Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

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

Towards a Restless Medieval Studies

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” 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.