"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!