Tradition on Trial: #DisruptTexts and the Future of the Humanities

April 18, 2021 / Bjork Lesnar feature-top

A ninth-century feud between two popes – one living, one dead – produced one of the most bizarre but teachable moments in the annals of medieval history.

To put it briefly, in 897 AD, Pope Stephen VI took issue with the honorable burial of his unpopular predecessor Pope Formosus. In a shocking act of political theater, he had Formosus' corpse exhumed and conveyed to the papal court in Rome, where the still-decomposing body was posthumously tried and convicted of acceding to the papacy illegitimately. To ensure that Formosus be remembered forever as an anti-pope, Stephen commanded that the corpse itself be punished. The three fingers Formosus used in life for benediction were cut off, and Formosus' dead body stripped of its papal attire. He was buried again, but could not stay so for long: his body was soon thrown into the Tiber River. Later that same year, Stephen paid for this outrage with his own life, when he was imprisoned and murdered in prison by vengeful partisans. This whole affair became known, aptly, as the Cadaver Synod.

As morbid as this story may be, there are vital and timely lessons to be learned here. If we write the incident off as nothing but a lurid testament to medieval barbarity and personal vengeance, we risk blindness to the same dark impulses in our society – and ourselves.

This compulsion to carry on such highly politicized post-mortem inquisitions of our predecessors is, unfortunately, alive and well in America today. This strange episode in history is perhaps no where more relevant than in the culture war presently raging in higher education, where the academy has recently adopted the pastime of ransacking the graves of western civilization for its moral skeletons, which are displayed, tried, and denounced to the smug satisfaction of the left intelligentsia’s elite priesthood.

With the mantra that “critique is cool”, the liberal arts academy has directed an ever-increasing part of its energies to this very task of enumerating, codifying, and publically censuring the shortcomings of generations long since dead and buried. This pastime has recently exploded from the narrow confines of the ivory tower into the wilds of leftist social media, where the quasi-religious denunciation the western tradition – particularly the lives and works of its “dead white men” (adding “straight” or “Christian”, as needed) – is prized as a valuable form of social currency among critical theory-enamored armchair activists who fancy themselves the moral moderators of the academy and digital commons alike.

Lately, the #DisruptTexts movement has garnered national headlines, and no small deal of controversy, for their vocal claims that the western tradition must be unseated from public education altogether in order to put the nebulous specter of white supremacy to rest once and for all. A fundamentally Marxist effort to toss the canon from public education, #DisruptTexts boasts such dubious achievements as banning The Odyssey from a Massachusetts public high school, canceling young adult authors for daring to challenge bad “woke” readings of The Scarlet Letter, and advocating for teaching more graphic novels as an antidote for “the worship of the written word” which allegedly permeates the “white supremacy culture” of ELA classrooms. (The latter complaint against “the worship of the written word”, is especially worthy of remark. It is a standard grievance of leftist critical studies to gripe about the oppressiveness of occidental logocentrism – a technical academic term for the cultural prestige given to the written word, and the ascription of certain metaphysical and ontological properties to written language. This is apparently a bad thing...)

And who will run to the defense of the dead? Sentimentalism, we are told, belongs on pickup truck bumpers, not in higher education. The reputations of Columbus and the Pilgrims, Washington and Jefferson and (more recently) Lincoln, have all been pilloried beyond recovery. And sometimes, these complaints are sounded over even vaster chasms of time, so that pre-modern figures don't get a pass, either. In the past year alone, the statue of Marcus Aurelius at Brown University came under fire as an alleged icon of white supremacy, as did a statue of the sainted medieval French king, Louis IX, in St. Louis, Missouri, the city named named after him. It has grown routine for such complaints to go hand-in-hand with vandalism and political violence.

Nor is this business of historical grievance limited to presidents, kings, and emperors. Even the touchstones of the western literary tradition have come under criticism. For instance, epic poems like Homer's Odyssey and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf have drawn complaints for their failure to promote sufficiently “progressive” social values. Indeed, an overly fond recollection of, or identification with, the heritage of the distant past can invite allegations of cultural chauvinism and worse still, white supremacy.

For instance, in 2019, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists announced plans to change their name, under pressure from scholars who took issue with the ostensibly problematic usage of the term “Anglo-Saxonist” in the group's name. Citing selected misuses of the term in nineteenth century racist discourse, the most extreme of these critics have advocated for eliminating the term “Anglo-Saxon” from medieval scholarship altogether, even when used in reference to the cultures of early medieval England. Although the ISAS is by all means a legitimate scholarly organization dedicated to the academic study of the medieval Angles and Saxons, two Germanic tribes famous for colonizing Britain in the so-called dark ages, critics allege that the name of the organization suggests a chauvinistic and racially-motivated identification with the medieval past. To these sorts of critics, it is a greater priority to censure a classic work like Beowulf for its onstensibly racialized depiction of the man-eating monster Grendel, than to study the elegance of its verse, or (worse still!) the values of strength, fidelity, and self-sacrifice the poem celebrates.

Of course, it is not impious to hold the western tradition to task for the crimes of western civilization. Reflecting on the atrocities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the modern conscience chafes at the prospect of mitigating, much less absolving, moral judgments on its forebears. Even the recognition that war crimes, slavery, and sexual violence have been the rules rather than the exceptions at virtually every place and time in human history, hardly merits amnesty for the crimes of our own predecessors. To defend the private and public deeds of every so-called “great man”, simply because his name looms large in history books, is an impossible and frankly pointless task.

But more often than not, the type of critics who lodge complaints against bronze age myths and medieval legends are content to pronounce moral judgment upon every generation that lived before the advent of Marxism, feminism, and critical theory, without making any substantial effort to learn from the voices that speak to them from across the centuries. Moreover, the liberal intelligentsia tend to labor under the delusion that the modern, hypersensitive, social justice-minded conscience emerged ex nihilo from the ashes of a primitive patriarchy. Unsurprisingly, they regularly fail to recognize that the very substance of their grievances draw from the ethical and philosophical developments of the tradition they seek to dismantle.

And while all but the most bitter practitioner of grievance studies will acknowledge the importance of Greek philosophy as a foundation for critical theory, or the role of Christian social values in achieving social reforms like abolition and the civil rights movement, they are still loathe to acknowledge the inextricable relationship between their own ideologies and the western tradition from which they were synthesized.

Those who can find no spiritual kinship with this strain of human history may insist that the moral failures of the western tradition have proved its obsolescence. The very vessel in which the modern conscience came to arrive in its current, ostensibly more “enlightened” form, they claim, can be now be discarded. This chain of cultural transmission, they say, running from the first millennia BC even to the present day, can be broken without consequence. It is only slight hyperbole to say that, in the twenty-first century, the American liberal arts academy stands poised to tear out its own ancient heart and present it, still-beating, as a peace offering to the Marxist left's ascendant cultural inquisition.

On the surface, #DisruptTexts might seem laughable – yet another fleeting production of the left's round-the-clock outrage machine. But, beyond the hashtag, online movements like this are just the tip of an iceberg with roots chillingly deep in radical Marxist thought. This is not a natural progression in pedagogy, but a covert attempt at cultural engineering, aimed at reconstituting the world in the image of the impending globalist order. Before this can happen, however, the distinctive spirit of a civilization must be broken down, starting with its cultural and historical memories.

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born,” wrote the Roman statesman Cicero, “is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” It is this very idea – the notion of finding continuity with the past and living accordingly – to live as homo historicus – that is under attack. What is truly being contested is who precisely the western tradition is for, and how it is to be used. Is it a dead relic, the dusty heritage of a people no longer extant, relegated to the custody of the academy? Or is it living yet, inviting all people to take it up and place themselves in a story greater than their own?

The greatest peril to the Marxist project is the identification of an “I” (or even a “we”) in history. The social engineers would have us forget this train of memory, but we need not comply with their cynicism. From the Trojan War to 1776, and beyond, this is a story that spans continents and countless centuries, transcending even ethnic and religious boundaries. The western tradition is not a closed canon or a particular set of dogmas, but has always been an ongoing dialogue. Its dead are many, the good mixed up with the evil, with heroes and villains and many more in between. Before we exhume our own dead to conduct political “cadaver trials”, like Pope Stephen VI, let us remember that such symbolic actions can have deadly real-world consequences. Dig at your own risk.