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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.
 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).
 See Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43 (2012): 183–203, quotation at 192.
 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).
 “Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) 1-17, quotation at 3.