Another Book for the List

I woke up this morning to Jeffrey Cohen's post on the end of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, and realized that what she says is kind of what I wanted to say in my dissertation (who needs coffee now?). I should preface this by saying that, as the title indicates, I have not yet read Dinshaw's book, and so this post is a reaction to Jeffery's post more than it is to Getting Medieval. The discovery that Dinshaw is demanding what I want to demand should not have been as surprising as it was; after all, medieval studies is a field in which the past constantly shocks the modern world. But nine years on, Dinshaw's call to use "the ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future" (206) seems from this end of the field like a project only barely begun. Perhaps it has led to to some very useful research and thought, but the full potential of this reading remains, well, potential.

And that's the problem. Literature, and the humanities as a whole, are not just a tool for academics to mumble on about things that should be done—communities, politics, lives expressed in the subjunctive. I know that neither Dinshaw nor anyone at In The Middle believes this, but I do think that is how the academic community tends to see the humanities: it is a field that does nothing but talk about potentials and becomings while having little to no effect on potentiality or actual change. If Althusser (my old standby) is still right, and the academy continues to exist in a position of power the ideological state apparatus, then we have a responsibility to do more than just "acknowledge" our status and "include" marginalized people within the apparatus. We have a responsibility to change how people think, in a way all people can understand, in a way that touches them directly. We may not be able to touch the past, but we can touch the present, and do more than "touch."

Based on what I've read at ITM this week, I would say that Dinshaw's message is an excellent start, but it needs revisiting (or visiting, in my case). I think—I hope—that a careful synthesis with utopian theory and a Marxist hermeneutics will help us discover not only how we can build those "selves and communities," but also why and to what end those selves and communities exist: to change the future, to make it a place without hunger, without exploitation, with, as we used to say (and believe when we said it), "liberty and justice for all."

NB: I like that ending, but I think the "synthesis with utopian theory and a Marxist hermeneutics" might need explaining. I believe this will be useful—despite all the problems that a late-Enlightenment rationalist philosophy has—because I believe that the only way to effect real material change is to believe in a real material world. I think the bridge between that and the ideological/ideal world is utopian theory, and thus I am in solidarity with Ernst Bloch's docta spes: hope, yes, but an educated hope, one that returns to the ground to show how what it saw in the sky can be used on the ground.

Edit: On rereading Jeffrey's post, I think the power of the adjective queer finally hit me: it's a gender-flavored version of the same politics I've been aiming for all along. If we queer the middle ages (borrowing Glenn Burger and Steven F Kruger's phrasing), we make it unheimlich enough that it becomes a critical position in discourse. In other words, queering makes the medieval (or any field) different in a way that lets us argue for (and even argue our way into) real change.

All this has made me more certain that my final chapter is going to be programmatic (without being dogmatic): after moving through numerous medieval texts, I'm going to talk about what those texts show us, and the possibilities they open up for us. To use an example some of you might hear me deliver at SEMA in a few weeks, the potential of Winner and Waster is that it shows a way that one class can "win" a major victory purely through language, leading to a restructuring of society in which everyone, from the king to the Winners, the Wasters, and even the poor, can be better off than they were before. It's not a perfect victory, but it's a good idea, and one we can build from and perhaps even try again.


Dissertation Interlude: The End of Utopia.

I've been reading outside my comps list this week, because I finished two things on it and thought I deserved a break. I'm not sure Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia constitutes a "break," since it is about utopianism, specifically the lack of it in late-20th-century liberal discourse. Jacoby is righteously angry at the slow transition from utopianism to acquiescence: we (meaning primarily American intellectuals and/or academics) no longer take the time to imagine the truly different, and the energy we used to devote to that imagining has been given over to surface-level differences. In his second chapter, Jacoby takes on multiculturalism, which he sees as problematic because it replaces thought on economic and social alternatives with a nebulously defined sense of "culture":
If the economic skeleton of culture were put on the table, patter about diversity might cease; it would be clear that the diverse cultures rest on the same infrastructures . . . . The economic structure of society—call it advanced industrial society or capitalism or the market economy—stands as the invariant; few can imagine a different economic project . . . . The future looks like the present with more options. Multiculturalism spells the demise of utopia. (39-40)
One should note, however, that Jacoby is not against the idea of diversity, that is, of hearing more voices from the historically oppressed. His concern is that these historically oppressed groups, once existing on the margins of society, used to represent groups that could actually challenge the status quo. Now, however, such groups seek inclusion in the hierarchy, becoming "Women's Studies" or "African-American Studies" programs that seek to promote their "culture" while losing their status as ideological enclaves able to question the dominant ideology.

Louis Althusser writes that Ideological State Apparatuses (the tools through which ideology upholds and creates the state) are not only the "stake, but also the site of class struggle, and often of bitter forms of class struggle," in part because the ruling class cannot completely control ideological discourse, allowing the exploited classes "to find means and occasions to express itself there [in ISAs], either by the utilization of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in them in struggle" (147). I would say that Jacoby's concern is that multiculturalism is too much of the latter and very little of the former: once the positions within dominant ideology have been established (Women's studies, gender studies, Latin American studies, etc.), those who occupy those positions are more concerned with showing that we are all the same, deep down.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with his argument, though I find parts of it very convincing. After all, it seems that we do offer up a "choice" between identities that changes our basic relationship to economic society very little—I can be "masculine" or "feminine"; "white," "black," "brown," or "red"; "German," "English," "!Xhosan," "Maya," or "Cantonese"; and still participate in consumer society. However, there is a difference in the way that each of these identities participates in consumer society, although Jacoby is right that such differences are fading as Globalization proceeds.

Because we (again, Jacoby seems to mean "American" when he says "we") all really participate in the same basic economic culture—late capitalism—we end up seeking some form of individuation, some bulwark of difference against the large, totalizing force of consumer culture. As Jacoby puts it, "it is the rootless, not the rooted, who fetishize their roots" (48). The problem, then, is that we stop at the surface-level: if we just put on a different hat or a new sarong, it will all be fine. Again, it is good to have multiple voices in the great social conversation, but those voices need to be saying something other than "we belong to the dominant ideology;" they need to be saying "we will change that ideology." Although Jacoby does not suggest (or has not yet suggested) this, we need to look deeper, and remember that the experience of being e.g. a woman in consumer society is different than being a man in said society, and that that difference can critique not only male consumerism but the notion of consumerism itself. We academics are, to turn to Althusser once more, the higher orders of the ideological apparatus; if we cannot engage that apparatus dialectically, if we cannot put our hands to the machine while we are this close to it, when will we? Part of our job as educators should be to open up even further those spaces in discourse where critiques of that discourse can be made; is this not what we mean by "getting our students to think?"

This is why the European (and in my case, English) middle ages are important to us. They are one of the many places in present-day discourse that represent alternatives. Something to take away from Jacoby is the need to be careful about the "utopianism" one creates: is it providing actual alternatives, or is it just a new hat for the same old social body? I don't want to create the scholarly equivalent of a capitalist at a Renfair. As much as I fetishize the middle ages—and I know I do, with my classics-driven education and my deliberately Anglo-Saxon clerical shorthand, and so on—it does not help to see the Middle Ages as the root of modernity. Instead, we should look at it as a dialectical position with the notion of modernity. As John Ganim and others have argued, the medieval (along with the orient) exists as the primo Western Other, the space in which the modern West can define what it is not. The medieval can provide the seeds for real alternative social orders, not just the wan hope of the pluralism Jacoby describes (pardon the pun on wanhope/despair), but a springboard into new ideas. I do not yet know what those ideas will be (that is part of the dissertating process, after all), but I do know that "the medieval," as a dialectical partner for "the modern," can produce those ideas.

The essential thing is to keep grounded: how does the reading I (or you, or anyone) provide speak to the conditions "on the ground" in the world? This ties, of course, with those notions of presentism that I ran across first in Eileen Joy's post (see here, and here for my response): our work should always exist as if it were important, because it may yet be.

Works Cited
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Tr. Ben Brewester. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 127-183.
Jacoby, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 1999.