Monday, July 31, 2006

I hope you die in a lake of fire and get your eyes pecked out by crows

No, I don't wish that on YOU. I'm just quoting some of the better hate mail at The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

A few months ago I explained the FSM to Kid #1 after he pointed out the relevant bumper sticker on a neighbor's car. Hebrew school be damned, he has been thinking, I want to convert!

PS Look for a post-NCS post soon.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why History Matters Redux: The Redress Project

Although the subject of my last post--the special issue of Representations 92: "Redress" [Fall 2005; edited by Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman] and The Redress Project--is not seemingly directly related to medieval studies [it has more to do with the subject of slavery, mainly in the early modern and modern periods], I believe it is actually quite relevant and important concerning our recent discussions on this blog about "why history matters" and whether or not early Anglo-Saxons might have been colonial-style racial oppresors [we know, of course, from the law codes, that early Anglo-Saxons possessed slaves--the larger question would be: how was it determined who would be a slave and how was that "class" of persons legally defined, regulated, constrained, etc.?]. I also believe that, for any medievalist who, like JJC, is interested in questions--theoretical, historical, and otherwise--that have to do with time, chronology, periodization, "untimeliness," and what might be called, following Vance Smith, "irregular histories," that some time spent looking at the scholarship of the Redress Project, comprised mainly of English, History, Law, Social Policy, and Human Rights scholars, is an absolute must. It relates, moreover, to the "hope" of Michael Uebel [expressed in a soon-to-be-published essay] that "critical medievalism . . . will recognize itself as particularly well suited to advance the terms by which temporality can be understood as a vital (cross)-disciplinary concern."

First, The Redress Project started as a reading group at Berkeley that met in the fall semester of 2004 "to foster a discussion of some of the different ways that . . . scholars [in different fields] . . . think about specific instances of historical injustice and the possibility of their remedy. The Redress Group’s ongoing task is to open up critical dialogue on questions of injury, justice, and closure that have yet to be posed within the traditional disciplines, and to address problems that have been either denied or repressed within liberal historiographic and philosophical critique." In their Introduction to the special issue of Representations, "Fugitive Justice," Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman conceptualize a "redress discourse" that would locate itself in the space between "grievance and grief; between the necessity of legal remedy and the impossibility of redress" and which is also "the political interval in which all captives find themselves--the interval between the no longer and the not yet, between the destruction of the old world and the awaited hour of deliverance" (p. 3). Best and Hartman also outline the chief questions of the Redress Project:

  • Why is justice fugitive? Why [for former slaves] . . . does justice appear elusive and perpetually dubious from within the crucible of slavery and at the height of the slave trade--when the time of injury and the time of repair would have been coeval? [Former slaves] . . . could not have been accused, as many are today, of "sleeping on their rights." Is this elusiveness then an index of the incommensurability between grief and grievance, pain and compensation?
  • What is justice for the slave? What is justice for the slave's descendants? Does the slave even have descendants? Who are the slave's many descendants?
  • What is slavery? [This, I think, is the especially pertinent question relative to early Anglo-Saxon legal classifications of different sorts of "persons"] What is the violence particular to slavery? . . . What is the essential feature of slavery: (1) property in human beings, (2) physical compulsion and corporal correction of the laborer, (3) involuntary servitude, (4) restrictions on mobility or opportunity or personal liberty, (5) restrictions of liberty of contract, (6) the expropriation of material fruits of the slave's labor, (7) absence of collective self-governance or non-citizenship, (8) dishonor and social death, (9) racism? We understand the particular character of slavery's violence to be ongoing and constitutive of the unfinished project of freedom.
  • What is the slave--property, commodity, or disposable life?
  • What is the time of slavery? [again--very apropos to our concerns with temporality as medievalists] Is it the time of the present, as Hortense Spillers suggests, a death sentence reenacted and transmitted across generations?
  • Is it a time that we can all remember?
  • Why is the history of reparations of slavery . . . a history of nonevent, a history of events either too recent to deserve the name of history or events that reverse contemporary expectations about reparations? And extending from that last question, why is the appeal for redress one that always seems to arrive too late, and to be marked by a note of belatedness and insufficiency?

Finally, in their Introduction, Best and Hartman are at pains to distinguish the work of their project from work on reparations or on remembering and working through trauma. Rather, they see their work [and the work of the other scholars involved with them] as:

the attempt to interrogate rigorously the kinds of political claims that can be mobilized on behalf of the slave (the stateless, the socially dead, and the disposable) in the political present. . . . we are concerned neither with "what happened then" nor with "what is owed because of what happened then," but rather with the contemporary predicament of freedom, with the melancholy recognition of forseeable futures still tethered to the past. . . . what is the story about the slave we ought to tell out of the present we ourselves inhabit--a present in which torture isn't really torture, a present in which persons have been stripped of rights heretofore deemed inalienable?

Since the contributors to the Redress Project see their subject as one that is mainly post-colonial [and therefore locates its incipit in the early modern period], I would ask, finally, how might medieval studies contribute to this Project? What, further, can medieval studies learn from this Project?

And thanks to Janet Thormann, who passed on to me the special issue of Representations that Best & Hartman edited.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Tiny Mix Tapes: An Experiment in Medievalism in Honor of Stephanie Trigg

Okay--there's this really cool free music service that mainly only teenagers know about [thank god I'm living with losts of teenagers this summer at my friend Amy's house], called Tiny Mix Tapes, which takes requests for mix tapes that have to have a certain interesting "theme," and then their volunteer "mixers" take it upon themselves to make the tape mix for you [it can take a little while--they provide the song list, then you download it via or another open music source]. Recent mix themes have included: "Songs for when you're tripping on Robitussin and your best friend's mother catches you dancing around with a towel on your head to the song Eat Y'self Fitter," "my embarrassing secret is that, at nearly sixteen years old, i've often felt that the only reason i am still alive is because it would be wrong to die before losing my virginity. well, it's gone now," "songs to knit to," "music to drown yourself to," "depressing songs to play at the porn store i work at, so customers forget they're horny and go home and quit bothering me," and my personal favorite, "holy shit, I just made out with my brother."

As a little experiment, and in tribute to Stephanie Trigg's talk at NCS on "medievalism," I have submitted a request for a rock/punk/rage metal mix under the theme of "getting medieval." We'll see what happens.

Addendum [posted later in day]: in case anyone was wondering, a "Beowulf Soundtrack" mix tape was already requested, and this was the result:

Requested by: robin
Complied by: Alabaster

01. Boards of Canada - "In a Beautiful Place out in the Country" (In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country)
02. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - "Another Day Full of Dread" (I See a Darkness)
03. Entrance - "Wandering Stranger" (?)
04. The Black Heart Procession - "The Visitor" (II)
05. Fugazi - "Epic Problem" (The Argument)
06. Mogwai - "Hunted by a Freak" (Happy Songs For Happy People)
07. Hanged Up - "Fuck This Place" (Clatter for Control)
08. Alasdair Roberts - "I Went Hunting" (Farewell Sorrow)
09. The Birthday Party - "Deep in the Woods" (Hits)
10. Slant 6 - "What Kind of Monster Are You?" (Twenty Years of Dischord)
11. Low - "Fearless" (A Lifetime of Temporary Relief)
12. Magik Markers - "Hero for Our Times pt. 1/2" (Feel the Crayon)
13. Hototogisu - "Run into the Woods" (Green)
14. The Stooges - "Search and Destroy" (Raw Power)
15. Tom Waits - "Flash Pan Hunter" (The Black Rider)
16. Woody Guthrie - "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" (Dustbowl Ballads)

Postcard from the New Chaucer Society

My postcard is in fact a snapshot of Patsy and Edina at NCS. I don't know when they became so dour, but a serious Chaucer conference will do that to even the most festive among us.

David Wallace's presidential address ("New Chaucer Topographies") would have interested many of this blog's readers, especially with its postcolonial swerve towards the end. He also mentioned that the Chaucer blog is probably scripted by an ABD Langlandian. Ouch.

A panel on "What is Happening to the Middle Ages?" was also intriguing. Carolyn Dinshaw spoke at length about multiple and heterogeneous temporalities. James Simpson launched a good argument against the ghetto of easy periodizations. Stephanie Trigg's paper on the thin (and probably more fantastic than real) line between medieval studies and medievalism studies was bracing. Surprisingly, no one mentioned blogs other than as a quick joke (Wallace) or as a quick advertisement (introduction to Trigg).

An enjoyable evening of drinks with some of my favorite bloggers and blog-haunters convinces me that a much of what is happening to the Middle Ages isn't unfolding in traditional spaces, and is being catalyzed by the profession's youngest, smartest and newest members.

Postcard to the New Chaucer Society

Just a little postcard from those of us in Blogville to say we hope those of you at the New Chaucer Society meeting in NYC are having as much fun as Patsy and Edina would have if they were there. Come to think of it, academic conferences could use a few more Patsys and Edinas. Just a thought.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Is Identity a Fate or a Choice?

Relative to our discussions of humanism and "being human," and also psychoanalysis, transference, and self-Other relationships, I have just read a review of what looks to be an extremely interesting book by the Nobel Prize-winning economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, and I also append here a link to the review of that book that recently appeared in Prospect: "Illusions of Identity" by Kenan Malik.

I will quote here briefly from the review:

At the heart of the book is an argument against what Sen calls the communitarian view of identity—the belief that identity is something to be "discovered" rather than chosen. "There is a certain way of being human that is my way," the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his much-discussed essay "The Politics of Recognition." "I am called upon to live my life in this way." But who does the calling? Seemingly the identity itself. For Taylor, as for many communitarians, identity appears to come first, with the human actor following in its shadow. Or, as the philosopher John Gray has put it, identities are "a matter of fate, not choice."

Sen will have none of it. "There are two issues here," he says when I meet him at King's College, Cambridge, where he was master until returning to Harvard two years ago. "First, the recognition that identities are robustly plural and the importance of how one identity need not obliterate another. And second, that a person has to make choices about what relative importance to attach, in a particular context, to their divergent loyalties and identities. The individual belongs to many different groups and it's up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority to." We are multitudes and we can choose among our multitudes.

Sen has been a vocal critic of "multiculturalism," but only when it is inflected in such a way that it assumes certain persons will act/think a certain way based upon the "group" to which they supposedly "belong." On this point, relative to social policy in Briatin, Sen has said, "We have a system in which Muslim organisations are in charge of all Muslims, Hindu organisations in charge of all Hindus, Jewish organisations in charge of all Jews and so on. . . . In downplaying political and social identities, as opposed to religious identities, the government has weakened civil society precisely when there is a great need to strengthen it." Sen, in other words, is wary of identity politics.

Here, also, is a link to an excerpt from Sen's book, published in Slate: "What Clash of Civilizations?" Here is a brief bit from that, that touches upon medieval history:

. . . . the frantic Western search for "the moderate Muslim" confounds moderation in political beliefs with moderateness of religious faith. A person can have strong religious faith—Islamic or any other—along with tolerant politics. Emperor Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides as that distinguished Jewish philosopher fled an intolerant Europe. When, at the turn of the 16th century, the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all.

The point that needs particular attention is that while Akbar was free to pursue his liberal politics without ceasing to be a Muslim, that liberality was in no way ordained—nor of course prohibited—by Islam. Another Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, could deny minority rights and persecute non-Muslims without, for that reason, failing to be a Muslim, in exactly the same way that Akbar did not terminate being a Muslim because of his tolerantly pluralist politics.

The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. The alternative to the divisiveness of one pre-eminent categorization is not any unreal claim that we are all much the same. Rather, the main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization.

Perhaps the worst impairment comes from the neglect—and denial—of the roles of reasoning and choice, which follow from the recognition of our plural identities. The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live. The descriptive weakness of choiceless singularity has the effect of momentously impoverishing the power and reach of our social and political reasoning. The illusion of destiny exacts a remarkably heavy price.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Barbarian Tides

A new book just out by Walter Goffart is quite apropos, I think, to our recent discussion regarding whether or not the early Anglo-Saxons were apartheid-style racists. I append here the description of the book from the University of Pennsylvania website:

Barbarian Tides
The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire

Walter Goffart
384 pages 6 1/8 x 9 1/ Jun 2006 / ISBN 0-8122-3939-3 / $69.95

The Migration Age is still envisioned as an onrush of expansionary "Germans" pouring unwanted into the Roman Empire and subjecting it to pressures so great that its western parts collapsed under the weight. Further developing the themes set forth in his classic Barbarians and Romans, Walter Goffart dismantles this grand narrative, shaking the barbarians of late antiquity out of this "Germanic" setting and reimagining the role of foreigners in the Later Roman Empire.
The Empire was not swamped by a migratory Germanic flood for the simple reason that there was no single ancient Germanic civilization to be transplanted onto ex-Roman soil. Since the sixteenth century, the belief that purposeful Germans existed in parallel with the Romans has been a fixed point in European history. Goffart uncovers the origins of this historical untruth and argues that any projection of a modern Germany out of an ancient one is illusory. Rather, the multiplicity of northern peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity. Most relevant among these was the long militarization that gripped late Roman society concurrently with its Christianization.

If the fragmented foreign peoples with which the Empire dealt gave Rome an advantage in maintaining its ascendancy, the readiness to admit military talents of any social origin to positions of leadership opened the door of imperial service to immigrants from beyond its frontiers. Many barbarians were settled in the provinces without dislodging the Roman residents or destabilizing landownership; some were even incorporated into the ruling families of the Empire. The outcome of this process, Goffart argues, was a society headed by elites of soldiers and Christian clergy—one we have come to call medieval.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Postcard from the still-vex'd Bermoothes

Despite its big pink houses, Bermuda is not an island of whimsy. Thus the postcard I send to you is a picture I took outside my stately (and big and pink) hotel: Bermuda onion chairs painted in a way that reveals that maybe, just maybe, someone here does suffer the occasional waggish impulse.

Congratulations, Eileen, on keeping this blog lively. And congratulations as well for making it into Carnivelsque so quickly. That Anglo-Saxons and Apartheid post deserves the recognition it is getting.

Hope to see some of you in New York for New Chaucer Society.


Can Medieval Studies [or Anyone] Still Learn Anything From Freud?

As some may [or may not] know, Philip Rieff died recently, just after publishing his massive tome, Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume I: My Life Among the Deathworks, in which he wrote one of my favorite recent lines: "True barbarism has never existed before. We are witnesses to the first true barbarians." My Life Among the Deathworks is a cranky, pessimistic work that aims to show that modernity is "morally ruinous, death-affirming rather than life-affirming, and represent[s] an unprecedented attempt to create a culture completely devoid of any concept of the sacred." I kind of agree with him.

As is well known, Rieff made his early scholarly reputation on Freud, and since I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Lear [a scholar of classical antiquity, a trained psychoanalyst, a member of the Univ. of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, and very devoted to the important relevance of Freud to the development of the individual, past and present] via Nancy Partner, Rieff's recent obituaries got me thinking, again, about this debate we're always having over Freud's relevance. In a piece that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran last November on Rieff's forthcoming three-volume "epic" scholarly work, the death of Freud was assumed as obvious and not arguable. In that article, it was stated that, "today Freud — and, for that matter, the entire mode of grand social theorizing in the key of Marx, Weber, and Freud — has fallen from favor. In fact, there is no longer much of a niche for large-scale theory in sociology. The field is almost purely devoted to narrower, more technical questions about, say, the effects of welfare reform in Cincinnati, or how social networks operate within a particular software firm." This is a pretty bald overstatement [in fact, my own recent readings in social and political theory demonstrate that these thinkers have not at all lost their relevance], but . . . there you have it. Plus, I am sure everyone who reads this blog is already familiar with Lee Patterson's article in Speculum, "Chaucer's Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies" (76.3, 2001), where Patterson argued that, essentially, in contemporary thought, Freud's "explanatory" model of human psychology is pretty much no longer considered accurate, and furthermore, even if it were accurate, it would be ahistorical to apply it to medieval persons [literary or otherwise], and furthermore furthermore, if you want to psychoanalyze, say, characters in medieval fiction, you can do so with recourse to other medieval texts, like theological ones, that are more pertinent to "the times." And I'm sure we're all familiar with the work of Frederick Crews, who has written,

I pause to wonder at the curious eagerness of some people to glorify Freud as the discoverer of vague general truths about human deviousness. It is hard to dispute any of these statements about "humans," but it is also hard to see why they couldn't be credited as easily to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Nietzsche--if not indeed to Jesus or Saint Paul--as to Freud. Was it really Freud who first disclosed such commonplaces? Or, rather, has the vast cultural sway of Freud's system caused us to lose focus on his more specific, highly idiosyncratic, assertions, to presume that a number of them must have been scientifically corroborated by now, and to transform him retrospectively into the very personification of "human" complexity and depth?

These comments were partly in reponse to a very public debate that Crews has had for a while now with Jonathan Lear, and if interested, some might want to read Lear's essay in New Republic, "A Counterblast in the War on Freud: The Shrink Is In," which I link here, and in which Lear writes, in defense of Freud,

In the development of the human self-image from Sophocles to Freud, there has been a shift in the locus of hidden meaning from a divine to the all-too-human realm. At first, it might look as though the recognition of a dark strain running through the human soul might threaten the viability of democratic culture. Certainly, the twentieth-century critiques of Enlightenment optimism, with the corresponding emphasis on human irrationality, also question or even pour scorn on the democratic ideal. It is in this context that Freud comes across as a much more ambiguous figure than he is normally taken to be. In one way, he is the advocate of the unconscious; in another, he is himself filled with Enlightenment optimism that the problems posed by the unconscious can be solved; in yet another, he is wary of the dark side of the human soul and pessimistic about doing much to alleviate psychological pain. He is Tiresias and Oedipus and Sophocles rolled into one.

. . . . Critics of psychoanalysis complain that it is a luxury of the few. But, from the current perspective, no thinker has made creativity and imagination more democratically available than Freud. This is one of the truly important consequences of locating the unconscious inside the psyche. Creativity is no longer the exclusive preserve of the divinely inspired, or the few great poets. From a psychoanalytic point of view, everyone is poetic; everyone dreams in metaphor and generates symbolic meaning in the process of living. Even in their prose, people have unwittingly been speaking poetry all along.

Well, how should we, in medieval studies, tackle this Freud-problem? Personally, I find much in the work of Nancy Partner, and in her favorite philosophers/theorists [George Devereaux, Jonathan Lear, Marshall Edelson, and of course, Freud], to offer much in the way of contesting the ideas that a) Freud is no longer relevant [and perhaps even, harmful], and b) psychoanalytic theory is somehow "ahistorical" when applied to medieval studies. I know that there are some who read this blog who will say this whole argument is "moot," but frankly, it never is. The idea of the usefulness of the psychoanalytic model [mainly developed by Freud] to understanding human nature [both in literary texts, which are the stuff of the human unconscious anyway, and in reality] will always have to be defended, again and again. As Partner writes in her essay "The Hidden Self: Psychoanalysis and the Textual Unconscious" (in Writing Medieval History, ed. Nancy Partner; London, 2005; pp. 42-64),

. . . there lingers a common and unexamined assumption that "having" a self, or evincing the existence of the mental and emotional organization specified as selfhood, the self we feel as our own identity, necessarily involves adopting one assertive style of individuality, even the set of values and goals we associate with the individualism which grounds western liberal modernity. [p. 44]

But, as Partner also argues, we need to acknowledge

medieval men and women as [being] essentially like ourselves, of the same species at the same moment of development in evolutionary time, personalities formed at a deep level through the same developmental processes, as minds with the same emotional/rational structure confronting the world, however distractingly different their language, ideals, and fervent beliefs. [p. 45]


The discipline of psychoanalysis, with its coherent structure of explanatory concepts, is our intellectual instrument for recognizing the human psyche over historical time and across cultures. . . . Analytic theory offers historians the interpretive techniques and vocabulary for moving from manifest to latent levels of meaning without demanding implicit acceptance of an ideology or divinity. [pp. 46, 47]

Nancy Partner also recently drew my attention to the recent book by David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (Palgrave, 2005), which she believes is the best book ever written on medieval English identity. In that book, Shaw defines the self as a "highly localized site of awareness," and further, because in the pre-Cartesian Middle Ages people believed, following Bonaventure, that the soul "has an inclination toward the body," therefore, "we must pay attention to the body's language to fully understand the medieval self" (p. 12). Even more important, in my mind, is this passage from Shaw's book:

History's weight on us is constant and immense, and it is composed mainly of language and custom. We do not originate these, but we enter into them as into a house, well furnished both with goods and routines. . . . It should be stressed, however, that the self is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought or action. The particular way a self or groups of selves do so is the actual subject of history. [p. 13]

This accords well with the Freud-inflected thought of Lear who, in Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990), writes that,

. . . . as Freud comes to appreciate that the individual is a psychological achievement, he becomes increasingly interested in the conditions under which this achievement occurs. The individual, he realizes, cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. And the individual is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. . . . Unless we see love [as Freud defined it, the libido or "life force] not merely as located in the human being but as permeating the world in which he lives, we cannot understand the psychic structure which constitutes the individual. [pp. 156-57]

And I would further argue that all of this Freud/Partner/Shaw/Lear discourse also accords well with recent discoveries in cognitive science, which may be another route by which Freud is [heroically?] recuperated? In their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us that "the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment," thought itself is "mostly unconscious," and because the mind "is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in," therefore, "much of a person's conceptual system is either universal or widepsread across languages and cultures" [which is not to say historical contingency or conceptual relativity do not exist, because they do, but still . . . .]" (pp. 4, 3, 6). It strikes me that cognitive science thereby also aids us in thinking, anew, about "humansim."

Well, this post has gone on a bit, hasn't it? But I think the subject is timely and also apropos to much of the scholarship of Prof. Cohen and some of the readers of his blog. It also pertains to an article I am currently laboring over, which I will share in Part II of this post: "Yes, Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid-Style Racists, But Did They Have Feelings?"

Monday, July 24, 2006

We Briefly Interrupt the Regularly Scheduled Mideast Conflict to Bring You Fleur le Chaton

This is Fleur le Chaton, kitten extraordinaire. Her eyes look that way because she just finished reading the recent articles in Harper's Magazine, "Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes From a Liberal Apocalypse," written by Bryant Urstadt about the Peak Oil movement, and "It's Not Easy Being Green: Are Weed-Killers Turning Frogs Into Hermaphrodites?" by William Souder. Forget about Israel and Hezbollah, global warming and the new ice age, Iraqi death squads, and whether or not early Anglo-Saxons were apartheid-style racists, because we all need to move, quickly, into "lifeboat" villages [self-sufficient "interim" communities established for the purposes of riding out the apocalypse that will happen after oil peaks, the economy crashes, suburbanites are cut off from their malls, industrial agriculture collapses, and wars break out over whatever resources are left, or so Fleur le Chaton tells me]. Whether or not medieval studies will have a role to play in the "lifeboats" is anyone's guess, but Fleur le Chaton is putting her money on positive psychology.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists!

Yes, the title of this post is meant to be some-what provocative, but it is also the title of a recent article in the British online-zine, Life Style Extra [click on title of this post to go straight to the article itself], which is a somewhat breezy take on the more serious scholarly article, recently published:

Mark G. Thomas, Michael P.H. Stumpf, and Heinrich Harke, "Evidence for an Apartheid-Like Social Structure in Early Anglo-Saxon England," Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2006 [online publication]

The Life Style Extra piece has been creating a bit of a stir on ANSAXNET [the Anglo-Saxon discussion list-serv, of which some of the readers here may be aware], where many are expressing dismay that, in the words of one discussant, "Not only does it misrepresent the Anglo-Saxon situation, it also threatens to cheapen the *real* experience of apartheid suffered by Africans, Indians, and people of mixed race in South Africa--and I find that "repulsive" indeed." Another discussant expressed doubt that such knowledge could be deduced from genetic research [guess what? you'd be amazed] and also wrote, "As for the use of the term apartheid, I too find it misused in this context (unless it is a technical term geneticists use). Perhaps the authors should have used something like 'disadvantaged' or 'deprived' ?" Another discussant wrote, and I quote at length in this case:

. . . . the term is not only repulsive it is foolish. Whoever the invading or invited or opportunistic Germanic tribes were, they were not interested in setting up racially sensitive administrations. They were users, conquerors, exploiters. If historical genetics tells us something solid, it tells us that they managed to occupy territory within which they maximized their own population. Now I don't know to what extent genetic markers can tell us how much or how well they assimilated "native" Britons or Celts. I wonder about the claims. Those Britons may not have been as Celtic as one might imagine, given the Roman emphasis on mixed populations drawn from various sources for their military and economic expertise, perhaps people who were largely Germanic already. After Boadica's defeat, perhaps "pure" Celts in fact melted away into the hinterlands. Just a thought.

Finally, one discussant raised what I think are some of the larger issues, and I quote here, again at length:

Using the term "apartheid" to describe Anglo-Saxon England, even if the OED definintion allows for some flexibility of meaning, seems, unavoidably, to invite obvious anachronism, to me anyway...But is this gesture really surprising? 21st century notions of race, class, and gender have become central to modern scholarship, and are at times used to assess historical trends to which they relate only as loose analogues, at best. The big question here, it seems to me, is one of historical methodology: is it useful to try and compare historical periods to one another (e.g., Anglo-Saxon England to apartheid-era South Africa) or attempt to understand these periods independently on their own terms? I must admit, I am biased to the history-on-its-own-terms approach, though I realize it is a much more difficult affair. Yet, it seems to me the real work of a scholar. Perhaps (or perhaps not) it is useful to invite undergraduate students, in the intial stages of historical study, to make such comparisons...I don't know...but (though I remain open-minded) it seems like it ought to be our responsibility to problemtize such simple equations?

To the above post, I responded:

"History on its own terms" is impossible and there is no such thing as historical "periods" that are completely [100%, let's say] separate and discrete from each other, unless we are talking physics and the arrow of time [which even some physicists dispute]. First, historians invent "periods" as useful methodlogical frameworks for analyzing specific "cultures," "nations,""reigns," etc., and while these periods help classify and point to particular times/moments in human history, which are indeed unique in certain ways [and it helps us to understand that uniqueness, certainly], to say that it is not useful to compare seemingly disparate periods in history, such as Anglo-Saxon England and apartheid-era South Africa, is tantamount to saying that we cannot know anything about our present by looking at the past, and vice versa. Along with the Annalistes, I believe that the present has a *need* of history and that the questions we bring to our historical studies must, of some social necessity, be framed by present concerns. There is no "history for history's sake," or if there is, it is not worth pursuing. In the end, history is a form of art--as to how ethical or present-minded or past-minded or positivist or postmodern we want it to be, that is up to us. But every moment in time [as physics, but also evolutionary biology tells us] penetrates, in some fashion, every other moment in time. We should strive more for "whole" histories that seek to understand more how this is so, and what we can learn from that fact, because history, like poetry, in the words of Borges, is always "passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same and yet another, like the river flowing."

There then followed some back-and-forth as to whether or not Germanic tribes that migrated to "England" really set about "oppressing," "racializing" [what-have-you] the Welsh. It would seem that there is quite a bit of discomfiture among scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies that such could have been the case. Since I spent a good part of May and June at Cambridge University Library poring over Anglo-Saxon law codes, it is clear to me that various A-S polities were definitely intent on schemes of social classification, and "wealh" [Welsh, but also a stand-in, in some cases, for "slave," or "worse-than-a-slave" or "dark-complected," etc.] was one of those classifications. I know quite a few readers of this blog are working on Welsh subjects and much of JJC's work, as we all know, is concerned with early English "identity"--personal, national, and otherwise. I would recommend reading the Thomas, Stumpf, and Harke article--it's bracing reading and shows how science can, indeed, aid the humanists! What does everyone think?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Can Humanists Talk to Postmodernists?

Mark Goldblatt's essay, "Can Humanists Talk to Post-Modernists?", in which he argues that, in the end, "There is . . . no final arbiter between the humanist and postmodernist positions," is just the kind of thing that makes my blood boil [and thanks to Emile B. for passing on the link]. Goldblatt's essay articulates, in fact, the exact supposed impasse out of which the BABEL Working Group, to a certain extent, was born. At this past May's International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo, Andrew Scheil, in his remarks at the "Is Beowulf Postmodern Yet" round-table session, posed the question of whether or not BABEL's humanist impulse was incompatible with its desire to situate a "new humanism" within a set of postmodernist discourses, and Prof. Scheil identified this incompatibility partly, I think, in what I will admit is a kind of fissure, or small hairline crack, between BABEL's wish to resuscitate a certain type of traditional humanist philosophizing and its commitment to schools of poststructural thought that have, to a certain extent, "undone" the most cherished tenets of traditional humanist thought. This subject was actually addressed at our first "Medieval to Modern Humanisms" roundtable session by Doryjane Birrer [a specialist in contemporary British literature and theory at the College of Charleston], who argued there that,

From a liberal humanist perspective, theory is monstrous, given that tenets such as the construction of human identity, the mythical quality of any idea of universal “human nature,” the contingency of meaning and provisionality of truth threaten to undermine the values seen as crucial to the maintenance of a humane—in fact, “truly” human—society. From a postmodern theory perspective, liberal humanism is monstrous for its complicity in so-called humane value systems that have led subjects (I hesitate to say “humans” or “humanity” in this context) to be dupes interpellated with the illusion of free will into, for example, oppressive social systems or ideological state apparatuses, to swipe briefly from Althusser.

At the same time, there has also been, in recent theoretical debates, what could almost be called a new "turn [or re-turn?] to humanism." Witness the symposium held by the editors of Critical Inquiry in 2003 to discuss the future of theory and literary/aesthetic studies more generally in the American university, as well as Edward Said's late writings, which Birrer also discussed:

Edward Said (in a series of lectures collected shortly before his death) argued for a more productive conception of humanism . . . . Drawing on Vico, Said described humanistic knowledge NOT as totalizing and transcendent—theory’s major charges against it—but as “radically incomplete, provisional, disputable, and arguable.” Said continues that humanism today must “take account” of that which it has repressed or deliberately ignored in its original White/Eurocentric patriarchal incarnation. Humanists, he argues, “must situate critique at the very heart of humanism, critique as a form of democratic freedom.”

Rhetoric calling for a more humane world was ubiquitous in [the participants of CI's symposium's] meditations on the future of theory, as were calls for a reevaluation of possibilities for human agency, reconsideration of what Homi Bhabha—who identified himself directly as a humanist—called “modes of personhood” or human identity, and increased attention to the “languages of cultural description and representation” as characteristic of humanistic discourse. Terry Eagleton in the same year (in After Theory) called for a belief in at least some absolute truths (“racism is evil” being one; “corporate greed is poisoning the planet” being another), and for more attention to such messy subjects for theory as morality. Bruno Latour’s statement for the symposium covered much the same ground, suggesting that theory’s own tendency toward absolute relativism and indeterminacy had undermined its grounds for political action—in which case, I would add, it might well be characterized as less than humane. And William Haney’s recent work in consciousness studies—in an intriguing argument whose complexity defies the truncated scope of a roundtable—outlines how “many of the principles of deconstructive postmodernism . . . do not necessarily contradict and in fact often complement the principles of humanism,” including helping to constitute a productive story of the unified, irreducible, and autonomous self.

There are some, like Goldblatt, who would argue that, whereas humanists are supposedly always trying, through "common sense" and "goodwill," to arrive at a judgement--aesthetic, moral, or otherwise--the postmodernist, by contrast, apparently celebrates [and affirms by not affirming] the logical contradictions and "unfalsifiability of everything" that make critical judgement impossible. But the definitions of "humanist" and "postmodernist" upon which Goldblatt's essay depends are so anemically and narrowly defined as to strangulate even the possibility of what I would argue [following Birrer and others] could be a very socially capacious and ethical postmodern humanism.

The question for me is that, whether it is certain postmodern discourses, or certain scientific discoveries, that call into question traditional humanist "verities," such as "the human," "free will," "the autonomous self," or whatever, both sets of discourses admit of both facts and perpetual uncertainties. The important question is not, "is humanism incompatible with postmodernism?" or even "is humanism incompatible with science?", but rather, how to safeguard the culture that makes this and other "human" debates possible? How, further, to safeguard and promote a free exchange of ideas that has at its foundation the very "human" desire for virtue? And yes, virtue is one of those humanist values that is rooted in a human self, yet always reaches beyond itself toward others, human and non-human, living and dead, past, present, and future.

Shopping Lists from the End of History

"Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma."

Ring any bells?

Inkblot #3,467

Quick, without thinking too hard . . . what does everyone see in this inkblot?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Miloszan Humanism?, or, Is It Possible to Articulate an Historically Engaged Aesthetics?

Since September of last year (2005), the BABEL Working Group has been organizing sessions at various conferences around the topic of "Medieval to Modern Humanisms" and we have been asking scholars from both within and outside of medieval studies (and we are also seeking persons from outside the academy as well) to contribute to what we see as long-term (ten to twenty year plus) project aimed at formulating what might be called, for lack of a better term at present, a "new humanities." This fall, Christine Neufeld (Eastern Michigan Univ.) and I will be co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory (Winter 2007 issue) devoted to the early stages of this dialogue (initiated at two conferences in Sep. 2005 and May 2006, and to be continued in Oct. 2006 in Oxford, MS and in May 2007 at Kalamazoo). Because we wanted those participating to have as broad a base as possible for beginning to think about the topic, we indicated that anything that touched, in any way, upon "humanism," "the humanities," and "being human"--past and present--would be ideal, and other than that, there are no parameters for the discourse, although we did formulate some questions as "jumping off" points, such as:

Can we have humanism, or the humanities (or human rights) without the human? How does the concept (or, reality) of "the posthuman future" impact the ways we develop our notions of humanism, both past and present? Were the Middle Ages already posthuman (as Jeffrey J. Cohen has argued in his book Medieval Identity Machines), and what can this tell us about the supposed posthuman future? How does the concept "humanism" productively and/or antagonistically intersect with "the medieval" and "the modern"? In what ways might the terms/historical entities "the medieval" and "the modern," with respect to the vigorous debates over the value (or lack thereof) of humanities study, be allies on either side of the Enlightenment divide? What is the role of the individual in relation to concepts of humanism, past and present? What is the role of language in relation to being and body, past and present? How might recent findings in cognitive science--such as, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it in Philosophy in the Flesh, "The mind is inherently embodied" and "Thought is mainly unconscious" and "Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged" (pp. 3, 4)--affect how we might re-think our philosophies of the humanities? Is the human performed, contingent? Is it possible to have the experience of one's identity in the world, embodied and dismebodied, without recourse to "being human"? Is humanism a philosophy, or set of ideas (or, of historically-situated socio-critical practices) that has lost its raison d'etre, or is it time for a "new humanism" or no humanism at all?

In relation to some of our recent debates here on "In The Middle" regarding how and/or whether "history matters" and in relation to the scientists vs. the so-called humanists, etc., I share here two brief excerpts from comments presented at BABEL's "medieval to modern humanisms" session at Kalamazoo this past May. The first is from Michael E. Moore, who is an historian of the Carolingian period and who also has a book forthcoming from Penn. State Univ. Press on Carolingian law. He is a colleague of mine at Southern Illinois. The second excerpt is from Craig Dionne, an early modernist at Eastern Michigan who is also one of the editors of the Journal of Narrative Theory and the co-editor, with Steve Mentz, of Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Univ. of Michigan Press).

A Milozan Humanism? [an excerpt]

In 2000, the critic George Steiner was invited to look back over the twentieth century, in an interview with L’Express. He pointed to the barbarism of a century marked by death camps, torture, deportation and famine, extending from 1914 to Pol Pot and the Rwandan genocide. The twentieth century proved to be the defeat of civilized culture, according to Steiner: “Education: philosophical, literary and musical culture, did not impede the horror. Buchenwald was situated a few kilometers from the garden of Goethe.” This was decisive: the ideal of humanity developed in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century had failed to humanize the world. The humanizing effect of the liberal arts also seems doubtful in the extreme. The humanities have become an isolating preserve in which the world is kept at bay. While reading King Lear or the Fleurs du Mal, we become deaf to the cry in the street. According to Steiner, his best student was the one who completely rejected his teaching and went on to become a doctor, serving the poor in China.

Humanism has been criticized in this way ever since the Second World War. In 1951, the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss argued that Europeans of the Enlightenment, when they spoke of humanity, did nothing more than project their own values and aspirations as an ideal of civilization: “they turned their condition into a model: their customs became universal aptitudes, their values absolute criteria for judging.” So now, in the conditions of “postmodern pluralism” the very concept of humanity seems suspect, unphilosophical, or even undemocratic. Yet Paul Ricoeur pointed to the problem that with the defeat of the Enlightenment it is difficult to theorize, let alone defend, the existence of human rights. A similar problem arises for historians.

A quite different voice was raised in the wake of World War Two in the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz, who endured the siege of Warsaw, and went on to live a life devoted to literature. I wonder if it is possible to outline a Miloszan humanism? The fourteenth-century humanist Nicholas of Cusa once spoke of his mystical search for God as a “spiritual hunt.” Milosz conveyed in many of his poems a similar hunt for the receding essence of the world: – and the effort to close one’s fingers around the past even as it fades from view: recalling days with a fellow poet long ago in Poland, Milosz said: “Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.” Part of this chase for Milosz was always for the difficult, faded being of the human past. Here he finds it captured in an old Dutch painting: "Hans Post, his Brazilian landscapes painted around 1650…what moves me is a contrast between the earth and a group of people dead long ago…Brazilian Indians who disappeared both as particular beings and as a tribe. Solidarity with the tiny figures in whom our hopes and our troubles persisted for a while and can be looked at through a magnifying glass."

Solidarity. The dead have a claim on us with their long-forgotten passions and foibles, their delicate breath can still stir the hair on our necks. This regard even extends to the realities invoked by literature. In the poem “Undressing Justine” Milosz discovers and makes love to a character from an old Polish romance novel. The being of this delectable character is also human, and therefore worthy of being cherished: “Though you never existed, let us light candles / Here, in our study, or in our church.”

Milosz is one of the most important writers on the subject of time and memory since St. Augustine, and his work therefore has the effect on an historian like the smell of woodsmoke on an Autumn day. He was dismissive of those who would find in history the source of a program: “He who invokes history is always secure. / The dead will not rise to witness against him. / You can accuse them of any deeds you like. / Their reply will always be silence.” The dead require us to speak for them. This charge is laid on the poet, and the historian, both of whom are subject to visitations. Milosz found himself continually haunted by the uprising of people out of the past: a woman walking with a red umbrella in a sunlit field or an old priest blowing out candles in a dark church. It could happen as he gathered apricots: “I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence / And put aside the basket and say: ‘It’s a pity / That you died and cannot see these apricots’…”

This is to notice something subtle in the fabric of life, which points back into the depths, and offers itself as a tenuous path toward the meaning of the world. This is the Spur, the vestige, always looked for by the historian. The presence is sometimes felt even at the reading desk of an archive.

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown explained his own work in similar terms: “I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone.” This is the essence of a Miloszan humanism: the endeavor to capture the world of coming-to-be and passing-away, above all, to hold and defend the traces of the fragile “human reed” of Pascal’s famous fragment. To quote the historian Jean Leclercq, “nothing is more constant in history than the ephemeral.” This is a burden that historical research must try to carry, even if it is clumsy, and less capable than poetry of handling those past lives with sufficient delicacy and gravity, or of capturing their reality in fine nets of language.

Humanism is a pilgrimage across the human and natural world; in a search for human dignity and, let it be said, for personal liberation in the study of literature, philosophy and history, especially the literature of the ancient world. Humanism desires to keep hold of the delicate frail things of the world and of humanity. Thus it is not surprising that since the Middle Ages, the study of the humanities has so often had to engage in a confrontation with crude social forces. Study of humanity and the natural world was undertaken to achieve an ideal of humanity in one’s own life, and this is often forgotten by scholars.

--Michael E. Moore

Between Appreciation and Historicism: Is It Possible to Articulate an Historically Engaged Aesthetics? [an excerpt]

The ideological contradiction at the heart of contemporary humanism’s “multi-cultural” model of literacy (or its alternative, literature as a catalyst for ethical self-awareness, say, following Martha Nussbaum) is that it mobilizes the mimetic theory of art to rationalize the literary texts as a window into social difference (race, gender, class, etc.). And while many humanists today might not see this as a problem or concern, we would have to admit that at the very least this unchallenged mimeticism flies in the face of the theory we teach in our literary criticism classes. Or, to put it another way, we could be taken to task for reinforcing with one hand a static view of history that subtly legitimates social inequalities as “natural” and endemic to history, while calling for the critical deconstruction of such ideologies with the other hand in our research and in our grad seminars. This is probably not a new a problem as I find it (and I hear in the back of my head as I write this a replay of the late 80’s early 90’s debates about strategic essentialism….)

So, for me, this paradox is crucial--what motors it, what is it a symptom of? What results, then, from this dialectic at the heart of our humanism? How can we discuss this as a symptom of a larger history: of humanism’s legacy? Of a gap in the “use value” of humanism generally at this stage of western history(ies)? How does this conversation resemble other gaps in humanism from other periods? Are we comfortable reinforcing mimesis in our undergraduate appreciation classes, while reinforcing another type of critical awareness in our upper-level and grad classes? Is this just a strategy we use? Or does such a split reinforce a elitism between literature and theory that it is the goal of humanism--at least for me--to challenge. Does this contradiction make humanism today distinct, say, from other earlier forms? How can we think of other chapters in the history of humanism that tell us about the functional “uses” of humanist literacy vs. its radical potential? What about . . . Renaissance English humanism, which emphasized the technique of copying aphorisms into individualized “commonplace books” to reinforce rote memory to self-fashion, climb social hierarchies, and serve the state. This technique flew in the face of other techniques, like the rhetorical technique of in utramque partem, which asked writers to probe the depths of social issues by examining two, antithetical positions of the problem. While rote literacy reinforced service in the court, rhetoric in this vein lead to some of the most radical challenges to early modern absolutism. What, finally, do these other chapters in the history of humanism tell us about the dialectical “pull” of our own moment?

I will end by noting the parallels between early and contemporary humanisms--especially, in contemporary pedagogical approaches to literature that aestheticize the ambivalence of the early modern art and literature as an inherent pluralism; that is, teaching students that real or true literary texts empower critical reflection through moments of ambiguity in representation. This, I would say, is the ideological "mission" of a new elitism that wants to rationalize its idea of a "living-text aesthetics" that brooks no argument with the instrumental corporate discourse against literature. In response to the professional managerial class’s call for “excellence” and “strategy” in the humanities, the new aesthetic movement in literature, or the "turn to ethics" as it is sometimes noted, creates a kind of Victorian pseudo-aristocratic identity that can reclaim a more energized retake of aesthetic engagement--as if to suggest, “okay, ‘literature,’ but this time with feeling”--as an escape from the instrumental world that is intimated in the new historicism’s “situating” the text in its local and political moment. But this is a rear-guard if not wholesale retrenchment of the worst abuses of formalist myopia, for surely we can find a way to articulate a textual appreciation that does not turn its nose so completely from the critical reflection involved in historicizing texts. We don’t have to read the text as an allegory of stable and essential categories of truth from the our present moment, through Kant, Levinas, Heidegger, etc. while avoiding the challenge of structuralism as if it didn't happen. (Although, you have to admire the brio). Such performances are a ghostly equivalent of the Renaissance emphasis on linguistic display as a vehicle for self-presentation: marshalling the radical potential of humanism for an elitist celebration of the Self and its mastery of the object world. This literacy may have jarred the strictures of patrician culture in the sixteenth century, but today its close reading of figurative tropes through philosophical discourse reconstitutes a rear-guard humanism that appears arrogant about its decision to avoid questions of textual politics.

This, for me, is the "moment" of contemporary humanism that begs the question, what next? There are no easy solutions, but for me I am happy to teach literature as a reflex of cultural pluralism--how to prize texts that are plural, how to deconstruct monological texts into polyvalent ones, to discover how moments of history provide occasions for writers to puzzle through human antinomies from special vantage points that are unique to time and place as much as voice. This ultimately fights the local battle of producing readers who can resist the new evangelical right and its hegemony, while also inculcating the value of appreciating literatures that represent multiple and competing voices. But we have to acknowledge that this aesthetics is located in our practice, our institutions. To locate this "pluralism" in the text as a source—a text mystified “in itself” as the singular source of the pluralist ethics we seek, of the culture we want to build--reproduces a metaphysical reverence for the text, not a critical appreciation. And like the Renaissance humanism of the sixteenth century, such a move might appear to break free the confines of the business class’s vision of the humanities, or historicism’s cynical detachment from aesthetics, but the theoretically silent return to aesthetics may eerily parallel in its reverence for the art-text the ideology or inner logic of a theocracy’s emphasis on textual literalism.

--Craig Dionne

Any thoughts on any of this would be great, as Christine and I will be working this fall on an Introduction to the special issue of JNT. Later, I will share some other excerpts. Cheers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Future: A Narrative of Hope, Dread, or Wonder

The image at left is of the Rosetta Disk, one of the projects of the Long Now Foundation, which, in their own words,

was established in 01996 to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

The name came from one of its founding board members, Brian Eno, who, when he "first moved to New York City . . . found that in New York here and now meant this room and this five minutes, as opposed to the larger here and longer now that he was used to in England. We have since adopted the term as the title of our foundation as we are trying to stretch out what people consider as now."

It might interest readers of this blog to know that, in addition to such high-tech persons as Esther Dyson and Michell Kapor (Lotus Development Corp.) serving on Long Now's board, their board also includes Michael Keller, a musicologist and Stanford University's chief librarian. Probably the best essay written on the Long Now Foundation is by the fiction writer Michael Chabon, "The Omega Glory," where Chabon writes,

The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. "The Future," whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. "The Future" is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.

In relation to much of what we have been debating on this blog, and even in relation to JJC's recent posting of his "notes toward a review" of Peter Haidu's book The Subject Medieval/Modern, Chabon is worth quoting here a bit more at length:

In the aggregate, then, stories of the Future present an enchanting ambiguity. The other side of the marvelous Jetsons future might be a story of worldwide corporate-authoritarian technotyranny, but the other side of a post-apocalyptic mutational nightmare landscape like that depicted in The Omega Man was a landscape of semi-barbaric splendor and unfettered (if dangerous) freedom to roam, such as I found in the pages of Jack Kirby’s classic adventure comic book Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-76). That ambiguity and its enchantment, the shifting tension between the bright promise and the bleak menace of the Future, was in itself a kind of story about the ways, however freakish or tragic, in which humanity (and by implication American culture and its values however freakish and tragic) would, in spite of it all, continue. Eed plebnista, intoned the devolved Yankees, in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who had somehow managed to hold on to and venerate as sacred gobbledygook the Preamble to the Constitution, norkon forden perfectunun. All they needed was a Captain Kirk to come and add a little interpretive water to the freeze-dried document, and the American way of life would flourish again.

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list—interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened)—have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any Future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say, Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.

In his book, which JJC quotes in his post, "Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern," [and I re-quote here] Haidu writes that "literature," broadly-speaking, does "the ideological work of . . . polity in exploring and constituting subjectivity by providing performative models of human comportment" (p.5), and in response, JJC wonders if [or rather, avers that] this very same literature also gives us access to the ways in which certain "voices" confound and undercut that ideological work, and he concludes his "notes" with the idea that the

memorialization of and affiliation with voices that might otherwise have been lost--voices that strain to be recognized in their desires, in their humanity, even after such things were denied them in life--seems to me among the best things a medievalist's engagement with the past can achieve. Whether the modern subject is medieval and the medieval subject modern is, in the end, beside the point (how could they really have been otherwise?) What matters more are the exclusions from full subjecthood upon which the modern and medieval notions of the human are based, and the tools we have at hand (including history) that might yield a more capacious, less violence-limned and affirmative conception of what "human" really means.

And I would add here that, by way of answering my own question regarding what, in light of all our possible futures [catastrophic or not, thoroughly technocratized or not, transhuman or posthuman], the best humanistic scholarship might be, that it will, of necessity [my opinion, granted] have something to do with writing a multi-vocal, heterogeneous counter-history of that thing called a human self, and then deciding what is valuable enough in that history to fight for its protection and extension into the future. And it won't just be about "affiliation" with "voices that might otherwise have been lost," but must also be about voices actually lost and gone missing--those that were, and also those still-to-be [medieval studies will have to be about, then, in the words of Emile B. in a soon-to-be-published essay, not only "what was" but "what will have been"--unrealized futures]. It will also be about recognizing, not just the marginalized voices that run counter to, and undercut, the prevailing ideologies, but also understanding all the ways in which the scholar's thinking & writing is also a type of counter-historical movement that seeks to represent, not only what was, but what will, and can, be. And I think, too, that this will have to be a collective project, even, a communitarian one.

Monday, July 17, 2006

I can think of no better way to introduce Eileen Joy

than to admit it has frequently crossed my mind that I'd like to BE Eileen Joy.

Wait, no, that sounds weird.

OK, I can think of no better way to introduce Eileen Joy than to reproduce here her recent post on transhumanism. I lift it from the commentary to the Whoops, there goes humanity! post. It deserves, as Karl observed, to be front-paged, and I think gives an excellent overview of the issues and insights that percolate in her mind.
Given many of the conversations on this blog over the past couple of months regarding whether or not literary studies can have any kind of social impact, whether or not "history matters," how "humanity" is being redefined by the scientists [and what, therefore, should we in humanities disciplines *do* regarding that?], and Karl's and Emile B.'s exchanges on philosophies [medieval, Enlightenment, and otherwise] of "the human" versus "the animal" [and how that might ultimately impact how we formulate, say, human and other types of rights in the future], and finally, thinking again about that quotation from Maslow--that "if the human being is a choosing, deciding, seeking animal, then the question of making choices and decisions must inevitably be involved in any effort to define the human species. . . . The questions then come up: Who is the good chooser? . . . . And beyond that [we have the task] of raising the old axiological questions 'What is good? What is desirable? What should be desired?'"--I finally went to see the Al Gore documentary yesterday, "An Inconvenient Truth," and much like JJC's thoughts regarding extracurricular activities at the New Chaucer Society meeting in NYC went immediately to the fanciful image of a "Cruise of Death," with untenured faculty using tenured, more eminent scholars as flotation devices, I likewise began thinking about all of our recent dialogues in the context of the scientific *fact* that, within 50 years, most of Manhattan and San Francisco and Shanghai, as well as many other sites throughout the world, may very well be underwater, with a new ice age not very far behind.

Of course, I've thought about global warming *a lot* over the past ten or so years, and I've always found certain "doomsday" scenarios [whether involving the break-up of ice shelves in Anarctica or a "dirty" nuclear device exploding in NYC] useful for thinking through the question of the ultimate relevance of doing historical, aesthetic, and more generally philosophical research and writing. The possible impact of global warming is not a fanciful Nostradamus-type prediction, but predicated on "real science," and probably should not be dismissed too lightly. In fact, consider "The Future of Humanity Institute" recently established at Oxford University with millions of dollars already at its disposal and the British Parliament *already* calling upon its Director, philosophy prof. Nick Bostrum, to advise it on certain future-oriented issues [such as "human enhancement technologies"]. Nick Bostrum isn't interested in figuring out ways to extend the life of humans, as they exist now, or even the planet; his assumption is that the existence of *us* and the earth itself is already very near its end, and that is why he has developed his "transhumanism" movement [which, by god, Oxford is funding!], which believes, for one thing, that

"Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. In doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as 'human'."

Transhumanism envisions future societies, likely situated somewhere else other than earth, in which "regular" humans live alongside "posthumans":

"Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads, or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques."

One of the hallmarks of transhumanism is "singularity" [celebrating and further augmenting the absolute and untrammeled freedom of unique individuals] and also "extended life" [i.e. gee, wouldn't it be great if we could live forever?--Nick B. obviously thinks so, and look at his photo on his website--he's such a young lad, and if only he could remain so!].

It goes without saying that Nick B. et al. spend a lot of time calculating all sorts of catastrophic "risk" scenarios for us and our planet, and regularly publish their projections on very eminent science journals such as "Nature" and "Science." Apparently, traditional humanistic knowledges, as far as they are concerned, are not necessary to forumlating the transhuman future, where they will have uploaded themselves after we have perished in the next ice age.

So the question, I think is, do we just laugh at Nick B. and his ilk [and shake our heads at Oxford and even the British government for taking them so seriously], and fume a little at the "third culture" scientists over at Edge who have supposedly appropriated our humanistic discourses because they feel they are better suited than we are to address the "big" philosophical questions, and do we also kind of cluck sadly yet shrug our shoulder's at Al Gore's doomsday projections regarding global warming, OR, do we ask ourslves, *especially* in light of recent conversations on this blog: if, in about 50 or so years, this planet entered a phase of global catastrophe, with 50 or so million persons displaced by rising ocean tides, but probably enough time to live out our own lives before the real "real end," what kind of humanistic work do we want to do? What would be best? What would be most virtuous? Most sane? Most useful? Why is it uncool not to take these questions more seriously? What if you can't preserve the future--how might you preserve the past, anyway? Food for thought.

I love that last paragraph, and when I leave for Bermuda on Thursday morning will contemplate its answers on a pink beach. Welcome, Eileen!

Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern

Notes towards a review of Peter Haidu, The Subject Medieval/Modern
(somehow I need to compress this into the 500 words that L’Esprit Créateur wants)
Subject and text, state and civilization, are profoundly ambiguous icons of problematic interdependences. This book does not sing their praises: it views them with suspicion, convinced of the profound continuities between the medieval period and modernity, between violence and state-form ... Those suspicious icons – subject, ideology, text, state, and civilization – have effectivities; they exist. They require examination as objects of historico-theoretical research, an examination impelled by the multiple passions of beauty, justice, and knowledge, as art of an effort to deal with a world increasingly seductive and terrifying (The Subject Medieval/Modern 6)

Very early in this super-sized tome (446 pages), I worried.

The opening epigraph ("I am a subject, and I challenge the law") seemed to prophesy the kind of "Medievalists shall better the world through philology!" argument that Emile Blauche has mocked repeatedly on this blog – a kind of politically naive scholarship masquerading as politically engaged scholarship that, I must admit, I wasn't sure actually existed in its pure form. My anxiety deepened a page later when I reached the dedications, the first being "for Mike Flug, Columbia CORE, and the Faculty Civil Rights Group at Columbia University ca. 1964-68" and the last being "for those who survived, and for our children." I don't know what happened at Columbia involving CORE and civil rights, but this sounds ominously like the Holocaust.

The "Introduction" didn't do very much to ease my anxiousness. The book bears a publication date of 2004, but it crossed my mind that should a wormhole suddenly propel the volume into the future sans copyright page, some distant literary historian would likely place its date of composition in the late 1980s. A scattering of ornamental citations to later texts aside, much of the argument seems built on historical work and theories of subjectivity from that robust decade of High Theory. If not exactly left behind as the critical conversation developed, the keywords of the 80s have been extensively modified, amplified, annotated, qualified. I was surprised, for example, to see a discussion of medieval France as nation that did not cite Patrick Geary's copious scholarship on the myth of nations. I was saddened to see an articulation of medieval subjectivity and identity that did not at least engage with the postcolonial, feminist, queer, Foucaultian, Derridean, Butlerian ruminations on these topics that have been published by medievalists younger than Haidu and his coterie.

Haidu also seems addicted to portentous pronouncements. His first sentence gravely declares "The modern subject was invented in the Middle Ages, such is the thesis of this book, destined to disturb medievalists and modernists (including postmodernists) alike" (1). Both kinds of scholar, Haidu continues, build their professional self-identity on a binarism that keeps their epochs separate ("constitutes their historiographical self-image by Othering its opposite ... Both images are delusional and ideologically determined"). Yet, he propounds, the medieval period "is the revolution that cast the die of futures we tremble in" (2). Again, ominous stuff. And what if it is true? What if the modern state and the modern subject have their "beginnings – not 'origins'" (as Haidu puts it) in the Middle Ages? Haidu implies that this continuity renders the Middle Ages a temporality to fear, just as we surely dread our own perturbed historical moment and our own violent state-forms. I admit, though, this potential equality of angst does little for me. If we were to trace modern governance (of selves, of peoples) to the Greeks or Romans rather than to the courts of twelfth-century England and France, I'm not sure how much changes. Nor do I think that the everyday modernists and postmodernists to whom Haidu's sermon of fire seems to be delivered care all that much one way or another when our invidious structures of life first breathed. Is continuity really all that more dreadful than alterity? Extending the state back in time of itself does little to alter the contemporary contours of state forms. Such extension might be interesting but it cannot of itself sufficiently motivate an "effort to deal with a world increasingly seductive and terrifying" (6). I would give much just to know what Haidu means by "deal with." Behind that vague idiom lurks the unexpressed but amply intimated ambition of the book.

Linking state and subject will not necessary have much to say to literary studies, moreover, unless literature itself can be shown to be part of the "beginnings – not 'origins'" of this emergent state and its formulation of subjecthood. Haidu argues such weight is indeed literature's to bear: medieval texts "participate in the cultural invention of the subject as part of the political invention of the state" (2). I wish I could say exactly what this particular subject is. Haidu writes that "The linguistic subject is equivalent neither to the subject of consciousness nor to the subject of action: it is frequently their simulacrum." I can discern echoes of English translations of the work of Foucault, Baudrillard, and Derrida here, and perhaps even Lacan, but I am not able to say with lucidity how this model of the subject works. Haidu's only other qualifier is that "contradictions between subjectivity and identity are frequent ... Contradictions produce the political subject, sometimes by challenging identity." The sentence made me nod my head in agreement as if I finally got what is at stake in all this groundlaying, but then my comprehension faded as I realized that "political subject" and "linguistic subject" are not necessarily the same thing, and I still wasn't sure how simulacra come into play.

Haidu's bringing literature back to the table a few pages later helps a bit in revealing the interplay of these many terms: "practices modernity characterizes as 'literature' ... do the ideological work of their polity in exploring and constituting subjectivity by providing performative models of human comportment" (5). The performative imperative that literature can launch I understand; it is a thesis that helps to explain why Haidu turns to a canon of revered medieval French texts to explicate his argument. Canonicity also gives his materials a natural coherence. But then Haidu asserts that "The canon is an allegory whose code has been misplaced, or, more precisely, repressed" and I think: here it is again, the return of better living through philology. The hierophantic medievalist will reveal the secret that the canon itself cannot know. Yet it seems to me that the power of many of the texts Haidu analyzes stems from just the opposite set of circumstances: not that these artistic works repress "the story of our coming to the untenable site of subjectivity we occupy" but that they exult in exploring that process, taking it to its limits, confounding it, undercutting it. If subject- and state-formation through textuality are a secret, they are secrets that the Middle Ages knows well and speaks openly and repeatedly through texts.

You may think from what I have so far written that I do not think very highly of The Subject Medieval/Modern . In fact, the further the book moves from its vatic and obtuse beginnings the more compelling its unfolding critical narrative becomes. The impossible agenda set out early slowly recedes into a series of sophisticated and illuminating readings that stress the complicated subject positions various texts engender. The first chapters (collected in an initial section Before the State) admittedly lack nuance. The institutions depicted in them seem monolithic and mutually impermeable rather than the fluid, ad hoc and conflicted structures they often proved to be. The breezy certitude with which Haidu speaks of "church" and "aristocracy" made me wish for a little Deleuze or Latour and a little less Foucault: could we have some improvised networks, some alliances and hybridities, some materializations rather than so many hard realities? A sophisticated treatment of the Song of Roland (a poem Haidu made his own long ago) starts to foreground contradiction and heterogeneity better, so that by the time Chrétien de Troyes arrives the book's early reductiveness has given way to a generosity of interpretation. Prose that had seemed overly turgid becomes replete with a playful invention that better suits its subject matter ("The hero sends a succession of vanquished antagonists as signs of their own defeat and of his glory to Arthur's court, functioning as an 'Arthurian Bank of Social Value' [ABSV]" 104-5). The discussion of Marie de France as postcolonial writer could have been an interpretive tour de force, but its argument is weakened from its appearance ex nihilo: Haidu writes as if younger medievalists like Michelle Warren and Patricia Ingham had never contemplated similar questions. The last chapter, on the criminal cleric François de Villon, offers a more satisfying meditation on being a "problematic subject" and subalternity. Haidu writes:
If voice means subjectivity, François Villon's great gift, his greatest bequest, is the voiced being of subjectivity to those who lacked it. In the whorehouse of life, there is room for that gift, the self-extension of the subject" (340)

That turn to a renegade writer who composed "ballades for the voiceless," sometimes featuring prostitutes and working class women, sometimes written in argot, allows Haidu to speak his project as the book concludes with a directness that it previously lacked. Indeed, the conclusion ("The Medieval Crucible") is the most compelling section of the volume:
Our discomfiture, our guilt and anxiety, our helplessness at the machinations of systems and officials of power, devolve from structures of subjective consciousness rooted in the continuing medieval construction of modernity. Within this paradoxicality, which really turns into a sense of impending tragedy, the attentive reader repeatedly stumbles across the thirst, among multiple and oppressive determinations of subjectivity, the parched, unending thirst, in the records of the past, for human peace and freedom. (364)

This memorialization of and affiliation with voices that might otherwise have been lost – voices that strain to be recognized in their desires, in their humanity, even after such things were denied them in life - seems to me among the best things that a medievalist's engagement with the past can achieve. Whether the modern subject is medieval and the medieval subject modern is, in the end, beside the point (how could they really have been otherwise?). What matters more are the exclusions from full subjecthood upon which the modern and medieval notions of the human are based, and the tools we have at hand (including history) that might yield a more capacious, less violence-limned and affirmative conception of what "human" really means.


Of all the essays in the Dead Lovers collection, Silke-Maria Weineck's "Dead Children: Ben Jonson's Epitaph 'On My First Sonne'" is the one that has stayed with me most, mainly for some lines it has about how children spur their parents to contemplate mortality, their own as well as that of their progeny. That seems especially true to me today as I stay at home with Kid #2, victim of a summer flu. A few months ago, just as she entered the third year of her life, she had a febrile seizure: as I held her feverish body close to mine, her eyes suddenly rolled back into her head and she convulsed. Though the fit probably lasted less than a minute, time stretched infinitely away as I tried to bring her back and could not make her respond to voice or touch or the coldness of water. After a night in the emergency room, she fortunately returned quickly to good health. Now every time her temperature starts to rise, however, we must dose her with medication to make sure another seizure is not triggered. So today I am feeling like she is an egg that may break.

I had hoped to tidy the electronic desk a bit better before leaving the keys to the blog in Eileen's capable hands. I'd hoped to respond to the absolutely fascinating spool of comments below the Whoops, There Goes Humanity! post. That kind of thinking just doesn't seem possible right now, especially with Barney and Friends blaring in the background.

With luck by day's end I will post something on Peter Haidu's book, and toot a small horn to announce the Era of Joy, which commences tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


At 11:59:30 am today this blog registered visit number ten thousand. Since that event was initiated from an internet provider in Tennessee, I am guessing that the honor belongs to none other than Eileen Joy. Congratulations Eileen! You win a guest blogging spot here at In the Middle.

You had that already, you say? Well, this isn't the Chaucer blog. We don't sell T-shirts we can comp you.

New Medievalist Blog: humanities researcher

Renowned medievalist Stephanie Trigg has a new blog, humanities researcher. Auspiciously adorned with a portrait of Christine de Pisan, the blog has been launched "as a space for reflection on research in the humanities in Australia" and as a place to reflect upon "the question of how researchers in the humanities can make their work available and accessible to communities of readers outside the academy." Brand spanking new (born on Bastille Day, no less), humanities researcher looks like it will be of interest to readers following the recent threads on the humanities, the sciences, and the question of the future here.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Joy to Come

Things we have learned about Eileen Joy from her comments on this blog:

  • She has a restless mind that roves terrains as seemingly disparate as cognitive theory, medieval heroic epic, and ethics
  • Her great uncle Maurice Walsh was the author of The Quiet Man
  • She is a presiding genius of BABEL
  • She is an articulate proponent of Levinas's idea of la petite bonte (the little act of goodness)
  • Like many of the best scholars, she sometimes vents her inspiration on cocktail napkins
  • She is not this Eileen Joy
  • She is this Eileen Joy

Thing we learn at this moment as I announce it:

  • Eileen Joy will be guest blogging on In the Middle from July 18-30.

In my function as ornamental spouse, I am going here next Wednesday. I'll be back for a day or two, and then I'm off to a conference that will (some latter-day Nostradamus has predicted) feature a cruise of death. I'll post again before I depart, but I want you to know that readers of this blog have much to look forward to.

PS Perhaps a taste of things to come: a proliferation of posts has moved Whoops! There Goes Humanity far down the page, but the comments continue to develop there. They are well worth your time if you have the inclination.

Two essays of interest in the new Exemplaria

I don't mean to imply that the other essays in Exemplaria 18.1 are NOT interesting, but here are two that I found to be especially good:

Postcolonial Palomides: Malory’s Saracen Knight and the Unmaking of Arthurian Community (Dorsey Armstrong, Purdue University)
I especially like this piece for its focus upon the failures of language and upon postcolonial theorization of the subaltern. There's a great moment when Armstrong, echoing the famous essay by Spivak, rechristens the project "Can the Saracen speak?" The essay also contains a succinct overview of the figure of the Saracen in medieval literature and synthesizes quite a bit of recent work on the topic.

Nation-Building Colonialist-Style in Bevis of Hampton
(Kofi Campbell, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus)
This article is also about Saracens, specifically the fearful desire that surrounds them as Others to an emergent English national identity. There's a very good section on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (in Patty Ingham's words, the book medievalists love to hate) that doesn't only -- as is ordinarily done -- show that Anderson got the medieval wrong, but also suggests the modern is fairly medieval. The main argument moves from "Bevis the Colonized" to "Bevis the Colonizer," and has quite a bit to say about fourteenth century English nationalism. Sadly, there is no mention of the "Bevis of Hamton" who ys a mighti knighte, thogh he speketh nat yn the maner of gentil folke.

PS For a bit more on Kofi, check out the ever expanding comments to New World Medievalists, Fantasy and History, which has become quite a collection of origin myths (add your own if you haven't already). Also see the preview in this blog of his forthcoming book Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postconial.