Monday, September 8, 2008

A Future to Defend?

Over at ITM the past few days, there's been a really generative and stimulating discussion on "defending" medieval studies. The conversation was prompted by JJC's posting of a missive he received soliciting some advice. What was intended to be and initially prompted more pragmatically focused discussions quickly became a more wide-ranging conversation not just about the institutional prospects of medieval studies but about the very morphology of a futural frame. This was itself prompted by JJC's own rearticulation of the missive's concerns in the form of "the existential question: why must we be?"

I made a few contributions to the conversation, in which I tried to discuss how academic norms not only govern and normalize but also delimit the field of intelligible action/knowledge/pleasure and the viable ways of living such delimited fields enable and sustain. My suggestion was for a strategic engagement with such norms. Readers familiar with Judith Butler's work will quickly recognize its formative impact on my thinking in this area, especially as she's raised such concerns in Undoing Gender. I especially recommend reading Eileen's two amazing comments/posts. But here are just a few tasty morsels of that conversation:

JJC's institutionally tested wisdom:
  • "Medievalism is a medievalist's friend."
  • "[M]ake the argument [to administrators] in language they know, touching upon topics they already recognize as worthy, so that you can bring them to a place at which they would not have anticipated arriving in advance."
  • "In order to get projects funded -- in fact sometimes just to keep a position or project alive -- you have to speak with a certainty about the future that you don't actually possess."
Eileen's joyful prospectus on curriculuar/institutional arrivants:
  • "compile a kind of narrative bibliography of the increasingly important role that medieval studies is playing in important contemporary fields such as queer studies, postcolonial studies, and Continental philosophy, as well as in the *historical* development of critical and cultural theory more broadly."
  • We "(1) work strenuously to delineate all the connections as well as fissures and cracks that inhere in various representation-event matrices....(2) explore the slower and semi-still currents of deep historical time that inhere in present cultural formations....(3) enter into active collaboration with scholars working in more contemporary fields of cultural studies and cultural theory."
  • "By continuing to hang on to periodization as the number one way we define our curricula as well as our job hires, we will always run the risk of what I would call the law of diminishing returns as well as planned obsolescence."
  • "we have to think of ways to both protect that kind of work [what I would call the right to the freedom of intellectual inquiry and historical research] while also better integrating it into new curricular models that don't simply re-inscribe little specialist ghettos"
  • "Any form of autonomy, held on to too tightly and defended from a too narrow trench, ultimately makes its future viability more vulnerable. Knowledge for its own sake will always be an important mantra and even an end in itself that should be vigorously defended, but when funding is the bottom-line issue, better integration of individual knowledge fields into a heteronomous university is the key. There should also be room within traditionally-structured colleges and universities for experimental/temporary "centers" or "Institutes" that would not solidify into permanent units and whose contours would always be shifting in different directions."
  • "Nobody ever actually gets to any one subject or idea "first"... and sometimes two or more scholars are having the same thought simultaneously in different places and with no knowledge of each other's existence, and theory, in my mind, really develops asynchronously, rhizomatically, etc., and sometimes I wish we had more scholarship that tried, as strenuously as possible, to take account of this [a more full genealogy or archaeology of ideas and forms of idea]....No one ever thought of anything "first." Ever. So it's not question of acknowledging who got anywhere "first," so much as it is a question of better efforts on our part to be paying attention to what practitioners are doing on work that we can say we always have "in common," regardless of period."
  • "I can only think the medieval backwards, as it were, through contemporary moments. I like to make connections, but I never claim they are illuminating as regards a "whole" history or even a continuous one. My method has always been asynchronous and anti-teleological and I mainly do it because it's pleasurable...."
Karl's rhizomes of academic desiring:
  • attend to the significant and continually important role of the medieval within/for current cultural formations and artifacts
  • How our "work and professional interest is always already caught up in desiring networks....[and that] we ourselves are cross-disciplinary. In that sense, the disciplines could be thought to inhibit the real conditions of our existence, our becoming."
  • on the limiting nature of a "hunt for origins": "any notion of 'first' is at its heart teleological."
  • "[I]t's much better to think of multiple expressions of this thing we call the 'responsible subject' rather than any simple binary of before and after interiority. The 'modern subject' is not a culmination, but a different manifestation of a set of concerns and interests that might be entirely new, but perhaps which manifested themselves differently at different times, places, and professions in the MA. I think we need a non-teleological history--even a history of a single moment in all its discursive and temporal heterogeneity--of the boundaries of the self."
Mary Kate on how life in the university is predicated on forms of belonging, of being-together.

Holly Croker's timely remarks on the problematic tendency to "conflate period, time, and field," and how difficult but necessary is the challenge to think outside narratives of linear progression.
  • "it seems to me worthwhile to think about the differences between temporality, periodization, and professional field. Maybe we can abandon linear temporality, but study periodization as an interpretive practice (with a history, no doubt). Then we can ask better questions about the professional politics that might result from such practices."
  • "When does overlooking someone else’s work cease to be oversight and take on the political power of exclusion from a professional field?....But when is that practice something that we medievalists need to redress (because we are being erased from the larger discourse), and when is it simply a byproduct of different scholars asking the same questions in different fields? Can we be okay with other scholars working on parallel questions without explicit acknowledgement? To be alongside one another, do we need recognition, in sum? If so, how do we ask for such recognition without getting tangled up within a dialectic of mastery?"
And the conversation continues there ...

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