from the same person. The language about there being a "pressing need" for this scholarship is offensive.

Exhibit One:

Editor seeks a few more essays for an edited collection tentatively
entitled "Loss and Mourning in the Writings of Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Joyce Harte.

At the invitation of Cambridge Scholars Press, I am submitting for publication a book of critical scholarly essays on the topic of loss and mourning in the writings of Caribbean women writers. Most of the essays for the book derive from papers given at a conference of the North East Modern Language Association in March 2006.

The consideration of loss and mourning in Caribbean women's writing is an exciting new discourse emerging fefore us and, while there is a considerable body of literature detailing loss and mourning in the works of women writers of Western cultures, little has been written about this trope in the works of women writers of the Caribbean. This book-length collection of scholarly essays will place the work of Caribbean women writers firmly within this literary discourse.

Please submit abstracts (400-500 words) as soon as possible and not later than July 31, 2006. Acceptances will be made by August 30. Accepted papers of approximately 15-20 pages will be due October 31, 2006.

Inquiries and abstracts can be sent in the body of email to Joyce Harte (_joyce_harte@yahoo.com_ ( ).

Exhibit Two:

Since the 1990s, recent Anglophone Caribbean writing has broken the
literary mold set by the text of the 1950s onwards by foregrounding the trope of sex and sexuality, along with the relational categories of race, class, and gender to give a fuller understanding of Caribbean reality. There is now a pressing need for critical, scholarly, examination of this new dimension of Caribbean literature.

I invite papers that examine the representation of sex and sexuality as illustrated in the poetry, fiction, and autobiographical work of contemporary women writers of the Anglophone Caibbean.

Send one-page abstracts by September 15, 2006, to Joyce Harte, English Department
Borough of Manhattan CC/CUNY
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007 in body of email; no attachments please

Please include with your abstract: Name and Affiliation / email
address/ home address/ telephone number/ A/V requirements (if any).

Anonymous said...

Emile Blauche wrote:

"So, it comes down, in part, to the question of whether, as medievalists, we are content to follow rather than lead and whether we are content to talk mainly to ourselves. I hope more of us are discontented."

To which I add, as my own "coda to a coda," these words from John Dewey:

"Wisdom is a moral term, and like every moral term refers not to the constitution of things already in existence . . . . As a moral term it refers to a choice about something to be done, a preference for living this sort of life rather than that. It refers not to accomplished reality but to a desired future which our desires, when translated into articulate conviction, may help bring into existence."