Re: Migley and Taylor Petrey Discuss Nibley
Posted: Thu May 21, 2020 1:45 am
I get it that Midgley isn't really misrepresenting Petrey as talking about sexuality, even though that's what Midgley says, because really Midgley is just tarring with a broad brush and using "sexuality" as a code word for a whole range of trendy topics and the trend they rode in on. Either Midgley doesn't notice the distinctions between gender studies and eco-criticism or else pretending not to notice the differences is his way of sneering at their whole clan. But then perhaps we should give Petrey credit for pretending to take Midgley seriously. It could be a deadpan riposte.Symmachus wrote: ↑Wed May 20, 2020 2:59 pm[T]echnical knowledge used to matter in a way that it doesn't anymore. So of course the kinds of questions are different; there aren't many texts left to be edited, for one thing, and hardly anyone has the skills to do the few that are left ... .
The kinds of questions Petrey lists and Midgley dislikes—"new topics such as body, sexuality, race and ethnicity, empire, and material culture, to name a few"—are obviously reflective of the social and political preoccupations of the people employed in the field. I wish Taylor Petrey would be more explicit about that, presuming he is capable of that degree of self-reflection, because that shift is really what they are arguing over. This shift is what Midgley probably means by his absurdist short-hand of "sex and gender" because to opponents, anyone of these topics is as tendentious as another, and instead Petrey has chosen to play a rhetorical game with an old dotard like Midgley who doesn't care enough to make fine distinctions: sex/gender/empire/race/ethnicity/empire are to him all avatars of the same activist ____.
Now, it may be emergent senility or apologetic silliness that gives wing to Midlgey's hyperbolic claim that sex/gender (and the rest of the list) is all that is done in the field, but Petrey is a bit disingenuous in listing them as just some among many approaches. Hardly. These kinds of preoccupations dominate the agenda for the field. Hardly any dissertation advisor would say: "hey, why not try a philological commentary, or an edition of a text?" Not gonna happen. Nor would anyone get tenure for doing any doing an edition of a text or any kind of real philology or a book on the rise of the episcopate in Gaul without talking about sex/gender/empire/race/ethnicity/identity/etc. at considerable length, whether relevant or not. Look at the job announcements each year and you can see what the field is like now—hence the wisdom of the dissertation advisor in steering students away from doing anything other than interpretive work. It used to be you had to prove your technical competence before you could be taken seriously as an interpreter; now all is an endless cycle of interpretive updating so as to address contemporary social and political anxieties of upper-middle class academics (since Trump's election, for example, there has been a sudden interest in rethinking of Visigoths etc. as "immigrants," which is just totally anachronistic and obviously motivated...there is huge interest in "eco-criticism" and climate in antiquity with predictable arguments and tendentious claims...and on...and on...). Sometimes there are someone genuine insights that result, but not nearly enough to justify all of this. At the very least, scholars of the past should preserve knowledge of that past, but preservation matters less than production.
Midgley is not totally wrong, even if he is clumsy.
Your description of Early Christian Studies makes it sound to me like a dying field. If I think of it as a dying sub-field within a larger field (ancient history? history in general?) then I don't think it's necessarily a bad reflection on the larger field if sub-fields within it go into decline. Academic fields can decline from too much success, leaving too little for new researchers to do. What's important, I think, is how the larger field handles the decline of a sub-field. There should be some effort to archive the dead field's successes so that the knowledge isn't lost, but the dead wood has to be cleared out with a firm hand to free up resources for other topics. Things should not be propped up when it's time to wind down.
In my own field I think that this has clearly happened to nuclear physics, which once was a byword for cutting-edge science but passed the point, a few decades ago now, where the only things left to do are impossible. So the journals have shrunk or folded, the funding has dried up, and few departments have anyone left who specializes in nuclear physics, though most still offer a course or two in it, or at least include a little bit of it in one of their courses. I expect that the next few decades will see particle physics go the same way.