What do you know?

29031818_d6778e8914_bThe title’s a quote taken from a grouchy me, last Tuesday. At a crowded birthday dinner for a friend, someone asked what I did.

“I’m a medievalist.”
“Isn’t that kind of narrow?”

I can’t say I fielded the question as well as I would have liked. I started with the above (“what do you know?”), followed it up with a sputtering “1,000 years of stuff. 1,000 years!” and when that did nothing to conjure away my interlocutor’s blank stare, “and I work in three languages. It’s hardly…narrow.”

With that, the spell was broken. All it took was the languages, although I guess I should have added, in all honesty, that no one speaks any of them anymore.

Normally, when I say I’m a medievalist, I get one of two responses: 1) they ask if I belong to the SCA or engage in SCA-related program activities; 2) they talk about the Crusades, about which I know next to nothing: cannibalism, sack of Constantinople, and Orlando Bloom, and then I’m tapped. I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s nice, comforting even, to see people try to make a connection. It’s just that, well, I’d like to hear something else: but not what I heard on Tuesday.

Sat. Morning Update

I decided to revisit the subject from a slightly different direction. Here you go:

I suppose the reactions of non-medievalists and, especially, non-academics are predictable. To a degree, the reactions, at least with my family or other people from back home, are due to class. Because I’m likely the only medievalist they’re ever going to meet, I might as well have declared myself a Martian. With these people, I get either confusion (‘you can get paid for that?’ or ‘no, that’s not what I asked. What’s your job‘?), attempts to engage the Other (who is, astonishingly enough for my family, me) that are, nakedly, only attempts at incorporation or assimilation (‘what you need to do is go into business and use your medieval knowledge to get rich: you’d know all this stuff that no one else did, so you’d have that advantage’), or, more rarely, I get hostility (‘know-nothing academics’), either because they sense, I hope not justly, contempt for their class on my part–after all, I’m not one of them anymore–or, because they can’t find a place for what I do and what I am in their world, there’s an angry attempt to set things right through mockery.

So I’m pleased as punch when people try to make some connection on the basis of my interests. That’s, dare I say, an ethical moment: paging EJ and Lévinas….

Generally I’ve found the best thing to do is to follow Liza’s example (in the comments) by telling them something gross or weird about what I study. I find the animal trials work well for that. In other words, I find some moment in the Middle Ages that’s as Other to me as the Middle Ages, in toto, are to them. I approach my own field of study and, to a large degree, myself with the bemused or off-kilter fascination of the non-expert. Because I think I have a handle on the opening of the General Prologue and its significance (as inhuman sexuality, as compulsory heterosexuality, as whatever), when someone finds out I’m a medievalist and quotes it to me, I’m likely to be frustrated by the chasm between what I (think I) know and what they don’t know, or refuse to know, or cannot know. Bridging that chasm, if it’s indeed there, would take a semester or, say, 85 minutes before I set everyone aright, before I found, once again, satisfaction or free access to the buffet table or whatever it is I want. But with the animal trials–dressing a pig up as a person and hanging it for murder–no theory, pace Jody Enders, will ever put that right. The trials are just too strange, for me, the supposed expert now estranged from his expertise, and for my interlocutors, of course. I might have had to humiliate my expertise to get their interest, but at least they might leave knowing how unassimilable my own field of study is to anyone’s experience and hence how much pleasure it promises. It’s possible to do this with Chaucer but it’s harder to do it, quickly, for whatever reason.

Now, to evade the risk of this turning into one of those chronic Chronicle first-person pieces, I’ll cede the floor to Zizek:

On the rare occasions when, owing to various kinds of social obligations, I cannot avoid meeting my relatives who have nothing to do with Lacanian theory (or with theory in general), sooner or later the conversation always takes the same unpleasant turn: with barely concealed hostility and envy lurking beneath a polite surface, they ask me how much I earn by my writing and publishing abroad, and giving lectures around the world. Surprisingly, whichever answer I give sounds wrong to them: if I admit that I earn what, in their eyes, is a considerable sum of money, they consider it unjust that I earn so much for my empty philosophizing, while they, who are doing ‘real work,’ have to sweat for a much lesser reward; if I tell them a small sum, they assert, with deep satisfaction, that even this is too much–who needs my kind of philosophizing in these times of social crisis? Why should we spend taxpayers’ money on it? The underlying premise of their reasoning is that, to put it bluntly, whatever I earn, I earn too much–why? It is not only that they consider my kind of work useless: what one can discern beneath this official, public reproach is the envy of enjoyment. That is to say, it soon becomes obvious what really bothers them: the notion that I actually enjoy my work. They possess a vague intuition of how I find jouissance in what I do; which is why, in their eyes, money is never a proper equivalent for my work. No wonder, then, that what I earn always oscillates between the two extremes of ‘too little’ and ‘too much’: such an oscillation is an unmistakable sign that we are dealing with jouissance. (Plague of Fantasies, 53-54)