23 April 2009

...at least I think so right now.

That is how all studies--medieval or otherwise--should end. I've been reading Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, and in advocating an always-tentative, always-becoming notion of the past, he states: "the layers of the past cannot readily be reduced to a single plot without loss" (107). (By "plot" he's referring to the causal, linear view of history that dominates Anglo-Saxon studies in particular and medieval studies in general.)

It seems to me that loss is one thing that seems to be animating a lot of really interesting work on the Middle Ages right now. I can remember Jorie Woods, the person most responsible for me being a medievalist, bringing in lesbian love letters and Hrotsvit of Gandersheim and Poetria Nova--and really blowing my mind by making me realize there was more to medieval literature than Arthuriana and Beowulf. Liz Scala wrote a great book on absent narratives. Carolyn Dinshaw wrote a book that almost compels one to think about aspects of the Middle Ages that we've been ignoring for centuries. Of course, Jeffrey Cohen did more to direct real thinking about medieval monsters than Tolkien could have dreamed of. And he's been joined by Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Mary Kate Hurley who are pursuing different margins--until-now-lost themes, characters, motifs, and texts--over at the ITM. But it strikes me that this is all about anxiety of loss: a loss of the past, a lost of MSS, a loss of knowledge, a loss of identity that is based not just on what we've inherited but also the sort of thinking and methodology we've inherited. (EDIT: WSJ just published something about missing texts.)

Sometimes the paths have been blazed so well and made so inviting by people like Tolkien and Benson that we don't even realized there might be another way. Maybe the road home is the most convenient and efficient way to get there, but sometimes you just have to be like Cheever's Neddy and decide to swim home via your neighbors' swimming pools. At first it's ridiculous (aren't firsts almost always ridiculous, though?), and then people will resent it, but that's because it's outside the norm.

If we could get away from a plotted, linear view of medieval studies, we might be able to (re)develop or (re)construct some of those other paths that have been abandoned. We all know from experience that early work we do in a field or on a topic is often embarrassingly wrong. So why do we pretend when we're writing it that it's anything more than a giant, researched, well-thought-out conditional statement? Doesn't refusing to acknowledge the contingency in all of our work really push out other ways of seeing Anglo-Saxon England? It's not necessarily slippery-slope relativism to admit what we say could change tomorrow, next month, next decade (let's take a tip from Barthes or, if you like, Thomas Merton, who said "My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center. And I am always seeing that center from somewhere else. Hence I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation.") Why shouldn't everyone admit it? Why shouldn't every paper, every thesis, every dissertation end with "...at least I think so right now"?

[NB: The picture at the top of this blog entry is Eva Hesse's "Contingent," a series of hanging panels made of cheesecloth-type fabric and plastic. The piece itself, if it is even possible to see it and has not degraded to a catastrophic extent, is always contingent--on time, on environment, on gravity. All of these things will change it from year to year (the cheesecloth will stretch and change the length of the pieces). Hesse said:

Piece is in many parts.
Each in itself is a complete statement,
together am not certain how it will be....
textures coarse, rough, changing.
see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent.
enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.
then more, others, will they hang there in the same way?
try a continuous flowing one.
try some random closely spaced.
try some distant far spaced.
they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.
see through mostly
not painting, not sculpture, it's there though.
I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non, nothing,
everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.
from a total other reference point, is it possible?


Sarah said...

Well said! And given that the humanities are 'useless' (a.k.a. non-profitable) and aren't pushed to churn out research that makes money, per se, you'd think we'd be even more excited to embrace conditional arguments.

I wonder if medievalists (as opposed to, say, classicists) have the tricky problem of having just enough info to construct that narrative but not enough to cement it, leading to the problem you describe. As a modernist, I feel I have the exact opposite problem. So much information that everything is conditional but also already said and therefore nailed down.

prehensel said...

Sarah, I think you're right on here. Medievalists have enough to posit a historical narrative, but the scary thing is that we've apparently just been pretending that it's also enough to cement it--I guess so everyone can sleep better at night. So now that the theory has festered into a fact, it's taking a ridiculous amount of work for scholars to escape the un-thought.

I think what you feel now is analogous to what some of the early medievalists were feeling, and I think that is because you are stepping into Modernism at a moment when everyone's settled down and is trying to codify it, decide what it was. That is a dangerous time because it can lead to the sort of essentialization that's taken place for many years with medieval studies. It might be easier for you Modernist folk because identity politics has always been a bigger part of your world than it has for medievalists, so the resistance to essentializing should be easier.

What Frantzen advocates, and what I love about his book, is a rejection of the progress model for medieval studies (and this may be especially appropriate to Modernism since it's usually seen as a reaction). Looking at the history of medieval studies as progress up to the pinnacle point at which we stand now embraces a sort of academic Darwinism that doesn't really help anyone. Frantzen advocates taking a conflict model when looking at the history of Anglo-Saxonism--so rather than a static (this-is-how-it-is-and-since-this-is-the-best-state-of-affairs-for-medievalists-the-past-scholars-who-"lost"-are-silly-and-wrong) view of the field that discourages looking back at someone who was "wrong," the conflict model urges us to look at the disagreements without any preconceived notion of how "wrong" or "right" the participants were.

If you can sustain that in Modernists studies, the stuff that's already been said but didn't "take" is just as important--if not more so--that what has come to define the field.

Wow, that was pretty polemical for 8.00am...

Sarah said...

I love the smell of polemics in the morning!

Your thoughts on modernism are interesting, although I feel that right now the tendency is so much expansion that the term or designation might become meaningless. This could also be leading to the dominant narratives--such as that WWI was culture-changing--that I work on falling out of favor.

Where you go toward the end of your response sounds like an interesting project, an exploration of the history of a critical thread that's not just a review but an examination itself. As always, criticism reveals as much about the people and time period doing the criticizing as it does about the text under question. It could be intriguing to examine the movement of a vein of criticism for its inflections on culture as we often do with lit, etc.

Eileen Joy said...

Marcus: thanks so much for this post; a lot of what I/we have written about at In The Middle touches upon the contingency and conditionality you write about here. This recalls me as well to Jeffrey writing, last May, about a restless and vagrant [and convivial] medieval studies [which was the basis of his roundtable comments at Kalamazoo last year]. But I'm struck, too, in your post here by your invocation of loss, or anxiety over loss, in medieval studies. Really, in my mind [and I actually wrote about this in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was about the impossibility of ever having a "best," final edition of a medieval text, and where I also compared this state of affairs to the one outlined by Borges in "The Library of Babel"], this state of affairs is a wonderful opportunity for the *invention* of history.

prehensel said...

EJ: I suppose, then, that your notion of the "text" would almost be closer to The Dreamer's eventual product in "The Circular Ruins," or am I reading you wrong?

prehensel said...

SS: I flip-flop on a project like that. It seems so meta, but at the same time it seems so important.

It reminds me of a few weeks ago when Josh M. and I were talking about Queer Theory and how it's sometimes superficially applied to Early Modern texts and rarely applied to medieval. But if you do a sort of Foucauldian study of ideas you can see where possible readings were closed off by a strong(er) reading; it's a project that opens up nodes of meaning in text just by re-reading earlier interpretations. It then makes the application of Queer Theory to Beowulf maybe or a feminist reading to SGGK.

It's fascinating to talk about, but I kinda don't want to tackle it. Which means I probably will (the same thing happened with Lacan and I'm finally starting to recover some sort of theoretical pragmatism some 8 years later...people at Baylor called me "Marcan" for awhile there...).

Eileen Joy said...

Prehensel: you've got me exactly.