I Like Racist Things

Sexist, too.

All right, calm down everybody.

I don't mean that I like these things because they're racist/sexist/whatever. It's not that I go out looking for racist stuff to enjoy.  A better, less provocative way of putting it would be "Things I like are Racist".

But look, I read comic books and medieval literature. I can't pretend that stuff is unproblematic. More, I don't think it is right to pretend it's unproblematic.  I think it's bad scholarship, and I think it's bad human-ship.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  What is the problem here, and what can we do about it?

I've posted a (slightly) different version of this An Introduction to Comics, because the issues I'm going to write about here really concern both medieval literature and comics--especially the kind of comics I usually focus on.

The Problem with Medieval Literature

Although my title references racism specifically, I'm concerned here with the whole rainbow of discrimination: racism, sexism, ablism, heteronormativism, classism, beautyism, sizeism you name it.  While arguably all literature and definitely all categories of literature contain some problematic stuff, medieval lit seems to me particularly likely to be problematic.

When I asked on my twitter feed for thoughts on this subject, as I was preparing to write this blog post, two medievalists responded with two apparently diametrically opposed assertions about medieval lit.  Scholar A denied that there was any shift of values between medieval culture and contemporary culture.  Contemporary literature, this person argued, is just as problematic as medieval literature.  Culture hasn't changed.

Scholar B argued that it is arrogant and misguided to hold the culture of another era up to the standards of our own.

Twitter is not the best place to have a drawn out discussion on issues that matter because it is all to easy to sound curt or brusque.  I think both of these scholars assumed I was attacking medieval literature, when what I really wanted was to ask for thoughts about the problematics of representation in general.  I'll send each of these people a link to this blog post and if they think I'm misrepresenting them or if they wish to expand or explain their respective positions I'd love to hear more from them, but I won't name them unless they decide to engage further.  It doesn't trouble me to say that both are smarter than I am.

But I think both of these scholars were (and are) wrong, and that both of these assertions are in fact false and probably disingenuous.  It seems to me that both amount to a denial that there is a problem.

I need to make a disclaimer here, that my focus is on medieval English literature, so that's also where I perceive a problem.  I can't speak with anything like the same confidence about continental literature, and I am still less knowledgeable about any kind of medieval literature or culture that isn't European.

But in fact, that itself is the beginning of the problem.  Even the categorization of the period as "medieval" (which I've complained about before) is completely Euro-centric.  So the assertion of Scholar A may be in some sense true, that globally, values haven't shifted since the Middle Ages, but to deny that writers in English in the 15th century were overwhelmingly male and white and that the writers in English from the 15th century who we have continually read in the past 500-or-so years have been even more overwhelmingly male and white and that the writers in English from the 21st century are not overwhelmingly male and white seems to me disingenuous.  And despite the complexity of cultures and the academic insistence upon that complexity, it seems to bespeak willful misunderstanding to not to acknowledge that this is what is meant by people who point to a shift of values.

More to the point, whether there has been any kind of value-shift or not, the problem remains.  Just because contemporary culture is just as bad doesn't mean that there's no reason to grapple with the problematic elements of representation in the Middle Ages.

In Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, for example, the only character who can really be identified as racially other is Sir Palomedes the Saracen.  For Saracen, read "Arab", with the still-extant assumed synonymity of "Arab" and "Muslim".  Sir Palomydes is a friend/rival/foil for Sir Trystram,  and his presence in the text is doubly problematic.  Firstly, as a foil for Sir Trystram he exists in the narrative fundamentally to make Trystram look better.  And secondly, as the sole character who is arguably non-white he serves to emphasize the racial uniformity of the rest of the text.

Gender politics in the Morte are arguably even more problematic than are politics of race, since Guinevere is frequently (usually) interpreted as either an Eve-analogue--the temptress who is the real cause of the fall of the court--or as the means by which Lancelot is redeemed.  Even if I don't think that Guinevere is either of those things--even if I think she's a fully realized character--her position for most of the text is marginal at best.  In simple terms, the bulk of the Morte is about men and men's stories.

Why This is a Problem

Now I'm going to give you all the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.  But that's what the problem here is about.  Politics of representation is not just a matter of over-sensitive political-correctness.  I believe that books matter, and if I didn't believe that then I wouldn't spend all my time reading them.  The stories we tell and the stories we hear both shape and are shaped by our worldview.  Bigotry in fiction is a problem firstly because it reveals the bigoted assumptions behind the creation of that fiction.

My point is not that Thomas Malory (or Geoffrey Chaucer, or William Langland, or any other medieval writer) was sexist or racist.  I'm sure that, like any person in any time, each of these writers had moments of bigotry and moments of inclusivity, and I'm sure that it doesn't matter much what kind of person Malory was, it's his book that matters.  My point is simply that by far the bulk of medieval literature was written by white men about white men and the concerns of white men with a white male audience in mind.  And that should bother us as readers.  It should (and often does) bother women who read medieval literature (especially the kind of knightly adventuring I mostly read) because they are so often the object rather than the subject of the narrative, so the narrative is alienating.  It should (and often does) bother minorities who read medieval literature because they are so often absent from the world being depicted and are do not have the same scope for identification that their white counterparts have.  And it should bother white male readers of medieval literature, like me, firstly because we are being presented with an impoverished and limited world and that's boring, and secondly because (at the risk of repeating myself), we don't actually want to marginalize, objectify, or dehumanize people.

False Solutions

As a reader, whether a fan or a scholar, the solution to these problems can't be to ignore them.  It can't be to deny them, or to pretend that problematic representations don't matter.  The option to ignore harmful representations is the option of privilege, and exercising that option is being complicit in the racism and sexism behind those representations.

And it can't be to excuse these problematic representations on the grounds of special-circumstances: that these works were the product of a different time.  There are many problems with this excuse, but the simplest is that no matter when things were produced they are being read now.  Even if we accept the (frankly lame) excuse that writers of the past didn't know any better, readers of today do.  I don't think anybody--at least not anybody thoughtful--is trying to hold medieval writers up to the standards of the 21st century, but we do hold 21st century readers up to those standards.  Reading Malory's condemnation of Guinevere and valorization of Lancelot without noting the sexism of that double-standard is approving of that sexism, even if that "noting" only takes place within your own head.

Possible Solutions

One possible solution, of course, is to choose something else to read.  Plenty of medievalists that I know skip the Prioress's Tale because of its anti-semitism.  In an Early-Modern context some people choose not to read the Merchant of Venice for the same reason.

When you're reading for fun, this is easy.  Don't read things that you don't enjoy.  If the problematic elements are such that they overwhelm the pleasure of the reading then there really is no problem. 

When you're reading as a scholar, whether a student reading an assigned text or a higher-level academic reading for the edification of yourself or others, the option of just not reading problematic stuff is less viable.  In the first place, pretending that problematic texts don't exist is itself deeply problematic because it is an idealized and false representation of the world.  In the second place, sometimes texts are just plain worth reading from an academic standpoint--whether because of their historical significance or because of artistic value or as a counterpoint to another text.  The politics of representation are never the only aspect of a text.

A possible solution here is to read with (faux) objectivity.  A scholarly study of art or literature as an object need not imply any kind of tacit approval.  There are plenty of historians who study Nazi Germany and that emphatically does not make those historians Nazis.  It is possible to study the racism and/or sexism of literature directly.

But eagle-eyed readers will notice the bracketed (faux) I placed before the word "objectivity" in that last paragraph.  I like Malory's Morte Darthur.  I like The Merchant of Venice.  I even like the Prioress's Tale, especially as an exercise in complexity and as a representation of medieval antisemitism, and even more as a companion to the other representations of the clergy that Chaucer presents.  That doesn't mean I like the Prioress, and it doesn't mean I have to (as an undergrad professor of mine once did) argue that the Tale isn't anti-semetic.  But it does mean that if I read them from a position of objectivity, that is a false position and I am being disingenuous.  I suspect that most academic readers of medieval literature share this position with me.  I suspect that most scholars like what they read, at least on some level.  And if they don't, I think that is ... well ... sad.  And they should think about changing specializations.  Even historians who study atrocities often look for good in the responses to those atrocities, and it is usually not so much so that they redeem the historical period as so that they redeem the process of studying the historical period.

But academic readings do need a certain degree of, or a certain kind of objectivity.  A critical analysis is not a review, and within an academic context nobody cares very much whether I like Sir Gawain better than Sir Lancelot.  But they might care what I think about whether Malory's text is a condemnation of its own genre, or about how I think Malory positions the political as ultimately incompatible with holiness.  There are multitudes of angles from which to approach literature that have little to do with race or gender, and they're valid.  So without arguing that the problems of representation don't matter, I can legitimately argue that they're not my point.

Which brings me back to readings for pleasure.  If the problematic elements aren't enough to keep you from enjoying a text--if you do enjoy reading problematic stuff--then I think what you need to do is acknowledge the problems, and articulate the positive.  This post over on the Social Justice League blog has a few good suggestions for how to approach fandom of problematic material.  The author suggests that fans must acknowledge the problematic elements without attempting to defend, excuse, or gloss-over those problems.  What I think is missing in her article, though, perhaps because she thought it went without saying, is that narratives are complex and the best ones are the most complex.  Which, if we rephrase it in subjective terms, means that the texts you think are the best are the ones you find complexity in.  Like a racist family member, you confront the text about its flaws but continue to love it despite them, maybe because of its virtues, and maybe just because of its familiarity.  When I say "articulate the positive" I don't mean argue that the positive outweighs the negative, so that you can argue someone else into liking what you like.  But I do mean learn to articulate what it is you like and why, even if the only one you're articulating that to is yourself.


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