The sense of philology

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I am in no-man’s land at the moment. Various minor deadlines of the past few months have been and gone. The book is here, tangible and closed after all those years. Christmas coming up. There’s a third project article to get on to – but that’s the main task pencilled in for 2017 …

Lots of ideas jostling around in my head that I’d like to take further. Medieval Swedish romance? Scandinavian and German chronicles? Or the Baltic as a starting point for thinking about literary spaces and/or looking beyond Europe? More than I can fit into the rest of this fellowship at any rate; but having decided that I’m not going to apply for any more short-term positions of this kind, I am strangely unworried by that. There is no point in rushing anything, which just accentuates this sensation of having more time than usual at this point in what has otherwise been a very busy year in one way or another.

Last week, I found myself using that time to return to the foundations and spend a few days concentrating on Old Norse grammar, specifically taking apart the ins and outs of the strong verb system so as to really understand how it works. There are still unanswered questions in my mind, which is perhaps as it should be, but it is always good to get to grips with Germanic philology like this: fun to trace how sounds and forms developed and changed, to grasp the processes behind the tables of conjugations and endings.

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The long tradition. The fourth edition of Noreen’s Old Norse grammar, and a twenty-first century article on the Germanic strong verbs.

There is something honest about this kind of work. Just as reading early texts in the original is to come close to them – so understanding the evolution of the language in which they are written is to come closer to them still. The sense of comprehension is fuller. It is a form of reaching out emotionally and intellectually.

I suppose that is not a particularly trendy thing to say in an environment where the expectation is that research has to proceed in completely the opposite direction and show that the past ‘reaches out’ to the present in the guise of impact or solving social challenges or relevance or whatever.

Trendy or not, however, it still needs to be said. It is not that there is anything wrong with drawing connections between past and present – quite the opposite. The problem is that the current discourse goes far beyond that in the way it affects teaching and research in the Humanities, at least. Subjects such as historical linguistics or medieval studies might seem particularly vulnerable – and this is arguably evident in the extent to which one can(not) study them in the UK outside of English departments – but worrying only about them misses the point.

Take, for instance, a recent article in the Guardian that challenges the potential focus on teaching hours as a metric of quality in the Teaching Excellence Framework. Those who get their hopes up and expect sensible reflection on what good teaching actually is, will be disappointed. Instead, the author argues for extending the assessment of university quality to include opportunities for work experience and extra-curricular activities.

Utterly bizarre if you think about it: a fee-linked TEF that would have students paying more to have increased opportunities to do unpaid labour in the form of volunteering and work experience … but I digress. The point is that an article like that flips the purpose of higher education from what students put into their degree – into a question of what the degree gives students. Put slightly differently, going to university is no longer about students reaching out intellectually but about the utilitarian relevance of going to university for them. That switch in the conception of higher education as a whole is, I would suggest, in rhetoric and thinking very similar to the way politicians and funding bodies have flipped culture and the arts from something for society to engage with – into something whose relevance needs to be demonstrated to society.

I am not particularly optimistic. But in the here and now, working on Germanic philology helps me understand what I research and teach – and in that respect, it is time well spent. ‘Responsibility’ may be a loaded word these days … but integrity does come to mind as an alternative.

Irresponsible Humanities?

There has been a certain amount of activity in my twitter feed recently centring on the concept of ‘responsible research’. In a different time, this would not have stood out as anything unusual. I imagine that most of us in the profession seek to be ‘responsible’ in what we do, so articulating that can only be a good thing, right? But we are in a time when such concepts have a propensity to be appropriated and put to an ends very different from what one might expect. I have in mind here the use of words such as ‘excellence’ and ‘teaching’ in the UK at present…

So, I wondered what this idea of ‘responsibility’ might mean in practice. One of the first things I came upon was this presentation slide on twitter.

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My worries began with the reference to ‘socially desirable innovations’. It begs the question of who determines what is ‘desirable’, and whether it is now my ‘responsibility’ to make my research fit their wishes rather than telling them what they may not want to hear. One has only to to think of a recent election result to understand that what a society desires is not the unproblematic legitimation it might seem…

Those worries increased when I read the third column, and tracked down the challenges to which it alludes. They would appear to be the ones identified by the EU in the context of the Horizon 2020 funding programme.

 

challengesThe marginalization of the Humanities is obvious and depressingly familiar; the one-off inclusion of the word itself, and the lonesome reference to ‘reflective societies’ in one of the seven points, merely underlines the impression.

Think back, now, to that presentation slide on ‘responsible research and innovation in action’, and take a moment to reflect on what it means in this light. It means that research that does not fit a STEM-oriented paradigm, research that does not go to market, research of the kind that many of us in the Humanities do for a living – is not responsible research.

The way the Humanities feature (or not) in this discourse of ‘challenges’ is unfortunate, but it is not my main concern here. Much of the art of getting this kind of funding lies in working with the priorities of funding bodies as they set them, and in practice I have, as a Marie Curie Fellow, a great deal of freedom in my research and a framework in which I can articulate why it matters for society as a whole. So there are ways of staking out a place for fields such as Medieval Studies on this kind of landscape.

What I find troubling is something else: the way in which, on that slide, a moral-ethical quality in the form of ‘responsibility’ has become instrumentalized as a vehicle for a specific concept of what research should be and do. It is one thing to have a framework in which the Humanities are sidelined – quite another to present the research of those who believe otherwise as, by implication, irresponsible.

 

 

What is Scandinavia?

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bridge

The Øresund bridge

Not clickbait, but the big question that I took away from the Nordic Research Network conference in London last Friday!

Returning to the UK is always a bit of a double-edged experience these days. The effect is magnified when one is on a flying visit like that: one realizes how easy it is to slip back into old ways, places, habits, and yet knows that one cannot return to things as they were. Immediacy and distance at one and the same time… All very appropriate given that the theme of the conference was ‘bridges between’.

The mind thus focused, there were lots of things I learnt. Some had to do with what one might call ‘principles’. How great it was that undergraduates were included – not just passively, but with sessions of their own to introduce extended essay projects and the like. How important it is, at this of all times, that we don’t fall into sweeping generalizations about particular nationalities and their supposed views.

Beyond that, though, it was really the reflection on the notion of identities that got my attention. Presentations demonstrated the range of ‘loci’ where identity between cultures can be expressed: language (a Norwegian novel), the physical body (performance art), the natural world (imagined Swedish pines), and the built environment (that bridge in that crime series). Stepping back from that, there follows the fact that what ‘outsiders’ might refer to collectively as ‘Scandinavia’ is actually bound together by perceived differences in identity as well as commonalities.

The frame is admittedly slightly different for me as a medievalist, but I’m now that bit more aware of how provisional the terms I use are. One needs to start somewhere, and I still find ‘northern Germany and Scandinavia’ a reasonable way of describing the literary and cultural space on which I work – but I will now be that bit more careful not to assume uniformity or stability under either of the two terms.


Image credit: Photograph By Lambdalix (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Books in the dark

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The corridors at SDU get dark early too these days. It’s made worse by the full-height windows that line them. All black. Just the imgined outlines of chairs and plant boxes in the same place as ever, and the pocked snow close to the glass where it catches the delirious light seeping out from somewhere. It was thus with a startle that I recognized shapes in the empty passage when I left the office last week, tables where tables not normally are and piled upon them objects. Books. Books, I thought and hope, that the library no longer needed and was leaving for new owners to find.

It is a while since I last came across one of these treasure troves. I gathered quite a haul. Highlights included a study of Thomas Mann, a guide to the literature of Greenland, and three volumes of a history of world literature, all in Danish … how much has changed, I understood, squinting, peering at covers and spines.

Such books are all connected in one way or another with where my academic interests are heading. Each of them a discovery in itself. Time was when that was an unreflected joy, but on this occasion it had an edge of wistfulness. I realized how the moments when I feel that joy seem to have become rarer over time, receding behind the more down to earth preoccupations. What’s the next next short-term contract going to be? Will there be one at all? Will one actually be in a position to pursue all the questions that unfold from those volumes? The mind is adept at ignoring such things, but experiences like this circumvent those efforts with an immediacy that can be quite unsettling – and human.

Mediterranean Studies and the Baltic: A Tale of Two Seas

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Academic fashions – or trends, perhaps, because it sounds a bit more neutral – are curious things. Where they come from, how they develop, at what point they cross back into the tacitly accepted mainstream that they began by leaving. I am reminded, to draw the metaphor out a bit further, of one of the short prose pieces in Christoph Ransmayer’s Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes. It describes a tributary of the Mekong that, for part of each year, flows backward before returning to its ‘normal’ confluence with the great river. Innovation, new directions, mainstream  … would it be a step too far to suggest there is something unnatural about an endless quest for novelty?

Perhaps. At any event, these watery musings began when I was thinking about an area that has become increasingly prominent in recent years – Mediterranean Studies – and how my own medievalist research on the lands around the Baltic might relate to it.

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The Mediterranean in the 1489 Canepa Chart. From the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Minnesota.

It’s not hard to see why the Mediterranean has become one of the regions (I use the term loosely) of choice with which to think about cultural exchange and intermingling. The diversity of the material around its shores lends itself very well to questioning received notions of difference and separation, and to developing an inclusive approach to a common or shared space that replaces approaches fragmented along the lines of nations, disciplines, or languages.

And yet there is a sense in which focusing on this particular part of the world is, in its way, surprisingly conservative. It happens to include the homes of the two classical civilizations that are central to the canonical self-image of Western culture. It happens also to contain areas associated strongly with what would once have been referred to as ‘world religions’. There would be a certain irony if this meant that the pursuit of an approach to literary and cultural history that aspires so pointedly to inclusiveness and drawing new connections – became bound up with specific areas and sets of disciplines to the exclusion of others.

As someone who works primarily on German and related languages, I obviously have a vested interest in all of this. I also, as I tried to indicate in the first version of this blogpost, think that we would do well to reflect a little bit more on how the contemporary political situation in Europe relates to positions and priorities in research of this kind. In the present rewriting, though, I’ve decided to save that for another time and place, and instead get straight to the point: my own field has a contribution to make to thought on shared cultural spaces as well.

And so, without further ado, here are three reasons why it is worth seeing – the pun was, in my defence, accidental – the Baltic alongside the Mediterranean when it comes to formulating new ways of thinking about the literature of Europe and beyond.

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The Baltic in a version of Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina. From the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Minnesota.

1. Physical geography. The Baltic is, like the Mediterranean, an enclosed sea with an opening to the west. This not only provides a starting point for more theoretical reflection (e.g. on the configuration of such ‘hollow spaces’). It also provides a point of comparison that allows the two areas to be seen alongside each other, both in general terms and with respect to specific thematic questions  (e.g. nautical voyaging as a means of transfer and exchange).

2. Europe. Part of what makes the Mediterranean so interesting is its potential to support reflection on what ‘Europe’ actually means: this is obvious from the transition to Asia and Africa that it embodies. At first glance, the Baltic might not appear to lend itself to such questions. But it does if one looks toward its eastern end and modern-day Russia. It also does so, I would suggest, in more historically nuanced ways. Think about such things as colonization along the Baltic coast, or the conversion of Scandinavia, in the Middle Ages. They are equally relevant to understanding ‘Europe’ because of the insights they give into the historicity of the concept.

3. Comparativity. Drawing connections like this would also be a way of building a bridge between Medieval Studies and fields such as Comparative or Global Literature. Spaces such as enclosed seas make it possible to obtain the structural legitimacy that can otherwise be elusive: medievalists need to do more than abitrarily cherry-pick texts to set alongside each other if we want to be comparative in a meaningful way. It is not hard to see, finally, that the logical next step is to look futher afield to other parts of the globe. Black Sea. Persian Gulf. Perhaps even – to return to the beginning – the South China Sea, into which the Mekong flows. But that runs into questions of definition that are too much for this blog post. You can start thinking about them for yourselves by looking at this map on Wikipedia, or (if you have access via JSTOR) this article on enclosed and semi-enclosed seas.

contours of existence

Topographical yearning can’t be one of more common causes of sleepless nights, I would have thought.

It’s not that, in itself, the flatness in this part of northern Europe is any less resonant than it was. More, perhaps, that I made the mistake of projecting too much onto the sense of distance and open horizons when I first came—if such is really a mistake, rather an elemental part of how one goes about giving sense to the world. Maybe it is both.

At any event, this kind of complex relationship with landscape would explain the longing that struck me, out of nowhere, for a different kind of ground a few nights back. It was Durham that came first to mind. Curiously so, in many ways. The attachment had long been a tenuous one (how do you set down roots somewhere where it has, however indirectly, been made perfectly clear that there is not a long-term future?). The notion of returning, too, is painful in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, more particularly the way immigration figured in it.

And yet: I miss still the wooded spur that runs down to the river from Gilesgate, the simplicity of the flats along the Wear, and the shallow valleys where the river makes a turn further upstream. I miss the slopes falling and rising that gave perspective to the start and the end of the day. And from there, the mind wanders still, to a landscape, further north, where the shape of the earth and the form of the rock are those of another age…

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One of these days, the academic in me will bring together the other, scholarly side of this particular coin—literary geographies, literary spaces, the north as a hollow space around the Baltic—but that is for a different time.

My first index…

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indexWhen you think of writing a book and getting published, making an index probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. So, having done just that for the Lohengrin monograph—what was it like for me?


Most of all, it made me think about how the book is structured and what points it aims to get across. I think the Chicago Manual of Style suggested approaching the index as a counterpart to the table of contents—as part of a package that helps readers to find their way through the book in different ways. There’s a lot of wisdom in that: deciding what and what not to index means identifying the key points and terms, and anticipating what readers will find useful—not just blindly indexing everything and anything, or worse, assuming that what I think readers will need is what they actually will want!

One example of that is what is visual and aural perception, or sight and sound … those terms appear in one of the chapter headings, and what is seen and heard is discussed pretty often in the book. Self-evidently indexable, then? Ultimately not, I decided. Perception is not the focus of the book, and it is not targeted at an audience whose main interest lies there. Instead, the discussions of sight and sound feed into the more important points that I make about identity and narrative coherence, so those, I felt, were the headwords that needed to take precedence.

Another case of ‘less is more’ were the names of the assorted medieval German poets that crop up. It was tempting to include all of them in the index (perfectionism? or a desire to cover all the bases? I’m not sure) … but in the end, I didn’t. Authors such as Hartmann von Aue made it in, because their works represent the ‘classical’ medieval German texts with whose legacy Lohengrin engages. But figures such as Heinrich von Veldeke or Gottfried von Straßburg were omitted. Citing a scholar who’s looked at Veldeke’s presentation of colour, or footnoting Gottfried’s handling of linguistic difference, doesn’t make them relevant to the real thrust of the argument. Their usefulness as contextualizations for Lohengrin is limited and hence, in a book about Lohengrin, I left them out of the index.

Harder than such decisions was working out how to structure some of the lengthier entries. As usual, it’s very easy to tell out what you don’t want to do. One of the books I looked at as a potential model had entries for some of the more important keywords that went on and on and on and on as enumerations of numbers … which is just not helpful. But how, then, do you break down large entries into subheadings? Wolfram von Eschenbach was a big problem for me in this regard. He’s mentioned frequently, so it makes sense to help readers navigate all those references in the index by distinguishing between Wolfram as an author (of, say, Parzival) on the one hand and as the narrator figure of Lohengrin on the other. All well and good, were it not for the fact that one of the points is precisely that identity of the two tends to merge in this medieval text … Or suppose readers want to find out how the well-known heroes of Arthurian romance figure in Lohengrin: an index entry for ‘Arthurian knights’ can be included to cover that … but do you then have subheadings for named heroes? Do you also include there more generic references in the text to ‘Arthur’s knights’? ‘Arthur’s followers’? And so on …


I don’t claim to have solved all such questions (and believe me, there were more) perfectly.  Many of them I could probably have handled better. For many of them, there won’t be an ideal solution at all. Part of me wishes I had just asked a freelance expert to compile the index for me, as happened with my first book—but my concern is that putting my funding toward that would have meant having to make the whole monograph open access. (Just another example of how short-sighted funding arrangements can be in career terms, but that’s another story.)

Another part of me realizes that I learnt a lot by doing it myself. Not just about how books are made: I also found myself thinking differently about what sort of readership I anticipate and what the bigger picture is in research like this that brings so many different topics together in one place.

There is, finally, another point I’m trying to get across by giving this insight into the birth of a book. We need to acknowledge that not everything can be slotted into the sensationalism that a lot of Humanities advocacy adopts as a surrogate for arguing the case for what we do and why it is interesting.

Much of the work in compiling an index is repetitive, tedious, and solitary. It doesn’t lend itself particularly well to shouting on twitter about being excited, privileged, or feeling fantastic. But from it there arises nonetheless something that should make a real difference to how people navigate and find coherence in learning about this enigmatic medieval text. With a bit of thought, the word ‘satisfaction’ comes to mind.

Mobility: seeing through the jargon

© Björn Wylezich. It seemed fitting that I began the journey to Odense and the current fellowship on this particular plane: it was a regular on the Cologne/Bonn run during my previous one.

The panelled walls, the way left, straight, and sharp left out the sliding doors: it was all unremarkably familiar. But in fact, I realized, it had been quite a while since I last passed through that particular airport. A stream of recollections followed: years, emotions from one extreme to the other, where I had been coming from, where I had been going…

This sensation of collapsing time, an acute awareness of a past attached to a certain place that has been left, but not, is a familiar one after so long being in transit in some sense of the word. Something similar happens when I’m back in cities such as Bonn, Freiburg, or Oxford. It has also been known to happen on particular aircraft: scary stuff. Scarier still is that it is happening already in the centre of Odense, which I haven’t even left – yet. I guess the mind has simply had enough of pretending to itself that it has found a home.  

Perhaps this personal resonance is one reason why I’ve become so interested in the relationship between space and selfhood in my research – I want to understand and articular better how spaces shape and are shaped by the ways people think, feel, move in them (there’s a taster here). But I can’t help wondering whether that is not also just another attempt to rationalize something that is beginning to seem increasingly untenable, for more than anything else I felt, walking the short walk through the airport in Dresden, how weary I have become over the years.

Academic sex appeal, and its limits…

Not quite what you might think, this post, but a response to one of the ideas circulating in the German-language academic webspace at the moment.

It has been suggested (e.g. here, and here) that the historical ‘Grundwissenschaften’ (meaning fields such as palaeography, numismatics, heraldry, and the like) should defend themselves by articulating their ‘sex appeal’. Although I’m not, at least not primarily, a historian, it seems to me that the underlying questions are the same as those faced by the Humanities in general these days when it comes to advocating what we do. But is describing ourselves as ‘sexy’ really the best way to achieve that?

One might, before anything else, ask how we have got this far in the first place. One explanation is that it is simply the logical next step in the inflationary hyperbole of social media. Judging by the amount of ‘fab’, ‘fantastic’, ‘brilliant’—and yes I’ve used such words myself on occasion—material that appears in my twitter feed, we must be living in a world so close to perfection that there is no special place, no words left for truly exceptional research. And so, as descriptions like those become jumbles of senseless characters, new, still more extravagant ones need to be found to take their place—and in that sense, why not ‘sexy’?

Why not? indeed. As so often, the discourse appears to be framed by a question that seems already, silently, to have been answered. All the more important to ask it, therefore, as at least one response on twitter has done. Do we really need to adopt this kind of language?

I do not believe that we do, not least because it is something of a red herring. There is a clue to that in one of the German blogs I mentioned earlier, which contains a string of references to ‘den Wert, die Attraktivität, den “Sexappeal’” of the field. Is it not really the first two with which we should be concerned, rather than with embracing the discourse of sexiness that slips in innocently at the end of the enumeration? Sexy academia. Eye-catching, perhaps … at least until everyone else starts doing it too. But it is too easy. Simply ataching ‘sexy’ to whatever it is we want to ‘sell’ merely sidesteps the problem at stake, and the exorbitance runs the risk of becoming a surrogate for thinking hard about how to reach out and explain what we do.

Postscript. That was all a bit polemic, so a few words about the positives that I’ve taken away from this discussion are also in order. Context, yet again, is everything in this respect. The germ of the idea I’ve been critiquing seems to lie in a comment in which the terms ‘sexy’ and ‘sex appeal’ are used to stimulate reflection, as alternatives to what is felt to be a ‘dusty’ image of the ‘Grundwissenschaften’. To my mind, at least, this is a more interesting context—a thought-experiment that makes one pause and see things a bit differently, which is precisely what doesn’t happen when the terms lose their edge by being repeated across twitter posts. I guess everyone will see things a little bit differently, and that is no bad thing.

 

When narrative meets performance: Odense’s storytelling festival

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fyrtojetWhat, you might well ask, was a thirty-something academic doing inside the Fyrtøjet Cultural Centre for Children on Friday and Saturday night last week?

The answer is listening and watching. Almost by chance – which could be the beginning of a fairytale, if you think about it – we came upon the international Storytelling Festival for ‘grown-ups’ there. What a revelation it was.

Hearing the medieval Irish tale of Cú Chulainn, and old tales that imbue the Turkish landscape with meaning, was like being taken back to an age when the oral performance of stories was the most normal thing in the world – ‘my’ world, I might add, as a medievalist …

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that vernacular literature in the Middle Ages was defined by orality. Yet it is one thing to know that as a fact – quite another to experience in the flesh what it might have meant in reality.

The sensation of hearing and recognizing formulaic phrases as they recur , I realized, is utterly different from noticing a bundle of letters and words reappear in a printed text and identifying it as a marker of genre. The same goes for a real, live storyteller narrating without a book to be seen – that elemental physicality is rarely palpable in the scholarly debates about concepts such as voice and performance.

So perhaps this is one way – and a better one, I suggest, than facile ideas of economic and social impact – in which we might build bridges with academic research, by coming closer to what it is all about in the first place. We’ll never know what it was really like, of course – but then, there is something fittingly medieval about recreating and reinventing earlier tales anyway. I see it time and again in the Swan Knight story and the various iterations it went through. But that, as they say, is another …