Thursday, April 01, 2010

Always Historicize? Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies

Figure 1. segment of the Mandelbrot set


Tomorrow [Thursday, April 1st], Karl, Dan Remein, Patricia Dailey and I will be sharing remarks and ideas relative to the topic of "Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies," as part of a special discussion forum at New York University--"Always Historicize? Historicism, Post-Historicism, and Medieval Studies"--organized by Hal Momma on behalf of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium. We decided ahead of time to each read the chapters by Jeffrey ["Time Out of Memory"] and Maura Nolan ["Historicism after Historicism"] in the recent essay collection, The Post-Historical Middle Ages, edited by Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico [Palgrave, 2009] as a jumping-off point for discussion. I am very much looking forward to this forum and to the debate(s), discussion(s), and conviviality that will surely follow, and once I return I will post the full text of my remarks here.

I have to say up front that my thinking on these matters has been profoundly affected by dialogues and debates with my co-bloggers and blog readers here over the years, and there is real affinity as well with the manner in which Jeffrey concluded his paper recently delivered at York, "The Future of the Jews of York," and my own thinking on a so-called "post-historical" Middle Ages, especially in relation to Jeffrey's concluding question in that paper [and in much of his work] regarding other, possible worlds.

In the meantime, I leave you with my opening gambit:

Embracing the Swerve: A Fugitive Medieval Studies

There is no temporal direction for gazing at the past or at the future, other than nondirectionally outward. Get up and look around, as [John] Cage once said. You will see everything there is to work with right (t)here, at the conceptually contingent location of your besieged senses.
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager

In her contribution to The Post-Historical Middle Ages, “Historicism after Historicism,” Maura Nolan makes some very reasonable arguments that appear to strike a productive accord between alteritist and more inter-temporal forms of historicism, especially within the realm of literary, or aesthetic criticism. To whit, she advocates that,
1. temporalities are thick, mobile, and multiple in any given time period, past and present, and therefore some understanding of any moment’s particular heterogeneity is essential to the critical enterprise, or as Nolan herself puts it, “both sameness and difference are essential to genuinely grasping the past and its complexity” (p. 67);

2. artifacts—textual or otherwise—travel and get appropriated in different historical contexts, thereby functioning as markers of “the simultaneous continuity and alienation between past and present,” but each artifact also “resists its transportation” as it gets pulled backwards by the undertow of its “prior meanings” (p. 77); and finally,

3. the literary work is a “privileged aesthetic zone” in which “the potential for words to signify in multiple ways is indulged” (p. 70), and therefore, a “meaningful historicism . . . will not be threatened by accusations of artfulness,” especially when we consider that the historical method itself “is a kind of formalism, a craft of reading and writing about texts” (p. 83).
At the same time that Nolan advocates for a medieval literary studies that would have critical investments in the past’s somewhat intractable difference, while also recognizing its temporal and even ludic motilities, her essay is shot through with a certain severe, disciplinary rhetoric that everywhere insists on the past’s distance and on the scholar’s responsibility to literally submit to that distance—to traverse its resistance under the “yoke” of the past’s “weight,” which should constrain us. Therefore:
1. history “exerts a constant pressure on the literary work” (p. 63);

2. the Middle Ages are “recognizably human but ineradicably different” (p. 68);

3. “attempts to understand the past, medieval and modern, have limits—historical, ideological, and aesthetic boundaries that give shape and form to . . . [various] modes of past- and self-understanding” (p. 69);

4. to “think through what a culture’s aesthetic production actually does, from the inside and at close range, should be a primary objective” of our criticism (p. 83); and finally,

5. “the best that scholars can do, mired in linear history as they are, is to recognize that critical difference is the lifeblood of scholarship, while acknowledging that bending to the yoke of the past is a necessary precondition for grasping its particularity, its precious difference from the present” (p. 83).
Perhaps most important to Nolan, because it is something she repeats more than once, is the caution that “[m]odes of thought that begin analysis with generalizations or abstractions—that start with an idea and look for a text to fit—cannot substitute . . . for a patient submission to the text until it yields its secrets and reveals its forms” (p. 83). Here Nolan reveals her hand as a scholar invested in the recovery of authorial intention and, in fact, she describes historicism at one point as “nothing more than a responsible literary criticism that seeks to understand the meaning of a writer’s work as fully as possible,” and she also invokes the “truth of the Middle Ages” as that elusive “secret” at which both historicism and theory supposedly aim (pp. 79, 83, my emphases). And all of this is somewhat at odds with her call for a reading practice that would allow for “the strange, the exceptional, [and] the weird” (p. 84).

My own intention here this evening is to call for ir-responsible reading practices within medieval studies—modes of reading that would embrace the movement of what Lucretius termed the clinamen, the swerve or declination in the motion of atoms falling through a laminar void, and which literally means, as the political theorist Jane Bennett has explained, “to take the minimum angle necessary to veer away—[to] prefer not to go with the flow.” This is also, as Michael Serres has put it, “the tiniest angle necessary and sufficient to produce turbulence.” Without the swerve, the universe would have no novelty, no spatiotemporal possibility, no surprises. As a result of the actual swerves that take place every day (on both micro and macro levels), the present is always that fugitive temporal zone that is constituted, in the words of political theorist William Connolly, by a “dissonant conjunction between past and present,” and therefore “it becomes wise to fold the expectation of surprise and the unexpected into the very fabric of our explanatory theories, interpretive schemes, religious identities, territorial conceptions of politics, and ethical sensibilities. And to work on ourselves subtly to overcome existential resentment of these expectations.” This calls to mind as well Bryan Reynolds’ method of reading Shakespeare transversally as “Shakespace,” a term that “encompasses the plurality of Shakespeare-related articulatory spaces and the time, speed, and force at which they transmit and replicate, like memes, through places, cultures, and eras.” Such spaces require “fugitive explorations” that “defy the authorities that reduce and contain meanings” as they hunt for “slippages, loose threads, and latent signifiers in a chosen text,” not to merely deconstruct that text, but as a “gateway to other possible readings and, by extension, to other conceptual, emotional and physical localities.” To embark on fugitive explorations within medieval texts is necessarily to both work and play within their most immediate historical languages and frames, while also carrying them into other territories.

For the purposes of re-thinking new models for reading medieval texts, I am inspired by the poet Joan Retallack’s thinking on the “poetics of the swerve” as “a constructive preoccupation with . . . unpredictable forms of change” and “unsettling transfiguration[s] of once-familiar terrain.” In this scenario, the critical essay is an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment,” and we write, not to “deliver space-time in a series of shiny freeze-frames, each with its built-in strategy of persuasion,” but to “stay warm and active and realistically messy,” to “disrupt the fatal momentum” of linear histories. For better or worse, the past is not so much behind us as we are literally embedded in its wreckage, and therefore we inhabit what Retallack has coined the “(chaotic) continuous contemporary,” a sort of fractal coastline along which we might glimpse some of the ways in which “large cultural trajectories” come into contact and flow with “constantly changing local configurations.” And we might remind ourselves, too, of how Bourdieu described our habitus—as “embodied history, internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history . . . the active present of the whole past of which it is the product.” We must break with our habitus, or at least recognize better the ways in which it obstructs our view of the marvelous and vibrant energy of things moving in directions we cannot always predict in advance.


i said...

This comes at what is really, really the right time for me.

Why? I'm trying to write up (instead of just think about) my little contribution to the Post-Abysmal roundtables at Kzoo... and what I'm working on is an experiment in reading a text through a deliberate anachronism, a deliberate mistake or misreading. (I trust Mr. Borges and Mr. Zizek will be of some help in this.) Still, my historicism is so ingrained, that despite my faith that the audience will be generous, I find it difficult to allow myself to experiment in this way.

Which is funny, because I've been accused of anachronism when I was making what were pretty well-founded historical arguments...

The thing is, aside from all the philosophical justifications, I have a practical one: this is a poem that has been approached, repeatedly, from the past, i.e., its sources, and we still don't understand it very well. Approaching it from the present allows me to read details that few critics have noticed. (Aside from its excellent editor in the 1940's, who I'm convinced has already alluded to all future scholarship in his introduction to the text.) I can read it better as a poem, and not just a collection of learned allusions, from this perspective.

Allan Mitchell said...

Wish I could be there!

Do I detect the influence of Jacques Lezra's Unspeakable Subjects: The Genealogy of the Event . . . in the remarks about falling atoms? Great book, that.

anna klosowska said...

Eileen's "There is no temporal direction: and Irina's "alluded to all future scholarship" makes me add the following comments -- and celebrate the new issue of l'Esprit Créateur, edited by Cary Howie, on Sanctity:
Thus, fresh off the presses and already basking in the futurity of this issue's glory, in L'Esprit Créateur 50:1, 91-105: Nicola Masciandaro and Anna Klosowska: first page: Foucault dates to 1950-55 a turn in his thinking from the training in Husserlian phenomenology ("meaning which already envelops and and invests us before we start to open our eyes and speak") to the focus on "the formal conditions which can cause meaning to appear". The consequences of this turn in Foucault's work: historical approaches that move away from the logic of the relation man/institution, historical causality and linearity, and cause/effect to other modalities, other logics, for instance, the CONTEMPORANEITY of phenomena, A-CAUSAL relations. And here is the catch: Foucault identifies this new logic with the Ecole des Annales -- Bloch, Braudel. Foucault also extends the list of these possible historical a-causal relations "of a logical type": implication, exclusion, transformation. Recall the similar formation in the 1950s in Bachelard: Petics of Space (1957) is both phenomenology and his signature epistemic breaks. And recall also 1955 as the moment where Merleau-Ponty finally abandons his project of integrating humanism into existentialism. 1955, the New Wave of historicism?

Anonymous said...

One way of breaking with our 'habitus' is to break from the habit of thinking you are either with me or against me, of breaking out from both utopia and its antinomies, of always classifying ourselves against an IMAGINED uncooperative other.

I felt that was the force of JJC's conclusion. I wish we could apply that in our scholarly lives too. But is such dialectic essential to creativity? What do you think?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

We are moving house, and I barely have internet access, but want to say, quickly, fascinating post. PLEASE give us a report on how the event went ... and I'm especially curious to know if anyone gleaned that Maura and I had been in correspondence with our essays and that there is a dialogue between them that changed the orbit of each.

anna klosowska said...

I just wanted to say, I loved "imagined uncooperative other." What a great formulation, and what a great reminder and signpost of a new critical mode.

Eileen Joy said...

Just a few quick words as I am also putting together my whole talk [extended version] to post here as well as a few words on the conference itself.

To Allan: I did not know about the Lezra book, but have just ordered it, BUT: you were right to intuit thinking on the event as I have been enamored lately of several texts on that front: Claude Romano's "Event and World" [next up: Romano's "Event and Time," and THANKS to Nic D'Alessio for recommending Romano to me] and also some of John Caputo's recent writings on event via Deleuze [article in "Angelaki": "Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid."

Sarah: I love your comments here, which very much sum up the general feelings of the forum as whole, although we did have a bit of a scuffle with Patricia Dailey, who actually termed JJC's thinking in his chapter in "The Post-Historical Middle Ages" as "dangerous," and as I'm composing my post this a.n., I would like to call on everyone who was there last night to help me clarify the arguments that kind of burst out at the end. It was antagonistic in the better senses of the term and richly provocative, but then we had to stop and break for dinner before we were really able to hash through, as it were, our "antinomies."

Irina: I can't wait to hear your paper at Kalamazoo.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

To have been called dangerous for conducting medieval studies scholarship fulfills my life's dream; I can now die in peace.

Anonymous said...

To be described as a signposter of a new critical mode fulfills mine (life dream). Nice b'day present. Cheers! ;)

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, I'll be more than happy to help you remember. The main thing I remember is PD skipping the important 'quand même' in the opening paragraphs of JJC's chapter. He and Alex both treat the rock 'as if' it is knowing, while PD treated JJC as if he were (to summon up Zizek here) the subject-supposed-to-believe, who stupidly, directly believes in the revivified rock that we knowing subjects believe to be only a fetish.

At least that's how I heard it.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

As I recall, the precise wording PD used was that JJC was "dangerously close to the trace" -- a slightly different sense there, but I'll have to find my notes to see what else I can pull out of them. My thought was that the "danger," if there is such a thing, was more about not thinking through the trace explicitly as trace and the theoretical concerns that raises (and here my lack of recent engagement with Derrida will show) and less about the essay itself as a whole. Could be wrong though. More when I find and decipher my notes.

dan remein said...

MKH: I think I remember the trace discussed and this danger in connection with another term: resuscitation.

I remember very clearly that PD's concern had to do with thinking the trace in terms of resuscitation the past--which was actually the accusation of why the other 3 presentations were dangerous--and that this (apparently metaphysical ontotheological easter style) resurrection was somehow the dominant figure in this desire to 'leave behind history.' And this is the main place where I think she just missed what we were saying entirely. Karl's paper, for instance, wanted to arrest the narrative of 'Sir Erk' before the resurrection, Eileen complained and lamented that the Andreas poet resurrects folks just so they can be baptized (SO not fair to resurrect folks against their wills just so they can serve a tyrannical and imperialist god!). We discussed figures of resurrection, but by no means endorsed them. If we had such desires, this might be a problem, because traces are only ever traces of traces for the frenchman JD. Reading, in 'Archive Fever' from Freud, we note, in Beyond the PLeasure Princ., that the physiological inscriptions that make memories are formed not by any direct indexing of sensation but by the traces of a set of other transfers of excitations. As a result, the trace cannot be said to to be a trace of something that was ever even there for sure in the first place (the past is not yet, etc., and one cannot resurrect what cannot decidably be said to exist or not....etc). And I think E K and me all 'get that.' PD's problem then could only be a couple of things--first of all, demanding that JJC use the term trace only within its specific history and valence of Derridean discourse. As much as I'm a fan of JD, I don't think we can use terms which he used only according to the histories in his writings, unless we're treating Theory with a capital T like scripture, which, again, as much as I LOVE theory, I totally refuse to do (see E Sedgwick on the cost as which theories become Theory...).

I think this is actually a very important point though--not so much that PD for whatever reason 'missed' or 'misheard' how we were talking about the past or the dead, but that then she more clearly delineated her interest as concerning not the dead, "I'm not talking about the dead here, I'm only talking about texts."

dan remein said...


And the claim that Derrida in fact was only a textual scholar, only talking about texts...I mean, to say there is no outsidetext is one thing, but this doesn't mean we or JD were never talking about the dead. in fact, he framed Specters of Marx as being about, above all things, not texts, but "Learning to Live," and that learning to live would have to happen between death and life, in the upkeep of conversation with ghosts or some ghost. Derrida in fact suggests that our ethics needs to being with the dead in the opening of this same text. I guess what I am saying is that there is no reason to have a fantasy of the medieval past resurected, or a medieval past that even ever happened (yet?) to speak with it or to it, to let it inform and enrich our lives, to do our duty to it and acknowledge our debt, infinite, to the Dead as the Other which always already has a claim on us....and not just as a figure in some text, even if there is no outside text. This is the whole reason to think the specter in specters of Marx. Text's may never succeed in referring outside themselves, maybe we don't either, but within that economy of the same we seem to live and die anyways.I guess I want to repeat what I was saying that night too, that I'm in no way willing to abandon History. In fact, I'd leave historicism to die on the altar of the historical itself, so I could finally relate to history instead of just talking about how to relate to history. That this relation of post to historicism will be complicated is a given. I get that.

I guess I just sort of feel that I was being told that not being a direct descendant of Derrida, I couldn't possibly understand either Derrida or his terms, and that to use a term he used without being his student is wrong.

PD's reservations seemed to take that form above as well as two others: 1) a need to constantly delineate her kind of criticism from whatever the other panelists were doing 2) a claim that the other panelists do not adequately understand the 'post' invoked in posthistoricism and that along with that, a claim that this debate was debated already and has its own history--that history as a term has its own historicity and histories, surrounding what she claimed was more compelling thought about time in the work of Theory in the late 80's and early 90's between mostly Jameson and Derrida and also I think Laplanche (I think an odd combination--folks from very different sides of the theory world, of different theories and not part of some homogeneous Theory)--all of this accompanied by a constant claim that to leave history behind is dangerous (implicitly misreading other panelists as wanting to leave history behind). Oh, and 3) there was this sense that the Other panelists were prescribing our style of crit. for everyone, as compulsory.

Eileen Joy said...

Hi everyone: I'm in the process right now of posting a longer version of my remarks at the NYU panel as well as trying my best to represent other remarks, and I'll bring some of this dialogue forward there as well, and will hope to see even more dialogue on what I think is an extremely important debate within our field, relative to histories, historicisms, and historicities [emphasis on the plural & multiple].

Gerald Song said...

I'd like to draw attention to two other comments from the night, by Stacy Klein and Susan Crane, that resonated a bit with me. Klein pointed out that the kind of irresponsible reading urged--what I might call (positively) "pornographic" or "amateur"--seems to be performed by students and non-academics all the time; Crane seemed to want to know what such a reading practice would look like without its justification or explanation or theoretical apparatus. I also wondered if a lot of the fun and value of irresponsible reading get siphoned away by the felt need to justify, defend, explain, theorize--to prove one is not just an amateur. (I love how Remein just lied to us without explaining it!) On the other hand, I must admit scuffles can be quite fun, and it was a fun night for those of us watching.

(First time commenter! I'm responding to Eileen in a few weeks and thought it only fair to stop being a creepy lurker.)

Eileen Joy said...

Gerald: thanks so much for your comments here and for reminding us of the comments at the forum from Stacy Klein and Susan Crane. For just this moment [as I am also composing a lengthier piece on the forum as a whole and my own position(s) within that], I want to say that I appreciate your reminder that when one "justifies" or "theorizes" the more ludic/performative reading practice, that perhaps something is lost, vis-a-vis the "fun" or "value" of that reading: here, I would like to hear you clarify a bit what that *value* might actually be, vis-a-vis this thing we call scholarship, even literary-historical scholarship. For myself, while I kind of agree with you about not letting the "argument," so to speak, overshadow the ludic moment itself, I absolutely *am* trying to argue for the ethics and even rigor of what I termed on Thursday night "ir-responsible" reading practices, but . . . more of that anon!

gerald song said...

Eileen: Hello! Thanks for not finding my comments incomprehensible. Just a quick response before I leave the internet for the day: I suppose by value I mean something like "enterprise" or "general" value--the value of "free speech" for instance--versus the "specific" value of a given reading. It seems to me a specific irresponsible reading needs the freedom to be utterly unprincipled, completely embarrassing, and possibly of no value to the academy--but that we want to encourage such readings generally. Klein's point about academic insiders and outsiders makes me wonder if the value of academic insiders performing--and defending, I suppose--"amateur" readings is almost a populist or bridging move that returns reading to some widely shared experience? I guess what I'm wondering is whether setting "academic rigor" or "correction" as a goal for reading is setting the standard too low, in a way.

Eileen Joy said...

Gerald: as regards you point about whether

setting "academic rigor" or "correction" as a goal for reading is setting the standard too low, in a way

:wonderful provication to further thought.