ENOUGH

Dearest Friends,

In the 48 hours since we’ve all learned that an overgrown oompa-loompa with fascistic tendencies has been elected the next president of these United States, you have posted (and I have read) a seemingly endless litany of think-pieces. These screeds argue, with various degrees of coherence, that this election is the death blow to the Democratic Party and neoliberalism, the inevitable product of elite greed, populist anger, and a generally condescending attitude towards the American working class.

Friends, like you, I am crushed by this election. The next four years will take a generation to undo, if they can be undone at all. So please, I say this in the gentlest way I can:

You are full of shit.

No, it’s not that, eight years ago, I was reading similar pieces from similar sources exulting in the demise of the party now poised to control all three branches of government, at the federal, state, and local levels, for the foreseeable future. And it’s not that I disagree with the basic point you’re putting forward, that neoliberalism is a cancer in the heart of our great society.

But listen, you who have eaten of her fruits and drunk of her wine: your dissatisfaction with the politics of the major party closest to your beliefs is not the cause behind this disaster. Donald Trump is the president-elect for one straightforward reason, because he exploited the deeply-seated xenophobic racism and the misogyny of the American voter.

Barack Obama, certainly a neoliberal politician, is wildly popular. Bernie Sanders, despite his opposition to neoliberalism, lost. And The Donald does not offer a rejection of the status quo, neoliberal or otherwise. He is not a revolutionary, and his policies are unique only in the overall incoherence in their assembly, not their particular content. And before you tell me that his supporters don’t know anything about his platform, they just think the lies he spews into the camera sound good, remember those accusations of condescension you’ve already leveled, and that hypocrisy is a rather ugly look.

But greater than the fact that the pudgy-fingered orangutan who will be my president rests on a platform which is more of an affirmation than a rejection of that which you despise—far greater—is what his supporters had to ignore, to excuse, when they chose to vote for him.

They didn’t just ignore that he is a man who has made a living skinning and eating them. They also ignored that he thinks it acceptable to grab a woman by her pussy. That he thinks most immigrants were criminals and rapists. That he will shortly be in court for the rape of a minor. That his most vocal supporters include the Klan. That many women have come forward to accuse him of sexual assault.

You think you’re devastated by Trump’s election. Imagine how one of the women he assaulted feels.

The racism and the misogyny of the American electorate permitted it to overlook Trump’s racism and misogyny. It allowed Republican leaders and the Republican establishment to lend wary support, or at least the space to not oppose him openly. If Trump had run on the exact same platform but opposed gun ownership, would he have even made it on the ballot in the primary?  Of course not.

Americans love guns more than they respect women.

And when you—yes, YOU—blame this defeat on Hilary Clinton, on her policies, her scandals, on her very soul, you do not simply ignore the forces that brought us to this juncture. You excuse them, you legitimate them, you say that they do not exist, that the rest of us jump at bogeymen.

Pay attention. The bogeymen are real.

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

L. Grig.

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Racing Across the Great Divide

(Footnotes have been removed until a later date)

“We deem black Ethiopians to be repulsive,” Jacques de Vitry declared in his Historia orientalis. Jacques’ opinion of the Ætheops niger fits neatly, if uncomfortably, within the historical narrative of the development of race. Written over a century after the First Crusade inaugurated western Europe’s renewed conflict with its Other on fronts foreign and domestic and more than two centuries before the discovery of the Americas, Jacques’ image of the repulsive, black Ethiopian forms one of the many storm clouds on the horizon, a harbinger and forerunner of things to come. Jacques’ construction suggests that dark skin color carried negative connotations, while the geographic or cultural delineation implies an ethnographic, rather than essentialized and biological—i.e. a racialized—subject. The phrase thus represents a transitional phase where western society moved from the unracialized innocence of antiquity towards the scientific racism that constitutes the defining feature of modernity. But in accepting Jacques’ place in this genealogy of race, we ignore the strangeness of his prose to the modern ear: why would he specify a black Ethiopian? When we specify a racial category in contemporary English, we only do so because that person is not what we would otherwise expect them to be. We say “a black man” to differentiate from a normal man; if a man is white, Toni Morrison reminds us, “we know he is because nobody says so.”And aren’t all Ethiopians black?

To some, pointing out this incongruity may seem anachronistic. We have little reason to expect thirteenth-century Latin to follow the same rules as modern English. Yet it is precisely this sort of anachronism that pervades scholarship devoted to tracing the origins of the idea of race, scholarship that has used modern racial categorizations to interpret premodern texts and images. Jacques’ black Ethiopian is one example of this tendency; a bas-relief of a man, believed to be black simply because he has tightly-curled hair, is another. In other words, art historians and literary scholars attempting to study race have simply sought modern black figures—that is, figures we would now consider to be black—in premodern sources. But, as Jeffery Cohen puts it, “Skin color is never a mere fact.”
It is a somatic, juridic, class-based, or even a climatological construction, socially dependent and culturally expressed. We have no stable ground on which to assert that the image of the Æthiops niger that springs to our minds looks at all like the one imagined by Jacques. In short, much of our current understanding of the development of race is the product of the imposition of modern racialization on the historical past, rather than a contextualized understanding of the world behind our sources. We do not know if Jacques was attempting to make a particular distinction by emphasizing a black Ethiopian. We have not even thought to ask the question.

The utilization of contemporary racial categories to examine premodern sources has had a profound effect on our understanding of the medieval past. When our search for medieval exemplars that are recognizably racialized turns up few examples, or when the examples we do find are not precisely what is expected, this constitutes evidence for the race’s absence from the medieval imaginary. Medievals, we are told, thought in terms of ethnicity, not race. At the same time, the identification of racialized figures tacitly asserts the absence of nonwhite people from medieval history. We assume that the failure to mention racial features in medieval texts means the same thing it does today, that whiteness was normative. Nonwhite persons are thus relegated to the margins of our narrative as the Other—villains, invaders, foreigners, individuals whose presence requires explanation. This academic enshrinement of a raceless—which is to say white—past “allows Euro-centric cultures to relegate modern blacks to a strictly modern status in which their history appears without the authorizing length and depth available to whites.” A black knight at a Renaissance fair is thought odd and out of place only if they have black skin, and leading roles in contemporary film and television require historically-appropriate—white—actors.

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The Sound of Her Bells

It’s been a while.

DSC_0447

St-Martin à Laon

I’m sitting in a little room in Laon, in France, right now.

Laon is at the top of a plateau, gently curved, that rises, sharply, from the surrounding plane. At one end, by me, is the church of St-Martin.

The cathedral of Laon sits at the other. I can see it from my window, rising over my little garden.

This morning—every morning—I awake to the sound of bells tolling the hour. St-Martin rings first, and the cathedral bells follow.

As I make coffee, turn an omelette into scrambled eggs, browse the news, the bells ring out for Sunday mass.

The bells do not tell time. They freeze it. They claim space and declare it their own.

 

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Periodization and Its Discontents

enhanced-buzz-32092-1348816008-10To begin: Feudalism is a fiction, the creation of an ahistorical imagination attempting to grapple with contemporary concerns. And its origin lies with the origin of another fiction – the idea that there was a “medieval period”.

 

 

The most universal of the “regulative fictions” which historians employ to make some order out of a chaotic past is “periodization,” by which we cut the continuous thread of time into manageable lengths, and then do our best to present such divisions as natural rather than contrived. (Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, 16)

Let me repeat for emphasis: all periodizations are fictions. They are anachronistic creations imposed on the past. Novick, as I understand the quote above, would have us believe that they are simply necessary contrivances which historians create, and which they do not really believe. Novick is an eminent historian; his formulation is probably how most, even most historians, tend to assume periodization works.

They are wrong. Periodizations are not our servants but our masters, and the creation and utilization of periodization is necessarily a political act. In her very difficult but brilliant book Periodization and Sovereignty, Kathleen Davis has recently shown that the idea of a “medieval” age opposed to the “modern”(1) is a product of English juristic disputes over the location and possession of sovereignty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, responding to the problems created by the English Civil War and the decapitation of Charles I. The primary method by which these jurists distinguished between themselves and the past, i.e. between royal and parliamentary authority, was to reify the idea of “feudalism”. But what they (and four hundred years of subsequent scholarship) referred to as “feudalism” is derived from a collection of texts called the Libri feudorum (Books of Fiefs), a private, “eclectic collection of treatises, statutes, and northern Italian legislation regarding fiefs… accumulated in various recensions throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.”(2) Thus, the Libri feudorum did not describe a general system, or even a specific one. But the jurists found the Libri to be useful, as it allowed them to separate authoritarian monarchy as an arbitrary, feudal, “medieval” form of government, as opposed to the parliamentary, pluralistic, “modern” one.

The reification of feudalism and the creation of the medieval in the seventeenth century is not simply a distortion of our view of the past; it created a meme that is deeply embedded in our culture, one which has been put to rather nefarious purposes. As Timothy Mitchell discusses in Rule of Experts,(3) when the British took control of Egypt in 1882, they determined that “under the laws of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Cairo since 1517, all land was considered property of the state.”(4) Such a system was (to the report’s authors) not based in an abstract body of law, but in the personal, tyrannical will of an absolute ruler, and thus patently inimical to the conception of private property, which was seen as the cornerstone of (European) civilization. The ‘modern’ European conception of property directly opposed individual and arbitrary—that is to say ‘medieval’—coercive power, of which the state ownership of land was one facet. Consequently, the imposition of “law based on private rights represented a rupture with the previous world of arbitrary and despotic power.”(5) The British report advanced the argument that the Ottoman Empire’s failure to evolve systems of private property ownership was a clear sign of the backwardness of the Muslim East and a clear indicator of the benefits offered by colonial rule. As Mitchell puts it, to the colonizers, “Law could claim to be universal, and thus nonarbitrary, only by appearing as the expression of civilization.”(6) The expression of modern, western, European civilization, of course—what other sort was there? So the artificial and political creation of the periodization “medieval” and its memetic bond to feudalism was also used for political ends.

But let’s come back to how the creation of “medieval” has distorted our view of the past. To list every consequence would far exceed the word limit here, but let’s look at an easy one: if the medieval ended with modernity, it must have begun. But where? The historiographic discussion over the origins of “medieval Europe” is generally known as “the debate over the year 1000.”

As with so many themes within recent works on medieval topics, the interest in the centrality of the year 1000 originated in the work of Marc Bloch. Bloch and his influence is worth several threads of their own, but the work in question here is his two volume Feudal Society, where he placed the two centuries on either side of the turn of the millennium as pivotal to European history. Ignoring the four centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, Bloch begins Feudal Society by describing the “barbarian” invasions of the ninth century (Norsemen, Saracens, Magyars). But Bloch argued that thisage of invasions was not simply the destruction of the old. It was also was the driving force behind something new, a political revolution that created what he called the first feudal age. Carolingian power, such as it was, fragmented as local populations sought protection from nearby strongmen. These local potentates derived their authority from their strength and wielded it through the monopolistic exercise of violence, dominating the peasants-turned-serfs they were in theory supposed to defend. Bloch, following the example of his predecessors, termed this relationship ‘feudal’.

The onslaught of invasions tapered off in the first decades of the second millennium for a variety of reasons. This marked the beginning of Bloch’s second feudal age, which persisted until approximately 1250. Unlike the first age, this age was not one of sudden and radical transformation, but one of adaptation and evolution. The peasantry and clergy began to seek protection from the arbitrary brutality imposed upon them by raiding parties of local knights and petty lords, first through peace-oaths and then through legal codification and the slow development of the first apparatuses of governmental power. Through shrewd political maneuvering, such power gradually accumulated in the hands of a few, and by the end of the period, the rough outline of the modern state had begun to take form. Bloch’s analysis thus placed the formation of a feudal structure, spurred by outside invasion, as the first step towards European modernity.

Bloch had done his best to present the divisions and structures created by those seventeenth century jurists as “natural rather than contrived.”

Bloch spurred a debate which went back and forth, and I can give you further reading if you wish: the most important names are Duby, Bisson, Geary. Scholars, of course, realized that the model of feudalism expressed by Bloch and then Duby, which by the 1970s was “established and authoritative” for all of Europe within both French and Anglo-American scholarship, had some problems: “the model didn’t work all that well for England where state power was strong from the Anglo-Saxon era through the Plantagenets,” “it did not really apply to Germany where lordship was seen in terms of… the advent of Grundherrshaft in tandem with political rights,” and it “was modified for Italy.”(7) Elizabeth Brown had long since argued that feudalism did not map onto any historical reality, that historians used it much too freely in order to gloss over rather than confront structural questions, and moreover that everyone was aware of these failings and persisted in using the term anyway. Brown’s insightful article had the immediate and long-lasting effects one might expect from such a powerful disciplinary critique; although medieval historians now use “feudalism” no less frequently than before, they almost always place the word within quotation marks.(8)

Although his reconstruction of the past is no longer held to be true, Bloch’s basic periodization had stuck. The “medieval” period proper, defined by the origins of “feudalism,” itself an idea created in the seventeenth century so that contemporaries could define themselves as “modern,” began around 1000, and ended around 1500. What we call “early” medieval, from ca. 500 to 1000, is ignored entirely by Bloch, and later by Bisson. It is made into a long preamble by Duby. This idea of 500–1000 as the origins of the origins of modernity is also a powerful meme in scholarship, giving us book titles like The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. Such distinctions have long been adopted in other fields, and since they do not (so they think) affect them directly, they haven’t bothered to confront the problems posed herein.

So, in the end, we see that feudalism is a lie, but it’s a lie we don’t seem to be able to keep ourselves from telling. It is a lie we tell to make ourselves seem better, and it is a lie we tell to make others seem worse.

(1) The term dates from the fourteenth century, but although it is used as a pejorative, it does not refer to a time in which the user is not living, i.e. a medieval past vs. a modern present.

(2) Davis, Periodization, 27.

(3) This is one of the best books I have ever read. Tolle, lege.

(4) Mitchell, Rule, 55.

(5) Ibid., 56.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Paul Freedman, “Peasants, the Seigneurial Regime, and Serfdom in the Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries,” inEuropean Transformations: the Long Twelfth Century,Thomas F.X. Noble and John van Engen, eds. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 264–265.

(8) Elizabeth Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” in The American Historical Review 79:4 (1974), 1063–1088. More recently, Susan Reynolds has written extensively on the problems posed by feudalism, most notably in Feifs and Vassals: Medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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The Bike Shed of History

I was once told a story about Richard Feynman. He had just won his Nobel Prize for his solution to Quantum Electrodynamics, and was seated next to some potentate or other at the awards dinner.

He introduced himself.

“Oh,” she said, “you’re one of the winners. In what field?”

“In physics.”

“Oh well, nobody knows anything about that, so we can’t talk about it.”

“On the contrary!” Feynman replied, “It’s because some people do know something about it that we can’t talk. It’s only the things nobody knows anything about that we can discuss.

So, weather? Social problems? Psychology? International finance?”

To this list, I add: History.

(Pseudo-)Feynman was describing “bikeshedding,” also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. When confronted with a problem beyond their perceived abilities, people tend to focus on the smaller, trivial issues they think they can grasp and solve.

We call it bikeshedding because “Parkinson observed that a committee which was to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively trivial but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the non-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself.”

It will not come as a surprise to anyone in academia when I say that the Humanities and much of the Social Sciences have a bikeshedding problem. Not in the sense that those of us in these disciplines engage in it—though we do—but rather that our disciplines are seen as bike sheds.

History seems simple. After all, it’s just the story of what happened in the past, right? And with the web, putting that story together has never been easier! All the information, right at your fingertips. Why bother with someone else’s interpretation? That looks sort of like a bike shed, and I know how to build a bike shed!

There has been much talk of in recent years regarding the relevance of many academic disciplines. Any answer to such questions must be grounded in an education in the complexities involved in those disciplines. The questions they ask take training to solve. It is just as difficult to write a good history as it is to put a rocket into space. And it happens about as often.

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Truth: A Manifesto

Zero: Objective Truth Exists

One: Objective Truth is Unknowable

A properly-executed empirical epistemology cannot make absolute positive assertions about Truth. Any non-empirical epistemology must be grounded in a priori assertions and does not therefore offer a self-contained system for defining Truth.

Note: Criticisms of empiricism based on human physiology are to be disregarded on Pragmatic grounds as being fundamentally unsolvable.

Two: Each Individual Knows Relative Truths

Each individual is the unique product of their experiences and therefore possesses a relativistic understanding of truth(s).

Three: Truth and Reality are not Coequal

Things which are not real or that have never happened can still be true. This is why we write and read fiction.

Four: Contradictory Relative Truths do not Negate Each Other

That something is relativistically true for one person does not prevent its inverse from being relativistically true for another person.

Five: No Relative Truth is More True Than Any Other

There is no method by which relative truths might be compared, and therefore one cannot be considered more true than another.

Note: The equality of relative truths does not prevent one being given precedence over another for any of a variety of reasons. It simply means that there is no objective justification for doing so.

Six: The Totality of Relative Truths Approximates Objective Truth

That is, relative truths are facets of objective Truth.

Thus: By incorporating relative truths into our understanding, we come to a better understanding of objective Truth. This understanding will remain perpetually imperfect, but every time we show it to be so, we improve it.

And so we come to wisdom.

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Just Deserts

Perhaps it’s the unavoidable baggage of a capitalist society, but we, culturally, like to talk a lot about what’s owed to us and what’s not owed to others. Mostly the latter, really.

Lots of words to do with owing have taken on something of a negative valence in recent years. We like to use these to describe things Others feel the should have. Take, for example, “entitlement.”

An entitlement is, generally, a thing people whom the speaker doesn’t like think they have a right to.

A right, by the way, is a thing I think I, or people I like, am owed a priori.

The social safety net—medicare, food stamps, low-income housing–for the poor is an “entitlement”. Even Social Security is an “entitlement,” as if you didn’t pay for it with 50 years of paychecks. The right wing in this country has long known how best to frame an argument.

It’s a new word. A racialized Word. And a weaponized Word. No one used it before 1940. After 1970, everybody started using it.

Do you think it’s an accident that this younger generation, the one at cultural odds with its parents, accidentally picked up the title of “entitled”?

So, most of the time, this language of “owing” is clear. I have a right to marry the person I love, i.e. morally, I am owed the same legal benefits as any other person who enters this subsection of the social contract.

Other times, it’s not so clear. At least, not so clear to me.

What does it mean, for example, that Israel has a “right to exist”? It has the ability to exist, and it has the ability to perpetuate its existence if it so chooses, but is that a “right”? Is Israel somehow “owed” existence? Or is any other nation-state? Does Iran also have a right to exist? Do these United States? Do I?

To me, such questions, and therefore such assertions, make little sense. I exist. I will, so long as it is within my power, defend my existence through such means as I see fit. Israel—and Iran—will do the same.

But that’s hardly the same thing as a right.

Closer to home, on the more concrete level: I was recently told in a conversation that “everyone deserves a safe space.”

This, too, is a puzzling. Is this person asserting the universal right to a careworn blanket and a cup of hot tea?** And how does one assert that right? What is the acceptable way to procure it if denied, to maintain it if threatened?

I want a safe space—more than one, if I can get it. But am I owed one?

**Individual safe spaces may vary. Offer not valid after your civilization has completed the Manhattan Project. Known to cause cancer in the state of California.

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