Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, through the fact that they can be seen today. But they are thereby not yet living at the same time with the others.
—Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times
And so I say to you yes you: / everyone’s a fugitive. Everyone.
—Spencer Reece, “Tonight”
Some might recall a post I wrote this past summer relative to the Leeds Medieval Congress in July, "I'm A Pleasure Seeker, Looking for the Real Thing: We're All Presentists Now," in which I discussed a paper presented by Stephanie Trigg [co-authored with Tom Prendergast], “When Is the Medieval? Medievalism as a Critique of Periodization”—in which paper Stephanie made the provocative statement that all medieval studies, on some level, are also a form of medievalism, or medievalization, and where she also drew attention to the problematic dichotomy we often want to draw between a certain kind of historicist medieval studies as “serious” and studies in medievalism as “not serious enough.” The newest volume of New Medieval Literatures [no. 9; 2007] was just published online this past October [excellent journal, I might add], and it includes a “symposium” based on a panel from the 2006 meeting of the New Chaucer Society, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?”, which includes two essays: Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” and a response by Carolyn Dinshaw, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” Having just read these essays as part of my own desire recently to better acquaint myself with both the history of and the theoretical frameworks animating studies in medievalism [or, medievalism studies], I thought I would share summaries of these two articles here as well as some interesting questions they collectively raise for our consideration of what we believe the temporal boundaries of “medieval studies” to be.
In “What Is Happening to the Middle Ages?” Prendergast and Trigg return us to Umberto Eco’s famous distinction of “ten little middle ages” and his exhortation to us to spend some time determining which ‘middle ages” we are devoted to [with the understanding that our decision has political implications]. As compelling as some of Eco’s distinctions were, for Prendergast and Trigg, his list had a “stultifying effect on the study of the Middle Ages both because it has encouraged the field of medievalism to engage in a kind of criticism that is largely taxonomic and because it has perpetuated the split between understandings of medieval and medievalism,” and also because Eco “assumes that the Middle Ages themselves are stable, while different variable and partial elements of medieval culture are emphasized by different groups of game players, fiction writers, filmmakers, and so on.” Further, the medievalism of these groups is always subject to academic critique “on the grounds of historical accuracy” [p. 216]. What Prendergast and Trigg would like to do is focus less on how a particular representation of the Middle Ages does or does not match up with a so-called historical reality, and more on “the broader conceptualization of the medieval in its relation to any given present.” More pointedly, they ask,
How do we still recognize and produce the medieval? What are the discursive, institutional and political effects of these various acts of medievalization, whenever they take place and to whatever end, whether scholarly, imaginative, or strategic? [p. 216]Whether something is described as “medieval” or is set “firmly in the past in a regressive or abject relationship to the past,” what ultimately happens is that the “medieval” [whatever that might mean] only really comes into relief “at the moment of its own supercession”—things only really “become medieval” when they are left behind [p. 219]. There is no middle ground, as it were, in this scenario between the supposedly real Middle Ages one can always go back to and discover in its historical authenticity and the more unreal Middle Ages that “returns” in the guise of the idealized romance [Arthur] or as “the abjected dark other” to modernity [think: the image of the gothic torture dungeon].
Prendergast and Trigg worry [and I would say, usefully so] about the easy acceptance [by some in our field] of the Middle Ages as a space of hard-edged alterity, for it is a short step from that stance to “dismiss the ‘medieval’ as the opposite of all that is useful to a modern university, a library, or a nation, on the simple grounds that the medieval has no place in modernity” and medieval studies thereby becomes an easy target as “the weakest link, the least modern, the least useful, the least relevant part of the humanities clamouring for government funding” [p. 218]. Nevertheless, to argue for the Middle Ages as some kind of “origin point” for modernity would be equally simplistic and short-sighted. I would note here that, while I agree with Tom and Stephanie on this point, I also believe in a kind of toolkit of the widest possible variety of guerilla tactics for convincing university administrators, grant institutions, and the like of the “relevance” of medieval studies; in other words, in the short term, we make whatever arguments are expedient in certain given contexts—if someone will be persuaded by the argument that the Middle Ages represents the “origin” of a certain kind of modern subjectivity or modern notion of legal “rights” or of certain literary modes, then I’ll make that argument if it gets me what I need in the short term [certain curricular changes, the establishment of a faculty line, funding for a research project, etc.]—and for the longer-term health of our field, we continue to work collaboratively and in vigorous fashion to delineate the more complicated inter-relationships between medieval, modern, and post-modern in such a fashion that, say, cultural studies becomes a discipline that cannot even imagine not having a “deep” historical component, and then, even more importantly, this more historically-minded cultural studies begins to form alliances with developing fields of inquiry in other disciplines, such as sociology or the cognitive sciences or new media studies. On this note, I would plug here a roundtable session scheduled for this coming July’s Medieval Congress at Leeds on “Complexity Science and the Humanities” which is described this way [and of course I’ll be in the audience with notebook in hand]:
Recent work on networks in theoretical physics has proved applicable in a number of different contexts including cultural dynamics and religion. Some of these findings provide intriguing insights for scholars concerned with population dynamics, the percolation of the spread of ideas, tipping points for altering the consensus of society and how individuals’ opinions and allegiances change over time. Medievalists have a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data on these subjects and are familiar with dealing with long-term change. This round-table discussion seeks both to explain some of these ideas in non-technical language and to bring together medievalists with economists and physicists for the discussion of possible collaboration in this fast-developing and well-funded area of research.It occurs to me, too, that medieval studies would be well served to have a position similar to the one the biologist Richard Dawkins has occupied since 1995 at Oxford, the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science. I think a really progressive university should create a Chair of Public Understanding of Medieval Studies and then appoint someone to that Chair who would devote their career to the advocacy of the relevance of medieval studies to contemporary issues and problems—cultural, social, political, and otherwise. [Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?]
Prendergast and Trigg also worry about the ways in which medieval studies has, in a sense, policed its own temporal borders [never mind how university or grant administrators have cordoned off medieval studies from everything else], such that the term “medievalism” itself “separates and abjects the academic study of medievalism in order to retain the ‘purity’ of medieval studies” [p. 220]. Because so much labor has been invested in our field in order to transform what we perceive was once “uncriticial amateurism” into a “scientific profession,” such that we could be “legitimate” as a discipline, “popular recuperations of the medieval necessarily became misunderstandings—a kind of afterbirth which maintained only an attenuated relationship to the real work of medieval studies” [p. 221]. Ultimately, the “split between labour and pleasure is at the heart of the medieval/medievalism split” and contemporary medievalism is “tarred by the same brush that in conservative circles continues to dismiss cultural studies as mere chat about television, cinema, and the Internet” [p. 224]. By way of the “cases,” as it were, of the sometimes incredulous reception, in the Middle Ages itself, of saints’ relics and the legend of Arthur [as well as of his supposed relics, such as the Round Table at Winchester], Prendergast and Trigg show that, in all times and places, it is “difficult to unravel the connection of the medieval and the medievalistic,” and “even if the historical veracity of the thing being proved is accepted as true, the relics that point back to the veracious thing are themselves false—even if they were created as a kind of medievalistic simulacrum” [p. 228]. It will be important, then, in moving forward with our discipline, to “engage in a systematic investigation of the genealogy” of the categories of and divisions between past, present, and future “medievalisms,” and to “recollect along the way that the remains of the medieval always have a contemporary plot” [p. 229]. The “medieval,” in other words, can never really be separated from any particular “present” in which it is being invoked, appropriated, investigated, [supposedly objectively] described, refashioned, etc.
I find Prendergast’s and Trigg’s arguments especially useful for thinking about, not only the historicity of all the ways in which, in different times and places, we both remember and forget the past, but also how we might envision a more interventionist medieval studies—one that would take on contemporary appropriations of the medieval in the global social, political, legal, and other spheres, such as Bruce Holsinger has done in his chaplet book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, or as Steve Guthrie recently did in an article on the popular uses of the Middle Ages within the context of the war in Iraq [Medieval Perspectives, vol. 19], or as Kathleen Davis has done in her recent book Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time, where she writes in her Epilogue [apropos to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay]:
The political currency of feudalism and secularization returns us to the question “Where is the Now?” which, I have suggested, is the appropriate question to be asked about medieval/modern periodization. The assumption that “the Middle Ages” actually existed as a meaningful entity, and that it was “religious” and “feudal,” bulwarks the persistent determination to ignore the historicity of fundamental political categories. The problem with the “grand narrative” of the West is not simply one of linearity and the myth of “progress.” More crucially, it is a problem of the formation of concepts in conjunction with periodization, a process that retroactively reifies categories and erases their histories. If the future is to be open, rather than already determined, then periodization must come undone. [p. 134]Davis’s book is especially significant in this interventionist vein, in my mind, because it joins with a growing body of work by scholars in other fields, such as Talal Asad, who are challenging, in important ways, the religious/secular, West/non-West, and modern/medieval binaries [see, for example, Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity].
In her response to Prendergast’s and Trigg’s essay, “Are We Having Fun Yet?”, Dinshaw considers the “temporal weirdness” of Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle,” which was originally published in Irving’s Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the fictionalized compendium of a fictionalized antiquarian interested in medieval re-enactments, among other literary and historical matters. In Dinshaw’s mind, a close reading of Irving’s story can “animate” for us “the temporal principles informing Prendergast and Trigg’s article” [p. 233]. Rip is a perfect figure for consideration because, thanks to his twenty-year sleep, during which he continues to physically age, Rip is both in and out of his time: while his body registers the passage of time, he has no mental recollection of that passage nor does he even know that there was a Revolution, and it barely seems to matter [he can still sit at his favorite tavern and drink beer like the bachelor he used to wish he was], while at the same time, Rip does experience some confusion as to where and when, exactly, he is, partly because, to everyone else in the village, he is somehow out of place, a peculiar throwback to another era. In Dinshaw’s view,
In Rip’s befuddlement and panic we get a sense of how it feels to be medievalized: in this case it feels very, very wrong, eventually threatening Rip’s very being: ‘I’m not myself—I’m somebody else […] I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!’ But medievalization is just part of the story in this village: Rip himself feels continuity, not rupture, and his experiential continuities render the ‘historical ruptures’ of revolution and ‘modernity’ nugatory . . . . As every historian knows and as ‘Rip van Winkle’ works out in narrative, a revolution does not necessarily or evenly across a population produce a rupture in experience. Moreover, Prendergast and Trigg’s analysis opens up the intriguing prospect that something or someone being medievalized can resist or push back against that process of medievalization. [p. 235]Very much in line with Dinshaw’s work elsewhere, she asks us to consider what Rip’s story tells us about time “as a lived phenomenon” and how a medieval studies attuned to this might “accommodate, indeed explore, the fact that chronology, the timeline of events, clock time, do not tell us everything—or in many cases, even very much—about lived experience.” In this scenario, time is not only “not a smooth stream, but it is also not the same for everyone” [p. 235]. And I would add here that, in some sense, each of us is out of step in some respect with time—we always have to be recalled to it and to our supposed place in “official” time, while at the same time, in order to discover what is meaningful and unique about our own existence and experience, we have to become fugitives from chrono-teleological time, or in another scenario, we are all always already fugitives in or out of time [hence my epigraph above from Spencer Reese’s poem “Tonight” which is addressed to a newly-born infant—I am thinking here also of the multiple semantic meanings of ‘fugitive,’ from lost/straying to fleeting/ephemeral to passing to elusive].
Medieval studies, Dinshaw argues, “must be capacious enough to encourage us to reckon thoroughly with such heterogeneities of temporal apprehension and the implications (historical, disciplinary) thereof—the felt experience of time, be it the time of medieval merchants, clerics, or labourers . . . or mystics, or scholars, or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism” [p. 236]. If Prendergast and Trigg worry about a certain range of cultural productions [that fall under the label of “popular medievalisms”] being ignored by medievalists who wish to maintain clean lines between their study of the past and the present, Dinshaw worries about another realm that causes medievalists discomfort: “the realm of the spiritual, of belief, of faith.” In Dinshaw’s view, temporal heterogeneity “is in fact a hallmark of Christianity . . . and a temporally expansive medieval studies needs to take faith, and more broadly the supernatural, to be taken seriously.” More pointedly, Dinshaw asserts, following James Simpson, that “faith of a kind” is “in fact the ground of all interpretation,” and interpretation “is like religion . . . in that it ‘demands’ an ‘exercise of faith’ in order to begin” [p. 236; see James Simpson, “Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism,” JMEMS 33 (2003): 215-39]. Furthermore, the act of interpretation is always temporally asynchronous:
when I read Margery Kempe’s Book, I encounter her words in a hermeneutical Now in which medieval past meets twenty-first-century present. The peculiar temporality of interpretation—the time of hermeneutic contact—is out of linear time. In view of such inevitable hermeneutic conditions, medieval studies is not—as we must not pretend that it is—so entirely separate from the spiritual phenomena it discusses. [p. 236]Dinshaw’s essay goes on to make several other important points, but I want to stop here with her provocative argument that interpretation is like a religion, and that medieval studies is not as objectively removed [as it often thinks it is] “from the spiritual phenomena it discusses.” Of course, we have to be careful and remind ourselves of how important it has been in recent years for our field to distance itself from the kind of allegorical criticism that merely recapitulated Christianized, hegemonic readings of medieval texts [all assumed to be Christian in one measure or another, as if that world-view so thoroughly dominated the mental airwaves of the Middle Ages that nothing else got through, and we could discern nothing else]. And having cleared that troubling admission out of the way, we can ask with Dinshaw, more searchingly, how interpretation is an act of faith, one dependent on the very heterogeneous and asynchronous temporalities that fuel, as it were, medieval Christian mentalities. And let's ask, too: faith in what, exactly?
Does anyone else see, as I do, the little bomb that Dinshaw has thrown into this conversation? So many considerations crowd my mind—first of all, poetics. For if interpretation is a “kind of faith,” it requires, not a rationalistic, fully objectified discourse [nor what Ricouer termed a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or what Eve Sedgwick, more recently, has described as “paranoid readings”], but rather, a poetics in the sense that John Caputo gives to that term: “an evocative discourse that articulates the event,” as opposed to a logic, which is “a normative discourse governing entities (real or possible), which can or do instantiate its propositions” [The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, p. 103]. Further [and here I am thinking specifically of Margery Kempe, as well as of Dinshaw writing on Kempe], a poetics “describes a desire beyond reason and beyond what is reasonably possible, a desire to know what we cannot know, or to love what we dare not love” [The Weakness of God, p. 104]. I am thinking here, too, of Joan Retallack’s poethical wager, in which a certain “poetics of desire . . . moves us toward a responsive and pleasurable connection to the world by means of informed sensualities of language” [The Poethical Wager, p. 5], and where we stake our faith on a certain meaningfulness [which doesn’t have to have anything to do with God or gods], despite all epistemological evidence to the contrary. But this will also mean acknowledging that, on some level, there has to be a there there—as Dinshaw puts it a little further on in her response to Prendergast and Trigg, the past always retains in some fashion its otherness and what we might “understand as the past’s own intransigence makes an ethical relation to it possible” [p. 240]. There is a certain palpable materiality to the past—no matter how silent or inaccessible or covered over with layers and layers of self- and appropriative representations—that begs some acknowledgment of obdurate difference and even of an alter will to have said what we would never say ourselves, or even want to hear. But in any case, we traffic in ghosts, which is to say: we believe in them. Or do we? What do we believe in, again? If interpretation is an act of faith, faith in what, or who? You tell me.