Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Someone get a medievalist! Here Come the Morlocks!

A few quick spurs to conversation, as that's all I have in me right now. Spurs, that is.

Get ready! You may have run across a recent assertion by Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics that some 100,000 years from now the human species will diverge into two species: one tawny-hued, beautiful so long as you go in for the standards of Western fashion magazines, tall, and deep-voiced (if men); the other will be squat, hairy, unhealthy, and, like Mike Tyson, will possess unnervingly squeaky voices. The taller people will have tenure; the squat people will be happy to grade unending piles of ungrammatical personal essays about shopping and whatever is the future's equivalent of beer bonging. You get the picture.

Ewok bonging, maybe.

So far as I can determine, Curry's science is risibly bad. You might look here, or here, or here, or here, or, well, here.

I thank the scientists for kneecapping Curry's hypothesis so quickly, but I wonder if Curry would even have proposed his fantastical future had he listened to the medievalists. Why not throw ourselves in the breach? Those of us who know our chivalric narrative or Paul Freedman are all too familiar with long-limbed, barrel-chested, flaxen- haired Adonises whose bodies incarnate the justness of their rule over peasants whose bodies, by contrast, more often than not hideously burst at the seams with animal features. Granted, some of these beautiful men were huge and green (SGGHulk? G. C., can you read me?), and some of the squat untermenschen were actually, well, also quite large:

The Carle the knyghttus can beholde,
Wytt a stout vesage and a bolde.
He semyd a dredfull man:
Wytt chekus longe and vesage brade;
Cambur nose and all ful made;
Betwyne his browus a large spane;
Hys moghth moche, his berd graye;
Over his brest his lockus lay
As brod as anny fane;
Betwen his schuldors, whos ryght can rede,
He was two tayllors yardus a brede.

Now I may be selling our profession a bit short here, but it seems we can do at least this: if a medievalist had mapped out the familiar discursive boundaries for Curry by loading him down with Yvain and Aucassin et Nicolette and, why not, The Time Machine, Curry might have kept his ideas at the pub, where they belonged. My students this semester, may they be touched by his noodly appendage, have often been stopped short by the idea that Homer and Chaucer--or the Franklin--simply didn't make up the stories they told. The plots might not be only theirs, but the words are, mostly, so that's where we apply our critical pressure. I've eased them out of their convictions of the supreme value of originality by pairing Homer with Virgil and Virgil with the Eneas and the Franklin with Marie de France and letting them know that similar narratives reward similar heuristics. And, by the end of semester, they'll at least know how to cow some of these standard narratives with suspicious looks and, I trust, proper comma usage. Would that Curry had also taken my class!

I was urged to this post, in part, by reading Michael Calabrese's Performing the Prioress: 'Conscience' and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. While I can't offer any kind of detailed critique--I skimmed the article today right before teaching the Prioress in the hopes of jarring my pedagogy in a different direction--I can say that it intersected nicely with some of the longstanding debates about ethics we've had on this blog. You might want to read it yourself, but now, for your debating pleasure, I quote:

In this complex, volatile context of edu-business, medievalists must monitor their ethical projects in relation to the evolving curricular imperatives that are redefining the university's relationship to twenty-first-century culture. As we negotiate this relationship we should consider, ultimately, an Arnoldian disinterestedness from contemporary issues of race, class, and gender for fear that if we too closely link the medieval and the modern in relation to these politics, we will be packaging our profession for the architects of the corporate university who will have figured out, finally, what it is that "we do" and will blithely assimilate it to the university of excellence, an institution interested in producing students just politically sensitive enough to facilitate the smooth operation of global capitalism as it forges its "solutions for a small planet.

To study hatreds, violences, and injustices with the announced purpose of creating a "positive response" to a world that licenses "repression and violence" is to conduct a politics of affect, dangerous not so much in its utopianism as in its re-definition of literary studies, a redefinition that the corporate university of the twenty-first century, operating like a state-run HMO, will happily assimilate into its own economic and social ends. A humanities that displays civic utility is, as Plato remarked long ago, good for the state. Yet where many critics today see Plato to be a utopian and even (as Bertrand Russell saw him) a fascist, these same critics do not see the dangers to academic freedom that political criticism can spawn.

Surely my critical machine isn't helping the fascists by stopping future Curries in their tracks. Narrative analysis never hurt anyone, but it seems, maybe, there's a danger in doing too much ethical performance and directed dislodging of prejudices. Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Michael pulled his punches in that essay.

He and I had a phone conversation about 2 weeks ago: I called him to urge him to come to the Zoo 07 because I felt he might be more than a bit surprised that my position on the ethical obligations of the profession had converged more or less with the one he has been espousing (around me anyway) for more than a decade. He knows I didn't pay his sharp critique of critical excesses and hypocrisies and academic cowardice much, if really any, attention. Now, however, I felt my anxiety of influence might could be assuaged if he were in the audience.

We shall see.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael Calabrese's work has always been provocative in the best sense of the word: it rouses the scholar from complacency. It's important to stress, though, that Calabrese never argued that we should give up on the possibilities inherent in some of the schools of criticism he examines (see this review of the PoCo Middle Ages for example). And he does make the good point that those who argue from a supposed ethical high ground are very tough to engage in conversations: I think what's missing from the quotations Karl provides is Michael's well founded words against Holier Than Thou modes of criticism.

The two quotations, somewhat out of context, also make the essay lose a bit of its nuance, but then again designations like the "corporate university of the twenty-first century, operating like a state-run HMO" are the products of a very broad paint brush.

Too often academics (and I am not speaking of Michael C. here; close readers may recognize the person I am about to describe) imagine themselves writing from the margins of the very thing they happen to be. They might not like to acknowledge that they are already part of this entity, with all the obligations for governance, critique, and transformation apertaining thereto, but by imagining that the university exists separately from their own status as faculty member they liberate themselves from the hard work of participating in the ongoing shaping of its identity. I know from personal experience that there is too often an inverse relation between critique of the system and engagement in ways other than the dissemination of critique in the transformation of that system: it is so much easier to declare the thing ethically bankrupt, opt out, and tend your own garden. There's nothing worse than enjoying the benefits of university tenure while disregarding what such tenure should compel. I would also point out something that is obvious but doesn't get acknowledged enough in faculty critiques of universities: such insitutions are sprawling, heterogeneous, and immensely inept. It's their bricolage nature that ensures they'll never only be "excellence-driven" educational HMOs. Nor are faculty especially well served by imagining that the Administration is not in fact them -- or, at the very least, significantly a part of what they already are.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oh, and I meant to say: Karl, great post! It is amazing to me what people with so little grasp of evolutionary biology can publish. I like how you linked Curry's fantasies to those that haunted the Middle Ages.

When I was a kid I used to believe -- from the SF I was reading -- that the evolutionary destiny of human beings was to become tall, skinny, sexually undifferentiated creatures with enormous craniums. For symbolic reasons they would also have large eyes, designating their expanded abilities of perception. They wouldn't be much to look at, but they would be SUPER geniuses. Curry shows his elitism, his sexism, and his love of the physical as he imagines his utopian humans who "look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises" or "smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair."

Karl Steel said...

EB, I meant to rouse you w/ this post. If MC refuses Kzoo--and why would anyone do that?--you could invoke MC in your comments, of course, or, better yet, prop a glossy photo of him against your water glass, so long as no one mistook the session for a funeral.

JJC, thanks for directing me to the review. It's instructive to pair MC's comments on Tomasch in it (But whether we have such a label or not, the reality of the virtual Jew is well established in Tomasch's fine essay. (In the spirit of Said, it is difficult not to think of the modern status of the Palestinians in relation to these issues) with what first grabbed me in the Prioress essay (the indictment of the 'good subject,' the sensitive cosmopolitan, the subtle agent for hegemony, that our ethically engaged classrooms might produce, and, of course, MC's weariness with the moral bromides of Prioress criticism: I'm glad he invoked Gow and Nirenberg).

In the review, MC wonders at JJC's use of Anzaldula's figure of border hybridity, the serpent-woman (Melusine?), and what its value would be in a classroom actually comprising latino/as. It's a good question, and while MC's review generously gave attention to each essay in the collection and hence couldn't do what I suggest, I would have liked to see MC speak more about how his own classroom might contour our engagements with postcoloniality, hybridity, the partial political subject, and so on.

This is my second time teaching the Prioress and my first time teaching it in (I'm assuming because of the patterns of absences) a majority-Jewish classroom. Yesterday, when I gave my 15-minute history of medieval antisemitism, I got, oddly, refreshingly, a lot of laughs. One student laughed when I said that the ritual murder charge would eventually accuse Jews of using the blood of Christian chilren to make matzoh ("wait," she said, "can you repeat that?" And she made a show of writing it down). They made marvellous connections: when I told them about the York massacre, one interrupted--"Masada!"--and I talked about history as a model for behavior that made its inspiring narratives true, regardless of whether or not they had actually happened; ritual murder conjured up another student's family memory of a ritual murder case in Atlanta; and, when we finally gave our attention to the Prioress's brooch, another student said that it seemed funny that such a love-addled character would preach such a nasty story. The normal move, I think, is to play around with the Ovidian context of the brooch: eros crowds out agape. But with my students, it seemed natural, and, in fact, I can't remember if it was my idea or theirs, to say that the massacre was, for such a character, likely an expression of love. Vincit is, after all, a military metaphor, a language of violence. So, love of what? And discussion followed. In other words, everything went right: we stayed to the texts and never once felt the need to condemn the Holocaust.

I'll have more to say on monstrous/fantasy bodies maybe tomorrow, maybe today, but it came to me that Curry's abject bodies are squat, whereas the abject bodies of the Middle Ages are unbounded giants. And while JJC's vision, shared by many, of bodies whose surfaces were in perfect harmony with the mind's smooth, placid genuis, Curry's bodies resemble nothing so much as a Frank Frazetta painting. Signif of these differences? I'm inclined to think that the Middle Ages come out looking a lot better in the respect they accord the bodies they fear: they know that what they abject might not stay put and servile but might come back to eat them.

Anonymous said...

There will be nothing funereal about the session, at least as far as my own comments are concerned. Indeed, there will be a note of jubilation struck, a celebration of what might could be and is not yet.

To those who persist in eating their own tails, locked in the endless consumption of the self-same, I hope to offer an alternative to such a bland, and ultimately non-nourishing, diet.

Anonymous said... seems, maybe, there's a danger in doing too much ethical performance and directed dislodging of prejudices. Thoughts?

It's not the performing of the ethical or the dislodging of prejudices that are problematic; it's rather the context in which these activities are undertaken that is troublesome. (I don't presume to speak for MC here.)

By "context," I mean not only the institution(s) but also the existential milieu(x), so that, in place of what Tillich calls "courage to be," critical medieval studies has degenerated into homogenous self-talk in the form of an auto-cannibalism consuming not only ideas and ever more words but possible futures, with all turned into one fecal paste. Mind you, not that I would be one to automatically dismiss fecal art.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note from MC. I have never read a blog, much less written one until this very moment. I do it out of respect for Jeff and Uebes, my beloved friends and colleagues, and because I am kind of tickled that some of my work has been spotlighted here, in a forum I have never experienced. It's much like, after all these years, seeing your name in the class schudule teaching for the first time when you're a grad. student. I am always thrilled , as you all are too, when any of our labors help each other in our teaching or in thinking through issues. Currently, life has a way of cutting through theory. I will leave out the personal aspects of violence that a loved one suffered, but I will say that the main issue that concerns me in relation to "borders" is in shutting down the real one that is currently open and is serving as a highway for drug cartels and criminals to enter this "sanctuary city" of Los Angeles, where I live. Our city is suffering a wave of crime, and our state the economic strain of burdern in education, the judicial system and healthcare. The corporate love of cheap labor and the silly leftist illusion that this is a civil rights issue that they can nurture votes from have combined like toxic gases to create a human crisis here in LA. As far as post-colonial, I have been writing an essay in my head about Mexican President Fox as Prospero, who will not, however, acknowledge his "own." Some American students and scholars can imagine no colonialism but European, no villain but Bush, no racism but American, and no oppression but capitalist; forever "freshman," they conduct only one politics of national self-hatred. So, when a "border" speaks a reality of drug cartel invasion, and violence against men and women of all races, it's time to stop theorizing and start "policing" (a word ridiculously made evil in the 80s) as a means to save lives, protect women fron rape (frequently a gang initiation requirement) and insure the urban safety that allows all Americans, old and legally new, to live in peace. I greet my friends with affection and respect. I don't know if I will ever blog again, but I welcome your continued fellowship and scholarly engagement with all that we do for our students, colleagues and to fulfill our own vocations as thinkers and writers. Keep in mind that I have not been reading anything on this blog except the couple of generous refs to my essay on Chaucer, so I'm just glossing that discussion from some personal musings. (no spell check was seen or applied--I must be a rookie!).

Anonymous said...

Currently, life has a way of cutting through theory.

Bravissimo, signor Calabrese.

Karl Steel said...

MC: glad to see you here, and if you have time, I hope you stick around. You've of course been in listservs before. Blogs are a bit different: but not so much so. Now, the point I'm about to make is perhaps off-topic for this blog and certainly dubious if articulated in the autophagous context EB scorns, but, here goes. Like any good leftist/liberal, and, hell, like any good Deleuzo-Guattarian, I think policing borders is at best only a short-term solution. Reducing poverty and increasing social services on both sides of the border are among the only surefire solutions to the problems you describe. The strain on education, health care, and the judicial system would be a lot less if these systems--especially the first two--were adequately funded. Of course, you could have predicted my saying any of these things from the moment I said "Like any good leftist/liberal...."

Eileen Joy said...

Finally, back to some bracing discussion and debate. I'm not sure I can add anything worthwhile--at least, not at this moment [although, in relation to this discussion, and I may post on this later, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles in my most recent New Yorker: one on the fact that a global water shortage looms threateningly over all of us; the other on the supposed dearth of charismatic professors and how, supposedly, "the contemporary university seems such an odd, unstable compound of novelty and conservatism," and further, "[t]he university has never been sleek, efficient corporation. It's more like the military, an organization at once radically modern and steeped in color and tradition"]. But I do have to at least say a couple of things, starting with what I believe is the most painfully obvious insight to be gleaned from Curry's research that no one has [maybe] noticed. let me first just briefly re-quote Curry's vision of our evolutionary future:

"People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.

The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures."

This is neither a vision of a supposedly utopian future, nor, following some of Karl's commentary, the remnants of a nightmare of the troubled past, but is, rather, our very present. Does no one see the humor as well as the searing reality here? [And this relates, too, I hope, to the conversation that has unfolded here regarding the academy, ethics, politics, and that "real world" with its borders, permeable and otherwise.] Human beings have been self-selecting for a long time now and you can already see these two races almost everywhere: the tall, sleek and beautiful people lunching at the Plaza in New York or hanging by the pool at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. or quaffing martinis at the Buddha Bar in Paris; the squat and unhealthy chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls at the VFW Lodge and working in the chemical factories and meatpacking plants and eating all the prepackaged and cheap foods in all the towns in America that no one ever visits or gets away from. This world exists already and we are its mongrel citizens. At the exact same moment that natural selection, but also medical technologies and bioengineering, have made the perfection of so-called human "beauty" and longevity possible, other bodies are everywhere degenerating and breaking down and being assaulted, deprived, harmed, and mutilated. Just pick up some books by Thomas Frank ["What's The Matter With Kansas?"] or Eric Schlosser ["Fast Food Nation"] or Jonathan Kozol ["Rachel and Her Children" and "Savage Inequalities"], etc. etc.

Of course, Curry's research is laughable and there will be no Adonis-like and flaxen-haired super race of the future that ends up, let's say, "looking" just one way, but spend some time in the Hamptons or Connecticut and tell me there's no super race? Spend some time on the back roads of the South, where I have spent much of my adult life--teaching and living--and tell me there is no group of people that have been "left behind" in every sense of the world, and that it is not just a matter of class or location or social & cultural deprivations, but is also a matter of how even biology, body chemistry, phsyiology, and the mind are profoundly affected and altered and harmed. I won't push this mainly fantastical analogy with Curry's "race" ideas too hard--there is no one-to-one comparsion to be made here, because I am not really talking about "race," per se [which doesn't exist, right?], but about regionalisms, or is it class, or is it something else? Either way, I couldn't help myself, while reading about Curry's research and ideas, from thinking that, while his science might be bad, he was painting a picture of world I already live in.

Anonymous said...

Question to Karl: Do you consider yourself "a good Deleuzo-Guattarian"?

If you answer with a simple yes or no, I promise not to turn it into a trick question.

Karl Steel said...

EB: I'm sure I'm walking into a trap, but I can't simply answer yes or no, yet. What I know about D&G is their material on animals, excerpted in various places, and some other short excerpts, and then people's use of them, particularly in JJC's MIMs. I own a goddamn thick copy of Thousand Plateaus, and I wish I could convince myself that the publisher had played some trick on me by sending me the 12" remix of a 120-page book: but no such luck. That said, I'm sympathetic to their ideas, so far as I understand them-- bwo, hordes, assemblages. I think these notions are, even, at once utopian and the way things really work. In other words, things really aren't self-possessed monads, but because most people don't see things that way, D&G might as well be describing the way they wish the world would be. With that in mind, I tend to think, right now, that focusing on their ideas can distract us from analysis of the way elites, in a constantly shifting world, must engage in the unceasing, nasty, and necessarily frustrating task of reinscribing borders that, by the very nature of things, will never stay put.

If there's a trap, feel free to spring it.


EJ: I'm going to read that water shortage article in anticipation of the post I think you're writing.

Brief response. Where Curry differs is that his squat unfortunates are such ab ovo, whereas the people you describe don't start that way. The people I know, including me, who have escaped the shitholes and deadend families, whether in Washington State or Connecticut or Southern and Western Jersey (all of which are full of shitholes, although I presume not to the extent that, say, Alabama or West Virginia are), are, if not as lovely as, uh, Aleksey Vayner (whose press coverage in the NYorker, NYTimes, in other words, outside Gawker, has been bizarre), are not as worn out as our cousins and nieces and uncles and so forth. By getting out, we've managed to preserve, if not the health of our youth (since one of my friends from youth who got out suffered genetic damage that she likely wouldn't have had her parents been able to live anywhere else), then at least our bodies, by not meatpacking, housecleaning, or spending a decade or so in prison.

With that, what your approach preserves, I think, is the possibility of change, of intervention, whereas Curry, clearly, wants a world in which such differences are outside our responsibility.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for posting, Michael C.: it is good to hear from you. And I am very sorry to hear of the sorrow implied by your post.