Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Speaking of Violet Saunders: The Tiny Shriner Review Late Edition

Earlier today, in The Tiny Shriner Review, we learned that Violet Saunders has decided that, "I don't 'do' the Future." Say it ain't so, Violet! Okay, all kidding aside, on Violet's LiveJournal, she had this to say:

We do not always plot our futures. Things happen by accident, in defiance of our best laid plans. However well we think we know the past, the future is impossible to predict. There is no linear connection between the two. I abhor teleological thinking which tries to make such simple linearities between past, present and future.

Neither future nor past exist of course except in our imaginations, when most often we use them to justify what we do in the present. This leaves me with a dilemma. My fascination with the past is in the differences it offers us, in the disjunctures, in its deadends and failures. In the potential is offers for alternative presents.
A famous blog repeatedly asks: 'How are we humanists going to to contribute to the sum happiness of the future?' But I have trouble with this. Because I just don't know understand what this Future they keep referring to is. I must have a few genes missing somewhere.
Reading list please?
I posted this on her Journal:
Okay, Violet, don't give up on the future yet, even if, as you rightly suspect, traditional teleologies are somewhat bankrupt. It may be that making a decision to think about the future is an ethical choice--i.e., I can only inhabit a certain present [albeit, that present is mainly defined by the continual traffic in my brain between "that already happened" & "that's where I think I'm going"], and I can certainly just concentrate on inhabiting that present in a kind of fullness of awareness of "nows" strung along a continuum, but if I want to be ethical, and think about others, not just those alongside me, but those behind me, and even up ahead of me, I can't discard the future. Think of Walter Benjamin's statement, in his "Theses for a Philosophy of History," that the claims of the past upon the present cannot be "settled cheaply," and also, that those in the past are always turning [leaning] toward "the sun that is rising in the sky of history."
Of course, this is a mainly too-brief and summary answer, and I actually think Violet's assertion that neither past nor future exist, except in our imaginations, is really important, and we should maybe spend some time here debating that assertion. I have two minds on the subject. The first says, "Duh! Of course we're always inventing the past and present--the former is over and gone, and the latter is not yet here--therefore, the past and future are mainly what we need them to be at any given moment and are essentially ungraspable." My second mind says, "Just because the past and future are ungraspable by me, at any given present moment, does not negate their very real and materially vibrant existence, either just behind or just up ahead of me." And I think, further, that striving to encounter, and even "reckon" the materality of both the past and present [either through a kind of historical "accounting" or by actions, especially loving actions, designed to affect certain forward motions, respectively], could be very important ethical gestures par excellence. If I have any secretly heretical notions on the subject, it's that the future may matter a hell of a lot more than the past, and that the past can even, occasionally, be a heavy drag on the future's progressive momentum.

Reading list? To hell with a reading list, Violet! You're better than that! Look around you. Everywhere you go, the past and future demand your attention. Try to take every step as if you were a newborn. It's impossible, isnt it? Walk down the street and consider every passerby--where have they been, and what might they be--to you? Every moment is fraught with both history and the possibility of what you might have been, and that, my friend, is the future. No books required.


N50 said...

Thanks for the links and reading (in the previous post) - and VS says thanks for the comment. I *will* get around to reading them ... sometime in the FUTURE ... when the pace slows. (Note to self: future intention, even action is signalled by present intention and action).

I prefer the eyes of a 17 year old to a newborn (that seems to be when the butterfly really emerges from the chrysalis) - plus teens can get a rough time in our society they need to be better appreciated. (Note to self: Future expressed through desired comparison with the present - see Fradenburg on needful things for today's class). But thanks for the tip.

And with that spur to action - I must run .....

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Once, at a Strategic Planning meeting I was herded into with some other administrative cattle, the Highly Paid Expert declared to us that we needed in our planning to "put aside the tyranny of custom and tradition" when thinking about the future of our departments. At first I thought: he wants me dead! I'm a medievalist, I AM tradition ... but his words really stayed with me. There are too many things we (especially in groups) do mindlessly, simply because they have been done or thought or said or posed in a certain way for so long that they have gained a materiality they may not deserve -- a materiality in fact that quickly desubstantiates when the problem is posed another way, or when the questions of WHY? and SHOULD? are asked seriously.

That's not to say the past ever goes out the window. I'm as big a fan as Eileen of Benjamin's assertion that the past has claims on the present (and future) that can't be cheaply settled.

As to being a fan of newborns or 17 year olds ... I'm not much of a fan of newborns, as I'm not much of a fan of screaming need-driven animals of any kind. But I'm a huge fan of children who are leaerning how to piece together a world and how to dream its alternatives when this one seems too constricted. That's a process that starts, as far as my kids were concerned, pretty early ... and I hope it's one that doesn't end. It's haunted by fragility, mortality, and wonder throughout.

Anonymous said...

VS wrote: Neither future nor past exist of course except in our imaginations, when most often we use them to justify what we do in the present. This leaves me with a dilemma.
A famous blog repeatedly asks: 'How are we humanists going to to contribute to the sum happiness of the future?' But I have trouble with this. Because I just don't know understand what this Future they keep referring to is.

To me this question (discussion) is, as Jeffrey noted, an ethical one. Certainly the past and future exist in our imaginations, but this poses all sorts of questions both about the ethics/morals of our personal imaginations, and the ethics of our personal responsibility.

As humans, we can imagine the past in all kinds of different ways - most people believe in the material historicity of the Holocaust, many don't. This difference of opinions is, in my opinion, both ethical and moral - but there is no doubt that the different opinions MATTER. So while the past may exist in the imagination, it seems to me that, for example, those of us who believe in the Holocaust, perform an ethical and ideological act of imagination on the past.

WHich brings me to what I really want to say, which is that the ways in which we imagine/create our own sense of the past has implications for how we imagine the future, and to me this is the ultimate ethical point. David Malouf, in _An Imaginary Life_, has his main character say something along the lines of: "The future is just the dreams of the past. We are what our ancestors dreamed a thousand years ago." I.E., our imaginations of the future, both personally and collectively, shape that future. I really do believe this, which is why to me it is very important that, regardless of questions of whether we can ever access the materiality of the future in any meaningful way, we must continue to dream it. To turn away from doing so is to refuse an active (however incredibly miniscule) role in the formation of that future - it's like not voting - to turn away from the future is to leave it's dreaming in the hands of others, for example, the Holocaust deniers, whose dreams would shape a quite different future than that I would like to imagine.

Can we dream something we don't (can't) understand? Sure - we dream the present all the time, no? To say that we cannot access the past or the future in certain ways is true, but this is also true of the present - vast areas of life remain inevitably beyond our comprehension and control, yet few of us would advocate disengaging with our present realities. It seems to me that the future is just as important.

N50 said...

Kofi is actually saying partly the same thing as VS. It is our PRESENT actions, intentions and imaginations which matter (ie are or are not ethical) and which may shape past and future (but which are mostly important because they are the present).

The point which he does not address is about discontinuities in time. Do we wish to assume a prescriptive and linear continuity between our present ethics and those of either the past or the future? VS and I have talked and find this the most puzzling question in relation to some of the discussion on In the Middle. We share (!) the view that if the past is explored with an interest in difference, failure and the unexpected (with a sidelining of linear issues of cause and effect) - that more illuminating alternative presents are opened up which expand other ethical choices in the present. That must be a good justification for studying lots of pasts including the medieval - and not just the recent familiar past.

Anyway on another tack: age and blogging, age and the future. VS and I have come up with a light-hearted variation on the four ages of woman:

Infancy (0-15?)- no awareness of present, past or future.

Adolescence (15-40?)- future focussed, a drive and a yearning for what is to come.

Maturity (40-80) - present-focussed, a drive to make the most of today

Senility (80+) - a return to an infantile absence of time, lived in the shadow of the past.

The years themselves are somewhat arbitrary and personal - insert your own numbers (and stir).

If bloggers are mostly young - perhaps that is why a denial of the future in preference for a focus on the present is alarming to them?

On the subject of age, blogging, and ethical (or other) interest

Karl Steel said...

Quick intervention, perhaps to be developed later on tonight after I finish grading:

Think of Walter Benjamin's statement, in his "Theses for a Philosophy of History," that the claims of the past upon the present cannot be "settled cheaply," and also, that those in the past are always turning [leaning] toward "the sun that is rising in the sky of history. ...
If I have any secretly heretical notions on the subject, it's that the future may matter a hell of a lot more than the past, and that the past can even, occasionally, be a heavy drag on the future's progressive momentum.

Cf the following:
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror:

"The Marxist has recognized the mystification involved in the inner life; he lives in the world and in history. As he sees it, decision is not a private matter, it is not the spontaneous affirmation of those values we favor; rather, it consists in questioning our situation in the world, inserting ourselves in the course of events, in properly understanding and expressing the movement of history outside of which values remain empty words and have no other chance of realization" (21).

"We said that every legal system begins by being a power de facto. That does not mean that all power de facto is legitimate. We said that a policy cannot be justified by its good intentions. Still less can it be justified by its barbarous intentions. We have never said that any policy which succeeds is good. We said that in order to be good a policy must succeed" (xxiv).

"Bourgeois justice adopts the past as its precedent; revolutionary justice adopts the future" (28).

Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
"An Act always involves a radical risk, what Derrida, following Kierkegaard, called the madness of a decision: it is a step into the open, with no guarantee about the final outcome -- why? Because an Act retroactively changes the very co-ordinates into which it intervenes. This lack of guarantee is what the critics cannot tolerate: they want an Act without risk -- not without empirical risks, but without the much more radical 'transcendental risk' that the Act will not simply fail, but radically misfire. In short, to paraphrase Robespierre, those who oppose the 'absolute Act' effectively oppose the Act as such" (152-53).

Lyotard, "Defining the Postmodern"

"The idea of modernity is closely bound up with this principle that it is possible and necessary to break with tradition and to begin a new way of living and thinking. Today we can presume that this 'breaking' is, rather, a manner of forgetting or repressing the past. That's to say of repeating it. Not overcoming it."

In other words, I want to believe we can arrive at the future somehow, but, with Lyotard, and, indeed, with the movie poster below, I'm afraid also that 'the past never dies. It kills.' Then again, I'm equally afraid of breaking with the so-called reality based community to arrive at the future, since that arrival necessarily requires a suicidal act ("Why is suicide the act par excellence? The act differs from an active intervention (action) in that it radically transforms its bearer (agent): the act is not simply something I 'accomplish'--after the act, I'm literally 'not the same as before.' In this sense, we could say that the subject 'undergoes' the act ('passes through' it) rather than 'accomplishes' it: in it, the subject is annihilated and subsequently reborn (or not); i.e., the act involves a kind of temporary eclipse, aphanisis, of the subject" Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (44)).


PS: when flipping through my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism looking for the Lyotard, I ran across a quote from A Thousand Plateaus that I think would serve well as the motto of this site: "It's not easy to see things in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left: try it, you'll see that everything changes."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl: The thing that scares me about the Zizek quote -- and indeed one of the reasons I've almost given up on Zizek -- is that it often seems that he (like Lacan before him) is often writing in an allegorical or even typological mode, all too familiar to medievalists. As Zizek describes the Act and its retroactivity, I think, Christ!

And not "Christ!" as an interjection, I mean that literally: I really think he is describing Jesus of Nazareth. I've always been uneasy with Zizek's use of the Jew in his examples (especially the creepy stories he sometimes tells about his mother's antisemitism), but it's his ardor for Christianity that makes me wonder whose past is lost when the Act "retroactively changes the very co-ordinates into which it intervenes."

Then again, The Fragile Christian Absolute: or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? is the last book I read by Zizek. Its argument is pretty well summed up by its bookjacket blurb, which begins with a quote from Paul:
"From now on, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!“

Saint Paul's militant declaration from Corinthians asserts for the first time in human history the revolutionary logic of a radical break with the past — with it, the age of Cosmic Balance and similar pagan babble is over. What does it mean to return to this stance today?

Maybe Saint Paul had it right. Or maybe he knew something back when he was Saul that perhaps shouldn't have been retroactively transformed into Jewish form with Christian content.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

N50 and VS: extend adolescence to, say, 60 or so and I am with you. For today.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Can we dream something we don't (can't) understand?

Very well expressed, Kofi. One of the reasons I like your work so much is that it so well blurs the temporal divisions we, out of inertia more than anything else, take for granted.

In a way I think we only dream -- and ruminate over, and write about -- what we don't can't understand. That's why even our best scholarship is provisional...

Anonymous said...

to N50: I do agree tha tthe study of the past works to open up more choices, or more "presents." But I would argue that this does not make the future less important. And I don't think that a conception of time as linear is necessarily prescriptive; I just think we need to be able to conceive of time as both linear and non-linear (crumpled time, deep time, parallel time, etc). As humans we can no longer fully escape out dependence on notions of linear time, else why study the past, even as a means of opening up more "presents"? We need to acknowledge our dependence (addiction, maybe?), and accomodate it into other concepts of time which are more useful.

And I guess my basic point in my original post was that, if "the claims of the past upon the present cannot be 'settled cheaply'," then neither can the claims of the future.

N50 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eileen Joy said...

Karl--I like the Lyotard quotation but am also deeply suspicious of it, for the same reasons I am skeptical of much writing by theorists on modernity's supposed instantiating conditions--i.e., modernity rejects tradition and founds itself by some kind of radical break with the past. I like Ulrich Beck's phrase "zombie institutions," which he uses to describe traditions that are both dead and alive at once in modernity, such as marriage. The idea that, say, a medievalist is always looking backward, while a modernist is necessarily looking forward, is, of course, wrong, and actually, I would say they are both looking backwards, to an extent, because if you really want to get academic about it, not only is there no future we can really study [except, following Kofi, the ones we are willing to commit ourslves to "dream"], but there is likewise no present, because pretty much each and every single cognitive and physical act we undertake each day is rooted in a past thought and/or action. Our very mode of being is deeply historical and most intellectual work--whether in literary studies, psychology, political science, etc.--is an act of historicizing. The present becomes a kind of juncture, or switching station, between "what was" and "what could be."

Karl Steel said...

I suppose I hear the Lyotard as pointing out the necessarily failed project of modernism. Postmodernism knows there can be no break with the past; there can be only disavowals.

JJC: I'm still in the stage of not rejecting theorists. And, like so many people, I find Zizek's allegorical flair seductive, despite (rather than "because of," I hope) all his problems, sexism for one, but especially autophagy. Hoo-boy: Zizek's probably the king of the autophagists (the strange relationship to antisemitism I haven't noticed yet (as I didn't see it, say, here ). I paired Zizek with the Merleau-Ponty because of the radical breaks they call for, because neither acknowledges, at least in those quotations, who might be the victims of purges that would, like any purge, spin into a self-sustaining machine of violence. Initially, I don't see any other means to get into the future; but I also don't think it's even possible to make that break to get there. Hence the Lyotard.

Now, Kofi's multiple temporality likely gets me past all my dead-endism. Not in ways I quite grasp yet, but I think that, at least as I represent them in my quotations, both Zizek and the revolutionary Merleau-Ponty (and me) are operating with a pretty straightforward, singular chronology.

I like "zombie institutions." Neat.

N50 said...

My dream last night. We repeatedly approached a house in the woods. There was something terribly important inside but I cannot remember what. Our approach was blocked by a farm gate. SO drove the car up the muddy track to the gate and stopped. To our left was a deep ditch and I had to get out, avoid the ditch and get to the gate with the keys before the wolves got me (!). This part of the dream kept repeating itself, but every time SO stopped the car it was a little closer to the ditch, until we were finally right on its very edge. The last time I got out the car, slid into the ditch, dropped the keys and the wolf pounced. I screamed and woke up. Unable to go back to sleep I went downstairs to do some class prep and fell asleep in the middle of the General Prologue.

I never managed to open the gate or get into the house. So - Some fraught dream about the future - which I blame entirely on you folks!

OR a memory of that time we crossed Bixby Bridge (while it was half its normal width because of roadwords) in an unfamiliar lefthand drive RV and I was on the side dangling over the precipice?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Don't blame me! There is plenty of blame for Eileen and Kofi to share, since they hounded -- er, wolved -- you to embrace the horizon of your own futurity.

Deep ditches? The past, of course, and the way that it "never dies, it kills" (by making you wolf bait, apparently).

Sorry for the nightmare ... and for your recent loss.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, the future comes whether we purge or not, whether we make radical breaks or not, whether we retroactively convert the occupants of the past or not. I'm guessing you strung together your three theorists because in part of their shared zeal for large conceptualizations of time (and change and rupture): Future with a Big F, not futures with small "f"s.

Lately I've been more into conceptualizations of temporality that emphasize thickness and small language over grand narratives: Rita Felenski, for example, is quite eloquent on feminism and the streams of incommensurable flow that meet and remeet outside some large and shared river of time. Dipesh Chakrobarty, too, seems to me a good antidote to Zizek and his universal pronouncements.

So it isn't so much that I've rejected Zizek; it's more that he doesn't always give me the tools I need for thinking about the Middle Ages outside of a universalist language or temporality or mode of cultural change that, I must admit, had its own cozy home there. As to his Republics of Gilead essay, probably the piece he autophaged the most, I've certainly found it of use (e.g. the Saracen chapter of Medieval Identity Machines).

This tension between pronouncements that strive to be always and universally true and the vagrant acts, desires, lives that somehow escape them is what I was also trying to probe, in a convoluted way, in my remarks on your dead deer post.

Eileen Joy said...

JJC wrote:

"This tension between pronouncements that strive to be always and universally true and the vagrant acts, desires, lives that somehow escape them is what I was also trying to probe, in a convoluted way, in my remarks on your dead deer post."

I think this hits beautifully on the paradox that, as medievalists--or really, as any kind of intellectual who is striving to say something meaningful about the past and/or present--we labor within all the time: even when you see your work as mainly concentrating upon the vagrant acts of history [or, as N50 put it, for himself and Violet S., you want to study the past "with an interest in difference, failure and the unexpected (with a sidelining of linear issues of cause and effect)"], you can really only understand them as "vagrant" when placed within a more universalized narrative of a certain historical moment. In other words, even the study of the historically "disappeared," failed, silenced, marginalized, requires some kind of picturing-forth [on the part of the historian] of a social totality or social hegemony within which certain figures are always imperiled, and also serve as markers and actors of a counter-history. It seems to me that we navigate all the time the fissures that open up within these two ways of rendering history, without always peering into those fissures--i.e., is there an even *other* way of looking at history, a third, fourth, or even fifth dimension, something that neither participated in the margin[s] nor the hegemony? This question will, of necessity, have to devolve, at some level, to questions of identities, and that awareness, hopefully, that individuals live in multiple frames of reference all the time [which is why, earlier in the summer I posted a comment about the new book by Amartya Sen, "Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Violence"]. Unfortunately, we work within disciplines that often force to take one or the other view of history and to write articles and books that follow neatly-delineated [and traditional] parameters of argumentation. BUT, of course there are notable exceptions. I can't recall if I've plugged this book already, but a really cool book by a medieval historian, David Gary Shaw, that attempts to get at the heterogeneous nature of social identity in the Middle Ages is "Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England" [New York: Palgrave, 2005].

Anonymous said...

Eileen, I think you've hit it squarely on the head here: "and that awareness, hopefully, that individuals live in multiple frames of reference all the time ." This is really the challenge - moving beyond thinking of time as either linear or non-linear, although how to do so is another matter. Our time is inescapably linear, and also inescapably filled with so many realities that, as Jeffrey said, escape that totalizing conception of time/progress. This is one of the big points I try to make in my book - yes, the Middle Passage stood at the beginning of a certain history, but it also stood at the end of another one, and at various points along the continuums of many other histories we never even bother to think about, because we think we've got the total picture already.

The real difficulty, exemplified perfectly in this discussion, is _how_ do we even talk about this, when our language and knowledge systems are SO geared towards this conception of linear time.

Anonymous said...

Lyotard, "Defining the Postmodern"

"The idea of modernity is closely bound up with this principle that it is possible and necessary to break with tradition and to begin a new way of living and thinking. Today we can presume that this 'breaking' is, rather, a manner of forgetting or repressing the past. That's to say of repeating it. Not overcoming it."

This is another one of those great hypocricies of hegemonic modernity. It depends heavily on a conservative notion of time and progress as linear (so that 'we' therefore are automatically at the forefront of the whole process, the lateest and best incarnation) and at the same time it depends on a radical notion that it is possible to break completely out of one progress narrative and inhabit a completely new one in a relatively short period of time, as a means of being able to say, "see how far we've come, how much better we are?" (I'm thinking of such academic narratives as The Renaissance, The Reformation).

And Karl, I LOVE your idea for the blog motto.

Karl Steel said...

Hit and run comment while grading: have a look over at DV's place for a discussion that's in tune with some of what we're doing here.

N50 said...

Extremely long procrastinating comment while marking:

Like Karl – I note the relevance of Quod She and also HeoCwaeth’s recent entries to this discussion.

In my youth I always preferred social action to political action (or possibly as well as political action, but definitely putting more energy into social action myself). This was anathema to some – ameliorating a corrupt society when I should be working for the Revolution. I don’t know whether this was a particularly European discourse at the time (it was a debate that I frequently argued the night away over with all kinds of people across Europe and the Mediterranean world (including exiled socialists from Iran and Syria - how the world has changed), but my exposure to Americans back then was very limited – I spent some time with a draft dodger, a WestPoint student and a phd from Boston once (whose political world seemed incomparable to mine at the time) otherwise I only encountered the odd tourist doing touristy things.

Anyway social action v political action reminds me of the debates into which medievalists now enter over the merits of empiricism, textual criticism and historicism on the one hand, as against a foxy engagement with theory on the other – and they argue about which is more relevant - or occupies the ethical high ground.

ITM seems quite theorised to me (those posts that contain strings of quotations from revered high priests of theory). And while I genuinely find it fascinating (why else would I hang around), the theory-centred nature of the debate is alien to my way of working. Karl’s entries on meat being a possible exception (and he must be the wolf in my dream since I have never encountered either real or fantastical wolves anywhere else-it was his carrion more than anything which convinced me the dream had some relation to ITM).

I do not believe it is either possible or desirable to be theory-free – quite the opposite – whatever we do we all ought to be critically aware of the theoretical perspectives we bring to our work which are inescapable even if one understood critical framework might be different from another’s. The trouble is when we only talk in theoretical terms I get lost in a sea of words and rhetoric. I want to see the meat – sorry the material application - to fully understand what we are debating. Maybe that is why I find it hard to ‘plot’ the future (‘imagining’ is something else), and increasingly prefer the present.

So a concrete example of the multiplex relations between past histories and present concerns (and yes, yes, yes alright then our imagined future)? The possibilities seem endless – but adolescence is one that springs to mind. JJC longs for an eternal adolescence that will go with him to the grave (or up the crematorium chimney) through which he will inspire other torchbearers after him (I’m guessing there) – and the culture which inspires all of us to consume an eternal youth is all pervading. As adults embrace the cult of youth the conduct of the truly young-verging-on-adult is seen as problematic. In the UK adolescents are the perennial problem: their education/socialisation is an area of constant anxiety, their social conduct is perpetually criminalised, their capacity to take responsibility for themselves or others constantly debated through bewildering U turns of public policy, while their energy as consumers is championed and emulated by the rest of us. Of course as medievalists we can sit back and say it was always so (… … fill in the dots for yourself) – but it also seems to me a perfect field for the conjunction of both theoretical models and empirical research from different historical and contemporary contexts to offer some alternative ethical choices for the ways in which we imagine youth, age and maturity and enable the progression from one to the other in the present. The medieval pre-industrial experience of youth cannot be left out of this, since the harnessing/haressing of youth is one of all societies’ most pressing concerns, and the medieval was a society that was particularly articulate about these issues and particularly experienced in dealing with them. Such collaborative research would not be about simple linearity – ‘they did like that and so should we’. A fuller exploration of attitudes, vocabularies, contexts, mechanisms and failures/successes ‘then’ would bring valuable meat to our table for present discussion ‘now’ extending the menu of possibilities in the present. This works on the theoretical level and the practical – youthly engagement in past experiences of youth (such as the perennial adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story by contemporary youth projects) helps emerging adults to see some of the broader contexts past and present in which the self operates and has been embodied (helps them to see the ‘other’ and contextualise themselves with it). At a pedagogical level our use of the ‘medieval’ might therefore need to be repetitive rather than innovatory, as each generation learns that there was a medieval – and that its relation to themselves is creatively and enhancingly problematical (and NOT just simply and straightforwardly comparative or plain old ‘then and now’).

This is just one tiny example of the pressing relevance of medievalist work to the present. What is more, once you start to engage in it you are soon faced with the limitations of so much modern theory which rarely traces its roots back before the nineteenth-century condition. At this stage you begin to see how a new critical theory can emerge – one which traces its roots to the medieval and beyond – but always tempered by an empirical understanding of material medieval realities. In my field social theory did not emerge in the decades around 1800 out of a vacuum, but many, many textbooks assume that it did. But I’ll stop there before I sheer off into abstract rhetoric again.

OK this is not cooked – somewhat rambling - a ragout (or terrine) of partly raw and partly cooked ingredients.

Finally. I could go on teasing you (it is quite fun) but N50 and VS are one and the same (I accidentally acquired different blogging identities in different contexts). Oh - and I am absolutely never himself.

Anonymous said...

N50 - I've also just finished reading through the discussions at HeoCwaeth and Quod She - very interesting. I think part of the reason we medievalists tend to be late-comers to (and therefore maybe a bit suspicious of, or resistant to) theory, is simply the "different" nature of the primary material. In a Modern British Lit or a Romanticism class, the language is quite familiar and so we move into it so much more easily that, right away, we can begin to apply other interpretations and frameworks to it.
But in learning medieval lit as undergrads, because it is so immediately different, to our way of thinking at the time, that we spend so much time on the language and the culture, which in turn breeds a much more intense focus on the texts - so those of us who fall in love with medieval lit as undergrads tend to do so because we love the literature itself, and often the sound of the language itself, rather than any particular theoretical reading - it's easy to see, for example, that an undergrad could come to love early 20th century American lit because it is an excellent vehicle through which to study, say, feminist theory. Medievalists seldom come to medieval literature, at least in the beginning, for reason like that. The theory tends to come later for us, when we're already set in our historical, literature-loving ways. Not to say, of course, that we're not automatically engaging with theory even in historicizing, as has been pointed out (by Karl I think) on those other discussions. It's just that it doesn't dominate our work in the beginning.
The other side of the coin, of course, is that others, because as has also been pointed out many theoretical positions seem to have sprung magically into being around 1800, don't really see the relevance of theory to our work (including, still, many praticing medievalists), and so there is also an OUTSIDE resistance to it, which maybe we internalize a little bit.

I highly recommend those discussions on HeoCwaeth's and Quod She's blogs.

and on that note, WHY am I not marking?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I say to Violet Saunders/N50: as a careful reader of this blog (or ITM as you have rechristened it) I know very well that those are two aspects of your multiple personality. And that you are a she. Also, I would now like to make the claim that I instigated your dream of wolves and pits by posting this, with its mention of "Wlfpittes or wolf-ditches." See, the past doesn't die. As your dream proves, it kills.

Also, only in jest would I argue for perpetual adolescence ... though as you point out, it is important to map how such categories alter, sometimes radically, through time. Did you know that Cicero called himself an adolescentulus when he was in his 30s? (if they ever have a game show that tests your knowledge of obscure Latin facts, count me in!). Anyway, one of my projects right now is to map medieval childhood's permutations. I'm especially interested in trying to understand what should by the most self-evident of categories but never can be: the little boy (puerulus), as opposed to what we today call the toddler or the teenager. To pick up on what Kofi was arguing above, you'd be hard pressed to find a medieval depiction of a little boy that wasn't "shot through" with the temporalities he is heading towards, especially an adulthood that seems creepy (ok, uncanny) when it inhabits a body so small. Much of this project, I might add, comes from a lingering desire to do justice to William of Norwich, a twelve year old puerulus whose murder was blamed (by some in the city) on the Jews. I began to wonder if, as I and other scholars focused so intently on the issue of community formation and the blood libel, if maybe the life of an actual boy who had been tortured and murdered was being neglected. I can't articulate the ethics here very well, other than to gesture towards Dr Virago's recent post on Speaking for the Dead.

By the way and for the record: I hate the cult of eternal youth. In fact I hate young people. They are always having fun. It drives me mad.

N50 said...

Absolutely - and age is all about process, social status even location - which is why I was a bit reluctant to append chronological years to it before.

Yes to a long adolescence - both historically and now. Julian of Norwich was also young aged about 30 and there is some other great specifically Norwich material for adolesence too. The puerulus sounds like they really wanted to emphasise his infancy and innocence (to me). I guess you know the significance of age 12 (or thereabouts) in more pragmatic sources!

I look forward to seeing the finished project.

Karl Steel said...

This has been a fascinating discussion for me. Thanks folks. Quick comment, not quite germane,* but JJC can address it whenever: will your book on childhood take on, not Philippe Aries himself (that's been done handily by Hanawalt in Speculum a few years back), but the popularity of Aries? I can understand why certain medievalist myths--the droit du cussage, medieval witch-burning, &c.--should be so popular, but it's hard for me, off hand, to see how the Aries thesis on childhood being a post-medieval invention fits into that complex of modernist prejudices (unless you want to fold it into a 'invention of subjectivity' thing, with, interestingly, the child and subjectivity being invented, purportedly, at roughly the same time). I ask in part because when I taught the Prioress a few weeks back, several of students tried to do a reading on the medieval non-existence of childhood. While I corrected them, I marveled how these students--first-years, almost by definition not medievalists, mostly not readers--should have picked up this myth.

* Although the 'invention of subjectivity' and 'childhood' both require a pretty simplistic conception of time to make their teleologic narratives work....

N50 said...

I meant to add that children proper are nearly always perfect receptacles for other people’s imaginings since their very status usually prevents them having a direct voice in medieval (or most other) sources. Like the baby I saw yesterday whose pram was decorated with 2 ornamental toy books dangling just beyond his reach. Clearly a desired ‘straight A’ child in the making.

Karl Steel said...

On time, via Gawker, of all places (who have the right attitude on this piece: mockery), some journalist visits Glod, the town in Romania that stood in for Kazakhstan in Borat:

About 85 miles from Romania's capital, Bucharest, Glod looks like something out of the Middle Ages. About 1,400 people live in Glod, and, by Western standards, one could say they are dirt poor. The air is rancid, probably from the fires that burn on the outskirts of the village. The sight of old women carrying wood is common as is the manure that litters the narrow roads. The majority of villagers live on welfare benefits. Some try to make a living by selling their produce, such as fruits and mushrooms, while others sell woven baskets and slabs of stone.

I love that the Middle Ages doesn't belong to the West (anymore).

Eileen Joy said...

N50 and Violet are the same person, huh? And I was having fun imagining them as a couple, talking late into the evening about wolvish dreams and aging and the blankness of the future. Damn.

I think N50/VS [sounds like a sleek iPod accessory doesn't it, or a new computer chip?] said everything I might have wanted to have said in "their" post regarding how medieval studies seems to be "a perfect field for the conjunction of both theoretical models and empirical research from different historical and contemporary contexts to offer some alternative ethical choices for the ways in which we imagine youth, age and maturity and enable the progression from one to the other in the present," and also how, "[a]t a pedagogical level our use of the ‘medieval’ might therefore need to be repetitive rather than innovatory, as each generation learns that there was a medieval – and that its relation to themselves is creatively and enhancingly problematical (and NOT just simply and straightforwardly comparative or plain old ‘then and now’)." Right on brother, er, sister.

I'm always a little torn myself between the idea that there is an ethical imperative to remember the past as "wholly" as possible, and the idea that it might be best to forget it completely. Likely both are necessary in different contexts, and a lot depends on whether or not you believe the universe, as Woody Allen's rabbi Ben believes in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," has a "moral structure." Ben believes in it "with all my heart" and does not want to live in world without it, because, as he says, "without the Law, it's all darkness." But Judah, an athiest, who is contemplating having his mistress murdered, says, "God is a luxury I can't afford." Ben is concerned about universal justice, whereas Judah is concerned about his own, personal justice, and getting what *he* apparently believes *he* deserves. Which is all just to say, as crazy as this analogy may seem to some, that our view of how to "do history," especially as medievalists, has something to do, I believe, with which view of the universe we hold: is it a world in which there has to be justice, at some level [early or late], for everyone? Or, do some prosper while others fail, and that's just how it is because no one, least of all God, is really watching anyway? Do we want to render an account of history that *redeems* the dead, who may have lived their lives without a proper accounting of their strivings and desires, and who may have been unjustly exiled, silenced, suppressed, etc., or do we want to write a history that reveals that there *is* no larger picture/narrative into which everything and everybody somehow "fits"--rather, there are only "flows," and to paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, "the accounting for the statement 'everything flows' is the true subject of physics" [for physics, substitute history].

Now, coming at all this from a different direction, I decided to flip through my current issue of "Entertainment Weekly" and look to see, while we medievalists might be pondering how the present could be in need of us, how are various cultural artists [of the hippest variety] in need of the past. In mass entertainment, at least, it would seem as if the past is all there is, and there is hardly any present at all [and even the imagined futures are really just dressed-up pasts]. So, it looks as if everyone thinks Sharon Stone might receice an Oscar nomination for a role in "Bobby," a film set on the day of Robert Kennedy's assassination. The hot DVDs for Christmas are HBO's "Rome" and "The Davinci Code." The movies to see for December release are "Dreamgirls" [about a pseudo-Supremes singing group], "The Good Shepherd" [about the early history of the CIA], "The Nativity Story" [yeah, that one], "Factory Girl" [about Warhol's famous Factory days], "The Fountain" [Darren Aronofsky's sci-fi epic/fantasy, which comprises narratives about a contemporary scientist, a future cosmonaut, and an ancient Spanish conquistador], "Flags of Our Fathers," [about Iwo Jima], etc. The featured television series is "Day Break," a "Groundhog Day"-type show where the main character, L.A. cop Brett Hopper, is stuck reliving the same 24 hours over and over. And what does it mean that in the supposedly enlightened, post-theory, and secular humanist times in which we live [note light sarcasm] that the most popular entertainments include mediums who can see the dead, superheroes, ghost whisperers, and persons stranded on a desert island battling supernatural forces? You tell me.