Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chaucer conference blogging (2)

So the blog posts about NCS are starting to appear, as we arrive home, with a little time to reflect. Dr Virago (whom I met!) found it a little unfriendly and too full of academic posturing and competing for position, while Jeffrey Cohen wonders what has happened to Chaucer, given the multiplicity of other topics, periods, languages, cultures and historicisms we study. He also speculates on the question of timing. At what point do interventions into the field look like novelties? At what point do they seem to state the obvious? or at least, to encapsulate work that is already being done on a number of fronts?

These two points are not unrelated. In the corner of the field I'm interested in at the moment — the relation between medieval studies and medievalism studies — it's fascinating to observe the various waves of interest in the latter. The genealogy of medievalism, and its messy trajectories, would be an interesting study. It's very easy, in a closely contested field, to feel slighted if people don't cite your work; it's also easy to think you are more original than you really are (easy to forget you are standing on the shoulders of ... well, not so much giants, as your own colleagues). This is particularly germane to medievalism studies, which has had very little role to play at NCS in the past, but which has its own journal, and has had a pretty active presence on the fringes of medieval studies, not to mention the thriving business of Tolkien studies, for example. David Wallace's Presidential lecture in New York two years ago was the first "official", or at least, high level acknowledgement of the field at NCS, and in Swansea, the fact that Carolyn Dinshaw used the Michael Powell film, A Canterbury Tale, as a meditation on temporality, place, and the queer — even if she did not invoke the discipline of medievalism directly — suggests the field has rapidly accrued a new level of respectability.

In addition to the several plenary sessions, there were a couple of what I'll call "de facto plenaries", in panels that spoke so powerfully to so many people's interests that other sessions on at the same time must have lost most of their audience to them. These moments are hard to predict in a two-year cycle between conferences. Carolyn's paper was one such (though she is such a beautiful speaker she will always summon a big crowd): another was the "clash of the titans": a debate on the relationship between formalism and historicism, between Jill Mann and James Simpson, set up by Chris Cannon. Both spoke terrifically well, ranging from polemic to argument, across the history of criticism and medieval studies in the twentieth century. Jill was at pains to show that formalism was a retrospective formation; and that the work of F. R. Leavis, for example, was as much concerned with historical context as "the words on the page". James was concerned to unpack the ideology of such close reading (including its support from the Rockefeller foundation, as a front from the CIA that wanted to encourage artists, writers and critics to develop individualist expressions of aesthetics and criticism as part of the Cold War). This was high level debate of the best kind, and done with no special rancour.

But James had another target in mind: some intemperate remarks in reviews of his work by Derek Pearsall, and the lecture theatre was hushed in shock as he worked, passionately, through a critique of Derek's criticisms, quoting a particular sentence — a claim that literature does nothing; has no political effect — three times. Derek was given first right of reply, and said he would not engage with the issues, but would say only that yes, sometimes one wrote intemperately, and was sorry afterwards; and that he had immense respect for James' work, and hoped they would continue to engage in civil debate. James acknowledged Derek's generosity, and the debate went on. At one level, then, a good example of robust disagreement, but it's clear that feelings had been hurt on both sides.

I felt, then, that the "clash of the titans" between Jill and James had been displaced by the clash between James and Derek, and I thought that was a pity.

But James' strategy of going after this one sentence (well, not just this one!) made me think: how many of my own sentences would stand up under such scrutiny? There are lots of things I've written I hope people won't worry too closely over. And then in my own paper, and on my own blog, I had quoted a section from Maura Nolan's essay. I know this is what we do: we are highly trained and clever close readers, and analysing small pieces of text is what I love to do most. But the potential for damage, for the kind of point-scoring Dr Virago did not enjoy, at each other's expense, is great. In our dealings with each other, then, and with the bodies of critical work we deal with, it is just as important to tread a careful line between historicism (these are real people) and formalism (these are real words and ideas).

5 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Stephanie: I shouldn't even be online right now as I am way past deadline on a book Afterword I promised, um, in March, then April, then May, then June, then July, BUT: your post here, and its evocation of the troubling [on both the personally emotional and more broadly inter-connected professional levels] line that exists between, as you put it, "historicism (these are real people) and formalism (these are real words and ideas)," really affects me and gets very close to [well, hits exactly, to be honest] something that BABEL has been concerned with from the very start:

how to formulate and practice a new, critically humanist scholarship that is both deadly serious [that believes that, yes, words matter and actually help to shape the realities--cultural, social, political, psychic, professional, etc.--within which we must live, and therefore, we must hold each other to account for these words, we must choose them carefully, we must be mindful to wield them with some sense of ethics and responsibility in mind--to texts, to contexts, to both the past and the present/future, and by implication, to the persons laboring alongside us, if only we could better grasp this "alongside"!], while at the same time, this scholarship would be, following the thinking of the political theorist Jane Bennett, affective and interested in cultivating sites of enchantment that would be attuned, in Bennett's words, to "the marvelous specificity of things" [which "things" would include other persons and any number of bit of matter and all the connections between them that make up this place we call "the world"].

The tricky part is the emphasis on the "affective." Because there has to be a way to hold each other to rigorous account for our arguments [although I would love to dispense with argumentation altogether and aim for something more like critical conversation/perpetual questioning], while at the same time, I think we need to somehow get out of this trap, so prevalent in academia, of thinking that we are somehow locked together in a competition of some sort in which some ideas always have to be judged better than others [I win, you lose, and so on], or where we are always either on the offensive or the defensive. This is not the same things as saying we all have to "agree" or "get along" or even share the same ideologies, methodologies, objectives, etc. [and ethics, too, sometimes meaning having the courage to know when an idea is specious and potentially harmful and needs to be stopped in its tracks], but it does mean trying to work harder to see how each one of us, all the time, is expending some real sweat and valuable [and not always fully replenish-able] psychic energies for our work, and therefore, on some level, it is always personal: our work is literally taken *inside* and becomes a part of who we are, and we tend to get defensive of that, of course. The key might be to start taking things more *impersonally* while still retaining the desire to *want what I want*. If each of us could see that in each other, even when we don't agree, we might have more accord, less professional angst, and still be able to move the profession forward by a process of ideation where there would be struggle [different ideas in tension with each other which move knowledge forward, but only when everyone recognizes that "holding tightly" to anything should never be the final objective--i.e. we have to be willing to want to change and to be changed by others, to never want to only sit still, as it were, in our last best idea] but not the agon of "all or nothing" competition.

I have just finished reading Leo Bersani's and Adam Phillips's "Intimacies," which is more about intimate relationships than it has to do with the professional relationships you discuss here, and yet I can't help but feel there is an important relation between the two realms, and that this book is illuminating in this regard. There is much to *not* like in this book [and I will be blogging about it at In The Middle], but I can't help but be struck by the relevance of the main argument in this book in relation to your post and what I am trying to get at here--

that the project of selfhood, at a certain point, is always about developing a "mastery" that can't help, on some level, being violent [whether psychically or otherwise]. What Bersani calls "the sancrosanct value of selfhood" can account "for human beings' extraordinary willingness to kill in order to protect the seriousness of their statements. The self is a practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethical ideal [and for Bersani's "ethical," substitute "professional," if you like], it is a sanction for violence."

In his Afterword, Phillips writes:

"We can say . . . that we use our putative differences, our cherished idiosyncracies to conceal from ourselves and others the affinities that already exist. Bewitched by the armor of singularity, of a picture of individual identity that has to be fought for over and over, the question for Bersani is, how can we allow ourselves--or, how can we remind ourselves--of our passion for sameness?"

What we need, both personally and professionally, I think, are new ways to relate to each other, not as singular *persons* set along singular paths, but as processes of "becoming."

Eileen Joy said...

And then I also came across this quotation from Foucault, from toward the end of his career, in which he is commenting on his thinking/work on "The History of Sexaulity," and which I think is apropos to your post here:

"It was curiosity—the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower's straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all … [W]hat is philosophy today … if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?" [from the Intro. to "The Uses of Pleasure"]

Stephanie Trigg said...

Eileen, these are great comments, thanks.

They resonate with the discussion on psychoanalysis (are you doing it? and if not, why not?) over at In the Middle, and yes, the question of ethics at conferences and in blogging. Who is fair target? I guess none of us is as robust or strong about receiving criticism - direct or implied - as we would like to think.

And yet for us all to say, all the time, that everyone else's work was always wonderful, would be pretty pointless, wouldn't it? How would we ever learn to think otherwise, then?

Blogging certainly helps me enter into debates a little more boldly than I might do in print, I have to say.

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

I definitely agree, Stephanie, that we can't all just stand around saying, "hey, your work is wonderful," "you're great, don't ever change" [haha--to cadge from some bad 1970s psycho-babble]. The trick, for me, would be how to generate critical conversations in which Foucalt's curiosity and Bersani's impersonal narcissism could somehow work together to allow everyone to do the work they want to do, while never resting at some intractable point that doesn't allow "thinking differently," and of course, in order to think differently, we have to listen, we have to be willing to allow [even, to desire] our thought/work to be *disturbed* by other scholars' thought/work that might call us into question. Now, *not* taking that personally is the hard part, but I would be lying if I did not admit that I do consider that one of my primary projects [both personally and professionally] at present and into the near future [to "want what I want" while not taking things "personally"]. The hitch, or problem, as I see it, is that we depend on certain lines of dis-connection to distinguish/mark ourselves and our work [I am *this* and you are *that*], but ultimately, this is just an illusion--an illusion of individuality, an illusion of there being a "here" and a "there." But this kind of thinking can also easily slip into mysticism, and there is the caution.