Carolyn Anderson (University of Wyoming)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship

Queering Ethics for Cowboys and Rodeo Queens

Michael Calabrese argues, as Susan [Morrison] says, against a “politically driven medieval literary criticism,” and for an “Arnoldian disinterestedness.” Can historical scholarship ever be disinterested?  I want to focus on the point raised by Lauren Berlant’s  essay “The Subject of True Feeling,” where, as Jeffrey Cohen noted in the In The Middle blog, she writes: “What does it mean for the struggle to shape collective life when a politics of true feeling organizes analysis, discussion, fantasy, and power? When feeling, the most subjective thing, the thing that makes persons public and marks their location, takes the temperature of power, mediates  personhood, experience, and history; takes over the space of ethics and truth?”

Medievalists are not the only scholars with copious angst over the role of theory and the fact the “presentism” somehow obfuscates the past and enables us to even disremember the past. I want to raise the following provocations (without answers guaranteed!):

1) We find the fact that there is no obvious difference or even definition between ethics and morality disturbing;   

2) We are uneasy that there is no, or might not be any, logical difference between ethics in the Middle Ages and ethics in the 21st Century;

3) This is a trap in many ways: a) if we view the past from our own realized place in time and history, we risk making it a complete alterity, with no relation temporally to ourselves. There is no causal effect between an action and a result (then OR now);

4) We generally are wary of  the results of grand narratives of history, as power and discourse shape ourselves and the past;

5) In a discussion of Foucault’s work on Plato, where Thrasymachus asks “Why should I be just?” a critic points out that “Foucauldian archeology does not seek to rediscover the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses on a gentle slope, to what precedes them, or follows them: its problem is to define discourses and their specificity; to show in what way they are discontinuities”;

6) We are silent Enlightenment followers of Rousseau: we believe in the efficacy of education and we believe also in some ideal that education may achieve.

Therefore, some counterpoints:

1) How very Platonic of us! We want an ethical utopia, and we are faced with an Aristotelian bond to time and space. But this is a confusion between what we want to achieve in the classroom and in our scholarship, and the very methods and discourses we use. We want “ethics” and simultaneously rely on the fact that, as Karma Lochrie has pointed out, “there is a “tyranny of binarism.” We are historically instantiated, and Arnoldian disinterestedness is merely, in my view, still a form of history, in this case, the jealous God of Western Christian European formalism. 

2)  As scholars, we desire, in a confused way, analytical respectability and modern relevance, along with the maintenance of our discipline and field, and we achieve this often by means of the practice of 19th-century philologists and scientists. We say to the department, the Dean, or President of the University, “We have books, we have analysis, we have data, we have end goals,” and if we don’t, we can always hide behind the discussion of the “real text,” (whatever  that is)! We can deal with an acerbic reviewer’s disdain for any theoretical work of the last century (“Derrida, Marx, and whoever”). We can always say, “We are erudite (habes Latinam?), and that provides us with the decent obscurity of a learned language.

3)  We are historical, and we want to be absolute. We are creatures of discourse and history, in our own Althusserian ways. And yet, we ARE faced with real ethical problems, as I will discuss as a means of eliciting comment. I do not claim to have any ethical superiority or fixed answers.

SO then, the classroom;

Of course we are not absolute! Yes, there is a tension between the historical instantiation and corporeality of discourses past and present, and we are wary of strange historical contingencies  (actually, we tend to be interested in them in our scholarship),  and we are, nevertheless, tied to the Enlightenment absolutist belief and hope in ethical progress. So, we are in a mess. I say, “That’s fine, let’s be queer.”

In our courses, our practice is often the following:

      • Some formalist discussion of the text, just like any respectable 19th-century scholar (and we vary in this, depending on the course, and our own interests). I like arcane philological details. I remember to this day the first time I read Grimm’s Law in high school, and I still like it, and students know that I can be diverted off the point if they ask a philological question, especially if I relate it to, e.g., deconstruction as an inevitable outcome of Indo-European language as discourse.
      • We make a choice in any course about what and how much we will cover, and if the text then is a product of discourse, so we must admit, are we. A grand narrative is a chimera.
      • We have contemporary interests, and ever-changing students, and ever-changing discourses.
      • So we present, using Glenn Burger’s notion of the “axis of categories,” several different approaches to a text.
      • Overall, we are betwixt and between: We are historically inflected, we like our dream of absolutist presence rather than what we have as an abyssal absence, and that is surely the point vis-a-vis criticism and teaching. We would like sophos rather than mimesis, and we can’t have it. That is why we have different courses and topics. We are discursive beings, and therefore untidy in our approaches to our discipline, there is no ONE Middle Ages; there are many old answers  that we question anew, and some entirely new ones, and we champion hybridity and are simultaneously disturbed by the ethical messiness that ensues.
      • So … after all this, we cannot solve the problem of adopting an ethical truth, and our scholarship says there isn’t one anyway; I announce my approaches in my syllabi, and discuss contemporary issues , such as the following: 1) the dreadful Memorandum of Understanding of torture techniques planned and written in legal discourse by the US Dept. of Justice in my “Popular Views of Christians and Muslims class”; 2) casual racism and panic about the Other, however that is constituted, and the hard edge of the medievalist community in the “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog T-Shirt”: “Habeas Corpus: 1215- 2005: Now who’s medieval?”; and 3) the various and heterosyncratic  lives of my university's cowboys in Stetsons, cowboy boots, and belt buckles the size of Nebraska, along with our young women with University Scholarships they won as rodeo queens -- it cannot be, and is not, a matter of  treating a class as a unity.

    And then there are some following provocations to further thought:

      • Reflect on the humorously flabbergasted response elicited by students, when we are silent and our discourse fails. An example is a student discussion paper presented in class on the Prioress's Tale where the student began, “I don't want to be anti-Semantic here . . . .” What is worse, is that this episode of ethical failure is remembered for its confusion in vocabulary rather than anything else: the suggestion is that the student is merely so overwhelmingly stupid that the comment  does not need serious consideration. That is, incidentally, one of Calabrese's points, where he says that “the racism and anti-Semitism is so obvious that scholars do not need to mention it.” I cannot give details here, but I think discussing the anti-Semitism involved was an important part of the class.
      • All this leads to: the high school dropouts who murdered Matthew Shepard, and tied him to a fence on the prairie in the snow were similarly stupid and uneducated. Do we really want assert that education not only should not but even CANNOT change ethics?
      • Is it OK to be amused about the past as long as we are properly outraged in the present? Is the Middle Ages just a melange of irrational, superstitious, “backward,” or “medieval” reactions that WE have “progressed” from? Remembering also the tag, “Silence gives assent” -- I would suggest that laughing at stupidity hides the fact that it is dangerous.
      • Next, what might be an absolute wrong: are women who wear the burqa suffering from Marx's false consciousness? What about performing and insisting on female genital circumcision? Or slaughtering Saracens and Jews in Antioch, in “pious slaughter” acknowledged and chronicled by the crusaders themselves?
      •  So I figure, there is only a hope that sentiment is followed by reflection, and I think we  attend to the disruptive silences, absences, and presences of disturbing politics in our teaching. There is no uniform collective, and that itself is a good. Or not. As Voltaire once said (in a reference I cannot find), “Doubt is not a pleasant position, but certainty is absurd.”  Either way, we’re here, we’re hybrid and queer: either get over it, use it, or at least have some fun.