Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How I Single-Handedly Ruined a Scholarly Publication

I ran into Roy Liuzza at the Kalamazoo Congress, and he told me that the Old English Newsletter had some difficult editorial decisions to make regarding my article "Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists."

The problem they grappled with was how to deal with the various racial epithets in the article. Should the OEN give them voice? Should the OEN bowdlerize them? I myself had given various public presentations of the material, some of which carefully removed offensive material, and others of which smacked the audience in the face with it -- in my mind, it all depends on the audience.

In the end, OEN decided to split the difference. The online version essentially "bleeps out" the terms with asterisks, so you find things like: "beowulf_a filthy N****R???" The paper version of the same article, which I got in the mail yesterday, leaves everything intact.

It seems to me a good compromise. An online publication is the sum of its links, and to include racial epithets in the online version might have affected the electronic profile of the OEN, at least as far as search engines are concerned. The changes are not misleading; I'm guessing any native speaker of English with an elementary school education can figure out what the original said.

As scholars, though, we take the truth to where it leads, even when those places are dark and drear. I'm glad for the paper version, because it takes us to those places without relief. As someone who spent many, many hours trudging through Nazi and Odinist e-mails and websites, I can promise you the article offers only a small taste of what is out there.

So, for those of you who were shocked to get your Old English Newsletter in the mail and find that content, I'm the one who put it there, and for that I offer no apology.


  1. A couple of years ago, we hosted a speaker on campus who talked about the Klan's activities here in Canada in the 1920s. To publicize the talk, we used a historical image from the research sandwiched between bold text of the talk's title and purpose. Still, one of the campus groups howled that we were promoting the Klan viewpoint and that outcry forced us to redo the poster.

    So I understand a bit about the balance between the scholarship and the response anticipated. Like you, though, I don't think that the scholarly truth needs any apology!

  2. Given your focus on popular medievalism, it is inevitable that you would have to engage with the ways that "the medieval" has been used to shape the myths of cultural identity.

    As you mention early in your piece, the Nazis used the imagery of the medieval German knights as a key component of their reinvention of German identity. As one might say, reinvent the origin of a people and you can shape the people to match that new origin. And the goal of the Nazis was certainly the creation of a "new man."

    Looking at reactions to this particularly telling of a myth is a perfect example of why popular medievalism is a vital academic subject. Medieval texts are not things that lived in one time and can now be examined as cadavers or mummified remains of some forgotten time. Many of these texts, whether philosophical/religious or purely mythic, are part of what shapes modern society.

    I have only given a quick glance over of the paper, but I look forward to reading it a little more closely.

  3. After reading this paper, anyone not familiar with modern Germanic heathenry might get the idea that:

    1) Anyone that practices one of the many varieties of Germanic heathenry (Asatru, Odinism, Fyrnsidu, Theodism etc) is some brand of racist.

    2) Ignorant of serious scholarship on Beowulf or any other Germanic literature for that matter.

    3) Practicing some sort of quasi-religion that has a superficial and simplistic ontology, epistemology and theology.

    The fact is that just as there are racists and ignoramuses in practically all religious traditions and they tend to get the most attention. These people are fringe extremists and a minority in the broader mainstream heathenry. I will say nothing more of them as they already get more attention than they deserve.

    Within heathenry, most of us are what I suppose professional scholars would call "hobbyists" who spend a great deal of time studying Germanic culture. This includes language (my organization uses AS as a liturgical language), literature, law codes, Indo-European studies etc. In addition there are a small number of individuals with graduate degrees in disciplines that help us to develop a sophisticated and elegant religious practice. They are busy people and have no time or interest in offering criticism of popular culture depictions of our 'cultural treasures.' In private conversations we tend to find a great deal to be critical of, though rarely for any of the reasons cited in your paper. For example, the Zemekis film was a rather cynical depiction of Beowulf and the institution of the warband. In that film the 'hero' had more in common with a WWE wrestler than the Beowulf that I know from the poem.

    All in all, I thought it was a fair depiction of the response of a very small subset of Germanic heathens.

  4. Anonymous8:44 PM

    That is a tricky issue -- part of me wishes people weren't so apparently oversensitive, but the other part of me is glad people haven't forgotten how insidious hateful speech can be.

    I recently edited a long essay on MLK Jr. that originally included the word "negro" throughout. The author and I agreed to change it to "black" or "African American" unless "negro" were part of a title, even though that was the term of the era (and not even the truly offensive "n" word, at that). Simply because it would have been distracting.

    I think in this case, editing the online version was probably wise, given how search engines and hit counts function (though they missed one "n" word, in the quote that includes Zimbabwe and peanut butter).

    Interesting that Googling "Zimbabwe peanut butter Beowulf Asatru" doesn't bring up your article!

  5. Travis Miller,

    You wrote: "After reading this paper, anyone not familiar with modern Germanic heathenry might get the idea that [a]nyone that practices one of the many varieties of Germanic heathenry (Asatru, Odinism, Fyrnsidu, Theodism etc) is some brand of racist."

    That certainly wasn't my goal in this paper. When I read a much-truncated version of it at the PCA/ACA conference, a few pagans spoke with me in private about it and expressed discomfort about the fact that such groups *existed*, but none felt my depiction of them was unfair. When you've got such varied religious practices all practicing under the same "brand name," it's hard to avoid such confusion.

    One point I tried to draw is that there is a spectrum that runs from benign ethnic pride to homocidal racism, and these groups run the gamut.

    I guess if we Christians have to put up with being lumped together with Fred Phelps and Jeremiah Wright, Germanic heathens are stuck with these groups too, whether they like it or not.

  6. Anthromama,

    Actually, someone reproached me early on for calling him a "black Beowulf" rather than an "African-American Beowulf." When I responded that, though the character is arguably African (though I wouldn't call him that since he never went to Africa), he certainly isn't American, all I got in response was a confused look.