Several things combine to produce this latest vituperation, but the immediate cause has been another article in that van Engen volume that has generated me so many posts, some laudatory and some quite the reverse. The last one was a plaudit, so it’s time for the opposite. From p. 273 to p. 299 of that volume you will find Karl F. Morrison’s “On the Statue”, an article which is one of the things I’d been recommended to the volume for. There is a half-tone plate, of the statue of King Alfred at Alfred University in New York State, there is an appendix and some considerable apparatus of endnotes. The article is nothing to do with statues at all, though it uses dispute at Alfred University over their mascot as a jumping-off point. It is instead, as are most of the articles in the volume by design, about the state of medieval studies in the USA at time of the conference that sourced the volume, in 1991. In brief, Morrison observes that teachers and researchers in medieval disciplines at the 1991 conference were from a narrower range of countries, but a wider one of American universities, than at similar conferences in the 50s and 60s; that medieval studies is not a natural unit and is prone to being dissected between other faculties; and mainly, that people have done history in the past because of something they cared about in their own times which they found echoed in the subject material, and that rationalism and revisionism have made it much harder to entertain such feelings of relation to the subject, if not among teachers, among pupils. None of these are exactly encouraging, but all could be argued and are food for thought. So, what’s my problem?
Two things. Firstly, this is a lot of pages to say not very much. I take quite verbose notes, and usually average two lines per page of source text; here I ran at half this, and didn’t really understand a lot of the points until I’d forced myself to extract the note sentence from it. That could just be style, and something of which I’m probably guilty myself, but paragraphs like this don’t help:
We are enigmatologists by training, equipped through such disciplines as iconography, exegesis, and etymology to retrieve the unsaid in the said, to complete the depicted gesture. Because the formal codes at issue were so regularly directed at spiritual—which is to say, moral—sentiment, we are enigmatologists of emotion and desire as well as intellect. Since play is close to the heart of poetics, we must also recognise the foreignness of imaginations that, not only sensed, but also laughed differently from ours. (p. 293)
It is a struggle to articulate why this paragraph makes me so annoyed. I would not like to exclude from our discipline the possibility of metaphor or artistic self-expression. And yet, does this help? There are genuine points here: that our sources contain more information than they actually proffer to us, that this extra information is in the nature of the state of mind and conviction of the producing intellect, and that that intellect’s convictions and perceptions had a difference from our own that has to be accounted for. But to stop these points sounding obvious, we have the made-up word `enigmatologist’, more expressive because less definite and therefore allowing an audience to nod with fellow feeling but without a certainty that the speaker means what they think he does.
And, most annoying of all, we have the po-mo syllogism. This is becoming a bête noir of mine. It goes: [because|since] [unjustifiable and unevidenced assertion of some perception of the human condition], therefore [impressively-rephrased truism]. Or, the parts can be reversed. This is no trouble because unlike a real syllogism they have nothing to do with each other, least of all causation. It is a device to sound erudite and as if you have pierced through to a truth of humanity, when in fact you are drawing patterns in air.
Professor Morrison’s two examples both beg many questions. What formal codes? None have been mentioned, still less evidenced. Do we really accept formal codes of behaviour in the production of medieval sources? I thought this was debated. How prescient of Professor Morrison to close down that debate even before Philippe Buc had published! Then, is play close to the heart of poetics? Is that really what Sassoon was up to in the trenches, playing to take his mind off things? And what have poetics got to do with the medieval author anyway? Some of them were poets, but not all; if poetics are play, should prosody be work? Well it doesn’t matter, because even if it were true it doesn’t clearly relate to the following assertion. It is obscurantist showing-off.
Although, there is far far worse than this out there. The really real po-mo stuff can contain strings of three or four of these alleged deductions claiming to follow on from one another and really merely restating undefined terms until the speaker is impossible to critique on any point but meaninglessness. Let me give you a fleshed-out example that I have made up without recourse to generator programs or any actual subject matter:
Because consciousness is electric, we are beings of magnetism. That magnetism causes us to interact with the earth and its inhabitants as though drawn towards it by its metallic core, a core which we also seek in texts. A text with no core we pierce through rapidly; but a text that is only core, we discard, keeping, indeed, doctors away with the apple so flung. The true location of meaning thus lies between the skin and the flesh, which is to say that texts are dermal not epidermal. In a very real sense, then, we need to get beneath the skin of our authors.
Try as I might I couldn’t actually manage to make that as free of causation as it really need to be to make the point; I will never be able to play with the real critics till I can finally create a paragraph like this in which no subclause links to any other. I am however quite pleased with the general effect of flow without any genuine meaning or logic. And you know you’ve seen examples like that yourself… Well, I think that’s critique enough. My point is that, as I’ve said before, making yourself hard to understand is not the game we’re supposed to be in.
But, Professor Morrison wants us to realise, it is hard to understand the Middle Ages. Speaking of Henry Brooks Adams, he says, “… he concluded, he could teach [his pupils] nothing. All but the fewest of the few passively received instruction. Method would not reduce the complexity of his antiquarian subject to order, or make it actual for them.” (P. 281.) And he goes on to suggest not only that this is common experience for medievalists and that we never really teach people anything, but that we can hardly expect to anyway when “‘history does not exist,’ any more than does truth”. And he then says, “Consequently, there can be no question of conveying historical understanding, except as a branch of literary criticism, including subspecialties of criticism devoted to phenomena and theories of reception.” (P. 282.)
I cry foul on this. I have done so before, in comments at Old English in NYC and at the Unlocked Wordhoard, although at the latter Professor Nokes has on both occasions removed or never approved my comments. Given the great service he does me by pointing traffic this way I don’t for a second wish to suggest that he shouldn’t see fit to prevent a fight breaking out in his comments which might then become his problem to calm down. So I’m doing the rant here. (Edit: a comment below from Professor Nokes suggests that the problem here was technical, or at least, not his doing, so may he be exonerated and also consider himself luckily protected by beneficent gremlins…)
Texts… wait for it… are tricky. Yes. The author does not always mean what he or she wrote, and their information was not necessarily good even if sincere. Then, we read the things and interpret them according to our own preconceptions and beliefs, and the result must inevitably be distortion. Yes, okay. In fact, because all of our reality is experienced, we cannot ultimately be sure that anything is true, in the sense that another being whom we perceive will also consider what we think `true’ `true’ for them as well. This is heading for the brains-in-vats discussion, but let it, OK, we can be solipsist for a short while. Why not?
Well, because if your entire audience are made up, what’s the point in telling them so, eh? If you’re lecturing at all, if you’re in the business of education and knowledge, your starting assumption really has to be that there is such a thing and that it can be passed from one person to another! Otherwise, how can you take the money for saying that what you do is impossible and that therefore you don’t? How is this not biting the hand that feeds you and coincidentally despising your students’ ability to understand you, especially if you’ve gone so far to make yourself hard to understand? And if you really are constructing your own reality, why can’t you construct more interested students, hey? Maybe it’s not the students who are the problem…
Similarly, yes, texts are constructed, unreliable, difficult, partial and inadequate. Every scholar who works with them must admit this. But if you suggest that this negates any possibility of extracting knowledge from them about the past, and then continue to argue that you should be paid for trying, then you are a hypocrite. If you seriously don’t think a text can tell you about the past in which it was written and how that past constructed or remembered the past before that, then why study history at all? There are others out there who still want to, you know?
Because texts are not the only source, and no medievalist has any business claiming they are. If you wilfully ignore archaeology, climate studies, historical geography, palaeobotany and palaeozoology, demographics, linguistics, social anthropology, art and architectural history and the other so-called handmaid disciplines, and then say that you think texts are no use as evidence because all writing is constructed, either become an archaeologist or step the hell down. Otherwise, accept the starting position: we’re here to tell people about the past, what involves finding out about it. Oh yes, and `passively receiving instruction’ will do fine for most of them actually. That’s only a problem if you think your job is to create historians, or more critics. I think our job is to give people knowledge. And if you honestly don’t believe it’s possible, how can you hold a teaching post in good conscience? I don’t get it, I don’t want to, and I’m fed up with reading it.
The most annoying thing about it is that I’ve read work of Professor Morrison‘s that has been inspiring, insightful and educational. Likewise, his important, if challenged, contribution to numismatics shows that he knows perfectly well about other sorts of source. He’s a clever and sensitive historian. This kind of rubbish should come from someone else. Oh well. Here endeth the rant, hopefully for some time.