Saturday, February 22, 2014

All's Well that Ends Well

I wrote late last year about a journal article of mine that was rejected by theJewish Quarterly Review after a really grueling revise-and-resubmit. It was frustrating — and I took it really hard and really personally — because it seemed to me like the work was rejected on the basis of a report from a reviewer who essentially hadn’t read carefully. He misconstrued  the general argument I was making and also criticized me for not addressing several details that I had, in fact, addressed. It also seemed like he wasn’t really thinking about the audience for the journal, which includes people who work in all periods of Jewish history and in a variety of academic fields and disciplines, and not just Hebrew poetry from medieval Spain. And it was really distressing that the editor took at face value what, to me, seemed so clearly a spurious, superfluous, set of complaints about the article. But I’ve already said all of that herehere, and here.
I am, in equal measures, pleased and relieved that the article has been accepted, pending my making some small changes, by the journal Cultural History; and assuming that I get my act together and get it back to the editor on time, it looks like it’ll appear in print by the end of the year. The review from JQR was so harsh and so dismissive that, even though I knew that my work was good, it really fostered some serious doubt about whether anybody except for me and the three people I regularly talk to about literature and Hebrew poetry would see the value in my analysis of a poem in light of economic documents from the same time and place.
One of those three people had said to me, in so many words: “You’ve made sense of a poem that has not made sense until now.” But officially, her opinion doesn’t count for anything, because she knows me and therefore cannot be trusted to render an impartial judgment. And that was part of what bothered me so much: the indictment that blind peer review seems to make of good scholars who are honest people but suddenly cannot be trusted to do anything but nepotistically let through the work of the folks they like. I had smart people telling me that my work was good; but instead of assuming that because they’re on my side in this world they wouldn’t want to see me put out something stupid or erroneous or underdeveloped, the process seems to assume that they’d put aside their scruples and their judgment and let me slide. Instead, the only judgment that counted was the one of the grand-daddy of the field, a master technician but incredibly conservative in his thinking (and, with such a distinctive authorial voice, not at all anonymous despite anyone’s best efforts).
Suffice it to say, I still don’t have a lot of faith in certain aspects of blind peer review in the abstract.
But I was pleased with how it seems to have worked on CH’s side — and not just because of the outcome. When I spoke with one of the editors initially about CH as a venue for this piece, he told me that he obviously couldn’t guarantee an outcome but would guarantee the work got a fair hearing. And I think that happened. Whereas the initial reviewers for JQR in effect asked why I didn’t write a completely different article about the poem (yes, my analysis of the text might be nice as part of a broader study of epithalmia but my small grey cat might also be nice as a rhinoceros and neither of those things is going to be effected) or why I was treating “Arab and Jewish poets as one and the same thing [when] this is clearly not the case” or what the value of interpreting poetry was in the first place, the CH reviewers commented on the work that was in front of them and from a point of reference that assumed a positive relationship between text and context and between the Jews of medieval Spain and the Arabophone, Islamicate culture in which they lived and participated. I had to make my argument, but I didn’t  have to convince anyone that my foundation, my first principles were valid.
I also found that the CH editors chose reviewers who were more aware of/attuned to the nature of the journal’s readership while still being firmly grounded in the material I was dealing with. One of my concerns had been that by sending my article to a more general history journal, it might skate by on the basis of opinions of people who didn’t quite know what to do with it, but it was obvious from the level of engagement with the scholarship and material that the journal sought out reviewers who work in Hebrew poetry, which, on the author’s side, is really reassuring. The journal is doing its job; and even people who don’t know me and do know the field think this is good!
On the flip side, the readership side, one really funny thing that emerged was that one of the CH reviewers actually asked me to put back (or put in, since s/he wouldn’t have known it was there initially) some of the material that the deciding reviewer from JQR asked me to remove from my initial draft, the one that got sent back to me for revisions-and-resubmission. Specifically, this was the discussion of the biblical material that is quoted in the medieval poem and the ways in which that enhances the self-portrayal of the female voice. According to the JQR reviewer, I didn’t need to say anything about the medieval poet writing in the voice of the biblical Shulamite because everybody knows that. The CH reviewer, on the other hand, asked me to round out my argument a bit by discussing the biblical background of the poem. The seventeen people in the world who know this poem (including amongst them both the JQR and the CH reviewers) are well aware that it quotes extensively from Song of Songs; but both journals have much bigger and much more intellectually diverse readerships than that. And in this way, CH is  being fairer both to its authors, who might want to communicate with a wide scholarly audience, and to its readers, who, faced with articles that give a solid grounding and introduction, can orient themselves in scholarship in  somewhat unfamiliar periods or language traditions or methodologies.
And I must say that just getting nice feedback about one’s work goes a really long way to assuaging what had been a very badly battered ego. I might possibly have even printed out the introductory comments from one of the reports to tape up on the bookshelf above my desk in my office. Possibly. Ahem.
BhBg4WJIEAEsq7B(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)
(Oh, heck. It’s so nice that I’ll just transcribe the comment here:)
This is an excellent article: it is clearly written and a pleasure to read. Moreover, it provides an original and interesting approach to the field of medieval Hebrew poetry and Genizah studies. This approach enriches the reading of such poetry by considering its imagery against the cultural and economic backdrop in which the poem was written. One of the resonant phrases in this paper is the idea of reading the poetry “for history” rather than “as history.”  I look forward to seeing this paper in print!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Week in Links (Bread and Salt Edition)

Jorge Luis Borges had a theory about camels. In his essay on the 1,001 Nights, he writes that the tales with camels are easily identifiable as the ones written not by Arab authors but by later French Orientalists since camels were such a part of daily life that they wouldn’t have been remarkable as details for the former but would have seemed to the latter like a good way to add a dash of authenticity. In short: The more camels in a text, the less authentic that text and the less proximate the author to that text. It turns out that the theory holds up with respect to temporal proximity as well as to geographic and cultural proximity: A new study suggests that camels had not yet been domesticated for human use when the events in the biblical book of Genesis are set. It’s a bit odd, though, the way the author of this report goes out of his way to assure, even with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, readers that the veracity of domestic camels is plausible in the New Testament.
Nick Kristoff is criticizing academics for making ourselves too irrelevant to be productive in society. There’s certainly a segment of the population that fits the bill, but at the same time, a lot of the critique is unfair or off-base. In a lot of instances, when academics do speak up, people who are in positions to act on that knowledge and information just don’t listen. How many historians who cover all periods of Middle Eastern history spoke up before the recent invasions of Iraq and explained all the precedents for a failed assault? Nobody listened. I agree with a lot of what he says, particularly the deleterious effect of the pressure to speak to ever-shrinking circles of experts and getting picked apart for trying to write clearly and from a position of intellectual breadth. It’s something I’m slowly but surely trying to solve for myself (starting out with speaking to general audiences and the more recent advent of “medieval PSAs” and trying to figure out how to amplify the project and make it a bit more content-heavy). For lots of examples of academics who do engage  really seriously in public discourse, follow the Twitter hashtag #EngagedAcademics.
With all that said, as far as critiques of the involvement of intellectuals in public life, this is older but far more trenchant:
And finally, John Green has begun a “crash course” series in literature.
This is going to be less useful than the world history series both because it’s mostly dealing with Anglo-American literature and because the framing and the answer to the central question of why we read isn’t actually all that great. There are a few gems, though: 1) The open letter to authorial intent; 2) This: “I’m not going to ask you to go symbol-hunting because reading is supposed to be a treasure map where you find symbols and write them down and then get an A in English class”; and 3) The use of “Marquez” and “Faulkner” as stand-ins for curse words.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I'm moving.

I've switched blogging platforms. This seems like a bit of an ignominious end to space I've inhabited comfortably for a few years already, but the explanation, as well as the rest of the new blog, is now over here. I'll hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Medieval PSA: Ms. Marvel and the Sarajevo Haggadah

The reboot of the Ms. Marvel comic appeared this week, and has attracted a lot of attention because the superhero has been reimagined as a Muslim high school student from Jersey City. It has invited a lot of discussion, much of it productive and positive, about comics as a medium for social commentary. This is not a totally new phenomenon, though.*


When I teach chivalric romances in my classes, I assign a late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth-century text called Amadís de Gaula, a work perhaps most famous for being the book that Don Quixote read before going mad and inspiring his satirical chivalric adventures. I take my student up to the Metropolitan Museum to view a tapestry from a series that recounts the major events in the tale; when we talk about the visual art, I ask them to imagine superimposing comic strip panels on the tapestry since it features a series of exploits by the hero and he appears in several scenes in the single hanging. The passage of time is represented spatially.

These lower-res images are annotated with boxes that indicate
the location of the hero in each scene and the direction of "reading."

Illuminated miniatures in medieval manuscripts often bear an even more concrete resemblance to comic book pages. You can watch the action unfold in these two illustrations from a collection of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary:

To be sure, in several of these tales Muslims and Jews are the foils or the hapless victims shown the light by the Virgin, but particularly in the illuminations, the representations are more complex, demonstrating deeper relationships between members of different faiths as well as members of all three participating in regular sets of day-to-day activities ranging from playing music to engaging in diplomacy; these illustrations have become the basis for a certain kind of historical sociological study.

This is among the artistic conventions that were adopted and adapted for use in religious contexts. For example, a variety of Passover haggadot produced in Christian lands were illuminated in a style that is more typically associated with Christian than Jewish art and reflects participation in wider artistic conversations. This page from the Golden Haggadah tells the story in panels:

This panel, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, originally produced in Spain, is thought by many scholars to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century:

This one is a secular Arabo-Islamicate text from Spain, a tale of two lovers and their matchmaker. The representations of Andalusi architecture come to make up the "panels" of the medieval "comic strip."


All of which brings me to the new Ms. Marvel. Ever since the publication of Maus in the mid-1980s, there has been little doubt that comics are a viable and powerful form for social commentary. This first installment of Ms. Marvel only gets as far as Kamala Khan realizing that she's about to become a superhero, but it still manages to address basic day-to-day negotiations of life 

These include intrafamilial tensions over religion and culture that appear in ways and forms and contexts that outsiders might not expect...

... language choice...

... and trying to negotiate an individual identity against the uncomprehending demands of others.

Comic books that deliberately or unintentionally illustrate day-to-day life and the ways in which members of different faiths negotiate their own cultures and their participation in the multiconfessional world? We've got almost a thousand  years' worth of them.


*I don't keep up with the wonderful British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog as often as I should, and so I didn't notice this post, which also identifies a sort of "medieval comic book" until a few days after I started writing this post, when I was looking for a few images to show my undergraduates. It is, then, a connection that other medievalists have made, as well.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Medieval PSA: Chosen People 2.0

I hope it's obvious that I don't actually believe what I wrote below that medievalists should disengage. It was a depressing sentence to write in the same week that I had my undergraduates read "Writing Without Footnotes," talked with them about why medievalists should read Salman Rushdie, and asked them what they thought their responsibilities were to the wider world.

That discussion, long-planned as part of the introduction to my seminar this semester, happened to come on the heels of a post I wrote about the modern world going — well, not quite viral, but certainly getting far more page views than anything I'd ever written. In a way it was a little disappointing since I didn't think it was a hugely interesting post at all. (In fact, I'd still recommend this post and this one if you'd like to read something more interesting on the relationship between the medieval and modern worlds.) But it also gave me the idea to write a series of short posts, maybe weekly or bi-weekly, that contextualized modern phenomena in their roots in the Middle Ages or, Ecclesiastes/Pete Seeger-style, as things that have happened before and will happen again. Public service announcements from the Middle Ages. Even if this isn't a hugely visible forum, it's part of my responsibility as a medievalist to engage with the wider world.

The first version of the first of the regular medieval PSAs was up for all of about ninety seconds before someone on Twitter called it a troll-post. My response, taking it down, was as much about the comment and about not having the stamina or desire for Twitter fireworks  as it was about the comment hitting a raw nerve. Obviously, I don't think the post was trollish, but at the same time, it wasn't tightly written and it was a little overambitious and fell short because, frankly, as much as I want to write about things that are relevant to more than the six people I talk to on a regular basis, my first priority still has to be finishing my book manuscript. I took the full ninety seconds it is permissible to spend freaking out about being criticized meanly in print and freaked out; and then I got on with my evening.

But I decided that I wanted to try it again. I've tightened and shortened the post. I've cut down on the flippancy. I've reduced the scope. It's still a public service announcement. Academics aren't really the intended audience, though I hope some will find some value in it. Academics of the sort who don't think that medievalists should read or teach or write about Rushdie will get nothing out of this and will spare themselves and me a lot of grief if they just stop reading here. In trying something new there are always bound to be missteps. I hope you'll bear with me as I find my footing with this. And besides, next week I'm going to write about comic books. I think it'll be okay in the end.


Amy Chua, she of Tiger Mom fame, and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, Yale professors both, are about to release a book about what they characterize as the disproportionate success in America of eight "cultural groups": their own groups, Chinese Americans and Jews, naturally, as well as Cuban exiles, Nigerians, Lebanese-, Indian-, and Iranian-Americans, and Mormons. Their PR machine is kicking into high gear in advance of the release, and managed to land them both space on the New York Times op-ed page and a profile in the paper's magazine yesterday.

The profile makes Amy Chua come across as a hugely unreliable narrator. A serial courter of controversy, she tells her interlocutor: “I don’t want to be controversial. I just want to be liked.” Yet at the same time, she comes across especially unaware later in the piece when she marvels that people just didn't realize that she is a completely unreliable narrator. She seems blind to the exact nature of her own unreliability while marshaling it to deflect criticism.

The run of the journal Eugenics Quarterly on the shelves in Bobst.
Photo not my own. Borrowed from the Facebook page of a friend.

This unreliable narrator and her partner insist that her argument is not a racial one: "The good news is that it's not some magic gene generating these groups' disproportionate success. Instead their success is... open to anyone." The messiness of their categories says otherwise. In an especially telling moment, she contrasts the parenting techniques of Jews and Mormons favorably to those of white parents. The parameters of the meta-group of successful groups ignore the fact that a category like "Indians" is subject to very recent borders drawn in the collapse of the British Empire. Chua and Rubenfeld seem not to know that Lebanon, Iran, and India have historically had large Jewish populations. How are they defining race, religion and culture? A far sharper reader of medieval texts than I wrote that "if a master of the art of writing commits such blunders as would shame an intelligent high school boy, it is reasonable to assume that they are intentional" and that they invite the reader to seek an esoteric sense between the lines as they are written. Between these lines there is oversight and flattening out of distinctions and the undertones of 1920s racialist theory that necessarily permeate any discussion of why certain minority groups might be distinct from the group. In between the lines, this argument is almost obscenely biological.

A miniature from the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Passover liturgy from medieval Spain.
Stay tuned for next weeks' PSA, which will feature this image more prominently.

One passage in Chua and Rubenfeld's op-ed piece jumps out especially: "At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the 'chosen' people; later they may be taught that Jews are a moral people, a people of law and intellect, a people of survivors." They're not the first ones to try to construct religion — or even more specifically, the idea of Jewish "chosenness" — as a racial category. A wide variety of medieval thinkers argued that the basis for religious identification was rooted in doctrinal correctness and the resulting correct behavior. And then there was Judah Halevi: talented poet, shrewd(ish) operator, and medieval Amy Chua.

Toward the end of his life, Judah Halevi wrote a text that is at least nominally a defense of the Jewish faith in the form of a series of dialogues that a mythical Khazar king plagued by the idea that his religious practice is insufficient conducts with a priest, an imam and a philosopher. After the king does not find any of their world views to be suitable or coherent, he deigns to invite a Jewish interlocutor to the discussion. He goes from assuming that the wretchedness of Jews in history was due to their lowly nature and insufficient faith to signing on wholesale and converting along with his subjects. Despite the major intervention of conversion to Judaism in this text, Halevi's concept of chosenness is inherently biological, passed down through blood lines. His vision of Judaism is explicitly historicizing, but that history is predicated upon a biological imperative.

Historians and political theorists from Josephus to Disraeli have written about a unitary "Hebrew race." Modern recourse to DNA sequencing muddies the waters without providing any clear way forward. The relationship between race and religion is complex even within specific cultural contexts. Andalusi Jews influenced by Greco-Arabic philosophy and writing about Judaism within the space of the same century (the long twelfth) did not agree on what constituted being Jewish and what the relationship was between race and religion. Chua and Rubenfeld predicate their argument upon a mistake that should embarrass a high school student without the promise of any esoteric revelation; but it's not a mistake without historical precedent.

This isn't very deep as far as conclusions go, but it seems that one of the take-aways is that  it's simply difficult to belief that a book that attempts to span a variety of cultures and cultural categories and subsume them, race, religion and all, into a single group of super-achievers is going to have very much to say that will be of use at all.


This has just been a quick public service announcement. There's a lot I would have liked to do in a longer piece, particularly taking up the challenge of teasing apart Halevi in the light of Strauss' critical methodology and offering a more detailed and sensitive reading of the Kuzari. Truly, I am aware of the shortcomings of this post and wish I could make it better, but unfortunately this isn't the space or the time of the semester for that kind of thought experiment or intellectual work. If you'd like to read more, start by contrasting the portrayals of Judah Halevi in two relatively recent biographies: here, and here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Medieval PSA: *Poof*

Screw it. Just like law professors shouldn't write works of sociology of religion, pressed-for-time medievalists shouldn't engage with the modern world. Paradoxically, there's too much at stake.