Tom Prendergast (College of Wooster) and Stephanie Trigg (University odf Melbourne)

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

The Ethics of Trans-Pacific Collaboration

Who are we? And more particularly, who are we when we write? We have been working together on a co-authored book for several years now, and one of the most common questions we have had to answer is: how do you do it? We take this to be mostly a question about how we actually put sentences together, but there is another dimension here which, under Eileen’s invitation, we think it might be profitable to consider under the rubric of ethics.

The question was put to us more forcefully last month when we gave a talk together and mentioned the prospective title of our book, We Have Always Been Medieval. One of our interlocutors asked us, “but who’s the we?” Our title riffs on Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and is designed not so much to complement his thesis but to draw attention to the strange temporalities of the medieval, and the medievalistic. Much of the book is concerned with the uneasy dynamics between traditional, and even modern studies of medieval literature and culture, on the one hand; and the study of medievalist reprisals of the medieval past on the other. It is no simple matter to untangle the different kinds and degrees of critical investment in keeping the two disciplines quite separate, for example; or in arguing for the development of the critical study of medievalism as a separate field. We’ll be suggesting, indeed, that the medieval is often already medievalistic, that it often already contains the seeds of its own re-making; and moreover, that the medieval is less an object or a period defined by historical or chronological boundaries than an activity. Doing medievalism, or re-making the medieval, we will argue, is a process that anyone who talks about or studies the medieval, from whatever institutional or popular perspective, is engaged in.

So there is a broad sense in which our title includes all of us; and it thus raises the ethical and the epistemological issue of how we think we can speak for such massive cultural phenomena, and the multitudes of participants. Most particularly — and we have found this out in the shadowy outlands of readers’ reports and draft comments that only accidentally see the light of day — we have diagnosed a distinct wariness about our claims that nevertheless is reluctant to go into print. If there is a “we”, then, there is also a “they”; and that “they” does not want to be interpellated by our title; and yet they can also see that to resist our claim that medieval studies is implicated, whether it likes it or not, in medievalism studies, risks painting them into the corner of a conservative rearguard.

We are also conscious that while the dynamic between medieval and medievalism studies has recently become a fashionable topic, it is not a new topic; that a number of scholars have trod this ground, or pioneered work in this area before. This is one aspect of what we call the ethics of citation. We need to acknowledge the work of those who have gone before us, but our project insists we write a different kind of genealogy from the existing narrative. Indeed, it is in response to this narrative of medievalism that we write back. Once again, even as we make claims for a different kind of medievalism, we would acknowledge that we are writing to as well as for an audience that might well conceive of itself as the “we” and us as the “them.”

As with so many things, then, it comes to a question of identity. And it is here that we make the claim that the process of collaboration might shed some light on what it means when we use the first person plural. We live in different countries, each with very different versions of national medievalism, and working in completely different institutional environments (an Australian university and an American Liberal Arts College). So, we see each other once, or twice a year, if we are lucky. When we do, we tend not to sit and write together at all. If you saw us collaborating, you might even be appalled by the amount of excellent food and drink we consume in the process. Because we are friends, we take immense pleasure in each other’s company, so that it hardly looks like work. Some of our best ideas emerge from road trips. We talk and talk, and then go away to our own countries and write some more. We write sections each, then write over each other’s words, with greater and greater freedom as the years go by.

So it seems like pleasure, but our sense of obligation to each other is immense. A deadline from a publisher is one thing; a deadline for a friend is far more compelling. When we began writing, each of us was terrified the other would write more, would end up carrying a heavier load. We toyed briefly with the idea of writing separate sections, each with our name on them, but decided very early on that we would write as a “we”, with both our names attached. There is, of course, danger in this “we.” Everyone has heard stories about collaborations gone bad--missed deadlines, bitterness, jealousy--yet to date, we have not yet had any disagreements of much substance at all.

Part of the reason for this is that, in the context of a friendship, the circulation of text between us is irreducible to any easy quantification of labour and time. It is best described as a gift exchange; only partly in the Maussian sense, of creating obligations of reciprocity and exchange. It is an odd kind of gift economy, where the pleasures of giving and receiving are more or less mutual. If the sense of obligation is great, so too is the pleasure. Imagine the bliss of opening up your email, finding half a chapter attached to it, when you haven’t written a word of it, and yet it has your name on it. We also find ourselves being improved by, and being emboldened by each other. As Judson Allen used to say about his collaboration with Theresa Anne Moritz, there are some people that, when you’re talking with them, make you smarter. Our “we” then is not an expression of a univocal ethical imperative so much as a relationship that projects possibility as it looks forward into the past.