by EILEEN JOY
Tomorrow [Thursday, April 1st], Karl, Dan Remein, Patricia Dailey and I will be sharing remarks and ideas relative to the topic of "Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies," as part of a special discussion forum at New York University--"Always Historicize? Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies"--organized by Hal Momma on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium. We decided ahead of time to each read the chapters by Jeffrey ["Time Out of Memory"] and Maura Nolan ["Historicism after Historicism"] in the recent essay collection, The Post-Historical Middle Ages, edited by Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico [Palgrave, 2009] as a jumping-off point for discussion. I am very much looking forward to this forum and to the debate(s), discussion(s), and conviviality that will surely follow, and once I return I will post the full text of my remarks here.
I have to say up front that my thinking on these matters has been profoundly affected by dialogues and debates with my co-bloggers and blog readers here over the years, and there is real affinity as well with the manner in which Jeffrey concluded his paper recently delivered at York, "The Future of the Jews of York," and my own thinking on a so-called "post-historical" Middle Ages, especially in relation to Jeffrey's concluding question in that paper [and in much of his work] regarding other, possible worlds.
In the meantime, I leave you with my opening gambit:
Embracing the Swerve: A Fugitive Medieval Studies
There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or at the future, other than nondirectionally outward. Get up and look around, as [John] Cage once said. You will see everything there is to work with right (t)here, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses.
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager
In her contribution to The Post-Historical Middle Ages, “Historicism after Historicism,” Maura Nolan makes some very reasonable arguments that appear to strike a productive accord between alteritist and more inter-temporal forms of historicism, especially within the realm of literary, or aesthetic criticism. To whit, she advocates that,
1. temporalities are thick, mobile, and multiple in any given time period, past and present, and therefore some understanding of any moment’s particular heterogeneity is essential to the critical enterprise, or as Nolan herself puts it, “both sameness and difference are essential to genuinely grasping the past and its complexity” (p. 67);At the same time that Nolan advocates for a medieval literary studies that would have critical investments in the past’s somewhat intractable difference, while also recognizing its temporal and even ludic motilities, her essay is shot through with a certain severe, disciplinary rhetoric that everywhere insists on the past’s distance and on the scholar’s responsibility to literally submit to that distance—to traverse its resistance under the “yoke” of the past’s “weight,” which should constrain us. Therefore:
2. artifacts—textual or otherwise—travel and get appropriated in different historical contexts, thereby functioning as markers of “the simultaneous continuity and alienation between past and present,” but each artifact also “resists its transportation” as it gets pulled backwards by the undertow of its “prior meanings” (p. 77); and finally,
3. the literary work is a “privileged aesthetic zone” in which “the potential for words to signify in multiple ways is indulged” (p. 70), and therefore, a “meaningful historicism . . . will not be threatened by accusations of artfulness,” especially when we consider that the historical method itself “is a kind of formalism, a craft of reading and writing about texts” (p. 83).
1. history “exerts a constant pressure on the literary work” (p. 63);Perhaps most important to Nolan, because it is something she repeats more than once, is the caution that “[m]odes of thought that begin analysis with generalizations or abstractions—that start with an idea and look for a text to fit—cannot substitute . . . for a patient submission to the text until it yields its secrets and reveals its forms” (p. 83). Here Nolan reveals her hand as a scholar invested in the recovery of authorial intention and, in fact, she describes historicism at one point as “nothing more than a responsible literary criticism that seeks to understand the meaning of a writer’s work as fully as possible,” and she also invokes the “truth of the Middle Ages” as that elusive “secret” at which both historicism and theory supposedly aim (pp. 79, 83, my emphases). And all of this is somewhat at odds with her call for a reading practice that would allow for “the strange, the exceptional, [and] the weird” (p. 84).
2. the Middle Ages are “recognizably human but ineradicably different” (p. 68);
3. “attempts to understand the past, medieval and modern, have limits—historical, ideological, and aesthetic boundaries that give shape and form to . . . [various] modes of past- and self-understanding” (p. 69);
4. to “think through what a culture’s aesthetic production actually does, from the inside and at close range, should be a primary objective” of our criticism (p. 83); and finally,
5. “the best that scholars can do, mired in linear history as they are, is to recognize that critical difference is the lifeblood of scholarship, while acknowledging that bending to the yoke of the past is a necessary precondition for grasping its particularity, its precious difference from the present” (p. 83).
My own intention here this evening is to call for ir-responsible reading practices within medieval studies—modes of reading that would embrace the movement of what Lucretius termed the clinamen, the swerve or declination in the motion of atoms falling through a laminar void, and which literally means, as the political theorist Jane Bennett has explained, “to take the minimum angle necessary to veer away—[to] prefer not to go with the flow.” This is also, as Michael Serres has put it, “the tiniest angle necessary and sufficient to produce turbulence.” Without the swerve, the universe would have no novelty, no spatiotemporal possibility, no surprises. As a result of the actual swerves that take place every day (on both micro and macro levels), the present is always that fugitive temporal zone that is constituted, in the words of political theorist William Connolly, by a “dissonant conjunction between past and present,” and therefore “it becomes wise to fold the expectation of surprise and the unexpected into the very fabric of our explanatory theories, interpretive schemes, religious identities, territorial conceptions of politics, and ethical sensibilities. And to work on ourselves subtly to overcome existential resentment of these expectations.” This calls to mind as well Bryan Reynolds’ method of reading Shakespeare transversally as “Shakespace,” a term that “encompasses the plurality of Shakespeare-related articulatory spaces and the time, speed, and force at which they transmit and replicate, like memes, through places, cultures, and eras.” Such spaces require “fugitive explorations” that “defy the authorities that reduce and contain meanings” as they hunt for “slippages, loose threads, and latent signifiers in a chosen text,” not to merely deconstruct that text, but as a “gateway to other possible readings and, by extension, to other conceptual, emotional and physical localities.” To embark on fugitive explorations within medieval texts is necessarily to both work and play within their most immediate historical languages and frames, while also carrying them into other territories.
For the purposes of re-thinking new models for reading medieval texts, I am inspired by the poet Joan Retallack’s thinking on the “poetics of the swerve” as “a constructive preoccupation with . . . unpredictable forms of change” and “unsettling transfiguration[s] of once-familiar terrain.” In this scenario, the critical essay is an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment,” and we write, not to “deliver space-time in a series of shiny freeze-frames, each with its built-in strategy of persuasion,” but to “stay warm and active and realistically messy,” to “disrupt the fatal momentum” of linear histories. For better or worse, the past is not so much behind us as we are literally embedded in its wreckage, and therefore we inhabit what Retallack has coined the “(chaotic) continuous contemporary,” a sort of fractal coastline along which we might glimpse some of the ways in which “large cultural trajectories” come into contact and flow with “constantly changing local configurations.” And we might remind ourselves, too, of how Bourdieu described our habitus—as “embodied history, internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history . . . the active present of the whole past of which it is the product.” We must break with our habitus, or at least recognize better the ways in which it obstructs our view of the marvelous and vibrant energy of things moving in directions we cannot always predict in advance.