Friday, May 22, 2015

Kalamazoo 2015 Round-up!

I know I’ve said it before, but I’ve really come to see my (usually) annual journey The International Congress on Medieval Studies as a kind of pilgrimage, and this particular journey to K’zoo was no exception. Traveling here had its salient differences though. I left my baby (called Pixie here and elsewhere online as a form of protection and, well, because she looks like a little woodland sprite!) at home for the first time since she was born, and I also departed while in the midst of a teaching quarter (as opposed to being at the end of a semester). Both were deeply disconcerting, to say the least!

The leaving part was hard, harder than I’d anticipated (though, I’ll admit, watching Interstellar on the flight to Detroit was an apt exercise in perspective), and there were moments on the trip that were even harder. To that end, here is a hard-won tip for fellow new(ish) parents: if you have to travel away from your little, and he/she is under 13 months, approach Skype/FaceTime with deep wells of caution. My husband set up his phone so she and I could see each other that first night, and as soon as she heard my voice she looked around at the front door expecting me to be there (cue the shattering heart). She then turned her head around, saw mom in the tiny box, stuck out a trembling lower lip, and started to wail. Fortunately, I happened to be at Bells with dear friends and a beer flight waiting for me back at the table. Robbie, sweet spouse that he is, also sent me a video of a smiling and giggling Pixie (taken moments after we signed off and she calmed down), that helped me even more. He sent me pictures just about every day along with updates, and – truth be told – I found myself so happily surrounded by friends and colleagues, and so busy and energized by all the things I needed and wanted to do, that my time away was easier to manage than I had thought it would be. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, the Medieval Institute, and the conference organizers for how skillfully they set up and advertised the nursing/lactation rooms. As a nursing mother traveling without my babe, these were crucial to my being able to participate in the conference as fully as possible (without them I would have had to head back to the hotel several times and miss out on much of the conference in the process). I found myself very comforted by their presence and by how easy they were to access throughout the day.

I attended a number of truly innervating sessions, but there were a few that especially stuck with me. The first was the panel honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Having come up in Academia long after the book’s publication, I was grateful for the reminders of the book’s seminal importance and how much of a productive disruptor it was when it first came out. Steve Kruger reminded us of how the book “challenged dominate masculinist readings” and how it challenged us “to ask different questions about medieval and modern reading practices.” Emma Solberg echoed this sentiment as well by pointing out that the book proffers “liberating, energizing, and empowering readings” that weren’t considered possible/feasible/acceptable at the time, and how Dinshaw, in the book, “seized permission and authority” to do so.  To her (and I agree with her wholly), the book acts like a kind of Griselda in the ways it exposes patriarchal chauvinism. Lynn Shutters, in turn, talked both about the book’s importance and Dinshaw’s ability to find the utility in “necessary discomfort” and “a lack of resolution.” By way of example, she explained how the final chapter of Dinshaw's dissertation, which she wasn’t entirely satisfied with at the time, contained the raw material that would later become Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. In turn, the ideas in the final chapter of that very book — “Eunuch Hermenutics” — would be explored and teased out even further in Getting Medieval. On hearing Shutters talk about the evolution of Dinshaw's work, I took solace in the reminder that discomfort with your work can, if you let it, be a productive and motivating force.  It’s a reminder I very much needed since I've found myself more than a bit overwhelmed of late with my own book project. 

These responses to Dinshaw’s work were truly compelling, and I found myself equally compelled by her response, where she revealed that – while this book did eventually get her tenure -- she was initially turned down for tenure (a decision that was ultimately overturned by the deans) because of the book and the way in which it threatened the endemic chauvinism of the academy. I’ve always admired her work for its boldness and its ingenuity, and I was reminded – especially as she told her story -- of how indebted I am to her and to others like her for creating room for younger scholars like me to breathe and thrive. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be able to do the kind of work that I do had it not been for her willingness –- and the willingness of others –- to publish bold and brave works that argued passionately (either implicitly and explicitly) for the power and importance of reflexive analysis. I came away from the session very grateful for her work and for the reminders of its importance provided by each of the speakers.

And I left another session, on being a Public Medievalist, equally innervated. Having been invited to write a brief write-up on my experience as a type of public medievalist (soon to appear on postmedieval’s Forum), I attended the session quite eagerly, and I found myself particularly compelled by the conversations and ideas that emerged throughout the talks and Q&A, especially those surrounding the talk that David Perry gave. He offered insights into the complications of being both a journalist/public writer and an academic, especially when one’s worlds converge (i.e. when, as a crusade’s scholar, you write an 800 word op-ed on a crusades-related topic to a popular audience, knowing you’ll provoke the ire of both scholars and non-specialists). He also spoke compellingly about the risks and perils of going public, and now we – as a community – need to be more humane, more aware of the potential effects our written words can have on social media. He reminded us that a single tweet about a young scholar’s “boring” presentation can and, in this day and age, likely will have an negative impact on his/her career, and he ended his talk with the following recommendation: “If you can’t tweet something nice, don’t tweet it at all.”

I really appreciated his talk, since it helped me to tease out some of the issues and frustrations I’ve had with how I’ve been approaching my own blogging. I know for a fact that I spend more time than I should on each blog post I submit here at In Romaunce. I want to write more frequently and to be bolder, but I also feel immense pressure to watch what I say out here in the blogosphere and in social media. I feel palpably in these spaces how very precarious I am at this point in my career, and this results in my feeling more than a little hesitant about what I say and how I say it. This is why, for instance, it took me well over a week to muster up the courage to post my thoughts on Obama’s prayer breakfast. I’m ultimately glad I wrote what I did, but I’ve wished for sometime now that I could find a way to be braver more frequently (and more swiftly). Attending the session and chatting with him and fellow attendees afterwards, however, reminded me that my cautiousness might not be a bad thing at all. I might not produce as much as I’d like, but at this point in my career, a little extra caution probably can’t hurt. 

This year's K'zoo also marked the last time I served as the organizer and presider over Malory Aloud/Performing Malory. I inherited these roles somewhat by accident, but I couldn't be more grateful for having had the opportunity to lead this group for the past eight years. In addition to each performance session being a rollicking good time, the process of rereading significant portions of Malory's Morte each year has been deeply enriching, especially when I needed to track certain themes or characters. Last year, for instance, we hosted a performance entitled "Malory Interruptus: Sex and Love in the Morte." In addition to (re)discovering that Perceval nearly boinks Satan while on the Grail Quest (!!!!!!!!), I noticed how consistently fraught sexual encounters are in the Morte, and how the problematics of sex are often tangled up with the non-procreative nature of these same encounters. I wouldn't have arrived at that idea, or others, were it not for my work on these sessions, and I remain truly grateful for having been able to take the helm for so long as a result. Also, and just as importantly, I had the privilege to get to know an array of truly lovely and inspirational scholars along the way, and I remain so excited to see what the merry troupe will continue to do in the years to come!

I’ll save my own session for a separate post, but for now, I want to end with a few parting thoughts on conviviality, community, and affect. Though I was (sadly) unable to attend Richard Utz’s plenary, I heard much about it from friends who did, and I was deeply appreciative not only of his discussion of affect (and how we need to dismantle notions that work and pleasure need necessarily be mutually exclusive). I was also glad that BABEL was acknowledged, because I’ve grown very deeply fond of the organization since graduating from Rochester. I am currently very fortunate in my postdoctoral position, but the job search last year showed me how difficult and uncertain my road ahead will be. I know that I might not have a professional future in academia once all is said and done. But I do know that I will always be a medievalist one way or another. I know this because I love the material deeply. But I also know this because of BABEL’s willingness – even insistence – on including non-traditional scholars in its mix. Knowing that I will always genuinely be welcome at their gatherings, that I won’t be looked at askance, is truly comforting to me. It gives me courage, especially as I steel myself for the upcoming job search this Fall. 

In the end, I left this conference with a full head and heart. I wished I’d had more time to connect with even more people than I did, but was so grateful for the deep and fruitful conversations I was fortunate enough to have with so many of you. As many have said on social media already (and as, for example, Elaine Treharne’s recent #GenderImbalance tweets reveal) we have quite a ways to go in how we treat one another, but I was encouraged all the same to see so many of us working towards positive changes at this gathering. Onwards!

Monday, April 27, 2015

On Holy Terror

Years ago in graduate school, I wrote a paper about Frank Miller's 300, arguing that the film version was a deliberate and brash manifestation of post-9/11 paranoia and xenophobia. I was only just venturing into my studies of late medieval crusades literature, but I already noticed startling similarities between the narrative mechanics of the film and of the romances that fascinated me. I remember sitting in the theater watching the film, amazed by its beauty and appalled by its blatant homophobia and racism. I had expected, however, that Frank Miller (for all intents and purposes the godfather on set) and Zach Snyder (the director) would at least try to offer some sort of defense of the film. In interiews, Miller waxed downright belligerent whenever questions about the film's depiction of the Persians and its implied critique of the contemporary Middle-East came up. Take, for instance, his statements during NPR's State of the Union broadcast (the irony of his segment following Kwame Anthony Appiah's was not lost on me):
FM: When you think about what Americans accomplished, building these amazing cities, and all the good it’s done in the world, it’s kind of disheartening to hear so much hatred of America, not just from abroad, but internally.  
NPR: A lot of people would say what America has done abroad has led to the doubts and even the hatred of its own citizens.  
FM: Well, okay, then let’s finally talk about the enemy. For some reason, nobody seems to be talking about who we’re up against, and the sixth century barbarism that they actually represent. These people saw people’s heads off. They enslave women, they genitally mutilate their daughters, they do not behave by any cultural norms that are sensible to us. I’m speaking into a microphone that never could have been a product of their culture, and I’m living in a city where three thousand of my neighbors were killed by thieves of airplanes they never could have built.
It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Miller would go on to create Holy Terror. The comic was originally intended to be a Batman story that pitted the caped crusader against Bin Laden and other extremists. Somewhere along the way, and perhaps to the relief of most franchise lovers, Miller decided that this was not, in fact, a Batman story. Batman was replaced by a hero known as The Fixer, and his accomplice/lover is a catburgler rather than Catwoman.

I remember hearing about Miller's Holy Terror a few years ago, but it fell off my radar rather quickly amid the maelstrom of dissertating and a cross country move. It came to mind a couple of weeks ago, however, after I got into a lively conversation on Twitter about modern iterations of militant Christianity, and I realized -- especially since I plan to talk about this topic at length in the conclusion to my book -- that I needed to read it. I bought a copy (used, since I couldn't in good conscience buy a new one) and have spent the past couple of weeks figuring out what to say about it.

Its xenophobic portrait of Middle Easterners is so appalling that -- at first -- it's hard to know where even to start. I'll describe a few of the most crucial moments in the comic, however, in part to give readers a sense of what takes place in the comic, and in part to help me sort out my thoughts on it.

You don't need to look any further than the cover or the comic's epigraph to gather that this comic is is a reactionary post-9/11 revenge fantasy (that it was released close to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is, perhaps, evidence enough). The cover (pictured left), gives us the first glimpse of the The Fixer and one of many nameless assailants. I couldn't help but notice the difference in the features: consider the clearly defined white/Anglocentric face of our hero with the faceless (and black) void, human only insofar as it has eyes and, at least in the recent past, teeth. From its inception, then, the comic perpetuates the horrendous notion that dark skin connotes threat. And we need only look at any number of tragic narratives in our own country's very recent history to get a sense of why the perpetuation of that kind of imagery is both grotesque and downright dangerous.

Things escalate quickly just a few pages into the comic, where we encounter this epigraph:
"If you meet the Infidel, kill the infidel" -- Mohammed
This is not, in fact, a direct quotation from the Q'uran. At best, it's a heavily paraphrased (and wildly decontextualized) version of 9:5: "Slay the pagans wherever you may come upon them, and take the captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at ever conceivable space . . . ." It's unclear whether Miller is aware of the original version and its context, but the point of this epigraph is nevertheless crystal clear: to ensure that readers of the comic are encouraged from the start to perceive Muslims as inherently threatening. Again, wildly problematic, but hardly unsurprising.

The first sequence in the comic introduces both The Fixer and the Catburgler, the former chasing the latter on account of a stolen bracelet. The chase takes an erotic turn, but a nail bomb interrupts their rooftop tryst. The comic then flashes back to the events leading up to that bomb going off, and it is here that we are introduced to the first of many caricatured Middle-Eastern villains:

The fact that Amina is both an exchange student and a humanities major should give us pause. In this one panel, Miller implies that both exchange programs and the humanities are in some way in direct/indirect collusion with al Qaeda. And as we recently saw with UMass's decision to deny Iranian students entry, or this study on the likely effects of post 9/11 policies on Muslim exchange students, Middle-Eastern students seeking an education in the U.S. face a plethora of difficulties and are discriminated against in a variety of overt and covert ways. The roots of this discrimination are found in post 9/11 fears of al Qaeda and other forms of militant Islam gaining traction in the U.S., and Holy Terror directly capitalizes on those fears in its depiction of Amina.

Several reviewers have mocked the fact that she's a "humanities major" since no such major actually exists, but I think Miller knew exactly what he wanted to do here as well. All of the characters, both heroic and villanous, in Holy Terror are generalized caricatures created for the sake of the jingoism Miller wished to promulgate. Amina, as a humanities major, then, embodies dangers Miller sees in academia writ large, as he apparently views the scholars within it as left-leaning cultural relativists who inadvertently support the causes of those who would see the end to freedom of thought or expression. His inability to envision academia (or, let's be honest, any corner of the globe) as a space occupied by an array of complex and dynamic persons would be hilarious if it its effects weren't so awful. The representation the Amina as the femme-fatale-suicide bomber-humanities-majoring-exchange-student is deeply problematic, then, because -- like the epigraph that begins the comic -- it relies on a host of oversights that, when played out in the actual world, have direct and downright catastrophic consequences. It perpetuates a cancerous and self-contradictory mythology that condemns freedom of expression while trying to protect it, while also pointing an accusing finger at any exchange student who happens to come from the Middle-East and/or be Muslim (Miller regularly fails to distinguish between the two).

He also deliberately conflates al-Qaeda/Islam (the two are, regrettably, one and the same to him) with "the Dark Ages," implying that the insurgents in his story will usher in second Dark Age if they are allowed to succeed (see left). As many have argued (myself included), to associate anything we perceive as Other or as aberrant with "the Medieval" betrays both ignorance and an unwillingness to grapple with the very real and modern problems of the contemporary world. Al Qaeda is not medieval. It is the result of a complex series of modern events, pressure points, and entanglements. To refuse to see that, is to refuse to take ownership of our contemporary world. An interpretive and an imaginative failure to say the least.

To make matters worse, the comic insists on genocide and torture as the only way to confront and defeat the Other, resorting every step of the way to one-dimensional and caricatured portraits of both hero and villain. Consider, for instance, the implications of this portrait of an insurgent (below right), or the crude and offensive scenes of mass-killing and torture (below left).

The comic reaches its zenith of anti-Muslim rhetoric in its depiction and description of a mosque in Empire City:
The Saudis spent a fortune on this place. It's the oldest mosque in Empire city. People come from miles around -- but only a very few are let inside. It's as close to an inner-city sovereign nation as you'll find, this side of Rome. It's as silent as a tomb. It keeps secrets.
It goes without saying that this evokes and plays upon the the xenophobia that surrounded (and in some ways dominated) discussion of The Ground Zero mosque back in 2010. Consider the following quotation from this regrettable and inflammatory op-ed about the proposed mosque, for example:
Not only that, but Rauf [the Imam behind the proposed project] has called America compatible with sharia law. Indeed, America, he says helped deepen his identification with Islam; talking to The New York Times, he stated, "in that sense, you could say I found my faith in this country. For me, Islam and America are organically bound together. This is not my story alone. The American way of life has helped many Muslims make a conscious decision to embrace their faith." And his partner, el-Gamal? He turned to Islam after the attacks of 9/11. (He also has a history of violent crime, with attacks coming as recently as 2005.)
This, of course, raises the question of whether Cordoba [the name of the proposed mosque] can or will become a seat of a jihadist movement. And the truth is, the more we know about Feisal Abdul Rauf and his cohorts, the more I tend to wonder. Rauf has already skillfully turned American Muslims and non-Muslims into enemies of one another -- something even Osama bin Laden failed to do. His disingenuousness, dishonesty, and disrespect make me wonder what else he and his mosque might be capable of achieving in the name of what he calls 'peace.'" 
The author's cognitive dissonance and weak arguments in this quotation (and in the article as a whole) are obvious, but the paranoia seeping from the op-ed is worth considering alongside Miller's Holy Terror. Both respond to perceived threats of Islam by assuming that we're embroiled in a religious war. Both strongly suggest that a mosque -- ANY mosque -- can and will harbor terrorists. Both insinuate -- if not state outright -- that all Muslims are to be feared and are, to greater or lesser degrees, complicit in acts of terror waged by Muslims extremists. Both authors, in other words, caricaturize twenty three percent of the world's population in order to promote a deeply xenophobic jingoism.

It's no surprise then, that the mosque in Holy Terror affirms and validates such a worldview. The Catburgler enters it -- grudgingly disguised in a burka -- with our narrator describing "the night wind blow[ing] away seven centuries." Yet another attempt to distance the heroes in the text from the insurgents (and, more broadly, America from the Middle East), by insinuating that the latter is somehow still "stuck" in the Middle Ages.

The description of the mosque's interior only builds on that assumption. The Catburgler is almost immediately apprehended by the mosque's inhabitants, and she is led down below sea level into what she describes as "The Old City -- built by long-forgotten ancients . . . a race of madmen." As you can see in the image below, this underground space is adorned with grotesque sculptures and -- oddly -- what appear to be ancient Greek helmets. She encounters both a traitorous drunk Irishman who has teamed up with al-Qaeda and a leader of sorts -- a diminutive figure so covered in jewelry that only his misshapen mouth is visible. This leader ridicules Westerners for their
obliviousness and states the following:
"We come right out and call ourselves al-Qaeda -- the cell -- and you don't stop to consider what that means. We're scarcely a microbe, a speck, a tiny part of an organism so vast as to be beyond belief. Were I utterly at your mercy . . . even I could only provide the vaguest hint of the organization's size -- or its true purpose. Even Sheik Osama -- may peace be upon him -- was merely a slave beneath a slave beneath a slave."
In sum, we're given a vision of a vast and impossibly organized network of insurgents, and we're told that The West (America specifically) has been too blind and oblivious to its vastness. And, as a aside, Miller appears to completely misinterpret and mistranslate the meaning of the name al Qaeda. Again though, here we have an instance where the paranoia and xenophobia characteristic of Miller's worldview loudly proclaim themselves. The insurgents, as we soon discover, are about to launch a weapon of mass destruction on Empire City. They are halted (read: massacred) by the Fixer in the nick of time, the weapon described in ways that clearly attempt to justify the indiscriminate killing. The comic doesn't end there though. Instead, we're introduced one final time to Dan Donegal -- the tough-talking cop in league with The Fixer. We see him "shivering in his sheets like a scared little boy," traumatized by the terrorist attacks at the outset of the story. We are made to bear witness to his trauma, again, as a means of justifying the brutality and xenophobia that precede it.

In sum, this raw, wildly problematic, and downright incoherent story is even more virulent and extreme than the post-9/11 film version of 300. I kept thinking about that film, and about Miller's incendiary comments about Islam and the Middle East at the time of the film's release, as I read this comic, because Holy Terror strikes me as simply a more ossified (I can't really bring myself to call it "refined") reflection of his fear and hatred of Islam and his inability to distinguish between the majority of its adherents and the extremists who warp it.

It struck me as curious (and, if I'm being honest, more than a little hopeful), then, that this comic garnered nowhere near as much attention as either the graphic novel or the film version of 300, and that few -- if any -- could formulate any sort of defense or dismissal for the obvious anti-Muslim sentiment. Supporters and defenders of 300 often resorted to the argument that it's "just an action flick" and that people who objected to the vilification of the Persians (and, to be fair, any non-white person in the film) were just "thinking too hard." The film was frequently praised for its cinematic prowess and was relatively popular at the box office. To be sure, it garnered a reasonable degree of criticism, but there seemed to be a somewhat even number of critics who overlooked or weren't concerned enough to comment upon the racist/xenophobic undertones of the narrative. With Holy Terror, however, you're hard pressed to find a review that doesn't comment on the awfulness of the worldview it espouses, and it garnered nowhere near the cultural traction as 300, even though the two works proffer similar kinds of cultural fantasies.

I wonder, as a result, what role temporal distance has to play in these reactions. Is it easier to tell a story laced with xenophobia when you place the events in the distant past and bury your message in a swords and sandals epic? When, in other words, you appropriate and elide ancient historical particulars as opposed to recent ones? That certainly seems to be the case when you compare the two stories and their reception. And it has made me wonder about the similar "problems" I see in Richard Coer de Lion. As I write in one of my book chapters, relatively few versions of the medieval story include the more fantastical episodes that we often associate with it (the repeat cannibalism, the demonic horses, the lion-heart-eating, the demon mother), and I argue that these omissions in the RCL tradition have to do with the problems inherent in presenting a fantasy version of events in the relatively recent past.

Perhaps, then, we could consider Holy Terror as a very modern sort of "recovery romance" -- a type of romance that, as I describe in my book project, proffers fantasies of Christian/Western triumph over perceived Muslim enemies. Like Isumbras or RCL, Holy Terror (and 300) are symptomatic of cultural desires, appetites and impulses -- specifically of desires for stability and superiority at a time where neither seemed or were possible. It's very easy to dismiss Miller's Holy Terror for its awfulness, its incoherence, even its artlessness, but I think it's important to avoid Othering him over much. To do so would be to risk making the same moves that he deploys by repeatedly arguing that Islam is "medieval." I see Miller, then, as an alarming harbinger of sorts -- as a representative, however, hyperbolic, of a worldview that needs to be paid careful attention to so that we can find ways of pushing back against it. We need -- especially in light of the persistent tendency to code anything that we don't want to acknowledge as modern as "medieval" -- to remind ourselves of the fact that his work is symptomatic of a worldview hardly unique to him and him alone.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mongolian Chaucer

If you follow this blog, or have ever chatted with me in person, you probably know that I harbor a not-so-minor fascination with the way in which the Mongols are represented in Medieval (specifically, Middle English) literature. The fourth chapter of my dissertation focuses squarely on the subject, and I'm just days away from sending off an article version of that chapter for review. Middle English Mongols -- at least as it stands right now -- will occupy not one but two chapters in the book.

You can imagine, then, my delight and fascination when I learned from a friend (who visited Mongolia while her sister lived there for a time) that contemporary Mongolians apparently hold Geoffrey Chaucer in high esteem due to his largely favorable portrayal of Genghis Khan in The Squire' Tale. This anecdote piqued my curiosity, and I finally made some headway today and discovered, thanks to Jack Weatherford (anthropologist and author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), that the Squire's Tale has, in fact, been translated into Mongolian. I don't know much more than that for the time being, save that it's available in bookstores in Mongolia.

Needless to say, my detective work has only just begun! Among other things, I want to figure out whether this is a strict translation or more of an adaptation, the date of the first and any subsequent translations (and/or editions of the translation), the identity of the translator and his/her background and interests in medieval literature (and, if possible, their goals in extracting The Squire's Tale and translating into Mongolian). I also want to learn more about contemporary perceptions of Chaucer in Mongolia and how much of an impact this translation may have had on said perceptions.

I'm going to keep putting feelers in hopes that a) I can get my hands on a copy of this translation and b) I can find someone fluent in Mongolian who can help me answer these and other questions. In the meantime though, I just couldn't resist sharing the news that a translation exists!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Join us at NCS 2016 in London

Good news!

Kristi and I recently had a roundtable session approved for the upcoming New Chaucer Society Congress (London, 2016). If you work on representations of waterways in medieval literature and/or are intrigued by the ways in which waterways serve as conduits of narratives, please consider submitting a paper proposal to the two of us. The deadline for submissions is April 15th, and -- as is the way with deadlines -- it'll be here before you know it!

Here's our official description, which you can also find on the NCS website:

Session Title: Narrative Conduits
From the watery borders of the Celtic Otherworld, to the vibrant matrices of transmission in the Mediterranean, to the Thames as meeting point of king and poet in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, rivers and other bodies of water commonly serve as thresholds, starting points, narrative conduits. The wide-ranging sources we find in Chaucer’s work show us that narratives and texts (and even poets) made their way back and forth across the English Channel. This session welcomes papers that explore how navigable bodies of water like the Thames are represented in medieval literature and how they function as transmitters of narratives themselves. 

We're looking to have five speakers, each of whom will talk for 5-7 minutes. Rousing conversation will hopefully ensue! If you have any questions, please feel free to either post them here or email Kristi (kristi dot castleberry at gmail dot com) or myself (lknorako at stanford dot edu).

Hope to see you in London!

Monday, February 9, 2015

On Obama's Crusades "Controversy"

I ended my latest blog post by commenting on the alarming convergences between stories that promote a modern, militant Christianity and the crusades romances I study. Watching American Sniper only affirmed in my mind the fact that fantasies of Christian (in this case American Christian) superiority have gone nowhere, and that we need to forge bridges between the past and present instead of building walls between the two in an attempt to praise ourselves for being “evolved” in some way. I think the popularity of crusades narratives in late 14th and 15th century England has a lot to offer to a conversation about contemporary narratives of Christian triumphalism. As a result, I have been following the “controversy” surrounding Obama’s National Prayer Breakfast speech rather closely. The fact that it even IS a controversy is embarrassing to say the least, and as Ta-Nehisi Coates observes so well, says a lot about the “limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism” or, I’d add, militant Christianity, “in our politics.”

David Perry has already posted an excellent list of responses to the controversy, so I won’t repeat that effort here. As many have observed, all Obama did in those comments is remind us that we are not, in fact, at war with Islam itself and that the extremists like those of ISIS do not speak for the majority of Muslims. He calls, as Perry points out, for humility — for Americans to take a longer view and for us to approach our present with a rueful awareness of our cultures’ and religions’ pasts. Sadly, too many failed to understand and internalize that aspect of Obama’s speech and, instead, have produced an array of knee-jerk responses that only – in the end – reveal that the kind of humility called for in the POTUS' speech is sorely lacking in our culture at the moment. Obama points to the fact (I repeat, FACT) that all religions can be and have been used to justify violence, that none are immune from that potential fate. That's apparently something many in this country do not want to hear, because to hear it -- as others have already articulated/suggested – would be to acknowledge the fact that Christianity and/or America is not always in the right.

I expect these kinds of knee-jerk reactions from extremely conservative pundits. I expect them, in other words, to do exactly what American Sniper does so well: to elide inconvenient historical details in order to paint a portrait of easy Christian/American superiority. I like to think, however, that scholars would know all too well the dangers and risks that come with oversimplifying the past, especially when writing an op-ed piece accusing someone else of doing just that. And so, I was more than a little dismayed to detect similar tactics in Thomas Madden’s recent piece in the National Review. Many have pointed out that Madden’s post -- especially in its refusal to say anything about the pogroms against the Jews related to crusading efforts -- paints a deeply flawed portrait of the crusades as strictly defensive wars. His op-ed promulgates, in other words, exactly the view of the Islam that the conservative Right wants: a view that endorses the notion that we are in a religious war and that Islam is/was always, already an aggressive enemy of Christianity.

For the record, there are many things about Madden’s work that I have admired and appreciated over the years and that I continue to admire. His first edition of The Concise History of the Crusades was the textbook for Phillip Daileader’s brilliant course on the subject — a class I eagerly took as a senior at William and Mary. I devoured that book and the lectures, and it is no exaggeration to say that my current work on crusades literature is inspired by all that I read and learned during that semester. The final essay that I wrote for the class, in fact, was the one I submitted with my graduate school applications. I have always admired Madden’s effortless and approachable writing style, too – which I have often used as an example of effective writing for my students over the years. And, on a more personal note, I’ve enjoyed more than one conversation with him over the years about the need to write works accessible to folks outside of academia as well as within it, something that has directly impacted the kind of writing style I chose to cultivate over the years.

This last point, perhaps, is why I found his editorial so disconcerting. Because it actually seems to argue against that very ideal. He seems to be saying/suggesting that only medieval historians (and, I worry, only historians who agree with his thesis that the crusades were “defensive”) have a right to discuss the crusades, and that seems to completely defeat the purpose of writing to those outside of the ivory tower in the first place. I could understand his frustrations with Obama's reference to the crusades if it was in any way inaccurate. I could understand said frustrations if Obama had in any way ventured into what Perry calls the "simplistic rhetoric of atrocity as applied to the crusades." The thing is though, Obama didn't really do that at all. As many have observed already, while his comments might have been generalizing, they were hardly untrue. Again, all he spoke of is the (very real) tendency for religious belief to give way to violence and how we owe it to ourselves to be aware of that historic tendency and strive to be better. In other words, instead of Christians automatically labeling themselves as "more evolved" (as I've heard at least a few conservative pundits express over the past few days) Obama asks them in this speech to pay careful attention to history and endeavor to avoid repeating it. Hardly a radical idea at all. 

I do think there are fruitful debates to be had about the historical crusades and the motivations behind them, and I more than agree with the importance of recognizing the crusades as an incredibly complex and shifting concept and practice. I also agree that the crusades are all too often misunderstood in popular culture. But what I cannot understand or accept, in the end, is the argument that the President has no right to talk about the crusades in the first place. Madden closes his piece by saying that the President can/should just focus on the here and now — as if we live in some kind of vacuum where the past, and our varied interpretations of that past, have no bearing on the present. In the end, I'll gladly accept the POTUS cautioning against crusades -- however generally -- than (accidentally?) calling for them. Because in the end, as Perry put it so well in his recent post, the history of religious violence -- in all of its permutations -- warns again and again of the dangers of binary worldviews, especially when they lead one to believe that one's "violent acts are necessary" and good. 

On that note, I think I’ll close by quoting Eileen Joy, who cautions against this distancing of the medieval from the modern far more eloquently than I ever could. Certainly food for thought and an inspiration to keep forging meaningful bridges with care:  
The alterity of history, and of different times, events, persons, texts and other artifacts in history, will always obtain and thereby, will always remain as a proper object of medieval historiography [as well as a caution against the exhaustion of any historical method — by which I mean, we never exhaust history’s alterity by any one method, but rather, work to make its alterity more complex by a variety of methods and approaches, which is a good thing, in my mind]. At the same time, to say that only those events most proximate in chronological time have the most to say to us about our present situation [whatever that present situation might be], strikes me as an altogether too impoverished view of what history can do and say in the present, and also of where it is we think we are in time — on some island called modernity, floating in open space, completely untethered from “the medieval”?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

American Sniper: A 21st-Century Crusades Romance?

I’ve always considered myself a bit of an odd duck in the various circles in which I run, in part because I inhabit several of them, and not all of them mesh in easy ways. I am, on the one hand, a left-of-center feminist scholar who regularly harbors mixed feelings about the recent wars our country has waged and who regularly takes issue with the way in which Muslims are depicted in Europe and America. By the same token, I am a proud member of a large military family. I have seen my brother go off to war, and I spent time every night while he was gone pleading with the powers that be for his safe return. And I now live for the opportunities I can get to Skype with him and with my sister (also in the military), both of whom are stationed far away from me. As a little one, I saw my father get called up for yet another deployment when I was not quite four, my sister was not quite two, and my mother was five months pregnant with my brother. She gave birth via c-section while my father was at sea. He found out my brother was born, and that he had a son, via a brief morse code message that contained little aside from my brother’s name. I remember vividly my father coming home a couple of months early and the way we ceremoniously clipped each one of the cardboard paper links in the chain we’d created to mark the time he was away. The chain had a different color for each month, and I don’t think I’d ever been so excited to take a pair of scissors to so much paper. And truly, I doubt I would be the scholar that I am today were it not for my father’s service. The time we spent in Europe instilled in me a deep fascination with the Middle Ages, and it is no exaggeration to say that it contributed in a large way to my decision to make a career out of studying that time period.

It can be hard to explain – to both family and to my friends -- how I can simultaneously be deeply proud of (and grateful for) my family’s service while taking issue with the very conflicts in which they have fought. What I know, however, is that these wars are far from simple: that the people who fight in them are not the same people who launch them, and that those on the ground – more often than not – are people like my family members. Smart, capable, and good people who do their jobs thoughtfully and with the very best of intentions. I also know, both from the family in which I was raised and from the many accounts I’ve read, that servicepersons  harbor complex and varied feelings about the recent conflicts in the Middle East, and that the damage that those wars have wreaked is immeasurable. 

The reason I’m telling you this before I get to my thoughts on American Sniper is rather simple: I wish, as someone who has grown up in and around military families, that the film had focused squarely on that kind of damage. As a member of a large military family, I went to the theater hoping to see a film that would shed light on the struggles that servicewomen and men – especially those who see combat – face when they try to reintegrate into civilian life. I know, from all of the stories I’ve heard over the years, this issue is a hugely important one, and based on what both Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper had expressed in recent interviews — namely that they hoped the film would encourage people to sympathize with contemporary vets — I was optimistic that the film would be focused on those struggles. Sadly, while certain parts of the film gestured in that area, it was not. Parts of the film do examine Chris Kyle’s actual experiences abroad and his actual struggles at home, but in large part the film seems invested in creating a hero that can easily be read as infallible. As Brian Turner has said so well, that’s just not the kind of war film we need. 

Since I saw the film, I’ve found myself struggling to come to terms with it. On the one hand, I all but forgot that I was watching Bradley Cooper playing Chris Kyle — he thoroughly gave himself up to that role, and I was beyond impressed with his convincing performance. And to be fair, the parts of the film that focus on Kyle’s struggles — even inability — to reintegrate struck me as both sincere and incredibly well-wrought. And for the record, I DO think that those involved with the film were sincere in their attempts to address the quieter tragedies of war, especially PTSD. Hall explains as much in a recent interview and says, in the end that he was only trying to promote discussion:
To me, the point of art is to promote discussion — and this film is doing that. It's time that we had this discussion, that we understand the sacrifice of these warriors. We didn't set out to explore the archetype of war; we set out to explore the archetype of the warrior. We did that from one man's point of view. While the movie is being criticized for not providing a larger context, this point was to explore war through the eyes of this person. That's the POV we used. It's a character study.

Fair enough. But as I always stress to my students, your intentions and the way in which your actions/writing/speech are interpreted will not always be mutually inclusive, and as a result it’s your responsibility — if you're trying to make a particular point — to make sure you’re being as transparent as possible. I can certainly agree with Hall that making a film about a single person's experience all but guarantees that you can't widen the lens overmuch. But if he really wanted to do a character study, as he says above, why the insistence on white-washing so much of said character and fictionalizing a good deal as well? Why resort to tired stereotypes of the enemy? Why try so hard to ensure that audiences resist questioning Kyle and his worldview?

The film had so many chances to be self-reflective in ways that Kyle’s autobiography — given his insistence on his own worldview, one that cannot seem to allow for or conceive of an enemy more complex than a two-dimensional, intrinsically evil Other — cannot be. It had so many opportunities to point out the limitations of his worldview and, to a certain extent, its tragic inevitability. As Suzanne Akbari observed in a recent Facebook conversation — and as I’ve heard more than one serviceperson express, and not without some ruefulness — the belief that your enemy is simply evil is a tempting one to espouse when in combat. How else can you possibly pull the trigger if you don’t at some level dehumanize the person in your crosshairs? How else do you live with yourself afterwards?

But instead of taking a reflective approach and trying to encourage an audience to problematize Kyle’s worldview, the film seemed to be trying to endorse it instead. Rather than sticking closely (or at least close enough) to accounts of Kyle’s actual experiences on his four tours, Eastwood and Hall felt the need to impose a more dramatic/cinematic narrative on Kyle’s tours in Iraq and their respective motivations. Whereas his reasons for going to war and returning to war were on the more predictable/mundane side according to his autobiography, in the film he feels compelled to enlist because of terrorist attacks on American embassies and his first tour in Iraq appears to be directly tied to the events on 9/11 (even though, as many have observed, the terrorist attacks had no bearing on his decision to enlist and the complex “connections” between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq are completely white-washed in the film). And while in his autobiography he does admit to feeling pressure to return to war, in the film Kyle is drawn back to Iraq because of the continued presence of two specific villains: a child-torturing insurgent known as “The Butcher” (who is only loosely based on an actual person who, as it turns out, Kyle never encountered during any of his four tours) and a Syrian marksman/sniper. The sniper, at least, is described briefly in Kyle’s autobiography, but Kyle never hunted him down and/or fixated on him in the way that he does in the film. 

It’s one thing simply to acknowledge that Kyle views his enemies as two-dimensional savages, but it is another thing entirely to validate that worldview (however accidentally) through the construction of fictional, stereotyped villains. The film reaches its low point in this regard in the child-torture scene, where The Butcher takes a power drill to an Iraqi child’s leg and head in full view of his family and Kyle (because the father of that family had talked to the Americans and helped them). The scene is beyond disturbing, not only because of its content but because of its obvious attempt to force audiences to see the Iraqis as, at best, nameless collateral damage and, at worst, as the savages Kyle believes them to be. I remember scribbling angrily in my notebook as I watched the scene that I needed to find out whether or not this had even happened during any of Kyle’s tours.

It hadn’t.

This kind of revelation happened again and again as I researched the differences between the film and the actual events of Kyle's life. In this way, the film's persistent rewriting of history continuously reminded me of the narrative mechanics of the crusades romances I study. Richard Coer de Lion (RCL) kept coming to mind in particular because it, like, American Sniper, focuses on an actual warrior — a warrior who reached legendary status in his own lifetime, no less (Kyle was, after all, nicknamed “Legend” during the course of his four tours in Iraq). Both stories elide crucial historical details in order to tell a very particular, and consistently flattering, story about a Christian hero. 

Compare, for instance the way in which Richard in RCL has near-supernatural power and authority. He wields a virtually magical (and, as Akbari has observed, very “English”) battle-ax, capable of cleaving a massive chain in two – which allows his fleet entry into a Levantine harbor. He consistently proves himself superior even to his own men on the killing fields, and regularly kills multiple men with single blows. Chris Kyle enjoys similar prestige in American Sniper. One of his fellow soldiers in the film half-jokingly praises him for killing a hundred men in a single blow, and he is repeatedly reminded (far more somberly/seriously) of the courage he gives to the men whenever they know he’s hidden somewhere above them with his rifle and his scope. As one soldier quipped, they feel invincible when they know he’s watching out for them. Kyle also carries a bible that takes on near reliquary status. Someone even asks him at one point — again half-jokingly — whether it’s bullet-proof. At the end, in the (completely fictional) final firefight of his military career, he barely escapes with his life and (accidentally?) leaves both his bullet and the fabled bible in the dust, signifying perhaps, that he’s done his duty to both God and Country and that Family (which had always been third on his list of priorities) might finally get a somewhat higher billing. But I had to wonder, given that his Bible becomes a sort of talisman, whether or not its loss is the first cinematic “hint” at Kyle’s tragic death. Regardless, it struck me that the film version of Kyle and the Richard of RCL are indelibly tied to and defined by their faith, and are imbued with near impossible amounts of strength and charisma. 

In the film, Kyle’s identity as a Christian —and as an unapologetically martial Christian at that— is also made clear in his decision to have a crusader cross tattooed on his arm. The actual Kyle did so as well, and he describes his motivations behind it in his autobiography:
On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I'd been fighting. I always will. They've taken so much from me. (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
In the film, no such explanation for the choice of tattoo is provided by Kyle or anyone else, and I noticed that the film makes this kind of move repeatedly – offering up clearly controversial/polarizing aspects of Kyle, his life, and his story (whether fictional or actual) and refusing to provide any kind of clear interpretation of them. Now, I’m not saying that a film necessarily needs to do so, or that it even should, but I do think that this refusal to explain (which happens on multiple occasions) points, at least in part, to why the film is so divisive. It is incredibly easy to come to wildly different conclusions about the implications of, say, this crusader cross tattoo (i.e. is the film saying it’s praiseworthy? Worthy of critique? Is it even aware of its implications?), when you aren’t getting clear clues from the film about its intentions in emphasizing it. 

This same problem crops up in the representation of the Iraqis in the film. Both the insurgents and the civilians are repeatedly referred to as “savages,” a term that Kyle himself uses regularly in his book. Interestingly, Kyle never uses that term in the film – it’s a term uttered only by those around him. I found this curious, because it seemed to suggest 
a)    that the creators of the film knew that having Kyle refer to them as such would risk problematizing him 
b)   they still felt a need to emphasize – and depict – Iraqi “savagery” (however hyperbolized/fictionalized). 
This is another instance, then, where the creators of the film elide history for the sake of the narrative they’re trying to construct. Kyle, based on the first few pages of his book alone, makes it clear that he views any and all of his enemies as savages, and he is unwilling/unable to see them any other way. Consider this excerpt from the prologue to his book, entitled "Evil in the Crosshairs," where he describes the female insurgent he shoots and kills:
It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn't care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child . . .  She was too blinded by evil to consider them.
My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were worth clearly more than that woman's twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day. 
 Savage, despicable evil. That's what we're fighting in Iraq. That's why a lot of people, myself included, call the enemy "savages." There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there. (American Sniper, Kindle edition).
Here, it's a bit difficult to tell whether Kyle sees the people as inherently evil, or whether he is trying to class only their actions as evil. What is clear, however, is that Kyle has created a stark hierarchy where Iraqis are "lesser" and, in the vast majority of cases, eventually outed as savages who need to be killed. He elaborates somewhat on this perspective in a later section of the book, entitled "Evil":
I had never known that much about Islam. Raised as a Christian, obviously I knew there had been religious conflicts for centuries. I knew about the Crusades, and I knew that there had been fighting and atrocities forever.
But I also knew that Christianity had evolved from the Middle Ages. We don't kill people because they're a different religion.
The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam's army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren't Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we'd just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did. 
Isn't religion supposed to teach tolerance?  (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
Here, then, Chris Kyle attempts to distance himself from the idea of holy war, implying that he and his fellow Christians have "evolved" while his Muslim enemies are still stuck in the Middle Ages. And this move is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher given his red-cross tattoo which, as he said in the quote above, he got so that everyone would know him to be a Christian. I was reminded, as I read these wildly conflicting passages, of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes" ("Song of Myself," 51). As those lines suggest so well, our identities are rarely stable and coherent, and part of what struck me so much about Kyle's autobiography is its authenticity in that regard — how very clearly you can see him trying to make sense of himself and his ideals and not always succeeding in that endeavor.

The film, however, tries to solve that "problem" by erasing any of these inconsistencies and, in the process, any aspect of Kyle that might seem distasteful. He rarely uses the word "evil" (I can only recall a single instance), and -- as I mentioned previously -- he never refers to the Iraqi insurgents as "savages." The film keeps him from using that problematic language while still trying to ensure that an audience becomes comfortable with its usage, and it does so by resorting to gross stereotypes. Medieval crusades romances do so with aplomb as well. Take, for instance, Sir Isumbras (the text I just can’t quit, no matter how hard I try!); the Saracens in that text are always, already villainous, guaranteed – even when they seem peaceable – to betray and/or malign and/or threaten the Christian heroes. The Sultan captures Isumbras’ wife and brutalizes Isumbras, and the Saracens over whom Isumbras eventually rules predictably betray him almost as soon as he comes to power, which requires their complete annihilation. American Sniper seems to proffer the same kind of message. Consider, for instance, the scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. Consider, for instance, the (completely fictional) scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. It starts off promisingly enough, with the family and the U.S. soldiers sharing a meal, conversing, etc. But Kyle eventually grows suspicious because of a bruise on his host’s elbow (?!?!?!) and eventually uncovers a weapons stash, which proves that the family supported the insurgents all along. To be clear, I am by NO means saying that this scenario isn’t believable or that similar ones never happened or could not have happened throughout the course of the war. But the fact that the scene in the film is fictional means that it was created to serve a point, namely that Iraqis (like the Saracens of crusades romances) can never be trusted, nor can they change. And like the Saracen, if they prove intractable they have to be destroyed. And that is exactly what happens to virtually all of the Iraqis we see on the screen in the film. We are given no other perspective. Now, some -- Jason Hall included -- have argued/suggested that we only see the Iraqis in the film this way because, as a film about one man’s experiences and perspectives on the war, to do anything else would be inauthentic. The thing is, though, the film is ALREADY wildly inauthentic, which makes it hard to legitimize that kind of stance. 

To make matters worse, the film seems to suggest (deliberately or indeliberately) that harboring any kind of ambivalence, uncertainty, or critical thoughts about the war is wrong and will at best make you weak and at worst get you killed. This worldview is established early on in the film, with Kyle’s father explaining that the world is made up of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs (who must protect the sheep given their inability to believe that evil – i.e. wolves – exist). And it comes full circle with Kyle criticizing a dead comrade-in-arms for his criticism of the war. Marc Lee had written a letter shortly before his death warning against the dangers of glory and how it can lead one to launch an “ill-advised crusade.” In the film, the letter is read by Lee's mother at his funeral. But rather than allowing this to lead to a reflection/commentary on the war, the ensuing scene involves a conversation between Kyle and his wife Taya, in which he explains that the ideas in that letter are what killed his friend — that the letter “killed him and he paid the price for it.” As Courtney Duckworth points out in her Slate article, this is one instance when the actual Chris Kyle comes out looking more compassionate (in his autobiography, he has nothing but kind things to say about Lee and his letter, which does not seem to have contained any of the aforementioned criticism). And were it not for the fact that this conversation between Kyle and Taya seems obviously fabricated, I could believe the arguments that it’s attempting to achieve some measure of authenticity in its depiction of Kyle and his worldview. But since the scene is a fiction – like the aforementioned scenes with The Butcher and the Iraqi family – it seems instead to be crafted aspects of a "morality tale" (as Duckworth calls the film) that lionizes a black-and-white view of the world.

One of the tragedies of this film, then, is the very likely possibility that neither Clint Eastwood nor Jason Hall intended to create an anti-nuance morality tale in the first place. Eastwood himself has been open about his criticism of the Iraq war (however garbled/incoherent), and I believe Cooper when he’s spoken about his hope that the film would draw attention to the plight of vets in America. The film, however, did not need to strip away the complexities of the Iraq war and/or systematically open up opportunities for critical reflection only to shut them down in order to tell that kind of story. But by fabricating so many scenes pivotal to the narrative arc of American Sniper, those involved in the process created (however intentionally/unintentionally) a film that, at best, presents a wildly inaccurate account of Kyle’s experiences as a SEAL and at worst, promulgates a tragically simplistic ideology by failing to fully interrogate its limitations on screen. 

For these reasons, I am all but set on drawing American Sniper into the conclusion of my book. I certainly plan to teach it alongside Richard Coer de Lion and other crusades romances whenever I have the opportunity. Because, given all of the problems I’ve outlined above, it is alarming indeed to realize that these kinds of stories continue to be so enduringly popular.