>Yesterday I gave a talk on my work in progress to our humanities research seminar, and since it was a pretty technical, specialist talk, I wanted to give an introduction that put it in a broader context, especially because I was speaking to a generalist audience, but also because the value of my work – why it should matter – has been much on my mind. Lately I’ve been feeling a little down about the worth of my work – my research in particular, but sometimes my teaching, too – and that has everything to do with the ways the current administration at my university has been treating those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences (or, for that matter, the pure sciences). I won’t get into specifics, but it’s gone way beyond the usual nonsense that humanities people have to put up with, to the extent that it’s been seriously affecting morale in these parts. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what the value of my work is, but not in some instrumentalist, utilitarian way. I think when you start to talk that way about education, it plays right into the hands of the technocrats who think the point of education is to give them a well-trained workforce and to meet their needs and their needs only.
This kind of talk is especially nerve-wracking for me, since it’s hard for a medievalist to justify her work on the basis of use-value and practical needs. Every now and then current events make the general public see the value of, say, a Crusades historian, but when one’s work is about a miscellaneous manuscript of anonymous saints’ lives and romances and allegorical poems, which was once owned by a London merchant who might have been “somebody” in the 15th century but is pretty much a “nobody” to the ages after, well then, you’ve got the kind of obscure-seeming project that’s just asking to be mocked by the utilitarian and instrumental thinkers. I mean, it’s not even about Chaucer or Arthurian romance – at least people have heard of those. And medievalists sometimes even get dismissed by their peers in their own disciplines for some of the same or other misguided reasons (as HeoCwaeth has talked about), so even if my university weren’t going out its way to make the humanists and social scientists in general feel like schmucks, I still wanted to contextualize my work for my general audience.
So here’s what I said.
Lately, honestly, I’ve been feeling kind of down about my work and its value; after all, it doesn’t save lives and it doesn’t make the world a better place. So what use is it? [note: spoken with some sarcasm – there’s a context here for my original audience]. If we ask students what the value of studying the past is, they say we can learn from the past or from those who study the past. And as I often tell my students, we can point to medieval origins of much of our contemporary world including the university and the liberal arts. But that’s using the past as means, and I’d rather study it as an end in itself, to give it its own integrity and dignity, rather than make all about what it says about me, us, now – that’s “presentism.” Moreover, that use of the past as means can be abused. The medieval origin or association of something can be used to denigrate it: “how medieval” versus the privilege and supposed progress of modernity. Or, it can be used as a fetishization of “tradition” to oppress and to maintain the status quo – as in the conservative cry to preserve “traditional marriage.”
So, of what “use” is the past? In my teaching narrative in my dossier, I wrote the following, and I deeply believe it: “I believe in the humanist, liberal arts ideal that deep, critical encounters with lives, literatures, cultures, discourses, and ways of thinking other than one’s own makes one a fuller, better human being. In that sense, I hope students will ‘use’ their experiences in English courses for the rest of their lives.” That certainly includes lives, etc. of the past. But that’s about the classroom – what about my research? Why does it matter?
Having thought much about this in recent months, I realized just last night that while my work may not save lives in any literal sense, neither does any other work except temporarily, because ultimately we all die. Thus, those of us who work on the past speak for the dead, either as individuals or as cultures. We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.
The dead I’m speaking for today wouldn’t have needed me to speak for them when they were alive. I’m talking about wealthy, powerful aldermen of late medieval London – the kind of men who were sheriffs and mayors, or the sons of them and who loaned money to the crown. Indeed, they’d be a little baffled and bewildered to have a woman scholar speak for them. In their world I couldn’t have existed! But “Dead White European Men” need us to speak for them, too, because the dead can’t speak for themselves. And these particular “DWEMs” really haven’t had much said about them at all (only the briefest mentions in books dedicated to their social milieu) And the manuscript they’ve inscribed their names on, as they knew it, has also been overlooked – though certain of the earlier texts within it have gotten plenty of scholarly attention, just not together. Plus, the texts are anonymous – there’s no Chaucer or other named author here – and even rich merchants aren’t kings or other world historical figures, so their reading and cultural practices have only begun to be studied in recent decades.
As for why I’m interested in them, I’ve always been interested in the readers and audiences for texts as much as or more than I’ve been interested in their authors. After all, I’m a reader not an author (at least not in a literary sense) and I fell into literary study because of that. More and more, questions of how and what and why we read (or don’t read) interest me more than how X author wrote. I never really needed Roland Barthes to tell me that the author was dead or that a text’s meaning lies in its audience, its destination – though when I first read that essay in college, I thought “Yes! I’m not the only one! Maybe I’m not a freak!” So that’s what this project is about: about a particular manuscript’s “destination” in the 15th century and its audience with 15th century merchants whose names are on its final folio. But it’s also about those larger questions of how and what and why we read, and how reading produces meaning, how it produces culture, questions that I’m not the first to ask certainly, but which still have not been fully answered, for the dead or the living.