Can’t we all just get along?

The ICMS (k-zoo for short) is a very interdisciplinary conference and what’s more, it welcomes a large number of non-academics and ‘independent researchers’ who attend sessions and present papers. K-zoo is filled with a heady mix of traditional historians interested in the great men and important events of the past, social historians who dabble in anthropology, specialists in archeology, classics, material studies, along with literary scholars, philosophers, engineers, and monks. Yes, monks (and nuns to).

All these diverse people crowd into sessions and listen to strange and varied papers and then ask each-other questions. Generally, this is all very heart-warming and inspiring for the new academic. It is particularly nice for the academic (such as myself) who work with material that has been populated rather densely by non-academics.

It is therefore odd to recall amateur fencing historian J. C. Amberger who told his readers “I categorically reject academic structure and jargon” which appears to mean historical method and footnotes. “the academic style” Amberger warns, “has the same effect on the transmission of ideas that formaldehyde has on living tissue: it turns the most spirited discussion, the most brilliant ideas into limp, grey blobs of dead matter that make your scalp itch just to look at them.”* I think Amberger needs to read different academics.

Maybe there is something to this criticism, although I suspect it is mostly down to the problems of fencing history as ‘history.’ It usually isn’t treated as such and because of its lack of charisma within academic circles the quality of discussion is poor. Maybe Amberger just really hates Chicago style footnotes.

Historians aren’t entirely free of their own prejudices towards the enthusiastic beginner, particularly the re-enactor. “Discuss re-enactment with academic historians and you will invariably raise laughter and some mockery.”** The stereotype, often proved in reality, is the re-enactor who has a spectacular case of historical tunnel vision and knows one small aspect of history without any associated context. One could say something similar of the PhD who has a professionally recognized specially but the difference is that the PhD had to work through the basics for years before anyone would let them spend another 3-5 years on that specialty.

I mention this because I often find myself in conversation at k-zoo with people who are based in re-enactment and are buffeted by the academic prejudices embodied by Amberger, but try and straddle the divide and interact within the traditional areas of research and interpretation that are familiar areas of contemporary historical scholarship. There is one speaker in particular that consistently delivers lucid, articulate, and fascinating papers on a topic that rarely gets that degree of attention and care. His papers are a distinct pleasure to see because of that great attention to careful, reasoned argument about a topic that is often treated, by even the re-enacting specialists, with a cavalier disregard for the historical method to an extent that is embarrassing.

Likewise, my own work brings me into contact with academic writing that assumes a certainty about some aspects of martial history that are so removed from reality that they defy explanation. I struggle to understand how peer readers gave recommendations to publish such work.

So what’s my point? I’m not really sure. I may allow myself the crime of writing a blog entry without a real point, but this is something that often rattles around in my head after these conferences.

I should be working on that new outline for the book, or reading the newest title I have to review, or printing off some articles I ought to read soon. I have seriously neglected my Latin and French study since the start of April. Don’t mention the German.

I think my point is that J. C. Amberger is a bit of a jerk.

* J. Chistoph Amberger, The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts (Orange, CA. 1998), 7.

** Jerome de Groot, “Affect and Empathy: Re-Enactment and Performance as/in/ History.” Rethinking History, 15 no.4 (2011): 588.

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