Friday, April 25, 2008

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies

For your delectation, my Kalamazoo paper, an offering to the BABEL god at the roundtable "What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?"

You will remember that we had some preliminary discussion here ... and I wish I could have composed something a little longer, because I didn't have the space to detail spatial investigations very well. In the longer version I'll keep permanently filed in my mind along with my other Platonic Forms, there is mention of Sara Ahmed, Yi Fan Tuan, Christopher Tilley, cultural geography, archeology, and phenomenology. Possibly there is also a chorus line of grass skirt clad penguins as well. But in this version, we're down to a bare minimum.

I should also add that a catalyst for this paper is Jehangir Malegam's work on medieval peace. His meticulous research strongly suggests that earthly serenity was not something to be desired -- that stillness was reserved for the heavens. This mundane realm had of ethical necessity to be perturbed, restless.

My apologies for the fact that this piece is rather allusive: it responds to opening remarks by Nancy Partner, the gist of which you will glean from what appears below.

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies
"What is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?"
Kalamazoo 2008

Over the past ten years, much of my scholarly work has been organized around questions of temporality, especially in time’s relation to identities. I’ve wanted to know more about the place of time, especially as the past, the present and the future curve or knot in ways that resist reduction into arrows of progress or a stasis of culmination. This untimely and unhistorical project, shared with many other medievalists, has been enabled through alliances formed with queer, feminist, and postcolonial theory -- schools of criticism that have examined the enabling fictions of modernity and found them wanting.

Itinerant and unsettled, contemporary medieval studies is opening innovative spaces for community, spaces in which to be more gregarious, more challenging, more PRESENT. Some of these efflorescent communities take advantage of new technologies: I wouldn’t be here today with so much to say on this subject if I didn’t participate in a blog. I also don’t think it is a coincidence that many of us seated at this panel are or have been department chairs – an office we’ve held not because no one wants to listen to us medievalists, but because our colleagues know that we who study times long passed have much of value in the present to say – to say about the present, to say about the place of history in the present, to say about place and about time.

So, “the place of the present in medieval studies.” Without the challenges posed and the friendships offered by queer theory, by feminism, by postcolonial studies, I would not have been spurred to think temporality in words like this:
a progressive or teleological history in which time is conceived as mere seriality and flat chronology is inadequate to the task of thinking the meanings and trauma of the past, its embededness in the present and future. Once homogeneity and progressive or hierarchizing "developmental" models are denied history - once simple, linear sequences of cause and effect are abandoned for more complicated narratives of heterogeneity, overlap, sedimentation, and multiplicity -- time itself becomes a problem … and the medieval .. “middle” becomes an instrument useful for rethinking what [the contemporary] postcolonial might signify. (The Postcolonial Middle Ages)
Or this:
how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into a monologic history … and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and to render predictable the future. (Medieval Identity Machines)
I stand by those words, written at that time before (according to this session’s opening remarks) 9/11 intervened to teach us a lesson in the bluntness of the world, at a more innocent time when medievalists just wanted to have fun. In a pitiable attempt to get somebody – anybody --among their colleagues to listen to them, medievalists (it seems) were exploring the fragility and dispersedness of human identity.

Yet I don’t think that any of us were forming these alliances out of resentment at being ignored, or even because such work is pleasurable. Well, it is fun, don’t get me wrong, but such scholarship is not to be dismissed as mere fun. To think temporality otherwise; to discern in our Now the living traces of multiple pasts (even the United States carries within it the burden and the possibility of medieval pasts); to recognize that time is so complex that futures can curve to sink their teeth deep into histories long passed; to touch these times and to love them: that’s the place of the present in medieval studies. Such emplacedness challenges us to reconceptualize the Middle Ages and history more generally, to think them outside of the points of view that have hardened around them and seem true – but only because we’ve repeated them for so long. Such congealing into doctrine says more about our reverence for imagined pasts and our fear of unstable futures than about the Middle Ages. Doctrinaire modes of analysis strive to encapsulate this geotemporal expanse, to still into a museum display. A more restless approach will grant the medieval its life in the present.

So, the place of the past in medieval studies: it has no place, if place is thought only as stability, as dead exhibit, as bounded subject. We need our monsters, our postcolonialists, our feminists, our queers. We need to recognize kindred spirits, to engage with meticulousness and a sense of common cause the ponderings of our fellow scholar-wanderers. Theory has given us a lingua franca, a border space where we can have “temporally promiscuous” (Gil Harris) conversations. Let’s go further and imagine what Wallace Stevens urged -- “To compound the imagination's Latin with / The lingua franca et jocundissima” – to roam that space where philosophy and narrative embrace or even become art.

Place needs to be as peripatetic as time. I’ve said it before. I will say it again: Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be nomadic, mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations. The place of the past in medieval studies: it’s what our presiding genius Eileen Joy called “unsettled”: a restless medieval studies. That’s what I’m signing up for. That’s what I see here today.

[image: "Le città della Gojia: Partenikos," from here]


Anonymous said...

Very nice Jeffrey, and a great taste of what I've always respected most about your work - the insistence on process and openness and the "mobility" of scholarship, rather than hardcore convictions and final pronouncements. Also, your recognition of the need to take risks, something we scholars do too rarely. That's one of the things I loved about Wallace's book - what guts, to spend pages analyzing a poem in a language he doesn't understand, to make a point about the residual traces left by other languages and cultures!

Steve Muhlberger said...

Very interesting -- when is that panel?

But I must say that I have a hard time seeing the 90s or any other period of time as "more innocent."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Kofi. I also love that about Wallace's Premodern Places, a book I've read cover to cover twice and return to every now and then just to glean something else. I think it's his best work ... and with his record, that is REALLY saying something. The introduction of the personal works well; even small things, like the glimpses of his brother, add to the total effect.

Steve, the panel is (of course) at 8.30 on Sunday. I'm with you -- no time was innocent. But the panel's opening remarks will suggest that they seemed more innocent, opening a space for fun scholarship ... until 9/11 intervened to teach us how serious the world in fact is. Needless to say that narrative echoes with one invoked by some religious commentators after the event, and I don't buy it.