Thursday, January 15, 2009

But First, A Question (on theory and medieval studies)

Before I write the posts I hinted at in my previous post (and when do I ever write the posts at which I hint?), I have a question for y'all, especially y'all medievalists.

I have identified a weakness in myself as a scholar: namely, I am not comfortable with theory. More precisely, I am not comfortable "applying" (for lack of a better word) theory in my research. Here's the problem, I think: My first year of grad school--about half my coursework--was All Theory, All The Time. At that point, I was not a medievalist; I imagined that I'd go into 19th/early 20th-c. literature. That all changed in my second year, and I began taking courses that would brush up my knowledge of medieval literature and language--Middle High German, medieval French narrative, Old English, paleography, etc. And I never really encountered theoretical approaches to medieval literature in the classroom.

I have to admit, too, that I was not into theory in those early years. As a first- and second-year grad student, I found it exhaustingly intimidating and difficult. So it was with great relief that I began focusing on things like manuscript transmission and paleography and auctoritas, rather than postcolonial this or that.

But now, when I do think that I'm intellectually sophisticated enough to deal with theoretical texts in a more mature fashion (hey, I liked reading Gender Trouble this summer), I feel a bit at sea--it's been a long time since I was in a specifically "theoretical" mindset. I think that there's theory implicit in a lot of my research, and I'm not looking to just drop some Derrida references in my Chaucer article, or anything like that. But when I'm asked point-blank--as I have been, in a job talk and at an MLA interview--about which theorists inform or are useful to my research, I can feel the Blank Stare of Doom settling across my brow. Or eyes. Whatever.

Anyway, so now that the MS is revised (for yes! It is in the copy center as I type, awaiting mailing), one of my next Intellectual Projects, I think, should be to read some scholarship that approaches medieval literature from an overtly theoretical standpoint. Just to see what's out there.

Here's the question, then. Any suggestions? Broadly speaking, my work is on Middle English literature, dream visions, hagiography, and visionary texts (keeping this deliberately wide open). I am somewhat, though probably insufficiently, familiar with Amy Hollywood's stuff, and I read Dinshaw's Getting Medieval ages ago (I can't remember it very clearly). Anything else come to mind as a good example of theoretically informed medieval literary scholarship?

11 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I'm so not a medievalist, but Carolyn Walker Bynum's stuff is totally cool (she's a historian but she came to mind when I read your post). You also might check out Mary Baine Campbell's work (she veers from medieval to early modern). Again, not a medievalist, but these might offer a start.

Dr. Virago said...

How about Jeffrey Cohen's work, on and off the blog. Medieval Identity Machines has a Kempe chapter.

medieval woman said...

heu, we were *so* trained at the same place. :)

I was going to suggest Cohen, and Lochrie...

heu mihi said...

Oh yeah, Bynum's awesome. I don't think of her as "theory"-ish maybe because she's so incredibly accessible to me? Hm. There's a problem with that thinking.

Cohen--yes, of course! I do remember briefly reading of something of his way back in some class. I should go back to it.

And I totally have some Lochrie on my bookshelf--I read a bit for my revisions and realized that it was entirely appropriate for the article that I started (and then stopped) over the summer; that's definitely on my to-read-closely list.

...It seems that I'm less out of it than I thought I was.... Nice! But keep bringing them on, if you think of something else....

heu mihi said...

Oh, and Mary Baine Campbell--I *don't* know her, so I'll check it out. Thanks, Crazy!

Ortho said...

How about some new historicism? Or Gabrielle Spiegel's stuff or Caciola's Discerning Spirits? I dunno; I'm a historian, not a theorist. Stay warm!

the rebel lettriste said...

This made me laugh! I am a medievalist who does "do" theory (insomuch as I can) and I am frequently given the "how-dare-you-use-that-theory-for-the-medieval?!?!" question. Sigh.

Generally, Cohen and Lochrie are excellent; others are: Steven Kruger, Glenn Burger, Pamela Sheingorn, Geraldine Heng, the ever popular Dinshaw, Laurie Finke and Marty Shichtman, Kathleen Davis... (I know they don't all do gender theory, etc., but they are all pretty good to think with.)

heu mihi said...

Ortho and Rebel, thank you! I read (and hearted) Discerning Spirits, but Spiegel is unfamiliar to me; RL, there are a good handful of people I've never heard of in your list. Excellent!

Thank God I won't be lacking for things to do.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I would take issue with the way you write "I began focusing on things like manuscript transmission and paleography and auctoritas" as if that was something besides theory.

That IS theory. Very productive theory, in fact. It's theory that will still be around and useful centuries from now. So far as I can tell, the way theory is being defined in your post and the comments is as politically-oriented theory, as opposed to textually-oriented theory.

If I were you, I'd return to "things like manuscript transmission and paleography and auctoritas" and re-consider them as theoretical applications.

medieval woman said...

Just gave you an inspiration award at Chez Bloggez Moi!

heu mihi said...

Dr. RSNokes--Thanks for the comment. I was having trouble, actually, defining what I meant in this post; I wasn't/am not really comfortable with a strong distinction between "theory" and "everything else." I like your identification of "theory" as I'm using it here as politically-oriented; I don't know for sure that that covers all of it, but it's better than establishing some sort of hard line between "theory" work and "non-theory" work.

Where I've been hung up, as I note, is when I'm asked which theorists (meaning the Big Frenchy Names, pretty much) are most relevant to my work. So I'm using the terms here in a very short-handed, as-they're-conventionally-understood sort of fashion.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

And thanks, MW!