Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Medieval and modern racisms

Right now I am in the middle of the first of two international conference and research trips I’m taking this year. My first stop was the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, a great event down in Orlando, Florida. My paper there worked through some aspects of fan medievalism and its links to racist and misogynist discourses around ‘Game of Thrones.’ It was interesting to test it out in a space where there are a lot of authors and fans, as well as the regular conference crop of academics. I got some interesting responses – and I use interesting in a genuine, not-euphemistic way.

The Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association conference is my current stop, in Washington DC this year. It is huge by my standards – for you medievalists, the book/program is about twice the size of the one for Kalamazoo. My contribution to this behemoth of scholarship seems rather small, but is hopefully still a worthwhile one. It’s a paper that explores exploring how ‘race’ was constructed in Middle English romance – the popular culture of the Middle Ages – comparing and contrasting how ‘race’ as a category is represented in contemporary fantasy. The ICFA paper is about how whiteness is constructed as Self, but the PCA paper is about how non-whiteness of all kinds is constructed as Other. In the PCA paper I draw on work that’s been done in the past 10 years or so which challenges the long-held assumption that the Middle Ages used religion as opposed to race as the most significant framework to account for human difference. Geraldine Heng’s “race-religion” construct is, I think, a useful one because it foregrounds the interconnectedness of biology and culture in medieval thought (Heng, 2003). Modern race theory takes race as a concept based purely on biology. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because by this definition, any approach which considers the concept to have any other dimension is not talking about race at all. Therefore, race is a feature of modernity, but one which can now be left behind because science has demonstrated that there is in fact no biological, genetic, empirical basis for it.

But race is no less real to people’s experience of the world because it is a social construct dependent on thoughts, actions, experiences and ideologies rather than biology. Medieval formations, Heng argues, overlapped race, religion, and nationality significantly; my paper argues that this is happening in contemporary times as well. It looks at how the ways orcs – conventionally a racialised Other – are constructed in fantasy from the past decade or so. Tolkien thought about where orcs came from, their culture, why they served evil and a lot more, but he didn’t write about it much in Lord of the Rings. The various imitations of them – the faceless hordes of evil’s footsoldiers – that featured in genre fantasy for decades, and still sometimes do, are monsters onto which social fears and racial hatreds were mapped. Although books like Stan Nicholl’s Orcs trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals challenge many of the conventions significantly, they don’t explore orc culture in any depth at all. Games are more likely to do so, eg World of Warcraft and the like, but they still, as Tanner Higgin and Jessica Langer have shown, deploy biological constructs of race (Higgin, 2009; Langer, 2008). Even a recent game, Of Orcs and Men, which castes orcs as the good guys, a forest-dwelling indigenous-type people resisting the evil human empire  thinly disguised as the capitalist West does the same. My paper argues that works like these use a formation in which culture and biology overlap in ways that are very similar to those identified by Heng in her race-religion construct. I suggest that looking to broader definitions of race than just the now discredited race-as-biology formation constructed by Enlightenment pseudo-science will help us understand some of the dynamics of modern Western society better.

Heng, G. (2003). Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Higgin, T. (2009). Blackless Fantasy. Games and Culture, 4(1), 3–26.

Langer, J. (2008). The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post) Colonialism in World of Warcraft. In H. G. Corneliussen & J. W. Rettberg (Eds.), Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader (pp. 87–108). London: MIT Press.



Tuesday, 5 March 2013

TV interview

Here is the link to the TV interview I mentioned in my last post: "Racial Representation in Games" It was on Australian TV so may not work for anyone who's international.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Busy but absent

It's almost three months since I've posted here, which is FAR longer than I'd planned to be away. In my own defense, I haven't just been lying in a hammock the whole time. Among other things, I've been watching the Oscars, and writing about it. This piece on Quvenzhané Wallis, misogyny, and racism in Hollywood got quite a few people who rad it worked up, but that's part of the territory, and part of the point. I'll also be making my TV debut this week on the ABC (in Australia) as a talking head in a segment of racist stereotypes in video games on their Good Game program (link to follow when it's up).
Besides being good for my ego and (I hope) my career, doing these kinds of media things is important because they challenge people. Race and racism are topics that lots of people find really difficult and confronting to talk about, and if the comments on the piece I linked to above are anything to go by, some people don't always want me to talk about them either. But as academics we have a responsibility to engage with the world outside the pages of scholarly journals. Researching pipular culture means I have a responsibility to be part of it too. Which is one reason I am planning to post here more requently than I have been!