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Response to Review no. 615

We appear to have unwittingly entered the pages of a Henry James novel: brash young Americans upset the venerable traditions of the European world. Scandal—minor, yet meaningful—ensues.

For James, this provided the narrative backbone for deep musings about the nature of culture as mediated through related yet distinct societies. Not so here. Some of Bartlett’s criticisms are so incongruous that they hardly merit a response, but when one is accused of McCarthyism and Stalinism, our silence would not offer a sufficiently strong rebuttal against such outlandish claims. (And really, is it possible to be a McCarthyite Stalinist? Surely we have entered into the realm of oxymoron.) And one might ask how exactly does exposing the ideological coercions inherent in cultural constructions of race, class, and gender in a body of medievally-inspired film lead to communist purges and brutal pogroms? If any readers are indeed wondering about our intentions, we offer this genuine assurance: we do not plan to kill you or your family if you disagree with the readings put forth in our volume. We don’t even plan to send you to a gulag. Bartlett assumes a ‘querulousness’ in these academic endeavours due to the language of exposure employed by some contributors, but it stuns the imagination to link these interpretations to any type of witchhunt. This point is even more curious in that investigation and exposure—that is, the interpretation of a past that is often presented as naturalized and coherent yet one which glosses over its own inconsistencies—is at the heart of the academic endeavour. The analogy perhaps reveals more of the reviewer’s scholarly prejudices than any merit to the criticism.

And one not need peer too deeply into the review to find evidence of Bartlett’s prejudices. He rightly lauds the decriminalization of homosexuality in much of western culture, yet he affords himself the position to judge the utility of queer theory as a hermeneutic. For him, it is merely ‘semi-methodological’, but one might well wonder when this body of criticism, which has prospered for more than twenty years in literary studies since the publication of Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men, for more than twenty-five years in medieval historical studies since the publication of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, for almost thirty years in academic studies since the publication of Louie Crew’s The Gay Academic, will win Bartlett’s imprimatur as an accepted theoretical approach. Thankfully, queer theory has not needed Bartlett’s approval for scholars to proceed with the important cultural work of exposing (yes, we use that word again!) how ideological constructions of sexuality function in culture and in film.

Bartlett’s favorite whipping boy, however, is the American academy and its cohort of decadent pseudo-intellectuals. Because we and our contributors employ such terms as ‘postcolonial’ and ‘alterity’, Bartlett feels that this volume has veered into the realm of a ‘foreign language one has not completely mastered’. Bartlett might do well to familiarize himself with postcolonial theory, as his desire to ‘master’ the (American) colonial and evidence of his fear of the (American) foreign are deeply ironic. Indeed, Bartlett is not content to criticize the vocabulary of this volume, but decries ‘the psychologism of modern American culture’ and ‘progressive academics in US English and literature departments’ in general.

When boiled down to its essence, Bartlett’s criticism centres on the point that these studies are not sufficiently empirical (read: ‘historical’). On that charge, we plead guilty, as the essays in the collection focus on the interpretive work of understanding how the past is mediated through the present. We know of no objective measures that delineate the interactions of past and present. While Bartlett does not engage with the theses put forth in any of the essays, his review leaves the reader with a misleading vision of the approach and aims of the book. This book, unlike Reel Bad Arabs that Bartlett finds an apt comparison, is not in any sense of the word a thumbs-up or -down vote on any characters, directors, films, or theories. If the book judges anyone or anything (and perhaps this is what unsettles Bartlett so), it is the academic who presents these films in class or in scholarly works in order to point out or even ridicule their historical inaccuracies, as if historical realism were the main point in creating a film set in the historical past. A quick look at the H-France listserv archives of postings on the recent film Marie Antoinette is a perfect example of this tendency. We treat these films as aesthetic works because that is precisely what they are. The essay authors are not commenting on a definitive version of history as presented in a particular film, or even the history of the making of a film; rather, these films are telling a story set within a history, and the focus of Race, Class, and Gender in ‘Medieval’ Cinema is less on the historical accuracy displayed in these films than on how history is used to consider cultural issues relevant to today’s society.

We would like to conclude our response by acknowledging that Bartlett has pointed out a very real problem—lack of interdisciplinarity. Indeed, perhaps we should have included more than two articles by historians. Rather than insisting on a particular departmental affiliation, we selected our contributions based on their insight into our defined goal of advancing cinematic analysis beyond the demand of historical accuracy from films where little or none was intended. We remain convinced, however, that the relationships between history and film cannot be explored by historians or literary/film critics alone. Different approaches will allow us to get closer to more satisfying readings of these films, but to make this happen we need to learn to respect and even familiarize ourselves with the work of colleagues in other disciplines. This would entail not just learning each other’s ‘foreign language’, but also making a real effort to see documents from a variety of perspectives. Some very exciting advances have been made in many areas of medieval studies, but this review would indicate that we still have a long way to go.