Help me with a course on Medieval Europe

Next year I’ll be co-teaching a module on ‘The Making of Modern Christianity: Medieval and Reformation Europe.’ I’ll be taking the medieval section of the module (I can’t tell you how glad I am not to have to teach Luther). I want to use the module to look at a number of important themes from that period: changing forms of empire; the emergence of race; the role of Islam and Judaism in forming European Christian identity; transformations around gender, sexuality and the body; struggles for control over knowledge, power and property that made possible the later emergence of industrialisation, colonialism, and capitalism; and, crucially, the role of Christianity in all of the above. I’m trying to figure out how best to do that around some of the key events of the period: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the trials of witches and heretics, the emergence of monasticism and then the universities, the Investiture Controversy, popular piety including pilgrimages, cults of the saints and relics, that kind of thing.

So, help me out! What has gone well or badly when you’ve taught in this area before? Which primary texts are great for reading with small groups and which are horrible? What are the best and most interesting books on the period (500-1500ish)? I’d especially appreciate recommendations of primary or secondary texts that are written by people of colour, texts on the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism in that period, interesting accounts of the role of the emerging university and any discussions of ideas of empire in the Middle Ages written with an eye to the development of European colonialism.

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“Oh my God, you HAVE to watch that!”

It’s impossible to mention The Wire to someone who hasn’t seen it without them bristling about how everyone says they have to watch The Wire. There’s a similar defensiveness around Mad Men, as people seem to think that if they disagree about the quality of the show, they are subject to social sanction.

I don’t doubt that such things occur. At the same time, the dynamic reminds me of omnivores who constantly rail against the self-righteousness of vegetarians and vegans, who are constantly trying to shove their ideology down the omnivore’s throat, etc. I will admit that I have indulged in such rhetoric before, and I was stopped short when a vegetarian asked me: “When has that actually happened?” I had to admit that proselytizing meat-shunners are indeed rare, to say the least. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met one. No vegetarian has even told me, other than in internet arguments, that I should adopt their dietary preferences. I’ve dated and lived with vegetarians and been free to carry on my meat-eating ways without interference in all cases.

So where does the perception come from? My theory is that meat-eaters systematically exaggerate expressions of vegetarianism or veganism into moral accusations against those who follow other dietary regimes. Simply stating that they do not eat a certain thing sounds like a judgment on those who do. Again, such accusations are vanishingly rare in my experience — most non-meat-eaters go out of their way to draw as little attention to that fact during an actual meal as they possibly can, precisely because they are human beings who understand basic courtesy, etc.

I suspect that a related form of defensive anxiety is going on with the perceived oppressiveness of demands that one watch The Wire or effusive praise of Mad Men. In reality, saying “you must watch this” is an expression of enthusiasm rather than a literal demand. I suspect that the defensiveness around The Wire centers specifically around race — people worry that they will be perceived as racist if they don’t want to watch a show with a majority-black cast.

I don’t really have a theory for Mad Men, but I want this to be a safe space. So I’ll say this: I like Mad Men a lot. I think it does interesting things formally and aesthetically, things I’ve never seen in television before and doubt I’ll see again. But I understand that it’s not for everyone. It’s slow, it’s set in an off-putting milieu, and it often seems to withold the typical satisfactions of television on principle. It’s okay not to like it. It also might not be a form of speaking the truth to power to point out that while all those sheep love it, you never got into it.

Upcoming Book Event: Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Worlds Without End

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverIn August we will be hosting a book event on Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s latest, Worlds Without End.

…in which are discussed pre-, early-, and post-modern multiple-worlds cosmologies; the sundry arguments for and against them; the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether or not creation has been “designed.”

I’ve had the good fortune of hearing her speak about the book, and it is an exciting, transdisciplinary tour of the history of philosophical reflection on cosmology, contemporary science, and perennial questions of religion. Catherine Keller will be introducing this event and we have a great list of contributors:

  • Marika Rose
  • Jonnie Russell
  • Anooj Kansara
  • Rebekah Sinclair
  • Lisa Gasson-Gardner
  • Beatrice Marovich


Indebted to Blackness?

Am I indebted to blackness?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything I know as a drummer to the roots of drum set playing in African rhythmic wisdom, mediated by the survival of African rhythm in gospel, blues, jazz, soul, rock and roll, reggae, untold numbers of Caribbean hybrids, and the endless rhizome of dance music since techno started in Detroit?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything that inspired me as a young basketball and baseball player to black athletes?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” my own short-lived basketball career at a state-championship winning high school to the tolerance and graciousness with which black men in my neighborhood—worn out from disappointed love and shitty dead end jobs—allowed my junior high schooled pimply white ass to run at sunset games where I was far too small, slow, and not enough of a 3-point shooter to ever really belong?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost all of any palpable human feeling or genuine human resonance in the name “Jesus” to the black spirituals and gospel traditions that inflected the singing and preaching of the black Baptist church that shared the junior high rec room with my dad’s largely-white community church in Sacramento, California?

What does it mean that I “owe” almost all of my feeling for magic and spirit to the survival of West African traditions and lore that managed to mutate and heal and console under the constraints of colonialist Christianity?

What does it mean to think that we “owe” so much in contemporary American food, music, style, culture, laughter, rhetoric, and the will to survive to blackness, to black culture, to black survival under unthinkable conditions of degradation, horror, anxiety, and fear?

To put the screw in even tighter, what does it mean to think that “we” or some group—whites, dominants, whatevers—owes so much of what we are or want to be to “them”?

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The greatest disclaimer of all time

Cosma Shalizi, writing at Crooked Timber, forewarns readers as follows:

A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don’t actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses.

The blogosphere is not dead yet.

Texts are hard

The lecture at Shimer yesterday was very good. One point that Prof. McKenzie kept highlighting is that we in the liberal arts are “overdeployed” in text-oriented activities, while other forms of cultural production are seemingly outside our purview. He gave the example that we all learn to draw in some rudimentary way in grade school, but then that stops early on for most of us — and once we come around to teaching college, we’re lost as to how we would assess a visually-oriented student project. I know I feel pretty out of my depth when it comes to grading creative projects, and I’m not even one to think (as many academics do) that choosing a creative project over a paper is per se a scam to avoid genuine work. Overall, he argued that if we can find ways to help students generate arguments and narratives in media other than text, we’ll be better equipping them for the digital world.

One reflection that came to mind as I pondered this argument is the fact that texts are hard, on every level: production, consumption, distribution…. Even with our “overdeployment,” the fact remains that people are, generally speaking, not very good at using texts outside of a fairly narrow range of clarity and density. They are very easily misled into overemphasizing or even outright decontextualizing isolated claims in a text. Meanwhile, generating a sustained text-only argument is an incredibly laborious process. Attaining the appropriate level of clarity and density is not only a matter of acquired stylistic skill, but requires exceptional clarity of thought. And all this labor is for very uncertain rewards, on both ends: writers have no guarantee that people will actually read their long texts, and readers have no guarantee that they will derive any benefit from a long text. The modes of connecting writers to readers remain primitive and scattershot.

All this is not to say that other media are “easier” tout court. Many wind up requiring a lot more intensive and tedious labor on the production side. Consumption is “easier” on some level, though the text-intensive emphasis of most eduction means that people generally lack the skills to take a step further and begin analyzing or seriously assessing non-textual works. But it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve placed all our eggs in a very questionable basket.

When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed

When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed, I’m sure I won’t be alone in feeling happy about it, in feeling that a standing offense to the concept of justice has been belatedly mitigated. My feeling that day will not, however, mean that I “support” road rage, or bar fights, or suicide by cop, or doing dangerous stunts on a reality show because you have no other way to make money, or whatever concrete incident — almost certainly not a legal trial followed by a government-ordered execution — brings about his inevitable death by violence. Nor, indeed, would my gladness at his public execution, were such a thing to occur, mean that I “support” the death penalty, much less the US’s specific racist implementation of it.

I’m sure we all have people about whom we have similar feelings: Darren Wilson, for instance, or Donald Trump. Or Osama bin Laden — a wealthy nihilist who committed mass murder and bragged about it. I once wrote about how bin Laden deserved to die, and I got a lot of pushback. It seemed to me that a lot of that pushback came from empty formalism, of moralistic (“we shouldn’t celebrate anyone‘s death!”) and liberal (“justice can only ever happen in a courtroom!”) kinds, or in some especially tedious cases, both at once. The most serious responses, though, pointed out the extreme fucked-up-ness of the US strike on bin Laden — a concern I shared, and continue to share. Yet it still remains the fact that one fewer wealthy nihilist is out walking around, an outcome I can applaud without “supporting” the means.

And now, here’s where we make an even more controversial turn. You remember how after 9/11, Americans were appalled to see people in other countries celebrating? I think that here, too, it would probably be a mistake to conflate their jubilation at an outcome — the United States, the mighty heartless conquerer, has been knocked down a peg! — and “support” for the concrete methods employed to attain that outcome. If you would feel glad if George Zimmerman one day woke up dead — if you, like so many, were disappointed when reports that he was “shot in the face” did not produce the result common sense might infer from such a description — then maybe, just maybe, you have the capacity to empathize with that jubilation. Maybe we can all admit that we’re human and that our gut-level sense of justice is often more retributive than restorative, and that sometimes we take what satisfaction we can get, without necessarily endorsing everything that led up to that satisfaction.


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