Leave it, Tom, she’s not worth it.

This is a really long, really boring post. That isn’t some kind of aporia, intended to seduce you into marvelling at the polished excellence of what follows. It’s just really long. There is a song about halfway through though.

So I wrote that brief post expressing some minor irritations with the academic style generally and Alexandra Walshingham’s The Reformation of the Landscape specifically, although it’s a book I have every confidence will be thoroughly excellent.

Along with a hugely enjoyable link from Stevie T, themidnightbell commented

humanities academic idiom fascinating me more and more. How did this style evolve? A lot of it seems to be hedging, or retaliation-in-first, maybe a product of crowded fields.

The dead metaphors that drift through academic prose are part of the problem – umbilical cord feeding in to something rooted, kind of a creepy image.

Hedging sounds right. It’s what it feels like. Fear.

In order to analyse this we must first establish by what means…

Toe in the water.

I wonder whether it’s also to do with the proliferation of words like ‘resonate’ and ‘underline’, ie ‘not actually linked by evidence or close argument’. Need to overdescribe how you’re thinking to compensate for a lack of rigour in your argument elsewhere.

Anyway, this book’s driving me crazy. There’s a chapter Loca Sacra, which describes and analyses the way the pagan landscape became a Christian landscape. A large part of this chapter is spent in toponymy: analysing place names with supposedly saintly or Christian etymologies. Walsham admits this is a notoriously difficult area, but pleads the general lack of evidence from the period (warning: not actually dark). Fair enough I guess, this is all a prelude to the actual subject of the book – how the landscape was affected by the Reformation. Deferral! Sorry, background.

So there’s a harmless enough review of the usual charming folklore about holy wells, saintly oaks, the Devil’s footprints, virgins decapitated by lusty bishops whose hair becomes entwined in a tree etc.

A reasonable amount of actual argument is entwined, like the maiden of Halifax’s hair in the yew, within this section though. There’s a good deal of ground laying. Of the hagiographical attachment of saints to pagan religious sites, Walsham says

It is a mistake to read them as instances of superstitious recidivism – as barely disguised survivals from an earlier period rendered legitimate by a thin layer of Scripture and by their assimilation with approved templates of personal sanctity.

Oh, I don’t know, that sounds rather convincing to me. Too convincing I suspect, even for Walsham… I want to call her Alexandra, can I call her Alexandra?

No? Ok. Anyway, there’s a bit of bluster about what follows:

Perhaps some were contaminated by older assumptions that lingered on subconsciously in contemporary minds, but others must be recognized as wholly Christian artefacts. Many date from the later Middle Ages, when paganism as a living faith had arguably long since evaporated. St Thomas Becket (d.1170), for instance, was the patron of no fewer than than twelve wells in the vicinity of Canterbury, and a path in Wiltshire that was visible in a field…

Well, I needn’t carry on. There’s something about this passage that causes your nose to twitch. It’s probably the ‘arguably’ and ‘perhaps’, followed by the red herring of St Thomas Becket, with that surely unnecessary death date for a bit of factual heft. Following your twitching nose you realise that it’s a spurious argument. There’s no reason why later examples of sanctified places within a predominantly Christian world means that earlier examples weren’t substantially pagan. It’s quite possible that early Christian encounters with pagan immanence influenced later Christian tradition. I don’t know. More importantly, I suspect Prof. Walsham doesn’t know either. So it’s a spurious argument, and Prof W knows it’s a spurious argument. You can tell from the style. I’ll come on to why I think she’s done this a bit later. (<—academic style)

First though, so you go through all this section about place names, and the exact nature of the Christianisation of the landscape etc. Then we get this paragraph at the end:

While most of these tales of etymological derivation are probably later fabrications, they too underline the extent to which Christianity succeeded in colonising both the rural and urban landscape.

Now, I agree there aren’t many situations where a need to distinguish between early toponymy and later toponymical interpretation or folklore is important: mostly they’re just nice stories, we don’t believe them anyway. But if there’s one area where it’s vital, it’s establishing the process by which the landscape became Christianised. She’s even made the point herself, with regard to Thomas Becket (d. 1170). It matters whether the interpretations come imposed retrospectively by already Christianised world, or whether they were formed with the Christianisation of society.

Am I boring you? I don’t give a fuck. I need to get this off my chest.

There’s more. The next paragraph says:

The Church also stamped its authority on the physical world in the guise of splendid churches and minsters, monasteries and convents. The wealth and power of bishops and religious orders was visibly enshrined in the substantial complexes of buildings that came to occupy prime locations across the British Isles.

Wtf. ‘Oh yeah, they also built some churches n shit, whatevs.’

Now, I don’t think she’s being disingenuous, not really, with the way she’s gone about matters. Well, I do a bit, and she should certainly realise. I think she doesn’t realise because she’s deceived herself to a degree. Alexandra Walshingham is, according to Keith Thomas’s review of the book in the LRB, the first woman to hold the Cambridge chair of modern history and one of the youngest fellows of the British Academy. She’s been researching and writing about this subject and these periods all her life. She knows her shit. So I’m inclined to think she’s probably right, whatever she says about her specialist subject – she’s right. I think her hunches, even when the evidence is weak or non-existent, are almost certainly correct. I’m happy to take it all on trust. But the way she goes about it both in structure and style, perpetually undermines that trust, has me constantly calling bullshit. And I think the reason is the one themidnightbell suggested – that of an overcrowded area. The need for an argument.

I know, because Keith Thomas in the LRB told me so, that Alexandra Walsham is arguing against ‘a master narrative’ of the secularisation of the landscape and the disenchantment of the physical world, with a correspondent Protestant internalisation of spirituality.

Walsham is saying it’s more complicated than that. This makes me want to like her book. It’s always more complicated than that, whatever it is, so I trust people who say so, about whatever it is, especially because they usually have interesting nuggety details that are all about the contemporary picture and less about the narrative. I flicked ahead, there are some good pictures, so I know this is going to be the case here.

What I suspect has happened is that Walsham is trying to undermine the master narrative very early on, but the evidence isn’t really there either way. Like the adverbial style it looks like she’s trying to convince you of things by the back door.

The question is why she felt she needed to defer the actual subject of the book at all. I think she’s engaged in typology. Showing that a process similar to the one she’s going to describe happened earlier. The process is that she’s got a theory and projected them back onto a period where the evidence is too scant to support it. Happens to us all. Like when children make some shit up to prove something they know is true. It must be. I saw it. No, you didn’t. Did too, it’s there.

Only – Cambridge Chair of Modern History… one of  youngest fellows of British Academy, and all that.

And the problem is, every other page throws something up that makes you wince.

Medieval people also regarded the material world as a matrix of points of access to the divine

No, they didn’t. I’m not one of the youngest etcs and I know that. This isn’t Neuromancer. You’re calling it a matrix. Why? Not sure. Fashionable? Maybe. Keanu Reeves. Medieval kung-fu.

Sacralized by virtue of the ‘holy radioactivity’ that emanated from the fragments of the bodies of the martyrs and saints or by secondary relics of their activity and presence, such sites stimulated a tradition of ritual journeying that was a defining feature of contemporary religious experience.

No, no. It’s not what you think. I quite like that holy radioactivity, and anyway it turns out it’s an actual quote, not something she’s just invented. Although she doesn’t say it’s an actual quote until the end of the sentence so you do spend some time wondering when she dropped the acid. No, it’s the first bit. It’s really confusing. The phrase ‘by virtue of’ is simply conversational filler. So yes, you can say ‘he came first by virtue of the fact he trained hardest’ but you probably could also say ‘he came first by virtue of the fact he cheated’. It’s nothing. It’s dead, deader than dead, invisible. But here it comes terrifyingly alive. ‘What the heck is “Sacralized by virtue”?’ I wondered. ‘Is it the opposite of “sodomised by presumption”?’

(5:40; save it for later, it’s ten minutes long)

Then you get to that ‘of’ and you realise it’s ‘by virtue of’, then you go back to the beginning of the sentence, then, because the effect is so strong, you find yourself proclaiming again, ‘wtf is sacralized by virtue!’.  Sodomized by presumption. Play. 10 minutes long. Pause. Rewind. Repeat. Pause. Play. You’ll have wasted an hour or so on this one sentence before you know it.

Anyway, all of this section is about pilgrimages, which amongst other constructions, is called ‘the external expression of an inner quest for transcendental meaning, a kind of ‘extroverted mysticism’. ‘Fostered what anthropologists have labelled ‘communitas”, um, ‘convenient excuse for frivolity’, ‘religious tourism’. Ok, I’m cool with all that stuff, esp the ‘holy radioactivity’. Oh wait, she’s got a final suggestion.

Perhaps above all, however, pilgrimage to hallowed sites in the landscape embodied a deep yearning for divine intercession and miraculous healing.

People went on pilgrimages to go to holy places to get better cos they were sick. She’s done that churches thing again. Slipped it in as if it’s a subsidiary point. ‘Perhaps above all’ indeed. Once again, the bits in and around the matter of the argument have undermined it.

I’m not asking for a minimalism denuded of all description. In many respects I want something more conversational. More easily aware of its deficiencies and less academically neurotic about showing them.

There’s some good stuff of course. There’s the sixth century Gildas commenting on Britain:

I shall not enumerate the devilish monstrosities of my land, numerous almost as those that plagued Egypt, some of which we can see today, stark as ever, inside or outside deserted city walls: outlines still ugly, faces still grim. I shall not name the mountains and hills and rivers, once so pernicious, now useful for human needs, on which, in those days, a blind people heaped divine honours.

And hard not to raise a knowing eyebrow at this:

Aldhelm, about of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne (639-709), can be found commenting on how houses of prayer and residences for students now occupied the locations where the pagan had once worshipped the snake and the stage, ‘with coarse stupidity in profane shrines’.

All I’m saying is that if this was a made-up book of made-up stuff, I’d have thrown it aside long ago.

Oh, yeah, in the acknowledgments, she mentions among many others, ‘the reader of the press’ before going on to say,

Although I have not embraced all of the latter’s recommendations, I hope it will be apparent that I have profited from reflecting on them in preparing the final version.

That’s hubris. Publishers’ readers know their shit. I don’t feel so bad about writing nearly 2,000 words on this tiny matter now.

I hope she doesn’t come and bust my balls. She looks, idk, coolly sardonic. She could sacralize my virtue any day. Maybe I could firmly embrace her before she got in a withering put-down.

Good job this is just a corner of the internet where I write shit rather than a blog people read or anything.

Probably shouldn’t have linked to that photo though.

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2 Responses to Leave it, Tom, she’s not worth it.

  1. Feel like I hedged a bit in suggesting it was hedging. I know well what it is and how it works, since I spent my 20s acquiring humanities-academic dialect. Basic cause: you spend all your time (work and leisure aren’t very distinct) arguing in your head with a vast and ever-increasing mass of secondary literature, and have spent most of your time picking holes in this literature, and nervously expecting your argument (which is after all contingent, not exactly scientific) to be blown apart by a new publication; it means you’re always picking holes in your own argument, and anticipating lines of attack from imagined enemies. Also, you’re in a culture that dislikes ‘journalistic’ answers & rewards ‘no, it’s more complicated than that’ (that’s good, obviously). It’s very tricky to write engagingly in these circumstances; and it’s hard not to internalise that after 20 years of being rewarded for writing like that (‘complex’, ‘interesting’).

    And you are quite right – ironically, the actual effect of it is to set off bullshit alarms, even when the author knows his/her stuff. It’s almost inviting you to pick holes in it.

    Enjoyed that. I was thinking of reading the book, but maybe not, after all. I have almost no tolerance for this style of writing – almost impossible to get through Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment books because there’s so much of this stuff. It’s worst when they try to get assertive, or throw in something lively – ends up with awkward tone shifts or those confusing dead metaphors.

    • fitzroycyclonic says:

      Yeah that’s exactly it. The book isn’t that bad really. You wonder at the richness of the seam she’s mining – it quite often goes off into other less marginal areas (church iconoclasm, monasteries), and a surprising amount of the way in it still seems to be anecdote + argument, rather than a narrative of conclusions drawn sensibly and clearly from evidence. Feels like she’s over-juicing the orange. Still lots there, just depends on your tolerance for her suddenly throwing in phrases like ‘the taproot of this was…’ or sentences like

      ‘As many of the foregoing examples reveal, the built and natural environment was not merely encrusted with potent reminders of the heroic individuals who had first planted the faith in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and the enduring spiritual institutions which centuries of Christian piety had served to inspire.’

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