Monday, August 18, 2008

A Long, Boring, Homiletic Sort of Post

There's a lot of heat this summer, and much of it is being generated around medieval theory. There was first the Allen piece and the subsequent furor; here where I asked for comments on some new material at The Heroic Age there's a minor kerfluffel; and now there's a blog that is essentially an ad hominem against JJ Cohen and the rest of the In the Middle crew.

What is it about theory that has people up in arms? Well, before addressing that, let me get into some nitty gritty details about things. First, let me revisit the Allen Furor.

Back in May folks undoubtedly recall the reactions over the piece Charlotte Allen published. My own take take on the issue was commented on here as well. Good friend, imbibtion partner, and fellow blogger Dr. Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard had a few things to say about the Allen furor.

He's right about many things. Many responses were merely ad hominem, engaging in the same sort of tactics that Allen herself engaged in. Many responses were justifiably angry. But it was not our finest hour.

Scott points out several things before getting to the meat of his response: 1) there are a lot of papers at Kalamazoo that are not great....and he explains well why that is a good thing! 2) that there are some very big "fault lines" I think was the word he used between literary theorists and historians, linguists, and even others who use different kinds of approaches to literature, much less theologians and others in our field. And there are: many a medievalist would have some significant problems with the applications by medieval literary theorists, at least by some. I know I've had my problems with the "cookie cutter" approach where 3/4 of a paper is a summary of Derrida or other theorist, and 1/4 pressing a piece of medieval literature into the Derrida model described (and sometimes misunderstood!), and having finished, the author will read next year on the same model applied to a different text. Yes, we all have our problems with this. And we should. And we should also keep in mind that such papers are the not the private reserve of literary theory, but occur in other subfields too. And we should remember, especially those of us who dabble in philology yet, that philology lost its place as Queen of Sciences in the 19th century largely because of philology done badly, "theoretical sound changes argued in detail based on theoretical languages by theoretical speakers in some far off forest in ages long gone by" as one writer put it. I've made that point before, I'll likely make it again. 3) Scott also makes the point that we medievalists properly study the Medieval, not Medievalism (though I would argue that there is little difference: studying the medieval, even within the medieval period, also MUST mean studying how the medieval is mediated. In my own work for example I talk about how the text I've edited is situated in its original context as a letter, but also the various uses it was put to and audiences who used it in the 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries and how those audiences appropriate(d) it. That's a kind of medievalism, but seems to me to be a necessary part of what we do. Whether that can be compared to say Arthurian movies or medieval-like fantasy novels etc I suppose is in the eye of the beholder, but I obviously would say yes.)

Scott goes on though and relates some things that perhaps we've missed: the Allen piece is good news! HMMMM, not sure about that Scott.....

1) Scott points out that the Weekly Standard printed an article about us medievalists. That means we're important. And that is good news. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

I disagree. The Weekly Standard published a piece that bemoaned the state of academia, or one small part of it as indicative of the whole. That doesn't mean that they think medieval studies is important except as something to point to in order to further the agenda I mentioned in my own reaction to the piece.
Think of it this way: The Jews in Germany or for that matter in the pogroms of Czarist Russia received plenty of press. They were important! The ills of the world were caused by them! And they were eradicated, attacked, killed, arrested, murdered....and that's the light report.

No, I don't think that Allen, The Weekly Standard, et al are out to get medievalists and remove them from the planet, or that they blame us for the ills of academia. We were convenient, not important, a convenient illustration of the ills of the humanities in academia that Allen and her ilk are out to save. While my example above is extreme, and I could choose less extreme or emotive examples, it illustrates that all publicity is not good (unless one is a celebrity in need of publicity), and being considered important are NOT always positives.

Cast your mind back for a moment though. What caused this furor? Allen made fun and mischaracterized over 3000 participants in Kalamazoo as all doing "theory", theory to be made fun of and poked at as not worthy of consideration. When the discussion came up on the primarily history oriented discussion list, Mediev-L, many had sympathy with Allen's points, if not her tone and method. One scholar went on record as saying that he thought the whole point of the article was to point out the bankruptcy of post modern theory, and he agreed. Without addressing whether po-mo theory is bankrupt and is ruining medieval studies, the interesting thing is how that issue creates strong feeling. Even blog friends have addressed the issue in various comments and blog postings, I won't link to them to avoid finger pointing and further negativity. Besides, defending theory and theorists is not my intent here.

And now we have a new furor. The new member of the medieval blogosphere, In the Medieval Muddle, has set itself up as a response and "antidote" to the theory oriented blog In the Medieval Middle. The problem, as anyone following the drama has noted, is that the blog is set up not to offer what it claims is better theory, but to respond with personal attacks against J. J. Cohen and the ITM crew. Were it simply a case of disagreement or presenting a different model of doing theory in Fields Medieval, that would be a welcome addition to the medieval blogosphere. But those who've been following know that the level of discourse has degraded, personal attacks all round. Its human nature that when one feels attacked, not just challenged, but attacked, to attack back. And so it goes.....were I a little more cynical I'd say the mind(s) behind the Muddle was deliberately poisoning the water not only for the purpose of personal negative reinforcement, as pathetic as that is, but further to create drama by which to further advertise his blog, and by doing so attracting attention, personal positive reinforcement.

Appeals for a higher level of discourse, perhaps not phrased as well as they might have been, were nonetheless met first with "wait, we'll eventually get there" while providing not substantive indication that such would be the case, and the level of discourse quickly devolved into ad hominem attacks on posters. Pointing out the logical fallacies inherent points made against Cohen were equally met with scorn. To take one example, Cohen in a comment on ITM said he had experienced a moment of transcendence while walking and heard the chirp of a bird. The Admin of Muddle jumped on this suggesting that Cohen meant instead the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness. When pressed by one poster, the Admin insisted he had searched Sartre, Kant, and other theorists and thinkers and couldn't find any such notion of transcendence. Yet, he seems to have missed the discussion of transcendence and the role of birds and bird-song that has taken place in Western poetry (and to a lesser extent in theology) that follows along the Aristotelean, late medieval categories, categories a medievalist might be expected to follow. Mindfulness, with its intentional review of thoughts, the attentional stance to rise about those thoughts, is at best an analogue to what Cohen was talking about, but certainly wasn't it. No one likes to be shown to be wrong in public, and the expected ad hominem attacks followed quickly, and more attacks on Cohen and ITM.

It has been in some ways a rather sordid summer. All the poison, anger, and frustration, and all of it being expressed over theory. Not our finest hour, we, including present writer, too often have responded in kind. We can not just ignore it and let if fester. Nor should we respond by lowering ourselves to that level. We're professionals. We know our subjects. Let's engage on that level. Surely there is room for theory, and if you disagree with how someone is doing it, well, provide a different model. Please. I've got to learn somehow!

By allowing the Allens, the Muddles, and the dissatisfaction to continue will only continue to poison the field overall. Let's not do that. Ok, end of sermon. I hope someone takes me up on it.


John said...

Well said. I think the irony is that the guy who wrote Muddle knew nothing about theory and embarrassed himself. This guy knows as much as Allen. Detractors like that can never match wits or depth of knowledge with Professors Joy or Cohen.

Eileen Joy said...

This may seem a little odd, coming from me, but John, the primary writer of In the Medieval Muddle, as I know him, is a brilliant medievalist and theorist. Sadly, he has let his misplaced rage get the better of him, but I would never accuse him of not being able to match wits with the best of the profession.

Larry: you and I have only just begun to get to know each other, and mainly only professionally. I have always known that, in terms of our areas of interest and methodological orientations, we couldn't be more different from each other, and yet, you have always had such respect for what I am trying to do and I for you. You present a model to be emulated, especially on the point of what, even with our differences, we might learn from each other. Hear hear, friend.

theswain said...

John: Thank you very much.

Eileen: ah, gaw're making me blush now. I'm afraid that where and when I come from and where I've worked, the code of ethics is not far removed from Beowulf. No one beats up on my friends without me and mine jumping in, literally or metaphorically.

And if I may reiterate something Matthew Gabriele said at Modern Medieval: Medieval Studies, Civility, and Theory today: this is a collaborative effort, we learn and progress best when we talk to each other--even if sometimes that means argue with each other (a point you made in a recent ITM post as I recall but can't find at the moment). I shan't learn unless I listen to you.