Saturday, May 24, 2008

A clarification

In my last post, I said that I don't really "get" postmodern approaches to medieval literature. After reading this tired and, at times, insulting (even to me) critique of the "po-mo desert" of this year's Kalamazoo, however, I'm sorry I said anything of the sort.

Let me be as clear as I can: sometimes I find the excesses of postmodernism to be silly. Twenty years ago, I found the excesses of New Criticism to be silly. And, like all normal people who spend any time at all with medieval thought, I find the excesses of scholasticism to be a downright hoot. It's the excess that I object to, in other words, not the postmodernism. I have no doubt that some of the papers that Allen pokes fun at in her article were as ridiculous as she thinks they are; in a conference of more than 1500 papers, some are going to be pretty bad. But I have a feeling that Allen is taking cheap shots here, finding titles that more traditional scholars (and, especially, non-scholars) would laugh at easily. The paragraphs on "waste studies" are good examples. Allen seems to be saying, "Can you believe that these crazy scholars spend their valuable time talking about shit?" But though I'm not particularly interested in the medieval attitude toward waste, I can think of no good reason to--pardon the pun--dispose of it a priori as a topic of study.

And I was borderline offended by some of the insinuations in the article. It's fine to point out that the "superstars" of medieval studies don't come to Kalamazoo (though I question the accuracy of the statement; I've seen many scholars I consider to be superstars at Kalamazoo). But Allen seems also to be saying that what she sees as the poor quality of the papers at Kalamazoo is a reflection of the mediocrity of the scholars who present there, people she refers to at one point as "bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students." Nice. She also argues that the proliferation of papers in the area of medieval literature (as opposed to medieval history, apparently) is a big part of the problem. As a scholar of medieval literature working at a (shudder) community college, I can only imagine what Allen thinks of me. [NOTE: as others have pointed out, Allen, as a Ph.D. student at Catholic Univeristy, is hardly one of the "superstars" she seems to be miss at Kalamazoo].

The most interesting thing about Allen's article, however, is the effect it had on me. Granted, I'm not part of her target audience (which consists, I suppose, largely of casual, non-medievalist intellectuals of a conservative bent), but I found that the article had exactly the opposite effect to the one she intended: it made me wish I was there. Much of Allen's characterization is dead on, of course. The number of papers at the conference is ludicrous. The dorm rooms are torturous. The dance is absurd. But these are the things that make Kalamazoo what it is. It's unlike any other conference in the world. And it's ours.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I also missed not going to Kzoo this year. It is true that there is not much early medieval history relative to literature. I think that is completely down to the number of jobs in early medieval history vs. primarily English and other languages. How many well-known/established Anglo-Saxon or Romano-British historians can you think of it in the US? I can think of only four and two of them are specifically military historians.

I really have to wonder about the wisdom of a graduate student writing an article like that about the field she apparently wants to join.