About that “Dark Age for Medievalists” thing . . .

Charlotte Allen has written an exceedingly silly article about this year’s Kalamazoo International Conference. Scott Nokes has a list of the various responses here. I want to draw attention to some aspects of the article that I think haven’t really received as much attention at they ought.

Allen asserts that “One session was entirely devoted to medieval blogs, including a paper comparing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to the blog “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.”

This is interesting since not only was I there, but I liveblogged it.

I know for a fact Ms. Allen wasn’t there, and didn’t even do a cursory Google check, because the paper about “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” wasn’t even presented.

Just after the blogging panel reference, Allen refers to session 116 “Neomedievalism I: Alternative Realities.” She specifically refers to one paper from that session:

In one of those papers, delivered with much help from PowerPoint and titled “Knights, Dykes, Damsels and Fags: Gender Roles and Normative Pressures in Neomedieval Films,” Wayne Elliott , a graduate student at Kent State University, argued that the film A Knight’s Tale had a homoerotic subtext because it starred Heath Ledger. Poor Ledger. He made the double career mistake of (a) playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and (b) dying before he had a chance to live it down.

Let’s look at this really closely, shall we? First of all, I was at the panel, and, being a geek and a medievalist, I took notes. Let’s look first at her comment on Elliot’s paper—which was in fact arguing that there was a definite “male gaze” phenomena in the film A Knight’s Tale.” He demonstrated this by referring to other gazes in the film, and by using screen caps. True, he didn’t adequately define his terms, but he definitely has something to work with in terms of what happens in the film. Secondly, he did something else that was kind of cool—he looked at the role of a fairly minor supporting female character in the film, Kate the Farris (farrier). He looked at her social roles, and her interactions with other characters, and he described her as a dyke, attempting to specify exactly what he meant by the term, and why it applied to Kate—and specifically distinguishing dyke from lesbian in terms of use and meaning. That was interesting, and worth noticing.

But look at what Allen does with Elliot’s paper— she reduces it to an assertion that Eliot argued that “Knight’s Tale had a homoerotic subtext because it starred Heath Ledger.” He did nothing of the kind. That’s just a pot shot, and a mean-spirited one that’s manifestly inaccurate. Now look at Allen’s next statement, with respect to Heath Ledger, who plays the protagonist in Knight’s Tale.

Poor Ledger. He made the double career mistake of (a) playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and (b) dying before he had a chance to live it down.

Now isn’t that delightful? She refers to Ledger’s death— a death by overdose— and turns it into an anti-queer slam—notice the “double career mistake” reference, and the assertion that Ledger died “before he had a chance to live it down.”

Why yes, this is the same person who wrote this lovely misogynistic screed. And yes, she’s brimful of unjustified malice towards her peers.

You’ll note that Allen complains somewhat bitterly about critical theory, particularly what she, less than accurately, terms “pomo.” For instance:

Not that the postmodernist modus operandi was likely to be any different elsewhere. Down the hall from waste studies that morning was Session 5: “(Ab)normal Societies: Disability as a Socio-cultural Concept in Medieval Society.” The parentheses bracketing the “Ab” are examples of a favorite postmodernist punctuation strategy, signaling to readers in the know that putatively neutral words such as “abnormal” actually convey oppressive, often sexist, hidden agendas.

Anyone who thinks “abnormal” is “putatively neutral” needs a basic etymology class; it can’t possibly be “neutral.” That’s sort of its purpose–to point at the thing that is not “neutral,” safe, expected, or comfortable to confront, usually, to make such things (and people) easy to avoid.

Behind (I fear to use “subtext here”) all the back-of-the-bus little boy poo-poo jokes, Allen is clearly uncomfortable in particular with the juxtaposition of the “pomo” and the medieval. Ms. Allen ought to know that the middle ages are very much inherently “pomo” in the ways primary texts and their creators are constantly self-referential, and deliberately cross back and forth between propre person, character, and narrator.

That’s not all she’s uncomfortable with either:

There were numerous other papers with either “normative” (“heteronormativity” is bad because it implies that heterosexuals are more normal than homosexuals) or “masculinity” (like femininity, a social construct, not an inherent characteristic) in their titles,

Heteronormativity is not “bad,” but it is a set of assumptions that needs to be checked. If we read with heteronormative assumptions, we may not be really reading medieval texts either authentically or critically accurately— and that’s bad. It means we’re applying 21st century assumptions to early centuries, which, while often interesting and provocative, isn’t the only or even the best way to read an early text.

She also objects to Tolkien and Harry Potter at Kalamazoo, opining that

The total number of medievalists probably exceeds the total number of college undergraduates these days who have the slightest interest in learning the smallest thing about the Middle Ages. That dismal fact lies at the core of all other observations to be made about the congress.

This particular statement reflects poorly on Allen’s research skills.

There are more undergrads interested in things medieval now, than in the last twenty years–in part because of the strong presence of medieval cultures and references in contemporary pop culture like Lord of the Rings, A Knight’s Tale, and Harry Potter (has Allen forgotten that Tolkien was an important medieval scholar as well as philologist?).

Then there’s this bit:

Thus the overwhelming majority of the sessions nowadays are in the field of literature, especially English literature, which is notorious for its vulnerability to theoretical hoo-hah and for the large numbers of bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students needed to staff the required freshman composition classes that are run out of many universities’ English departments.

Err, well, no, early English literature really isn’t “notorious” for “its vulnerability to theoretical hoo-hah”— speaking as one who fled to the bastion of philology after a bit too much Derrida—for the simple reason that the mind set that allows one to become comfortable reading, often in mss., Old and Middle English, never mind Medieval Latin, or Old Norse, or Old Irish, isn’t one to lend itself to “hoo-hah” of any stripe.

But her closer is . .. well, it’s pretty much “And they dress funny, too!”

I don’t mind Ms. Allen judging the conference by whatever standard she sees suitable. I’d just much rather that she judged it for what it is–one of the largest gatherings of medievalists in the world, one where historians rub shoulders with philologists, and grad students with Really Big Name Scholars (yes Charlotte, they were there too—and quite a few of the future Really Big Name Scholars)–instead describing a conference that bears so little relationship to the one I attended, that I honestly initially thought her article was inept parody.

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