Friday, November 30, 2012

early modern

by J J Cohen

Dan Vitkus asked me to compose a very short piece on the uses and problems of the term "early modern" for a forum ("What do we mean by 'Early Modern'?") in a forthcoming issue of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. I'm already up against the 2K word limit, so adding the nuance that this project really requires wasn't an option. My assumption is that because this is a position piece readers will know that I am stating things rather too starkly and will know that critical praxis is typically more complicated.

Well, it's a draft at least. Let me know what you think.

 “Early modern” is sometimes deployed to indicate a bounded and distinct span of human history. This alterist approach to periodization emphasizes that whatever years the term brackets will be understood to differ substantially from the centuries that precede and follow. Or “early modern” might signify a commencement, the time during which institutions, epistemologies, and subjectivities familiar today found their first articulation and burgeoned, an inaugurative and continuist mode of temporal partitioning. Though in critical practice these temporal frames tend to blend quietly into each other, neither serves the period very well -- and not simply because both begin by abjecting the Middle Ages. Medievalists learned long ago that when you carve your scholarly habitation out of time’s wilderness of flux and declare this secure home exclusively yours, you may as well have retreated to the monastery. Or if instead of attempting to live apart from modernity you enter its conversations by insisting that "All your base are belong to us" (or AYBABTU, as the kids write) -- that it all started c. 750 or 1200 or 1500 or whatever -- you will be the person in the corner attempting to be cool by citing old internet memes while really just give those nearby an excuse to step quietly away. I’ll say a few words about each approach, alterist and continuist, both of which are as familiar in medieval as they are they are in early modern studies, before offering a third possibility.

Derived from the Latin word modo (“just now”), modern demarcates a temporal break as well as a changed way of being, a distinct mode of cultural and subjective existence. If time is a forward moving line, then “early modern” is in the alterist framework an autonomous segment cut from that vector and stabilized into self-containment. The detritus of a surpassed history will, of course, remain visible, as will some seeds of a future to come (early modern intimates a more modern modernity yet to arrive), but when time is cut into supersessionary periodizations each section of history will also stand as fairly discrete.[1] Each well-delineated temporal expanse must then be approached through the precision of historicism, with its insistence upon the contextual and relational determination of meaning. At its worst, historicism’s discontinuist method of interpretation can freeze a period into potential stasis. Historicist pronouncements of inherent rigor and the singularity of truth have made life rather difficult, for example, for feminists, queers, those who believe a text might demonstrate a polychronicity irreducible to inscription of the present, or those who hold that no temporal moment is an ethos. Newer historicisms may be friendlier to scholars who once had been outliers, but historicism is in its foundational acts exclusionary. The early modern is not medieval, and so a great deal of what becomes legible or earns the esteemed label of emergent is going to depend upon what gets sloughed into the Middle Ages. Dissolving text into context or human subjectivity into disciplinary discourses is also, in the end, a rather impoverished way of apprehending how a work works. As Graham Harman has recently written of New Historicism and its “fiesta of interactivity,” relational readings of texts imagine that works are exhaustible through emplacement into context.[2] Yet like any object a text holds reserves of unplumbed relations that ensure its resistant vitality.

Arguing for the absolute difference of one’s time period is also an excellent way of requesting that those outside its parameters ignore work conducted within. Why enter a conversation with someone who assumes you have little to say to the texts they study, who propounds that the world is not shared? Alternatively, “early modern” might declare that “It All Starts Here,” that modernity commences around the time of Shakespeare and those who study his plays are as au courant as scholars whose research focuses upon global literature, ecological theory, disability studies, and the critique of neoliberalism. “Early modern -- modern -- postmodern” neatly align into a progressive narrative so that everything today familiar may be spotted rising into view in some early modern text or other. The problem with such a culminating story is fourfold. If it is narrated to capture the attention of those who work in modernism or postmodernism, it is doomed to fail: no one cares about the scholar who insists “It all started in my time” – medievalists have learned this lesson the hard way. Second, this version of “early modern” commences by obliterating the millennium that precedes. The Middle Ages become a long span of intransigent piousness that obstructs classical learning from making its transformative and affirmative return. Third, “early modern” quietly subscribes to a Eurocentric timeline, since modernity never gets evenly allotted. Narratives of cultural progress like those implicit in both “early” and “modern” possess an invidious colonial history – and what does early modern look like when viewed from Beijing, Mumbai, Ankara? Last, now that modernity has been abandoned for a series of designations which bear the prefix “post” but do not necessarily deploy that designation as a temporal marker, the reasons for hooking the flourishing of Milton or Cavendish to them have dwindled. Postmodernity, the postcolonial, and the posthuman have each been critically redefined nonlinearly as an “always already” rather than an apex or temporal rupture.

Those who study the Middle Ages face a rather different situation. Manuscript culture can be strikingly different from print, demanding an account of the varied time of objects rather than of anthropocentric history. An inherent multitemporality ensures that medievalists can seldom dissolve their texts into historical relations. Medieval works typically survive in multiple manuscript versions that postdate their putative origin by decades, even centuries. Some like the fourteenth-century travel narrative known as the Book of Mandeville arrive as a polyglot plethora.[3] We are fairly certain the Book was first composed in Anglo-Norman French, but a variety of English Mandevilles also erupted, leading to a tangle of versions from which no urtext can be reconstructed. We do not know who composed the “original” book (other than its author was unlikely to have been John Mandeville) or where the work first found words (France has been guessed, but there is no way to know for certain). Manuscript history suggests the third quarter of the fourteenth century as its date of composition, but the cultural conditions under which it was produced cannot be excavated – and would not, at any rate, enable us to know why Walter Raleigh was citing Mandeville when describing his adventures in Guyana. The text is not anchored in a moment of origin, and continued to reproduce, mutate, and proliferate itself for several centuries. Its narrative is a collage of borrowings, rendering its imagined peregrinations from the start a temporally thick archive. We have a profusion of Books of Mandeville, each of which brims with the pasts it condenses and gestures towards the futures it is opening up as it moves restlessly through the world.

Because they work in the “Middle Ages” (a plural and imprecise designation for the times left behind so that our Now could arrive), medievalists are not responsible for explaining modernity. They can ignore it, if they wish. This temporal disconnect has made it far easier for them to ally with the critical “post-,” especially posthumanism. The new journal postmedieval, for example, makes the vitality of these confederations across time clear. If the Middle Ages mark a kind of non-teleological middle, more possibility inheres in the medieval than, say, describing the period as the “very early modern” or “extremely late classical.” What if the medieval were not middle to anything? Instead of a historical lacuna sandwiched between the fall of Rome and the rise of the early modern, what if the medial adjective in the Middle Ages does necessarily signify as intended? In the introduction I composed for the edited collection The Postcolonial Middle Ages (“Midcolonial”), I traced the transformation of post-colonial to postcolonial, “an intermediacy that no narrative can pin to a single moment of history in its origin or end.”[4] What if the “middle” of the Middle Ages were likewise a nontemporal designation? What if, “both ‘in and of themselves’ and through their constitution as a distinct object of study, the Middle Ages in their mediacy confront the modern with powerful trauma conjoined to the possibility of transhistorical alliance and mutual transformation” (“Midcolonial” 5)? The past is not past, is not an absolute difference; nor is the past conjoined to the present in continuity, in sameness. Past, present, and future are a temporal knot, thick with possibility even while impossible to fully untangle. Time is irregular, history is queer. A medieval that is middle to nothing in particular suits many of the scholars who work within its designation just fine.

[1] On the reduction this linearization of history demands and the explosive temporalities that might still inhere within, see Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). I’ve also written about various modes of conceptualizing temporality in the first chapter of Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
[2] See Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43 (2012): 183–203, quotation at 192.
[3] On the Book of Mandeville’s multiplicity see Iain Macleod Higgins, Writing East: The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). For an excellent translation that surveys the recent scholarship on the Book, see Anthony Bale, The Book of Marvels and Travels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[4] “Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) 1-17, quotation at 3.


Steve Mentz said...

Interesting. I suspect many early modernists might respond to this prompt through "early modern" as a revision of "Renaissance" rather than through anti-medievalism -- though of course both terms sing that old Dark Ages blues. I wonder how much, despite your valiant and admirable effort to escape into a "nontemporal" middle at the end, all configurations of periodicity in lit/cult studies aim to, in your phrase, "serve the period well." Or, in other words, even imaginative post-whatever critics remain implicitly bounded, at least by expertise, familiarity, audience, etc. How nontemporal can we really get, even if you teach Lear, I teach Beowulf, and we both teach Latour? Lotta historicism still flowing through academic creekbeds. Landscapes change, but not on human time scales.

I hope for literary historicism to develop a richer critical language for thinking about change, especially catastrophic change, across different time periods. Change is really the hard thing to make sense of, since it requires a baseline of assumed continuity -- change in relation to what? -- as well as some idea of consequence or direction: change into what? The relentless horizontalization of New Hist doesn't do change well, it seems to me. In this context, I think "early modern" has more interesting implications than "Renaissance," though I'm also attracted to more specific terms like "globalization" or even the "Columbian exchange." Without in any way wanting to repeat the anti-medievalism you rightly warn against, of course -- almost all interesting things happen in all historical periods, differently, i changing forms.

I like the polychronous/fluid Middle Ages that I find at ITM & other places, but the risky end-state of such methods, as you well know, is a Nontemporal Soup in which, as JLB says, "everything happens at the same time...exactly, precisely now." I like the taste of that Borgesian soup, as I suspect you & the ITM gang do too, but it's strong stuff. Our diet craves variety.

Some smart writers, including Rob Watson, have recently gone back to the "Renaissance" rather than "early modern," and it makes me think that there's some value in more, rather than fewer, methods of partial periodization, particularly if we remember that all periodizing systems create error as well as (potentially) insight. Doesn't every decade, every season, every century or day of the week have its own flavor?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Steve, for these great observations. Very, very useful.

I was trying to trace in the position paper the results of happy accidents and complicated self-nominations. Medievalists didn't choose to be in the middle, but here we are in that unillumined waiting room between Important Moments of Progress -- and as it turns out mediality provides some surprisingly handy tools for thinking about time outside of linearity. (Catastrophe, I'd say, is likewise nonlinear: it's vorticular). "Early modern" has so much incipience built into it that it's hard to move it to a nonteleological or nonprogressive frame (where nonprogressive does NOT mean devoid of change) as the various periods christened with a post have done for themselves. I don't think it's impossible but the terms don't yield much flexibility. Renaissance isn't much better, unless the rebirth is a return from the dead and thereby involves zombies. THAT kind of Renaissance is ripe for thought.

I've said this many times in my writing and I'll state it again: historicism is a kind of sine qua non of methodological integrity. You can't not have some measure of historicism built into your interpretative schema if you hope to do ethical justice to the past. But historicism is in and of itself an insufficient frame: when it's a closed system, it stultifies, and worse, it reduces a lively history to stasis. Psychoanalysis has also been great at teaching us that you can't study historicism without also understanding pleasure and fantasy and desire (and, thereby, intertemporality).

It's a complicated mesh. We've inherited some good tools, but others need to be rethought, or maybe broken. I don't believe in a nontemporal soup so much as polytemporal strata. I do think time is thick and thin, slow and fast, all at once. And I'm less interested in flavors and fads than I am in what the ingredients in that soup or materialities in that vortex might say, how much they hold in reserve, how they trigger change and themselves change via surprising relations as the catastrophes mount and loosen the sediments.

Steve Mentz said...

Soup v strata, sediments v flavors. It all comes back to rocks v seas, doesn't it?

Great stuff. Catastrophe is certainly nonlinear, though Lindy's great BABEL chart reminds us that, if we shift temporal frames, it starts look linear.

I'm not really sure either early modern or Ren can be salvaged, but I also doubt either can be jettisoned. Imperfect tools, like historicism itself.

Jonathan Hsy said...

This is really engaging and provocative, Jeffrey, and I'm glad that you've been asked to offer a perspective here. Steve beat me to the question about the status of the periodizing moniker of the "Renaissance" here, with "early modern" shift a self-conscious realignment (conceptual pivot) from retroactive affinity to a seemingly more progressive one.

I'm actually very intrigued by what seems to be almost a 'throwaway' reference to the AYBABTU internet meme, as I wonder if you might say more about the strange effects of mistranslation and plurality here (an incongruous non-agreement between singular noun and plural verb)? My sense is that you are reincorporating some of this through your excellent comments about the polyglot multiplicity (heterochronicity) of Mandeville/s, but I'm still trying to sort out the connection...

Jonathan Hsy said...

*with "early modern" a self-conscous shift or realignment

[sorry for the transposition of words]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Jonathan, for making that link. Yes, I'd argue for the "incongruous non-agreement between singular noun and plural verb" as a foretaste of the temporally and linguistically dense archive we get with the Books of Mandeville ... but also with the Middle-to-Nothing AgeS themselves.

Having a plural designation for the period is a happy accident -- and as you've pointed out before, a happy accident reserved to English.

Tobias said...

I’m entirely sympathetic to your sense that the time of history is best understood as heterogeneous, knotted, “vorticular,” defined by differential speeds of sedimentation and erosion, as prone to repetition and sudden emergent constellations as to linear unfolding. At the _same time_, I’m compelled by two materialist arguments about the unidirectional linearity of history. The first is Jameson’s frequent claim that capitalism introduces a radical discontinuity in history (which he, often enough, defines in terms of “modernity”), a rupture that all thinking about the present and the past must grapple with. For instance, from _The Political Unconscious_: “ideology leaves its mark on myth criticism insofar as the latter presupposed an unbroken continuity between the social relations and narrative forms of primitive society and the cultural objects of our own. For Marxism, on the contrary, it is the radical break between the two social formations which must be stressed, if we are to begin to grasp the degree to which capitalism has effectively dissolved all the older forms of collective relations” (69). Consider that every single object in the office where I’m sitting, except perhaps the dust and the air, has passed through a global system of commodity production. Isn’t “modernity,” in its most meaningful theorizations, a way of confronting the implications of that fact? Of course, even more significant is the fact that the air I’m breathing contains the artifacts of human activity. It is this fact that has led geologists to designate the emergence of a new geologic period, the Anthropocene. A slightly different but equally valid form of periodization would be in terms of the sixth mass extinction event. It seems to me almost inevitable that cultural historians with any sort of materialist commitment will increasingly grapple with the historical break implied by the unprecedented human agency over geophysical and ecosystemic processes that begins in the late eighteenth century (well, we could argue about that date). With regard to climate change, the feedback loop offers a particularly haunting principle of time’s irreversibility and directionality. There is, of course, an etymological hint of vorticular turning in “catastrophe,” but we also need to think about catastrophe in terms of unidirectional accumulation, feedback loops, and extinction. I entirely understand the imperative to resist any model of periodization that implies the homogeneous linear passage of time (especially when understood teleologically or progressively). But I think we also learn something crucial about ourselves—about the terrifying vertiginousness of our present, of our headlong rush into the future—by recognizing historical breaks, our rupture with the past.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that very smart comment, Tobias.

On the one hand, sure, it does seem like the rise of the global market and the hegemony of capitalism have changed everything and the world is no longer what it was, so that "the degree to which capitalism has effectively dissolved all the older forms of collective relations" (aka "primitive society") is profound. And yes, of course, we don't live in classical Rome or Neolithic Britain and things have changed. But some problems unfold as soon as we attempt to locate a suitably primitive society and hope they will actually conform to what is posited as the Before of capitalism. Such societies seldom comply. As Steve Muhlberger mentioned in a great comment here "in the time of Hammurabi in the city of Ur, they had fast food outlets." Egypt, Phoenicia, classical Greece, Rome, Neolithic Britain? Very sophisticated world markets that may not have been fully capitalist but certainly don't conform to the idea that social relations within a "global system of commodity production" were not theirs, in some degree. An insistence upon radical rupture as the engine of historical change can obliterate facts that belie rupture's inaugurative zeal.

I admit though that I am out of my depth here. I'm not working within a Marxist or Jamesonian frame, and don't know such critical modes as well as you clearly do. But I will say that one of the reasons I think a lot about extinction and have been embarked for the past few years on my geological project is not because I think the Anthropocene is a radical break so much as an acceleration via a new life form of something we've seen before. The Permian extinction is being replayed (stones can tell us that story) -- yes at new hands but via the same deadly combination of gases and thermal devastation as has apparently happened previously. The results will no doubt be the same. It's not as if we don't possess a good map from the past for the destination at which we seem hellbent at arriving.

Tobias said...

I realized as I wrote "sixth mass extinction" that I was invoking some of the re-turning implied by the strophe in catastrophe. And I guess there's an interesting intellectual and rhetorical effect in saying--oh, yes, this has happened before ... 250 million years ago!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This piece on higher versus lower organisms and the immortal jellyfish controversy seemed oddly relevant:

Steve Mentz said...

I like both of Tobias's naratives of epochal change, the Marxist and the Anthropocene. To which I might add the Homogenocene or "Columbian Exchange," which identifies the ecoological consequences of the re-integration of the Americas into the Eurasia-Africa ecosystem after 1492. Though I suppose that's forgetting the medieval Viking settlement of Greenland, etc.

I like that narrative in part b/c it's convenient for me as a 16-17c specialist. But I suppose that's all the more reason to suspect it.

We also can't choose just one: the Columbia exchange, the Marxist expansion, climate change (which arguably began with agriculture, per the Ruddiman thesis) all are happening, all the time.

David Moles said...

I propose we take our cue from Eastern history and rename the Long Middle Ages (476-1492) the Warring States Period.