Monday, August 11, 2008

Query and Help

I'd like to get some feedback, spilling over my two blogs Heroic Age and The Ruminate.

I'm interested in anyone's reactions to the current issue of HA's:

1) State of the Field piece

and

2) the new "theory" column piece Absent Beowulf

Readers might be interested to note that starting with the next issue, there will also be a regularly appearing Philology column.

9 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I enjoyed reading both, though I was more engaged by "Absent Beowulf" than I did from the "State of the Field" piece. Still, I was happy to ahve both in print.

tenthmedieval said...

As a student of Continental history, rather than of Old English literature, I don't know if my reactions are the ones you are concerned with, but having now browsed the State of the Field piece, I will at least say that I think the opposition between Drout and Joy, mostly set up by Joy, justifies Drout's position entirely. Joy's plea runs:

Here, then, I ask for an Anglo-Saxon studies without conditions—for the right, as an Anglo-Saxonist, "to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it."

This is a plea for a discipline without focus, vulnerable to all the accusations Drout is shoring up barricades against.

Joy does indeed go on to suggest that the field she wants to see can perhaps not be housed in a university as we understand it, but practised in underground cells examining the meaning of community. Well, this is not, to me, medieval studies. Such work, if she ever had the courage to abandon her job and become a squatter anthropologist, might tell us some valuable things about how to read our texts, but they will have nothing medievally-specific to them. Even as she writes there, she is very close to being, not a medievalist, but a literary critic whose main texts happen to be in a foreign language. Her interest in the Middle Ages is no more the point of her work than the study of French café society is the subject of a student of Sartre.

This, I'm afraid, mainly inclines me to side with Drout. I think medievalists' work, cut broad (and including history! which is something of a rarity in these conversations, Nokes and Drout both explaining how The Field has to defend against history in their posts), is work that belongs in universities, where teaching and interdisciplinary cooperation and research can be carried on in salaried and supported institutions. Joy's attitudes think this too unimportant to defend, not the real point. Well, I've pointed out in my own blog that these stances have very little to separate them from hypocrisy, at least until the people in those paid posts saying such things leave them. Even without that observation, though, both these sorts of study are possible simultaneously; but Joy's, unless practised in her planned guerilla style, endangers Drout's whereas Drout's does not endanger Joy's. Even were I not personally antagonistic to theory-driven approaches rather than source-driven ones, I would have to stand with Drout for that reason alone.

As for the Absent Beowulf post, I will try and read that later and react to it here if I have a reaction.

tenthmedieval said...

As to the Absent Beowulf piece, I have no methodological beef with that, it strikes me as being pretty solid. The argument could have been made more clearly. I found myself struggling to understand what the author thought the absence of Beowulf actually consisted of, and before I understood that he meant that the poet evokes older narrative frameworks in which Beowulf was not originally present, and that the audience presumably know without him, I was thinking that he was arguing that in some contexts the poet is deliberately lying about Beowulf's presence at historical events, which would be true, but not explain much. Before I'd got to the end, therefore, in an effort to understand what the argument was I'd already come up with a different one, which is that the poet is making a point that armies with Beowulf in lose if he isn't their leader; that is, the eternal champion has to have that rôle or none at all. Certainly, what I thought was significant in the evocation of historical events is that Beowulf is placed on the losing side of them, and that could have been used to advantage in the article's argument. I think, like the meaning of the title, it was so deeply embedded in the author's thought that it wasn't actually made explict for the readership.

Otherwise, only two minor points of feedback: firstly, note that the `remixing' in para. 14 is just the sort of practice that has been held to explain what the Welsh Triads were for... Also, despite what Eco may say, a glance at Superman is a Dick will find you plenty of comic covers from the war years where Superman was in fact doing his war service. They may have been retconned out of the collection Eco was commenting on, but that's certainly not a policy consistent in the creation of the character. One of the great challenges of the comicbook universe is that each author reinvents characters. There's probably a medieval analogy there for someone...

That was quite long but you did ask...

Eileen Joy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eileen Joy said...

Jarrett:

I welcome any debate my essay in "Heroic Age" may spur, and I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with my take on the field. Indeed, comments like yours help me to sharpen and revisit my thinking, always a good thing. The essay was meant to be provocative and a little bit of a bomb-throw, granted. But part of the plea I *thought* I was making for all of us committed to Anglo-Saxon studies, or medieval studies, or premodern studies more broadly, was for all of us to stop telling each other what we should either *not* be doing or doing more of [at the expense of or *against* something else]. So, for example, I am not telling everyone to practice my "guerilla-style" scholarship, but only to allow me to practice it in some kind of amity and maybe even collaboration alongside other scholars doing other things.

It continues to dismay me how often scholars and students within our discipline feel it is important to expend their intellectual and other labors to be "against" something [case in point: your essay on your blog "against postmodern historiography"]. So much better [and intelligent] energies could be spent being *for* something, whatever it might be.

A discipline, by virtue of being an intellectual/academic arena [or "field"] fastened in a particular way upon certain objects, and within which certain types of knowledge are pursued, of necessity possesses and needs "focus," as you say, but what you seem to be glossing over here is the difference between content and methodology [albeit, they are interrelated, in practice, all the time]. The "focus" of medieval studies is the "medieval," or the Middle Ages, or tenth-century Europe, or gothic architecture, etc.: who would argue with this? not me [although, of course, the temporal boundaries of the so-called "Middle Ages" and the ways in which that term has been historically overdetermined is an important ongoing discussion]. This is focused already for us in our training and scholarly habitus [which we have, I hope, freely chosen], but the question that, of necessity, must always remain unbounded and less narrowly constrained is that of methodology: what will be the best approaches to understanding the historical period/persons/places/artifacts under our purview? It boggles the mind to think that anyone would argue for the closing or shutting down of any possible avenue that can be conceptualized, even if many of these lead to dead ends. How else can knowledge be produced? Will anyone end up dead as a result of our blundering and fumbling, however we go about it, as long as we proceed in good faith, and with amity and good wishes for each other, regardless of which paths we choose? We're not heart surgeons or physicists, but even those working in those disciplines have to continually think outside the box--otherwise Einstein would have never arrived at his theory of relativity. It saddens me so much, and even sometimes breaks me heart, to read all this nay-saying and policing of what scholars should and shouldn't do. I despair. Knowledge cannot advance under such a pessimistic aegis.

As to whether or not someone is a "real" medievalist versus being something like a "literary critic"--I don't get it, and to be frank, I am also personally offended. Why the low potshot--the necessity of it, the meanness? Did I say, at any one point in my essay, anything like that about Michael Drout or Scott Nokes? That they're "close to being not medievalists," or that they don't have the courage to do this or do that? I dealt with their viewpoints and simply asked if they could, maybe, be more expansive in their view of what is possible in our mutually shared field. I respect both of them immensely and sent copies of my essay to them ahead of time, asking that they read it carefully and let me know if I had taken anything they said or argued out of context: both declined to do so [they either didn't have the time or didn't see the need to: I recall Michael emailing me to say he wasn't "worried" about it].

And yet you see the need to here to say of me that I am "close to being not a medievalist." I am, supposedly, more of a "literary critic "whose main texts happen to be in a foreign language." Further, you write:

"Her interest in the Middle Ages is no more the point of her work than the study of French café society is the subject of a student of Sartre."

With all due and very polite respect, how, Jonathan, can you presume to know this? This seems to go against the whole grain of the generosity of regard toward each others' work that I was working so hard to sketch out in my "Heroic Age" essay, which causes me to consider if I failed there. Again, I am saddened. It's raining here in South Carolina so perhaps that's affecting my outlook on life this morning. First, Jonathan, and I think you know this already: medieval persons invented literary criticism as we know it. They called it exegesis, but still. How is it that literary criticism and medieval studies are at cross-purposes in your comments here? I confess confusion. I was trained in medieval literary studies: did my professors [or my inclinations] steer me wrong somehow? Granted, as a medievalist, and I am one [because I say I am one, not because I have some piece of paper that says I am or because I await your or anyone else's approval], I am always concerned with history in my work, and the very question of how best to grasp or render or narrate the past bodied forth in literary and other works is one of the chief concerns of my work, as is ethics. All of my published work is as much concerned with undertaking literary criticism, as you call it, as it is with excavating the mentalities [and maybe even the lives] of real, medieval persons. How anyone could read my work on "Beowulf," "The Ruin," "The Seven Sleepers," the "Wonders of the East," and the like and not know that, is beyond me. Again, perhaps I have failed.

What really puzzled and upset me, however, Jonathan, was your comment on whether or not I would have the "courage" to leave my job and do something that might make me . . . less of a hypocrite/more of a real medievalist? A few personal details: I turn 46 this summer and have held a tenure-track job [but am untenured] exactly four years. I in no way resemble those who go straight through their undergrad. and graduate schools straight into an academic career. If you knew me at all, and how many times I have quit jobs [including academic ones] to do other things, including, yes, squatting in fields [for three years actually, as a gardener, though, not anthropologist], and also, as recently as 2000, working in a Target, maybe you would reconsider that remark. If you ask any of my colleagues, they will tell you that my perennial refrain is, "I will consider termination to be the culmination of my career" [a line I stole from Simone Weil]. This is not empty rhetoric. Also, I consider myself a person who, when she thinks something--like a university, or a discipline--is in need of reform, I will actually do something about it beyon just writing essays. My record speaks for itself.

But having just written those words, I hate myself for them, because they appear to show me putting myself in a special position, while leaving behind all the others--many friends of mine--whom you have called hypocrites because their supposed postmodernist work is all talk and no action. Again, I don't understand this negativity. If there is one thing I have learned in my life it is that, at the end of the day, we are all hypocrites, we are all never living up to our own standards, which calls to mind one of my favorite quotations from Simone Weil:

"Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must forgive them this debt. To accept the fact that they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I am also other than what I imagine myself to be. To understand this is forgiveness." ["Gravity and Grace," p. 9]

tenthmedieval said...

I seem to have caused far more offence than I meant, for which I apologise. I will at least try and explain myself where I stand by the things you say I say, and excuse my poor expression where I don't think I did say the things you say I say. First, and foremost, a point on which surely we must agree even if only to disagree:

It saddens me so much, and even sometimes breaks me heart, to read all this nay-saying and policing of what scholars should and shouldn't do. I despair. Knowledge cannot advance under such a pessimistic aegis.

Well, I agree; but without infinite money, there must be some degree of selection as to what can and can't be supported within the academy. We don't have infinite money. So an argument that suggests that much of what is currently done inside the academy best belongs outside it, is inimical to attempts to secure funding for it inside. That's why I read your position as inevitably threatening Professor Drout's argument even though your essential pleas are both to do what you love; someone's got to pay for it if it's not to be done in a field, agricultural not intellectual. Until that infinite money exists, though, we don't have, can't get and surely can't justify the right to `say everything'. I mean, at its extremity such a stance abolishes peer review as well, and while I think peer review has definite problems, I don't think we can do without it, precisely because we need to retain control over the gates we are forced, by limited resources, to keep. So I ask you, then, how you think such `guerilla'-style scholarship can actually be done "in some kind of amity and maybe even collaboration alongside other scholars doing other things"? Must it not in fact be done apart from them? You say, "Will anyone end up dead as a result of our blundering and fumbling, however we go about it, as long as we proceed in good faith, and with amity and good wishes for each other, regardless of which paths we choose?" and I say, no, of course not, but they could conceivably wind up without a job.

Next, I don't think the opposition you say I draw between literary critics and medievalists is really in my comment. You have had to mangle my text to produce your alleged quote, for example. Certainly I didn't say any such thing of Professors Nokes or Drout. I assume that you are drawing this from the section you quote in your next paragraph where I compared you to a Sartre scholar. That was ill-worded and I apologise; I don't know enough of your work to classify all of it in one swoop like that. I was writing of the work you were arguing in the piece that you wanted to do, which seemed to me to be focussed on the human condition at large, as revealed in medieval evidence. I think that does mark a difference between your work and, for example, mine, which is why I call myself a historian and is, I think, why the word `medievalist' is less common in the UK than it is in the USA; it includes a great range of disciplines without specifying aim. I certainly hope that from reading what I do, someone may better understand the possibilities and circumstances that have been, and therefore can be, available to human beings; but I'm not searching for that level of meaning, I'm aiming to bring the past into the present in an intelligible form. It seems to me that your focus is on the present, the lived now, before the past. Would you disagree still?

Lastly, I am impressed by your brief CV there and slightly ashamed of the assumptions behind parts of my post. Though I think the points I hold by above are genuine ones worth arguing, when you say: "I in no way resemble those who go straight through their undergrad. and graduate schools straight into an academic career", I have to say in response, well: neither do I. You are further into the structure than I am. And perhaps that's why I jump as if stung when someone seems to argue that the thing I'm still trying to achieve is not really what it's about.

My words have been poorly chosen for this, but to cause personal offence was not what I wrote them for. I hope we can reach dialogue with my apologies for lack of consideration offered like this.

Eileen Joy said...

Jonathan: your comments here are appreciated. I think the point on which we are likely going to have to agree to disagree has to do with what you are pointing to as a university's limited resources--this is likely more true in the UK than in the Unites States [especially as regards regular faculty appointments], but regardless of how much actual money is circulating at any one time throughout the university system in any country [and fully admitting all of the constraints this imposes upon support for research], I will never agree that there should be a "degree of selection" as regards methodology within any one particular discipline. Obviously, scholars [whether in the humanities or sciences] will always compete for grant money, academic positions, space within journals, etc. [and I would never argue against peer review], but it is important that some of us within the system [and I count myself there] work as hard as possible to *open* up as many spaces as possible for as much of a *diversity* of opinions as possible: otherwise, what is the meaning of the term *university*? For me, personally, the last words on such a subject are Bill Readings' in his book "The University in Ruins" and Derrida's in his essay "The University Without Condition." Without blathering on too much here, I will just say that my entire position on this is spelled out in a more detailed fashion in the essay I co-wrote with Christine Neufeld, "A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism," in the "Journal of Narrative Theory" [vol. 37, no. 2], the full text of which is available through the BABEL Working Group website [http://www.siue.edu/babel].

But in short, a university, in my mind, is one of the only places where it is still possible to argue for and defend the idea of a free and open inquiry of knowledge--while this may not always be 100% workable in practice [due to the funding issues you cite, and also because, every now and then, a certain knowledge area, such as eugenics, or cruel experimentation with human and other subjects, have to be fought against], it should certainly be striven toward, and I am personally willing to take all sorts of risks and also expend lots of personal labor to help expand the possible approaches to and voices within my field--medieval studies. I should also note, too, that the strictures in hiring that you mention are likely not as prevalent in the States. Part of the reason I was hired where I work now [Southern Illinois University] was precisely because the hiring committee for a position in "Old and Middle English literature," as well as my department chair, specifically wanted to hire someone who was a specialist in medieval literature as well as in critical theory, and they also wanted someone who would be good at helping students to see the contemporary relevance of the study of the Middle Ages [sometimes I can't believe my luck with my department and the fact that they are not only appreciative of the study of the past but are also so forward-looking].

As to the "opposition" between medieval and literary studies that I noted in my comment and that you say here you were not really drawing [that I might have been mangling your comments], I was referring to this line in your first comment:

"Even as she writes there, she is very close to being, not a medievalist, but a literary critic whose main texts happen to be in a foreign language."

*not a medievalist, but a literary critic*: not one thing but another leads to the idea of opposition between the two, which you may not have intended, granted. Regardless, I am both, and I do not see one as being less or more valuable than the other. Indeed, in my own work, the two cannot be separated. This brings me, as well, to the issue of whether or not a medievalist should be concerned with the present or the past, as if, again, these are two opposed, or maybe not compatible, enterprises [and also raising the question of whether or not it is somehow inappropriate for a scholar of the Middle Ages to be concerned with the present in their work]. To which I can only say, yes, my work is focused on the human condition at large--anything less is a perversion of human capabilities, in my mind. Even if, as you claim, your main interest as a scholar of the past is in, as you write,

"aiming to bring the past into the present in an intelligible form,"

which is admirable work I might add, and *not*, as you also claim, in searching out the "human meaning" at the level where "someone may better understand the possibilities and circumstances that have been, and therefore can be, available to human beings"--although, obviously, you hope for that, but you aver that that might be someone else's job, while your job is to bring the past forward in intelligible form, as it were. It seems to me that you're straining too hard to distinguish what you do from what, maybe, I do, and to say: I'm concerned with the past while Eileen Joy is more concerned with the present. But by the very mention of the desire to bring the past forward, and in intelligible form, you *are* concerned with the present [at least, with the hope and desire that the past can be made intelligible in the present, and for whose sake, we might ask?]. Likewise, I am deeply concerned with the past *and* the present. We live and work in the present and it shapes who and what we are as well as the questions we ask of the past--it cannot be drained from us as we attend to these, our beloved artifacts. To what, and to whom, and for what purposes, do we seek to make these remains intelligible? The very aiming for "intelligibility" marks the place of a desire for communication: with whom are we communicating, and why? These are questions as much concerned with the present as they are with the past--this relation cannot be untangled.

tenthmedieval said...

I am not so well today (my own fault) and doubt that even at my best I could do much to dismantle that, but I'm not sure I would want to either; your arguments are compelling once our different national circumstances are taken into account. I did see this in the tail of my own argument, though, looming like a rake in the grass that must trip me up:

To what, and to whom, and for what purposes, do we seek to make these remains intelligible? The very aiming for "intelligibility" marks the place of a desire for communication: with whom are we communicating, and why? These are questions as much concerned with the present as they are with the past--this relation cannot be untangled.

I need, perhaps, to work out the answers to these questions better. At the moment I would tend to avoid going deep into them, because I don't have good answers, but as you say the connection between past and present is made by our even reading this stuff and can't be denied or ignored. At the simplest level: I find this stuff fascinating, and I want to tell people about it. Anyone who'll listen (hence blogging) but primarily, because it means employment, people who will pay to study it. This makes my interest in medievalism, rather than the medieval, quite pragmatic: 'people are interested in the Middle Ages! Excellent. I have a book/article/webpage/blog-post I'd like them to read...' But it mainly means I have audience for what I do want to do, I don't find this stimulating as a field of study myself.

I don't know why this is, but I suspect a sense of impossibility about the venture. There's so little data about the Middle Ages, compared to the now, that it is possible to grasp a chunk of it single-handed and interpret across the gaps. With the now, there's just so much data one must be swamped. Of course, whenever the prospect of more data comes up, one of the first things we find is that whatever we were looking at just isn't that simple... so when we know we don't have all the data, we must also guess that we probably can't get it right. That's such a galling possibility that I find probing this question deep enough to hit it rather uncomfortable, as it suggests I'm a fraud. At which point, you see, you can accuse me of projection when I use the word `hypocrite' of others...

Eileen Joy said...

Jonathan: sorry it took me so long to respond to this, but this is a fantastic set of comments on your part. Bravo to all of it.