Karma Lochrie (Indiana University)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

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

Being Un-timely

As someone who has recently argued for the jettisoning of the categories of heterosexuality and the normal in the study of the Middle Ages, I suppose I might be seen to be a medievalist who straddles the discussion of our panel today.  After all, I still do play in the sandbox of feminist and queer theory, which makes me ineluctably presentist, according to some standards, but at the same time, my recent book insists upon the historical containment of heterosexuality and those normative technologies on which it depends.  Since I wrote Heterosyncrasies, there has also been an explosion of debate in queer theory (different sandbox, Nancy) aimed at queer temporalities and the development of a homo-historicism.  The debate has been inspired, primarily, by Lee Edelman’s provocative book, No Future, in which he advocates “thinking outside of narrative history” and explicitly resisting what he calls “reproductive futurism.” Although this discussion currently burning up the blogs and journals devoted to queer temporalities is directed mainly at reproductive futurism, it also implicates the study of the past in its notion of the teleological fondness for origins, sequences, and futures found in traditional historicisms. Reproductive futures, in other words, shape both the pasts and the presents that we plot towards that “compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism” that in Edelman’s mind is inexorably bound to the phantasmatic child.  Although Edelman exhorts us to proclaim with him that “the future stops here,” I might offer as a revision of Edelman and a subject for my remarks that “the present stops here.”

In saying this, I am not surrendering to antiquarian history, nor to the disciplinary regime that would have medievalists insist on the alterity of the past.  Instead, what I would like to suggest is that the present should function in medieval studies not only to bring new theories and histories to bear on the past, but more importantly, as the site of potential transformation.  Here, I want to refer to Elizabeth Grosz’s marvelous book, The Nick of Time. Drawing on Nietzsche, Grosz argues that “what history gives us is the possibility of being untimely, of placing ourselves outside the constraints, the limitations, and blinkers of the present.  This is precisely what it means to write for a future that the present cannot recognize; to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present” (117). This notion of untimeliness as the goal of historical work, by which she means the dislocation of the present, seems to me to argue for a present in medieval studies that cannot hold. In other words, I think that many of us on this panel today would consider our work in medieval studies to serve as a kind of intervention in the present.

In my own recent work, I am explicitly interested in the ways in which the medieval past can dislodge our heteronormative present and help us to imagine a “world not normatively organized around heterosexuality,” in the words of Michael Warner. In fact, Warner thinks this effort of imagination is nearly impossible, but I would argue, alà Grosz, that we can cultivate an untimely sense of our own present through the study of the past, even as we study that same past through modern theories and especially in conjunction with contemporary political events.  The role of the present in my fantasy of medieval studies is to serve as the discomfiting position from which we write and speak with the knowledge that our present cannot be detached from the medieval past.

I would like to conclude my remarks today by suggesting that it is the future, rather than the present, that is more properly our focus.  Those of us who have been accused of playing too fast and loose with history are fundamentally interested in the transformative potential of our work—not just for medieval studies, but individually and in connection with our interlocutors in other fields.  Let me revert once more to Grosz to elaborate on what I mean by the transformative potential of nicking the present:

The more clearly we understand our temporal location as beings who straddle the past and the future without the security of a stable and abiding present, the more mobile our possibilities are, and the more transformations become conceivable. The more we affirm the value of the nick, the cut, or rupture, the more we revel in the untimely and the more we make ourselves untimely.” (14)

In fact, as Grosz goes on to write, any radical politics has a stake in “the degree to which the status of resistance (of the present/the future) is linked to, revives and transforms, the power (of the past)” (119).   I can’t imagine any more improbable and more serious a medieval studies than one that, though its engagement with and resistance to the present, enables a future that the present cannot currently imagine.