Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Of poisoned landscapes, variant memories, and undetermined futures

This is my teaching day, so I can't offer anything beyond a sentence or two, but I did want to extract this comment by Eileen Joy from the ever-expanding commentary on The Shire Residential Community of Bend, Oregon. Who knew that hobbit-inspired habitations could provoke such a rich conversation? Topics touched upon so far include nostalgia and its discontents; the necessity of humor to serious scholarship; the vagrancies of human desire; utopian vectors of contemporary suburban fanatasies. Eileen returned us to a long abiding concern of this blog, the relevance of the study of the distant past to the times and places we scholars inhabit:
if medieval studies is to be "relevant," it will be through the act, not of policing contemporary appropriations of "the medieval" in order to deem them either "true" [to the history we supposedly know so well] or "false" [and therefore worthy of our scorn]--in fact, in my mind, pretty much ALL of culture [scholarship, art, architecture, etc.] is predicated upon one or more gestures of appropriation [nothing springs, Athena-like, out of nothing]--but rather, in the ability of medieval scholars to demonstrate that their knowledge and understanding of that place we call the Middle Ages could actually help us solve certain present-day dilemmas--dilemmas, moreover, having to do with habeus corpus [check out new post at Blogenspiel], torture, what it means to be "human' [look at Karl's dissertation] and human rights, so-called ethnic origins and the battles still being fought in those crucibles, etc. etc. I think medieval studies can be quite relevant, but that also means we have to re-write everything we thought we knew about the past before we can truly begin to adress the present. or perhaps we do both simultaneously.

For a graduate seminar I am leading called "Writing, Race and Nation," we are reading Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. A better subtitle for the book might be "The Medieval Non-Origins of Europe," in that the volume demolishes the idea that contemporary nations can trace their heritage to well defined groups of people who have retained their identities unaltered through long stretches of time (e.g. Celts, Franks, Serbs, Gauls). In Geary's account, these supposedly distinct and stable peoples never actually were the cultural and biological unities that they often posited themselves to be, and that nineteenth and twentieth century nationalists were all too happy to embrace as direct ancestors. The book is intended for a general audience, making the well footnoted and more specialized scholarship Geary has previously published accessible outside the academy.

The Myth of Nations is very good at doing what Eileen describes in her last two sentences, above. Taken seriously, the book is quite the flame retardant for the ardent nationalisms, facile racism, and battles over "assimilation" that have never quite left Europe, and lately seem to have been renewed in their heat. Geary speaks at one point of the suppression of "variant memories of the past" (17), and it seems to me that such alternate but truth-filled histories -- pasts in which, for example, Europeans are not always as they were, but ad hoc collations that endure for a while, ephemeral and often polyglot alliances whose names often obscure their internal heterogeneity. These variant memories are what are needed to counter the fantasy and deadly nostalgia of people like Jean Marie le Pen (he of the grand Clovis fixation). Here is how Geary ends his book:
The one constant tendency [in medieval Europe] was for successful groups to establish territorial kingdoms in which politically significant elements of society incereasingly accepted the identity of their leader ... Multiple identities, for different purposes and under different circumstances, were among the resources of Europe's elite.

Nor indeed did the process of change end with the emergence of recognizable medieval kingdoms. The history of the people of Europe has not ended -- it never will. Ethnogenesis is a process of the present and future as much as it is the past. No efforts of romantics, politicians, or social scientists can preserve once and for all some essential soul of a people or nation [this preserved soul is what Geary calls the "poisoned landscape" because of its lethal effects on those whom it would exclude, and on imaginings of more inclusive communities]. Nor can any effort ensure that nations, ethnic groups, and communities of today will not vanish utterly in the future. The past may have set the parameters within which one can build the future, but it cannot determine what that future must be.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Interesting. I read Geary's Myth of Nations when it came out, and honestly didn't like it much. It's not so much that it's right, but that I think he oversimplified a lot for a more popular audience in the context of what was happening in the EU at the time (I'm pretty sure it came out with the Euro). I think his Before France and Germany says many of the same things much better, and without trying to tie things in to a contemporary political context -- something I consider very dangerous ground for any pre-modern historian, and in particular for a medievalist.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It is, I admit, quite simplified -- and unabashed in its political ambitions. Before France and Germany is better for specialists, has a safer and more nuanced argument, and is in the end a more serious piece of scholarship. I am also very fond of Geary's several articles on ethnicity.

Still I admire Geary for attempting a book that breaks out of the medievalist enclave.

Here is something more modest but with intersectiong aims from Kathleen Davis:

[Medievalists] work with a period that is simultaneously 'inside' and 'outside' the modern Western tradition. Like colonized peoples, the European Middle Ages was claimed by the imperial nation as other-than-itself, but also as its other-self, its prior-self ... Coming from the space of the colonizing West, but from colonized time -- in a sense both colonizer and colonized, but not fully either -- the European Middle Ages can return to disrupt dichotomized space and linear time. Medievalists can effectively excavate the 'minus in the origin' that still grounds Western stereotyping and othering 'Third World' cultures today ... If a critical knowledge of the European nationalist project is relevant to the postcolonial subject's revisioning of history, then medievalists may not be alone in wishing to interrupt the modern nation's discourse with reminders about its past.

Far fewer people are going to read "National Writing in the Ninth Century" (JMEMS 28.3 1998) than will browse Geary's book, but both -- even if at times grandly sweeping in their pronouncements -- do urge a rethinking of the supposed continuity of communal identities over time.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

True -- it ties in to one of the things I was trying to say below. It's not so much I see myself, or medieval historians in general, as owners of the past. It's that I see us as having a responsibility to remind others of what the past was not (it would be nice to say what the past was, but hey, I'm a medievalist -- we debunk a lot of myth).

Eileen Joy said...

I really like "another damned medievalist"'s idea that what medieval studies does is not so much affirm the past people think they already know so well, but rather, debunks that past. Of course, as philosophers know well, progressing by refutation is always less difficult than progressing by affirmation, and in the end, we have to figure out how to also affirm what we think is/was "true" about the past [that's an ethical task, actually, perhaps even a religious one], even as we embrace the idea of the flux of history over the idea of the stasis of history [i.e. what happened in the past only happened one way; one cause for one effect; etc.]. I know I've plugged this book before, but along with Geary's work, another important contribution to the de-mythologizing of the so-called "English" past, coming from the field of processural archaeology, anthropology, and sociology, is "Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain," ed. William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrell (Leicester, 2000). Also important is the work of Catherine Hills and Sian Jones and D.M. Hadley and Richard Hodges and Walter Goffart. I really wish literature scholars, in general, would spend more time reading in the processural archaeological literature, but we often don't do that enough [perhaps as a result, in Old English studies anyway, of what might be called "Sutton Hoo overload"?--anyway, things have changed . . . a LOT].

It's important to remember, too, though, that even if academic scholarship can serve the important purpose of, let's say, de-mystifying certain very dangerous ethnic narratives, that in certain times and places, groups of people depend on these narratives to a very great extent, and not always with negative results. Religion, in my mind, is an example where both great cultural & social good, as well as great cultural & social harm, can result from the writing and transmission and inculcation of deeply suspect "traditions" that have pretentions to a "naturally" sacred history that binds persons together through blood, time, and place.