Monday, January 31, 2011

Creative Anachronism

Ron Patterson, the man jointly responsible for creating the first Renaissance Fair(e), died a few weeks ago. From a small backyard event, the idea grew into a multi-billion dollar industry, demonstrating the appeal of tights, doublets, ruffs, chain mail, and jousting for millions of Americans.

Haven't been to a Renaissance Fair? Then you're probably in the minority--there are hundreds of them held throughout the country every year. A pal of mine, Ethan Gilsdorf, wrote an excellent book about neo-medievalism (LARPing, Ren Faires, the CSA, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, and the Tolkien films) that makes the point that these activities are the mainstream. My guess is that Renaissance Fairs are one of the most easily accessible of this kind of entertainment/hobby for most people, as they're ubiquitous, fun, and family-friendly (I insisted that my mother take me to the Maryland Renaissance Festival when I was a teenager).

Can't get to a Ren Faire anytime soon? You could always go to Medieval Times, although that could easily go awry:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Social Network Anxiety, or We Are All Courtiers

It's Oscar season!

Both Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together, and "The Social Network" seem to have the same humanist viewpoint and message: social networking sites and the machines that we use to "keep in touch" are tools that we use to fake intimacy, treat each other like objects, and obsess over our self-presentation.

In "The Social Network," we meet Mark as he is utterly failing to have any kind of face-to-face human connection with his girlfriend, Erica.

His response to her break-up, and her assertion that he's an asshole, is to take the intimate details he knows about her and share them with his blog readers. His readers form a community who provide Mark with a way for faux-intimacy--by sharing intimate details and personal thoughts. At the same time, Mark builds a program that allows men to treat women like objects (or farm animals) and laugh.

And then at the end, Mark, the billionaire who could buy Mt. Auburn Street and turn the Phoenix into his billiard room, is friendless and alone, engrossed in his creation--the site where we can all be friends.

Turkle and others have pointed out that sites like Facebook are ways that people develop and present their personae. The teenagers that Turkle talks to about these sites are completely aware that they're presenting themselves as characters; that is, they don't mistake their on-line profiles for their truest or most vulnerable selves. But Turkle's point, and Aaron Sorkin's and David Fincher's, I think, is that true intimacy and human connection happens when we interact with people with whom we can be a person, not a persona. Mark and Eduardo's obsession with final clubs is a way to get elite status and be "cool," a way to take on a different persona, in the hopes that it will transform their personalities. At the end, Mark, told by Erica that his nerd persona is overshadowed by his asshole essence, gets told by another pretty lady that his assholism is just his persona--he's just trying too hard to be a jerk.

Perhaps Turkle's and Sorkin/Fincher's viewpoints are humanist in the historical sense, too, arguing that the social network is a kind of semi-public, courtly sphere in which we carefully curate our selves. Sprezzatura and Renaissance self-fashioning, welcome back!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kells Bells!

I recently watched "The Secret of Kells" . It's an animated feature about the Book of Kells, a late-eighth century illuminated Gospel book and one of the most widely-known medieval manuscript books in the world. At Kells, in Ireland, Young Brendan, nephew of Abbot Cellach, is supposed to be helping his uncle build the fortifications around their monastery/town, but he'd rather contemplate the wonders of the scriptorium and run errands for Brother Aidan, a master illuminator.

Brother Aidan is a refugee from the Vikings, who attacked his monastery on Iona and killed everyone who couldn't escape. Abbot Cellach knows the Northmen will be coming to Ireland next, and he is fiercely determined to build a wall around his monastery that will keep out the marauders. Cellach is a pragmatist and a planner, and he hopes to shepherd his flock to safety in the face of the invasions. Aidan, a survivor, knows that nothing can keep the Vikings at bay, and instead focuses on his work--illuminating the Gospel--as a way to create something enduring that will bring light and hope to others. Brendan, a budding illuminator, gladly helps Aidan, and defies his uncle and abbot by going outside of the walls to find materials to make ink.

In the forest Brendan meets Ainslie, a fairy, who is able to talk to the animals and make the terrifying forest seem more hospitable. She takes him under her wing, shows him the forest and gets him what he needs, even at significant risk to herself. (This film has a few parallels to that other encounter narrative of 2009: "Avatar.") Ainslie's family have, it seems, been killed by (Christian) settlers Crom Cruach, the big bad who lives in the forest, but she doesn't hold this against Brendan (in his little monk's habit), even when he puts her in danger--repeatedly--for the sake of the Book. I'd have told him to take a hike.

The animation is enchanting. Abbott Cellach looks like a Byzantine ikon, with his red hair, high cheekbones, and long nose. The Vikings were terrifying, although they did remind me of the Bugs Bunny classic, What's Opera, Doc? The animators did a great job of making the animal and plant motifs in the Book of Kells visually coherent and part of the landscape of the forest around the monastery. And the moment when the Abbott sees the finished book is quite powerful. The animation jumps out of the screen (despite being in 2-D)--the intricacies of the designs glimmer and turn, making the entire page into a holistic organism.

That said, I can't get behind the "How the Irish Saved Civilization" slant of the film. Yes, the Vikings were terrifying marauders. And yes, it's nice to see a film that celebrates the importance of learning and books. But it's never made clear why "the people" would rather have a beautiful book to give them hope than stronger fortifications. Is it because they're Irish and a naturally bookish and literary people? And I thought that the parallels between Christian monks and pagan Vikings could have been better fleshed out: The Vikings have no respect for Christian symbols or human life and the Christians (esp. the monks) have--according to our fairy guide--no respect for nature, fairies, or the symbols and beliefs of the people who came before them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Future of Robots

The Chronicle of Higher Ed. has an interview with Sherry Turkle about her most recent book, Alone Together. Turkle's new book is partially about robots but more broadly about the different electronic devices that keep us "turned on" and "plugged in," as well as social networking sites. According to the interviewer, the takeaway of the new book (which I haven't read) seems to be that modern life is exhausting and that these "time-saving machines" suck out our brains and turn us into unsociable husks. I suspect that Turkle's book is actually a bit more nuanced than that, if her previous monographs are any yardstick.

But I was interested in the interviewer's account of the ethnographic work that Turkle and her colleagues have done in documenting the encounters between humans and human-like machines. In particular, robots that are designed to mimic and elicit emotional responses come under specific scrutiny. Is it ethical to allow children to form emotional bonds with machines that will never truly reciprocate them?

One of the things that I find so interesting about these questions is that they demonstrate how the definition of human behavior keeps changing. First, it was that we use tools. Then, once it was discovered that other animals use tools quite well, it was that humans have specific capacities for speech. Then, it was that humans have a particular capacity for intelligence. But once Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, that changed. Now it's all about emotion. Machines don't care if they've won or lost a chess match, but people do. (Presumably Kasparov did, although he may have laughed all the way to the bank.) But when robots are programmed to feign emotion, and to elicit strong emotional bonds from humans, something seems amiss. I'm not sure that anything is actually amiss--is it really worse to form an emotional bond with a machine, only to discover that it can't reciprocate than it is to form an emotional bond with another person, only to discover that s/he is a sociopath or a narcissist?

But, once again: this isn't new. In a twelfth-century romance, Floire et Blancheflor, the two main characters are in love, but are separated by circumstance and fortune. Blancheflor is shipped away to a faraway court, but Floire is told that she has died. So, in her honor, he erects a tomb, complete with moving, speaking, breathing statues of him and Blancheflor. The statues kiss each other and caress each other, and say to each other, "I love you more than any living thing."

Robots have been a way for humans to work out the definitions of human behavior and the distinctions between human and Other. Those moments of the uncanny, when robots or dolls "come alive," are unsettling because they reveal that there isn't a bright line, just a blurry one.

UPDATE: Alone Together was reviewed in the Sunday NYT Book Review. It makes clear the connection between the two parts of Turkle's book (alluded to in the interview above): how we humanize objects, and how we objectify each other.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Faith Healing and Miracle Cures
The NYT reported that the late Pope John Paul II is going to be beatified this spring.Vatican investigators (doctors, theologians, canon lawyers, scientists) have determined that JP2 interceded two months after his death to miraculously cure a nun of Parkinson's disease.

Here's the best part:

The nun has said she felt reborn when she woke up two months after John Paul died, cured of the disease that had made walking, writing and driving a car nearly impossible. She and her fellow sisters of the Congregation of Little Sisters of Catholic Maternity Wards had prayed to John Paul, who also suffered from Parkinson's.

Aside from the fact that this is a great mainstream demonstration that faith healing remains a thriving therapeutic system--something that I have to remind my students of every year--this is a fantastic example of the elasticity of the concept of miracle cure. Whenever I teach courses on medieval medicine and healing, my students often initially expect that a miracle cure will be immediate, total, and irreversible. They are astonished (and skeptical) when they learn that patients and supplicants had elastic ideas about miracle cures. While there are plenty of examples of dramatic, overnight cures at shrines (often characterized by copious amounts of blood, pus, or other bodily fluids, or loud noises), it's not uncommon for people to report miraculous cures that happened months after a visit to a shrine or prayers. Sometimes they were what we might consider partial (for example, decreased frequency or intensity of headaches) or short-term.

From the article, it seems as though Sister Marie Simon-Pierre and her fellow sisters prayed to JP2 for a cure for some time. The procedures for verifying and ratifying miracles are stricter and more centralized than in medieval Europe, but the fact that Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was cured two months after the former pope's death demonstrates that patients still have more expansive ideas about what constitutes a cure (and when) than we might expect.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin Victim of a "Blood Libel," or, Why Medieval History Matters

Apparently, Sarah Palin spoke out today, denouncing those who've criticized her for (or just questioned) her perceived role in the assassination attempt and mass murder in Arizona over the weekend, and accusing journalists and pundits of a "blood libel."

Just to be perfectly clear: "Blood libel" was an accusation leveled against Jews living in medieval Europe that they ritually murdered Christian children and used their blood in religious rites. It is a specific thing--a real thing--and it has formed one of the main justifications for anti-Semitic violence and the annihilation of Jews in Europe for a millennium. It does not mean "making someone a scapegoat." Just because the concept of "blood libel" rests on a false claim, it does not mean "to make a false claim."

The claim that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood appears first in England in the twelfth century, but was more broadly disseminated by Chaucer. The Prioress' Tale is about the murder of a Christian child by Jews and mentions the legend Little St. Hugh of Lincoln. This became one of the most well-known and oft-cited examples of Jewish ritual murder, and the Jews were eventually expelled from England in 1290, after almost a century of violent pogroms.

Here's a riddle: So, now that a public figure (publicly Christian and evangelical in ideology) claims to be the victim of the most pernicious kind of anti-Semitism, in response to questions about the effect that her political rhetoric may have played in the assassination attempt of Arizona's first (and only) Jewish Congressional representative, who do you think Glenn Beck will accuse of being like the Nazis? Will it be:

1. Sarah Palin
2. Congress
3. The Jewish-controlled mainstream media
4. President Obama

I bet 3.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Humanities under Attack!

It seems like every week I get sent another email about universities in the US, UK, or Canada cutting vital humanities positions or entire departments. While it's probably true that I was completely and willfully blind to this before I had a steady paying job in academia, it does seem like the recent Global Financial Apocalyp$e has hastened the various cuts and also ramped up anxiety amongst humanities and humanistic social science scholars about these cuts (or threatened cuts).

Although I'm still (continually?) trying to untangle the many skeins of this issue that appear in appeals to petition, blog posts, op-eds, and journal articles, I'm certain about one thing. It's time to stop using the language of cost-effectiveness and the logic of the market to talk about the humanities and humanities education (this goes for the humanistic social sciences, too). Aside from the fact that it's now been proven untrue that humanities departments lose money, it's also beside the point. While humanities scholars may need to think more broadly about what they hope to convey to students (content or approach--or both?) and everyone needs to just get over that historical blip of the Cold War period when students at American universities were majoring in the humanities and every university could support tons of PhD students and professors got jobs without having to interview for them and tenure without having to write books and could have awesome upper-middle class lives on a professor's salary and manna fell from heaven and the students were all brilliant and everyone had more hair and more sex and more social conscience, the humanities offer something unquantifiable and irreplaceable to society and to young people.

Let's be bold and unapologetic about that.

Why has it been so difficult over the past few decades for humanities scholars to say that? I'm not a Pollyanna, and I know that universities need money--a lot of it--to function. But I really do think that once we start talking about how cost-effective the humanities are, we've already lost the argument and are instead just haggling over the terms of our capitulation. By the same token, I get so frustrated whenever I hear scholars who refuse to talk about the utility of their research--or even their teaching--as though it is or should be self-evident. If nothing else, haven't we (those among us who work in the humanities) all learned in graduate school that very few things are self-evident, and that framing, interpretation, first principles, evidence, and discursive vocabulary are paramount?

On a related note: Incoming president of the AHA Tony Grafton has a call to arms in the most recent issue of Perspectives [sub. req'd.]. Thanks to Historiann for excerpting it. The comments (including responses from Grafton) are also worth reading. One of the main points from Historiann and the commenters is that humanities professors are often described in the NYT and WaPo as unwilling (or unable) to teach undergraduates, resentful of anything that takes time away from esoteric research subjects, and extremely well-compensated for their "work." This is not what most college professors look like. (In fact, are there any who look like this?)

AHA moments

Just back from Boston, which was, for a few days, the hub (Hub?) of professional historians doing their professional historian work. I think that the AHA is not a great conference for early-career junior scholars. My overwhelming sense was that the meeting was filled with graduate students and recent grads on the job market, and mid-career and senior scholars who are plugged in to the larger system (staffing interview committees, serving on editorial boards or steering committees, etc.). I don't know any historians who attend the AHA to find out where their field is heading (although I think that it is a place to find out where the profession is heading), but most of the modern language folks I know attend the MLA for exactly this reason.

There's also the weird professionalization stuff that goes on at the AHA. It feels a bit like Versailles--there's a lot of jockeying for position, and sizing people up, and sidelong glances at the name tags as people try to figure out if they've met you/interviewed you/read your work/should know you.
I wish I'd seen this handy etiquette guide before I went.

I talked to a lot of editors about my book project, and it felt weird when an editor from one university press with whom I'd spoken saw me with an editor from another university press. We're not even dating yet, just getting to know one another, but it still felt awkward and slightly promiscuous. I did discover some cool new books, including this one, by a colleague of mine. I've just ordered it, and I can't wait until it arrives. Viva automata!!!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wolf Hall: When Family Members Love Each Other Too Much

SPOILER ALERT: I'm divulging plot points in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Beware.

Incest was a real concern in the medieval and early modern periods, and it was much more stringently defined than it is in modern Western countries. In the US, it is sometimes illegal for first cousins to marry, but most of the taboo centers on sibling, parental, or grandparental incest (also aunts and uncles, though I'm not sure what the term is for that). While it's currently illegal in many states for relatives in the first degree to marry (first cousins, or an aunt and a nephew), medieval and early modern Church law was far stricter, often prohibiting marriage between first, second, and third cousins, as well as relatives by marriage. For most people, this wasn't an issue; the vast majority of people got married and had kids, sometimes doing the latter before the former, and sometimes to people within their extended kin group. But for the well-born and the elite, papal dispensations for consanguinity were often required and sought before marriage took place.

This explains why incest is such a common theme in medieval and early modern literature and culture. King Arthur has an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Morgaine. One medieval biography of Charlemagne states that he loved his daughters so strongly that he couldn't bear to see them married (coy, but effective). When the family group extends far beyond the nuclear family, encompassing foster- and step-relations, half-siblings and distant cousins, as it did in the medieval period, the definition of incest--sex within one's kin group--expands, as well.

Incest is also common in historical fiction set in the medieval and early modern period, like Wolf Hall. The story is familiar and often-told: Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. But the protagonist is the modern, self-made man Thomas Cromwell, Henry's advisor and chancellor, instead of the humanist scholar and man for all seasons, Thomas More.

Yet what struck me the most was that the book is all about incest. Incest, incest, incest. Thomas Cromwell has an affair with his dead wife's (married) sister. Thomas More is accused (by his wife, Alice) of schtupping his beloved daughter, the intelligent, educated, principled Margaret (legend has it that after More was executed as a traitor and his head stuck on a pike outside the Tower, she shimmied up the pole under the cover of darkness and retrieved his head so that it could be buried with the rest of his body). Jane Seymour's father scandalizes the court by having an affair with his daughter-in-law. Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, is Henry's mistress before Anne.

All of this, of course, echoes the main incest plot that drives the entire story: Henry's marriage to his brother's widow, Katherine of Aragon. Despite Katherine's insistence that her first marriage to Arthur was unconsummated (rendering that marriage invalid) and the papal dispensation after Arthur's death that allowed Henry to marry his brother's widow, Henry
is convinced that he has violated God's law with his incestuous union, taking as proof of divine displeasure his lack of a male heir. He pursues a divorce after almost two decades of marriage to his queen.

The incest motif continues beyond the time frame of Wolf Hall. One of the charges brought against Anne Boleyn was that her brother, George, was one of her many lovers. Mantel hints at this accusation in Wolf Hall; perhaps she'll take it on in her follow-up novel.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I recently watched "Agora," a 2009 film starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar. It is nominally about Hypatia of Alexandria, a late 4th-century philosopher and mathematician who taught in the Academy. According to the film, Hypatia--a true bluestocking--overturned the established Ptolemaic cosmology and anticipated Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler by about 1200 years.

But this is really a film about religious extremism and its revolutionary capabilities to unmake and remake cultures. The Christian community in Alexandria (initially composed largely of slaves and the poor) eventually revolts against the established pagan cult (whose members are the long-standing ruling class of the city) and forces all pagans to convert or be stoned to death. Hypatia--an independent woman, a pagan, and a public intellectual--is intolerable to the new Christian ruling elite, and she embodies the old order that persecuted Christians and worshipped idols. Hypatia herself is not portrayed as religious--her pagan faith is barely evident--but she refuses to marry, convert, or quit her studies. Most of all, she refuses to stop questioning her beliefs; she begins the film as an ardent believer in Ptolemy's cosmology and in the perfection of the circle, but when one of her students questions the many complications of the Ptolemaic system (epicycles on epicycles) on aesthetic grounds, she begins to rethink all of her assumptions and ends up positing a heliocentric cosmology and planets with elliptical orbits.

The Christians, on the other hand, are portrayed as anti-intellectual and dogmatic (there are a few exceptions, such as the Prefect of Alexandria, who converted only for political reasons), especially as their numbers grow and they become more and more powerful. (The Jews of Alexandria don't feature prominently in this film, although they are loathed and massacred by the Christians for being rich, powerful, and crass, a stereotype that I was dismayed to see given such prominence.) They take over the great Library at Alexandria, destroy many of the classical texts held therein, and insist on the literal truth of the Bible.

But the Christians aren't entirely villainous, nor are the pagans proto-Enlightenment figures of tolerance and rationality. In the first half of the film it's clear that the Christians in Alexandria are the poorest members of the city, and Christian charity and egalitarianism are very much in evidence. The pagans own slaves (and beat them) and speak longingly of the days when Christians were thrown to the lions for their entertainment. This complicates the story in interesting ways, especially in light of the Christians' later control of civic, religious, and cultural life in Alexandria.

This film has some real flaws, but also some extraordinary beauty. The CGI shots of late antique Alexandria are fantastic, and I'd love to show that clip in a class. It's easy for students to underestimate the size and grandeur of ancient cities, and it would also highlight the difference between the cosmopolitan eastern Roman Empire and the comparatively poor and rural western Empire, especially during the late antique period. And "Agora" could also be a useful film to show in a class dealing with the Christian revolution. Historically accurate? No. Historically evocative? Yes.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Heavy Metal

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a piece on Dark Roasted Blend about early modern and Victorian automata. No medieval automata, alas, but I was interested to see that this photo of Leonardo da Vinci's robot was included, from an exhibit a few years ago in Berlin.

I am not expert in Leonardo's mechanical designs, but I was interested to see that his robot looks like a knight in armor. This is a neat flip of what I've encountered in a number of medieval texts, in which metal knights (usually made of copper or gold) are visually depicted as naked human figures. In one set of examples (none of which I can show, due to copyright restrictions), a knight (Lancelot) wearing armor much like that shown at the left battles copper knights that look like (1) naked men, complete with genitals and pubic hair; (2) wild men, with excessive facial and body hair; and (3) demons, with exaggerated skeletons and bestial facial features.

In these examples (and other that I've come across), the artificial warriors don't need metal cladding--they are metal. But it's an interesting visual switch: The human protagonist has a metal exoskeleton, while the automata appear naked.

I suspect that Leonardo's robot-knight looks that way because it registers as "human" for his audience, just as in the manuscript paintings Lancelot is always identifiable as the person--the hero--despite the fact that his body is completely hidden from view under his armor. It's the nakedness that signifies the non-humanness of the automata. They have no personhood or identity, so they have no shame or need for clothes.