Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Now I Can Become a Barnacle...

Today the tenure committee at Wheaton voted to promote me to Associate Professor and award me lifetime tenure. It's actually a serious honor (as opposed to bogus things that one might win) because it's awarded by people who actually know you day in and day out. So I'm pretty thrilled even if I means I now get to die in Norton, Mass.

And if people thought I was insufferable before, think what I'll be like now that I can't be fired...

Monday, January 20, 2003

Art, Artists and the "Author Function"

Sorry for the light blogging of late. First there was the media firestorm and now my tenure case is tomorrow. So at this time tomorrow I'll either have a guaranteed job for life or I'll be fired. I don't think I'll sleep much, though I'll pass the morning waiting quite well by taking my daughter to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. If you haven't been, you should: they're a great, old fashioned set of museums all linked together.

Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to begin a continuing series (which I already started in the post below about Beowulf line 1382) about the ways that some Post Modern ideas are actually better illustrated (and even make sense) in light of medieval literature.

Today The Author Function. The "author function" is associated with both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (the flip side is the "death of the author" essay that every English student is force to read two or three times during his or her trip through purgatorial required theory classes). The basic idea of "death of the author" is that reading to try to find out 'what the author is trying to tell us' is impossible and foolish, since author's themselves aren't always sure and even if they were they might lie and anyway, if the author just wants to tell us something, there are simpler ways than writing a sonnet.

The "author function" suggests that there is a value put on an artifact if it is associated with a particular artist that goes beyond the intrinsic value of the artifact. There are lots of good Modernist examples, especially from surrealist and dada art, but there's a better example in medieval literature.

At some point after Chaucer's death, some people wrote up some additional tales to fill in the "missing" Canterbury Tales (if you look at Chaucer's original conception, laid out in the General Prologue, there would be a lot more tales than there are in the completed work). Of these pseudo-Tales, the one that was considered the best, and which lasted the longest, was the Ploughman's Tale. This was probably written in the fifteenth-century (remember that Chaucer died right at the end of the 14th century) and for various political reasons dealing with Lollards (which are interesting, but which always make my students' eyes glaze over), it was appended to the Canterbury Tales right next to the Parson's Tale (the Ploughman is the Parson's brother).

This work was printed as part of the Canterbury Tales in William Thynne's 1542 edition of The Canterbury Tales dedicated to Henry VIII. Presumably other authors who were influenced by Chaucer's work read this Tale and commented upon it. It was, for a while, part of the literary tradition.

Then, when scholarship had become good enough to recognized the Ploughman's Tale as spurious, it was deleted from the Canterbury Tales and is no longer studied as part of the Chaucer canon. This deletion raises some important questions. Is the Ploughman's Tale a good piece of literature independent of Chaucer's authorship? Should it be included in the Canterbury Tales since, for a while, it was part of the tradition? If it's a crappy tale, but later on we discover that it is by Chaucer, does it become un-crappy?

Let me give another more modern example: There's a line in Moby Dick about a "spoiled eel." Critics went on and on about the meaning of this beautifully poetic phrase and how Melville was, well, you can imagine what a genius he was to have combined these two words. Then a textual scholar found out that this was simply a printer's error for "coiled eel." Not particularly poetic, and many a thesis was now invalidated. The question arises, then, how much of the "genius" that we perceive in art is due to our reverence for an author so that we accept lousy work or non-sensical statements from him because he's an author.

I think this problem is at the heart of the ACD vs. others debate on other blogs (links via Andrea Harris). If you allow in the facts (and they are facts) that often what genius we attribute to authors is due to accident or later error (Michelangelo's Moses has horns due to a translation error), then you have to accept that a lot of definitions of "greatness" are very contingent on what critics say and have said (the horror). The evil Stanley Fish takes this idea as far as it can go (in a demonstrative rather than logical sense) by noting that aesthetic interpretation is based upon "interpretive communities" : if you can convince enough people that something is "good," then it's good. There's nothing intrinsic about it.

This is the ruling paradigm in the arts today, and I don't like it. Not because I can't follow its logic, and not because I hate its political ramifications, but because there seems to be some intelligent middle ground that can be staked out. I'm hoping that my work with meme-theory, as well as more recent work in psychology of perceptions, will help to provide us with a new starting point to dicuss these issues in a way that involves a lot less of the appeal to the author function and much more to finding some way to logically and empirically characterize aesthetic effects in a cultural context.

P.S.: Mozart wrote a piece of music, K. 522, A Musical Joke that's probably based on transcriptions or memories of his pet starling's songs. K. 522 is not usually considered one of Mozart's triumphs, but does that make him less or more of a genius for creating it? Is it possible that our "author function" for Mozart is getting in the way of us simply recognizing a not-so-great piece of music and instead over-analyzing so that we convince ourselves that it's great?

Monday, January 06, 2003

Ah, that glamorous academic life...

Today was a great day. I now have my very own microfilm viewer right on my desk.

More importantly, my daughter is going to love playing in the giant box, which may turn into "Ursula's Cave."

Sunday, January 05, 2003

What Does a Beowulf Scholar Do All Day?

Andrea Harris links to and discusses my earlier post about academia vs. intelligent non-academics on the internet. A.C. Douglas (with whom I'm still going to disagree about myth. Writes a nice post in response to some of my comments.

The "Town / Gown" problem is long standing and not resolvable on an obscure blog (or even in Andrea's), but I thought it might be useful to talk about what exactly we scholars do besides grade [and I am not making this up] a stack of papers that was 27 inches high, every single one of which I read and commented on, though, sadly, less than 30% of the students will pick them up.

One of the things that makes Beowulf (and other medieval literature) so interesting is that it takes up some of the more standard tropes of postmodernism and shows how they really might work. Let's take the famous "indeterminacy of the text" that Derrida is so fond of. Derrida and others would like you to believe that "reading is impossible" because there is no way to fix a meaning to a given text, dictionaries notwithstanding. This critique (which is philosophical in nature) falls on deaf ears because people see themselves reading and think "this French stuff is a load of BS"). But a text like Beowulf is truly indeterminate. First of all there are errors, manifest errors, in the manuscript. But because we know there are some errors, we can't be sure about others. For instance, in 1731 a fire at the ironically named Ashburnham House damaged the Beowulf manuscript. Subsequent use in the 18th century led to a gradual loss of letters around the edges of the page. Fortunately many of these can reconstructed by the transcripts made by Grim Jonsson Thorkelin and a scribe the hired. But the two transcripts do not agree with eachother, and at times they disagree with the manuscript. So, for example, in line 1382, the manuscript reads "wundmi." This is not a possible word in Old English, so editors have tended to emend it. The Thorkelin B transcription reads "wundini," which would be the only example of an archaic (i.e., before the Age of Bede) spelling in the manuscript. However what is in the manuscript can be read as "wundun" (I'll show why below), which would be a regular, late West-Saxon dative/instrumental. All of a sudden the evidence of an early 8th century date disappears, sort of.

The reason this is so confusing is that all of the various words are construced similarly in the script that the scribe is using. wundimi would be "wundiiii," with the i's "ligatured" into "mi" (note that there are four minims, which I've represented by "i" in the form. Then note that "wundini" would be "wundiiii" -- same number of minims, just ligatured differently. Likewise "wundun" would be "wundiiii" -- again note 4 minims with different ligatures.

I like to throw 1382 in the face of scholars who prattle on about the indeterminacy of the text. Yes, such you have in James Joyce, but not anywhere to the degree in Beowulf, where we must constantly struggle with the mediation between manuscript and editors. Which conjectures will you accepts, and which will you throw out. Do you dare to emend yourself (I haven't emended Beowulf yet, but I've emended a few lines in the poem The Fortunes of Men. I'll explain why in another post.

But to return to the original topic: I think that a lot of students and intersted individuals, particularly scientists and engineers, would be less hostile to English if they knew that a lot of what we are doing (at least among the medievalists) is attempting to do logical detective work to figure out what the text is in front of us before we read it. Of course we can't be 100 % logical in prospects; we use creativity. We then try to use logic to justify our conjecture. And, to end which Tolkien, which is all anyone who reads this blog really cares about, Tolkien's genius was that he was able to combine, without sacrificing either, the hard-core linguistic analytical ability with a wide-ranging historical knowledge and a true poet's sensibility toward literature. He could thus put together widely separated pieces of data and use it to reconstruct lost history and culture. But that's another post.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

How to alienate potential allies

The long-running discussion on Andrea Harris' blog/journal and the way that ACD "argues" has gotten me thinking about the state of the humanities in academia and our relationship to the wider world of people who are interested in books, art, music, culture, etc. Right now I'm going to set aside ad hominem and petitio principii problems (i.e., asserting without ever offering evidence, etc.) because for anyone who knows me, my teaching and my research and the various battles I've fought on behalf of traditional works, the idea that I'm 'typical of my generation' of academics (using scare quotes b/c I don't have time to dig up the post to get the exact words) is beyond silly. But I think that at the core of ACD's invective is an important critique of the humanities that we neglect at our peril.

It's very sobering to read through the blogosphere and see the contempt and even hatred with which people in academia are held. Sadly, I think that there are a lot of professors out there who deserve it: I've had teachers myself, up through the Ph.D. level (though not my advisor, thank God), who attempted to politically indoctrinate their students, who were mendacious in grading and classroom behavior, or (and this is actually worse) who were betraying their calling by not really doing their jobs. I think ACD and I would be on the same side against the professor at Carnegie Mellon who wasted a semester of literature class critiquing advertisements (n.b. to professors: your students will always be able to do this better than you can; they are, and will always be, more media literate). Gerald Graff's assertion that it doesn't matter what one studies as long as 'important' questions are being asked might have sounded really cool in the 1980's, but it's obviously a huge waste of time to critique commercials instead of reading good literature. So up to this point, I'm with the conservatives.

But the same people who would find me an ally for fighting indoctrination and avoiding silly media-related stuff (and don't get me started on the six schools of resentment...) then always go and take things a few steps too far. It's not enough to try to spend class time on quality literature instead of on ephemera: there has to be a huge hissy fit about what's quality, and the only judgments allowed standing are those made 50 years ago. The objects of study can only be approached with an almost mindless veneration, simply held up so that we can say "how beautiful," rather than critiqued and taken apart to see how they work. The author function is always in place, so that we must only consider what X "intended" (as if one could ever come to a definitive answer). And never can anything new, whether from an old period or not, enter the canon. [n.b., I am exaggerating, in that few individuals assert all of these points at once, but in my experience most share the world view]

Well, if you want the humanities, and the study and enjoyment of culture, to be the preserve of a tiny band of high priests who are busy toasting each other's brilliance while the roof falls in, this is definitely the way to go. But if you want to avoid the fate of Old English study in the US (which is just barely keeping out of the death spiral of classics), then you need to think of ways to excite students about material so that they'll at least show up for the classes. I had the largest Anglo-Saxon class in the US this year (as best I can tell). 37 students, at our tiny liberal arts college, learned Old English, memorizing paradigms, doing 100 lines of translation per night, memorizing Caedmon's Hymn and the first 11 lines of Beowulf. I don't think you could find a more canonical, traditional class than that. But the students weren't all there due to my sparkling personality. And they weren't there because the course was a requirement and they were forced to go. They were there because I was able to draw connections between The Lord of the Rings and the class material. And I was able to do that because I approach both LotR and medieval lit with a great deal of love, but also with a deliberate attempt to avoid snobbery.

Alcuin, the great English monk who organized Charlemagne's educational system, once wrote a letter back to England in which he admonished monks for listening to heroic stories in the refectory. "Verba Dei legantur in sacerdotali convivio; ibi decet lectorem audiri, no citharistam, sermones patrum, non carmina gentilium. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus; utrosque tenere non poterit" (Let the words of God be read in the refectory of the priests; there it is fitting for the lector to be heard, not the lyre-player, the sermons of the fathers, not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Narrow is the house; it cannot hold both of them.")

If the house is made narrow, does anyone have any doubt which works will be the first ones forced out the door?
The insanity continues

Now the story of the "discovery" of the "lost" manuscript has spread like a virus through the Germanic world. There are stories on Germany's CNN,in a German newspaper, in a paper from the Netherlands, and this Dutch paper, and this one, and in another German paper. There are also some links to Danish papers in Google. There is now no way to correct all the inaccuracies, etc., so I am going to bed now that it is the New Year (wife and daughter fell asleep long ago). Happy New Year all. May 2003 be happy, healthy and prosperous for all of you.

UPDATE: I'd switched the German/Danish links by confusing .de with .dk. Fixed.