What’s the point of it all?

You’ve got to bear with me on this post as I’m not all that sure where I’m going with it, but safe to say the title in no way should be taken too literally. I’m fine.

Today I took in the current main exhibition on at the Royal Institute of British Architects HQ, The Brits Who Built the Modern World, 1950-2012 (apparently there’s a TV tie-in, which explains the tabloid-ish title). It’s a thoroughly fascinating show that does justice to explaining the development and importance of the British takes on later-period international modernism, and underlines how modern architecture had many more seminal moments subsequent to the Unité d’Habitation and Fallingwater. You don’t have to go to Hong Kong to see proof of this, though it just so happens I did a couple of years ago…

Foster’s HSBC headquarters (right) and neighbouring skyscrapers in downtown Hong Kong – photo taken on my trip there in October 2011

All well and good but what, you ask, has this got to do with the medieval period (or Surrey)? Absolutely nothing. Way before I got into medieval things in a big way, architecture and the built environment was my bag. I might well have gone on to study architecture if my father – an architect – hadn’t used every trick in the book to dissuade me. One massively disappointing Geography degree later and the idea of going into town planning was likewise off the cards, leading to a medieval Masters, this site and almost slipping into a career I had neither bargained on nor wanted…

A few days ago, I was invited to a preview of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum (before you start thinking I move in rarified circles, I should stress that this happens once in a blue moon and the invite came from my best friend). It’s a decent show, and a real must if you are at all interested in the earliest prehistoric struck flints found in Britain. I learnt a lot – who knew no hominid set foot in what became Britain for 120,000 years? – but did not go away from it feeling like I’d just seen a truly stonking exhibition, though nor can I pretend the RIBA’s equivalent is exceptional either. Nonetheless, what I can’t escape from is that, whenever I go to an architecture exhibition, I always engage with the subject matter far more than in archaeological or historical exhibitions. It’s not that I find the latter boring, simply they seldom fire my imagination to the same degree. My walk back home from Portland Place along animated rush hour streets made me realise that the vitality and currency of urban environments and the buildings they consist of are quite frankly a good deal more important than what I now do in lieu of a day job.

When I was studying in Leeds, there was an article pinned to a noticeboard outside our common room (perhaps it’s still there?) documenting the collective response of a group of leading academics to the claim by an education minister (I forget who) that medieval studies was the quintessential example of an unnecessary discipline which diverts money and minds from more relevant and profitable academic enterprises. I remember being suitably shocked at the time by the tenor of the initial attack, as I would be today. The thing is, I can’t remember any of the points made in defence of the subject. A few likely ones spring to mind – for instance, the observation that the human geographical framework of pretty much any area in England is of predominantly medieval fashioning, as is definitely the case for Surrey – but I do feel my lack of recollection is telling.

I’ll finish this unplanned stream of reminiscences with one from the very recent past. In a seminar a couple of weeks ago, one of my current tutors opined that undertaking prolonged research is one of the few times in life where you purposely choose to go to great lengths and depths to do something instead of turning it around in a matter of days to meet urgent deadlines (if only they knew the truth of my track record with assessed coursework…). Great as the sentiment is – and I love undertaking research more than most – exposure to intellectually-stimulating output from disciplines rooted in the here and now causes me to question (not for the first time) the motives and mechanics lying behind research into the medieval period.

Now’s perhaps as good a time as any to admit that, for various reasons, my aim to segue from MA to PhD has not worked out and I’ll be spending some time out of academia again come the autumn. I’m a bit pissed off by how things have turned out but can also appreciate that I have an opportunity to really hone what I want to do and more importantly where I want to do it. Any readers familiar with Lena Dunham’s Girls might be picking up echoes of Ray’s assertion in a recent episode that, as a thirty-something with years of work under his belt, he is “too wise for grad school” and to be brutally honest there is probably something in that.

This guy = too wise

To do a doctorate – as I still very much want to do – is arguably the most extreme example of sustained research on a single topic, so shouldn’t be approached as a default, “Well, what else can I do?” option. As I see it, there’s no point spending so long studying bits of Bede or Beowulf or the unremarkable archaeology of out-of-the-way places unless, to adopt the buzzword of the UK higher education Research Excellence Framework, it has some kind of impact beyond the very narrow academic milieu in which the research was germinated and undertaken. Perhaps I’m shooting my mouth off here, but I’ve seen the negative consequences befall no small number of friends and acquaintances over the years. Going into such a long-term endeavour without some sense of how and to whom the end product will be of real value is a waste of time and (public) money….

… which brings me back round to the question posed in the title. Here am I, questioning the relevance of a field of study in which I retain an ardent desire to forge a future for myself. Contradictory much? Perhaps a significant part of my frustration is born out of the limited pool of methods by which medieval research is conducted in comparison to the study of, say, the contemporary built environment. You simply can’t display the results of detailed analysis of a text or an element of material culture with the same degree of eye-catchiness (as my mother would probably say), nor are the alternative platforms for dissemination of equal aesthetic appeal – I think we can all agree text-heavy journals do themselves no favours. So am I saying medieval studies should become more visual? Of course this depends on the subject of the research in question, but alternative means of presenting the results should be pursued to a greater extent than they are at present (so too the language and tone of written work; I have read elsewhere the plea by a leading scholar – my memory really isn’t what it used to be – for less stuffiness and adherence to convention), both as a means of stretching the practitioners and opening their research up to new audiences.

In the name of practicing what I preach, the coming months will see me attempt to take my work in new directions. None of these may have any great immediate impact, but they will help set me in a direction where in due course I might be able to affect some measure of change to the subject(s) I study and to my own future prospects. For a start, I’m going to be doing more with databases, learning how to harness the mighty power of Microsoft Office applications and hopefully starting to integrate them with GIS too. Arguably a little more exciting is my intention to produce work with a phenomenological and/or psychogeographical element (having dipped my toe into such things way back in a post relating to “seven ditches”). These are approaches which, with a few honourable exceptions, have been under-used in medieval studies but which permit sites of past significance to be interpreted using their present-day attributes and sense of place. I know they are the polar opposites of the quantitative nature of database wrangling, but this doesn’t mean it’s an either/or situation; in fact, with a bit more thought I’m pretty sure they could be combined in the same project. Lastly, with the help of my coursemates, I’m going ahead with a long-delayed plan to produce something in printed format that is envisaged as a cross between a journal and a fanzine on a broad medieval theme. We may not end up producing something revolutionary but I want it to be appreciably different from anything that has gone before, and embody some of what I’ve written here. Otherwise, what would be the point?

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Architecture, Design, Landscape, London, Nottingham, Phenomenology, Soapbox, WPLongform and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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