Month: May 2014

On Teaching Bisclavret

(Note: I am also cross posting this at Modern Medieval.)

Like many people I know, I’ve been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven’t been reading articles, I’ve been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I’m certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It’s in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.

This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf.  I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme “The Monstrous Middle Ages.” A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:

A Lord seems to have a wonderful life —  status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband’s clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.

Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we’ve talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: “Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?” When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady’s being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.

Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn’t the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn’t she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten?  We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.

Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I’m not always unsettled by “Bisclavret.” I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn’t ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn’t thought too much about before was the lady’s first words:

“My lord,” she said, “my friend, my dear,
There’s just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare–
But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me” (From Judith Shoaf’s translation)

Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, “more than anything,” that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger.  Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.

After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France’s “Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in.  I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value.  Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I’m not saying that last Friday’s act of violence should be described as medieval. I’m saying that “Bisclavret” is all too modern.

Humanities Accessed

Here’s my contribution to Josh Eyler’s “Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities (A Roundtable)”:

I want to begin this short presentation with a note of annoyance. For a little while now, every few weeks or so one of my friends posts an article on Facebook about a study concerning student note-taking. You know the one. Studies have confirmed, it would seem, that the pen has slain the keyboard. One such article from begins “When it comes to taking notes, the old-fashioned way might be best.” I will come back to this old-fashionedness in a moment. The article then goes on to say “People taking notes on laptops have a shallower grasp of a subject than people writing with their hands, and not just because laptops distract users with other activities such as web surfing, the new study suggests.” I am not a scientist, so I am not going to challenge the ultimate findings of this recent study. Nor do I dispute it. What has me so irritated, though, is the often triumphant (explicit or implicit) attitude on display when people post such articles. There is often a sense of relief, or of “I told you so.” I understand the nostalgia people feel for physical books and for pen and paper. There is enormous pleasure to be had in the tactile engagement with such storehouses of knowledge. The only problem, however, is that I am often excluded from such pleasures. A book sitting on my shelf in my office might as well be a continent anyway.

The short articles that I often see posted on the subject focus on the superiority of oldfashioned technologies versus newer digital tools. However, and unsurprisingly, looking at the actual study that spawned these articles tells a slightly different tale. In the most recent issue of Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, in an article called “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” conclude that students taking notes longhand do better in terms of knowledge retention than their laptop using peers, even when the distracting qualities of web surfing and other forms of multitasking are controlled for. The difference, perhaps counterintuitively, is that laptop users can record information faster. Because of this, they tend to transcribe almost verbatim what they hear, and this becomes a mindless task. Longhand notetakers, on the other hand, must be selective, and therefore end up processing information better. As Mueller and Oppenheimer state at the close of their article, “Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.”

Now, I must admit to being somewhat unfair at the start of this presentation. Not everyone who recently posted this article, or variations of it, were doing so in the hopes of validating their own technological preferences. (This is especially true of anyone in the room who I am friends with on some platform or another.) And, I should note that the initial link that I began discussing does note, albeit at the very end of the article, that the issue is how information is processed and not the actual tool being used. What I take issue with is the title of the original article (“The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard”) and the link’s reference to “old-fashioned.” The real heft of the original study focuses on information processing, but the advertising focuses on a binary between new and old, between the physical and the digital.

In thinking about note taking, and the role of digital tools in this activity, I am not strictly speaking yet about digital humanities. Nor do I want to necessarily get into the debate of what exactly the digital humanities constitutes. Briefly, I prefer to think of digital humanities as a landscape without boundaries. I borrow the term landscape from Patrik Svensson, who charted five modes of engagement for digital humanities: “as a tool, an object of study, an exploratory laboratory, an expressive medium and an activist venue.”* Of these, I am most interested in digital humanities as an expressive medium, but more to the point, I’m interested in the ways that the digital enables freer flows of information, reconstituting and reconceptualizing what we think of as knowledge and authorship in the process. When someone suggests that the “old-fashioned” is best, they are not only professing a preference for physical book over a Kindle or ipad, but they are also revealing an anxiety about or suspicion toward the unavoidable ramifications of the digitization of knowledge.

This embrace of the “old-fashioned” is certainly not a recent trend, and maybe because I recently taught this text, this all reminds me powerfully of the Egyptian myth in Plato’s Phaedrus. Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the story where one of the Egyptian gods brings his great invention, that of writing, to the King. How crestfallen the inventor must have been when the King, in a sagely and somewhat patronizing tone, tells him that the discovery of writing is nothing more than an aide to forgetting. The old ways are, in fact, best. Never mind that this critique of writing is occurring in a dialogue written by Plato, and that without this dialogue we would likely not know about this exchange. This encounter between past and present, and between two radically different seeming technologies is playing out again, and again. To find our modern-day Phaedrus we might look no further than a recent article in The New Republic by Adam Kirsch, called “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” Never mind that I read this piece because it is posted to the magazine’s website.

After surveying and critiquing (sometimes justifiably) the triumphant tone that often accompanies Digital Humanities, Kirsch offers the following appraisal in his next-to-last paragraph: “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.” There are many things going on here for Kirsch. One is certainly a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned, veiled in the trappings of “intellectual responsibility.” More troubling to me, however, is the insistent refusal to engage with questions of accessibility. We can curate books and circulate them more, but does that always help the physically disabled? And, aside from the alarmist notion that writing is going to be removed from the humanities curriculum, what about the fact that multimodal objects may be a great help to some students who process information differently, and therefore feel excluded by linguistic only expression. Within his nostalgic move he also expresses a normate position, thinking that we all learn, process, and engage the world in the same way. What is good for Kirsch is good, apparently, for the rest of us.

As a corrective to the retreat to the “old-fashioned” Humanities, I look to George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,” where he observes that “Digital knowledge tools that assume everyone approaches information with the same abilities and using the same methods risk excluding a large percentage of people. In fact, such tools actually do the work of disabling people by preventing them from using digital resources altogether.” He then goes on to argue that “We must broaden our understanding of the ways in which people use digital resources” (Williams). I would extend his conclusions here to say that we should not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way. To do so, as Kirsch does, excludes so many and enforces an expectation of normalcy. What I would like to call for is a dismodern Humanities. I take the phrase “dismodern” from Lennard Davis, who argues (in his book Bending Over Backwards) that we are all incomplete or disabled: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls of manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace” (30). We are not self-sovereign, in either our minds or our bodies. We are all interdependent. One of the many reasons that I find this notion of dismodernism so compelling, and what I find generally provocative about Disability Studies, is that it carries with it an imperative to engage. We must engage with the world, with our neighbors, with the people next to us, with the technologies at hand and with the information available. Only in doing so, by engaging, can we become complete.

The self-satisfaction of retreating from the Digital signals not engagement, but a refusal. It closes off knowledge, and despite the nod towards greater circulation, the networks become difficult to navigate. I am certainly not suggesting that we need to do away with books, or that we need turn the Humanities into something abject, in favor of the Digital. Instead, I am just growing weary of the binary between past and present, new and old, normal and different. To recast this binary thinking, I will take one more cue from Davis. He rather famously argued that handicap parking is not a subset of regular parking, but rather the other way around. Regular parking is a subset of handicap parking. With this in mind, I want to argue that all issues of access in terms of information and the Humanities are a subset of issues of disability access. Open Access and net neutrality are not separate issues from universal design; rather, in the mode of a dismodern Humanities, these concerns and defining values of DH are a subset of the call for universal access.

*Patrick Svensson, “The Landscape of the Digital Humanities,” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010)

Kalamazoo paper, in closing

After returning from Kalamazoo and resurfacing from final grading, my head is starting to clear enough to put up some blog posts. What follows is the final paragraph to my paper called “Prosthetic Neighbors: Enabling Community in the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” In this paper, I endeavored to read Ragnelle alongside two different theoretical considerations: the political theology of the Neighbor and some recent work in Disability Studies. I’m trying to work out some of the ways the Neighbor and Disability might complement each other. This will be my primary summer project, so expect more here and on Modern Medieval.


In closing this essay, I want to briefly consider Lennard Davis’s recent book, The End of Normal, where he revisits the notion of dismodernism. He reviews criticisms of his challenge to a disabled identity, and he updates his work in light of his encounter with both critics and other philosophers, mostly notably for my purposes, Giorgio Agamben. Davis observes that “the primary exclusion that creates the state is bare life that also could be defined as barely human… The state historically has been founded on the exclusion of the severely disabled” (29). He goes on to argue that “if I had read Agamben ten years ago, I might have said that dismodernism advocates the defining of the posthuman by the inclusion of the abject, bare life, the disabled– in other words, including the imperfect, the interdependent, the nonideal in the very sphere of the polis, the agora, and so on.” For Davis, the exclusion of the bare life of the severely disabled enables the inclusion that communities are formed on. I might suggest that the loathly lady allows for the exclusion of the bare life of her extreme deformity, thus bringing forth the bonds of community based on inclusion, in this case marriage. However, what I really think that Davis needed here is not so much Agamben’s state of exception, but rather he should look to the political theology of the neighbor. For me, dismodernism makes explicit some of the ways in which the neighbor constitutes the social. As Reinhard suggests through a reading of Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, “To destroy the relation of the neighbor is to eliminate the breathing space that keeps the subject in proper relationship to the Other, neither too close nor too far, but in proximity, the ‘nearness’ that neighboring entails.” [In reading disability through Agamben, Davis also makes exceptional the subject-position of the disability, which I would suggest blunts the force of  his original conception of dismodernism.] Before the entrance of the neighbor, Arthur exists in an atemporal world, one of constant feasts and hunting, but also one where the disenfranchised is simply absent, and history seems nonexistent. The incursion of the stranger into the Arthurian world may bring tragedy in the end, but it also forces Arthur to confront his neighbors, and to attempt to redress political wrongs. The neighbor-encounters in the poem embody what Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick in their joint essay “Bodies Together: Touch, Ethics and Disability” (2002) would call a “becoming-in-the-world-with-others,” an openness of two bodies to alternate modes of being, and to a futurity promised but not yet apprehended (62). To fully understand neighbor-love, I argue, it must be understood in the eventfulness of an encounter that brings two or more bodies together, not into a simple joining but rather an interdependent openness to difference, and an embrace of a more just futurity.