by EILEEN JOY
At the collective level, it is ultimately a question of inventing a common world, of realizing, practically and theoretically, a global space of exchange. This shared world (shared within the space of translation) would implement that relativist relativism that Bruno Latour opposes to postmodern relativism, a space of horizontal negotiations without an arbiter. Thus, we move among representations of the world; we practice translation and organize discussions that will give rise to a new common intelligibility. This is all the more important today -- amid the constant unrest caused by economic globalization -- since reification has never wielded its power so completely nor with such diversity. Faced with the challenge it poses to art and culture, we must therefore set things in motion again -- start a counter-movement -- by beginning a new exodus. ~Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant
[the following rant is a mashup of many presentations I have given on the state and/or future of medieval studies & the humanities in a number of places, from the 2012 Kalamazoo Congress to the University of Alabama to the University of Buffalo to Wayne State University to the University of Western Australia to the recent MLA meeting in Boston at a special session devoted to the career of Eugene Vance; thanks to everyone who invited me to give this/these talk(s) -- Noah Guynn, Sharon O'Dair, David Hadbawnik, Steven Shaviro, Andrew Lynch, and Geraldine Heng -- apologies to everyone I offend, as the following is designed to be hopefully offensive to many]
a. First, the Humanities
Today, within the humanities, we confront strange, challenging, and I really believe, exciting times. Although it is a cliché, crisis in an opportunity and the humanities are definitely operating today, both here and abroad, under certain pressures, which in some institutional contexts are downright demoralizing and even deadly [for example, the actual de-funding of specific programs and departments, especially foreign languages and other so-called “minority” disciplines, as well as the end of a gold-standard free public education in the California and UK systems, the advancement of STEM curricula over the liberal arts, legislative elimination of research sabbaticals in some places, and so on]. In other institutional contexts these pressures are less explicitly felt [thanks to strong endowments, administrative support and enthusiasm for the humanities, etc.], yet no one can really afford, in my opinion, to not pay attention to an increasingly globally-networked and transnational capitalism quite careless of the well-being of any particular nation, and which, far from de-politicizing universities and other public institutions, are actually pursuing a reactionary, top-down, hyper-politicization of these institutions. This is not even to mention the gadjillions of dollars that are poured into highly influential think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, that actually see institutions of higher education, and the humanities in particular, as a threat to freedom [by which they really mean, to unfettered and unshackled business interests; one member of the Heritage Foundation, Dick Armey, has actually described public education as a dangerous "monopoly"]. These are not forces open to the idea, or the value, of a university that sees itself as being committed to both the production of knowledge and the impossibility of ever finalizing what that knowledge is.
I’d like to dwell on the phrase -- the impossibility of ever finalizing what knowledge is -- as the very thing [precariousness, itself] that the humanities should be fiercely advocating for right now, as well as making their disciplinary objects more ample and more voluptuous, richer and more strange [perhaps even more self-estranging], and also more difficult to track or pin down. As Geoffrey Bennington has written about Derrida’s “university without condition,”
The University (and, more especially . . . the ‘Humanities’) have a responsibility to foster events of thought that cannot fail to unsettle the University in its Idea of itself. For this to happen, the special institution that the University is must open itself up to the possibility of unpredictable events . . . in a way that always might seem to threaten the very institution that it is. On this account, the University is in principle the institution that ‘lives’ the precarious chance and ruin of the institution as its very institutionality.Like David Ray Griffin’s panexperentialists [see Griffin's Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom and the Mind-Body Problem],we need to cultivate and safeguard a radical openness to a “non-dualistic interactionism” in which our mind-bodies are shaped by both experience, which calls forth the work of social-historical critique, and spontaneity, which calls for the cultivation of the humanities as a resource and reservoir for what Eve Sedgwick, cadging from Proust, described as art’s “ability to manifest an agency distinct from either its creator or consumer,” which might then also offer a “celestial nourishment to the self” in troubled times [see the essays collected in The Weather in Proust]. This will also mean recognizing that one of the worst-case intellectual scenarios of colonialism has been the disciplinary structure of the university itself. Our curricula, our departments, our Colleges, etc. are themselves direct results of a fairly rigid colonization of knowledge production, if by colonization we might mean something like the ways in which the University we inhabit now is a kind of imperium that absorbs and erases difference, or at least tries to suppress it [whether through assimilation or other means].
Personally, I'd really like to take care of this really severe medieval but also 19th-century German migraine headache called disciplinarity. In this case, discipline really does mean punishing. It also means we're supposed to be able to draw a bead on any subject from a top-down, 360-degree-angle viewpoint that takes into account everything that anyone could have possibly said on the subject as a way of showing "mastery." We shouldn't be "mastering" disciplines; we should be going at them with sledgehammers or remix technologies. We need expertise, even "slow thought," and time and space for slow thought, but that thought should also wander, in order to make mistakes, to fall into rabbit holes, to forget itself, to promiscuously affiliate, in order to discover something new [or even old]. As Wendy Chun mentioned recently at a session on "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities" at the MLA meeting in Boston, "our research is supposed to be useless." In order to really practice uselessness, you sometimes have to self-betray. You see where this leads. [Jan. 9 EDIT: I need to add here that when I mention the "uselessness" of our research that I am not nodding to the many very fine essays and other writings we have witnessed over the years about the importance of safeguarding both the humanities' and the sciences' RIGHT to pursue research that may not have specific utilitarian applications in mind as future prospects and that are also engineered in advance to be playful/experimental and thus purposefully flirt with loss and failure; that is all to the good and we should keep defending that, but we also need to consider the ways in which our research should be crafted to also be useless in relation to what our specific fields and disciplines want and/or need and/or expect from us.]
De-colonizing the epistemologies of our sedimented and in some ways stony disciplinary structures should be one of our chief aims now, which also means we need to start putting our theories into better practice with regard to the institutionality of our situation. We have queered our texts, but what we have not queered, is our institution and its managerial-bureaucratic structures. But that target is too easy and has received adequate critique [e.g., Bill Readings, The University in Ruins or Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University]. The artificial constraints of what specific knowledge disciplines, including medieval studies, can study, say, and do, and how they can affiliate, wander/err, and self-betray, remains to be radicalized.
b. What, then, About Medieval Studies?
Let’s think about this for a moment just within the context of medieval studies. It is often said that medieval literary studies, even when it has resisted theory, has been deeply comparatist and cross-disciplinary well before the advent of such “movements” in the more broad contemporary humanities, especially as the study of medieval texts has often necessitated learning multiple languages, as well as studying multiple cultural-historical contexts, and also developing a host of material skills, such as paleography, codicology, orthography, and also dipping into other disciplines, such as art history, archaeology, musicology, numismatics, linguistics, etc. At the same time, and especially in the context of the American university, Middle English studies, with scholars trained in medieval literary studies, especially, have predominated on the intellectual scene [in journals, for example, and in teaching positions], and I never cease to be amazed when I go to conferences and travel all over the world visiting different institutions that when a bunch of, say, French medievalists are having dinner together, they are completely aware of everyone who is anyone in medieval English literary studies [and are reading and learning from those scholars], but when you gather a bunch of Middle English scholars together and ask them to name the most important people working in French, Italian, Iberian, or Arabic or pick your other so-called ‘minority’ field within medieval studies, they’ll be quick to mention names in French studies [while still remaining largely ignorant of how that field as a whole has developed over the last 20 or so years and also of the nitty-gritty particulars of how that field is losing all sorts of ground in different places], and this same group of Middle English scholars will really struggle to name scholars in the other “foreign” language fields. And sure, I've also met medieval Italianists who have no idea what is happening outside of close readings of the Commedia, and that is also part of this narrative/problem. What I’m trying to say here is, for all of our bluster about our cross- or inter-disciplinarity, what we really practice well is disciplinary insularity. Are there some exceptions to these anecdotal examples? Of course, but they are exceptions, and that is precisely the problem.
And let’s face it, isn’t even the term “foreign” languages, like, a serious problem? Given all of our capitulations to political correctness over the years, plus the massive amount of work that has been done in post-colonial and cultural studies on the [over-determined constructed] figure of the foreigner [to whit: Sara Ahmed’s Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality], and given the serious xenophobia of so many people everywhere [and that's a problem, right?], why are we still hanging on to this LOSER disciplinary marker? Having participated on a panel sponsored by Exemplaria at this past year’s Kalamazoo Congress on “Middle English and its Others,” especially in relation to the future of medieval studies, I can tell you there was some vigorous bitching on the part scholars working in non-English fields who don’t necessarily welcome projects like Fordham University Press’s recently unveiled “French of England” book series, and who have been insisting, over and over again, that languages are not “national” nor “native”; rather, as Karla Mallette memorably put it, “there are no mother tongues, only mistress tongues,” and there can never be a monolingual position from which to read, speak, or study.
And as Zrinka Stahuljak saliently reminded us last May in the same session, so-called “translation” projects such as the “French of England” series merely reinforce the idea of monolingualism and also reinscribe the misleading binary between “language” and “culture.” We need to always remind ourselves that languages, as well as texts and other cultural objects, are always trans-national and “on the move,” and in order to track these movements in and out of different cultural zones, times, and actor-networks, broadly-conceived collaborative projects of “translation” are the way forward in my mind, such as Gerry Heng and her collaborators’ Global Middle Ages Project as well as David Wallace and company’s Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418, which eschews “conventional, anachronistic organization by national blocks -- English literature, French literature, etc.” and instead “considers literary activity in transnational sequences of interconnected places.” Its vision of Europe is one that is always “on the move.” I personally find this sort of work very heartening as it attempts to capture something Heraclitus once said that really does feel like the defining feature of all of culture and history: “everything flows.” Nothing is static, and everything is inter-related, but one has to be willing to face daily bouts of vertigo to mine the undulating veins of such a situation. The ground really does, it turns out, move beneath our feet, and that shit is distressing. Welcome to distress; you live in it now. Get used to it.
Within medieval English literary studies, I also want to mention that we have also not been very successful in cultivating productive intra-disciplinary alliances across the supposed historical divide of the Norman Conquest [scholars working in later Middle English literary studies, for example, rarely collaborate with or even acknowledge the work of those working in Old English studies], and anyone who chooses Old English studies as their research specialty, as I did, feels a sense of doom when going out on the job market. Some of the reasons Old English has been abjected from “medieval studies” more broadly have to do with happy modes of self-abjection and I’ve written about that before, but in general, this is a serious problem, such that, for example, at Exemplaria’s 3-day conference last March to discuss “Surface, Symptom, and the State of Critique,” especially in relation to the future of medieval studies within the University, there were many scholars in Middle English studies, a handful from French, Italian, German, and Iberian studies, and no Anglo-Saxonist. We have written quite a bit in our blog posts, articles, and books about embracing hetero-chronicities [and also about getting rid of the Norman Conquest "line" or the line between "Old" and "Middle" English, etc., between the "modern" and everything else], but our departments, conferences, journals, hiring committees, and other such professional "scenes" and modes of apparatchik are still fairly striated by temporal and also language "divides" [as well as by notable abjections, conscious or otherwise].
We have also been fairly vigorous, even in some of our most theoretical vanguards, in resisting “presentism”: a critical strategy that, in the words of Shakespeare scholar Terence Hawkes, “scrupulously seeks out salient aspects of the present as a crucial trigger for its investigations” of the past, and which seeks to undertake “a kind of principled and self-inventing betrayal of. . .[scholarly] tradition,” executing “a material intervention into history” itself [see Hawkes's book Shakespeare in the Present]. And frankly, if one more person says in print or out loud at a professional gathering that they don't know what "presentism" is [by which they mean, "yeah, I've heard of it/read about it, but it doesn't seem to actually be about anything substantive, or is some kind of foggy ruse to escape more serious historical thinking, and therefore ultimately unitelligible and therefore useless"], I'm going to barf on them. So many people in so many different places [both online and in print] have been at such pains to carefully articulate what critically presentist methods might look like and can actually DO in our field, that I just . . . despair. It's not okay any longer to say you don't understand what deconstruction is as a way of saying it's nothing, while saying this about presentism must have some sort of currency if the number of times I've heard really smart and theoretically-savvy medievalists say this is any indication -- i.e., a LOT. You don't have to like presentism, but saying it's unintelligible as a way of avoiding taking it seriously is simply ungenerous. In this sense, the field of medieval literary studies is partially marked by a double agnosia, neither completely recognizing and/or embracing and “working through” its own earliest histories, nor willing to allow the present and its concerns to set the critical agendas for its investigations of the medieval past. And yet, whatever it is we study, how could anything not be more important than the present? In some respects, modernism is a term, concept and state of affairs that begs for reclamation: why not by us, the so-called premodernists? Haven't we got some of the best tool-kits of all for such a job? [And some medievalists have been working, at least, at the excavation of modernity's medievalisms: Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition, Amy Hollywood's Sensible Ecstasy, Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism, Andrew Cole and Vance Smith's The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages, Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul's Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World, and I could go on, but I won't right now; more importantly, in addition to this excavation work, how about some reclamation of what constitutes modernity as well? I'm talking, as they say in Hollywood: rewrite; not revision; a new staging; a reboot.]
The somewhat precarious situation of the university today, and of the humanities in particular [especially within the global context of increasingly runaway, liquid, post-sovereign, trans-national hyper-networks of capital and power], necessitates not only the longest and most intra- and cross-disciplinarily inclusive temporal frameworks for understanding and negotiating the past, but also the broadest possible collective intellectual alliances for tackling the problems of the present, whether we are talking about global warming, human rights, religious wars, racism, terrorism, and the like. This will also necessitate finding ways to possibly suspend the question, or markers, of “disciplinarity” altogether, while still hanging on to “specializations” [expertise] in order to form “working groups” that would address pressing contemporary problems while also building stronger and more vibrant “cells” and “hives” and “undergrounds” of scholarly production that would be better able to defend the important role of the university in what some call “global affairs.” In the spirit of Eugene Vance, we might recognize better that “there is scarcely a term, practice, or concept in contemporary theory that does not have some rich antecedent in medieval thought,” and that “familiarity with the older culture can better help us to ‘think’ the new” [Mervelous Signals].
This means understanding as well that, with regard to medieval literary studies in particular, that there can be no partitioning any longer of one temporality from another: all relations are entangled all of the time, and scholarship (as well as pedagogy) becomes the practice of not only better delineating these entanglements, but of also developing better practices for living in a world where, as the ecologist Timothy Morton has recently written, “the only way out is down” (The Ecological Thought); another way of putting this would be to say that we need to see, and feel, better the environmental “enmeshment” that all of us are living in all of the time. What would happen if we replaced the idea of cross- or inter- or multi-disciplinarity with a humanities “ecology”: the study of systems of inter-dependent relations? There would be no “Others,” only what Morton refers to as intimate relations between “strange strangers,” and I believe that medieval literature in particular offers vast resources for tracing and productively re-imagining these relations.
Within the institution itself, we might return to Bill Readings’ call [yes, I'm going there again], in The University in Ruins, for a community that would “abandon” both “expressive identity” and “transactional consensus as a means to unity,” and which would also commit itself to a “certain rhythm of disciplinary detachment and attachment which is designed so as to not let the question of disciplinarity disappear” or “sink into routine.” We would need to argue to administrators that resources should be “channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research . . . which would be disbanded after a certain period, whatever their success” before they become “modes of unthinking participation in institutional-bureaucratic life.” No more medieval studies, which they’re going to kill off, anyway, but lots and lots of medievalists in places you wouldn’t expect. A return to the scholar, and teacher, as itinerant, en-rooted in the absence of place.
Medieval studies could be enlivened, I really believe, in a way that will amplify and help sustain its so-called “minority” or “Other” fields, by radical departures to the Outside, or to the other Other(s) of intellectual and cultural life, both within and outside of the University. The University will continue to be an important site for keeping open the question of thought, and for fostering various modes of thought-dissemination, but it is also increasingly becoming unliveable for more and more persons, and thus it may be time for some of us to engage in a fugitive and vagabond medieval studies, taking our objects of study with us like contraband papers in Benjaminian suitcases. Realizing that training, and thus learning, can occur anywhere, we should seek to be everywhere, the ultimate rear-avant-garde, leading from behind. In this sense, we don’t maintain boundaries or reach across them; we level them, while still insisting on specialist modes of thought such as “medieval studies.” In short, we hold tightly to our texts and other objects (including ways of reading) as “singular” modes of transport, and then we unleash a pandemic medievalism. It’s not always recognized, but our disciplinary struggles (or whatever you want to call them) are also related to issues of biopolitics (ask someone who works in bioinformatics). There can be no disciplinary Others anymore, unless you want to participate in the kinds of sorting processes that always leave untimely corpses behind."Globalism" and "global studies," especially when practiced within English departments within any period, not just medieval studies, is like a soothing drug we take to imagine we're de-English-izing or de-centralizing, when what we're really doing is remaining in place. [Jan. 9 EDIT: I feel it is prudent to add a note here that I very much ADMIRE anyone who is working on so-called "global" studies, within any sort of field/department, as they are obviously working to enlarge our senses of what, say, Shakespeare might be "doing" in differing cultural contexts -- there is not just one, English Shakespeare, but many Shakespeares, and I use, for example, the Global Shakespeares project at MIT in my courses. I am merely asking us to consider the location(s) within which we practice and teach these global studies; I feel we need a more thoroughgoing radicalization of the departments and fields within which these studies take place, and just converting "English" departments to, say, "Literature" departments, is not far enough ... for me, anyway.]
Yes, there are the Big Others of runaway capitalism, neo-everything, global warming, and the like. And that is precisely why, here [or there], what we need now is something like Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘radicant.” As Bourriaud describes our current dilemma in a modernity where “postmodern multiculturalism has failed to invent an alternative to modernist universalism” [because it still relies on a logic of membership to specific communities]:
On the one hand, there is the option of uniting with those who come from the same place, whether it be a nation, a culture, or a community of interests [think: medieval studies]. On the other, there is the option of joining those who are heading toward the same place, even if their destination is hazy and hypothetical. The modern event, in essence, appears as the constitution of a group that cuts across clubs and origins by uprooting them. Whatever their type, their social class, their culture, their geographic or historical origin, and their sexual orientation, the group’s participants constitute a troop that is defined by its speed and direction, a nomadic tribe cut off from any prior anchorage, from any fixed identity. To use another image, the modern moment is like an emulsion: the social and cultural liquid is stirred up by the movement, producing an alloy that combines, without dissolving them, the separate ingredients that enter into its composition. What I term altermodern is precisely the emergence, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, of an analogous process: a new cultural precipitate, the formation of a mobile population of artists and thinkers choosing to go in the same direction. A start-up, an exodus. [The Radicant, p. 43]For Bourriaud, it is key that this start-up wires an altermodernity which can only be polyglot, a “translation-oriented modernity,” which is a “constant elaboration of arrangements to enable disparate elements to function together.” Further, each author and artist understands that she is a translator of herself and “no speech bears the seal of any sort of ‘authenticity’: we are entering the era of universal subtitling, of generalized dubbing” [pp. 43-44]. While “radicals,” in Bourriaud’s view, require being anchored to some sort of place [i.e., to practice a radical medieval studies would be perforce to practice that within medieval studies], the ‘radicant,’ by contrast, “translates itself into the terms of the space in which it moves. . . . the adjective ‘radicant’ captures this contemporary subject, caught between the need for a connection with its environment and the forces of uprooting, between globalization and singularity, between identity and opening to the other. It defines the subject as an object of negotiation.” Finally, there is “no single origin, but rather successive, simultaneous, or alternating acts of enrooting” [pp. 51, 52].
Whether or not this ‘radicant’ altermodernity is possible [and for who?] is an open and still-troubling question [Bourriaud's book is about artists, yet I'd like to think scholars are artists, too, as well as rogues], but within the academy and for the humanities-at-large, at least, I will claim that it is necessary. In which case, kiss English studies goodbye, and kiss the singular field of medieval studies goodbye [if by "singular field" we mean, programs of medieval studies anchored in very conventional ways to specific departments, such as "of English" where they play a certain role in the back temporal row]. And good riddance, too.