Saturday, July 29, 2017

Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu


[Please read this timely guest posting by Adam Miyashiro originally published as a Facebook status update on July 28, 2017. We are proud to republish his work on this site.]

Image description: Excerpt from Nupepa Puka La Kuokoa, February 23, 1893, showing various ways to count to 10, including Old English, Welsh, Gothic, Greek, and Latin.

In late July and August, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) will meet in Honolulu, Hawai‘i for a four day conference on Anglo-Saxon studies that has as its main theme, “Global Perspectives.” The conference website states that
The Pacific venue is ideal for gaining a broader understanding of our field precisely because Hawaiʻi is not Anglo-Saxon England: viewing our research from halfway around the world puts Anglo-Saxon studies in perspective, looking from the outside in—and potentially inside out. In particular, a global and comparative view suggests new ways of thinking about the relationship between past and present and the role that English language, history, and culture play on a world stage.
The program boasts that there are over seventy presentations, some of which focus on “applying global and comparative perspectives to the study of Anglo-Saxon England,” as well as more field-specific approaches. The conference program is adorned with what looks like a photo of the Hokule‘a, the contemporary reconstruction of a wa‘a kaulua, the Polynesian voyaging canoe associated with the disappearance of the kanaka maoli big wave surfer, Eddie Aikau. It liberally uses ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) in phrases such as “Aloha e kakou,” and boasts tours of Hawaiian kingdom sites in Honolulu, a tour of Bishop Museum, and a touristy luau. I also imagine that the conference attendees will also muse about Hawaiian food, especially poi, which they will all be obliged to “try” to get a sense of “authentic” Hawaiian food, which, of course, must taste bad.

The thing that strikes one the most is absolutely how white this conference is. With the exception of a couple of East Asian scholars, virtually the entire roster of papers is from white scholars. Of course, there are many scholars involved who I absolutely admire, including one of the keynote speakers. And a brief overview of the topics is unimaginably predictable: “Patristic Number Symbolism in Anglo-Saxon England,” “Repton Revisited: The significance of 873 A.D.,” “The Old English Prefix Ge- and the Structure of the Dictionary of Old English.” This is pretty much standard fare for any K’zoo panel, or Old English special session at the MLA. There is no need to go to the most militarized, colonial space in the US to present on the finer points of problems in Old English lexicography.

In full disclosure, I applied to present a paper at this conference, but my paper was rejected. I’d also like to disclose that I’m from Hawai‘i, and I am a medievalist who is a product of the multiethnic mix of Asian and Polynesian peoples and cultures of the islands. The paper I proposed was called “Beowulf and its Others: Sovereignty, Race, and Medieval Settler-Colonialism,” which considered Grendel as an indigenous person with a specific biopolitics, and linked a non-European reading of Beowulf to the contemporary issues of white supremacy that plague Anglo-Saxon studies, and medieval studies more broadly. Allen Frantzen’s anti-feminist and misogynist blog has shaken Old English studies; Rachel Fulton Brown’s defense of Milo Yiannopoulos and her blog and columns for Breitbart has brought awareness to white supremacy in medieval studies; Richard Spencer’s white supremacist “alt-right” fascism trades on settler-colonial ideologies rooted in modern understandings of the Middle Ages and specifically about modern “Anglo-Saxon” identity. In all of these discussions about right-wing political thought inside of our own field of medieval studies, not a single paper in this conference explicitly addresses these developments. And the only paper to actually deal with anything Polynesian in relation to Anglo-Saxon studies is a paper from a white man from New Jersey, replicating the worst possible legacy of colonial representation of kanaka maoli from America’s colonial history. We thought we were past that; but then again, we live in the age of Disney’s Moana and Aulani Resort in Ko ‘Olina, where Hawaiian culture can be commodified and repackaged in a less threatening and fully domesticated manner.

This conference practices what is known in indigenous studies as “erasure of the native.” In the conference materials, we are given the image of the “presence” of native identities – from the Hokule‘a picture to the liberal use of ‘olelo Hawai‘i as welcoming phrases. Yet, native voices are noticeably absent from the conference program, except for Uluwehi Hopkins, who will present on Hawaiian sea navigation.

Given the recent turmoil in medieval studies, and especially with Anglo-Saxon England and Old English, one might think that this conference – with its purported interest in globalizing the study of Old English – would address the racism that has generated so much controversy. Old English’s race problem was featured in a recent JSTOR blog post by Mary Dockray-Miller, who lays out some of the problematic features of the term “Anglo-Saxon”:
Outside the university, however, the phrase “Anglo-Saxon” did not refer to early medieval English. Instead, it was racial and racist, freighted with assumptions of privilege and superiority. The cultural rhetoric of Manifest Destiny specifically defined “Anglo-Saxons” as superior to enslaved and free Africans, Native American Indians, Mexicans, and numerous other groups defined as non-white, including Irish and Italian immigrants. The titles of college courses in Anglo-Saxon also carried these racial connotations and cultural associations.
This racist understanding of the term “Anglo-Saxon” as defining white Anglo-Americans has a long history in the South Pacific as part of the settler colonial landscape in places such as Hawai‘i, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Australia. Of course, French settler colonialism in Tahiti is not far from this mark.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., a friend of mine in Nebraska, an early modernist, asked me about the best books to use to teach Old English. She had been participating in a prison literacy program and said that several of her incarcerated students wanted to learn Old English. Surprised, I asked her for the background of why they wanted to learn Old English. Saying that there was an unsavory reason, she related that these inmates were part of an Aryan Nation prison gang who had built up a religion around the heroic poem Beowulf called “Theodism.” Old English, as one blog post notes, has an “image problem.” But it goes beyond simply an “image problem.” It goes right to the core of settler-colonial, white supremacist ideology.

As I said earlier, the colonialist Anglo-Saxon conference taking place in Hawai‘i will have no understanding about how the term “Anglo-Saxon” is understood in the south Pacific. Recently, in a post in the Facebook group Aha Aloha ‘Aina, an image of a Hawaiian phrasebook from 1906 illustrates the power of colonialism in the islands (reproduced below). The image is of derogatory and inflammatory insults to Hawaiian people in both olelo Hawai’i and English, including “Lazy people cannot be trusted;” “They lie in wait to pilfer while folks are asleep or at church;” and “When he thinks, it is of evil.” After the overthrow of the last legitimate government of Hawai‘i, the US took policy of cultural and linguistic genocide, since the actual genocide had already been underway from the late 18th and early 19th century. ‘Olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) was banned; students in schools were beaten for speaking Hawaiian. The reason Hawaiian creole English (pidgin) even exists is because of the compulsory language policies of the newly formed territorial American state led by white wealthy sugar barons.

Image description: 1906 phrasebook showing how Hawaiians can insult themselves in English.

Until medievalists, and the wider academic world, can decolonize their fields, they will be (unwittingly or not) part of the problem of white supremacy and settler colonialism. In Hawai‘i, this is also true of the sciences, where just yesterday [i.e., July 27, 2017], a judge has allowed the continuation of the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea (Mauna a Wakea) on the big island of Hawai‘i. The leaseholder of this land is the University of Hawai‘i, which is itself an institution that participates in the military-industrial complex on the islands – land, sea, and air – and that contribute to the furthering of settler colonial spaces and the continued dispossession of indigenous peoples, the kanaka Maoli.

About the Author

Image of Adam Miyashiro.

Adam Miyashiro teaches comparative medieval literature at Stockton University in New Jersey. He is a native of Kahalu'u, O'ahu, Hawai'i. He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Penn State University, and has also taught at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is currently working on a book about race in Mediterranean and European medieval literature.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Pushback, Progress and Promise

by J J Cohen

I offered a version of this note this morning on a friend's Facebook feed after she posted about sadness, frustration and anger in the aftermath of the personal and social media backlash against medievalists of color and their work in the wake of the recent Leeds conference (and an article in the Chronicle about the issue). I offer it here to anyone who has felt dispirited in the wake of what has been unfolding, but especially to scholars of color who are young in the field and undertaking the kind of work that is generating resistance in its many modes.

The field of medieval studies is changing: it's too late, those transformations are already quite advanced (look around at peer reviewed publications and social media alike: the list of resources and scholarship is vast). The backlash is fear at the realization of the profundity of these changes. Yet there is no turning back: the groundwork is in place -- and larger, sturdy, innovative structures for rethinking what the Middle Ages is and does are rising and have risen, transforming already the future's horizon. Those working to change medieval studies have had a success that is not at this point ignorable and cannot be dismissed, silenced, or lost. This success scares scholars (of many ages: it is not generational) so deeply because the excellent scholarship behind it demands a complete rethinking of assumptions that have shaped them in their professional formation as medievalists. Those normative tenets are now being shaken to the core and the cracks are showing. It would be very difficult to return to business as usual medieval studies at this point.

If you are feeling the backlash, please keep this in mind: YOU are the future of the field. I and many, many others thank you for all you are undertaking and have accomplished. We have dreamed and worked in our own way towards such a re-alignment of what medieval studies could be -- and sometimes despaired that lasting change would not take hold. But it is arriving and its roots are already deep. Backlash, painful as it is to endure, means you are doing things right and that you are doing things well. Please do not despair, do not think about not continuing -- and know that panicked negativity can be so shrill its noise drowns out voices of support. 

But never for long.

Monday, July 17, 2017

2 posts by Angie Bennett

my favorite picture of any medievalist ever (from AB's post
by J J Cohen

Anything that Angie Bennett writes is well worth your time, but these especially: two beautifully written pieces examining the entanglement of the personal, the professional, the political, the critical ... and so much more. With a paean to London thrown in along the way.

Here is Song of Summer part one, and here is part two. Much food for thought here as well as some playful, insightful, and moving prose.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

David Wallace on Europe: A Literary History

by J J Cohen
Writing cultures continue to matter, even as they become ever more intricately involved with digital, video, and other technologies and less exclusively associated with the paper page.
So observes David Wallace in a recently published interview at Romanische Studien in support of the publication of the massively collaborative (83 scholars!) two volume project Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418 from Oxford. The book is indeed a paean to what working in collaboration can achieve, and is well served by its multivoicedness. And the endeavor makes a problem of Europe in ways that have become only more useful post-Brexit:
“Europe” is indeed a complex, permeable, and uncertain term; in ancient Greece it indicated more of a direction than a specific, locatable territory. Europe is not a continent: as previously suggested, north-western Eurasia might be a more appropriate term. So yes, the folly and contradictoriness of the European-Song-Contest speaks or sings to this muddled (but creative) state of affairs quite eloquently.
The Europe project is incredibly wide ranging, and the interview well captures the capacious ambit of its two volumes plus digital presence. Let me close with David's words about why Damascus should be a part of the book's scope as an inspiration to more wide-ranging work from all of us.
And why include locales such as Damascus? Two of the greatest literary men of our period, and two of its greatest travellers, made their way here along the Maghreb from the western Mediterranean and then north along the region known as the Levant. Ibn Baṭūṭah travels through Jerusalem to Damascus, and on to Mecca. Ibn Khaldūn, born in Tunis from an Andalusian family of Arab descent, was one of the great intellectuals of the age: the father, we might provocatively say, of European sociology. His genius was acknowledged at, or just outside, Damascus by Timur (Tamerlane), Mongol conqueror, during weeks of intensive intellectual debate. The work of Shams al-Dīn Ibn al-Jazarī, who was educated at Cairo and Damascus and died in Shiraz (Iran), found its way to a translator in Aragon. Christian pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem were sometimes inspired to continue their journey south along the Mediterranean to Cairo—thereby, they thought, following the path of the Holy Family. Mamluks ruled the sites of the Holy Land, ruled Damascus, and ruled Cairo: without some knowledge of their crucial literature-producing centers the experiences of westerners pushing east, if we are to adopt such a circumscribed view of “European” experience, cannot be made intelligible.
Read and enjoy the interview in its entirety here.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Informal Events at IMC Leeds 2017: Public Medievalism and Disability Mentorship


Are you heading to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds tomorrow? Note these INFORMAL EVENTS not listed on the official program: on Monday, an informal discussion on public medievalism and countering the alt-right; on Wednesday, an informal mentorship gathering for medievalists with disabilities (and allies).

Full information below! [Click image to enlarge; equivalent text also provided in this blog post.]

#PublicMedievalism event at #IMC2017; original tweet here
#PublicMedievalism: Developing Methods to Counter the Alt-Right
An informal discussion for delegates at #imc2017
Wilson Room, Emmanuel Centre, 13:00-14:00, 03/07/2017
For enquiries please contact Shihong Lin (on twitter @shlin28) and James Harland (on twitter @djmharland)
The rapid growth of social media usage and the emergence of social media subcultures such as #medievaltwitter have led to historical scholarship arguably never being more open, vibrant, or accessible. Alongside this development, however, has been an alarming growth of appropriation of the past by resurgent far-right and white supremacist movements to promote their goals, as charted by authors such as Dorothy Kim at In the Medieval Middle and The Public Medievalist’s special series, Race and Racism in the Middle Ages.
The battle for the past is fought across the twittersphere. Alongside a regular output of memes promoting distorted, far-right interpretations of a purely white, Christian past, events such as #femfog and Rebecca Rideal’s withdrawal from the Chalke Valley History Festival have also attracted backlash online, and most medievalists with a presence on twitter will have experienced the reception and misinterpretation of their output—either by open members of the alt-right or members of a wider public informed by nationalistic and racialist ideas.
We invite delegates, especially those who make frequent use of Twitter, to an open, informal discussion on the development of methods to effectively counter this trend, while ensuring that our twitter output remains no less lively, engaging, and publicly accessible.

Informal disability mentorship event #disIMC at #IMC2017; original tweet here

Medievalists with Disabilities
An informal gathering for disabled students, ECRs, academics, researchers and allies. All welcome!
12:45-14:15 on Wednesday 5th July, St George Room, University House
Accessible via lift from either Refectory Foyer or via University House
Bring your lunch and come and meet other medievalists with disabilities, or support your disabled colleagues. This gathering is completely informal, and we hope it will be the start of a supportive community.
[event hashtag for twitter is] #disIMC
If you have any queries, especially about accessibility requirements, please contact Alicia Spencer-Hall by email via aspencerhall [at] gmail [dot] com or on twitter @aspencerhall or contact Alex Lee by email via alexralee12 [at] gmail [dot] com or on twitter @AlexRALee.

If you're not attending IMC in Leeds this year, you can follow the official hashtag on twitter #IMC2017. The hashtags for these two informal events are #PublicMedievalism and #disIMC respectively.

P.S. Online PDF and mobile-accessible version of the official #IMC2017 programme is available through this link on the Congress website.