Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pewter Dragons, Memory, and the Dustbin of History

Much like re-gifting, I am recycling a post from my old, never quite launched blog. I started a blog called Medievalandia, and not too long after I was invited to join a group blog here at Modern Medieval. I am much happier in this sort of shared environment. The piece below is the first post. It's hopeful for a future that doesn't happen, at least not in the way anticipated. But I am still (intermittently blogging), so that's something.

I wrote this as I was getting ready to move from St. Louis to New Orleans, a little over a year ago. I was thinking about this piece because it involves the memory of a Christmas gift. As my first full year at Tulane winds down, it feels appropriate to post this piece about beginnings, endings, and memory. As the Gawain-poet might say, also around this time of year: “A ȝere ȝernes ful ȝerne, and ȝeldez neuer lyke, / Ƿe forme to þe fynishment foldez ful selden.”


Ok, so here it goes.  My first blog post.  I must have started a blog a half-dozen times, and I've never gotten to the posting stage.  I always end up futzing around with the name and the layout, and then I ignore it or delete it.  I still don't know--at the time of writing this--if this blog will suffer the same fate or not.

Several events have come together to inspire me to try this again.  Most of them I won't talk about yet (tantalizing, eh?), but perhaps the most significant influencing factor is my impending move.  I am about to leave the institution where I received my PhD to take a postdoc position, and so I feel at a crossroads of sorts--what will this mean for my career? My personal life? Am I taking that first step towards a career (at last) or will I be treading water? Amidst all this fairly boring angst, I am also packing, sorting, eliminating, and reacquainting myself with belongings that I have kept hidden in closets for about a decade. 

During my archeological work, I discovered an old collection of pewter dragons and pseudo-medieval fantasy pieces.  You know the sort. I know you do.  I used to collect them, especially in high school, college, and even during the first part of grad school.  I was attracted to these hyperreal examples of popular medievalism long before I knew what a medievalist was.  I am hard put to explain my collection of these objects.  I once even had a full pewter, medievalesque chess set (I managed to sell it on eBay).  With the move ahead of me, I have decided to get rid of all of them (well most).  It is not because I have decided to put away childish things, but because (I think) I am not quite in touch with that former version of myself anymore. And, I am disinclined to just pack them and then pack them away again.  But, I did hold on to one piece for sentiment's sake.  One of the pieces was given to me as a Christmas gift by a dear friend who passed away while we were both Seniors in college. I find I am unwilling to part with objects that invoke his memory.  

Yet here is the troubling part...I am not sure if I selected the right piece. Because these pewter pieces are all so derivative and interchangeable, and perhaps because of my own shoddy memory, I could not with decisiveness remember which of the many pewter dragons passed through his hands.  I made a choice, and I am fairly sure I am right, but I'll never quite know.  I picked an object to rescue from the dustbin of my personal history and imbued it with sentiment and memory, but it may be a pure invention.  And, you know what? I think I am ok with that.  The memory is the most important thing, and the object is but a pointer to it.  In the twelve years since my friend's death I have revisited the memories of our friendship and those final days many times.  I am also becoming aware of how the more joyful of those memories are taking prominence, and how the once tremendously painful recollection of my adolescent idiocies, which caused some hard feelings, are starting to seem less important. Even though he was my oldest friend, and passed away when we were in our early twenties, I prefer to still think of him as my contemporary, and not some inert memory of my past. My memory of him persists, even if some of it is of my own shaping.   

This is an overly personal prologue to this blog, and I don't intend (at the moment) for this blog to always be so personal.  To be truthful, I don't know yet what shape this blog will take.  I'm going to let it happen as it will. In my reflections on packing, purging, and the past (I need to stop resorting to alliteration...and parentheticals), however, I hit on my main focus for this blog: the ways that the past lives on in the present, despite of and perhaps thanks to its fabrication.  I'm hoping, in the weeks and months ahead, to blog about the modern uses of the medieval, and the medieval engagement with its own pasts.  I'll be traveling ground already covered by many others, so time will tell whether I have anything to add to the many wonderful and fascinating blogs, articles, and books that take the interaction and exchange between past and present as their subject.  I do know that I have set starting a blog as a personal goal for a long time, and until now I have done little to realize it.  The real challenge will be to write entry #2.  Hopefully the next one will be more cogent, and more interesting to others.  I'm awfully aware that I really only wrote this piece for myself.

And, reading back over what I've written, I really do wish I remembered which pewter dragon he gave me.          

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reflections on "E-Medieval"

Last week, I noted the release of the most recent issue of Literature Compass, which is a collection of articles around the special theme "E-Medieval: Teaching, Research and the Net." Since last week, I've been reading through the issue and thoroughly enjoying the essays included. In my previous post, I also said that I would post again after I had read the issue, with some thoughts and a sort of review. Although all of these articles have much to offer, and allow for exploring various ways of approaching digital humanities, I will focus my responses on only a few of the essays. I should mention at the start that the following reflections represent the meanderings of my mind: I wrote these thoughts sort of like a journal of reader responses while I read and thought about the essays, both individually and collectively.

In the first essay--a type of introduction to the themes running through the issue--Larry Swain raises a host of questions about the directions in which digital humanities have moved scholarship, and where academia could move next. Above all, this critique is meant to spur scholars toward new modes of working--not only new tools, but also new questions, new methods, and new products of academia. His suggestions in the last part of the essay are compelling, especially those revolving around using digital tools for collaborative work. To the online academic venues that he singles out as particularly pursuing new avenues (e.g. The Heroic Age and Digital Medievalist), I would add a journal with which I have been involved, Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies--which has offered a nice collaborative work-flow process for the reading and reviewing in which I have taken part. I would also add the growing collaborative capabilities for manuscript work (e.g. transcription, paleography, editing, notes, collation, etc.) at T-Pen.

One aspect of digital scholarship that Larry does not discuss is blogging. Here I find the most connection (for myself) with his suggestions about collaborative scholarship. Blogging is, of course, prominent in this issue, and I found that my own thoughts resonated most with this aspect of the essays. In my experience, blogging has been one of the most direct ways in which the digital and my scholarship have intersected. The footnotes to my scholarship show other ways in which my work meets the digital, but blogging is surely the most public and most evident way of seeing the intersections. My blogging experience has also proven to be one of the most collaborative aspects of my academic life. For a moment, please permit me a digression from discussing the Literature Compass essays.

Once upon a time, I had my own blog that has since gone the way of deleted internet-stuff. About a year after I closed the old blog, I began thinking about blogging again and was kindly invited to join Modern Medieval. Yet even beyond Modern Medieval, my sense of an online academic community extends further back in time and further across the internet. I attribute much of this connection to when I first started reading In the Middle (ITM), which I think was the first blog by medievalists that I encountered. In turn, the folks of ITM, as well as others like Matt Gabriel, Larry Swain, and Jonathan Jarrett (by happy coincidence, several of the very people who have contributed to the Literature Compass special issue), interacted with me through my old blog, and continue to do so through Modern Medieval. This interaction has, in the past few years, also expanded to Twitter, where I continue to have frequent conversations with many of the same people whom I first encountered through blogging. I have, then, become part of a large network of collaborative conversations that certainly affect my work.

Stephanie Trigg addresses blogging specifically in the second article of the Literature Compass special issue. She relates blogging to the behavioral concept of a "displacement activity," to reflect on blogging as an aside to formal, academic writing. Implicitly, this essay does well to challenge assumptions about the role of blogging for academics. I would push this further, to question if blogging might not (perhaps already has?) become another element in the peer-review realm of academia: an outlet that grows and survives through interaction and validation from others. While not producing scholarship along the traditional lines of a rigid peer review process (a la journals), the community of blogging medievalists with which I have interacted--and, I would argue, collaborated--has helped (at least helped me) to foster a special kind of peer review through the many interactions. Thus, my work benefits from the comments, linking, response posts, and Twitter conversations, to name only a few of the ways my peers respond.

Of course, all of this has to do with my identity, as Heide Estes indicates in her contribution to the special issue. I portray different aspects of my identity while blogging, writing formal scholarship, tweeting, and so on. Estes puts it well when she claims the suggests the concept of "a self with a multiplicity of facets, a self that can be expressed in different ways on different days" (980)--to which I would add different media, different spaces, different communities. She also comments (echoing others) that "one of the advantages of blogging, particularly over more typical academic writing with its lengthy time frame to publication and its heavily mediated boundaries, is the possibility of discussion and feedback from readers, at earlier stages in the development of an idea that is customary in academic contexts" (980). In other words, blogging allows for (though it may not always result in!) unfolding collaboration.

Jonathan Jarrett's contribution speaks to yet another aspect of my thinking, namely, the idea that blogging may be a new medium for collaboration is predicated upon audience engagement. Therein lie some of my anxieties. Jonathan does not express his essay precisely in terms of anxiety, but he does point out the tensions of writing a blog, gathering data about readers, and what it says about a potentially "silent audience." This finds an interesting connection with Heide Estes's observation that she rarely receives comments, but her readership is in the hundreds. For my ideas about collaboration--and the possibility that blogging communities could lead to a type of peer review--to work, as Jonathan observes, "the readers that one wants are those who comment, engage, affirm or critique" (994). His positive spin, about assuming readers' interest in the subject, and potential relevance, is compelling. So also are his hopes, expressed in the final lines, that point to the same thing that I hope: that "the academic blog may yet become a tool of affirmation for the Academy" (994).

Many of these themes appear in the final contribution, the four-part essay by ITM bloggers Karl Steel, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley, and Eileen A. Joy. Between the four authors, they end up expressing many of the same ideas I have been reflecting upon as I read the previous contributions. Reading their essay, I even wondered if it all nullified my own thoughts, but I continued anyway--and I am still posting my own reflections as parallel and echoic. Thus, agreeing with Karl, I am glad to have put myself openly and publicly on the internet by blogging; with Jeffrey, I wonder about the negatives of blogging, but ultimately set them aside for the benefits; with Mary Kate, I ponder the process of thinking, blogging, and developing my scholarship; and, with Eileen, I revel in working in community. All of these reflections are worth reading, and the collective essay offers a useful closing to the Literature Compass special issue.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Literature Compass Special Issue on "E-Medieval"

Today I learned (thanks to Elaine Treharne, via Twitter) about the most recent publication of the journal Literature Compass (December 2012): a special issue on "E-Medieval: Teaching, Research, and the Net." Within the issue appear several articles by contributors and friends of our blog, and all of the essays look to offer great reading.

The full contents include:
Larry Swain, "Past, Present, and Future of Digital Medievalism"
Stephanie Trigg, "Blogging, Time and Displacement"
Asa Mittman, "Inverting the Panopticon: Google Earth, Wonder and Earthly Delights"
Matthew Fisher, "Authority, Interoperability, and Digital Medieval Scholarship"
Stephen Kelly, "Vain and Superstitious Habits: On Books and their Future in the University after Books"
Heide Estes, "Blogging and Academic Identity"
Murray McGillivray, "Online Teaching of Old English: Wave of the Future or Wave Goodbye?"
Jonathan Jarrett, "Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging"
Stuart D. Lee, "Anglo-Saxon Studies and Digital Technologies: Past, Present, and Future"
Kathryn A. Lowe, "From Quill to T-Pen: Palaeography, Editing and their E-Futures"
Wendy Marie Hoofnagle, "Technology in the University and the Death of Socrates"
Karl Steel, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley, and Eileen Joy, "Why We Blog: An Essay in Four Movements"
I have already begun reading, and want to read through the whole issue soon. I also plan to report back with some thoughts in response. Hopefully others will respond, too, to create a fruitful dialogue about this.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Editions, Manuscripts, and Digital Spelunking

When I began researching and writing about the use of apocryphal Acts for Old English sermons (for two chapters of my dissertation), it quickly became clear that I would to need to address a widely circulated collection known as the Virtutes apostolorum (sometimes erroneously connected with the name [Pseudo-] Abdias). More particularly, it became clear that the lack of modern critical editions might pose some problems. The last edition of this collection is Johann Albert Fabricius, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, 2nd ed., 3 vols. in 2 (Hamburg: Benjamin Schiller, 1719), II, 402-742; yet even this edition is only a reprint from an earlier edition by Wolfgang Lazius (1552).

Fortunately, over the summer, I received a Lynne Grundy Memorial Trust Award for Scholars in Old English Studies, as well as the Fred A. Cazel, Jr. Fellowship in Medieval Studies from the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Connecticut (it's great to publicly acknowledge this help from both the Trust and UConn Medieval Studies), both of which helped me to attend the First Summer School on Christian Apocryphal Literature at the Université de Strasbourg in June--which focused almost exclusively on the Virtutes apostolorum. There, I worked with a team of scholars (led by Els Rose, the leading scholar on the Virtutes) to examine various aspects of the editions, manuscripts, sources, texts, and receptions of the Virtutes. It was a thrilling experience, and it helped me to face head on some of the issues I had feared. I've also returned to the materials from this seminar often, and they continue to help me with my project.

I've recently returned to some of these issues, and again I've been working very closely with the texts of the Virtutes--and worrying about Fabricius's edition. But, again, I was fortunate. This time, I am most grateful for digital repositories online, which have opened opportunities for reading these Acts in the manuscripts: Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 12641; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 22020; St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 561; and Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Weissenburg 48. While none of these digitized manuscripts on its own solves the problems of lacking a modern critical edition, together they do allow me to do a kind of archival work without which my scholarship would surely suffer in ability as well as quality. It's been a great experience, seeking out these digitized manuscripts, reading them, playing with them, and incorporating them into my project. I like to think of this work as digital spelunking. This is still not a complete solution--but that could only be had (lacking a critical edition, still years in the making) if all of the repositories holding manuscripts of the Virtutes apostolorum would digitize them and make them freely and openly available.

So I find myself recalling some of the conversations currently being had about digital humanities, especially about digitized manuscripts. A few weeks ago, I was elated to find out that the British Library had freed its manuscript images to the public domain. Of course, William Noel has been calling on institutions to do this for months (e.g., see here and here). But it's great to see things moving forward like this, to see more and more digitiemerging, and to be able to benefit from these developments. To be honest, my work would be less for it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

History Without Transition, Part Deux

First, before you read any further, go read Steve Mentz's excellent response to the ongoing conversation about Periodization and Its Discontents.

At the end of my last post, I ended with an overly pithy statement about Hinch's "History without transition," and said that I could think of worse things than such historical practices. Mentz responded as follows: "Without in any way defending heroic conceptions of early modernity that insist on leaping high by stomping on medieval plurality, I don’t want history without transitions. I like plurality, multiplicity, radical difference, but I also want narratives of change, transformation, discontinuity." My own critical sympathies are very much in tune with him here. While I can think of worse things than a History without transition, one worse thing would certainly be only History without transition. 

Ever since reading China Meiville's The City and the City, I've been thinking about the idea of "cross-hatching" as a way to conceptualize temporality and history, of boundaries that are both interpenetrating yet also visible and firm. I'm interested in how we read continuity and discontinuity not as some fixed binary, but as occurring alongside each other.  

What I find most distasteful in Greenblatt's thinking is the privileging of one time period over another, the creation of an abject other out of a segment of the past. To be fair, though, I've only encountered this sort of mentality outside of print once. When I was a graduate student, I did an independent study on the postcolonial Middle Ages, and I received some sideways glances from a few faculty members. But, that's about the extent of it. While Jim Hinch's take-down of Greenblatt was delightful to read, there is a sense, for me at least, that although the older dogmas of heroic conceptions of periodization will never fully die out in various conversations, books like The Swerve are already seeming like the last gasp of a dying species. (I may be too optimistic here.) I think we have the opportunity to have much more vibrant conversations about temporality, history, and periodization. Mentz offers a way that this might happen:
Always periodize — at least twice! With apologies to Jameson, we need periods and transitions, but also need to remember that we should not believe in them too much, that they always do some violence to the full (unknowable) plurality of historical experience. So what about a double (or more) system of periodization, which might be as simple as recognizing that all 21c critical work responds to 21c claims (“presentism”) as well as the demands of historical sources, or as sophisticated as remembering that historical periods never end in any conclusive way, that cultural habits of responding to historical stimuli layer themselves atop and alongside each other, intersecting and accumulating and recombining. With legible but messy transitions.
We cannot ignore the claims and attitudes of our own presentism, nor should we ignore the demands of historicism. We have to negotiate continuity and discontinuity, always.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

History Without Transition: Briefly Noted

Update #2: So, apparently The Swerve has won the 43rd Annual James Russell Lowell Prize from the MLA. No time to write now, but this is frustrating and disappointing.

Update #1: The conversation is ongoing. See here for my follow-up post.

My contributions to this blog have been virtually and unsurprisingly nonexistent since the start of the semester and of the job market season.  But, after engaging in some mutual twitter shaming with other bloggers about "Why don't we blog more?!", I resolved to put something up soon. Then, as if the Fates heard my twitter-whinging, I read two pieces in the last two days that I think readers of this blog should absolutely check out. So, humbly accept this "Briefly Noted" post as a prelude to more writing. Soon.

The first piece that caught my attention is Jeffrey Cohen's draft of a position paper on periodization. The second is a thorough take-down of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, which would be the best critical take-down I've read this year if it weren't for this gem.

Both of these pieces engage with the well-trod problem of how we conceptualize the relationship of the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. Or, to put it more bluntly, they critique the notion that the Renaissance or the Early Modern represents some fundamental break with its past, and that this break constitutes the beginning of the Modern World, or, Everything That Is Good. I have to admit to being surprised by both of these because I did not think there was much to add to the conversation.  I was wrong.

Some key quotes. Jeffrey Cohen:
Medievalists learned long ago that when you carve your scholarly habitation out of time’s wilderness of flux and declare this secure home exclusively yours, you may as well have retreated to the monastery. Or if instead of attempting to live apart from modernity you enter its conversations by insisting that "All your base are belong to us" (or AYBABTU, as the kids write) -- that it all started c. 750 or 1200 or 1500 or whatever -- you will be the person in the corner attempting to be cool by citing old internet memes while really just give those nearby an excuse to step quietly away. 
From Jim Hinch's essay on Greenblatt:
If Greenblatt remained one of the “tenured radicals” he once was accused of being (by no less a scold than George Will), The Swerve might have told readers that notions such as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are little better than shorthand for arbitrarily bracketed periods of time in which certain changes in the pattern of human life are interpreted as significant and others are not. It might have enumerated the costs of so-called modernity, and the continuities from the past that sustain it, alongside the justifiably celebrated developments. It might have noted that many of the supposed religious values scorned by Lucretius — faith, self-sacrifice, an identity shaped not by individual desire but by family and community — remain widespread in western and non-western cultures and are in no way inimical to human freedom and progress. A truly radical book might have left readers feeling more challenged by the past, less quick to pass judgment and more able to find value in ways of life alien to their own.   
What I find so stimulating about both these pieces is that they aren't just defensive rejections of the Early Modern's abject appraisal of the Middle Ages (though Jim Hinch's critique of Greenblatt must do some of this), but rather they are celebrations of the vitality of the past. The sealing off of one period of history from another is disabling and limiting. It stifles creativity and obscures our vision of the past and of the present. As Cohen puts it:
The past is not past, is not an absolute difference; nor is the past conjoined to the present in continuity, in sameness. Past, present, and future are a temporal knot, thick with possibility even while impossible to fully untangle. Time is irregular, history is queer.
Jim Hinch ends his piece with an idea from a former professor of his, that the best history would be a "history completely without transition." I can think of worse things.