"Bloodline", Doughnuts, and Muffins

Things that "Bloodline" has taught me about Florida:

  1. Internecine family drama is de rigueur
  2. Humidity rests at about 100% at all times
  3. Wearing linen is obligatory
  4. Wearing sunglasses on a lanyard around your neck is obligatory
  5. Murders - not OK; also obligatory

No, "Bloodline" is - funnily enough - not an advertorial put out by the Florida Tourist Board. (Sad face.) It's a super-moody family crime drama produced by Netflix. As is Netflix's style, God love 'em, all episodes of a series are released simultaneously, so you too can fall down the rabbit hole of suspense and thrill for hours/days on end binge-watching this top show. Profit from my troubling experience, though: do not mainline "Bloodline" whilst watching "Friday Night Lights"... For a while there, I got pretty confused at the lack of (American) football spirit in the former, and seemingly landlocked "Floridian" landscape in the latter. Don't judge me, it was - always, all the time - about 3am and Kyle Chandler acts in both series. Though you should, immediately, block out large swathes of your schedule to watch both shows all the way through. So. Worth. It.

      Mentioning Chandler's omnipresence permits me a pastry-themed tangent. (Honestly, guv'nor, it does.) In her 2002 novel, Faking It, Jennifer Crusie (one of my all-time favourite authors) sets out what I like to call "The Doughnut vs. Muffin Grand Theory of Men".  This is not a gross generalisation, obvs, but a consistent and coherent taxonomy for all menfolk everywhere. As one character, Nadine, puts it: 

Doughnuts are the guys that make you drool. They're gorgeous and crispy and covered with chocolate icing and you see one and you have to have it, and if you don't get it, you think about it all day and then you go back for it anyways because it's a doughnut. [...] But then the next morning, they're not crisp anymore, and the icing is all stuck to the bag, and they have watery stuff all over them, and they're icky and awful. You can't keep a doughnut overnight. [...] Muffins are for the long haul and they always taste good. They don't have that oh-my-God-I-have-to-have-that thing that the doughnuts have going for them, but you still want them the next morning. (pp. 161-63 from 2004 Pan Books edition)

In both "Bloodline" and "Friday Night Lights", Chandler clearly plays a Muffin. And, I think, much of the conflict in both series can be viewed through the lens of Doughnut vs. Muffin conceptions of masculinity, if we expand the categories a little. Beyond the framework of female desire Nadine explicitly sketches out to define the two types of man-pastry, I think that other ingredients come to light, amongst which: 

  • Muffin = a stayer; a family man; holds your hair when you puke over the toilet; reliable; respectful; a good sport, who plays for the game not the win; values his roots; expresses emotion, or at least tries to
  • Doughnut = a booty-call guest star; an adventurer who prioritises his own life story, needs and desires; won't buy you tampons; plays to win at any cost; probably not respectful of women, at least not all the time; a bro; potentially violent and/or sexually aggressive; emotionally detached

Basically, I view the Doughnut as more immersed in the foul soup of toxic masculinity (thanks, Patriarchy!), whilst the Muffin has been able to negotiate his role within patriarchal culture a little more. Personally, I think that makes Muffins entirely preferable to Doughnuts - and much more drool-worthy too. Anyway. Not all Muffins (or Doughnuts) are the same. In "Friday Night Lights", Chandler's Coach Taylor operates as a valorised blueprint for other men - he is at the vanguard of progression of masculine identity for his young male team-players and other men in the community. Whereas, in "Bloodline", being a Muffin ain't easy - nor is it necessarily idealised. In this show, we see the push-pull between the brothers Rayburn, John (played by Chandler; Muffin) and Danny (played by Ben Mendelsohn; Doughnut, albeit self-avowed Doughnut). What makes a Muffin frost himself up, thereby sliding into Doughnut category? Can a Doughnut ever be redeemed, packed full of oatmeal and delicious for days, not just a juicy one-night-bite? In "Bloodline", all is shades of grey - and there are no easy outs or stable identities, no matter how hard a Muffin might try.

       With all this in mind, I present to you below the opening credits of "Bloodline". For interested parties: the music is "The Water Lets You In" by Book of Fears. These are perhaps my favourite TV opening credits of all time. Foreboding, menacing, and evocative, they capture the overarching themes of the show, and the central concerns of the characters, without any simplistic fading in/out of an actor's face or scenes from the show itself. Grab yourself a pastry - muffin or doughnut, I throw no shade on whichever type you choose - and enjoy 74 majestic seconds of emotive imagery.

Internet Bibliography #4

Frankly, I don't have much to report this week. Or, I have lots to report and not the energy to do the reporting. You know those times of your life when you are so busy busy busy, but at the end of the day you can't really remember what's gone on, or where you are? Yeah, hello from that land. Land, I dub thee "Frenzilandia". Apparently, this is the (parallel universe) land where I have not foresworn kale or green smoothies. That feels like a confession I should have saved for an actual, proper, literal confessional booth. Anyway, think of me in the rolling green-smoothie-filled lands of Frenzilandia whilst you pore over the topnotch internet artefacts below. Enjoy!

- On medieval peen:

From Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526. Via Lucy Allen's  blog post .

From Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526. Via Lucy Allen's blog post.

o   Just to be clear, by “peen”, yes, I do mean “penis”. Yes, medieval people had genitals too! Thanks to the glory of Twitter, and medievalist Gillian Kenny, I can present to you the medieval, wearable and whimsical version of modern-day dick pics. How about a fourteenth or fifteenth-century lead badge showing three humanoid phalluses carrying a vulva on a litter? Or a mid-fourteenth-century lead badge featuring a peen-on-legs bowing to a noble vulva-on-legs? Or – hold the phone! – an illustration of a fierce nun HARVESTING PEEN from a PEEN TREE, from a fourteenth-century French manuscript? Yup, that's the image above. Fabulous. If you fancy learning a bit more about the image, its female illustrator and the manuscript its in, check out a blog post by Lucy Allen.

 

- On images (not just of cute animals, promise):

o   On a particularly stressful day, I vented my tormented spleen to my dearest friend, a sterling and stalwart companion who I’ll call Mo. As ever, she was brilliant, providing sympathetic listening (i.e .agreeing wholeheartedly with my nebulous rant), a pep talk, and a link to some soothing and cute internet animals. Everybody needs a Mo on their speed dial. I’m passing on the love by sharing a link to Sheldon the Tiny Dinosaur, a web-comic about a tiny dinosaur who thinks he’s a turtle. Joy!

o   In the Guardian, Jess Cartner-Morley writes about the evolution of the Pirelli calendar since its beginning in 1964. The pin-up calendar, packed full of women half-naked to promote tyres (at least in theory), – has become a lauded artistic artefact, attracting top-flight models and photographers. Cartner-Morley sketches out the power dynamics (and negotiations) between ostensibly down-market low-class brand (Pirelli make tyres, after all) and goddesses of the runway, noting that:

Pirelli’s triumph is a masterclass in image management, one that leverages basic instincts in a sophisticated marketplace. Its power lies in the fact that being acknowledged as sexually attractive is a valuable asset to women in the public eye, whereas being seen as sexually available is demeaning. So the deal Pirelli strikes with photographers and models is that they get to be sexy, and Pirelli gets to be classy. 

. 5.19 tue "Sandbag" . 「今日はボクシングの日だジョー!」 .

A photo posted by Tatsuya Tanaka (@tanaka_tatsuya) on

o   Since 2011, Japanese artist-photographer Tatsuya Tanaka has posted a picture of miniature tableaux daily, featuring tiny human figures posed with banal household objects. (You can buy Tanaka’s coffee table book here.) The pictures are clean, witty, and intelligent – making the viewer rethink their relationship to the quotidian objects pictured, and recontextualise the objects themselves, teasing out alternate values for this regular stuff we all take for granted as “not-art”. I adore Tanaka’s mission statement, on the “About” page:

Everyone must have had similar thoughts at least once.
Broccoli and parsley might sometimes look like a forest, or the tree leaves floating on the surface of the water might sometimes look like little boats. Everyday occurrences seen from a pygmy’s perspective can bring us lots of fun thoughts.
I wanted to take this way of thinking and express it through photographs, so I started to put together a “MINIATURE CALENDAR” These photographs primarily depict diorama-style figures surrounded by daily necessaries.
Just like a standard daily calendar, the photos are updated daily on my website and SNS page, earning it the name of “MINIATURE CALENDAR”
It would be great if you could use it to add a little enjoyment to your everyday life.

- On women kicking ass and/or navigating life:

Jess Zimmerman postit.jpg

o   I shared a piece by Jess Zimmerman in my last Internet Bibliography, and am happy to have another incandescent article to share this time around. On Hazlitt, Zimmerman details her decision to leave her husband in 2012. It is - as we have come to expect from Zimmerman - an elegant, insightful and incisive piece, a meditation about what it is to be a woman in our society as much as it is about one specific woman’s hard and necessary choices. She writes:

It felt inexplicable. Sometimes I called it “my early midlife crisis.” Other times I called it “my nervous breakdown,” but in a tone that made it clear I was joking even though I also wasn’t. I often thought of those fungi that infest ants, take over their bodies, and make them march from the nest to wherever the fungus wants to go. Zombie ants.
But it wasn’t really inexplicable. It was, in fact, fairly mundane. What had happened was this: I realized that, like many women, I had made all the  decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf. I knew how to figure out other people’s expectations, and how to try to dodge their disappointment, and how to stay out of the way and not nag and not need things. I didn’t know what I actually wanted, at all.

In small, tidy caps, I’ve scrawled out my favourite line on a purple post-it put it up on  my wall (see the picture that above): ‘…nobody tells you the phoenix is born as a tender, featherless baby bird.’ Something to keep in mind when we go about this terrifying business of life.

o   Over at Metafilter, user dublin asks what she – as an established female engineer – should say to new female engineering students at university. Mefites, as ever, chime in with an array of useful content, and share some personal stories about navigating a traditionally male field. Useful and engaging resource for all female academics and all of us who interact with students.

o   In New York Magazine, Kerry Howley profiles female big-game hunter Rebecca Francis, shamed on Twitter by Ricky Gervais for happily posing with her latest kill, a magnificent giraffe. The story was published – somewhat unfortunately – shortly before reports emerged that American hunter-dentist Walter Palmer had shot and killed beloved Zimbabwean lion Cecil. This scheduling near-miss, however, doesn’t detract from the verve of the article, which teases out the various discomforts people have with Francis, the ways in which she herself views hunting, and the potential dichotomy of Francis’ approach to femininity. As an important bonus, read a series of tweets by Ijeoma Oluo unpacking the horrific absurdity of mass mourning for Cecil, swift justice planned for his killer compared to apathy and nonchalance in response to American people of colour. For example:

o   This month, Captain Kristen Griest and first lieutenant Shaye Have have become the first female army rangers in US military history. The testing to become a ranger is beyond brutal: Griest and Have deserve the highest respect, irrelevant of gender, for attaining ranger status. Nick Palmisciano – a West Point grad who went through Ranger School himself – presents his response to the Grist and Have’s achievement. It’s an interesting viewpoint into the way in which negative/misogynist views can and do shift when an individual is exposed to the reality of women in their (working) life. Whilst Palmisciano initially considered female soldiers weaker, less than their male counterparts at West Point, he quickly discovered that this is just not the case. Now, he trumpets his pride for the first female rangers, and concedes that they are, quite simply, tougher than him.

o   I am so jealous of Lacey Donohue. She had a killer idea for a reflective article for Jezebel: reviewing the story of her 20s life through the prism of Amazon purchases. Fantastic idea, really brilliant. Sigh. Anyway, Donohue remarks:

"Meet Danbo!" by Sally Crossthwaite. Via  Flickr

"Meet Danbo!" by Sally Crossthwaite. Via Flickr

Our Amazon order histories are not versions of ourselves we share often, but they offer a rare glimpse into our gloriously messy and occasionally embarrassing life stories. In these orders, it’s easy to track life’s twists and turns: presents sent to names long deleted from our phones, boxes shipped to houses we’ll never see again, books sent to friends who have since passed away. A glance at all our purchases—every single one—tells a far more compelling story than any Facebook feed ever could.

I’m compelled to wander through my own Amazon order history, and see what it throws up about the past iterations of me. I suggest you do the same, so we can swap notes over a cheeky daiquiri (straight up, no ice).


- On trigger warnings:

o   In response to a series of articles by Kate Nonesuch discussing the use of trigger warnings in classrooms (1, 2), Mefite conspire offers an excellent, insightful piece of critique. They elucidate the misogyny inherent so frequently in push-back against trigger warnings, and analyse the rejection of such warnings more generally. For example:

One thing I've observed about the development of trigger warnings in the mainstream consciousness, is how much of it is wrapped up in misogyny and rape culture. Historically, the push for trigger warnings really originated with war veterans experiencing PTSD. As someone who frequently consults on accessibility, when I introduce trigger warnings in this context to people, no one really has any real objections to warning people that there might be gunshots or war scenes or blood - because hey, nationalism, we need to respect the folks who served our country. But veterans are not the only people who suffer from PTSD - the other really big demographic is women who have experienced rape or domestic violence. Yet, when we shift the dialogue from veterans to women, somehow trigger warnings become much more controversial.


- On disability issues:

"Portrait of a young boy holding a walking stick/cane (undated)" from pellethepoet. Via  Flickr . I searched Flickr for "fashion walking stick" and this was the second result. Hahahahahaaaa

"Portrait of a young boy holding a walking stick/cane (undated)" from pellethepoet. Via Flickr. I searched Flickr for "fashion walking stick" and this was the second result. Hahahahahaaaa

o   Liz Jackson blogs at The Girl with the Purple Cane about her life as a cane-user, designing for disability with fashionable and functional styles, and experiences from her life. I whole-heartedly support her campaign to make US retailer J. Crew sell a fashionable cane in their stores, thereby destigmatising mobility devices in the public imagination and providing those who use canes with more decent, fun, stylish choices. I’m working through her archive, but my favourite post of hers, so far, is a breakdown of the real phenomenon of “Post-Traumatic Growth” – the positive (yes, really) consequence that can flow from traumatic life experiences.

o   As a sort of counterpoint, over on This Body is Not an Apology, Cara Liebowitz explains – with wit and verve – the massive problem of “inspiration porn” for those with disabilities. In essence, “inspiration porn” objectifies individuals with disabilities – they are viewed solely as a means for inspiring those without disabilities, who often coo and oooh over memes and images of the disabled “beating the odds”. Ick. Read Liebowitz’s piece and act accordingly please people.

Hours and Hours of Calming Bison (Honestly)

Public service announcement: do not take selfies with wild animals! Really, no! I'm a little surprised that there needs to be a PSA for this - but after all, I am a solid urbanite, and the kind of wildlife I see mostly amounts to yappy dogs in designer coats. In July, a woman was attacked by a bison at Yellowstone National Park in the States as she turned her back on the massive (horned) animal to pose for a selfie with it. Violent altercations between wild animals and human interlopers seeking Instagrammable selfies seems to be on the up, at least according to anecdata. If you want to take a nonchalant selfie with a bison - without the spectre of death unhelpfully moistening your selfie stick - why not play the video below, and pose in front of your laptop screen? It's almost like you are really there with the bison! Yeah, OK, I really am putting my personal stamp of recommendation onto a three-hour-plus video of bison grazing at Yellowstone. Nothing notable happens. There's no plot, no drama. It is utterly transfixing with its mesmeric power. Seriously, I have now seen this video a few times through - the whole way through. (Somebody might need to save me and charitably donate me a life one of these days, but hey.) The video works well as a soothing background to life, work, meditation, yoga, you name it. Also, you get to name all the special bison in your own little herd, and figure out which one you identify with most. Important stuff, to be sure. 

Em Ford - "You Look Disgusting"

Beauty blogger Em Ford has created one of the most effective videos on the horrors of body policing and noxious beauty standards that I've ever seen. Ford's short video amply demonstrates: 1) the power of make-up to shape others' opinions of you, and your own self esteem; 2) the overwhelming devastation possible through nonsensically pejorative online comments; 3) the inability to ever "win" in terms of female self-presentation. This is not just a great video, but a necessary one too.  Bonus: read insightful discussion of the video over on Metafilter - see in particular the heart-rending first-person testimonials from people who have acne and have faced a variety of public censure because of their skin.

Modern and Medieval Catholicism, Our Lady of Ta'Pinu and Santa Muerte

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

I am not good at tourism. Correction: I actively abhor tourism. I’m just not a fan of sweatily traipsing around over-crowded places, craning my neck to see “erudite stuff” obscured from view by crowds of eye-rollingly bored schoolchildren, getting lost in labyrinthine public institutions most likely haunted by a neo-Minotaur docent, and shoving over-priced stale sandwiches down my throat like a starved gannet for “lunch” on the go. Maybe I just do tourism wrong: this is probably true. Also, the bulk of my working life is spent reading, learning, thinking as precisely as possible about complex theories and problematics. Going to exhibitions and art showings and interesting film screenings is part of my research life, part of excavating cultural artefacts all around me to find their resonances with my specific research frameworks. So, on holiday, all I want to do is to channel my energies into actively not thinking: I want to kick back and go to the beach - I am very good at beaching - with a stack of really very silly books. My top recommendation for the latter is what are known in my house as the “sexy horsey books”, a series of well-written romance books by Bev Pettersen. No, “sexy horsey” does not point to any elegantly phrased tales of, shall we say, somewhat euphemistically, “paraphilic desire”. Pettersen immerses the reader into the world of serious horse training and jockey life, with well-drawn and thoughtful protagonists who have superb chemistry, propelling the romance plot along in fine style. Very much recommend, even if you aren’t very keen on horses. Horses as a species seem to have had a council meeting and decided unilaterally that they do not want me to be a rider…

      Anyway. Today’s post is not actually about tourism/holidays/horses, or not entirely. The only type of tourism that I enjoy is visiting religious institutions and saints’ shrines in lands afar, witnessing modern devotional practice and culture that so clearly relates to the medieval saints I have spent years working on and have come to love. In September 2011, I went on holiday to the Maltese island of Gozo, a sun-drenched rock which does a fine line in fish dinners, sandy beaches and Catholic basilicas. St. George’s Basilica in Victoria is a beautiful parish church, originally dating to at least the fifteenth century. It’s the kind of place that is so resplendent you sort of worry if you should be let in or not, yet it is still a hub of regular popular worship, as testified by their YouTube channel filled with videos of services. The juxtaposition of features I superficially ascribe in my imagination to medieval worship spaces evoked in hagiographic narratives – including intensely rich decorations and a tangible aura of sacrality– with modern worshippers going about their business, as they do on any given day of the week, really astounded me. This is the medieval/modern religiosity connection writ large. It also serves as an effective reminder that medieval churches were communal, public spaces – there to be filled with the flock, spaces of dynamic interchanges – just as in St. George’s today. This is something I tend to forget, or let fall by the wayside, as I consider the descriptions of churches and religious services in narratives I study, as it is so different to my own reality. 

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr . No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr. No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr

      Though St. George’s was utterly lovely, I was most excited about visiting another basilica on the island, the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu in Għarb, given my immense interest in pre-modern female devotion. My holiday-mates were very gracious, and let me do my “medieval-religious-detective” thing for a few glorious hours. The gallery below features some of the many, many, (perhaps too many) photographs I took during my visit. The exact origins of the Shrine are unknown, but it is first described in writing in the sixteenth century. (For a potted history of the site, see the relevant page on the Shrine’s website. See also Mrg. Nicholas J Cauchi's slim volume, Ta'Pinu Shrine: The Pilgrims' Haven, published by the Shrine in 2008.) Though the Shrine had a long history as a site of Marian devotion, events in the summer of 1883 ultimately increased its fame as a particularly holy site. Two villagers, Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli, frequently heard the voice of the Virgin Mary calling them into the chapel to pray in separate mystical incidents. Further, Portelli's mother was afflicted by a deleterious illness at the time, but achieved a miraculous cure after her sons (Franġisk and Nikol) paid special reverence to Our Lady of Ta'Pinu, and kept a lamp lit in front of her altar at all times. These events established the Ta'Pinu Mary as a potent miracle-worker and very effective intercessor with the divine. Throughout this post, I'll use "Ta'Pinu" to refer to the specific construction of the Virgin Mary worshipped at the Shrine.

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

      The basilica (including a chapel, newer sanctuary, and museum) is, as you might imagine, fantastically opulent, crammed with beautiful stained glass, images, niches, candles and on and on. What grabbed me the most, though, were the countless modern artefacts and letters given up to Ta’Pinu as votive tokens (ex-votos), either in the hopes of receiving healing miracles or as a form of payment for the reception of Ta’Pinu’s grace. These objects cover the walls in a kind of hopeful collage of piety in rooms adjacent to the chapel itself. Walking through these spaces feels a bit like going to a bric-a-brac table sale, but with each offering – however innocuous or banal – imbued with profound personal and spiritual meaning. Plaster casts, browned Polaroids, orthopaedic screws, baby blankets, scrawled notes, chopped-off hair braids, bent bicycle wheels, typed letters, dented crash helmets, rosaries, crisp white Christening gowns. Perhaps the meaning or such mementos is not just personal and spiritual, but rather personal-spiritual. These are tangible objects which relate directly to a given believer’s highly specific experiences: subject-specific vessels of faith. The orthopaedic screws, for example, are spiritual for one believer as they come from their own body, a difficult surgery with a successful outcome thanks to prayers delivered to Ta’Pinu. Such screws would mean nothing to the believer petitioning Ta’Pinu for the successful delivery of a baby. Instead, she offers up a Christening gown, a tangible manifestation that the holy virgin came through for her and allowed her baby to thrive.  A sample of photographs capturing the mementos are below - for more, and for the gallery showing my trip to Ta'Pinu, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

      Browsing through the halls of such personal-spiritual tokens, you’re struck by the evidence of Ta’Pinu’s efficacy in responding with grace to her devotees’ calls. This is substantiated further as visitors to the basilica are invited to offer up a specific prayer to Ta’Pinu, which is printed in various languages in framed prints near the altar. Visitors are also invited to petition Ta’Pinu by writing their prayers in a sort of “prayer pro-forma”, to be sealed in the supplied envelope, and deposited in baskets by the altar. You can also submit petitions to the holy woman online, via a web form. The Shrine also offers webcams for attendance at Mass and visiting the chapel from the comfort of your own home, though I couldn’t make either stream play when I last tried. Nevertheless, I’m delighted by the Shrine’s conscious interfacing with the digital world. It represents, to me, a means of expanding the intercessory capacity of Ta’Pinu ever onwards, and suggests an (anticipated) popularity for her cult. Moreover, leaning into the digital world suggests a response to the evolving lifestyles and associated needs of believers. Rather than excluding those who might wish to visit or call upon Ta’Pinu, the Shrine has developed its offering of rites and rituals to speak to the needs of a geographically dislocated – or simply busy – flock.

      In 1998 a church dedicated to Ta’Pinu was opened in Bacchus Marsh, a site about 50km outside Melbourne, Australia, with the chapel being a replica of the original chapel in Gozo. For a brief history of devotion to Ta’Pinu in Australia, see here. See also Paul Harris’ short documentary film about the Australian site, below. As with the Gozitan Ta’Pinu Shrine, the Australian Shrine allows individuals to engage with the holy virgin online: by submitting prayers, requesting masses, and requesting candles be lit. It’s hard to avoid noticing, though, that the Australian site suggests monetary donations when you submit your prayer or mass requests and a flat-fee of $7 for lighting a candle. The prominence of such financial requests reflects, perhaps, the Australian church’s status as a relatively newly founded institution, in need of all the support it can get to equip its building and develop its ministry. In any case, the institution of the Australian Shrine, and its digital offerings, speak once more to an attempt to respond actively to the emerging needs of believers. It is an “All Nations Marian Centre”, and used by a variety of community groups from different ethnic backgrounds as a hub for Marian devotion, of which reverence of Ta’Pinu is just one form. In her Australian incarnation, then, Ta’Pinu represents the multiplicity of ways a believer can access the Virgin Mary, and relate to Her in ways that a believer feels fits their personal outlook and cultural heritage.

      Why do I love visiting places of worship like Ta’Pinu? Why have I shared the pictures here? I think the photographed artefacts are, above all, interesting, and resonate with a kind of beauty inspired by the fervent hopes and faith that believers have poured into these tangible vessels of the banal horrors of everyday life. Additionally, I offer the pictures as a window into modern Catholic worship culture. By gazing through this window, I believe medievalists can better do the work of investigating medieval religion. I’m a scholar of medieval religious culture, but I work in a predominantly – almost entirely – secular environment. Exposing myself to modern Catholic praxes can be eye-opening. Rites and rituals that sometimes feel overwhelmingly distanced, that could somehow only take place in medieval hagiographies or religious narratives, can and do exist in various forms in modern Catholic worship, re-modulated to greater and lesser degrees to fit contemporary worship preferences, doctrines, and styles. And so, as I wend my way around modern spaces of devotion, my eyes grow ever wider and my mind becomes ever more blown.

      The medieval saints and worship praxes I study are relics of the most potent kind: productive and animated artefacts which continue to exert power in the world, though they may be – technically, superficially – dead and gone. I’m not saying that there is a singular form of worship which exists, unchanged, from the medieval to the modern period. Rather, that there are demonstrable similarities between medieval and modern worship forms. Instead of bracketing of the modern from the medieval, I think looking at the modern iterations of worship can allow us to better understand and contextualise pre-modern religion, and the pre-modern era more generally. How did medieval believers react in this or that way to a given social/political/geographical/ideological event horizon? Moreover, I believe that we can better unpack the ways in which medieval believers responded to the Church – by reshaping their practices, exerting their own choices for where to put their faith in holy individuals – if we look at the ways in which modern believers do the same.

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via  Flickr . A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via Flickr. A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

     Undoubtedly, specific circumstances mould religious praxes, be they social, political, geographical or so on. Catholicism, medieval and modern, is not monolithic. Frankly, I wish I could speak Maltese so I could dig into sources on Ta'Pinu which reveal the significance of this representation of the Virgin Mary to the people of Gozo, and Malta more generally. Another example will have to suffice for now: the rise of devotion to Santa Muerte (“Saint Death” in Spanish) in Mexico, parts of the USA, Central America and further afield. Over the past few years, a stream of articles have been published shedding light on this “new” saint: see Antonia Blumberg for The Huffington Post online; Steven Gray for TIME online; Evgeny Lebedev for GQ online; Carmin Sessin for NBC News online. In 2012, Oxford University Press released R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, the first academic depth study of the saint. (My summary of Santa Muerte, below, is taken from these sources.)

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via  Flickr . A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via Flickr. A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

      Santa Muerte is a female personification of death, a Mexican folk saint with her roots in ancient beliefs about and reverence for death. Though denounced by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte clearly encapsulates identifiable elements of Catholic practice– e.g. as a saintly intercessory figure with shrines as epicentres of worship, identifiable by specific iconography. Santa Muerte has been taken up, in particular, by people to whom the Church has not, or cannot, adequately cater: the poor, criminals, and the LGBT community. The Church has not fought to tackle poverty with enough vigour; cannot answer criminals’ prayers which relate to illegal and immoral behaviours; and has excluded LGBT believers from fellowship and sacraments. What’s more, for people living in communities torn apart by drug and gang violence, Santa Muerte seems to be the ideal choice. As Lebedev remarks: “Because people might die at any moment, they have begun to worship Death, since they believe this might at least give them some protection.”

      Whilst there is only one pontiff and a series of authorised ecclesiastical precepts, believers still customise their own religious experiences in various ways. Doctrine, after all, has always been questioned, debated, reformulated. The laity has always managed to express their religiosity in views not necessarily fully palatable to the Church. Santa Muerte is a modern iteration of this phenomenon, but the medieval era is full of religious narratives in which believers try to figure out their religion on their own terms. I’m thinking, here, particularly of the ways in which many medieval holy men and women we study now a “saints” were never actually canonised – but rather, they were taken up as sacred figures by devotees in their locale and beyond. This was the case for the corpus of extraordinarily pious thirteenth-century women I analysed for my PhD: none of the “Holy Women of Liège” ever received the official approbation from the Church in the form of canonisation, but were certainly held up as saints in various ways by their communities. No religion is made up solely of official doctrine: lay believers also play a highly significant role in constructing specific iterations of their own religion, which may just skirt the transgressive bounds of outright heterodoxy. What I’m interested in then, is recognising – and ultimately disentangling – the power dynamics at play in religious worship between the constellation of the Church (officialdom), God (that in which we have faith), and the believer herself. We can best do this work, I think, by casting our eye at both ends of the temporal divide: by recognising that worship forms are in the process of continual renegotiation in a given moment and across time. 

 

Gallery of Images from Visit to Ta'Pinu Shrine, Gozo - September 2011

NB Images are in order of my travel "through" the Shrine: exterior gardens and statuary (including statues of Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli); Shrine exterior; ornamentation and religious artefacts inside the Shrine; tokens left for Ta'Pinu by those seeking intercession

CfP: Panel on "Holy Celebrity" at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (USA), 2016

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

Panel title: “Holy Celebrity: Saints and/as Social and Economic Capital” – sponsored by the International Hagiography Society

Conference: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (USA), 12-16 May 2016

Organisers: Alicia Spencer-Hall (Queen Mary, University of London) and Barbara E Zimbalist (University of Texas at El Paso)

"La última cena" by Juan Felipe Rubio. Via  Flickr

"La última cena" by Juan Felipe Rubio. Via Flickr

Scholars have often commented on the link between sanctity and celebrity. Both the saint and the celebrity are elevated above the everyday, with identities carefully crafted by cultural producers to respond to the needs and desires of an audience, region, or temporality. Sacralisation/celebrification entails a series of processes which (re)formulate a subject into a product fit for social, political, and economic consumption. Yet sanctity/celebrity is not simply exploitative, but  enjoyable and perhaps even empowering. What does it really mean to be a medieval celebrity? How does celebrity intersect with sanctity? What does such a categorization add to the study of hagiography? Can fame resonate on both a social and spiritual level, and how does the medieval idea of fame generate, overlap with, and inform contemporary discourses of fame, celebrity, and sanctity?

Relevant topics for this session include:

  • Saints as commercial products and/or economic agents
  • The construction of Sanctity and Communal Identity
  • Audience reaction(s) to a saint and textual reception
  • Power dynamics between celebrity/saint and star-maker/confessor or hagiographer/cleric/scribe
  • The social function of celebrity/sanctity
  • Film theory’s contribution to the study of sanctity more generally


If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words and a Participant Information Form (PIF), which can be found at http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html#PIF.  

Deadline for submissions: 1 September 2015. Please email your abstract and PIF to the panel organisers, Alicia Spencer-Hall (aspencerhall [at] gmail.com) and Barbara E. Zimbalist (bezimbalist [at] utep.edu). 


Outsource Your Emotional Labour with Amy Schumer's Listen Alert!

I proselytised about recent online conversations on "emotional labour" in my last Internet Bibliography. In the face of overwhelming demands from friends and family to be listened to (supportively, pre-reflexively, ad nauseum), Amy Schumer once more rides in on her bright white steed to fix the problem, by presenting to us the fabulous Listen Alert service. Users in desperate need of a kindly, attentive ear simply press on the Listen Alert panic button - ever accessible on a lanyard round your neck - and are connected with support staff willing to do the dirty work of emotional labour, i.e. listen to you whilst effacing their own needs/desires in the moment. As one Listen Alert tech says: "Just stay calm and tell me your story."

        Schumer-the-saleswoman has to point out that "Listen Alert is not just for women", which flags the fact that men might pre-emptively feel excluded from the target customer base. After all, men don't need to (pay to) be listened to amirite? In the "ad", when one man is ignored by his date at dinner, he pours his heart out to Listen Alert's Katie - who listens, completely engaged, to his comments about his fluctuating weight and ever-increasing height in college. She reveals her investment in his remarks when she, in a natural and deft conversational move, asks "but what size shoes did you wear?!" What strikes me, though, is that this interlude seems entirely normative - a woman responding sensitively and in a validating manner to a man discussing his life experiences.  By contrast, I am blown away by Geoff, one of the male Listen Alert call-centre techs, who starts one conversation with "[t]ell me everything - don't leave out your feelings." This dead-pan depiction of a "manly" (not overtly non-hetero, bearded) man digging in to emotional labour with gusto seems fairly radical. Of course, Geoff and all the Listen Alert techs get paid for this service, which runs to $100, 000 per month per user. And cheap at the cost, I crow! 

        Emotional labour is a necessary service in relationships - it is the assemblage of behaviours that bind us together. When all parties in a relationship commit to taking on the assorted tasks of emotional labour - made in the measure of what each party specifically needs or wants - things are fine and dandy. A barter or trade economy of sorts is in operation which keeps everyone feeling that things are more or less in balance. And, yet, so often women are almost exclusively loaded with emotional labour. Socio-cultural mores suggest that women not only take on more of this service work, but that men are not tasked with giving back in kind. Women from an early age are schooled - overtly or implicitly - on how to perform such emotional labour, and it often makes up a significant portion of the performance of femininity. Like Listen Alert techs, women are (supposed to be) "trained operators" in the business of emotional service work. Men, in comparison, are often instructed that doing emotional labour makes them less masculine. Once more, nobody wins under patriarchy, people. Emotional labour has to be monetised in the Schumer-verse, because it is not performed in an egalitarian or reciprocal manner. Talking more generally about emotional labour, Metafilter user Rangi points out, "in a healthy relationship, this kind of labor wouldn't have to be monetized because it would be reciprocal". Emotional labour should not need to be monetised necessarily, but it certainly does come at a cost to the labourer in question: time, energy, effort, emotional bandwidth, and so on and on. Emotional labout is not "free". By positioning emotional labour squarely within the capitalist service economy, Listen Alert conjures up - if only spectrally - the "lost wages" of so many emotional labourers. 

CfP: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings” - Panel at SFS 2016

Panel title: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings”

ConferenceSociety for French Studies 57th Annual Conference, University of Glasgow, 27-29 June 2016

Organiser: Alicia Spencer-Hall, French Dept., Queen Mary, University of London

In the last decade or so, pre-modern disability studies has emerged as a productive and important field of enquiry for scholars from a host of disciplines, including literary studies, history and sociology. The fallacy of any monolithic form of disability has been incisively critiqued by academics unpacking the specific historical context(s) of pre-modern narratives which feature disabled bodies. This represents a welcome dismantling of a paradigm of disability which continues to influence discussions of modern disability, whether these discussions take place in the academy or in the mass media and public consciousness. 

Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via  @KarlSteel  on  Twitter

Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via @KarlSteel on Twitter

The meaning accorded to being disabled by dominant society, and by the individuals living with disabilities themselves, is not fixed. Rather, what a given impairment “says about” a subject shifts according to multiple factors: gender, ethnicity, socio-cultural situation, historical moment and so on. Narratives showing disabled bodies, the attitudes of others to such marked bodies, and the disabled subject’s own intellectual and affective stance to his/her body, are not inert or solely reflective of “real life”. Rather, such narratives work to shape identities of those to which they speak, giving the disabled and non-disabled alike ways in which they might formulate a response to impairment in their lives. 

Impairment demands a response, as disability demonstrates the precariousness of “whole” or “normal(ised)” bodies. The non-disabled must thus take a stance in relation to the destabilising potentiality that the impaired body represents to abled society and culture. Often times, though certainly not always, responses fall between othering of the disabled body, enacting distance, or a fetishisation of the disabled body, a closeness which titillates because it is transgressive.  Reactions to disability are ambiguous just as much as disability itself represents an ambiguous state, defined by a host of socio-cultural, ideological, and historical factors. 

Disabled knight, from  Arthurian Romances , New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via  @DamienKempf  on  Twitter

Disabled knight, from Arthurian Romances, New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via @DamienKempf on Twitter

This panel brings methodological and theoretical approaches from pre-modern disability scholarship into the French context. “French”, in this case, refers to both geographical area (i.e. France as a region) and linguistic identity (i.e. francophone texts produced outside of France). How do French pre-modern texts deal with disability? Can we discern a specific approach to disability used by French authors, or in francophone texts? What kinds of meanings are given to disabled bodies? What kind of language is used to describe disabled bodies, and how does this language mould reader responses? What kind of narratives are offered to the disabled, and why? 

Relevant topics for this session include:
•    Differences between pre-modern and contemporary understanding of disabilities
•    Linguistic choices for denoting disabilities, and the ways in which such choices shape readers’ attitudes, in both modern and pre-modern periods
•    Reactions of readers to disabled characters in narratives, and reactions of those around a disabled character in the text
•    Social constructions of disability and their contexts, including permutations relating to specific locales, politics, ideologies
•    Differences between interpretations of disabilities in religious (e.g. saints) and more secular (e.g. wounded knights) frameworks
•    Differences in depictions of invisible and visible impairments
•    The ways in which French pre-modern texts can contribute to developing the field of pre-modern disability studies

 

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words and a brief bio, containing your postal address. Deadline for submissions: 1 September 2015. Please email your abstract and bio to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk).

George Lipsitz - "Inured to Suffering: Ferguson as a Failure of the Humanities"

On 1 May, George Lipsitz gave a talk at Harvard University entitled "Inured to Suffering: Ferguson as a Failure of the Humanities".  In August 2014, police in Ferguson (Missouri) shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. The New York Times has a detailed run-down of the events and aftermath, including protests which spread across the US and intense political debate on institutional racism, here. In his talk, Lipsitz, a professor of sociology and  black studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, relates events in Ferguson to failures of academia (and academics) in tackling systemic racism and racist ideologies, and also discusses contemporary racial politics in America more generally. The video runs to about 90 minutes, of which some is Lipsitz' responses to audience members' questions at the end. I know it's long, but it is well worth your attention. This is inordinately important stuff which must be talked about, both inside and outside of academia. For a very brief overview of the talk, read also The Harvard Crimson's coverage of the event.

(My thanks to Prof  Christie McDonald for bringing Lipsitz's talk to my attention by  discussing it during her plenary at this year's SFS conference.)

 

Pistol Annies' "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty"

Ok, so this is perhaps more "For Your Listening Pleasure" than "For Your Viewing Pleasure", but still. This track, "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty", is from female country group Pistol Annies' 2013 album, Annie Up. It's never been released as a single, hence there's no official music video floating around. No matter, as the video below showcases the most important thing about the song for me, the powerfully simple lyrics which spell out the endless, expensive and tiresome work of performing femininity. To quote the chorus: "Being pretty ain't pretty, it takes all day long / You spend all your money just to wipe it all off / You spray on your perfume, you spray on your tan / Get up in the morning, do it over again / Being pretty ain't pretty at all". I particularly appreciate how the video projects the lyrics over a still of the Annie Up front cover, which shows the three Annies working their best sultry sexy womanhood - teased-out hair and smokey come-to-bed eyes and all. The disjuncture between the "final product" of their presentation on the cover and the song lyrics (and almost mournful minor key) really pushes home the point, I think. Yes, the Annies can and do look like that - but it ain't easy work, and it certainly comes at a (psychological and literal) cost. It feels like a good counter-point to the last FYVP, which centred on the empowering nature of make-up as a means to control self-representation and identity in the world. Again, I confess my love of make-up and the spectacle of feminine image management, but when such self-presentation is required (socially or otherwise) it is a destructive drain on resources of all kinds. 

The Make-Up of Marilyn Monroe

The BFI is, indubitably, a national treasure. In almost all their offerings, they display a commitment to education and accessibility - allowing people with varying levels of interest to just watch the damn film and walk away, or to delve ever deeper into meaning, history, and cultural significance. Shout-out to the BFI player, which is a magnificent resource, offering a beautifully curated selection of cinema on-demand.  Anyway, my little love affair with the BFI was heightened this week with their video showcasing the make-up of Marilyn Monroe. It's not quite a how-to tutorial, and not quite a piece of cinematic-historical analysis. It demonstrates the ways in which Monroe consciously cultivated and controlled her look in order to manipulate her persona in the world. As the narrator points out: "Contrary to popular belief, Marilyn wasn't a passive product of the Hollywood system. She was instrumental in the construction of her own myth." Make-up is not always - or not solely - a tool of the patriarchy to objectify women. Sometimes, it is a powerful and political means of curating one's own projection into the world. I say this as a committed feminist who adores "putting my face on" to ready myself for the world, constructing my own myth one swipe of lipstick at a time.

Some Thoughts on #s406 at #IMC2015 - Medievalists, Public Engagement & Budgy Smugglers

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.

            Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of Medievalists.net. All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).

            Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper. 

         If memory serves correctly, Kim was responding to some enervating – but ultimately useful, I concede – remarks from Johnston. Johnston raised my hackles a bit when he prodded the audience to question if medievalists really have anything to offer to contemporary public discourse anyhow. For him, the question is not how to become a (better) public medievalist, but whether to be one in the first place. My internal response: “YES OF COURSE WE SODDING WELL SHOULD!” Nevertheless, the hackle-raising was – and is – productive. This is a question of massive significance, and a means to situate oneself personally within the discipline. I became irritated because I so stridently believe that we have a duty to share research with our varied and dynamic publics and to learn from them as much as we purport to relay gems of medieval relevance. And the vehemence of my internal shouty voice needs to be matched by a willingness to do the damn work of engaging cogently, efficiently and non-patronisingly with those outside of our lovely academic echo chambers. There’s certainly more work needed on this, not least from myself. I’m inspired by vocal members of the audience who pointed out the need for academics to engage with audiences not normally tapped by intellectuals as potential readership. The ensuing debate amongst attendees highlighted class issues to do with the ways in which “public academics” define their target audience(s), who we deem “worthy” of “our” knowledge, and the entrenched power dynamics at play. See, for example, the following tweets:

 

            Kwakkel had a slick series of slides, which showed off his digital chops very well, including lots of hard data about his impact in the wider world – follower numbers, clicks, page impression and the like. Indeed, Kwakkel has over thirteen thousand Twitter followers, and a well-respected popular blog about medieval books. He underscored the need to be strategic about engagement online. Figure out your curated persona – who you want to be in the digital world, what you want to comment on, and to whom you want to speak. Give it time, up to a year of blogging and/or tweeting, and then reassess how your energies are paying off (or not), to evolve your plan of digital attack. Think clearly about making your stuff accessible and enticing: that means flashy pictures, a “sexy” hook, and no-faff explanations of key jargon. Entering into conversations with non-experts does not mean you need to dilute your intellectual content, but present it in more transparent and welcoming terms. In response to attendees’ questioning the ways in which a “public medievalist” might talk to audience(s) not traditionally accessed by, say, an academic-ish blog on medieval stuff, Kwakkel noted that there is a “trickle down” effect, i.e. journal content (hardcore intellectual work) migrates downwards, via blogs, vlogs, radio, and the like, to tabloid fare (the fluffiest version of research findings). I think this top/down hierarchy - stated by Kwakkel as an objective, monolithic system, is actually pretty harmful and utterly subjective to boot:

 

Helen Young also pointed out, quite rightly, that this model is out-dated:

 

            Johnston professed a dislike, or at the very least unease, with the term “public intellectual” himself. (And he maintains he will never have a Twitter account, hence lack of a hyperlink for his name.) He writes fairly regularly for a liberal left-wing newspaper in Germany, and features on radio programmes about almost all things British. He “smuggle[s] the medieval” in to a wide swathe of topics that he is asked to comment upon, thereby flagging the period to the public whenever possible. For example, the recent christening of Princess Charlotte can be parlayed into a conversation about medieval dynastic politics, inheritance, kingship and so forth. The word “smuggle” set off all manner of odd lightning bolts of association for me:

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via  Flickr .

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

  1. Enid Blyton-esque tales of bearded smugglers lugging booty in from every Cornish cove.
  2. Muggles, the non-magickals of the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Budgy smugglers, Australian slang for ultra-tight men’s swimming briefs, suggesting that the wearer has some form of small bird shoved down the crotch – for some examples (sans hunky wearer), see here.

Somehow, I think all three of these admittedly random associative pings flesh out my thoughts on the panel more generally. Bear with me.

  1. I have extraordinarily limited knowledge of the historical and contextual facts of Cornish smuggling enterprises. Literally all I know is taken from Enid Blyton or dodgy Sunday afternoon black and white films. However, what occurs to me in these kinds of narratives is that the smugglers’ contraband tends to contribute fairly significantly to the local community. For example, smugglers might bring in goods for the black market, or simply introduce more money into circulation so the small local economy keeps going. That is to say that the medieval booty we, as “public intellectuals”, "smuggle" actually has real consequences for our localities, and has valuable impact.
  2. Muggles are the “not-haves” and the “them” to the all-powerful magic “us” of Hogwarts alums. The vibrant and dynamic world of magic has to be hidden from the Muggles at all costs – otherwise, they’d ruin it, destroy it, or just completely freak out. Much of the discourse about “public intellectuals” posits a similar dynamic between “us” medievalist know-it-alls and “them”, the befuddled ignorant masses. We can’t really show them what we do, because they just won’t get it – or they’ll somehow break it.
  3. As an item of apparel, budgy smugglers are technically donned to cover up the genitals. But, of course, a swatch of tight tight Lycra does little to shield our eyes – and sensibilities – from the “horror” of the male anatomy. Instead, it draws our attention to it, like a giant neon sign saying “ahoy matey, here’s a penis!” The round table, for me, basically smuggled the budgy of gendered and racial privilege when operating in public spaces as a professional academic. Basically, the manner in which the panel did not meaningfully – if at all – address the significant and specific challenges to public engagement faced by those not represented on the panel, i.e. non-male non-white individuals, the more glaringly obvious the problem of representation and the effect of various kinds of privilege became.
You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

            For most of #s406, I couldn’t help metaphorically staring at the deeply gendered budgy before me, being uncomfortably covered up by calls for “making your research accessible” and “just getting out there”.  “Getting out there” professionally online and in public spaces is demonstrably harder for women and people of colour. I am acutely conscious as I write this that I operate in the world as a white cisgender heterosexual subject, with all the privileges this position entails. I cannot speak for the experiences of those without my intersecting privileges; I can listen attentively, educate myself, and act as a strident ally. What I can speak to is inhabiting a female body, and the evidence of misogyny as standard in the patriarchal framework. For example, witness the harassment female Guardian writers recount in this video:

Or what about Gamergate - the rampant misogynist attacks on game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and feminist video-game scholar Anita Sarkeesian? I do not want to be doxxed, stalked, threatened with rape or murder, or subject to torrents of abuse simply for doing my professional business of medievalism online. How do we address that as academics? As people? How do we protect ourselves? But also push back against such vileness too? These topics were apparently pretty much taboo in #s406.

            One of the principal aims of the session, presumably, was to encourage academics to foray outside of traditional institutional spaces, i.e. for members of the audience to be inspired to identify in some way with the speakers and move to emulate their public engagement. Yet, #s406 was a #manel – and an all-white #manel, at that. The vast majority of the audience were not represented by those at the speakers’ table and could not smuggle any budgies, i.e. were non-white and/or non-male. Granted, there was a female moderator, Sanne Frequin, and a female academic, Alice Johnston, had been slated to speak, but had to withdraw at the last minute. So it was not designed to be an all-white-male affair, but voila, that’s what we got. Speaking first, Gabriele started the shebang off well, noting his experiences online/in public were inevitably shaped by his intersecting privileges as a Caucasian cisgender heterosexual man. I was impressed, anticipating more dissection of practical approaches to challenges faced by academics of different identities, perhaps in the Q&A. Alas, this was not to be the case.

            An audience member, Rachel Moss, asked the million dollar question. To paraphrase: how do we do “public medievalism” successfully – and safely – if we don’t look like the speakers? Ross was seemingly ignored; the question went unanswered. A short while later, the question was asked again by Courtney Barajas:

The moderator, Frequin, shut the question down, commenting that the purpose of the session was not to “harass” the presenters. This was unfortunate and deeply frustrating. I don’t think the questions posed were harassing or argumentative at all, though the issue is difficult certainly. I can’t definitively speak for the audience as a whole, but for what it’s worth, I do not believe that we expected any “perfect” answers, nor any kind of apology by the presenters themselves for the iniquities of privilege, representation and public response. I think, mainly, we wanted an acknowledgement of this patently obvious issue, and some discussion as to what to do about it. I certainly did. Some of us expressed our frustration on Twitter:

            Audience members, myself included, had been live-tweeting the session, and our tweeting ramped up in response to the session’s swerve around the representation question. From shortly after 7 pm, #s406 was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK:

This surge in hashtag usage represents one of the wins of the session overall for me: passionate and informed analysis of the very real challenges of public engagement for some; the sharing of perspectives and personal responses; the coalescing of a supportive community. Through interaction with #medievaltwitter online – both those in the room with me, and those geographically dislocated – I felt seen and heard. In response to a lack of models with which I could identify and the panel’s frustrating silence, I found a whole host of online companions who just, well, got it – and get it on an ongoing basis. To loop back to the session’s topic: it is because of a set of active “public medievalists” that I feel more represented in the academy, that I feel seen, heard and felt as a female academic. This is invaluable work.

Bonus: to sign a pledge promising to actively avoid participating in #manels, click here. My thanks to Dorothy Kim, who tweeted about the pledge.

[Edited on 15/07/15 to fix some typos and nonsensical overuse of "problematic" in one sentence.]

Internet Bibliography #2

This week, I’ve mostly been enjoying the delights of Cardiff at the SFS annual conference. Much coffee, bara brith, and stimulating Frenchy chat. Also, the HEAT, which has felt like a thousand suns’ worth of irritation thrown strategically at our fair isles. The picks below have helped to distract me from melting into a puddle and/or violently calcifying into a pile of caffeine. Enjoy!

 

-          On women, representation and film:

o   The Dissolve team spell out the 50 most daring movie roles for women since Ripley of Alien fame. I’m vaguely annoyed that the need to have such a list exists – can’t women just have interesting movie roles as standard now, please? In any case, I like the bite-size chunks of comments that anchor each entry, and there’s not an entry that made me choke on my toast or anything. Feels a bit like the beginning sketches of a decent film/gender syllabus…

"Chola" by Koala MeatPie. Via  Flickr .

"Chola" by Koala MeatPie. Via Flickr.

-          On appropriation:

o   Obviously, I have binge watched Orange is the New Black’s season 3. If you haven’t seen it, hold all your calls and go and watch it now. NOW. This season, I’ve been particularly enamoured of Flaca and Maritza’s killer eyeliner. At some point, somebody mentioned “chola style”, and I had to look it up. “Chola” refers to a highly specific Mexican-American form of female representation, of which one part may be the kind of eyeliner Flaca and Maritza rock. So, I’ve been thinking about issues of appropriation in this context, particularly after reading Barbara Calderón-Douglass’s recent piece for Vice, The Folk Feminist Struggle Behind the Chola Fashion Trend; Phillip Picardi’s comments on Givenchy’s autumn 2015 “chola Victorian” runway show; and a personal response to “cholafication” on the Cultural Appropriation on Tumblr site.


-          On history:

o   @AfAmHistFail anonymously chronicles the things tourists say when touring the historic plantation that she works on. Nicole Cliffe’s interview with @AfAmHistFail for The Toast is painfully eye-opening as to how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality, and the necessity of quality history teaching to show the horrors perpetrated in the past that shape everyday experiences for large swathes of the population.

"Le Mundaneum à Mons (Belgique) " by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Via  Flickr .

"Le Mundaneum à Mons (Belgique) " by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Via Flickr.

o   It turns out, Belgium invented the (paper only) internet in 1895 in their facility Mundaneum in Mons. (With this, TinTin and Lambic beer, why don’t the Belgians rule the world?) French-language Nouvel Obs has a fascinating interview with one of Mundaneum’s directors, which unpacks the history of the place and the ovewhelming obsession of its two founders. Plus some great pictures and drawings relating to the place’s history.

 

-          On academic matters:

o   Peter Dayan gave a great plenary lecture at this year’s SFS discussing the role of creativity in modern language studies. He cited persuasively from Stephen Benson and Clare Connors’ (eds.) 2014 volume Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, showing that creative writing is a part and parcel of our working lives. I’ve wishlisted the book myself, and am looking forward to getting my hot little hands on it.

o   Relatedly, UCL has a “Creative Critical Writing” PhD pathway which directly targets the kind of self-consciously innovative academic work that is possible if we accept that we have always been “creatives” all along.

o   Rice University’s Joshua Eyler has written a breath-taking piece, “The Grief of Pain”, which interweaves a meditation on the deeper resonances of his teaching and a reflection on the sorrow of chronic illness, the joy of boundless love for another. I’m really struck by its blend of intellectual and emotional honesty, leaving me inspired and moved. Eyler is a founder member of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages, and edited a brilliant book on medieval disability, published in 2010.

"The Gift of Pain" by wackystuff. Via  Flickr .

"The Gift of Pain" by wackystuff. Via Flickr.

Wanda Sykes & "Detachable Pussy"

At some point in the far too recent past, somebody fairly prominent in the comedy scene cracked a rape joke. I can't remember the name of the comedian, but I do remember that the joke was unfunny and punched - bludgeoned - down. In case you're not familiar with the metaphor, let me summarise. "Punching up" means using comedy as a tool to satirise and thereby deflate those in power, those "above" the comedian. "Punching down" is making those with less power, those most often victimised by the issues at hand, the butt of the joke. So, in a rape joke scenario: rape culture is "up", whilst rape survivors are "down". Like many, I had long hypothesised the impossibility of ever telling a funny rape joke, or at least a rape joke funny to feminists. Then, in a forum discussing the comedian's ill-advised "humour", a commenter posted the Wanda Sykes routine below. Total mic drop moment. The clip, from Sykes' 2006 HBO special "Sick and Tired", skewers rape culture with verve and venom. It blends humour and startlingly on-target social critique with ease, creating a segment which is an educative joy to watch and re-watch. For me, it's arguably the epitome of a rape joke which is 1) funny and 2) "punching up" with vigour.

Internet Bibliography #1

I try to read the entire internet every 48 hours or so. Granted, about fifty per cent of what I mine from the digital repository gets stockpiled in Pocket or one of a kajillion tabs over three devices. What I’m saying is that I get to stuff in my own time, so I’m probably not one to follow if you want second-by-second reportage of breaking news. Hell, that’s why I decided to have an explicit “old news” tag for the blog for when I want to examine stuff that’s been floating around for weeks/months/years in online discourse. Anyway, this is the first in a regular(ish) series of posts chronicling stuff I’ve dug up and enjoyed online in the past week or so. Enjoy, dearest reader(s)!

-          On female bodies and food:

1962 Ad, Sucaryl Sweetener, with Pretty Secretary. Published in Good Housekeeping, October 1962, Vol. 155, No. 4.  From Flickr user   Classic Film  .

1962 Ad, Sucaryl Sweetener, with Pretty Secretary. Published in Good Housekeeping, October 1962, Vol. 155, No. 4. From Flickr user Classic Film.

o   Marcia Aldrich’s article “Weight” for The Butter – a reflection on her own experiences of body policing (externally mandated or otherwise), and the ways in which female weight affects everything. Quote: “Why does the subject of weight compel me? Because it connects me to others. Because it is a dynamic issue, not static, not something you solve once and for all and are done. It’s a process, it’s a lifetime objective. It intersects with other interesting and sometimes contradictory issues, and that’s interesting to me. It isn’t simple, no matter how simplified self-help approaches and diets try to make women and weight seem.”

o   Women Laughing Alone with Salad Tumblr - photographs spotlighting the aching absurdity of dieting / body control for women. Bless him, my feminist husband sent me the link to this: top work.

o   Model and comedian Sarah Hartstone has been photographed with salad, laughing and alone obviously. Her 2014 piece for The Guardian responds to the Tumblr, concisely breaking down why typical stock photographs of women, usually limited to four categories – the dieter, the multi-tasker, the mother, the sex-object – are so problematic.

 

-          On female self-presentation, feminism, and the patriarchy:

o   The inimitable Amy Schumer’s depressingly spot-on (and weirdly danceable)“Girl You Don’t Need Makeup” music video.

o   Alexandra Dal’s “Lady Problems” illustration, linked to from this AskMefi thread,  pictured left.

o   Megan Rosalarian Gedris’ pithy comic “Feminism is having a wardrobe malfunction”. Say it loud and proud with Gedris: Hey girl, have the whole pie.

o   Haley Motek for The Hairpin, asking “What are we doing about our facial hair?” As a woman with pale skin and mahogany hair, I welcome almost any reference to women’s body hair that drops the delicate veil and gets to the point: ladies be having the hair too!

o   Discussion of attitudes towards women shaving (or not) in a 2012 Metafilter thread, anchored around Mayim Bialik’s comments on her own decision not to shave her legs.

o   Sorta thematically linked: Soraya Roberts’ dissection of Alanis Morissette’s early incarnation as a pop princess (WTF!?), before consciously reshaping her identity and releasing (the perfection that is) Jagged Little Pill.

o   The Hairpin’s Sara Black McCulloch interviews Arabelle Sicardi, Buzzfeed beauty editor, on self-care and beauty as a means for women to create their own narratives, and overcome the restrictive banalities of everyday life. Quote “I [Sicardi] do these things because I have to survive, but survival isn’t progression—it’s the standard you need to keep. It’s like treading water, so if I don’t do self-care, then I’m just going to be stuck in my own head and detached from my own body.”

 

-          On history and meaning(s):

1968 Ad, Playtex Tampons, "The First-Day Tampon". Published in Redbook magazine, November 1968, Vol. 132, No. 1. From Flickr user  Classic Film .

1968 Ad, Playtex Tampons, "The First-Day Tampon". Published in Redbook magazine, November 1968, Vol. 132, No. 1. From Flickr user Classic Film.

o   Ashley Fetters’ history of the tampon for The Atlantic: “The commercial tampon as we know it has been shaped and re-shaped by a myriad of invisible forces—like genuine concern for women’s wellness, certainly, but also sexism, panic, feminism, capitalism, and secrecy.”

o   The coffin of Swedish bishop, Peter Winstrup (d. 1679), contains not only his exquisitely (and uncannily) preserved mummified body, but also the remains of a five-month-old foetus. So much going on here, including: 1) the mystery of how the foetus came to be placed there; 2) the agony of the imagined mother’s situation; 3) the very material reality of the Bishop, who is recognisable as a mummy in comparison to contemporary portraits; 4) the co-location of the foetus and the Bishop as a concretisation of the hierarchy tying laity to clergy. I concur with Mefite frumiousb: “I find this an incredibly sad story, because I see a mother who somehow wanted to help her child get to Heaven, and trusted the bishop to intercede on its behalf.”

o   Karinne’s “Clothing the Low Countries” showcases research into dress in the Low Countries in the period 1480-1530.  The glossary in particular is fab.

 

-          On the business of academia:

Call numbers on books (Library of Congress Classification). From Flickr user   CCAC North Library  .

Call numbers on books (Library of Congress Classification). From Flickr user CCAC North Library.

o   L. L. Wynn’s overwhelmingly useful guide to academic publishing from 2009, including encouraging words of wisdom, a breakdown of the whole process, free resources, and sample (successful) prospectuses and cover letters. Posted on Culture Matters, a forum for current and former students and staff in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Australia with lots of good content.

Old News: The Polyvalency of Images and Nicki Minaj's Butt-Glow

The best scholarship, to me, contends head-on with the ambiguous, the potential spectrum of interpretations offered by a single text or image. I remember when I first stumbled across Barthes’ dead author fixation when I was 16 or 17, and it blew my mind. It opened up a world to me where literature and art, and everything really, is continually being re-inscribed with signification. Everybody, in some sense, co-creates that to which they assign meaning – and by so doing the “meaning(ful)” object access its own peculiar afterlife(ives) and even agency. TL;DR: everyone is dead, nothing’s dead, there is no singular truth. Wrestling with this, in various iterations, is basically why I went to grad school I think.

Image from  Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Anyway, in “old news”, a solidly pop-culture image – and the ensuing online debates about it – demonstrates the exasperating and awesome roads this kind of hermeneutics leads us down. In August 2014, Nicki Minaj’s cover art for her song “Anaconda” (see image to the right) caused quite “le scandale”, even “le uproar”, as we say in my cod-French house. Looking at this particular image and debate offers a case study of the productivity of this theoretical attitude that is accessible to students. It also shows the ways in which such an analytical framework, often relegated – by arbiters of intellectual rigour – to “dry academic scholarship” of “worthy” or “high culture” objects, can and should be deployed more broadly.

There’s a lot at play in the commercial image – race, gender, sexuality, celebrity, socio-economic power, and even pleasure. And, at this point, others have almost definitely said it or said it better than I can. Metafilter, a community discussion site, has a great round-up of the strands of analysis, and some nuanced and informed comments from users too. (Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s November 2014 profile of Minaj for GQ makes for some good reading too, and provides context for those less familiar with the rap-star.) My favourite analysis of the image, by a decisively wide mark, is offered by Moze Halperin on Flavorwire, who draws on Lacan in a slip of piece. (Why yes, many moons ago I did fall hard for Lacanian critique of medieval literature. Once the Lacanian, ever the Lacanian, eh?) Halperin contends:

Whether or not Nicki Minaj meant to position her body so that – in keeping with the phallic motif of her upcoming single’s title, “Anaconda” – it resembles a human phallus, it’s hard not to give in to the powerful signifier, and now impossible to not see the pose Minaj strikes while getting her eagle on as deliberately dick-like. Especially from a distance. Inspired by Lacan, feminist critique often boils down to the insidiousness of society’s perception of the female anatomy as a phallic lack, and to that Minaj (perhaps, and I hope) responds, with a hotly intimidating smirk, not just by “taking” the phallus, but by rendering her entire form phallic, somehow all the while flaunting her exaggeratedly female figure.

 

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj"  on WikiHow ; uploaded by Wikivisual. 

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj" on WikiHow; uploaded by Wikivisual. 

Whilst I don't want to rehash the insightful critique already floating around the internet, I have been thinking recently about my personal relationship to Minaj and the image. I like Nicki Minaj. I think some of her tracks are fantastic, mainly those from Roman Reloaded – Super Bass, Starships, Freedom I’m looking at you. I think her aesthetic swagger is provocative and interesting. She is, after all, the reason that the delightful “pelican fly” entered my vocabulary as a descriptor for Very Nice Looking people, items, and ideas. Beyond that, I don’t really have much to comment. Of itself, the image doesn’t make me like her more or less. At first sight, I wasn’t particularly scandalised by it. Sure, I “got” the “wow, lady flesh!” element of much of the professed internet shock, but I was more fascinated by the symmetrical reflection of glowing light off each buttock. Somehow, the gleams read to me – remember I look at a lot of hagiography – as almost halo-like, signifiers of some evanescent internal special-ness. So, butt-glow signifying unattainably polished feminine performance, crossed with a “fuck-you” empowerment transmitted by her unapologetic gaze back at the viewer. “Yeah, I see you – I got you – you will never get this” – a gender-neutral retort for women who can never look like her and inhabit her fierceness, and men who want to penetrate (more or less literally) her persona for their own purposes.

The fact is, my reading of the image is not just utterly biased by my own concerns for gender politics and power dynamics, but also by every piece of criticism about it I read before ever seeing the cover myself. My (analytical) sight was, and is, channelled through the reactions of others. I read about the furore, read pieces deconstructing the furore, and then saw the art. As I said, the image doesn’t really affect my feelings towards Minaj more generally. However, Halperin’s interpretation of the image absolutely does. Halperin opens up a hypothetical Minaj-identity in which the rapper forthrightly and playfully challenges us to consider gender, power, and the processes of visual consumption. I too join Halperin’s cry of “perhaps and I hope”. I’ve never seen the “Anaconda” single as a material object, though Amazon UK suggests it was available to purchase at some point. I wonder if my reaction would have been – or would be – different had I ever encountered the image in tangible form, possessed the CD itself? Could I pin my feminist-Lacanian hopes on Minaj after literally buying into the woman’s commodification, her literal objectification as cover art? Would buying the CD be supporting Minaj’s – or Minaj-Halperin’s –  message of empowerment, or undermining it somehow? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect that the digital and material versions may elicit different reactions – in this instance, and more generally in terms of our responses to objects of interpretation.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) -  Paris, BNF, MS  Français 242, fol. 57r.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) - Paris, BNF, MS  Français 242, fol. 57r.

Looking at the Minaj image, and reading the various positions viewers adopt towards it, I’m reminded strongly of a chapter in Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie’s 2010 book, Sanctity and Pornography. The book disentangles the relationship of modern pornographic image (and narrative) to medieval hagiography, a genre that so often foregrounds tortured bodies with more than a touch of titillation. (For an image-based example, check out St Agatha's "sexy mastectomy" - shudder - that accompanies this post.) If you’re a scholar of hagiography, Burgwinkle and Howie's book is, frankly, a must-read, particularly given its direct engagement with male saints rather than the more usual focus on sexualised female religious. (If you’re interested, read my review of the book for the journal Marginalia here.) In the chapter “Looking at Saints” (pp. 74-109), the authors argue that images of “sexy” martyrdom elicit a shifting viewing perspective: ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence’ (p. 78).  Further, the viewer’s interpretive ‘strategy’ can – and does – ‘change from day to day: sometimes I am with the victim, sometimes with God, sometimes with the torturer; sometimes I can identify with nothing more than the diegetic viewers or the textual space; sometimes I can identify with nothing at all […]’ (p. 83). The Minaj image – loaded with doubly signifying iconography of female empowerment and gendered oppression – invites such muscular flipping of viewer positioning and concomitant interpretation. All interpretations are subjective, dependant on the viewing subject’s biases and inclinations. More than that, though: the viewing subject’s relationship is not monolithic, but shifting and swirling from moment to moment.

At the end of the day, does it matter if Minaj had none of the intentions Halperin assigns to her? Kind of. Maybe. No? This feels like a deeply personal question, as the internal life of the viewing subject unavoidably shapes the signification of the viewed image. I don’t have any desire to “know” Nicki Minaj in the way you might “know” a family member, friend, or spouse. In this, I am indebted to the scholarly work of celebrity studies, which posit that a celebrity functions primarily as an image-icon: a signifier of values/ideology that is tied to a flesh-and-blood person but certainly not identical to that being. The rapper’s “real” name is Onika Tanya Maraj. “Nicki Minaj” is an image conjured by the woman herself, a rap/star persona she has consciously chosen to animate in particular ways. Nevertheless, I like my Nicki Minaj, who may not be the same as your Nicki Minaj. I like what my Nicki represents to me, what I have chosen to assign to her thanks to my “faith” in Halperin’s deciphering of the image. Talking about faith in the context of secular imagery seems discordant. But, I think this is what it comes down to for me: I have analytical “faith” in the potentiality of the image to signify what I would like it to signify very much, that whilst Minaj might not be making any particular statement at all with the image, she might just be saying exactly what I want to hear.

 

Bonus Minaj analysis: read Elizabeth Dickson’s dissection of hypermasculinity in Minaj’s video for “Pound the Alarm” at The Sociological Cinema.

"That Gives Me an Idea": An Explanation, of Sorts

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

About five or six years ago, my dearest friend – let’s call her Sybil – gave me a t-shirt for my birthday. The design on the front is pretty much everything: Jessica Fletcher kindly staring out from the chest, “Medieval, She Wrote” emblazoned flirtatiously beneath her. This blog has had official merch for over half a decade before it even started. Apart from the ready supply of choice merch, why name this blog “Medieval, She Wrote”? I offer, as an explanation of sorts, the reflections below.

Sybil basically couldn’t go wrong with her choice of custom apparel. I’ve been a devotee of Murder, She Wrote as long as I can remember, as long as I’ve had eyes and the capacity to blink. Love is probably too banal a word for my feelings towards Murder, She Wrote’s heroine, Jessica Fletcher, a fifty-something fiercely intelligent mystery writer and globe-trotting detective. I can’t figure out when I imprinted upon Jessica; I have seemingly always been in awe of her. 

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret". London, BL, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r.  From BL online.

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret". London, BL, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r. From BL online.

By comparison, I can pinpoint the moment that medieval literature got me. You see, I started my French and German undergrad degree absolutely sure I was going to do super-modern stuff. I wanted to pull apart texts that let me look at big abstract questions: gender, power, relationships, civilisation, and on and on. It was a leaden grey day, with students huddled miserably in the middle of an overly large lecture room, fitted out with a pointless chalk board and un-openable windows. We were there for an intro to French lit course, and this was the week for which decrepit medieval narrative would be wheeled out as a kind of courtesy. Yeah, no. The snappily dressed lecturer took those fifty minutes on Marie de France - covering the construction of gender, the meaning of the supernatural, the problems of authorship – and Blew My Mind. After that, I basically stalked medieval literature through all further higher education.

Despite my adoration of both Mrs Fletcher and medieval lit, the two have tended to occupy very different places in my head. Which is perhaps not entirely surprising. Medieval lit is for hardcore intellectual labour, for challenging traditional paradigms and my own biases. It is for footnotes and out-of-print editions and the glory of ironing out how something really difficult theoretically works in a text. Ultimately, medieval lit offers a bone-deep satisfaction, but is not always an immediately pleasant undertaking. Murder, She Wrote offers uncomplicated, easy soothing. It might be a generational thing, I think. The show always used to occupy the after lunch slot on BBC1, following the soaps Neighbours and Doctors. It was reliably there, Monday to Friday, offering an oasis outside of earthly concerns. It did not hurt that Jessica Fletcher looked vaguely like my Grandma, a resemblance made more striking by the Murder, She Wrote producers’ dedication to filming everything in fuzzy soft-focus and my squinting at the screen a bit. Jessica would always solve the murder and the murderer would always confess, avoiding any disturbingly grey concerns about criminality, innocence, and guilt. She had loved a man very deeply once, but he died and she carried on. She built a new independent life for herself, supporting herself as a best-selling author, and living a life filled with joy and human connection, even though she was childless. In these ways, Mrs Fletcher always represented to me the potential of pop culture to represent various social and ideological stances, to shape who the viewers are and also to challenge their assumptions of who they can be. I’ve realised that referring to Murder, She Wrote operates often as a kind of personal shorthand, as I intend to point less to the specificities of the show itself but instead to its theoretical functioning and potential effects, i.e. to products of pop culture more generally. At stake, I think, in the separate warehousing of Murder, She Wrote (as pop culture) and academic medievalism is a division between the personal and the professional.  Underlying this split was the assumption that pop culture is not sufficiently worthy a topic of intellectual investigation: it can’t be professional, so it has to be personal.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of  Murder, She Wrote  and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of Murder, She Wrote and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Despite my conscious reluctance to conjoin Murder, She Wrote with my medievalism, the two have always been yoked together in some subtle form or another. Sybil’s magnificent t-shirt materialised that reality. “That gives me an idea!” is Jessica Fletcher’s oft-repeated catchphrase. After letting the particularities of a situation marinate for a while, hunting down new clues and avenues of investigation, a bolt of inspiration hits her. This “idea” will usually lead to the murderer’s disclosure: it reorients the game, and lets Jessica underscore her position as the sleuthing queen of Cabot Cove, Maine. And so, Sybil’s t-shirt “gave me an idea”. Granted, it’s taken years to percolate through my system and lead to this blog, but there it is. I don’t think I’m destined for a life lived in episodic TV tranches of forty-five minutes to resolution. For me, Murder, She Wrote is a staunchly feminist show, offering a fairy tale tailored almost exactly to my personal and professional dreams: a woman becomes independently successful (socially and financially) thanks to her intelligence, kindness, hard work, and writing skills. Apart from the functional similarities of Jessica’s life and that of a successful academic, Mrs Fletcher and Dr Academic both decode – almost obsessively – the hidden or ambiguous signification that underpins the world around them.

Let’s move away from Jessica Fletcher for a moment or two. One of the common complaints about plying one’s trade as an academic researcher is the demolition of boundaries between work-time and “off-the-clock” living. There are certainly economic and industry-specific structural reasons for this. Young researchers must often pick up extra work on the side – adjuncting, tutoring, barista-ing – to get by. This doesn’t always leave you the luxury of having much coherent leisure-time to speak of, as you’re always juggling the balls of pursuing research passions vs. paying the rent vs. carving out time for family and friends. Often – in the Arts and Humanities at least – you aren’t afforded institutional workspace, and thus no office to quarantine work concerns in. When you work from home, at a desk shoved in the corner of your living room, you don’t really – or, rather, automatically – get a sense of a demarcation between your professional self and who you are apart from that. The difficulties of research-life that are directly exacerbated by entrenched institutional – and arguably social - issues, are being exposed and challenged by a wide swathe of scholars these days. Look at, for instance, National Adjunct Walkout day in the US on 25 February 2015. (On the reasons for the strike, check out, in particular, pieces by Sarah Kendzior and Cameron Conaway). On the micro-level: chatting, bitching, and commiserating with colleagues is often pretty eye-opening. Such problems are not what I really want to talk about right now, and currently seem somehow “above my (knowledge) paygrade”, if you’ll permit the obvious metaphor. I hope to learn more, do more, about this in future.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet.  Via Flickr.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet. Via Flickr.

In research, there are no punch-cards, or shift changes, or slick-haired managers yelling at me from the next cubicle over to Get Things Done. I am enormously thankful that these things are absent from my working life: in their place, I have autonomy and a sense of intellectual and logistical freedom that are, frankly, fucking amazing. Nevertheless, at worst, the research day is marked by an unrelenting feeling of oily guilt that you haven’t done enough, read enough, been intellectual enough. Research, so often, is the glory of being left to your own devices, analytically and otherwise. And that means developing the self-discipline and motivation to do the damn research. Self-discipline is a skill so necessary to research that, I think, it can mutate into a bulging brute-like sensation of “never enough-ness”. Oh, if I only had the self-discipline to eschew seeing my friends and work through the night, I could get this paper finished! I could get that post-doc! Look, every other scholar I know seems to be doing it, I’m lagging behind if I don’t too! Hypothetical peers and working practices out from the shadow of The Man seem to be perniciously useful as a means of self-flagellation.

A complement to “never enough-ness”, I’ve found, is “everything everywhere-ness”. In some ways, I think this is the glory of research: you find something that interests you, obsesses you, something that’s important and ZOMG cool and intellectually rich.  It invades your brain, as it must do really in order to do decent high-quality research. But your brain isn’t walled-off from the rest of your life, and the project infiltrates pretty much everything you do or think about. Basically, your research interest comes with a whole side-dish of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for free. My PhD thesis, broadly speaking, is about saints, divine visions, and film spectatorship. Let me tell you, pretty much anything I read or watched “in my spare time” (ha!) suddenly, dazzlingly connected to lady saints and eye-beams from God and we are all screens and and and and…Indeed, I once woke my husband up in the middle of the night, after trying to unwind from a heavy writing day with an episode of the ‘90s crop-top fest witch show Charmed, to proclaim: “No, but you see, we are ALL PIXELS. ACROSS TIME.” He insists, to this day, that I uttered this solemnly, even reverently. I could not decipher the scribbled note I made on the back of a take-away menu that explained my intellectual breakthrough, alas. But I think my point still stands. Probably.

Anyway, the point is that what you’re working on tends to seep ineluctably into every nook and cranny of your life. Methodology – or more plainly, how you approach your work – also seems to slide into everything else. This is a chicken-or-egg thing: am I super-analytical, and am thus drawn to a profession of textual/social/cultural analysis? Or does the fact that I spend all my working life teasing out significations of textual and other artefacts mean I, almost on auto-pilot, do this “at home” too? Either way, this can be hellaciously annoying. I would like to be able to turn my research-brain off sometimes. That way I could enjoy reading “proper” literary fiction without feeling like I’m teaching myself an A-level English Lit course in my head, breaking down sodding motifs and allegorical flourishes. And yet. This state of affairs can also be breathtakingly enjoyable. I hoover up content, letting the delicious connections between everything roll around my brain. Growing up, my mother and I primarily did three things: watched films and TV, went for coffee, and talked about films and TV over coffee. Analytical work – so often paired with that academic ambrosia, strong coffee – is deeply rooted within my pleasure and comfort centres.

Murder, She Wrote  artwork by Robert Ball.  Via Flickr .

Murder, She Wrote artwork by Robert Ball. Via Flickr.

How does this all relate to “Medieval, She Wrote”? Well, this blog is conceived of as a space for me to sketch out the little shards of ideas that lodge in my brain, when the “everything everywhere-ness” bites. I say “space” consciously here, with a droll over-emphasis, as this locational element of blogging feels important. “Medieval, She Wrote” constitutes a space that I have consciously carved out for myself in order to (try to) balance the demands of “everything everywhere-ness” and “never enough-ness”. Blogging feels like a form of supportive space-claiming and community-building, even if that space is only digital and that community is formed of one. Equally, it is an experiment of sorts. Instead of seeing the blurring of professional/personal in academic life as negative, what if it is posited as productive? What if we allow the random “non-academic” analytical findings we generate every day to mean something? And what if we let such findings directly inform our “proper” work? In this way, the blog also exists to push back against the endless waves of the “never enough-ness” gremlins. “Personal” intellectual activity – i.e. work outside research projects, publication plans, and so forth – can be viewed as taking away from our professional life. Yet, such thinking has intrinsic worth, whether or not it makes it into an academic monograph. It has worth, even if that is solely because it is pleasurable.  

I hope to post to “Medieval, She Wrote” with some regularity, though I’ve not yet established a specific schedule. I’m enjoying letting my writing follow my caprices, to be honest. I anticipate posting both longer and shorter pieces, in various stages of “finishedness”, about stuff that strikes me as interesting, important, or just worthy of comment. Posts may be less about what I think than the process of figuring out what I think. In any case, I hope you, dear reader, enjoy whatever unspools from this first post. As a token offering to those who have waded through this long explainer, may I present to you an excerpt from Jessica Fletcher's...no, scratch that...Angela Lansbury’s 1988 health and fitness VHS, “Positive Moves”, below. Your mornings will never be the same. You’re welcome!