On applied medievalism and being more like whales

I woke up quite early this morning. It was already gloriously sunny. Not too hot, a balmy spring breeze. A perfect day for drying laundry outside (except my strata won’t allow it because it would be unsightly or lower-class or something). I’ve spent the day marking, sorting out “hardship exams” (for students with 3 exams in 24 hours etc.), doing laundry, and reading and writing. Much of the latter activities have gravitated around one of the first things I saw online today, which made my day. It also made my day yesterday. Here it is:


That whale kept resurfacing, sometimes just out of the corner of my eye, all day long. A couple of my students had also happened to be writing about whales in their compositions. Whales are one of the marvellous things about Vancouver, and indeed UBC itself: we have many fine artistic representations of them in the Museum of Anthropology, and one of our other great museums on campus, the Beaty Biodiversity one, features a leviathan of a giant whale skeleton that you can see from the street outside (and probably from outer space, it’s as huge as it is awesome). Giant, fragile, brilliant, can be lonely; caring compassionate creatures; much abused in their history with humankind; living poetry in motion.

It was a while before my whale re-emerged in the collage that emerged out of today online, while the usual strands reappeared. Solidarity in intersectional social justice, feminism as humanism, equity and ethics, rights and rebuking The World. Principles, values, compassion, care; duties to one another, mutual reciprocal care, mutual aid. Academics griping about academia while self-flagellating, publicly or privately, about their own privilege #FirstWorldProblems #OTheIrony etc. This part of the world, my present home that has generously offered me hospitality, is an exemplary safe haven: subject to greater scrutiny and sensitivity because it could actually be a world leader in exemplary academia. I can say things here, and colleagues have said stronger things, that would be impossible in most of the world; even in those old hot-beds of toleration and free thinking, the UK and France; and we all grow more sensitive as we are in close contact with colleagues south of the border, subject to ever-increasing anxiety about academic freedom and indeed the most basic freedoms of expression in common to all in an “advanced” “free” “society.”

All the while living in hoping for hope. An online community of public scholars bumbling around clumsily in this newish shiny communicative form, here online because that’s how international scholarly interaction works in the 21st century, how we find manuscripts, meet, network, share and work out ideas, and work on new kinds of new ideas that come out of these larger-scale interactions and communities. I get to meet texts, manuscripts, and objects that I’d never otherwise see sharing the same space; and from cultures that I’m just learning about, seeing connections, and feeling the same excitement of any other new learner. Multilingual things in languages I don’t know. Weird alien things. Things that I don’t understand (or just slightly) but find marvellous. Trying to understand how I can find something marvellous when I don’t understand it.

Many medievalist (and associated, and honorary medievalist) Twits are graduate students, or on the margins of Academia Proper, or independent scholars, or librarians and archivists, or in marginal precarious kinds of work (part-time, short-term, hired by the course, contingent); others in this community are in senior stable positions; and there’s all imaginable points between. In spaces like Twitter, we are peers and equals, knights of the round table. There’s a shared sense of marvel, wonder, curiosity, delight, awesomeness-appreciation. And we share some sense of obligation to a community, to its liveliness and inclusiveness, changing shape and changing the “field” (whatever that is: more like a “biosphere” these days), welcoming all and welcoming all interactions with other “fields” and with everything in The World outside. This is outreach and openness: including political openness, transparency, Popper’s Open Society, open research and publication. (We also talk about publication, as that is something—conceptually and in practice—that’s changing almost daily.)

We’re not just posting up links to new monographs and suchlike: this is live intellectual work in action, if you (the outside viewer and passive Twitter-reader) are lucky, in real time right in front of you. The kind of thing we do at conferences and workshops. Actually, many medievalist events like that are also live-tweeted, so it’s a great way to keep up with the field immediately or through reading all of a hashtag-sequence or a Storified version later, at your leisure. But yes, we do bumble around somewhat clumsily, in attempts to see all the things, expose ourselves to all possible connections, see the whole outside world too and any other available worlds… knowing that if you’re a medievalist in the creative and critical academic areas your work and thinking and the Medieval world(s) you partially inhabit are sopping rich with connections, associations, cross-references, inter-meta-hyper-textuality, allusions, and analogy.

All of this was punctuated by the rare unpredictable random beauties of feeds that specialise in hypomicro-narrative, buds that pop up and bloom in the imagination while you’re reading other things. I’m fairly new to actively using Twitter, and just starting to get the hang of “lists” that can group “feeds” thematically, say. I’m tempted to scatter these beautiful buds through all feeds, even the Serious International News one, because their branches and rhizomes and currents bring such beauty to anything you’re reading. I still occasionally read my whole raw “home” area for maximal juxtapositionist anarchic delight.


Yes, even Chaucer is on Twitter.

I’m not too sure how much sympathy I have for tax-avoiders, but I do feel uncomfortable about comment—be it Twitter, or in the press, or anywhere else even 4chan and suchlike—about individuals. Ad hominem, ad feminam, cruel jibes, meanness. Even at the height of what was happening online around UBC (and elsewhere) over the last two months; even when I was feeling most angry or hurt, despairing, alienated from seemingly inhuman non-human anti-human pseudo-persons; even then, and even with pseudo-persons for whom I could see no reason to have trust or respect, my greatest worry was unfairness. Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt. Remembering that I didn’t know them or their motivations (though that can exacerbate matters if a disdainful-looking silence is part of the problem itself). Trying to maintain balance: for example, even when my home institution’s PR machine kept doing this—

—I always tried to keep a look out for all things positive. This, for example, happened on Wednesday last week, and it was wonderful:

Video: Musqueam Post a gift to UBC

I was able to witness a little on my way to teach: and it felt like “witnessing” in the medieval, religious, and historical senses; there was a sense of being in a special solemn moment of suspended time in which a new time is made; of being not in a fluid present but in the veil to the future, glimpsing gauzily towards it. I hadn’t been planning on doing so (after all, I wrote this course’s syllabus months before the event was announced) but sent my students out of class to observe and report back (or an Arts Undergraduate Society event as an alternative). I wouldn’t have wanted them to miss the chance to share in witnessing that moment. I have no idea how scripted or diplomatic the speeches and public statements were: they were certainly careful, because this was a symbolic moment, and part of its special frisson was ritual moment and symbolic speech-acts. Maybe I am naïve, maybe you will laugh at me for being soppy, and that’s fine; but however sceptical I usually am and feel I ought to be, my sense was that this was serious, sincere, a genuine moment of outreach and communication and community; of enrichment and hope. And that frisson: I shivered.

I hope that in comment on That Other World Outside and its intersections with my worlds—everyday life, teaching, learning, working conditions, and my medievalist worlds—I have not fallen into any meanness; only staying with what can be posited from public statements, and keeping as my standard what would be acceptable free expression (in current law here obviously and) to commentators, historiographers, critics, and satirists of 12th – 13th century Occitania and in the 12th – 16th century Francophone world. Naming names: Marcabru, Jean de Meun, Erasmus, Rabelais, or Montaigne.

Or indeed, to resume where I interrupted the twitterrative, Chaucer.


I hope that gives some idea not just of medieval things (which are as you see marvellous) but of what medievalists are, how they think, how that’s expressed online, and how that translates to our work. Twitter is perfect for us and for anyone else whose working and thinking is about collage, creative linkages, relating parts to whole, juggling minute close reading with bigger pictures.

Twitter and tweeting are of interest to me not just as a medievalist but because over the last few weeks, off and on, I’ve been thinking about / through a course I’m designing for next January, an upper-level one on the bande dessinée (cartoon strips & graphic novels) in French; their place in the Francophone world and its culture, their specificity as Francographie and as that peculiar form, a Multimedia Total Art like opera or molecular gastronomy.

One idea here is about how storytelling and commentary work, separately and interwoven. With a point of conjunction being thinking, seeing, and making metaphors. Thinking metaphorically, and with its conceptual kin: metonymy, allegory, analogy, puns. (I’m returning full circle to what I was going to work on for my dissertation, back when I applied to graduate schools.) This metaphoricity is larger-scale too, in relations between worlds (medieval/2016), contexts, media. On Twitter, you see (and we work on) the medieval “illuminating” the current. Figuratively and literally, with embedded miniatures and marginalia. They’re rarely simple comparisons: parallels, continuities, tensions, awesome strangenesses; and what further marvels come out, make themselves, or come to life from reading and re-reading in the space between juxtapositions. Seeing and being in two or more worlds at once, and in the liminal zone you’ve created between them; a perceptual multiculturalism and multilingualism. Not code-switching; not translation (narrow or broad sense); like Flatland guided by Dame Fortune.


(There is an elephant in there, discreetly out of immediate view.)

Another idea is wondering what it means to be cartoonish. Now, when I’m working on an idea, I tend to do some practical experimentation alongside abstracted theoretical reading and others’ analyses and syntheses. Just as when I’m working on a new (well, to me) text, the first thing I do is read the text itself. I hadn’t thought about this very much previously, but now that I am—in this moment of calm and relative respite—I can see how my Twitterations have also been practical exercises in applied medievalism. In work on and around a paper for the ICLS in July, I’m considering satire, comment, the point and practical purpose of extreme humour, and limits. Jokes that go too far. Back also to the old questions in Flamenca about truth and sincerity in a deceptive text; and about sincerity, seduction, and sarcasm in Troubadour lyric poetry. It’s been valuable to docommentary and satire, to live it, to feel that closeness to the edge. (It’s also been scary and there have been pratfalls. Part of it.) That outer edge of satire, its extreme marginality—keep that in mind too, “margins” and “in the middle”—is a first kind of cartoonishness.

A second cartoonishness is questioning what makes a cartoon strip, a bande dessinée, different from other expressive media and art-forms. I’m not sure how these two kinds of cartoonishness are connected, if they are. This is thinking-work in progress. It’s also meant experimenting with Twitter. If words are still my main medium, I’m exploring the possibilities and potential, learning by playing with stuff hands-on. So I’ve been weirdly fortunate that “work-work” has thus happened, by coincidence or historical accident, to form a double conjunction with The World and what I perceive to be my moral sense of responsibility to live in and of it and in active/~ist human solidarity.


All this business is also the applied medievalism of integrating teaching, reading, writing, and research; as unified engaged social practices; and doing so publicly in a public university. In a place that, as I’ve said before, is by global standards of comparison a haven of peace, tranquility, civil rights, civility, equity, tolerance, respect, openness, and what Raimon Vidal de Besalú and Guilhem d’Aragona might recognise as “values, riches, prosperity.” It’s not perfect, and there have been significant downs and bumps, but much progress has already been made in the last two months or so amongst faculty and in community relations. I’ve moved from curiosity, to dread, back to curiosity, and now with added hope in looking forward to attending my university’s Board of Governors meeting next week, as an observer and common member of the public.

Much has happened, over most of this term, and fast. That’s included changes in positive directions—“listening, engaging, working to earn trust” etc.—from UBC’s Board of Governors and University leadership. Again, you may call me naïve and foolish, but I have been heartened by this; we’ve all seen so many parallel cases that moved so very, very differently. What the University has already done is already exemplary. (OK, let us not forget one thing that remains missing—if you will permit me, feminist-politically, to bring together governance, academic freedom, and sexual assault—and that is direct apologies in person individually to individuals who have been hurt. I know this is old-fashioned of me and may seem absurd.)

Now it’s all slowing down as we approach the Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday 14 April. A time for reflection and critical distance; for self-assessment alongside the filling-out of tax returns; a time of self-evaluation synchronous with exams, final papers and projects, marking, and final grades.



The downs and bumps, the destabilisations of leaked documents and so on, the gusty days of early spring with intermittent bursts of unpredictable blinding sunshine: these were crises. This now is the true historical or theatrical crisis, the crux, critical moment when everything and everyone is in place and ready for decisive action. I hope that on the 14th we will see those darling buds of February and March start to unfurl: in the promised “conversations,” rebuilding relationships and building them firmer, active work to rebuild trust, transparency, honesty, integrity, … making everything better. Actually better, turning a good university great over the ever-lengthening days, more constant sunshine, as all things stretch out and start to blossom.

Or, in the case of whales, who are this post’s governing metaphor:

Concluding in continuing hope: and being mindful of the bigger picture: peace, harmony, goodwill, and trying to be more like whales.

To awesomeness.



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