So, somewhat atypically for me, the further away I get from the announcement by the Medieval Academy of America regarding their decision to keep their annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona next spring, the more upset I feel I am becoming. More typically, my initial reaction to particular events, issues, etc. is to overreact, and then I calm down, listen to what other people have to say, and bit my bit, I modify and temper my initial reaction [while hopefully having some principles I don't want to nor will compromise--I do believe there are such things, and every now and then, real bodies and minds are at stake in relation to the principles we are willing to articulate and try to put into material practice, or not].
The more I re-read the MAA letter, the more its [painfully neutral] tone and refusal to address or even acknowledge the actual ethical and political concerns at stake really just . . . saddens me. First, before saying anything else, I want to thank John Sebastian for commenting on the IHE article and explaining how he himself, as one in the 46% majority of MAA members who voted not to move the meeting, made his decision and why he felt actually going to Arizona would do more good than staying out of Arizona. He also wanted us to [I think] not vilify out of hand those MAA members who voted to stay in Arizona nor paint them all with the same ideological brush. Fair enough. But I've given this a lot of thought, and if we hesitate to condemn, or to strongly disagree with, this decision of the MAA's on the principle that there are members of the MAA who are good and decent [and heterogeneously opinionated] people and brilliant, admirable scholars, then we'll all just have to shut up and go home. No one--least of all me--means to impugn the persons of the membership of the MAA in the 46% majority nor in the executive leadership of the organization. But do I condemn the final decision and am I dismayed by the rhetoric and palpable silences of the letter? Yes, I do, and I am. It strikes me as somewhat stunning that the letter itself indicates a certain level of discomfort with the "appropriateness [or lack thereof] of making collective political statements," and then, by democratic default, they made one--and a disappointing one at that--anyway. Because refusing to make a statement is a statement, and I learned that from history.
Second, before continuing, I want to also address Aunt Pansy's comment in the ITM post "Medieval Academy--Yes on Tempe" that "it seems rather churlish to condemn the prose of a committee working by email." I do not think it is churlish to critique and call into question the prose of a committee made up of specialists in literary and historical studies and who communicate via writing and speech for a living. The situation called for a delicate, well-worded [and one could hope, ethically-engaged] response, and we had a right to expect that from our esteemed colleagues, whose work and thought and writing we have long admired. In a situation such as this one, I should not have to guess at the motives--scholarly, political, ethical, or otherwise--behind such a letter. I should be able to expect, and I did expect, a clear, articulate explanation, or rationale, for the final decision that would pay sensitive heed to the ethical qualms involved on the part of the whole MAA membership [pro- and con-staying in Arizona]. I expect the finest writing imaginable from those who teach writing and practice it for a living. I expect as well a deep, humane attention to the very vulnerably human [and even post-human] aspects of the situation in Arizona [to those who are most vulnerable, there and elsewhere] from those who till daily in this field we call the humanities and who pride themselves on their historical erudition. Yes, I expect that.
This morning I awoke with something else in the letter [that I didn't really pay too much attention to yesterday] really nettling me--to whit, that the MAA and the Programming Committee at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies would work
to ensure that the program of the meeting reflects and relates to similar issues at stake in medieval society, including such topics as race, ethnicity, immigration, tolerance, treatment of minority groups, protest against governmental policies judged unjust, and standards of judicial and legislative morality.While I know many are and will be pleased that the the program of the MAA meeting in Tempe will work to ensure that its sessions reflect "similar issues at stake," the key phrase here is "in medieval society." I will be accused of churlish nit-picking [and so be it], but it seems that, just as with its laundry list of the "wide range of issues" that the MAA stated affected its final decision, they seem to be at pains here to assert their purview [scholarly, ethical, and otherwise] as being limited to the so-called Middle Ages themselves, or more generally, to "medieval society," and however cautiously phrased, an artificial line separating the past from the present is ever so carefully re-placed. My hope for this meeting, now that it will go forward as planned, is that some of the papers submitted and accepted for presentation will acknowledge and elucidate that there is no neat line [temporal or otherwise] separating the past from the present, and that what is happening in Arizona now, legal proposition- and otherwise [vis-a-vis "illegal" immigration, racial profiling, labor, the so-called drug wars, etc.], is one of many outcomes of all of the ways in which our deepest pasts [medieval and otherwise] continue to structure and haunt the present, and in various, often uncanny ways. As Aranye Fradenburg put it in her recent essay, "(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming" [contributed to Elizabeth Scala's and Sylvia Frederico's The Post-Historical Middle Ages], more eloquently than I ever could,
On the whole we seal ourselves off from . . . the modernity of the Middle Ages. Despite the difference Charles Muscatine made, it remained surprisingly hard for us to sustain focus on the prominence of political disturbance during the Middle Ages, at least until Steven Justice took up the baton. This focus is confusing: we fear Whiggish over-identification with our forbears' struggles for freedom. If, however, the Magna Carta people were just a bunch of brutal warlords who didn't want the monarchy messing with them, freedoms were what they wanted, and their signifiers lived on to be taken up again (and again) in later (and different) times. There is also little to console us in a long history of the struggle for social justice. What makes such a history most difficult to enjoy is that we don't want to know how fragile our own achievements in democracy might be. But we can't ignore this fragility, this vulnerability to return, in an age that has launched assault after assault on civil liberties in the pursuit of a new "crusade." A genealogical understanding of our attempts to explore the unknown--our history of seeking, which includes seeking better lives--requires that we renegotiate these splits. [p. 99]It is to be hoped that the organizers and members of the programming committee of the MAA meeting in Tempe next spring will keep these words of Frandeburg's in mind, and that they will labor to encourage and to accept papers that seek to understand the "issues" and human rights concerns at stake in Arizona as part of longer histories that do not belong only to the medieval period, or only to modernity. It is to be hoped that some of the medievalists who travel to Arizona next spring might do so with a desire to "renegotiate" the "splits" between "then" and "now," across which, like the mis-firing of neuron synapses, ideas rise and fall back and rise again in different, sometimes unrecognizable forms, but with palpable material results nevertheless. One hopes that some of those who travel to Arizona next spring will do so with a desire to better understand what I would call the creatureliness and self-estrangement that defines all historical actors, past and present, and entwines us inexorably with those who, today, are actually scared to be in Arizona, and perhaps, have nowhere else to be. And that this should be the concern of medieval studies is beautifully explained by George Edmondson in his essay "Naked Chaucer" [also contributed to Scala and Frederico's The Post-Historical Middle Ages] , where he writes,
Adapting Auerbach [on the "creatural" aspects of late-medieval art in Mimesis], we might say that modernity's investment in bipolitics has put us back in touch with a late-medieval theory of universalism: the creatural as the sign of "the equality of all men." In other words, we find ourselves aligned with the medieval other at the point where we catch, in the other's creaturely state, an anamorphic glimpse of our own self-estrangement, our own dislocation. [p. 157]This calls up as well the question of the neighbor and neighborliness--another great medieval theme. In the biopolitical order overseen by a sovereign, which is both the medieval and our own own time, we might use the occasion of the Arizona meeting as a critical site for reflecting upon the subjection of bodies to that order--ours as well as those of the co-called "illegals" who are not so much saved or redeemed by history, but remain intractably subject to it, as are we. I will not go to Arizona and never intended to, even before the MAA's decision. But I believe that wherever medievalists gather, they signify a community, for better or worse, that includes all of us, present or not. I would simply ask that they not consider the current events of Arizona politics outside the purview of our scholarly concerns. If anything, our knowledges and expertise could not be more necessary to the situation and perhaps could even be consoling to those who, at this time, are most in need of consolation. That is my hope.