Glenn Burger (Graduate Center, City University of New York)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?

The Place of the Present in the Middle Ages: A Scene of Possibility

Within modernity, the present is notable for a certain defining immateriality.  At once everywhere and nowhere, the present simply “is,” and by naturalizing modernity’s emptying of time and space the present becomes living proof of modernity’s end run on history.  In contrast, the past, especially the premodern past, becomes legible within modernity to the extent that it expresses a delimiting materiality and partiality.  Selective buildings, rituals, costumes, locutions, or manuscripts “contain” the past (and its status as temporally and spatially elsewhere) in ways that signal the past’s necessary supersession by a present that will still connect with it only in limited and carefully controlled ways.  The past as material remnant may thus work nostalgically and metonymically to connect some recognizable “us” in the present to “our” communal past (as in the case, say, of European countries with clear medieval monuments and “relics”) or work romantically and metaphorically to highlight that which has replaced such a past (as in the case of the U.S. as described by Nancy Partner, whose modern formation supposedly “frees” its citizens from even metonymic relationships with such a retrograde past). But in order to do so, such a past functions as a stabilizing effect of modern retrospection, part of the emptying and homogenizing of time and space necessary for the construction of the modern civic subject and sex/gender system undergirding the modern nation state and global capitalism. [see Note #1 below]

Over the past several decades postmodernist theory and practice has worked in a variety of ways to fill in this supposedly empty homogenous time and space of the present—whether by challenging modern identity formation, and the categories of sex/gender/sexuality upon which they depend, or by bringing into visibility the European/Western cast to modern universals, or by resisting modern supersessionist and teleological histories in order to highlight marginal or subcultural groups. But it is also becoming increasingly clear that this new recognition of the heterogeneity of the present will most fully become an analytic tool for reimagining who we are only by reorienting modernity’s relationship with the historical, that is, by fully historicizing modernity and engaging the present with the past in new ways.

For that reason, it seems to me, those working on the premodern past and those working on the postmodern present (or post-postmodern, if you wish) share much more than we might commonly recognize or acknowledge.  What might it be like for both groups to practice a historicism that brings the past and the present, premodern and postmodern, alongside each other in a rich heterogeneity, that stresses a temporality and spatiality that is coincidental, affective, and performative rather than stabilizingly teleological, segmented, or hierarchized? In terms of sexuality and gender, for example, such an encounter between past and present would seek to uncover in the premodern that which is in excess to the discourses of modern heteronormativity. If, as Christopher Nealon has recently noted of current queer critique, “we need to read sexuality as historical, that is, as made out of found materials, secondhand,” then I think the premodern, with its diversity of gender and sexualities, competing and interwoven models of virgin, virago, good wife, chaste marriage, chivalric masculinity, clerical celibate, etc., can provide a powerfully heterogeneous set of “found materials” to bring alongside the present. Such a historicization, focused on what cannot be assimilated to the logic of a repetition that is conducive to periodization and stabilized identities, enacts its own logic of the beside, necessarily and profoundly engaging with the present as it attempts to move, in Lee Edelman’s words, into “the space where ‘we’ are not.” Such a richly and self-consciously performative historicization of past and present could help instantiate how both past and present (not just the present, as Edelman would have it), are “project[s] whose time never comes and therefore [are] always now.”

In the brief time remaining, let me suggest in more particular ways how such historical work might situate itself, in Christopher Nealon’s words, “along the seam of its becoming-historical . . [as] a way to keep it in touch with that which eludes it” (188).  First, might the otherness of the Middle Ages (or its marginality, depending on your point of view) be mobilized as another queer time and place — similar to the way Judith Halberstam has recently remobilized sexual subcultures — to refuse the consequential promise of history.  Halberstam focuses on queer subcultures as sites in which, paradoxically, regression is not only a mode of dissent from normative temporal regimes such as wage time and family time but also a scene of possibility for other anticipations, even other modes of anticipating.  Halberstam thus seeks to resist any gay/lesbian liberationist teleology that would seek to install its own homonormative time-line and excise the supposedly “unevolved” queer.  Might we consider the medieval’s equation with the unevolved and the regressive in a similarly subcultural mode, and explore its ability to suggest a scene of possibility for other anticipations, for the becoming-historical?

Second, and in a similar vein, might the very real and substantial dissonances — political, emotional, material — between the premodern past and postmodern present be re-engaged. Rather than the nostalgic or romantic modes of modernity, might the more self-consciously affective and materialist modes of a heterogeneous historicism seek to develop something like Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” that is, work that idiosyncratically re-creates the self and its future possiblities by remixing often painful pasts and forging new relations among dissonant elements. Or might we find a similarly performative model for the work of premodern historicization in Elizabeth Freeman’s recent articulation of drag as “a nonnarrative history written with the body, in which the performer channels another body, literalizing the permeability to which Chakrabarty refers [in his definition of history-without-a-capital H] and making this body available to a context unforeseen in its bearer’s lived historical moment. Here, belonging is a matter of pleasurable cathexis across historical time as well as across the space between stage and audience.  What takes place between the performer and the object of her performance, or between an audience member and the performer/her alter ego, can be some mixture of identification, disidentification, arousal, contempt, longing—but cannot be reduced to common belonging under the sign of ‘gay’” (Freeman, 165). In such a pleasurable cathexis across historical time, perhaps, the place of the present in the premodern past, and in turn the importance of that past for the continuing “livability” of who we are and might be in the present, can be written more fully as “erotically affective narratives” in a scene of possibility.


1 .  This is the kind of thinking that led Steven Kruger and myself, when thinking about the possibility of queering the Middle Ages and historicizing postmodernity to ask whether “the apparently stable essences of historical thinking (primitivity, modernity, the medieval) [might] need to be reconceived not as stable entities but as stabilized effects of retrospection? In other words, might we need (preposterously) to rethink what we have come to know as the Middle Ages not as preceding modernity but as the effect of a certain self-construction of the modern, which gives itself identity by limiting a ‘before’ that is everything the modern is not?” (Queering the Middle Ages, xiii).