The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”


In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”

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