by EILEEN JOY
[titled cadged from "Funplex" by the B-52's]
Consider this a timely post on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds from just this past week [7-10 July] and a belated post on the BABEL Working Group's Kalamazoo Congress panel, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?" [8-10 May]. I attended many great sessions at Leeds, including three of the four panels organized by Asa Simon Mittman and Debra Higgs Strickland on "The Unnatural World" [which featured really memorable papers on medieval monsters and monstrosity by Asa, Susan Kim, Eomann O Carrigain, Craig Davis, Patricia Aakhus, and Heather Blurton, among others]; a roundtable organized by the Society for Feminist Medieval Scholarship on whether or not it would be possible to locate a "feminist poetics" or aesthetic of the female body in the texts of the Middle Ages [a question posed by Beth Robertson the year before, and from what I could tell from the roundtable's discussants, apparently either unanswerable or conducive to a lot of discomfort as to what constitutes either "feminist" or "female," textual, aesthetic, or bodily--although Ruth Evans raised here the provocative possibility of approaching the question through some current narratives on aesthetics and singularity as well as through the philosophy of alterity: for example, through Derek Attridge's The Singularity of Literature and through the work of Badiou, respectively]; and an excellent session on the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book Riddles, which included a really good paper by a graduate student at Trinity College, Alice Jorgensen, that analyzed tropes of pain and violence in the Riddles concerned with tools and other utilitarian objects [such as pens and keys] through the lens of Elaine Scarry's work in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. I also attended one of two sessions devoted to "Englishness and the Sea," where Jeffrey's colleague Jonathan Hsy gave a wonderful paper on the fluidity and un/homeliness of linguistic "travels" [on land and sea] in Margery Kempe, and in this same session Kathy Lavezzo delineated a new inter-between space of post-coloniality for us: the "sludge" of the English channel into which Arthur and Gawain wade in the alliterative Morte Arthure. And in a session sponsored by the [new] Institute for Mediaeval Studies at St. Andrew's, I heard a fantastic paper by one of Clare Lees's students at Kings College London, Josh Davies, "Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." One session that really stood out for the fact of all three papers being so excellent was the session sponsored by the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, "Queer Landscapes," with papers by Dominic Janes, Albrecht Diem, and Lara Farina. Lara's paper, "Touching Landscapes," was especially memorable for raising the provocative question of how it is, after so many years of visual and picture theory, we do not yet have a theory of the visual that also incorporates a theory of touch: what does it mean to see with touch, while touching, or as touch [and really, can we even have a visual theory that is not embodied?], and further, how does touch, in certain contexts, undo certain objects [bodies, but also buildings, landscapes, etc.] that threaten within the visual field? In what ways did medieval persons inhabit a practice of reading that was visual-tactile and how can we read the sites of seeing-touching within medieval texts?
But it has to be said, the one session that really kind of grabbed and got me [and which I can't shake off] was the one organized by Tom Prendergast, "Does Medievalism Have a Past?" in which Stephanie Trigg delivered the amazing talk, "When Is the Medieval? Medievalism as a Critique of Periodization." It has to be stated here that since Stephanie and Tom are currently at work together on a book on medievalism, both her talk and his ["Medievalism and the Naked Truth"] were, as they themselves noted, co-productions. Stephanie's talk was one of those great bomb-throwing [and also highly entertaining] affairs, and sitting in the very back I noted the body language and furious scribbling in notebooks all around me that connoted some discomfort in the audience with Stephanie's and Tom's arguments. In short, Stephanie opened with the attention-grabbing argument that, while some will always be at pains to distinguish "real" medieval studies [of a decidedly historicist bent and which apparently is "serious" and "difficult"] from "medievalism" [of a decidedly more presentist bent and which is supposedly "pleasurable" and therefore "too easy"], all of medieval studies is "medievalism," and cadging from Bruno Latour, "we have never been medieval."
In one form or another, all of us working within medieval studies are practicing some form of "medievalism" [in which--let's face it--there is always "serious" labor and also pleasure: is anyone really a medievalist who wasn't drawn, libidinally, to the subject, and is there any work within our field that hasn't come at some amount of physical and psychic cost?], although we might like to believe otherwise, when, for instance, we consider ourselves scholars of only the "hard-edged alterity" of the past, and which some of us labor mightily to move out from under the aegis of the present or any past that supposedly comes "after" the Middle Ages.
In order to offer one avenue for escaping the trap of thinking about history only through teleologically linear narratives that don't allow room for what Stephanie described as post-historical reflection, Stephanie began with a discussion of Jeffrey's thinking in his book Medieval Identity Machines [in his chapter "Time's Machines"] on the need for medieval studies to incorporate critical temporality studies [such as the work of Latour, Manuel Delanda, Rita Felski, Elizabeth Grosz, etc.] and a better understanding of nonlinear dynamics into its work, in order to, as Jeffrey writes in his book,
discover how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into monologic history, . . . outside of enchainment into progress narratives, with their "ever upwards" movement of evolutionary betterment and abandonment of the past for a predestined, superior future, and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and render predictable the future. [pp. 2-3]Stephanie also noted the importance of Jeffrey's insistence on "thinking time" in relation to corporality and "movements of becoming over the immobilities of being" [Jeffrey's words in Medieval Identity Machines, p. 3], and she described an amazing [under-noticed] moment in Malory's Morte d'Arthur [in the Book of Sir Tristram], where, during a banquet after a tournament [in which tournament Lancelot had placed women's clothing over his armor], the knight whom Lancelot defeated, Dinadin, appears [after having been knocked off his horse and dragged into the forest by Lancelot's men to be forcibly stripped of his armor and then dressed in women's clothing], occasioning Guenevere to laugh so hard that she falls down [as if she were "ded"]. Stephanie did not explicate or interpret this scene so much as she noted the ways in which it marked a moment of atemporality [or maybe of "out-of-jointness"?] within Malory's text that might beg certain questions: what to do with such an anomalous moment that is, quite explicitly, about the movement and affect of bodies and which, by its unexpected and strange nature within the context of this particular text/world, disrupts the "regular" time of the narrative? [I might note here that Stephanie herself, in order to dramatize the temporal dis-jointedness of such a moment, orchestrated her own fall behind the podium: medieval studies has now officially gone "slapstick"--it was great! How can anyone not love this woman?]
Stephanie then drew our attention to the polytemporality of Bruno Latour's spiral time, which is analogous, I might add, to Bergson's conception of time as duration: this is not time that can be neatly divided nor segmented, and events are continually moving/flowing along certain lines in which matter, space, and consciousness are inherent in time and vice versa, and to "fix" a moment of the past at a particular point, in the same manner that a lepidopterist might pin a dead butterfly to a piece of cardboard, is essentially a futile exercise in "capturing" the past. More important, how do we capture history in flight--all the ways, as Stephanie put it, that the medieval and the modern are moving in all directions, up and down, north and south, east and west, forward and backward, along time's spirals?
When one of the audience members confessed that it made her really uncomfortable when she read the Kalamazoo 2009 call for papers and saw that there was a session on the Harry Potter books [with the codicil that she loved the books but she wasn't sure they were a proper subject for medieval studies], Tom Prendergast raised the question of responsibility: although the Harry Potter books may have only a very tangential relationship to the Middle Ages, isn't it partly our responsibility to determine what that relationship might be and why it matters? This immediately connected with a point I was already somewhat anxious to make: that medievalism--although it often seems to be about movies and fantasy novels and children's literature and Victorian poetry and other cultural productions that take the Middle Ages as their subject--can also be deadly serious in its choice of subject matter that is often the very opposite of "entertaining"; for example, in BABEL members Steve Guthrie's and Michael Moore's work on the Bush White House torture memos and medieval law, or Daniel Kline's work on the Bush White House's Lancastrian and Derridean pretensions [go here for more on the book that contains these essays]. It seemed to me then [at the Leeds session] and now in our present moment when human [and other] rights are under terrible assault in a country--the United States--that calls itself an historical democracy and that supposedly believes in historical due processes of law, and which has no problem calling its enemies "medieval," that medieval studies has a great responsibility, indeed, and one that must never forget its location in the [troubling and troubled] present.
When John Ganim told me later in the evening that he had sidelined the comments he had prepared for the roundtable [following Tom's and Stephanie's session], "Futures for Medievalism: A Roundtable Discussion" [featuring John, Larry Scanlon, Anke Bernau, David Matthews, Andrew Lynch, Tom Prendergast, and Jenna Mead], in order to re-raise my point about a medieval studies [which is also always medievalism] having a responsibility to take on certain "deadly serious" political subjects [wow--thanks, John], apparently the general discussion drifted toward that worn-out chestnut I've heard time and time again: we can try, but no one is ever really listening to us [the medievalists], anyway, so wouldn't that be a colossal [and frustrating] waste of time? Isn't it always? I was immediately reminded of Steve Guthrie's comments, in his remarks for BABEL's Kalamazoo roundtable, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?", that it is not a question of whether or not medievalists can do a better [or worse] job at this than anyone else [investigative reporters, perhaps?], but rather a matter of us acting "as if." Here is how Steve put it more precisely:
. . . . good scholarship has predictive power, and predictive power may just save us from the present catastrophe, if we’re willing to exercise it and anyone is willing to listen. Our record is not good, but we must behave as if. So the question, for the survival of the Constitution (see Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception) and maybe the species, to the extent that that outcome is in the hands of medievalists — and we might as well take it on; no one else is doing a very good job — is not whether medievalists ought to write about Abu Ghraib but whether the presentist approach or the pastist is more likely to save us from our present circumstances.But even just the phrase "as if" has such forceful power for me--it would not be an exaggeration to say [confess] here that there has never been another reason or cause for which I myself have expended so many personal and scholarly labors as I have for "as if." I have never understood those who make the argument--no matter the disagreement or subject at hand--that one should not do a particular thing if the outcome can generally be assured [or safely predicted] to be, again, generally non-consequential. Whether we are talking about love or intellectual work [or even a general predisposition that we might adopt toward the world], I cannot see that we have any other choice but to proceed "as if" things could be better if only we were to believe they might be emended, recuperated, attended to, saved, ameliorated, healed, touched, moved, affected, changed, etc. by our labors--labors, moreover, rooted in a fierce attention to and regard for others, wherever they might be, past, present, or future. This has something to do as well with something I know I have [perhaps annoyingly] quoted here again and again from my friend Michael Moore's essay, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants," where he argued that,
A good pastist depends on the agenda of the period, and on the question of torture there are no flags waving in the published record. There is plenty to make sense of, but only in the presence of a motivating question — a hunch — drawn from now. The published record is there if you have an idea of the pattern to look for. So the useful medievalist is like I. F. Stone, the independent Washington reporter who for decades published his influential weekly newsletter by starting with a question or a scent, combing the papers and wire services, and putting two and two together. The person who does it best now is Noam Chomsky. It’s investigative journalism at the level of scholarship. Its purpose is to salvage the present in the name of the future.
Think of this in reverse: scholarship at the level of investigative journalism. So let me substitute “investigative medievalism” for “critical interrogation.” The difference is important to me. It’s the difference between feeling like I.F. Stone and feeling like Donald Rumsfeld. That substitution in place, I’m all for presentism. It boils down to this: We start with the present because that’s where the bodies are buried.
Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. Nationalism has formed the crucial backdrop to the legal atavism and return to more primitive forms of law . . . . The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. While pondering the theme of this essay, I went on retreat in the monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the peace of the monastery to study torture and terrorism inside the walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame.I would draw attention here to Michael's invocation of friendship as a political project of intellectual life, and I would only add that, when told that our work, as medievalists, may have no impact on the so-called "real world," that we must remember that we do this work [by which I mean a medievalism concerned with the present] together with others who are bound to us in the present--whom we may [must] call our friends--and that, again together, we are leaving records, testimonies, and witnesses to this present. This is ethical work, it is political, it is affective [both libidinal and pleasurable], and it matters. It is what we leave behind in the space of the "as if" it were otherwise.
We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, "to which the whole of political life seems directed." In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then new paths will appear . . . .
I think the remarks provided by the panelists on BABEL's Kalamazoo panel in May, although they [temporally] preceded Tom's and Stephanie's in Leeds just this past week, provide a terrific and beautiful [and yes I use too many superlatives, shoot me] response [or maybe it's a preamble] to Stephanie's and Tom's call for a more polytemporal approach to our studies, and for a field that would better recognize the interrelated labors and pleasures of its [mutual] work. I will leave everyone with some snippets from those remarks, and for those who would like to read the more full texts of that session, you can access those here:
To think temporality otherwise; to discern in our Now the living traces of multiple pasts (even the United States carries within it the burden and the possibility of medieval pasts); to recognize that time is so complex that futures can curve to sink their teeth deep into histories long passed; to touch these times and to love them: that’s the place of the present in medieval studies. Such emplacedness challenges us to reconceptualize the Middle Ages and history more generally, to think them outside of the points of view that have hardened around them and seem true – but only because we’ve repeated them for so long. Such congealing into doctrine says more about our reverence for imagined pasts and our fear of unstable futures than about the Middle Ages. Doctrinaire modes of analysis strive to encapsulate this geotemporal expanse, to still into a museum display. A more restless approach will grant the medieval its life in the present. [Jeffrey J. Cohen]I hope I will be forgiven for such a long post, but the subject is one that has long obsessed, and will continue to obsess me, as well as the BABEL Working Group, for a long time to come.
. . . it seems to me, those working on the premodern past and those working on the postmodern present (or post-postmodern, if you wish) share much more than we might commonly recognize or acknowledge. What might it be like for both groups to practice a historicism that brings the past and the present, premodern and postmodern, alongside each other in a rich heterogeneity, that stresses a temporality and spatiality that is coincidental, affective, and performative rather than stabilizingly teleological, segmented, or hierarchized? In terms of sexuality and gender, for example, such an encounter between past and present would seek to uncover in the premodern that which is in excess to the discourses of modern heteronormativity. If, as Christopher Nealon has recently noted of current queer critique, “we need to read sexuality as historical, that is, as made out of found materials, secondhand,” then I think the premodern, with its diversity of gender and sexualities, competing and interwoven models of virgin, virago, good wife, chaste marriage, chivalric masculinity, clerical celibate, etc., can provide a powerfully heterogeneous set of “found materials” to bring alongside the present. Such a historicization, focused on what cannot be assimilated to the logic of a repetition that is conducive to periodization and stabilized identities, enacts its own logic of the beside, necessarily and profoundly engaging with the present as it attempts to move, in Lee Edelman’s words, into “the space where ‘we’ are not.” Such a richly and self-consciously performative historicization of past and present could help instantiate how both past and present (not just the present, as Edelman would have it), are “project[s] whose time never comes and therefore [are] always now.” [Glenn Burger]
. . . what I would like to suggest is that the present should function in medieval studies not only to bring new theories and histories to bear on the past, but more importantly, as the site of potential transformation. Here, I want to refer to Elizabeth Grosz’s marvelous book, The Nick of Time. Drawing on Nietzsche, Grosz argues that “what history gives us is the possibility of being untimely, of placing ourselves outside the constraints, the limitations, and blinkers of the present. This is precisely what it means to write for a future that the present cannot recognize; to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present” (117). This notion of untimeliness as the goal of historical work, by which she means the dislocation of the present, seems to me to argue for a present in medieval studies that cannot hold. In other words, I think that many of us on this panel today would consider our work in medieval studies to serve as a kind of intervention in the present. In my own recent work, I am explicitly interested in the ways in which the medieval past can dislodge our heteronormative present and help us to imagine a “world not normatively organized around heterosexuality,” in the words of Michael Warner. In fact, Warner thinks this effort of imagination is nearly impossible, but I would argue, alà Grosz, that we can cultivate an untimely sense of our own present through the study of the past, even as we study that same past through modern theories and especially in conjunction with contemporary political events. The role of the present in my fantasy of medieval studies is to serve as the discomfiting position from which we write and speak with the knowledge that our present cannot be detached from the medieval past. [Karma Lochrie]
One peculiar trait of literature is its proclivity for endless temporal regeneration: the “I” of the lyric, for example, is re-activated, bound to the reader, no matter the distance of that reader from the historical moment of composition; it is an essential component of lyric form that it lives again, with each new voicing, in more than a superficial way. As a phenomenon, what do we do with this subject, part textual artifact of the medieval century, part contemporary reader? I do know that our current dominant modes of literary criticism are not well equipped to handle that disjunction, burying it beneath History. I think bringing to bear our critical faculties on the immediacy of that phenomenological moment should occupy us as vigorously and seriously as the application of endless social and historical contexts. [Andrew Scheil]
EDIT [@ 10:00 p.m.] I have just noticed that Stephanie Trigg has also posted some of her own thoughts on the session she shared with Tom Prendergast here, and her anecdote about a response from a reader on a book chapter on medievalism that she and Tom have co-authored, where the reviewer wrote that, "the most important element of being a medievalist is not medievalism (entrancing as it may be), but the Middle Ages themselves, embodied in what we have left from the past: words, texts, buildings, paintings, tapestries, books and so on," immediately reminded me of another point I meant to share in this post, stemming from a conversation I had with Clare Lees, Diane Watt, and Lara Farina when we were together at Leeds about the censorious nature of Anglo-Saxon studies toward modernist approaches to its subject matter. There is nothing more forbidding, I don't think, than an Anglo-Saxonist telling you what you are not supposed to be doing in your scholarship and sometimes I think I chose the field out of some kind of unconscious masochism [but I hope not]. In any case, Lara Farina [who is not an Anglo-Saxonist, in the strict sense of that term, but who has written on Old English texts] pointed out that the university is the one place in which a kind of critical freedom to scholarly self-definition is of central importance [and where that self-definition must also be safeguarded]: isn't one of the very hallmarks of a university its supposed openness as regards the pursuit of knowledge? This point is so banal I can't believe we have to defend it at this late date, or perhaps "this late date" is precisely the problem, and this is why Derrida had to remind us, in "The University Without Condition," that the university constitutes the site of "the principal right to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it." And this we can't forget.
CORRECTION [7/15 @ 8:30 pm] Alice Jorgensen is NOT a graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin but a professor there. My apologies.