Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dead Languages Karaoke: Medieval, Medievalism, Neo-Medieval

I say this as a person who has attended a live concert of a Sumerian Elvis impersonator: I'm really not sure what to make of the dead languages karaoke that's on the program for the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo this year.

There is a lot of medievalism and neo-medieval kitsch on the program this year, more than I remember there being on past programs. My distaste for Game of Thrones aside, I'm rather fond of the neo-medieval: It's a predeliction that, in part, drives the teaching of the course I mention here most frequently, the one on modern representations of medieval Spain. I pride myself on having a pretty decent collection of medieval-kitsch board games. I'm even working on a medievalist (different from medieval) article right now. There is place for serious medievalism and goofy medievalism.

But there's something about dead languages karaoke (something that I'd normally be pretty amused about) as a formal session in the meeting . Does it tell us anything about medieval performance? What is it really trying to accomplish? Why isn't it just an optional activity? I think that's where I'm really ambivalent: Medieval Studies is still a field that takes itself very, very seriously. There's an awful lot of gatekeeping and disciplinary falling-into-line and intellectual conservatism, especially by and within its old and venerable institutions.

I think that it's important to take the material and the work very seriously and the profession and its trappings not so much; a session like this does the opposite, waving the trappings of Medieval Studies about like a banner without really making much apparent forward progress. It's a bit of an insult, then, that by virtue of its programming choices, one of these conservative, venerable institituions presents neo-medieval kitsch as more academically significant that large swaths of medieval work.

Kalamazoo isn't a meeting that I go to because (not unlike the Medieval Academy meeting, incidentally) the program is overwhelmingly focused on the Anglo-Norman, the English, the French, and the Latin. Jews and Muslims, by in large, figure into the scholarly discourse as objects represented by the English and the French. Arabic texts are sources for the mysticism and the philosophy that would take hold in various Latinate Christian communities. Spain is presented as though the last thirty years of scholarship and historical revision almost didn't happen.

And yet something as wonderfully goofy as dead languages karaoke is not an after-hours activity but is rather slotted into the program with a roundtable discussion. It's a vicious cycle: People like me don't go because it's very hard to get to Kalamazoo and hardly seems worth it for maybe two relevant sessions. But perhaps the cycle is fed by the appearance that neo-medieval kitsch is a higher intellectual and academic priority than large swaths of the academic medieval.

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