Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dear Fellow Iberianists: Where Are We?

Cover image, Dario Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016)

by Chad Leahy

This is the first of three posts by Chad Leahy on Iberianism in today's medieval studies.

Dear reader of ITM: you don’t need me to tell you that an awful lot has been happening in Medieval Studies. I’d wager that most of us can rattle off a list of 2016-2017 highlights that might include #femfog, Leeds IMC, the Brown vs. Kim controversy, Charlottesville, and #AltCrusade17. And even if we aren’t publicly engaged in responding to this moment, I’d guess most of us are at least aware of the work of disciplinary awakening swirling around us: Work to acknowledge and redress the complicity of our silence. Work to reclaim Medieval Studies from the medievalist fantasies of white supremacists and misogynists. Work to confront the disciplinary practices and ideologies of exclusion that mark our past and present for people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups.

You know this already. In fact, the gesture of signaling the moment-ness of the moment is becoming almost routine. So routine that I fear the gesture itself threatens to be replaced by the meta-cliché of complaining about it.

For you, dear reader, let me offer that you are already aware of all of this in part because you are not an Iberianist. Maybe you work on Late Medieval England or Anglo-Saxons, Old Norse or Normans, Gaul or the Franks, Celts or the Crusader States. But Iberia? My question: where are all the Iberianists and Hispanists? What is behind our thundering absence from these conversations?

I think there are a number of ways we might respond to this question, but in what follows, I’d like to entertain just one theory. Maybe we aren’t experiencing the aforementioned moment-ness of the moment in quite the same way as some of our disciplinary cousins simply because we feel that we’ve already been engaged in this sort of business for years, toreando in this plaza at least since 1948, when Américo Castro published España en su historia. (See this overview if you aren’t familiar).

As Nadia Altschul suggested almost a decade ago, Medieval Iberia is “enmeshed in midcoloniality. In contrast to other language-based disciplines, the existence of a so-called ‘multicultural’ Middle Ages is neither counterintuitive nor new within Ibero-Medievalism” (“The future of postcolonial approaches to medieval Iberian Studies” 9). We understand racial, cultural, and confessional complexity to be basic to our field, and long decades of interpretative struggle over those fundamentals have always served as unvarnished referenda on the political and ideological struggles of the present. Whether as a means of decentering Eurocentric historiography or imagining an alternative to the horrors of the Holocaust or refracting anxieties over contemporary extremism, the War on Terror, and Islamophobia or negotiating the essentializing politics of Spanishness under Franco, we’re accustomed to seeing Medieval Iberia as a tool to think through some pretty big, relevant problems. (And this, even though we often default to a position of problematic neutrality that sometimes borders on “criminal non-intervention,” as Simon Doubleday has argued).

So, is it just that we don’t consider more recent developments–especially those surrounding inclusion, violence, race, and nation–to be a disciplinary novelty?  

Even if the answer is yes–and I’m not sure it is–I would like to suggest that this shouldn’t exonerate us from remaining engaged. On the contrary, our passivity here has real consequences that we have an obligation to take seriously.

Let me offer just one example of what I mean: why did the publication of Fernández-Morera’s rabidly polemical The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) not give rise to a more vigorous public response by scholars in the field in 2017?

The thesis of this last monograph is, effectively, that al-Andalus was a violently retrograde hellscape of militant jihad, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual slavery, and female circumcision. This, in contradistinction to the relatively more open Christian communities of the North who, despite it all, heroically managed to keep alive the flame of Roman-Visigothic greatness in Hispania. Just think: if it weren’t for the reconquista, today we would be facing the inconceivable horror of a Spain bereft of wine and ham, and if it weren’t for Byzantium there would have been no medieval transmission of Classical knowledge, since on that front, the role of al-Andalus has been hugely exaggerated. The author passionately claims that all of us in the U.S. academy have been deliberately ignoring or misrepresenting this story both because we lack the methodological and linguistic skills to get at the real truth and because, either way, we prefer to remain duped in our ahistorical liberal fantasy of convivencia, which for the author always and only signifies a dreamy amalgam of inter-confessional brotherhood, artistic-intellectual glory, and multicultural tolerance.

The brazen absurdity of this should be patent. To begin with, this argument is built on a gross mischaracterization of what those in the U.S. academy have actually written. Case in point: Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Brian Catlos, Ann Rosemary Christys, David Coleman, Olivia Remie Constable, Jean Dangler, Jerilynn Dodds, Simon Doubleday, Denise Filios, Thomas Glick (with or without Oriol Pi-Sunyer), L. P. Harvey, Richard Hitchcock, Chris Lowney, David Nirenberg, Pamela Patton, Jonathan Ray, Teófilo Ruiz, Janina M. Safran, and Maya Soifer are among just some of the relevant scholars that don’t even appear in the author’s bibliography. It is true that some (very few) of these folks are in fact quoted in the book’s frequent epigraphs, but in de-contextualized ways that in no way constitute a deep engagement with their work. (Carly Fiorina, too, gets an epigraph.) Even more noteworthy: also largely absent is María Rosa Menocal, who I would suggest is nevertheless everywhere here, with The Ornament of the World (2002) operating as a kind of haunting specter or token of everything ever said about al-Andalus in the U.S. academy. As a point of fact, those of us in the field know that there is a robust scholarly consensus about the shortcomings of Menocal’s work and the interpretative trend it embodies. (See, for example, this review article by Anna Akasoy). Fernández-Morera demonstrates no effort to acknowledge such work because, as S. J. Pearce has argued, “The entire book is constructed against a straw man… The Myth’s myth is a myth.” Even my undergraduates just reading a few selections from Constable’s anthology of source materials (Medieval Iberia)–a book I’d hardly call an arcane secret of the forgotten catacomb-archives–already know that the narrative against which Fernández-Morera rails is about as real as cynocephali and sciopods.

As if this weren’t concern enough, what should we make of the fact that The Myth was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute? According to their dogwhistle-laden mission, ISI is dedicated to promoting the advancement of “Western civilization,” a topic evidently under threat and “rarely taught” in the U.S. classroom. ISI also actively promotes “The values, customs, conventions, and norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition” because these “inform and guide a free society” and “[w]ithout such ordinances, society induces its decay by embracing a relativism that rejects an objective moral order.” In brief, this is an Institute with some very loaded ideological axes to grind. And Fernández-Morera is happy to do the grinding. Even if we accept the archaeological reasoning deployed here—i.e., that Fernández-Morera has indeed restored to truth realities hitherto ignored in the archive—the book’s particular rhetoric warmly and dangerously invites an Islamophobia that is in direct harmony with ISI’s political agenda of safeguarding the embattled civilization of Western Judeo-Christianity.

So why are we silent? Why no #MythFail hashtag? Why no #AndalusiaGate? Why no symposia or op-eds to set the record straight?

Maybe the case is simply that we have chosen to not dignify this work with a response. In one of the few negative reviews of the book that I’ve been able to find, self-professed conservative historian Thomas Madden predicts just that: “This book will change few minds. Professional scholars will dismiss it as an angry screed, unworthy of serious attention.”

I agree. But our resulting silence has serious consequences. It is probably not at all surprising that Fernández-Morera would be championed by a conservative publication as their number 3 on a list of “Top Ten Contemporary Academics Helping the Political Right” or lauded in a review by the author of a book called The Left is Never Right. One can imagine how this line of thought might go: see, Muslim tolerance is a liberal myth! Sharia lawyers are coming to force your daughters to wear hijab! Travel ban time (#MAGA)! On the other hand, maybe it is a little surprising that even liberal media outlets like HuffingtonPost approve of the debunking of a myth whose stranglehold on the field itself constitutes a myth. And more injurious still, even some very well-respected Hispanists, like Noël Valis (Yale University) and Antonio Carreño (Brown University, emeritus), contributed publicity blurbs for the dust jacket, praising the book’s iconoclasm. I genuinely trust that this last move reflects their own status as researchers who work primarily outside of Medieval Iberian Studies and who are thus simply less familiar with the broader bibliography that so deeply undermines the book’s claims. And yet, their names are there, communicating scholarly legitimacy.

But the problem that I consider far more upsetting here is that by not more vocally resisting The Myth, we have been party to its weaponization. Through our silence we passively condone the poisonous ideologies that champion Fernández-Morera’s work in places like Occidental Observer (a publication dedicated to “White Identity, Interests and Culture”) or on the white nationalist, neo-Nazi website Stormfront or on /4chan hate forums, where Fernández-Morera is referred to in the most enthusiastic terms. Here’s a sample: “Please—nothing annoys me more than politically-correct dolts that believe the ‘Moorish Occupation of Hispania’ was a magical, multi-cultural Utopia where unwashed, barbarian, Christian Whitey learnt [sic] at the feet of his benevolent, clean, civilised [sic] Arab and Negro Muslim overlords. For any interested in why the ‘benevolent, enlightened Moorish overlords’ thought that the negroes were little more than ‘animals,’ and liked destroying cathedrals and killing Spaniards, I advise Stormfronters to read Darío Fernández-Morera ‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.’” (Note: I refuse to link to such sites). We needn’t even go that far down the rabbit hole. Youtube also houses an abundance of abhorrent responses to The Myth.

The problems here obviously go way beyond the fact that Fernández-Morera’s book suffers from defective methodology or suspect ideological biases. This isn’t about the book itself in a vacuum, but about the social and political practices it underwrites. It’s about a worldview of hatred and violence that draws strength from this book. Even if we are radical believers in academic freedom and don’t want to critique Fernández-Morera’s approach, our silence in not responding to the appropriation of his work by white nationalists and supremacists equates to tacit approval. Are we ok with Fernández-Morera misrepresenting our work? No, but maybe we’d rather not bother fighting scholarship that is so evidently absurd. But what about letting our work be appropriated (via The Myth) by hate groups as a means of justifying their abominable views? Such are the wages of our passivity. This is a real-world problem. This is serious.

So, where are we? That is the question. We appear to have been relatively reluctant to visibly enter the fray in 2017, whether it be over what I earlier called #MythFail or other aspects of our work. I’ve wondered here if this may have been due to a measure of confidence that we are already engaged in relevant struggles. Maybe that’s it, but there is clearly much work left to be done: Work to educate the public and our students. Work to educate even our own colleagues. And, most especially, real work to resist hatred. This is work that we need to acknowledge and embrace. I would like to suggest that we take this work seriously. That we do it visibly, openly, loudly. These struggles are not the proprietary domain of Anglo-Saxonists and specialists in Celts or Vikings. Dear Fellow Iberianists: can we please make some noise?

Chad Leahy is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Denver. His research centers on the politics of Jerusalem in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. He has published on a range of topics including Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the morisco expulsion, and teaches regularly on al-Andalus.  


Unknown said...

Oh, god, yes, you are right about many things here. In some way, the "always already engaged" issue, which makes many of these issue seem a bit old hat: in Spanish departments in which the defense of multiculturalism and minority cultures is not only a question of teachable content but of administrative policies and university politics that involve both Iberianists and Latin Americanists alike. On the other hand, Sarah's incisive and demolishing piece, which has been widely shared, has said just about anything that one would like to be said about this. What I mean is I agree with not debating nor throwing any light on this matter. We should actively refuse to review, mention, discuss work of this sort: bad scholarship, tendentious writing, shoddy research and racist stuff will be published after this too. Let us not give it any attention. I do feel we do not have time for this: let us praise, and circulate, and review, and quote all the solid scholarship that you mention and that requires maximal visibility. You're right. Let's make some noise. Preferably of the danceable variety.
Thanks for this.

VMWR said...

I'm happy to see some Mediterranean/Iberian discussion here at ITM. It is a good question you've thrown out to us: Why are we who work on Iberia not more "engaged"? I'm wondering what this engagement looks like, where it happens? Where you see the English medievalists doing it but don't see us beside them?
I notice your reader is imagined as a non-Iberianist.

I think you've pointed to one of the possible answers for the question. Iberianists fought this battle, or one akin to it, back in the day of the "thèse Orientale" of the turn of the previous century leading up to the Civil War and Franco. The thrashing of Asín Palacios came to mind as I was reading your idea. Then continues. Until when???

I asked Maria Rosa Menocal and some others when the debate died or the war ended, if we can dub the "thèse orientale" as such. None of them could say. I think that is the real significance of Menocal´s Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. That book invites specialists from other literary traditions to learn the story of how Medieval European literature took shape. I feel like it just neatly tied up the debate and declared the "thèse Orientale" a winner, not to those in "the field" which in that day was confused--was the field Spanish Studies or Arabic Studies? How could it be either...etc.?

So this fits your proposition that we've done this already. We fought the battle against the fascists and showed that the origins of the nation of Spain and its national literature were not singular, direct Roman-ness, but through archival discoveries like that which posthumously sort of salvaged Asín Palacio's Islam and Dante and snatched the claim to first lyric in a Romance language from the grip of the reluctant French, the beginnings were interwoven, beauty of multiplicities...I am beginning to sound like Menocal. And that is understandable because I like playing the Ornament of the World of Menocal off the violence and separateness and conflict of Nirenberg. I like to do this for undergraduates in a discussion that runs through this historiography. It is fascinating and shows us that we CANNOT be disengaged from the political in our reading. Not only do I do this in the survey class for Spanish students but I have done presentations with a colleague from Jewish Studies, Federica Francesconi, for a wider public. This, to me, is a very tame, somewhat muted making of noise. At least that is how we intend for it to function. But this is not terribly public. How do people hear this? Who hears this? What else can we do? Where else can we go?

VMWR said...

Oh. And.

As regards why there was no reaction to the book you mentioned, I remember a few people did go on amazon to write reviews in the hopes of discouraging people from purchasing it for a good intro to Medieval Iberia. Looking now I see the positive reviews far outweigh the negative which is scary as F. But that is the nature of that kind of publication I think. There are dozens of these published in Spain every year. They all say the same nonsense and quote non-academic sources and are put on display in the windows of certain kinds of bookstores. No one takes them seriously. Perhaps we should. But it does seem like the words of university professors would never reach the audience of such books anyway. Where do they intersect with us? Where can we have a conversation? I work on Crown of Aragon stuff and I kind of love to see the way the historical record is weaponized. It is fascinating. Terrifying, but also fascinating. There are tons of crazy books out there about Catalunya not existing or how Catalan was the first language of Babel and on and on. And check out Catalunya´s twitter discussions these last couple of months. Hoo lawd. It is a vast ocean of nonsensical misinformation out there. When real facts, archival materials, data, historical dates are thrown out there someone claims this is Catalans creating fake evidence!!! So I think that is perhaps one reason those who work on Iberia and read current events and browse bookshops in small towns might not engage. I don´t know what to do about that and am glad you have urged us to think about it.

I will note that in your account you do not say you have heard Iberianists say they just don´t want to bother, or they don´t feel implicated in things like the Alt-Right appropriation of history from the period we study, or the other issues of social justice or other issues of race/racism in our materia or in our field. I am sad to say that I have had conversations with people who study French/Occitan/etc. wherein some made very clear that entering into any of these discussions, even defining our terms carefully to avoid the anachronism that implies origin myths of France, is unnerving, even loathsome for them.

Basically, I know nothing of Medieval England. I do know that the field as it is today and the historiography and our materials are spaces teeming with the very same issues of social justice at the fore today.

Domics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Profecowling said...

Excellent post. I think it extends beyond just the medieval Iberianists, too (early mod scholar over here). I think we met at this past MLA, when I spoke about similar issues with the comedia and keeping it relevant for today’s students/audiences. If we can’t convince others that it matters, then who is going to care in 10 or 15 years? And, as you say, if we aren’t controlling the message, it will get co-opted, and potentially not for the better.

Juan Escourido said...

Gracias Chad por escribir este texto; también gracias a S.J. Pearce por su excelente reseña.

Suscribo los comentarios de Simone y Ojo; en especial la última parte del de Simone, dado que se trata de un libro que

a) nombra incorrectamente desde el título el tema del que trata (Andalusian en lugar de Andalusi)
b) no lo publica una editorial académica
c) no lo escribe un medievalista, ni siquiera un especialista en convivencia-connivencia.
d) todo lo que S.J. Pearce y tú señaláis, en especial su desconocimiento de la literatura sobre el período.

El autor consiguió lo que quería: la TV lo ha entrevistado, ha sido incluido en listas de su corriente política, le darán premios quienes lo publican. Pero dadas las carencias señaladas no creo que merezca la pena gastar más esfuerzo en él.

La guerra civil española continuó en el medievalismo; ahora Fernández-Morera quiere continuar las culture wars estadounidenses. Creo que si damos esa batalla ponemos al mismo nivel su libro que los de Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Brian Catlos, Ann Rosemary Christys, David Coleman, Olivia Remie Constable, Jean Dangler, Jerilynn Dodds, Simon Doubleday, Denise Filios, Thomas Glick Oriol Pi-Sunyer, L. P. Harvey, Richard Hitchcock, Chris Lowney, David Nirenberg, Pamela Patton, Jonathan Ray, Teófilo Ruiz, Janina M. Safran, Maya Soifer, S.J. Pearce y Nadia Altschul. Es decir, lo dignificamos. Como dice Ojo, libros como ése se publican cada mes en España y ningún arabista les hace caso.


Thank you Chad for writing this post; also thanks to S.J. Pearce, for her excellent review.

I agree with Simone and Ojo; especially with the last part of Simone's comment, since it is a book that

a) incorrectly names on the title its topic (Andalusian instead of Andalusi)
b) it is not published by an academic press, but by a conservative think-thank.
c) it is not written by an specialist in the convivencia; not even by a medievalist.
d) everything else that S.J. Pearce and you point out, especially his ignorance of the literature on the period.

The author got what he wanted: TV interviews, inclusion in conservative book lists and events, attention from specialists in the field. But given his book shortcomings, I do not think it's worth spending more effort on it.

The Spanish civil war continued in hispanomedievalism; now Fernández-Morera wants to use it as an extension of the American culture wars. I think that if we give him that battle we are putting his book on the same level as those written by Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Brian Catlos, Ann Rosemary Christys, David Coleman, Olivia Remie Constable, Jean Dangler, Jerilynn Dodds, Simon Doubleday, Denise Filios, Thomas Glick Oriol Pi- Sunyer, LP Harvey, Richard Hitchcock, Chris Lowney, David Nirenberg, Pamela Patton, Jonathan Ray, Teofilo Ruiz, Janina M. Safran, Maya Soifer, S.J. Pearce and Nadia Altschul.

We dignify it. As Ojo says in her comment, books like Fernandez-Morera’s are published recurrently in Spain and no Arabist or medievalist pays any attention to them.

VMWR said...

Another thing (OJO here again)

It occurs to me that, again, you are right in this piece that we may not be as visible in the dumpster fire summer because we have "been there, done that."
I'm reminded of an ex. of the way Iberianists have already been making some noise out there. There were a few really good popular pieces in newspapers and magazines by scholars when the term "jihad" was appropriated after 9/11 and ever since.
I can't remember where they were now.
I know Brian Catlos did one that was very widely read. And it seems like there was an effort by some to keep a tally of these attempts to shut down the appropriation. That was a few years back and I just don't really remember the details now.*

The plan for the "Cordoba Project in NYC" after 9/11 was completely distorted and I think some scholars tried to speak out to save the name/concept of Cordoba.

Maybe others remember more about these pieces and related activities. There were basic info of facts, history, the story of Medieval Iberia a la Ornament of the World on some campuses and in public venues done by scholars in that time as well. It was before twitter and even before many were active on FB.

That all had a diff. shape than the shorter and even more accessible pieces that are being done by medievalists responding to the dumpster fire summer. I mean, there is a difference between writing something for the Washington Post or writing something for The Public Medievalist's series on Race/Racism. I need to invest more thought and effort into doing this and others in my areas of research could really help out by doing the same.

We should not cede our space to non-Iberianists or allow Anglo-Saxonists or others -- let me acknowledge that there is a lot of bitterness among Frenchies, Occitanists, Iberianists, and I assume others about the fact that so much of Medieval Studies stuff in English (publications, events, conferences, # of panels at Kzoo *cough**cough*) goes to those who study English topics. We should be the first to comment rather than leaving it to Bruce Holsinger to call out Carly Fiorina's qualification of ISIS as harkening to Islam in the Middle Ages:

Despite generally being a bit ascetic and monastic in my love of solitude, retiring from the world, and above all SILENCE, this is a moment in which I cannot but welcome a lot more noise.

* Could it be I've conflated some articles or have there been a few by Catlos? Because I now remember this one in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.
as well as

Pamela Patton said...

Thank you for posting this. I wouldn't necessarily call our silence "thundering," but we certainly could be louder. I wonder if venue is part of the issue. I've been speaking publicly and will soon be publishing on these issues in Iberia, but traditional scholarship like this, especially when presented at other universities and/or published in scholarly volumes, doesn't always break through to the wider public in the way that it needs to--AND of course it can take the print publications a long time to appear.

Ditto for teaching: in fact we had a rousing discussion of Ferández-Morera, Menocal, and the politics of medieval Iberia in my seminar a few weeks ago--but this was four students an an upper-level course in an ivory-tower department, and we cannot wait until these young scholars are teaching and writing themselves for the impact of our discussion to be felt.

So I join "Ojo" in wondering where our voices are most profitably heard. In conferences? Blog posts? Social media? Public workshops? One avenue might be student readers like the one in plan at Fordham, "Whose Middle Ages?", which potentially could circulate quite widely. Another public space could be museum exhibitions like the Getty's recent "Outcasts," though those have a very long turnaround too. I'd be interested in the group's thoughts here, since I've been hammering away at this material for a while now without really feeling as if it is reaching the people it needs to--even some of my distinguished colleagues in other disciplines.

One more thought: when a book is so unobjective, poorly researched, and poorly vetted that it has to be published by a partisan think tank, the very fact that it has been largely ignored by many scholars does say something. Perhaps just not enough.

Look forward to further thoughts about this.