Wednesday, March 08, 2006
A few thoughts on the American Middle Ages
I am almost finished with the draft of the afterword for Reality, Television and the Middle Ages .
Reading through the essays collected in the volume was a pleasure. The winding threads of their shared conversations often led to unexpected conjunctions: cable television with Chaucer, the evening news in Florida with Orderic Vitalis, George Bush with wolves and Henry Bolingbroke, penance manuals and Arthurian myth with reality television. Forget the clichéd progress narrative of how the contemporary had to leave the medieval behind to become its resplendent self. Forget the historical denigration of the medieval as abject, other, undeveloped. In their insistence upon the intimacy of the medieval within the modern and the modern within the medieval, these essays collectively offer nothing less than a theory of temporal interpenetration. The chronologies detailed here are complex, nonlinear stories of how the past cohabitates the present and might even potentially trigger unexpected futures.
The essays gathered in the book have much in common, but one shared trait that resonated for me as I read through the volume several times is their implicit American ambit. The war in Iraq and television shows like Survivor are, from one point of view, inherently international. Yet even if they mainly unfold in distant geographies and involve other countries as participants, spectators, or victims, these are still American events (the war was instigated and is being run by the Bush administration; the castaways vying for a million dollars might sail to Panama or Polynesia but they are US citizens being watched by US citizens). The Middle Ages that informs the majority of the essays in this book is a fairly Anglocentric and Christiancentric one: not surprising, of course, given that the version of the Middle Ages that dominates the American academy is mainly an anglophile and Christian one. This enduring postcolonial inheritance determines what past is most easily available for both scholars and the public to love. Reality, Television and the Middle Ages tends to Americanize the past as that past gets reevaluated – but this is not some kind of anachronistic practice but (within the critical language articulated so well in the editors' introduction) amounts to a strategy of reading texts carefully against their own grain, discovering what they have to say of the worlds that produced them as well as to the worlds in which they now find themselves.
These spaces, both medieval and modern, tend to be realms and times where placid words like "internationalism" fail to capture the turbulence that sweeps through them. When peoples, cultures, religions intermix, the results are seldom that "melting pot" of which Americans were so enamored not too many decades ago. Such collision points are far more likely to engender conflict-prone and uneasy admixture, a roiling stew of competing ideologies, languages, values.
A stew, or perhaps a soup.