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.



1 comment:

  1. A further point of frustration of the race-as-biology construct as it appears in fantasy literature (and as you perhaps gesture towards?) is the interfertility of the major fantasy races. Tolkien offers several examples (the Peredhil, Saruman's experiments), as do many of his literary and pop-culture descendants. The ability of the diverse populations to effectively interbreed indicates, I think, more common origin; they are not, really, separate species.

    Relatedly, several episodes and characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation also spring to mind as examples of supposedly monocultural "species" being interfertile. Prominently, in "The Chase," humans, Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and perhaps others are shown to owe their commonality to outside interference. I do not yet know how the science-fiction and fantasy representations and frustrations of the idea differ, but it seems that it might be worth looking into them...