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).