Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Dark Age for Medievalists, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Charlotte Allen

I've intentionally waited until tempers cooled a bit before writing this post. Emotions were running pretty hot about "A Dark Age for Medievalists," an article taking to task the Kalamazoo Congress and those of us who present our work there. Scholars who were named either directly or by paper title wrote both publically and privately to me via e-mail. Now that we've had time to catch our collective breath, let me offer a bit of advice:

Chill. Out. Dude.

First of all, let's admit that though there were a lot of unfair or invalid accusations in Allen's article, there were some that had a grain of truth. There are a lot of half-baked papers at K'zoo, but Allen's interpretation of that fact (that K'zoo is for bottom-feeders) is backwards. In fact, so many people slap together such papers because they need funding to get to K'zoo because it is the BIG SHOW. That means you're going to find a bit of detritus around if you aren't careful to avoid it. If, like Allen, you go looking for it, you'll find the stink of it all over you.

Second, let's also admit that there are some serious faultlines between how historicist literary theorists think about history and the way certain historians think about history. Allen is firmly encamped on one side, so can it be any surprise that she lobs a few grenades at the other side? She doesn't develop those arguments, but she doesn't have to -- this was an article in a popular publication, and the arguments are (or should be) well-known to the scholars in the group.

Let's also admit that one could make a firm case that the proper study of medievalists is the medieval (not medievalism), and if so, folks like me who examine and promote medievalism are wasting our energies on something frivolous. I rather obviously disagree with that position, but I think the medieval need always be the center of medievalism, so I understand her point there. It might be wrong, but it is a point-of-view with a fine pedigree.

Frankly (and here's where some of you are going to become angry with me), I don't think our response to "Dark Age" was the online medieval community's finest hour. Far too many of our critiques of the article were actually ad hominem attacks on Allen -- and the public attacks were tame compared to some of the e-mails I got. Aside from my preference for a more civil academic discourse, what does that really prove? Even if Allen is a kitten-beating, slave-owning, plagiarizing, telemarketing, cattle-raping, book-burning, Prius-driving, Keith Olbermann-watching, crack-smoking, Jesus-hating, baby-shaking, illiterate, left-handed daughter of a Klansman and Stalin's transgendered clone, none of that necessarily invalidates her arguments. While many people took her to task regarding the accuracy of what she wrote, too many of us lost our tempers. You might argue that her article had an ad hominem flavor to it, but as I tell my children (and frequently have to remind myself), you can't control what other people do, but you can control your own behavior.

Aside from all of the above, I think we've missed what's really noteworthy about Allen's article -- It is good news for medievalists. The Weekly Standard, an extremely influential publication with a circulation of more than 60k (some sources put it at over 80k) saw fit to run an article about the state of current medieval scholarship. The piece was not a fluffy article, but was seriously bemoaning the scholarship.

In other words, we're important. Medieval studies matter. They matter enough that the editors thought their readers would care about the supposedly-poor state of medieval studies. The old cliche that there is no such thing as bad publicity comes to mind.

A weird thing has happened since I started writing the Wordhoard: I've become a sort of bush-league public figure. No, I'm no Stanley Fish, but perhaps I'm a Stanley Baby Guppy. One of the side effects of that "success" (if you can call it that) is that perfect strangers e-mail me all the time to tell me what they think of me. Often it's nice, but I get my share of hate mail too ... in fact, I got a couple of anonymous pieces today. At first, when I these sorts of messages, I used to get my stomach in knots. I was angry at how they had unfairly accused me, or how they had twisted my words, and would lay awake in bed at night fantasizing about meeting that person and laying waste to them with the perfect comeback.

Over time, though, I came to realize that even the negative e-mails are an odd sort of compliment. They are affirmations that what I write on here is read by people and taken seriously. As such, those that try to make a valid point (beyond "you suck") deserve the respect of being taken seriously even if the writer didn't mean to offer me any respect. When the person offers a return e-mail address, I try to respond politely and respectfully. As Proverbs 15:1 says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath," and I've found that to be the case. In a few cases, I've managed to turn angry rebukers into friends.

So, cheer up! People care about your scholarship! People think you are important! If you want to respond, do so by finding a public forum to present your work to interested people outside the scholarly community. The Wordhoard is one such place, but if you seek out opportunities and learn how to present your work in a way non-specialists can understand it, I think you'll find you're satisfying a real hunger to hear about what you are doing.

Plus, if you were one of the people criticized in the article, next time someone asks you why your research is important, you can simply look surprised and respond, "Haven't you read about my work in The Weekly Standard?"


  1. I don't think that Charlotte Allen was actually writing about medieval studies in The Weekly Standard. Whatever her personal connections to the subject, Allen took what some people (especially in the Weekly Standard readership) must assume is a conservative, Anglophilic or at least Eurocentric discipline and exposed it as the coven of postmodernists, queers, cripples and feminists (or at least theorists of the above) who have perverted the English department in the Culture Studies department. Medieval Studies instead are a symbol for yet another article on all that has gone wrong in academia. 1066 is no longer a date every schoolboy knows, rather every schoolgirl learns about the rhizomatic significance of defecating.

    Sorry about the snarkiness of the above, but I do think it's just another sortie in the culture wars and exhibits no concern for actually existing medieval studies. I'm pretty chilled out about it, because this sort of article usually just causes outrage among the targets rather than much influence among the general population. Bestsellers are generally much more troubling :-)

  2. who have perverted the English department into the Culture Studies department

  3. Thanks for the above, Dr. Nokes. First, let me say that I absolutely agree that there was too much childishness in some of the responses to Allen's article.

    But you're right too, I think, in that her article needs to be taken to (and responded to) seriously. (And let me plug Modern Medieval's upcoming blog forum here.) The problem here, beyond just this article, is that, as Larry Swain has pointed out, this is just the beginning. It's using an obscure, odd little part of academia to launch/ continue a larger assault on the academy and its faculty more generally. In that latter article I note, look at how Allen moves between disciplines, using Medieval Studies as little more than a jumping off point for a bigger, more political agenda.

    And, actually, I'm OK with that. Let's have that debate because we as a discipline have a lot of good answers to the charges she raises.

  4. Blast you Nokes! There's much to agree with in your post, but there's a great deal I disagree with and now I need to write a response instead of doing other sorts of writing! I shake my fist at thee! ;)

  5. A general point: sometimes the ad hominem approach is the appropriate one. None of us respond with equal care and charity to every idea that we run across in print in other forms of debate; life is too short, and too many arguments are stupid, or worse, malicious and dishonest. Different presentations demand different responses.

    Me, despite her appearance in the Weekly Standard, I took Allen somewhat seriously in my response to your first post on the subject. I thought she was just an individual sourpuss. I think it had not really sunk in that it was *that* WS. Others quicker on the uptake were less patient, and in some cases said why. Whoever said "this will be used to cut funding to young scholars who are not exactly generously supported now" put it pretty well; and given the Allen and WS track record, I'm inclined to think that the whole thing was an ideological hatchet job from the beginning.

    Such things (hatchet jobs) have been known to exist, and when they show up one is allowed to say so.

    The question of immoderate language is a different one. I think good points are often lost by immoderation; but then I've been seeing that dynamic in action since 1968 and earlier. I suspect, though, that immoderate speech in this case was a matter of people talking to others they visualized as knowing a lot of background, which calls for a different kind of talk (intimate, fast, sometimes immoderate) than a public presentation of all the issues raised by some incident. Intimate, "just between us chickens" talk gets mixed up with more formal presentation all the time, and in blogs and Internet forums especially.

    Exactly who is taking part in the current conversation? Whatever we may think the answer is now, these words may come back to haunt us and may look pusillanimous or hateful in a different context. I have no answer; anyone got a "universally applicable tone of voice generator" to run blog posts through before they are sent off? I thought not.

  6. Anonymous10:17 AM

    I've been holding off from writing anything about Allen's various pieces myself, but this seems a good time to say some things. My reticence heretofore has been partly because I didn't want to dignify it with a response, but also partly because of two stances of my own that are very much the results of my UK training and background. The first of those is that I see my subject as medieval history, and not medieval studies, and though the two fields should be at least adjoining and perhaps even inseparable, I have come to realise that they are envisioned in very different ways.

    The second is my well-documented distaste for post-modernist critical theory for its own sake: if I don't come to my texts with a new understanding of what was going on in the world of the writers, I don't really care. By this token I separate myself from the sort of lit. crit. that argues that we can go beyond authorial intent and write about non-contemporary reactions to texts; that only affects what I think is important if such reactions have bent the interpretation of the actual source context.

    So, with my stand thus set, it is obvious that I have certain sympathies with what Allen observes, though not at all with the way she observes it. The fact that Kalamazoo contains sessions about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter seems to me like a problem. I see a dilution of research effort towards fashionable stuff and every time I see a grant going to such research I get annoyed because there is still so much about the Middle Ages that we don't know yet. But Allen is not making that kind of critique, or if she is, it's not apparent. She should be, because it's the force of what she argues, but left like this, I agree with the Modern Medieval team: this is an argument for shutting things down, not refocussing them.

    Secondly, I fear I can't agree with Dr Nokes's point about our importance being inherent in this. What this whole story has reminded me of is the media reaction to last year's International Medieval Congress at Leeds. Leeds is a smaller, more focussed and hard-core affair than Kalamazoo, which should endear it to Allen but which causes issues about exclusion; it is also viciously expensive compared to Kalamazoo. There was lots that could have been said about it and the work presented, but what made it to the papers, and they were big papers like the Guardian, was Marco Mostert's paper, because it mentioned underpants. (My post about it is here.) It was not about underwear, but the spread of literacy, but underwear was the spin that made it into a newspaper story. Similarly, I suspect that Allen's piece is publishable not because medieval studies is hot, but because she manages to link supposed intellectuals and excrement, which makes us figures of fun. By suggesting that we're doing theoretical coprophagy rather than 'serious' work, she is not saying that we should be doing more serious work; she is not saying that medieval studies is evil-bad-and-wrong; she is not even saying some scholars are stupid. Those would be better points, and they might merit the kind of defence that Modern Medieval is preparing. We may well need that defence because of the other critiques to which Larry Swain has been drawing our attention.

    But Allen is not that attack. She is simply trying to get paid for writing something that will sell, and she's chosen the targets she knows best to do her easy work of assassinating the characters of people living on public money. There is of course a battle to be fought about the relevance and/or usefulness of our subject; but it's really not going to be fought in The Weekly Standard. So I really think Allen's had enough airtime from one piece of crap-hurling. Has anyone had this piece mentioned to them by a non-medievalist? When funding bodies start paying attention to this kind of rubbish, then we should worry. But till then let's fight the good fight where it can matter.

    Jon Jarrett