Critical theorists please English your English!

I mentioned a little while back that I’d been reading various pieces of John van Engen’s edited volume, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies. This is partly because there’s a seminal article about diplomatic by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak in it I’ve been supposed to read for years but never have (mea maxima culpa),1 but also because exposure to environments like In the Middle leaves me aware that very often, aside from using bits of Matthew Innes‘s and Chris Wickham‘s bases of argument as my own, I don’t think clearly enough about how I do history. I thought therefore that exposing myself, via this convenient medium, to some more theoretical writing might do my approach some good. But in this lofty goal, I’d forgotten just how much critical theory can irritate me.

This is not, I should say, because I don’t think it’s useful. I might question the validity of some approaches with my material; I might, in my more jaundiced moments, wonder how on earth some particular enquiry got funding when there’s so much actual evidence still to go through; and quite often, I wonder whether the categories of analysis that a given theorist is using aren’t anachronistic. (Because, as magistra said in a comment to one of my posts, one of the nice things about the Middle Ages as a study topic is that they frequently illustrate how mutable and environmental our assumptions about people can be.) But even amid all this I am looking for what I know will be there, tools to think with about my evidence and how I read it.

No, the irritation is almost entirely in the presentation. Let me exemplify. Take the word ‘alterity’ (please). A quick prod at JSTOR just now gives 3,456 hits for a search on « (alterity) OR (alterities) ». But what is this damn word? Is it not in fact just a new word for ‘otherness’, which was bad enough in itself but had its function? Another example: ‘legitimate’, not the good old adjective but a verb, from which indeed ‘legitimation’. How did that get birthed? And not only that, how did it supplant ‘legitimise’ and ‘legitimisation’ which were around quite happily meaning the same thing before?

This and other pointless neologisms remind me of nothing so much as Douglas Adams parodying a scientific press interview in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, which I have happily found online here in the lecture text of someone blessedly self-aware:

“I’m afraid I can’t comment on the name Rain God at this present time, and we are calling him an example of a Spontaneous Para-Causal Meteorological Phenomenon.”

“Can you tell us what that means?”

“I’m not altogether sure. Let’s be straight here. If we find something we can’t understand we like to call it something you can’t understand, or indeed pronounce…

“…And if it turns out that you’re right, you’ll still be wrong, because we will simply call him a … er, ‘Supernormal’ – not paranormal or supernatural because you think you know what those mean now, no, a ‘Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer.’ We’ll probably want to shove a ‘Quasi’ in there somewhere to protect ourselves. Rain God! Huh, never heard such nonsense in my life.”

Now, let’s be brutal here: alterity, and legitimation, are examples of just this, someone making it look as if they have thoughts more original than they do by coining a new term rather than the perfectly acceptable old one. And perhaps that can even have a useful function by breaking associations on the part of the reader with work using the old terms. But it’s still verging on mountebankery and I wish people wouldn’t. We are as discussed here before supposed to be involving ourselves in outreach, in communicating what we know to the general public. Now, the general public’s intelligence may be less, in our fields at least, than our own, but the ones who are interested can usually handle some difficult words. All the same there’s no excuse for making the words more difficult than accuracy dictates. If you use this sort of language a lot, consider whether your audience is your own cadre of like-minded peers, or whether you actually want to change the way people at large think. I sometimes suspect that really this kind of criticism thrives on people doing it ‘old-school’ still so as to ensure a supply of targets for the new and radical thinking. In that, I’m reminded of remarks made in this blog a while ago about the Carolingian court élite trying simultaneously to mysticize their special knowledge and recruit people to share it. This is the same bait and switch, and so very medieval but really only an exercise you want to pursue when the emperor is still certain to fund the new clothes you’re busy writing for him…

Direction of the reader, or, we’re all grown-ups here

But of course it’s more complicated than that. One article in the volume in particular left me very conflicted, because I could see the value in what the author was doing and enjoyed the ideas but really had issues with the presentation. The article in question was Kathleen Biddick’s “Bede’s Blush: postcards from Bali, Bombay and Palo Alto”.2 Now this is a very imaginative and entertaining article, but there is a certain kind of immersion you have to achieve to read it. Phrases like: “The double bind has divided medieval studies into camps of pastists and presentists who debate over the epoch in which to locate radical ‘past’ alterity instead of questioning desires for such a boundary as an effect of specific historiographical metanarratives” do not make it easy getting to the meat… If, for example, she had said, “Our pet habits of thinking about the medieval period mark our work without our necessarily questioning these effects. As such, we as medievalists are split over whether the Middle Ages should be seen as a self-contained interlude between ancient and modern, or as a new departure from Antiquity that led to our modern societies”, which is, from context, what she seems to mean, I wouldn’t be using phrases like ‘seems to mean’ as I attempt to explain it to you. And there’s lots more like that and I really don’t think that it helps, except possibly in writing grant proposals with the correct buzz-word ratio. On the other hand her deconstruction of ways of thinking about the past as shaped unconsciously by present-day fixations is a valuable corrective to the illusion of objectivity which we need to try and spot ourselves constructing.

So as I say conflict. You could just say it out loud, as I have, but when people are dealing with deep-seated convictions dear old Sigmund would rush to tell us that they don’t want to question themselves too hard. The third section of Biddick’s article therefore sets up an elaborate, and entirely fictitious, conversation in a university reading room between “the dean of Stanford University, where [as of 1992] the administration recently dropped the requirement of Old English; Bede… ; a professor of Old English; and the chair of the Humanities curriculum committee, a self-identified Chicana feminist theorist”.3 Over the next few pages the dean and professor get lost in administrative fencing while Bede and the Chicana theorist talk interestingly about working between languages and cultures as emissaries for one to another: for Bede, Latin Church to Anglian king, and for the Chicana theorist Spaniards to Aztecs and vice versa. It’s actually quite well done and leads one to think, I stress leads one to think of ways in which one’s own work reaches from the culture of one’s subject material to other disciplines and interests, although not, as I say above, the actual public…

But what is it legitimate to sacrifice to such rhetoric and verbal shepherding? I some time ago had a lengthy and heated debate with a proper scientist about a graph I wanted to use in a paper where the evidence was really very complicated, with which they were helping me. My argument was that because it was real, and dilution into trends or exaggeration into percentages would distort the actual state of it, a graph that was only a picture of the evidence, rather than an actual plotting of the data, was the best we could do. To the said scientist this was anathema and their solution was to break the data down into separate aspects, aspects which I felt meant nothing without their context. But what I wanted, they saw as nearly the same as lying about the data, because I was hiding it. All I wanted, though, was an impression with which I could set the reader’s mind up for my interpretation. So I am not on principle as hard as I could be about accuracy versus strategies of presentation. All the same I twitch at what Biddick goes on to do.

She wishes to stress the discomfort of the traditional medievalist with a rôle as ambassador rather than as ivory-tower guardian of a specialism. So she has the Chicana theorist mention to Bede that in the Aztec context such go-betweens were talked of as whores,4 and asks if he ever got that kind of feedback. “Bede blushes.” And fair enough. It’s a good device and may, Freud-like again, bring out the same kind of discomfort that she’s stressing in a way that maybe just saying that people think this way would not.

But she goes on: “I wish to pause here in my story and ask about the historicity of Bede’s blush. Have I made this blush up for you, my readers, as a presentist? I argue no. The blush marks the return of an affective moment in Old English, which generations of writers, and readers, have suppressed.” And this is, well, it’s rubbish isn’t it? Not because the suppression is illusory; if there is an agenda of embarrassment about using English in Bede’s work, which is possible I guess and she argues it plausibly in what follows, it has certainly not been called out as it could have been and maybe this is why. Maybe. But the blush is not real. It is a symbol, it is not historic, it did not happen, Bede was not in a reading room in present-day Stanford (though stranger things have allegedly happened there), the conversation never took place. But she actually says that she has not made it up, and that is not true. Yes, it is so untrue as to be perfectly clear that she means something else so it’s hardly intended to be believed. But this is to force the reader to do criticism on the criticism, to sift through her work for its own deeper agendas. And if that in itself is the point she wishes to make, that we need to treat history writing that way as well as our source material, I don’t care. This is a deliberate attempt to leave the reader uncertain what she actually means. I cannot endorse that as a strategy. Go round all the houses you like but make your point clearly or else what are you doing except generating hot air, reducing accessibility and building your own ivory tower one step higher? This is not out-reach, and in the end it’s only partly the internal examination of medievalist study that it purports to be; the other part is deliberate obfuscation of meaning. Now, Plato may have thought this was necessary given the sophistication of what he was trying to teach; and maybe we do need setting up to approach a topic in an unfamiliar way; but I would respect it a lot more if having so done, she uncloaked and finally said what she wants us to know.5

1. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices: An Essay in Interpretive Methodology” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343.
2. Ibid., pp. 16-44.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 41.
5. The post title is a reference that should be credited, but I can’t. A long time ago I read, I suspect on Livejournal (where I only visit, before you start searching), a post from a person who used the word “Englished” and footnoted it saying, “I’ve always loved the fact that there’s an Anglicized word for `Anglicize’”. They’re quite right, but I have no idea who they were any more, so I reference them as a kind of unknown soldier of verbal absurdity. Salute!

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10 responses to “Critical theorists please English your English!

  1. The Plato ref may be more relevant than you think here, given the blessing he gave on the wise who lie to the common people in the Republic.

  2. Wow that a long post for saying that things should be written more simply and openly. ;-)

    Btw, The Heroic Age was founded as a bridge between academia and the general public. I’m not sure we have always lived up to this mission but that was its foundational goal.

  3. Professor Muhlberger, that’s a sharp point, but these particular untruths were not aimed at the common people by some way, which is broadly my problem. I wonder how the history Dr Biddick was arguing for there could be aimed at the general audience, in fact.

    Michelle, you’re right, it needed some pictures :-)

  4. “Waiter, I think I’ll have the Douglas Adams, please. The Bedos-Rezak in Hollandaise sauce looks like it might give me heartburn.” – Overheard in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

  5. Am I allowed to point out pedantically that ‘legitimate’ as a verb is actually an older usage than ‘legitimize’, according to the OED?

    I think there are legitimate (adjective) uses of jargon as well as less legitimate ones. For example, I use ‘gendered’ as an adjective quite a lot in my work: this drives my husband mad, because he doesn’t think it’s a verb. But I can’t think of another phrase to use that isn’t almost a sentence long: e.g. I’d have to replace ‘gendered language’ with ‘language that uses male and female symbols, even though it’s not talking about biology’. However I think there’s a difference between using jargon as a shorthand and using it as a way of excluding/showing-off. I think one of the ways to tell is whether from other bits of the work (or other works) the writer shows that they can explain things from the basics. My view is that I should be able to explain any statement I make to someone who knows nothing about the subject, if they can understand English and are prepared for a long explanation. (I think that’s a lot of what blogging as an academic teaches you to do). On the other hand, I don’t think Judith Butler cares two hoots what anyone other than the in-crowd thinks, and Kathleen Biddick seems to be the same. There may be some illuminating thoughts that you can’t slowly build up from ‘suppose you have some apples and some oranges as well’, but I’m not convinced there are many in history.

  6. Magistra, I bow to your mad OED skillz (it says here), and it may be that I merely generalise from the word I learnt first. I remember when I first encountered the verb `legitimate’, in a lecture by Tim Blanning about the collapse of the Ancien Régime, but he may have just been being old-fashioned at that rate :-)

    I have no such problem with `gendered’, because there isn’t another word that covers its meaning. Though obviously verbing weirds language

    In other respects, as so often, you and I seem to be in fervent agreement. I gathered while searching this post’s links out (some of which broke in the meantime, and have now been fixed) that Dr Biddick has now (well—did nearly a decade ago) reprinted the article in question in a volume called The Shock of Medievalism, which to me reads like the title of a thriller, but which is online at Questia where you can encounter for yourself the full force of her style, as the preview is the first page of “Bede’s Blush”.

  7. Just a note, since LJ doesn’t co-operate with trackbacks, to let you know that i linked you several times in the latest carnivalesque:

  8. Pingback: Blog Carnivals « Archaeoastronomy

  9. YES! Completely!

  10. Pingback: Leeds 2012 Report 2 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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