10 September: To periodize, or not to periodize…

Back after a longish summer break. Back with more controversial stuff. A friend of mine, an Anglo-Saxonist, drew my attention to what he called the “Twitter shit storm” about the supposedly racist terminology of “Anglo-Saxon”. The twitter account of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists was hacked, re-named “International Society of Something or Other” (lol, or what), now posting a barrage of angry one-sided tweets on the rampant racism and protection of sexual predators in the higher ranks of professors of medieval English.

My friend said he thinks he knows which professor they mean, and that it is true that he is approaching young female academics, but adult women should take responsibility in saying no. I countered that someone in a position of lesser power may not be able to do so when pressured, and should not be in such a situation in the first place, unless she consented very clearly indeed before being propositioned. That’s a pretty clear case to me. He needs to be called out, and expelled/punished.

What’s not clear to me is re-naming the period. Those in favour say it is a racist term, and offer a spade of others like “early English” – which doesn’t work since it wouldn’t cover Latin. Insular studies, but what about English literature written on the continent? Anglo-Saxon does not ring racist to my European ears, though it may do in the American “wasp”/white supremacy context. It seems exaggerated to change something that has worked well. I wonder if most black or brown Anglo-Saxonists take issue with the term?

I am using black and brown on purpose. I consider myself brown too. Brownish anyway. My father is Iranian, I have a very strong sense of Iranian identity, and my skin *is* browner than other people’s. But I could just as well be Italian or French, a.k.a. white. I don’t at all think the buzz term “person of colour” is useful. Does it not do the exact opposite it’s hoped to do? It’s a blanket term for literally every single person that is not white (whatever that means). So the experience of an Egyptian is the same as that of a Japanese, Indian, Polynesian, Nigerian, Mexican? I don’t think so.

PoC creates a totally false dichotomy between white and literally the rest of the world, and completely obscures the historical fact that supposedly white Europeans and North Americans are pretty mixed themselves. Were the Ottomans not literally in front of the gates of Vienna at the beginning of the sixteenth century? And the Arabs, were they not in Spain for almost 800 years until 1492? That’s longer than those 500 years since they left it. Surely, then, Spaniards must be PoC, too? We need fewer labels and more engagement with individual identities and experiences.

I’m not following the fortunes of “Anglo-Saxon” on Twitter. I think there is a vote on the name. It’s a bit of a shame that the society gets hijacked by a group of youngish early career scholars who masturbate over their woke-ness (sorry, but not sorry), and describe themselves as witch hunters chasing others down. Speaking of self-righteousness.

I saw a couple of tweets that we should also change the term “early modern”, because it means different things in different contexts. Well, yes, d’uh. Italy’s early modern starts 1300, and I don’t expect an Italian early modern scholar to disregard Petrarca when I meet them at a Renaissance conference. It’s also discipline-specific. “Early modern” for history goes right up to 1830, which it does not at all for literature. Jane Austen would be early modern, imagine!

I feel like we should always always discuss and explore inherited terms, concepts, ways of looking at the world. But we also can’t re-invent the wheel. As long as we know what we’re doing, as long as we consciously use terms, knowing very well that they are unstable, entirely dependent on our point of view, it’s okay. It’s okay. Periodization is okay. Let’s talk about it, it’s exciting and insightful to do so, but keeping it is okay, too. A baby calls both an Irish wolf dog and a pug “dog”. But when she grows up, she’ll learn the difference. She’ll learnt that “dog” is a category you use for thinking, but one that is not representative of the entirety of what the thing is.

I found these two articles on the insufficiencies of the term PoC useful and eloquent. Here, and here.

23 July: ‘This wooden O‘ – The Berlin Globe

Home. I’m home, Berlin, but still going to the Globe. The Berlin Globe. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had our very own Elizabethan theatre, staging open-air shows in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of the city, and in English, too. Well, it’s not really Elizabethan yet. The investor has bought the construction material right off Roland Emmerich after the film Shakespeare author or not film Anonymous (yep, that film), and the space, but is still in the planning-phase, building-wise. I’m excited to see how things are going to look like in the future. As long as I get Shakespeare in English, I’m happy with any kind of theatre.

My mom and I went, and saw Romeo and Juliet, a lively and touching production, largely owing to the portrayal of the young couple. Juliet was a beautifully forward giddy teenager, taking the matter into her own hands. I was intrigued how the role of the Prince morphed into a kind of chorus that was performed by the entire cast, speaking the lines in unison, and holding up strange ragged pieces of metal that fused into a huge Greek-like mask with eyes and mouth. A gem were the teenagers sitting behind me, aged 17 or so. English course, classic. Naturally, the play was too long for them, but they loved the semi-nudity of Romeo and Jules post-wedding night, and they connected wonderfully when Juliet’s parents wanted to kick her out upon refusing to marry Paris. Priceless.

What I didn’t like was changes in the treatment of the text. Romeo and Juliet, as well as Macbeth, Hamlet, and As You Like It, is one of Shakespeare’s plays that I largely know by heart – not that I could spontaneously recite big chunks of it, yet I know it well enough in order to know what’s not in there. And this production has cut passages, perhaps for reasons of time. But why take away Juliet’s gorgeous ‘Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds’? Or Romeo’s first reaction upon seeing Juliet at the party of the Capulets?

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5)

Berlin Romeo collapsed the speech, and simply omitted the Ethiopean reference. I checked the available RJ texts, the Folio and the Quartos of 1597 and 99, and the speech is intact in all of them. So what’s the purpose here? I suspect it’s political correctness. It’s both hard and not hard to argue with this one. The reference is there. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. Racist and anti-semitic. One might also say, however, that it’s going too far to censor poetry from 400 years ago, and that policing poetical language is essentially misunderstanding literature, equating it with historical documents, and having a strange absolutist world view that knows no cultural and historical relativity. But to offer these objections runs the risk of countenancing racism, and being accused by the especially woke among us who like to point fingers but not to think.

I obviously incline to the latter, believing in humanity’s power to dissociate literature from reality, and to be able to negotiate that which is, with that which is not, but pretends to be. There’s also, perhaps, a difference between an entire play on a group of people, and a local oblique metaphor that encourages interpretation. I feel like retrospective “cleaning” up of stuff that, today, and only today, makes us squirm because we have different sets of beliefs from the past, is a disservice to the cause of being more vigilant and calling out racism. Maybe at the expense of more obvious more life-threatening racism. Such as American prisons, for one.

To erase and make more palatable means also to erase suffering, and change the past with hindsight until it becomes unrecognizable, and we don’t know what was anymore, and what was not. And that’s a task for Big Brother, not the Berlin Globe.