11 December 2008

Ironic PoMo Observation

This is why I love Google Reader. I was catching up on news stories that I'd missed in the last week or so because of the end of the term. First there's this article from Politico in which one of McCain's attorneys accuse Obama of running a Nixon-esque campaign and "drowning McCain in cash":
A close John McCain ally charged on Thursday that Barack Obama had followed Richard Nixon’s 1972 path to victory — drowning his opponent with cash — and asserted Obama was never held to account for breaking a promise to participate in a system that would have limited his campaign’s historic spending.
It's nothing spectacular, and I skimmed it before looking at the next item listed, which was an article on the NYT website about the $110,000 the McCain-Palin campaign spent on Palin's stylist:
Gov. Sarah Palin’s traveling makeup artist was paid $68,400 and her hair stylist received more than $42,000 for roughly two months of work, according to a new campaign finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

This is PoMo, meme irony at its very best. I love you, internets.

18 November 2008

Pitiful Start for Orals Project

[Author's Note: I'm going to try to put this blogging thing to work for me through the gauntlent that is the orals exam. So this is a crap-tastic first run of my orals project prospectus. It will be valid for approximately 12 hours...that is, until I meet with my orals advisor tomorrow and gut it immediately afterwards. But that is the point of "shitty first drafts" (pdf), as I long ago learned from Anne Lamott.]

For years—at least since John Block Friedman’s 1981 book The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought and Jeffrey J. Cohen’s debut on the scene in the early 1990s—monster theory has been overwhelmingly concerned with reading monsters as marginal figures that serve as boundary markers for the cultures that create them. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Freddy Kreuger, the Giant of Mt. San Michel, or the Grendelkin mark the boundaries of what is and is not possible. Perhaps more importantly, they serve as outer boundaries of what an individual can or cannot think, speak, or do.[1] In short, they have been, as Cohen once noted, read as “the primary vehicle for the representation of Otherness in the Middle Ages”;[2] in fact, on this there is a rare and surprisingly widespread consensus.[3]

This widespread consensus, however, has made for an awkward moment in monster theory. Such agreement has left many unsure as to how we should proceed: one might say we are stopped, looking to find our way. Some have focused their attentions on attendant issues (hybridity, sexuality, medieval concepts of the human, etc.). As many who were once heavily involved in monster theory have foreseen, academic agreement quickly becomes academic stagnation. Thus, what was once the study of characters that could petrify with fear is itself in danger of sinking into the swamp and becoming petrified by consensus.

What have not been agreed upon—or even hotly debated—are the functions of monsters as boundary figures. We may agree that as symbols of the Other they demarcate, and we may even agree (though to a lesser extent) on how they go about doing so. But to my knowledge no serious, sustained interrogation has been performed on their function as means of community-formation. Boundary figures by their very nature create an inside and outside. As the Lacanian imago immediately introduces the structural possibility of self/not self, the monster introduces the structural possibility of us/them.[4] This interpretation denies any positivist model for definition, and it is the basis on which Hayden White forms his idea of “ostensive self-definition by negation."[5] He argues that cultures are largely unable to create an overall definition of what they are[6] and so point to a thing that they are not. Following White’s theory of how the concept of “wildness” served to define “human” or “civilized,” we may read monsters as boundary figures that aid in the creation of
a culture’s (negative) definition—of defining what it is by demarcating what it is not.

But how do communities define themselves in this way? What is the process by which they adopt, adapt, or create monsters, and exactly how does this work to strengthen their sense of themselves? It will be the goal of this orals project to provide an answer to those questions. As I stated before, the purpose of monsters is understood quite well: they reinforce commonly-held cultural practices—foodways, speech, or ethical precepts—by threatening and questioning them in a fictionalized (and thus circumscribed) manner. I plan on quickly sketching how this process plays out in medieval heroic episodes, both early and late: weapon-use in the case of Beowulf’s Grendel, and sexual mores in Chretien de Troyes’ Harpin. Having established the process by which cultural aspects are reinforced, I will next turn to Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities in order to explore how the reaffirmation of a particular value works to reaffirm the culture as a whole.

Certainly, such a study is movement out of the morass that threatens the future of monster theory, but it is a small step. What I am seeking to do with this project is to begin a large-scale interrogation of monster theory. By investigating one of the foundational but unquestioned tenets of monster theory, I hope to put a finer point on how it is supposed to work in order to study when it does not. To my mind, it is usually the exceptions to the rule that are most instructive as to its limits and application. That is, if monsters always threaten the community and are always Other to it, then their counterpart is the king who is always protective of the community and always a part
of it.[7] This is in conflict with the usual reading of epic, heroic, or romance literature, which places the hero in this position—even though a case such as Marie de France’s noble werewolf, Bisclavret, shows that sometimes the monster can be a hero, and Beowulf shows that the hero can be a monster.

[1] For example, Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “The Limits of Knowing: Monsters and the Regulation of Medieval Poplar Culture.” Medieval Folklore 3 (1994): 1-37; David Williams’ Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1996; John Block Friedman’s The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

[2] “The Use of Monsters and the Middle Ages.” SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature 2 (1992): 47-69. p. 49 (Emphasis mine).

[3] See also: Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, 1990); Albrecht Classen, “Medieval Answers to the Strange World Outside: Foreigners and the Foreign as Cultural Challenges and Catalysts,” in Demons: Mediators Between This World and the Other, eds. Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Neubauer (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998); Edward J. Ingebretsen, “Monster-Making: A Politics of Persuasion.” Journal of American Culture 21.2 (1998): 25-34; and Franco Moretti, “Dialectic of Fear,” in Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. (London: Verso, 1988).

[4] Lacan associates the self/not self split that occurs with Freud’s Innenwelt and Umwelt. See Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage” in Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

[5] Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. pp. 151-52.

[6] US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart produced a lasting example of ostensive negative definition in 1964. Admitting that he could not define pornography, he then stated “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that” (Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184. Supreme Ct. of the US. 22 June 1964).

[7] This notion is supported by the idea of the body politic (John of Salisbury’s Policraticus)—and has been taken to the extreme in the apocryphal attribution of “L’État, c’est moi” to Louis XIV.

16 November 2008

Ted Nugent Calls People Stupid, Fans of Irony Rejoice

So, Uncle Ted is at it again. He writes a weekly article in the Waco-Tribune Herald, the newspaper of my hometown in Texas. The man is usually off--I mean waaaaaay off--but that's okay because it says right there in the title that he's a Texas Wildman (that bastard ain't from Texas, by the way: he's from Michigan). I've written a letter to the editor responding to him once before, but I know few are actually paying attention. I have an old professor at the junior college there who lamented that she's going to stop writing opinion pieces for the paper because no one want to converse and because people like Nugent are bringing down the level of discourse. Maybe Uncle--I mean Professor--Ted heard her:
Ted Nugent: Obama's victory is sad vote for state of dependency
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Before the election, Howard Stern's Sirius radio show conducted interviews in Harlem, N.Y., in which the interviewer, not identified with the show, recited John McCain's economic proposals but portrayed them as Barack Obama's.

Not knowing whose ideas they actually were, these people raved and gave them their full support.

The election of Obama is an example of Americans voting against their own self interest. It's also further evidence of the dumbing down of America.

Trying to explain how our economy works and why lowering taxes is always better for them and America than imposing higher taxes is an economic bridge too far for many of the Obama sheep.

Unfortunately there is no See Spot and the Economy Run book. Many Americans can't balance a check book or spell e-c-o-n-o-m-i-c-s, but they sure know who will give them stuff. The lie is impossible.

Expecting them to have analyzed the tax positions of Obama and McCain and arrived at a decision that truly benefits them and America is wishful thinking.

The reason is that they know zilch about how the economy operates and—worse—they don't care. Obama will take care of us.

They are dunces, products of a failed public education system. That is, if they even bothered to complete high school. They don't read newspapers. Even if they did, I've got $20 that says they couldn't comprehend what they read.

We'll all pay

When President Obama imposes his wrong-headed, punitive tax structure, such stupidity is going to come back to thump these supporters upside their vacuous heads.

Capitalism works in strange and wondrous ways, and has a unique way of severely punishing fools.

As for this economy: These dunderheads have no clue how the economic mess was largely caused by Democrats, including Obama.

But Obama, trusting in the gullibility of the masses, drummed into Americans minds that the economic mess was caused by President Bush and the Republicans.

He promised to 95 percent of Americans a tax cut when 40 percent of Americans don't pay any federal income taxes.

McCain had no marketable answer to Obama's charge because McCain knew that attempting to explain the economy to dumb people is impossible in 30-second commercials.

Clowns like the idea of believing they are getting something for nothing. What they receive, however, is always scraps from the economic table. Stupidity sentences these people to lives of poverty and despair.

The Obama tax plan punishes the producers—the people who employ the majority of Americans. In Joe the Plumber terms, economic excrement will quickly flow downhill and punish the employees—I mean former employees.

Here's a slogan: The result of spreading the wealth around is spreading unemployment around.

The McCain economic plan was based on the type of tax cuts which spur the economy forward, create jobs and raise the standard of living for everyone.

It is pretty simple stuff except for the comfortably ignorant, the easily manipulated and the person who believes someone owes him or her something.

Ted Nugent is a Waco-based musician and television show host. Contact him directly at tednugent.com.


Prof. Ted's upping the level of discourse! Hooray! What's that? You say he obviously doesn't know what logical fallacies are? And he probably doesn't know what "discourse" means--not even the Foucault one, but just regular discourse? Oh, damn.

So I fired off another letter to the editor, and since it will likely remain unpublished, I wanted to include it here:

I'd like to respond to Professor Ted's comments on the presidential election. Before he derides Obama supporters for being ignorant high-school drop-outs voting against their self interest, he should take a closer look at his own "research."

1) Prof. Ted says he's analyzed both candidate's tax platforms, but he repeats the Republican's distortion that 40% of Americans don't pay income tax. (Even the Tax Foundation, which hates corporate taxation shows whay he makes no sense: Supposedly liberal states like Oregon (23rd), New York (21st), Washington (43rd), Massachusettes (49th), Connecticut (48th), and California (20th) tend to have much fewer workers who do not pay income tax than staunchly conservative states like Mississippi (1st), Louisiana (2nd), Texas (6th), Arkansas (3rd), Alabama (5th), Oklahoma (8th), and South Carolina (9th).) It must be said that is technically correct that a good portion don't pay income tax, but Prof. Ted didn't actually research it. His use of the number 40% instead of the correct 38% shows that he got it from the McCain campaign and CNN's Lou Dobbs--both of whom forget to explain that over half of those people are under the $21,000-per-year poverty line. Further, all (legal) American workers pay Federal taxes: Social Security, Medicare, and payroll. Maybe we're too dumb to have understood that in a sound-byte. But Prof. Ted doesn't reflect well on his own "analysis" when he repeats a party line he hasn't researched.

2) Most striking, however, is actually citing Howard Stern's radio show. Using Stern's profanity-laced show as a way to mock Harlem residents who he thinks vote against their own interests is troubling. It's about as valid as using Robin Williams' stand-up routines as a domestic policy platform. But, again, Prof. Ted's "research" is skewed because he ignores other facts that don't fit his worldview. Republican strategist Tucker Eskew hailed the late Lee Atwater was a master at getting conservatives to vote against their own interests out of irrational fear (evidenced in Bush's Willie Horton ad in 1988). Until late in life, Atwater thought this was a great Republican achievement; Eskew sounds as if he still does.

My point is that it's unfortunate he can't be as gracious in defeat as was McCain. But he attacked those who wanted to believe in our government again--maybe for the first time since Watergate. This goes far past ungracious behavior and shows a real lack of character. To do this while relying on his own flawed "analysis" shows either real ignorance or a real disregard for the truth.

But there's more I didn't want in the Waco paper:

1) Prof. Ted seems to being calling Harlem residents stupid, likely high-school-drop-outs, who may not be able to read the paper or can't understand what it is they read. That smacks of latent racism that may go unnoticed in a place like Waco--where latent racism isn't always the biggest problem.

2) Prof. Ted also thinks he should chair the Dept. of Economics at Baylor, apparently. But he's arguing for trickle-down economics, which is an idea that would make Karl Marx, Freiderich Engels, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Althusser roll in their graves--which seems to be the only real argument for it anymore. Again, Prof. Ted's just repeating party lines that he's heard but hasn't really analyzed or researched. For example, a strong counter-argument is found here, where the Talking Points Memo did actual, honest-to-God research on US Census Bureau numbers. A sample (though the whole thing is worth taking a look at):
Poverty rates were 1.2% higher in 2007 than in 2000, up from 11.3% to 12.5%, an addition of 5.7 million to the poverty rolls. This is the worst cycle for poverty on record. The second worse was 1979-89, a decade also dominated by trickle-down economics.

What is trickle-down? It's the set of economic policies based on the notion that if you provide economic incentives to the wealthy by cutting their taxes (or, as the supply-siders put it, "letting us keep our money") while deregulating industry, you'll unleash a tsunami of economic activities that will enrich even the least advantaged among us.

...

It's largely a rationale for upward redistribution that's been kept alive by the vested interests who benefit from it. Reagan put this stuff on the map, but GW Bush brought it back with a vengeance, and McCain goes even further. He extends the supply-side Bush tax cuts, and lards on about $75 billion more in corporate tax cuts on top of that. (emphasis added)
I don't see a lot of added benefit for Waco if we give tax cuts to Nugent. Maybe the pawn and gun shops will do a bit better. But that's about it. So it seems to me that many, many of those voting for Obama did actually vote in their own interests. It's just that their interests aren't the same as Prof. Ted's--something that he can't seem to comprehend.

It's just a damn shame that this guy gets a weekly column when there are other, wiser voices that could get that space. It's the height of irony that a person who is as divisive, outspoken, and uninformed as Prof. Ted gets a weekly column and uses it to call other people divisive, stupid, and uninformed. The Trib needs to decide what sort of paper it wants to be. If it would like to be a money-maker, then get cracking on the latest Michael Jackson story. If it would like to be a space for measured news and informed discussion, get someone else in that space fast. There are other voices--conservative, liberal, and moderate--who are more worthy of attention. Keeping him is like keeping Michael Moore or Chuck Norris on CNN's political team; the point is supposed to be substance, not bluster.

UPDATE (11.19.08): Well, I guess I was wrong. The Trib did actually print a version of this letter.

05 November 2008

Saul Williams--A Letter to History



Now that is poetry. I've loved this guy since I saw Slam (that's the "in 1998" part), and his poetic sensibilities are great (though for me they really, really pop only when he reads them or I can channel his sort of cadence as I read it).

What I also found interesting, though, was the interaction with history:

Parts of me have feared becoming great
Because it seemed that the price would be death,
And a post mortem glory
That my memory could never learn to resurrect.

I've stared at paintings,
Dieing to catch glimpses of the painter,
Closed my eyes to listen to songs
That drunken ghosts dance to.
And all the while I've struggled
To free the present,
To become.

And later:

Dear history, I beat you.
Generator of generations
Bearing witness to a world
That we are holding accountable
For past actions.

And lastly:

Dear history, we no longer believe in you.
We have invested our beliefs
In the present time, the present moment
Into our present opportunity
To shift our reality into one
That does not resemble the past.
I couldn't help but think of Walter Benjamin's and John Berger's view of history as a thing to be resisted, reformed, and...maybe...if we agree with Williams...released from the present.

O Monsters, is there Anything you Can't Symbolize?

From Paul Krugman's blog at the New York Times:

Last night wasn’t just a victory for tolerance; it wasn’t just a mandate for progressive change; it was also, I hope, the end of the monster years.

What I mean by that is that for the past 14 years America’s political life has been largely dominated by, well, monsters. Monsters like Tom DeLay, who suggested that the shootings at Columbine happened because schools teach students the theory of evolution. Monsters like Karl Rove, who declared that liberals wanted to offer “therapy and understanding” to terrorists. Monsters like Dick Cheney, who saw 9/11 as an opportunity to start torturing people.

And in our national discourse, we pretended that these monsters were reasonable, respectable people. To point out that the monsters were, in fact, monsters, was “shrill.”

Four years ago it seemed as if the monsters would dominate American politics for a long time to come. But for now, at least, they’ve been banished to the wilderness.

04 November 2008

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who's on CNN's political talking heads team, came up with what I think will be an enduring metaphor for the Obama administration. He came out of nowhere with the idea--from Linux folks no less--of the "cathedral" and the "bazaar." They're great metaphors for top-down and bottom-up forms of software creation, governance, and even literary knowledge creation.

Really.

Much of what has been happening in literary studies is the cathedral approach. The theory is imported--perhaps from linguistics, psychology, or philosophy--and applied to different texts. Often, texts are forced into the forms dictated by these theories, and the parts that don't fit are lopped off and ignored (some texts, like Beowulf and Heart of Darkness, can resist this and, starfish-like, (re)generate even more nodes of analysis from the peices the mold lops off. Jim Earl and I have agreed, with no sense of despair or loss, that Beowulf won't ever completely fit into a mold or allow itself to be completely understood or analyzed.)

Much of what some of the younger generations of academics--especially the PoMo and cyber-punk folks--seek is the bazaar approach. An almost deafening heteroglossia (for which Bakhtin interestingly used the image of the marketplace) out of which eventually emerges a working, always-in-flux, system. What Castellanos meant was that Obama is asking for help from the citizens, for making a government that is more populist, perhaps. What I'm thinking of in literary studies is ways of reading texts that also is responsive to those studying it. The bazaar necessarily has its share of nut-jobs and speculative analyses, but it also allows ideas that stem from the texts rather than ideas being imposed on the texts. Maybe more compellingly, it functions to promote intertextuality. If there is less of an effort to approach Hamlet or Beowulf from one's pet theoretical approach, it's perhaps easier to hear the echoes of the trailing laments at the end of the Old English poem embodied in Fortinbras. Maybe you put W.E.B. DuBois and Mark Twain next to each other because they're fresh on your mind. Maybe there's nothing to be made by setting them side-by-side, but maybe there is, and you'd never see it if you came to Twain intent on applying Gates' race-based theories to whatever you find there. Lots of connections are made in the bazaar mode of knowledge creation. Lots atrophy because they can't sustain an argument or coherent analysis. Others grow in strength as more and more strands are added to the web.

Of course, Group Think is a danger for the bazaar. When you have that many people, a mob mentality can kick in. But as long as the strands of thought and analysis are based on needs and interests of the readers--all of them--it will flex and change in response. As long as there are no controlled, encrusted, static, cathedral-style impositions then thinkers like Foucault and Derrida who have had to work so hard to break out of philosophical ruts (so to speak) would not have had to expend so much energy just to get outside.

UPDATE (11.05.08, 7.21am): Yes, I am aware of the irony of this post right after the ramblings about "three is better than two." Deal with it.
Also, here's the video of Castellanos. (h/t: pete)

3

I'm sitting here reading Harry Berger and Marshall Leicester's excellent "Social Structure as Doom: The Limits of Heroism in Beowulf" and they quote Marcel Mauss's The Gift. He writes that in very public, communal times (like feasting) there is "exaggerated fear and an equally exaggerated generosity" because "there is no middle path. There is either complete trust or complete mistrust" (79-80).

So, of course, this got me to thinking about binary oppositions and how ridiculous most academics (including yours truly) think they are. At the very least, they're oversimplifications of an issue and the possible approaches to it. At their worst, they are ways of narrowing thought and controlling what can be said and thought about something (think of the amount of work Foucault had to do to recover things--the genealogies of thought on homosexuality and madness, for example--from the years (sometimes centuries) of un-thought. That's a lot of work caused by the institution of the reductive binaries gay/straight and sane/insane.

Perhaps I was primed for this by the presidential campaign that will (thankfully) end today. It was a long campaign for both men, and they have the distinction and honor of representing their two political/ideological parties in this race. But people like Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader are still around and talking about issues; it's just that no one is listening anymore. We have the two representatives of the two different ways to run the country, and that's enough for us.

But should it be? Should the Log Cabin Republicans always fall in line? Should Lieberman always come to the Democratic National Convention? Should third-party candidates always suffer because of Ross Perot's flaky behavior in 1992?

I taught Mary Louise Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone" yesterday, and I was surprised by how zealously my students clung to the two-approaches model. Sure, they were advocating pragmatism and independently deciding between different approaches, but they couldn't fathom there being more than two. It seemed to me that they were missing Pratt's whole point in writing the essay and fighting to do away with the Western Civ. requirement at Stanford. She was attempting to question and undermine their binary mode of thought by questioning what is meant by "culture." If there isn't a coherent, stable "culture" then there is no binarism, either. So when one of my students observed that it would be really hard to see the Holocaust from both sides (ie, that it could be viewed as both good and bad), I wondered out loud what we should then make of Jews who were active in the Nazi party. No one knew what to make of that, so it was mostly ignored after a period of silence (it doesn't, after all, fit into the binary opposition that's been created for this narrative). I walked back to my office feeling like I'd failed to get them to understand her theory of a contact zone.

And yet. Maybe they were smarter than I am. As I looked over the essay again, I found myself drawn to the "safe houses" that are a part of her class. These are when the heat gets to be too much, so students can retreat into a "safe house" to collect their thoughts, calm their jangling nerves, and perhaps digest what's been said. The thing about this is that is sort of creates another binarism: "us" and "not us." Students can return to "us" after they've encountered the "not us." We'll soon be discussing Edward Said's Orientalism, and the binary (Occident and Orient) might be even more important there.

So biblically, three is a sacred number, but in practice, it's just difficult to work with, apparently. People as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have wondered how, exactly, the Trinity makes any sense at all. I dare say that most Christians couldn't explain it with any sort of clarity since most believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient (so why does He need the Holy Spirit?). I know there are probably well-thought-out explanations to be found, but I haven't heard them, nor can I come up with a palatable one from my own Christian learning and (strange) theology. My response to that has been the same as my students' to Jewish Nazis: DOES NOT COMPUTE!! And then it's promptly dropped from the equations so they'll continue to work.

Binaries are everywhere when you think about them. From Pulp Fiction (every person is a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan, but you can't be both) to politics (Democrats and Republicans--Independents are only independent until November 4th after which they become--maybe for only a little while--Democrats or Republicans because there are only two real options); from sex (straight or gay... the B and T part of the GLBT acronym are often viewed as wishy-washy, and we have no time for people who can't make up their minds) to socialism (either you're an American or a Commie bastard); from abortion (pro-Choice or pro-Life) to Al Qeada (for them or against them).

The reason I've been thinking about the number three and the problems it causes for binary thinking that we try to avoid but are obviously comforted by is because I've been thinking about Beowulf again. (I took a few weeks off from thinking about the poem, but I'm back at it.) Berger and Leicester seem to me to concatenate the potentialities of the characters and their relations to one another and their culture by reducing things to "heroic" and "not heroic" (which doesn't necessarily mean cowardly). It should be noted that I'm talking within the context of Berger and Leicester's essay because that's what I'm reading right now, but I've seen it in many, many analyses and discussions of the poem--either explicitly stated or implied. I find this way of thinking about the poem incredibly reductive. "Not heroic" is a fine category for advancing their thesis, but it is far too general and unwieldy to help in thinking (ab)out the poem.

Instead, I've been looking at things from a tripartite angle. I've gotten here by thinking about monsters for the last six years or so, and I've finally hit the wall. I couldn't answer Jim Earl's question: what is the point of all this talk about monsters? That was, until I went back and started re-reading some of the sources that I hadn't looked at since I completed my thesis. What I realized that people like Ingebretsen and especially Jeffrey Cohen had been doing was looking at monsters as boundary markers and vehicles for re-asserting the mores of the speaking culture. (I know, I am not so quick on the uptake.) The initial tendency, of course, is to place "monster" on one side and "hero" on the other--and for some projects perhaps that's all that needs to be done. Not for mine.

I couldn't put two big boxes in the poem and lump everyone into one or the other because some wouldn't fit. If the Grendelkin are unheroic and Hrothgar is unheroic that's saying two very different things. It's like trying to smoosh Wilco into either the Country genre (do they sound anything like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash?) or the Rock genre (do they sound anything like Aerosmith or The Killers?). You can do it, but not without stretching the boundaries of either genre until they essentially break and are meaningless. No, that won't do. You need new genres--like Alt-Country (Neko Case or Hank III) or Indie Rock (Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes)--in order to accommodate a band like Wilco.

The example there is silly but it is the thought process I followed in thinking about the poem. I let the characters and their actions tell me what the categories should be (as I let Wilco tell me what genre they should be) rather than try to impose some sort of category system on them. And what I got was this:

King (and community) <----------------------------------------------> Monster (and other)

Hero (defends community
but shares traits with
monster adversary)

The tripartite paradigm I created is indeed still reductive. No doubt about it. "Normal" people are non-existent here--and that is because they are not major players in the narrative (I guess I'm reading characters like Brecca and Unferth as narrative devices whose purpose is to test and illustrate the prowess of the hero). So-called "normal" people represent the community, the society whose values are crystallized in the idea of a good king--something about which the poem itself has much to say.

Each group has it's own ethics. Monsters have a sort of rulebook for how they must act. Kings and their people have another--and it's usually diametrically opposed to the monster's ethical precepts. Heroes have still another. It's sometimes difficult to identify and isolate because it is often in-line with what the king's ethics. Both, for instance, have a responsibility to care for the people with which they are identified. That identification works differently for kings (Hrothgar is bound to Denmark by blood and his first responsibility will be to Denmark) than for heroes (Beowulf is bound to Geatland by his upbringing and kinship bonds; he's bound to Denmark by his heroic desire to fight the monster and defend the Danes--and more loosely by the bonds of the warrior code). Heroes are among the people but not necessarily of the people. They defend the people and their mores against the monsters that threaten (and reinforce) them, but heroes also have a touch of the monstrous in them, too. Many, many critics have noted this in Beowulf (Dragland, Huffines, and Kroll, to name just three...of course), but I don't know that anyone's thought about what it means for the poem as a whole and for the ethics (which I am reading as a foundational part of community-building, a la Anderson and Friedman among others) of the characters (or more specifically groups of characters) in the poem.

So it may be that three's a crowd, but we won't find out unless we go down that road. If nothing else, this orals project should be interesting.

31 October 2008

Nothing Comes out Right for McCain

In an interview with Larry King, McCain was asked about the place of race in the presidential election. First off, it was a dumb question--to ask a wealthy, white politician if he thinks race will be a factor in an election. Of course, it's Larry King Live, so we're not supposed to expect hard-hitting questions, I guess.

What struck me is the way McCain answered the question. He said:
"Look, there is racism in America. We all know that because we can't stop working against it. But I am totally convinced that 99 and 44 one-hundredths percent of the American people are going to make a decision on who is best to lead this country."
So perhaps that sounds great. Except that's the advertising slogan for Ivory soap.

Perhaps McCain-Palin wants an America that's Ivory pure? That's as white and pure as Ivory soap? A soap that is 99.44% pure soap with no additives that would take away from its white purity.

Normally I would laugh at this point and shake my head at the unfortunate choice of words. However, the other part of that jingle is that people who use the soap want a "clean as real as Ivory." And since that is a refrain from Palin's little 2-minute hates (also known as rallies), I'm starting to wonder if this is a slip of the tongue that holds a little more meaning than anyone in the McCain-Palin camp would want to admit OR this is a terribly unfortunate confluence of events. The other option is something I'd rather not consider.

29 October 2008

Obama the Marxist...Whaaaaaaa?

My wife and I are watching Obama's infomercial just now--not sure why since we've already voted a week ago. In the live portion at the end of the 30-minute, Obama appealed to Americans to vote for him and "to choose our better history."

Now that's some soaring rhetoric, but there's something more interesting going on. Well, at least more interesting for us medieval dorks over at ITM. Earlier, we were talking about the place of the medieval past in the present (and vice versa), and Obama's phrasing struck a cord for me in relation to that subject. I oscillate between two strand of thought:

1) What I want to learn, which I would place in the Foucauldian, archaeology-of-knowledge school which sees a Thing to be discovered—perhaps forgotten, perhaps repressed, but still Something. This is, I think, present in his early work on madness and civilization, and it is certainly there in his last writings on the history of sexuality.

2) And the other strand is what I want to do, which is certainly in line with a Marxist methodology, though not necessarily its ideology. I want, like John Berger said in Ways of Seeing, to view the past not as a thing to be recovered but as a “well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.” (Berger may have been cribbing from Benjamin, but the latter never said it so well.) And how do we act upon the past? I’d follow Howard Zinn who, in the initial chapter of A People’s History of the United States, wrote “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possibly future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

I had a Latin teacher at the University of Texas one time who—after receiving his PhD in classical civilizations—told me that the humanities were one big Ponzi scheme. He wondered (rightly I think) what the point of all this work was if his job was then to teach others to essentially do the same thing he’d just done. It’s a pyramid scheme in that sense, but in some ways I see it more along the lines of non-productive, masturbatory work. Work of this kind is not at all creative and turns back to itself for meaning and legitimacy.

But that is only tru if we ignore Zinn’s desire for history to be creative. Certainly the idea is not new; Thucydides espoused it in his History of the Peloponnesian War way back in the fourth century BC. He said that he hoped his words would “be judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future”; that has, of course, become crystallized and clichéd into the slogan “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Perhaps that is a commonplace, but Zinn-like (...get it?) generative history has a chance to not just steer us in the right direction, but to create our destination and course. In some ways what Zinn is proposing is not a passive role in the unfolding of historical events and then making the right “choice” when confronted with it; rather, it is an active interaction with the past that can help us to re-vision our present and change the choices with which we might be faced.

That is what I heard from Obama this evening. An appeal to generative, creative history that he thinks can move the country forward. That, to me, is a great hope for this administration. It probably won't be some Kennedy-esque central figure that controls all with his charisma; it may just be a way to revive our country by revising our history.

Of course, the astute folks in my hometown of Waco, TX--especially David B. Anderson and Mike James--have known this all along!

28 October 2008

Jonah Goldberg had a piece in the LA Times today in which he (surprise!) attacked Obama's progressive/liberal socialist agenda. I (surprise!) have a few responses to him:

1) He wrote that "Obama prefers the word 'progressive' to 'liberal' because it makes it sound like he's shedding old liberal ideas." Maybe, but I imagine the reason is less sinister (notice the Obama-as-misleading meme that's running through Goldberg's statement there). One of the main reasons progressives/liberals run from the term is that people like Goldberg, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, etc. distort the positions it represents. Why do they do it? Well, for one thing, they're getting paid to. But the other reason is that they do so in order to create straw men.
It's tempting to tout something as "socialist" when you know the word has such baggage from the Cold War era. If you can peg Obama, or any Democratic plan as "socialist," you can link them to Soviet-style communism. There simply is no better way to poison the well in America than to associate it with Hitler and Stalin and Castro; the Red Scare may be history, but it's still a strong part of our collective memory, and raising that specter will torpedo ideas before they even get started. At least in this country. What Goldberg doesn't talk about are Social Democrats (of which Stalin and Hitler were heirs) in Western Europe. They seem to be doing quite well, thank you very much, and there aren't any fascist dictators that I have heard of in Denmark or the UK.

2) Later, Goldberg observes: "In 1944, FDR proposed updating the Bill of Rights with a new 'economic bill of rights' that would define freedom not as liberty from government intrusion but as the possession of goodies provided by government. 'Necessitous men are not free men,' FDR proclaimed. It's a statement Obama surely agrees with; his advisor, Cass Sunstein, wrote a book saying FDR's 'second bill of rights' should become the defining principle of American politics." OK...I'll admit that I didn't get what Goldberg was driving at initially. I mean, one doesn't often hear presidential hopefuls compared to FDR as a negative thing. Hell, McCain's doing his level best to compare Obama to the protectionist Hoover instead of FDR. It just seems slightly off. Name another four-term president who whipped all Republican comers (Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey). Trick question. You can't because no one has (or ever will) spend four terms in the White House. FDR was that good. I can understand Goldberg and other hard-core conservatives being uncomfortable with the progressive concepts of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Obama since they probably don't fully understand them--or at the very least studied them with a mind already made up. But in some ways, Goldberg and his ilk have only themselves to blame. If they hadn't blindly thrown their support behind Bush, maybe the Republican brand wouldn't have been as radioactive as it is today. If they hadn't bent over for Bush and Cheney because they were Republicans and in power, McCain would probably have won this election and Goldberg wouldn't be losing sleep at night worrying about Obama socializing health care (which he isn't claiming he'd do anyway...read the white papers on the Obama website). So I say to Goldberg and the rest of the conservatives: "take your damn medicine like a grown up." You are all complicit in screwing the pooch (indeed, as Eminem said, we are all complicit to a lesser extent for letting it happen at all)...Since Bush is more responsible for Obama's rise to power than any other single person (except maybe Obama...maybe), maybe Goldberg should be looking at Bush; there's always something that pushes the pendulum too far one way. Bush is that thing. He is the Hoover of our time, and though it remains to be seen if Obama will be our FDR, we'd be lucky if that were so--whether or not Goldberg et al has "no desire to go back to that future."

3) As David Gergen (who could run the intellectual equivalent of laps around Goldberg) said, Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt both advocated much of the same (re)distribution of wealth that has been attributed to Obama.
video

A quotation from Teddy Roosevelt's December 7, 1907 speech to Congress (emphasis mine):
The inheritance tax, however, is both a far better method of taxation, and far more important for the purpose of having the fortunes of the country bear in proportion to their increase in size a corresponding increase and burden of taxation. The Government has the absolute right to decide as to the terms upon which a man shall receive a bequest or devise from another, and this point in the devolution of property is especially appropriate for the imposition of a tax. Laws imposing such taxes have repeatedly been placed upon the National statute books and as repeatedly declared constitutional by the courts; and these laws contained the progressive principle, that is, after a certain amount is reached the bequest or gift, in life or death, is increasingly burdened and the rate of taxation is increased in proportion to the remoteness of blood of the man receiving the bequest.
That's enough to make McCain cringe...a progressive estate tax from one of the men that McCain touts as the bulwark of his party. What has the world come to?

I respect Goldberg and Krauthammer and their ilk, but the defenses of McCain and attacks on Obama are getting more and more intellectually tenuous by the day.

22 October 2008

Vampalin

Not sure I agree with everything they stand for, but the poster is as compelling as anything I've ever seen.

Sarah Palin's Clothing Budget and Why We Shouldn't Give a Damn

From Jake Tapper's ABC blog, Political Punch:

I just got off the phone with a well-respected and well-known tax attorney who doesn't want to be identified.

I asked him earlier in the day whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin can avoid paying taxes on the $150,000 worth of clothes the RNC bought her, as she and the RNC maintain. (They said the RNC now owns the clothes; she's just borrowing them.)

He said that, after consulting with a number of experts at his prominent firm, he thinks the RNC and Gov. Palin are wrong.

"It's probably not a 'gift,'" he said. "The issue is whether it counts as 'income.'"

Palin's claim that the pricey duds belong to the RNC and she's just "borrowing" them and will return them later, reminds him, he says, of some of the issues going on in the prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. (Some of the issues, he specified, not the allegations of criminality.)

"This is exactly the issue with the Stevens case," he said. "When you loan something to someone can you call it a 'loan' if, upon its return, it has no practical value?

"The consensus view is she would have to count the wardrobe as income at least in the amount of the fair value of the rental of the wardrobe," he said.

He added that the law is clear that uniforms -- "big brown suits with your name on them" -- don't qualify as income, but it would be hard to make the argument that fancy dress suits from Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus are a uniform.

"Especially since Palin is employed by the state of Alaska and not the RNC," he said.


I'm not at all sure why I should care. Tapper's blog is usually spot-on as far as interesting, timely, and significant news items, but this one's a swing and a miss. I do not really care that the RNC spent $150,000 to clothe Palin; if anything it's a disturbing comment on the expectations placed on female politicians these days instead of some knock on the RNC. She was pole vaulted into the national spotlight, and even someone who tried to sell a jet on eBay can't meet Karzai or Kissenger in something she bought at Ross Dress for Less!

Here's another question we should be asking if we're worried about Palin's clothing budget. Has anyone found out how much Obama and McCain and Biden have spent on suits and fancy red-or-blue ties?

21 October 2008

A Total Rip-off Post


JJC posted a picture of his desk over at ITM, and I thought--since I've spent the last six hours chained to mine--I put a pic up as well. I am beginning to feel surrounded by work.

Items of note:
  • Ever-growing stack of books that I need to get (back) to for the KZoo conference paper (including Sociophobics, Chambers' Beowulf, and Friedman's Monstrous Races).
  • Chretien's Arthurian Romances for our UO reading group.
  • Computer monitor, proudly showing the ITM comment screen!
  • The stupid green egg timer that was going to bring discipline to my grading regimen.
  • Delicious, delicious Stumptown coffee.
  • Aromatherapy.
  • Student papers on Walker Percy or John Berger than I am pitifully trying to grade.
  • Nature.
  • Ever-growing stack of books that I need to get (back) to for the KZoo conference paper, pt. 2 (including Liuzza's Beowulf, the Norton critical Beowulf (I swear I only have it for the articles!), Klaeber's 3rd edition of Beowulf)
  • Even-faster-growing stack of books to which there many reasons I should return (including Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and Fradenberg's Sacrifice Your Love...what a pair!)
  • Also, there is a stapler.

19 October 2008

Connections Between the Middle Ages and 8-bit Video Games

Image taken from the Luttrell Psalter.


Oregon Trail video game known and loved by people between the ages of 28-36.

03 October 2008

The Tiny Shriner Watches Over All and Will Drink You Under the Table



Now that he is affixed to my bag, I can do no wrong. Or is that I won't remember the wrongs I do? Either way, the lil' guy is more popular than anyone else I know.

And I know people who are in indie rock bands.

And people with really good pharmaceutical contacts.

T.T.S. beats them all.

Luckily, he doesn't talk much, so I at least look smarter. I can only wish that I'd talked to Eileen earlier so T.T.S. would have been there to bless my presentation. I could have used the help--though there was only one question that I didn't feel I could answer.

Kathleen Grode (South Dakota) asked: if armor is symbolic of one's status as a thane and one's status among thanes, then why does he do worse in his battles as Beowulf progresses? It's an interesting question. He wears progressively more armor as he advances from fight to fight and he needs more and more help from human technology as he does.

And yet, the outcome of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel is never in doubt (at least to the audience and narrator). But with Ellen (what I call Grendel's mother because Chelsea Henson and I are tired of her having an identity that's tethered to Grendel), Beowulf almost gets his ass kicked. If it hadn't been for his mail shirt, he'd have been killed by her seax. If it hadn't been for the work of giants--the sword that melts--it seems that he would not have been able to kill her. And the dragon...well, that wyrm necessiated--as Britt Mize pointed out--the creation of a new piece of war gear. That doesn't happen in any other Old English work with which I am familiar. It's incredible. But it still doesn't work, and Beowulf of course dies as a result of the poisoned bite of the dragon.

I think what Jim Earl would say here is that the narrative demands these incrementally more difficult battles and that Beowulf dies. And I agree that the poet is--as Felicity Riddy noted that Malory was--hemmed in by history. Beowulf has to stay in the heroic past (as Methuselah, Moses, Adam, Noah, etc. had to) because no one when the poet(s) was writing could swim for seven days.

But I don't know. I agree, but I think it still begs the question. If my thesis is that armor is symbolic of a warrior society and that's why the Grendelkin don't wear it, then it's odd that as armor becomes more involved in these fights, Beowulf does more poorly until he dies. My original answer is all I've been able to come up with since then: that Beowulf, as an aglæca and as a monster-man, does more poorly because he becomes less himself--and more Geatish warrior. Beowulf is as much monstrous as he is Geatish--and that's probably what a hero is all about anyway. Your normal everyday thane (like, say, Hondscio and Aeschere) doesn't do so well against these monstrous antagonists: you gotta fight fire with fire. But as he becomes more and more the Geatish warrior and ruler, when he moves from the--as Mary Ziehe so aptly put it--orde to the interior of the society, he becomes less the hero and more the god cyning.

Of course, that's something that any British Lit. Survey student would know about Beowulf, so what else is there to say? I don't know. I'm still thinking about it because I just found out I got into the MEARCSTAPA panel at K'zoo in May (along with Karma who did a cool philological look at untydras in Beowulf). It won't, of course, be the same paper I gave here at SEMA, but it relies on the same general idea, and I need to get my ducks in a row if'n I want to continue this line of inquiry.

Suggestions will be welcomed with great joy.

30 September 2008

Clothes Make the Monster: Armor and the Grendelkin's Status as Monsters

Here's a preview of my paper at SEMA in St. Louis.

Two years ago in Yorkshire, Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at a C of E school, was suspended because she refused to remove her niqab in the presence of males—the result of a not uncommon interpretation of the Koran that demands modesty from women. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called the full-face veil “a mark of separation” that “makes people from outside the community feel uncomfortable”; Ms. Azmi countered that the niqab is an important part of her culture and “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens.” Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe took the argument further linking Ms. Azmi’s niqab to the inadvertent support for “the mullahs of repression.”

Now, whatever our individuals thoughts on this particular issue, it is an exemplum of the way cultural tensions erupt in specific, concrete ways—in this case over a single piece of cloth placed somewhere on the body Western society deems disagreeable. These tensions often play out behind the guise of cultural markers—diet, speech, taboos, dress. Each is easily exaggerated into stereotypes: the Irish eat potatoes; barbarians don’t have a symbolic language (or don’t speak Greek); higher caste Hindus used to avoid contact with Dalits (the Untouchables); Native Americans wear feathered headdresses and buckskins.

These cultural markers were at work in medieval texts and characters, too. In his seminal The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Block Friedman extended their application to the monsters of the Middle Ages. What we have found since then is that a monster is largely a creation of cultural markers important to its creator and cultural context.

Nevertheless, our interpretation of the Grendelkin has continued to be as problematic as it was in 1936 when Tolkien redirected our thinking on them. One of the basic problems with the current conversation on Grendel and his mother is that we keep trying to apply an ontological definition to them when a functional one is more instructive and viable. I think we should be less concerned with what they are—human exiles, demons, or trolls—and much more concerned with what they do and don’t do in the poem. This paper, which is a small part of a research project, represents my attempt to tease out more information and further direct our thinking about the Grendelkin by examining how the poet created their monstrous identity through the cultural markers—specifically that of clothing and armor.

This approach relies on a notion to my knowledge first put forth by Jeffrey Cohen and stated most clearly in Theses 3 and 4 of the initial chapter of Monster Theory. It is this: monsters draw their power to terrify both from their position outside the scope of human knowledge and their threat to social order. Without both of these, you get Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus on the one hand and Adolph Hitler on the other. Thinking about the monster as both a physical pastiche and a constellation of cultural transgressions is also a way of framing a discussion of the Grendelkin. Their physical monstrous attributes have been much-discussed but they still give only a vague image—one that could just as easily be Tolkien’s cave troll or Sigourney Weaver’s alien nemesis from the film series!

Instead, I think the cultural side of their transgression ledger is a rich vein of inquiry. Returning to my constellation metaphor, we can see the Grendelkin through their cultural transgressions. They violate accepted foodways multiple times. They don’t use symbolic language, whereas fine speaking is a prized ability in Old English literature. They violate cultural conventions about the use of weapons in battle. But what is most interesting to me right now—the star, to perhaps belabor my metaphor, I want to study in this constellation—is their attitude toward clothing—specifically, armor—and how that sets them apart from the human warriors of the poem.

Most of us are aware, on some level, that material goods like armor were crucial to the function of a warrior society like the one depicted in Beowulf. It has a significant function in the principles of exchange demanded by the lord-thane bond. Some armor receives attention to is lineage. Old English grammar even gives armor a limited sense of agency: the mail-coat will often act as the subject by preserving the warrior, who is placed in the object position.

What is pertinent to this examination, however, is the symbolic value armor has in this cultural context. George Clark wrote about this in 1965, and he is worth quoting at length here: “the multitudinous references and allusions to arms and armor pervading Beowulf constitute an imaginative whole, a symbol for the heroic life.” And later: “Arms and armor in Beowulf are…instances of man’s creative power…; they are status symbols, tokens of order and degree in human society; they are heirlooms…; [they] are both gifts and treasures, and as such they betoken both sides of the heroic contract.” Clark’s point here is that armor is tied to the idea of a warrior, but I would extend the significance to each warrior’s status among his fellows. What I’d like to quickly sketch out here is the obverse of the Grendelkin. If the pair is a constellation of transgressions, then Beowulf and the other humans should be a constellation of motifs that serve to support the values of their culture. Thus, I am extending Clark’s notion, and I am reading armor as a way of seeing warriors and as a way of judging them among their peers.

In some ways, material goods are all we’ve got to help us conjure up an image of Beowulf. We have no idea what he looked like—Ray Winstone? Christopher Lambert? Gerard Butler?—but we do get a significant amount of detail about what his helmet and armor when compared to Beowulf’s physical features. There are lots of examples of this scattered throughout the poem (in fact, Beowulf’s burial is focused much more on the armor on the funeral pyre that his body), but the examples on which I’d like to focus are the meetings with the Danish coast guard and Wulfgar.

Between Beowulf’s introduction in line 194 and the revelation of his name in line 343 we get detail that builds on three main ideas: he is Hygelac’s thane (194), he is the strongest of all men (196-97), and his fifteen chosen companions are the bravest warriors he could find among the Geats (206-07). We could rightly expect, then, that the things we find out immediately afterwards would have something to do with these facts. So it is significant that most of what we end up learning about the warriors has to do with their armor and other war-gear. In the 150 lines separating Beowulf’s introduction and his naming—those crucial lines in which the poet paints the initial picture of Beowulf and his brave band for his audience—we get at least ten separate references to armor—four of those being descriptions more detailed than we ever get for Beowulf or his men. The evidence for the Geatish troop being such brave thanes seems to be their terrific war-gear.

But it’s not just the audience who “sees” the nature of Beowulf and his thanes through their armor. When they first land in Denmark, the first thing the coast-guard sees in the glint of the shield bosses (231-32). Then he rides down to the shore and challenges the Geats with “What sort of men are you, wearing armor, protected by mail-shirts?” (237-38). It seems that all the coast-guard can see are Geatish armor and weapons.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his question. Immediately following, the poet focuses our own vision on the glint and clink of their armor as they advance along the stone path to Heorot. When they do arrive, Wulfgar greets the troop with further focus on their armor. “From where,” he asks them, “have you borne these gold-plated shields, gray mail-shirts, and visored helmets?” (333-39). When we would expect our mind’s eye to be focused most closely on the hero and his men, the poet and characters fix them instead on armor. The Danish men whom Beowulf and his troop first meet “see” the warriors through their armor. It seems a symbolic attitude toward armor and other war-gear is being developed here, that the mail-coats and helmets function as a metonymic representation of powerful warriors.

This metonymic relationship between great armor and a warrior’s status is supported by the Danish coast-guard and Wulfgar. We just saw how much attention the coast-guard pays to Geatish armor, but what is more compelling is that almost immediately after he comments on it, he praises Beowulf: “Never,” he says, “have I seen a greater warrior than this one among you, a warrior in armor” (247-51). The watchman is probably justified in his concern about the intentions of these men because they are well-armored warriors, which makes them potentially dangerous. But he also judges Beowulf’s prowess at least in part based on his armor: for the coast-guard, it seems, Beowulf is the greatest warrior he’s ever seen and certainly not merely a “hall-thane” because he has impressive armor and weapons. As if to dispel any doubt that this is a valid criterion by which to judge a man, the Dane adds “may his visage, his matchless appearance never belie him” (247-51).

The relationship between armor and a warrior’s prowess and nobility is shared by Wulfgar. As does the coast-guard, he notes the impressive armor and weapons the Geats carry. Then he makes a judgment on their character based on that observation alone: “Never have I seen so many foreign men braver in appearance. I think that you in boldness, high courage—certainly not exile—have sought Hrothgar” (336-39). The implications of the Geats’ gleaming armor are clear: battle-gear is symbolic of a warrior’s heroism.

That this is so should not be surprising. As the poem makes clear, the normal avenue for gaining armor, treasure, or swords is either to inherit them or earn them in battle. It stands to reason, then, that if a thane had good, skillfully-made armor, he either come from a good line of warriors or had been successful in battle on his own. Either way, he has access to and membership in the warrior society. Armor, then, is part of signifying the status of a warrior, but it is also crucial to one’s status among fellow warriors—as the coast-guard and Wulfgar show.

But if armor signifies one’s status as a warrior, then what are we to make of those who don’t wear it? What does armor use signify to the Grendelkin. Turns out, not much. Admittedly, we’re hampered in our study of what they wore into battle since, as Michael Lapidge notes, the poet was careful not to give us too precise a description of our antagonists. We do know that they were not ignorant of armor because it litters their hall. This, then, suggests they had no use for it—that it had no significance at all for them. It also indicates that Grendel’s frætewum is not armor.

There’s been a certain amount of confusion over how to translate this word. We’ve gotten translations as various as “trappings,” “ornaments,” “armor,” “finery,” “scaly harness,” and the confusion seems to have led Heaney to just omit it. Klaeber connects frætewum to a warrior who used only his own equipment, but he doesn’t explain what equipment that might be. Dobbie thinks the poet meant to depict him “as being ‘equipped for battle,’ whatever that may have involved in Grendel’s case.” Those very vague suggestions by two giants in the field highlight the paucity of detail we have when it comes to the Grendelkin’s clothing—especially when compared to the attention to armor within human cultural contexts. So while we may never learn what the poet meant by frætewum, I think we can safely say he did not mean armor.

The term’s equation with armor is unlikely since the poet emphasized a level playing field for the fight between Grendel and Beowulf. In lines 677-87, Beowulf remarks that he’d refrain from using weapons because his foe didn’t use them. Immediately before his boast, however, much had been made about Beowulf removing his armor and helmet. It seems obvious that our hero is going to great lengths to battle Grendel on equal terms and that he is relying on the judgment of God to determine the outcome. Because of Beowulf’s faith in God’s judgment of the battle, Morton Bloomfield—and more recently Roberta Frank—see it as an early example of judicium Dei, a trial by combat that, as Bloomfield notes, was “employed under some fixed conditions to determine the will of God.” At the heart of the judicium Dei were those “fixed conditions”: equality in weapons and armor supposedly prevented human influences from obscuring the judgment of God. So a pitched battle would undercut the purpose of the entire exercise. If this interpretation is correct—and the attention to parity between participants and God’s involvement in the duel suggests it is—then the frætewum that Grendel wore could not have been armor or Beowulf wouldn’t have had to shed his.

To my mind, it’s clear that his choice of clothing identified Grendel (and by extension his mother) as an outsider. It may work as a sub-text, but it’s a powerful marker of difference once identified. I might even venture to say it’s one of the main reasons we know they aren’t members of any recognized warrior class—because they don’t adhere to accepted customs. For humans, armor signifies their status as warriors and, along with other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of heroism that we call the warrior society. The opposite is true with the Grendelkin. They don’t wear any armor—even though they had easy access to it in their hall. So for them, is signifies their status as Other and, along with those other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of monstrosity.

The poet did not, then, fashion his monster out of whole cloth (if you’ll pardon the pun) but instead from the cultural materials at hand. And in the process of creating the Grendelkin, our poet has given us a glimpse of his own cultures attitudes (and perhaps anxieties) about clothing.
What that leaves us with is perhaps more questions than answers. What does it mean that this particular trait helped create a monster? What—if anything—more can that choice tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture and its attitudes toward…dare I say…fashion? And finally, are the Grendelkin teachers, markers of the wrong route? Or are they (as monsters so often are) symbolic of external cultural groups that were seen as threatening?