Monday, February 18, 2013

Joining the Ranks of the Popularizers and Hybridizers

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,      
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

—T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

At the infamous roundtable at the start of the year, the one where we came to the inescapable conclusion that while there is lots of interesting stuff happening in various parts of the worlds at various times that include the years 1198-1304, ultimately the thirteenth century, the theme for the year, is not a valid critical category, one of the fellows took a gratuitous swipe at the vision of the middle ages presented in a book that was written for a general audience and has become popular for teaching undergraduates and recommending to interested lay readers. Without defending the book or its author, I suggested that perhaps that book and its overarching themes didn't belong in a scholarly conversation amongst social, intellectual and material historians and scholars of literature and mysticism working from the middle of the twelfth century well into the fifteenth with no common research language and spanning the earth from the Islamic world through Ashkenaz, all struggling to figure out the terms of an academic conversation meant to last a full year.

I never let on that I had been the student of the author in question, though my colleague must have deduced it, given the provenance of my bachelor's degree. And so after spontaneously apologizing in oddly hushed tones for hurting my feelings, she took it upon herself to reeducate me, in an unrelenting and overly-mumsy way, about what a travesty it is that such a book exists. Apparently, the fact that some historians and some classicists see fit to cite it in their scholarly work (and to be honest, the only times I've ever seen it cited was in pieces on the terms, themes and directions of the broader theoretical and field-wide discussion rather than as historical or literary authority) is enough reason to damn its existence rather than to criticize scholars who would attempt to cite a popular work in a scholarly study. And apparently the fact that people use the work to teach undergraduates, who might then come away with the idea that there was harmony amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages, makes the work itself a travesty.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I don't take scholarly disagreements personally — there were no hurt feelings on my end, and for sure these were criticisms of my professor that I (and more crucially, that she) had heard a million times before — I wasn't defending the book. In fact, I didn't even start out by articulating the position that I was ultimately forced to, that there is a place in the world for popular works making complicated, esoteric scholarly topics easy for a general public to access. All I said at the beginning was that as a popular book, I didn't think it belonged as part of our scholarly discourse. And somehow that unleashed a tirade that amounted to a call for a sort of book-genocide (genrecide?) against popular works couched in a whole lot of weird, touchy-feeliness.


And then later this year, yet another kerfuffle erupted in the wider scholarly world (at least the part of it that's online) over Stephen Greenblatt. There was an unrelated discussion in the blogosphere about periodization and on the concept of early modernity that, upon Greenblatt's winning of a major book prize from the Modern Language Association turned into a pretty all-out bashing of the winning book for what its critics say is a demonization of the Middle Ages as a benighted time that spontaneously gave way to an enlightened Renaissance thanks to a careful rediscovery and reading of the classics.

It's a bit of a ridiculous periodization when you put it in those terms. It's completely Eurocentric (although oddly, I don't recall that being an objection that was raised) and teleological. But at the same time, I didn't really take terrible exception to it. As I read it, the book was a pacey story with a great hero. It was about something I think we all understand — the lengths that a person will go to in order to pursue a passion for books and manuscripts. That's not to say that the Dark Ages subtext isn't there, but when I read the book, before this all erupted, it struck me as being a very minor casualty in the construction of good, single-thread narrative. There just isn't space in a book that will appeal to a lay audience and bring something of what we do to a wider public to give everybody all the details and nuances and hedges that we employ amongst ourselves.

I read the book with an eye towards writing about manuscripts for lay readers, thinking about how I could translate Greenblatt's technique into the project I'm dreaming up about Hebrew versions of Aristotle's Meteorologies in Toledo, and the one thing that kept nagging at me was the subtitle. The proper name of the work is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. At first, I found myself wondering how I'd ever find a topic that was such a big deal — I mean, identifying the moment that modernity began? Nothing in my work matches that. Of course, pretty quickly I got ahold of myself and saw the hyperbole for what it was. I suspect that Greenblatt knows it's hyperbole, too. To write a book like that, to make a bold, splashy claim that will grab readers' eyes, I imagine you don't actually have to believe it as it is. What you do have to believe is that your topic or guy or manuscript is the coolest, best, most important thing ever. And that's what we do all day anyway. We perseverate about things that maybe don't matter, in the grand scheme. We, each of us, are so deeply entrenched in our own work that in our own minds it is the biggest, best, most important thing in the world; we just do it in a more jargony, more detailed, more nuanced way.

Being able to make a claim like "this is how the world became modern" is just the flip side of me saying, with a completely straight face, that my book on Arabic as a prestige language in the work of a certain translator is a completely and totally different project than my dissertation on the professional education of that translator. And maybe what the anti-popularizers can't abide is seeing themselves reflected when the curtain of academese and convolution is dropped.

It scares me to write so positively about this book publicly after having read the mountains of criticism levied against it (both it in the blogosphere (see the links in this graf) and more ephemerally on Twitter) and the vitriol with which some of it was delivered and the prize-related agenda that so much of it betrays, because I can foresee the kinds of responses I might get. I don't even disagree with all of those critiques. Just like the other book, it's not that I'm defending this one on its merits; it's that I'm defending the idea of a good, single-thread narrative told compellingly for a general audience.


I've been thinking about all of this again now because I am, as I've mentioned, slated to give a talk to a general audience this coming week. It's the first time I'll have done such a thing, but it's not the first time I've thought about it. I've long been percolating the idea that I'll write my second book for a more general audience. And even though I haven't quite figured out how to do it without scooping myself, I do want, in some way, to be able to post online about the meat of my work in a way that is accessible to a general audience.

When I teach undergraduates, I use the book that I failed to defend at the roundtable. And I give them contradictory and complementary primary sources and readings from other books by other historians who adopt the position that there was no such thing as harmony or convivencia because loads of people were terribly busy killing each other all throughout the Middle Ages. But I also know that it is a very rare undergraduate who, a few semesters on in his or her education, will remember the details and the nuance. If they walk away from my class and, a few semesters later, still carry with them with a decent sense of the big picture and knowledge of what's out there if they ever want to pursue it further, I'm happy with that. And knowing that that's the realistic goal, I have the option of teaching a class that will give my students a big picture that lets them pick up the newspaper and see the horrors coming out of Mali and think to themselves, well, yeah, of course; or I can teach a class that lets them pick up the same newspaper and be completely nonplussed by the fact that there are headlines about the persecution facing Coptic Christian population in Egypt and not being surprised that there are people in Arabic-speaking countries with Arabic names who aren't Muslims. The scenario where they don't first have to overcome inertia and apathy or total surprise is, I think, the one that creates more potentially productive citizens. Even if that means they have overly-rosy mental picture of Judah ha-Levi, that just doesn't strike me as too high a cost.

That's how I'm approaching the public lecture, too. For the sake of the narrative, for the sake of not totally overwhelming people with a lot of details that they just won't be able to absorb, I'm not mentioning the problems the subject of my talk faced at the hands of the Muslim leadership that ultimately caused him to enter a self-imposed exile in France — the only Muslims in this talk are the ones whose philosophy he read and translated. It's not condescending to acknowledge the fact that non-specialists can't handle a huge amount of detail in one 45-minute talk in a shul. And it's not professional malpractice to present material in a way that they can take something sensible away from it.

I'm presenting my material in a way that connects it to my own personal life, something that my professor, a Cuban exile writing about exiled writers, was also often called onto the carpet for. I struggled for quite a while with how to frame the talk, and even with how to select material for this audience. The administrator for public programs at the Katz Center, a history PhD who is incredibly skillful in talking to normal people and helping a new cadre of absent-minded academics (or BPs — boring professors — as the son of a colleague calls us) that blows through every year  do the same, suggested that I just try to answer the question: What do Reform Jews need to know about the Middle Ages? Even though my one-two, knee-jerk reactions were 1) Damned if I know; and 2) Nothing at all, the fact of the matter is that, having grown up as the daughter of a Reform rabbi, I do know better than most people what Reform Jews need to know, what they don't know, where they're coming from intellectually and spiritually, and what they're likely to be interested in or ready to hear. And I know that the difference between the secular academic ambition, bookishness, and often unbridled passion of my fellow Reform Jews and the general lack of knowledge about anything Jewish that keeps them from making informed choices about prayer and practice is what makes me feel like a stranger among my very own people. This is as personal as it gets for me, but it doesn't mean I won't do a totally credible, excellent, intellectually sound job of it. The trouble is that I know that some people in the field will only be able to see the personal and that will wash out any of the good in what I'm doing.

Everyone who tries to make science or literature or history accessible to a general audience — from Mary Beard to Neil de Grasse Tyson to Stephen Greenblatt— takes flak from self-appointed defenders of the purity of the field, as though we shouldn't let the uninitiated in on what we do on their terms and as though we are entitled to keep our knowledge to ourselves.


The brethren of purity extend their reach deep into scholarly work, too. Part of the reason the Greenblatt spat resonated so loudly in my mind is that he was, a few years ago, the subject of much protest over the fact that he would dare write a historicist study of Shakespeare's plays. One of the most common critiques of his Will in the World that I've heard in casual conversation is that "literature people do bad history" or "people who do literary criticism just don't care about history." But that is not it at all. Historicists like Greenblatt (and, in the interest of full disclosure, historicists like me) care very deeply about history, so much so that they — that we —are trying to bring a lot of new material to bear in ways that it hasn't been used before. It's not revisionism, exactly, but it's certainly a broader scope.

I know historians who think I'm enough like them that they are comfortable bashing the study of literature to me. And I know students of literature who think I do what they do to enough of an extent that they consider me a viable sounding board for the trashing of historical study. And in both cases, I find myself wanting to say, "But that's what I do." But I very nearly always keep quiet. I figure that it's best not to throw up disciplinary boundaries if the people who are so wedded to them can't see when they are missing. For medievalists in particular, adherence to modern disciplinary boundaries just doesn't make sense. So I'll just keep doing what I do without defending it in terms that I don't see as valid anyway.


I'm the sort of outsider and misfit who has an enviably good vantage point from the inside of the rarefied ivory towers of academia and religion. I'm can be a clear-eyed unbeliever but still somehow be let in. Maybe it's those two things combined that let me still think that I can talk to a wide range of people and do it well, consequences and torpedoes be damned. Either that, or it will make me the most Shakespearean of fools.

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