I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Something to look forward to: the modern medieval

Here's a schedule, with abstracts, for a symposium in beautiful Perth next month. It'll be hot – and fabulous! All welcome.

UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

The modern medieval: a one-day symposium

Old Senate Room, Irwin St Building, UWA.

Thursday, January 28, 2010.

What do Australian parliamentary ritual, heritage tourism, fantasy fiction and cinema, and modernist poetry have in common? Answer: the middle ages.  The relation of contemporary culture to the medieval period keeps transforming itself at every level from the popular to the highbrow, with surprising results.  In this one-day seminar, a group of distinguished international scholars will examine what the middle ages mean to the modern world, and how we make that meaning.

All interested are welcome to attend. There is no charge. For catering purposes, please RSVP to Pam Bond, pam.bond@uwa.edu.au; phone: 6488 3858.

For enquiries, please contact Andrew Lynch, andrew.lynch@uwa.edu.au; phone: 6488 2185.


28 January, 2010

9.15 am: Coffee and welcome

9.30 am
Seeta Chaganti (University of California, Davis) 

Wild Surmise: Medieval studies and the realms of history and poetry.

For medievalists, the relationship between studying poetic form and studying history has always been complicated. On the one hand, as Lee Patterson has argued, formalist criticism always contained within itself the seeds of new historicism. On the other hand, practices of formalist and historicist reading can find themselves at odds with each other for various reasons. Privileging literary form is sometimes seen as hegemonic, and such conservatism can run counter to the Marxist-inflected historical analysis in which new historicism is rooted. In addition, as Gabrielle Spiegel has noted, because historicist study tends to absorb history into textuality (so that diverse kinds of historical evidence are all treated as interlinked symbolic systems), the particular forms that texts take are vulnerable to occlusion.  In this paper, I address this uneasy relationship between history and poetry in medieval studies, suggesting ways in which poetics and poetic form unexpectedly reveal themselves in visual and material aspects of medieval culture. I argue that by looking outside the realm of textuality, whether toward aesthetic objects or nonverbal performances like dance, we can ultimately derive a fuller sense of what the poetic meant in the Middle Ages, and what kind of work poetic form did.

10.30: Morning tea

 Laurie Ormond (UWA):
Fantasy fiction and the individual claim on cultural memory

It is a commonplace that the medievalism invoked in works of contemporary fantasy fiction has been uncoupled from historical context. There is pleasure for the fantasy reader in recognizing the past, but such recognition occurs through the reader’s appreciation of the adaptation and transformation of ‘traditional’ material. Many elements of European cultural memory that might be associated with the communal or even the national are refocused in fantasy fiction through the individual, emotional experiences of its protagonists. Indeed, fantasy fiction sharpens its focus on individual development around a character who is exceptional; exceptionally magical, exceptionally gifted, exceptionally persecuted, exceptionally questioning of his or her culture.  Following the work of Jane Tolmie, I will investigate how the ‘exceptionality’ of the protagonist constructs ideas of the medieval past.

Within fantasy fiction, 'the past' is experienced as something that necessitates exceptionality in the protagonist.  There is an element of otherness to the past even when it is experienced, in the logic of the fantasy novel, as the present. A critique of the medievalist past is usually focused through gender, in such a way that the medieval experience is claimed as it is rejected. The heroes and heroines of fantasy fiction seem to reflect the readers’ desire to inhabit a medievalist fantasy and yet to challenge it at the same time. The utterly contemporary nature of fantasy fiction’s presentation of an oppressive, dualistic, sexually paranoid past, and the tension in the novels between a desire to inhabit and to condemn this imagined past, seem to me to be revealing about present attitudes in medievalism towards gender and patriarchy.

11.30- 12.00:
Sylvia Kershaw (UWA)
 The Gaiman/Zemeckis Beowulf

Robert Zemeckis' 2007 film Beowulf presents itself not as an adaption of the Anglo-Saxon poem, but as a creative rediscovery of emotional and psychological truths that have been obscured by the original source. Zemeckis' film performs a dual transformation of the epic narrative of Beowulf, presenting it simultaneously as a modern story and a 'timeless' myth. This paper examines some of the effects of this transformation, particularly with regard to the film's approach to gender.   

Zemeckis' film constructs 'myth' as simultaneously more ancient and more modern than 'literature,' as a pattern that maintains a presence in the present. The transformation of Beowulf into 'myth' encourages a reading practice that, to some extent, naturalizes ideas of gender and heroism that underlie particular film-genre conventions. Perhaps too the medieval setting provides a space where such 'essential' ideas of gender, heroism, and monstrosity do not seem out of place to a modern audience, where they seem in fact to be 'appropriate.' This discussion will examine some of the ways in which the medievalism of Zemeckis' Beowulf has been constructed through the conventions and expectations of popular genre, and, in turn, the ways in which its appeal to the medieval exposes some of the desires embedded in popular forms. 

12.00-1.00 pm
Chris Jones (St Andrews)

‘Wordum wrixlan’: modern poets reading Old English

Beowulf presents us with an image of an Anglo-Saxon poet composing, we are told that the poet began 'wordum wrixlan', 'to vary or alter the words'. Scholars have sometimes seen in this detail a glimpse into the workings of a poetic culture that is, at least residually, partly oral-formulaic in character; the poet appears to take pre-existing poems and alter their words in order to create a new work to suit his circumstances of composition. The 'Beowulf'-poet's image of Old English poetic practice also provides us with an analogy for thinking about how modern poets have made use of early English poetry as a resource for their own compositions, taking pre-existing Old English poetry as a starting-point in order to 'wordum wrixlan'. This illustrated reading will provide a 'tour' of modern poets who use Old English in their own work, and will include readings of work by characters such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney among others. The session will also provide commentary on the types of use being made of Old English, accessible to non-specialists as well as specialists. It will be shown that Old English remains a contemporary part of the living English poetic tradition.

1.00-2.00 pmLunch.

2.00-3.20 pm
Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne)

The traditional, the quaint and the medieval in Australian parliamentary practice

In 2004, Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate in the Australian federal parliament, gave a paper, “The traditional, the quaint and the useful: pitfalls of reforming parliamentary procedures.” In this paper he explored the deep affection in the parliament for many of its traditional rituals, regardless of their relationship to legislative or constitutional reality. “There comes a stage,” he wrote, “when the traditional and the quaint may not only conceal or repudiate substantial legislative values, but simply overwhelm them and bury them in such a pile of tradition and quaintness that they can scarcely be exhumed.”

This paper explores the medieval component of many parliamentary rituals and traditions, especially the offices of the Serjeant and the Usher of the Black Rod, and their accompanying instruments of authority: the Mace and the Black Rod itself. What is the relation between the medievalism of such practices and the idea of “tradition?” and how do we encode the “traditional,” the “medieval” and the “quaint” in Australia? The paper will also interrogate the changing role of the medieval at different moments of parliamentary reform in Australia.

I will suggest that modern parliaments perpetually define themselves against tradition, which is coded as predominantly medieval.

Louise D’Arcens (University of Wollongong)

Laughing at the Past: Satire and Nostalgia in Medieval Heritage Tourism

Satire and nostalgia would seem to imply opposing attitudes to the medieval past: one laughs at it, the other longs for it. And yet they operate within a shared cross-temporal frame, in which past and present are made to pass comment on one another. So is medievalist satire just a form of crypto-nostalgia? Does it increase or contain our sense of nostalgic distance from the Middle Ages? How does nostalgia function as a tool of satire? Can we laugh at the Middle Ages and long for them at the same time? These and other questions will be explored in relation to a range of satirical medievalist strategies used within heritage tourism in its attempt to make us laugh at the Middle Ages … or perhaps at ourselves.

3.20-3.50 pm Afternoon Tea

Panel discussion: Making the modern medieval

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