Sunday, December 28, 2014

About _The Year's Work in Medievalism_ 28

On 15 December 2014, the International Society for the Study of Medievalism released Volume 28 of its journal The Year's Work in Medievalism online.* The volume is a special issue, Medievalism Now, one that seeks, in the words of editor E.L. Risden as he introduces the volume, to bring "marginalized medievalism into the center of our [scholarly] vision." In doing so, it deploys articles from Valerie B. Johnson, Amy S. Kaufman, Elena Levy-Navarro, Nickolas Haydock, Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly, E.L. Risden, Karl Fugelso, Carol L. Robinson, Jesse G. Swan, Helen Young, and Richard Utz to argue for an expansion of medievalism's formal concerns and the body of scholars, professional and amateur, who contribute to the still-burgeoning field.

Valerie B. Johnson's "Ecomedievalism: Medievalism's Potential Futures in Ecocriticism and Ecomaterialsim" argues convincingly that medievalist study will benefit from deploying the tools common to ecocritical approaches. The article offers a useful list of readings that engage intersections that can be termed "ecomedieval," helping ease entry into their study and pointing out the contested nature of both ecocritical approaches and medievalism. The reminder that the environment is a long-standing socio-cultural concern is useful.

Amy S. Kaufman's "Lowering the Drawbridge" lays out (again) the tensions between the academic humanities and the "useful" world and between proximal disciplines. The article posits that medievalism itself remains a marginal, liminal space, partaking of multiple disciplines but welcomed by none, and finding itself marginalized in part because it is liminal not only within academic but also between it and the "regular" world. That it is one of the few disciplines in which amateurs are welcomed and even embraced vitiates against it for those who occupy the more traditional ivory tower. Medievalist studies are optimally poised to break down the barriers surrounding that tower, or at least to open additional gates in them through the resurgence of the medieval in entertainment culture and social structures.

Elena Levy-Navarro's "A Long Parenthesis Begins" argues that medievalist study needs to be more open to and accepting of non-professional scholars as a means to keep itself fresh and identify and explicate the connections--sometimes seemingly tenuous--upon which it depends. Opening up medievalist inquiry to more minds also allows for a richer historiography, one that rejects the absolutes of periodic and disciplinary boundaries to create a living understanding of how the world continues to use what it has used before.

Nickolas Haydock's "Medievalism and Anamorphosis: Curious Perspectives on the Middle Ages" points out how recapitulations of medieval figures and tropes in succession serve to highlight the unattainability of medieval ideals and of the ambiguous nature of those ideals themselves. In the article, refigurings serve to obscure, not only among receptions of the medieval but in the medieval itself. It is a useful reminder of the continuity of cultural fixtures, although the fixtures themselves are perhaps not ideal for continuation.

Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly contribute "There Is No Word for Work in the Dragon Tongue," which explicates the manner in which The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim reinscribes the removal of medievalist treatments from the material conditions of the medieval. It also likens that removal to current first-world concerns of removal from production. Manual labor is distinctly non-privileged in the game as in the cultures of which it ostensibly partakes and among which its intended player-base is. It, along with other medievalist popular works, reflects the tension between nostalgia for "good, honest work" and the non-desire to actually do that work, and it calls for a better reflection of the actuality of that work in future medievalist works. (Notably, the Moberlys' article can be read against Johnson's to good effect.)

E.L. Risden's "Miyazaki's Medieval World: Japanese Medievalism and the Rise of Anime" notes that medievalism in Asia is insufficiently examined by scholars of medievalism. Miyazaki's 1997 film Princess Mononoke is used as a case study for how Japanese medievalism might function and be explicated; other works are suggested for further study. Risden's comments speak to something that this webspace has also addressed, and they could well serve as an impetus for treatments of other works entirely.

Karl Fugelso's "Embracing Our Marginalism: Mitigating the Tyranny of a Central Paradigm" reminds readers that any kind of centering motion necessarily implies a fluidity of categorization that vitiates against the effectiveness of categorization. The article highlights the liminality of medievalist study that derives from its disciplinary heterodoxy, but notes that even within the field, there is a centralizing push that unfortunately excludes too many. Some is structural; Fugelso makes the telling comment that "There is simply not enough time, space, energy, and money to air everyone's work, much less give it equal billing, much less make it easily accessible" to highlight that structural limit. Some, though, is merely the result of habit--and that habit is a dangerous thing to maintain for medievalism as a field.

Carol L. Robinson, a valued Tales after Tolkien Society member, contributes "The Quest for a Deaf Lesbian Dwarf (or Anyone Else that Might Have Been Excluded) in Medievalist Video Games: A Response to Karl Fugelso's Manifesto." In it, she argues that the exclusionary and oppressive practices seen in medievalist video games parallel and reinscribe those in medievalist studies as a whole, and that redress of them needs to be "radical, dramatic, abrupt, and thus acutely innovative." The reinscription derives from earlier receipt of benefits from the inscription, and the duty incumbent on medievalists is to reclaim those benefits in the service of a greater inclusivity and diversity of treatment.

Jesse Swan's "Relazation and Amateur Medievalism for Early Modernity: Seeing Sir Henry Yelverton as a Woman in Love and a Bureaucrat Threatened in the 1621 Parliament" takes the uncommon approach of explicating earlier medievalisms, likening the treatment of Yelverton to the treatment of Spencer and Gaveston in then-popular media. Although an elided preposition distracts, the explication of an earlier medievalism is of interest and serves as a reminder that the Middle Ages have long served as a lens through which to examine current culture. The article's early comments about relaxation enabling inquiry are also helpful, recalling Asimov's "The Eureka Phenomenon."

Tales after Tolkien Society founder Helen Young's "Place and Time: Medievalism and Making Race" continues her project of explicating the multiracial nature of medieval Europe and arguing in favor of reflecting that multiracial nature in medievalist works. The article references the common assertion of the Middle Ages as a generative time for racial and national identities, marking nation-building as an iteration of medievalist practice, and argues that the purported lack of a medieval, or of an interesting medieval, among non-European peoples accounts in part for the drive to subjugate them. The implication is one Young has made explicit before (here and elsewhere): medievalist scholars have a duty to correct the abuses perpetuated by medievalist materials.

The volume concludes with Richard Utz's "Can We Talk about Religion, Please? Medievalism's Eschewal of Religion, and Why It Matters." The article contrasts the notable lack of religious discussion in medievalist scholarship with the wide range of materials it tends to cover. Utz posits that the lack stems in part from uncertainty about how to treat religion, informed by disciplinary and periodic divisions as well as an undercurrent of anti-theistic thought (evoking Michael-John DePalma's December 2011 CCC article "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief"). It is, in Utz's view, a lack that needs to be redressed.

The eleven articles combine to present an impressive collective call to expand medievalist studies and will certainly undergird no small number of projects that aim to answer that call. The Year's Work in Medievalism 28 (2013) presents excellent scholarship, well worth deploying in further expansion of human knowledge.

*All comments are taken from the volume as it appears online as of 27 December 2014, at which time I printed out copies of the articles for reading and comment.

Monday, December 15, 2014

About Student Papers and Anime

With apologies once again for the delay--this one imposed by end-of-semester work...

One of my undergraduate literature students from the spring has been working with me to revise and refine the conference paper I had his class write. It is flattering in itself, as having students continue to work on projects after their classes are done is a rarity and a mark of appreciation. But it is more validating that that alone, as the student's paper has been accepted for presentation in one of the Papers by Undergraduates panels at the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies. And it is of interest to the Society generally, as the student's paper is one explicitly concerned with the kinds of things the Society does; it examines the appropriation of a medieval source in a contemporary popular culture medium--in this case, an anime series. I do not want to tread upon my student's work by giving much specific detail, but I can note that the series he is examining is not the only one which deploys the medieval as generally understood (some discussion of which is here). I can note that I wonder along with him why that would be the case.

That anime makes use of the Western medieval is evident in a number of series; my own viewing leads me to recall Berserk, particularly, as well as some parts of Hellsing and even of Rurouni Kenshin. Cruciform swords and Gothic plate appear, as well as courts of kings and queens, mercenary bands, and the cut-stone castles familiar from history and legend instead of or, at least, in addition to katana and o-yoroi, daimyo and ronin, and shiro and kyuden. Some series even go so far as to deploy the occasional bits of language from the Western medieval, making for a somewhat jarring intrusion into the prevailing Japanese-language dialogue from time to time but marking the series in which they appear as partaking abundantly of the Western medieval.

Japan has a long feudal history of its own to deploy, however, and one that begs for reconsideration or further consideration of what is meant by "medieval." It is as heavily romanticized as the Western Middle Ages and indeed often identified as a parallel; samurai and chivalric knights largely run in tandem, as both are bound (nominally) by stringent codes of honor and fealty to military service in the name of their lord. Both exist as disparate states unified by shared language (Japanese among the samurai, Latin and perhaps French among the chivalric knights) and a centralized religious structure (veneration of the Emperor as the descendant of the Sun Goddess among the samurai, the Catholic Church among the chivalric knights). That anime--a distinctly Japanese cultural product--would partake as frequently of the Western medieval as it does thus makes sense, as the parallels lend themselves to deployment, as well as making less sense, as the parallels are not necessary. (The same is true of Western depictions of samurai culture; the parallels invite such treatments even as they would seem to argue against their necessity.)

A number of reasons for the deployment come to mind. One of them is one my student is pursuing in his own paper, so I shall set it aside so as not to tread upon him--although, for the record, I think his idea is a good one, and I look forward to addressing it more fully after he presents his paper. Another, though, seems to work in much the same way as Said's concept of Orientalism. To a Japanese audience, the Western Middle Ages is Other (although the correspondence is not entirely exact due to historical circumstances and what amounts to ongoing colonialist practice), therefore exotic to some degree and attractive therefore. At the same time, there are sufficient parallels in play to permit easy access into that exotic Other--or at least romanticized versions of it. Anime deployment of Western medieval imagery thus simultaneously facilitates Coleridgean willingness to suspend disbelief for its audience by maintaining a Tolkienian inner consistency of reality; it permits the creation of a "foreign" world that is unusual enough to allow for the uncanny while remaining accessible enough to viewers that they can immerse themselves in the narrative.

Yet another might be in the relative artistic freedom the deployment permits. A work that draws from its expected audience's history and culture subjects itself to critique based upon the perceived in/accuracy of that drawing, as appears even in several comments presented in this blog (those which treat "historical authenticity" and "Game of Thrones" are particularly relevant). Unlike those posed earlier in this webspace, though, many of the comments arguing about the in/accuracy will come from those who are perhaps trained otherwise than in the histories they would purport to discuss authoritatively, based upon what they were taught--not always by the best--or what they have "researched"--again, not always from the best sources. While artists are not obliged to consider the comments of their audiences, those who will seek to earn livings from their art are, and handling such comments can be tiresome. Drawing from the history and culture of another group than the expected primary audience, though, reduces the problem substantially; the audience will likely include far fewer who consider themselves experts on the history and culture deployed, and they are more likely to be able to demonstrate actual expertise than the armchair commentators common in other circumstances. While concerns of cultural appropriation can arise (albeit to a lesser degree than might otherwise be the case, given the explicit attempts at spreading Western--specifically United States mainstream--culture that have been and are still being made; it is hard to argue that culture is stolen by a populace when it is being shoved down that populace's collective throat), they occur far less frequently than those which assail works for their inaccuracies. Artists working with other cultures than those of their anticipated audiences thus have more room to take license--which suggests itself as a good reason for anime to make use of Western medieval constructions in its own storytelling.