Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Dark Age for Medievalists

Here's an article by someone who doesn't think too much of the direction of much medieval studies, with lots of members of the medieval blog-o-net-sphere-thingy featured prominently in the rogues' gallery.

My own session gets a mention, "One session was entirely devoted to medieval blogs, including a paper comparing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to the blog 'Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.'" Unfortunately, the writer clearly did not attend the session, because if she had, she would have A). known that the Chaucer paper wasn't given, and B). been so overwhelmed by the power of my paper that all thought of other sessions would have been washed from her mind.

Seriously, though, Allen has a mishmash of complaints of varying degrees of validity. [Warning: Academia talk to follow. Non-scholars may want to nap rather than read the rest of this post] Regular readers of the Wordhoard know that I share her concerns about certain types of cultural studies, since they apply a cultural Marxist paradigm to a pre-capitalist world. Nor am I a big fan of scholars who do "transgressive" work just because it's "transgressive" -- first of all, since it'll get you tenure, it isn't all that transgressive,* and second, it's stupid to do anything just because it's transgressive.

Her complaints about medieval history getting crowded out by literature may be valid, though honestly there's so much historicism, I'm not sure how you could tell. It seems to me that straight history and straight lit are hard to find because of all the crossover -- and in any case, Kalamazoo is exactly the kind of conference at which you do crossover work because you can rely on scholars of all disciplines to be there.

And what of her depiction of the dance? It's right on the money, but what of it? Yes, it's silly; yes, it's frivolous; yes, it's undignified -- but did anyone ever claim otherwise? After a few days of really dense scholarship, cheap white wine, and plotting new scholarly projects with your colleagues, the dance is a wonderful tonic before boarding your plane and returning to a campus where you languish in obscurity.

Allen, though, has smooshed a lot of different complaints together. Overall, she seems not to like postmodernism -- which is fine by me, because I live in this postmodern world with an ethic provided to me by TS Eliot (and a little help from Boethius). It is wrong to assume, though, that a scholar who does work on postmodern topics necessarily does not do "traditional" medieval studies. For starters, you can't even take your first baby steps in most medieval scholarship without having some sort of arcane knowledge of dead languages or medieval economic structures or Church politics or whatnot. Doing bridge work between medieval and non-medieval topics does not betray medieval scholarship any more than Allen's popular articles betray her own research. Are we to assume that because she writes on political topics, or because she attended the Congress and did not present a paper, that she does not actually do any real research on medieval and Byzantine history? Of course not.

Is this a dark age for medievalists? As I've argued before, if we don't do a better job at bridging the gap between the academic and popular, it will be one. Kalamazoo, however, is one of the places where the light of medievalism still shines bright. If you go to K'zoo looking for absurdities, you will surely find them among the 3k medievalists there, but if you go, like most of us, seeking out solid scholarship on important issues, you'll find even more of that.

*True transgression would be to do scholarship supportive of the Bush Administration, as that kind of thing could get you fired despite tenure. Unless you're taking actual, real risks, don't believe your friends when they say how "courageous" you are. You ain't, bub.


  1. Comments on reading the article:

    1. She dislikes most of the things I like about Kalamazoo. The couple of times I went to the "classy" Medieval Academy I found it incredibly stuffy. Perhaps it's improved since, but I think the author has a not-very-hidden desire to become as stuffy as possible as soon as possible.

    2. Since when has Kalamazoo not been full of literature papers? I've been told the early conferences were only possible because a lot of Shakespeare scholars were convinced to support it. I remember saying to a lady next to me in the cafeteria that I was glad that there was less Chaucer this year, 30 some years ago; she lamented that there was not enough.

    3. She's dead wrong about undergraduates not being interested in the Middle Ages.

    4. Where was all that bare flesh at the dance? More seriously, why all the contempt for people who aren't great dancers or don't have movie-star looks having fun at a dance? What a classy attitude!

    5. I have to admit that I'm on her side when she talks about theory-heavy scholars and their complaints about attracting students. I heard them in the early 90s. You can't teach students or even get them into the classroom if you don't meet them part-way; and if the same stumbling blocks come up again and again, you might want to rethink your approach.

  2. PS: The fact that there are a lot of new and often half-baked ideas trotted out at Kalamazoo by younger scholars is a feature, not a bug. That's where you go to hear the new stuff, not to worship at the feet of established masters.

  3. Steve, thanks for making all the points I was going to make and saving me the trouble! Gah, there's so much that's wrong with that article. And so much is based on perception and assumption and broad generalization.

    And where does she get the impression that K'zoo if full of bad dressers? I spent the dance this year noticing all the young and hip folks. And imho *this* medievalist and all of her friends dress quite well!

    And even if she could quantify "bad dressers at K'zoo" (starting with "bad"), how rhetorically cliched is it to mock academics for how they dress?

    But what really got to me was the claim that the "important" people weren't there. First of all, it's just wrong -- even given her assumption that "important" means Ivy Leauge. And OMG, the snobbery! Especially in her paragraphs on those us lowly folks who teach in the trenches at anywhere but an Ivy League -- ack!

  4. What an elitist, mean spirited, intellectually lazy, and dyspeptically reported article.

    I think I saw this woman, hovering at the wine bar and scowling at the medievalists having engaging conversations and who wouldn't listen in awe to her lectures on Byzantium, each one a perfect pearl of erudition. She deserves to stew in her own sourness.

  5. And another thing...the Congress is dry or else cash bar? Squeeze me? Baking powder? Could she not find her way to the wine hours and free receptions galore?

    And her big-city, coastal snobbery about K'zoo pisses this Midwesterner off.

    And how weird is it that someone who's getting a PhD in medieval studies would be so anti-Kzoo? And it's not like *she's* at an Ivy League -- she's at Catholic U. Self-loathing much?

    OK, I'll stop now.

    Ha! My word verification is byobs!!!

  6. Thanks for the commentary RSN.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, if this is the same Charlotte Allen whose work I've read elsewhere, she's utterly grotesque, and I wish whoever had spoken to her or responded to her email had been media savvy enough to give her, at least, the cold shoulder.

    Some examples from just one (feminist) website: here, a comment on her notorious "women suck" column in the Washington Post (which left the post's normally shameless editors scrambling for an apology), and then, a classic, a comment on her screed against the HPV vaccine, because, you know, cancer is better than sex.

    So, even if I weren't a medievalist, I'd find her utterly abhorrent.

  7. And....I know it's a waste of time to argue with yet another of these "academics are weird and out of touch" articles (which have been common, since, what Symkyn the Miller sneered at theories of space and infinity in the Reeve's tale?], BUT...

    In the midst of her sneering at the study of excrement (and perhaps we should pool our $ and send her a copy of Everybody Poops?) she mentions David Inglis's A Sociological History of Excretory Experience. Well, I've actually read the book, and her characterization of him as the "guru of waste studies" needs to be qualified by someone who, you know, has actually done some reading in the field. And if Inglis is still the guru of waste studies for medievalists, it's only because there's nothing better around right now. I can't resist the pun, but his chapter on the Middle Ages--limited as it is to England, informed as it is (perhaps only implicitly) by Elias, dotted as it is with sentences like this one--"Thus even at the height of the medieval period, dungheaps and other forms of detritus collection were sources of some concern, and rudimentary legislative attempts were carried out in the hope of dealing with them. Although excreta were an omnipresent sight in the streets of the town, and medieval people generally accepted their presence sanguinely, there were some attempts to ameliorate against the visible presence of these products" (109, my emphasis, because why "even"??)--is pretty shitty.

    I think she would have got more mileage out of Valerie Allen's On Farting, but that would have required that she know a bit more.

  8. Except that she is wrong about the topic of your panel, Scott. It wasn't really about Medieval blogs -- it was about medievalists and why they blog!

  9. Anonymous2:35 PM

    I hope this conversation can put the kibosh on the idea that we're in a "dark age" for medieval studies. A "dark age" compared to when? We can access the MGH, the MED, and other resources instantly and from home; the university-press catalogs are full of serious, decidedly un-trendy scholarship; and the current crop of grad students has (it seems to me) a much better sense of the weaknesses of the job market than many of us had a decade ago.

    Meanwhile, beyond college campuses, there's a Renaissance festival somewhere in North America 50 weekends of every year; the recent death of Gary Gygax got the full-page obit in The Economist; Oprah is hyping a book about a medieval cathedral; and a Narnia movie--the second such movie--is currently earning millions.

    Scott is right: the larger culture's embrace of popular medievalism is a huge opportunity for academic medievalists to connect with the general public and emphasize widespread interest in the field to their administrators and colleagues. As Tom Lehrer once put it (in a considerably less wholesome context), "today's young, innocent faces will be tomorrow's clientele."

  10. Regular readers of the Wordhoard know that I share her concerns about certain types of cultural studies, since they apply a cultural Marxist paradigm to a pre-capitalist world.

    I have to take issue with this. I know you put "cultural" in there, but Marxist paradigms are what got the general recognition of the Middle Ages as a pre-capitalist world. (Admittedly, I'm an undergrad medievalist who thinks historical materialism, of a sophisticated, humble, evidence-based and non-deterministic sort is still the bees knees' as a method of historical analysis). Yet I can still read your blog, knowing you're a conservative evangelical Christian, and find it edifying :-)

    As for cultural studies and Theory, I still need to be fully introduced to it, rather than picking it up as I go along. I love Terry Eagleton's accessible style and I liked what I read of his "Literary Theory: An Introduction" when I took it off the shelf, so I should probably finish it. Maybe something like "Theory and the Premodern Text" would help too, along with some of JJ Cohen's books. I read "In the Middle", but I cannot connect the signifiers to the signified and so a lot of posts elicit a FFS emotion in me.

  11. Yes and one more thing about Allen (who is indeed the same writer Karl points to): she is a plagiarist. Her Kalamazoo article's template is any one of those "MLA demonstrates that the serious study of literature has been ruined by theory" newspaper pieces that were published in the NYT, Boston Globe, WashPost, etc every time the MLA convention came through in the 1990s. They were likewise poorly researched and unsympathetically reported. Their writers thought it hilarious and condemnatory to find the panels with the oddest titles and to poke fun at any play with punctuation marks. These articles were also just as obsessed with the professorial sartorial.

    So, add some more adjectives to those I listed above: derivative, old hat, unoriginal ...

    My one fear -- and the reason I won't blog about the piece at ITM -- is that it will make the article seem more important than it actually is. My guess is that most people reading it will fail to be alarmed.

  12. So, here's a question: when will one of us start writing about Kazoo (hence, medieval studies) for more popular publications?

  13. Nathaniel, there are any number of introductions to theory available. Of the several that I've read, I think Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction is probably the best (and not only because of its length). Also very good is Bennett and Royle's An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory, which I think might do for an intro to cultural studies. The Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed might be a good way to get a handle on some of the ITM stuff. Right now, I'm reading David Held's Introduction to Critical Theory: good stuff.


    Matthew: sometimes I think we won't be able to write for a popular publications unless we write precisely the kind of article Allen wrote.

  14. Karl,

    Maybe you're right but it might be worth trying. Surely there's one of us able to write reasonably well? :-)

  15. Thanks for the suggestions, Karl!

  16. The papir on the blog was nat presentid? Wherefor nat? Hath this sum thing to do wyth Gower?

    Le Vostre

  17. Though I was told at the time it was because the scholar could not be there, I of course suspected foul play by the nefarious Gower.

    Perhaps Charlotte Allen is secretly in Gower's employ?

  18. Ha! That would explain a lot.

  19. Allen's icky article aside, I do have to ask, Dr. Nokes (and I mean this in the most non-mean-spirited way possible, and only in jest, but also as one of those blogosphere medievalists of that 'postmodernist' ilk, AND one who LIKES reading Eliot) if living now with an ethic from a mix of Eliot and Boethius would place you a little 'out of place in time'--a formulation taken first from Derrida, and then from Dinshaw?

  20. Dan,

    All my students are of a postmodern mindset, just as all of my parents' generation (in my family, anyway) are of a modernist mindset. I have to negotiate these two worlds in some way.

    Most postmodernism is just a decadent form of modernism (perhaps all, but I'm not sure of that). By understanding modernism through Eliot and applying Boethius to both, I can wander back and forth ("code switch," if you prefer) between the modern and postmodern without undue difficulty.

    Derrida and Dinshaw? Why bother looking to either for answers, or even meaningful questions? The formulation (if not the phrase) isn't "taken first" from either. If you're looking for the problem of living outside your time, you can go all the way back to Utnapishtim's problem in Gilgamesh.

    And yes, I'm aware that's a modernist answer to a PoMo question.

  21. Thanks for the response. Again, no bad feelings were hidden in the question, I was just genuinely curious as to how you would respond to that particular prompt. I find your position cogent and interesting, even if, for whatever reason, I would want to think the Gilgamesh poet(s?)and Derrida and Dinshaw as somehow part of the same conversation across deep time. The idea of code-switching in a pedagogical context is particularly interesting.