Monday, January 29, 2007

A Day Late and 99¢ Short

For those of you who are regular readers of this site, you might remember that on January 10th I engaged in a little bomb-throwing on the state of the field. Those bombs must have had long fuses, because I got not a single comment or e-mail on that post for ten days, until Eileen Joy posted taking Michael Drout and me to task. By the next day, I had received a few comments and e-mails urging me to respond. Unfortunately, as I posted, I had injured my hand a few days earlier, and so typing long posts was prohibitively painful. The blogosphere responded in generous fashion by moving the debate over to the Wordhoard, for which I am grateful.

Well, my hand isn’t at 100% yet, but it’s far enough along that I can sit and type longer things. Unfortunately, my recovery time took longer than the debate, which has since fizzled. I considered not re-opening the subject, but I did promise I would, so here’s my much-belated response:

It strikes me that there were several issues at play here. First was the role of history vis-à-vis that situatedness (for some reason, there wasn’t too much talk about philosophy, so I’ll let that drop). Second was the role of intentional in textual interpretation. Third was the situatedness of language. Finally was the über-question about the state of Anglo-Saxon studies. Let me divide these up and deal with them separately.

First, on the role of history in literary interpretation, whether Anglo-Saxon lit or otherwise, the use of history should be optional. Can history potentially tell us interesting things about the use of language? Sure – but language pre-dates history precisely because if anything is “situated” (more a little later on why this term has become tiresome), history is situated in language. Though I might disagree with some ways in which Eileen summarizes what I said, she does get this part right: “language study first, before anything else.”

Let us not over-state the case, though. History is a worthy object of study, and there are medieval historians who focus on Anglo-Saxon England whose work deserves our respect. I expect, however, that their mantra should be “history study first, before anything else” – after all, this is their task. Does this mean that they will never discover anything interesting about history from literature? Of course not – but at the end of the day, if historians do not focus on history, who will? By the same token, if language experts do not focus on language…?

Second is the issue of the role of intention. This is a little off-topic, I fear, leading me to twist Godwin’s Law into Nokes’s Law: “As an online discussion on literature grows longer, the probability of an argument about authorial intention approaches one.” I’ll not resurrect this subject here, except to point out that it isn’t really germane to the topic at hand.

Third is the situatedness of language, the place that Eileen Joy and I have the strongest disagreement. At one point, responding to something Drout wrote, she says, “[language] is situated in a human body, which is itself always situated somewhere, and that, my friend, is […] meaningful.” Well, it is meaningful in the non-bolded or italic way, but beyond that, not really.

Situated language is an old chestnut, every few years pretending to be exciting and new, when it really is not. Eileen is right about one thing – today how language is situated in the body is a hot topic, and no doubt gets current grad students all worked up in a lather. It may also be that metaphor works, in part, off of the way in which we negotiate our body’s position in the world.

But the situatedness of language is not really all that revealing. Critical schools argue, in large part, about how to situate that language. When I was in grad school, it was all “race, class, and gender,” which soon morphed into “race, class, gender, and sexual orientation” until we all decided that “gender” included sexual orientation anyway. The idea of the body as the locus of language was around in those days too, mostly in the Donna Haraway my-body-is-a-machine type of criticism. I participated in all that in the 90s as well, as the title of my paper “From the Spiritual to the Statistical: Changing Discourse about Human Sexuality” attests.

Slowly, though, I began to realize that all these examinations of contingencies and positionings weren’t really telling me anything. As I looked back at the various critical trends throughout the ages, I realized that everyone had always understood, in one way or another, that language was positioned. Marxists thought that it was best examined in its economic situation, feminists in gender, Freudians in psychology, etc. Even the ol’ fashioned types were all about situatedness – Eliot in the tradition, Pope in the classics, Aristotle in the genre, and so forth. Whether we use the ugly term “situatedness” to talk about canonicity, or aesthetics, or archetype, or genre, or manuscript context, we’re still talking about language vis-à-vis these contexts. Even “ars gratia artis” does not suggest that art exists in a vacuum, but rather that it is positioned among other works of art.

I’m not saying that we can learn nothing from the situatedness of language – but I am saying that the situatedness of language is seriously overrated for its ability to help us understand. Frankly, I’m much more interested in those elements of language that are not contingent upon situation, the things that used to be called “universals” (the word is so out-of-vogue that it seems quaint even to type it in scorn quotes).

The fourth issue is the state of Anglo-Saxon studies, and here we are on much less stable territory. Much of what I have argued above isn’t specific to Anglo-Saxon studies, and medievalists may actually be less-inclined to these excesses. When I think of the times theory specialists boasted to me that they didn’t read much (“I don’t do lit, I do theory”), not once was the person a medievalist. One medievalist once said to me (and I won’t out him here lest it infuriate his colleagues) that he felt we are better scholars than others in English departments, because “we actually have to know things” like dead languages and how to read a manuscript and whatnot. When he first said it, I dismissed it as ofermod, but I soon recalled an incident: A colleague, a very smart Americanist, asked me what my dissertation was about. When I gave her the 20 second spiel, she looked surprised and said, “oh, you’re actually doing real research!” Perhaps she and the ofermod medievalist were reacting to the same thing.

I’ve got no crystal ball to tell you with any certainty what the future of medieval literature will be (I take it for granted that Anglo-Saxon studies will be in the same broad situation as other medieval lit), but I’m pretty sure of three things:

1. It will be very different than today. Like language, scholarship evolves; it can’t help itself. An extremely prominent medievalist recently told me that he started his work Anglo-Saxon prose as a student because it interested him, not because he thought the field would turn to prose.

2. It will still be the odd man out in English departments (assuming they still exist). 20th Century Americanists can read and understand the work of 18th British scholars, who can read and understand the work of film scholars, but unless they can read Old English or Old Norse, or medieval Latin, or Old Whatever, there will always be a barrier between us and them. We can understand them, but they can’t understand us. The medievalists will just have to eat lunch with the Comparative Lit specialists, I guess.

3. New technologies will change the ways in which we perceive texts, which will change our field. How and why is a subject I’ve dealt with before in this space, but the changes may be profound.

In any case, with my injured hand it has taken me about three days to type this late response. I’ll try to post some much shorter items for the next few days.

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