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:
And then there are some following provocations to further thought: