Betsy McCormick (McGill University)

43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2008

Western Michigan University

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

The Bittersweet Symphony

Just as Jeffrey (Cohen) posted on In the Middle a few weeks ago, I too was wondering what to say at this roundtable; but as soon as he explained that the gist of the question, for him, was “place,” I realized that I had another version of the question in mind. However, I had transposed “present” and “medieval studies” turning the question into “What is the place of medieval studies in the present?” While initially a cognitive slip-up, I will argue today that both versions of the questions are important for us to ask and consider.

After all, the Middle Ages have never really gone away in the popular memory. Just in the past six months (here in the US) Beowulf was the number one movie; Oprah’s endorsement made Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End best sellers; and the annual Newberry Medal for children’s literature went to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village (by Laura Amy Schlitz), a collection of monologues by imaginary medieval villagers. A current Domino’s Pizza commercial depicts medieval war re-enactors accepting a pizza delivery as one participant shouts “There was no delivery in the 14th century!,” sounding like the very embodiment of a disgruntled medievalist.

Despite such constant recycling of the medieval by contemporary society (which we could easily call Medieval Lite), the relationship between the medieval and the modern remains a troublesome question not only for individual medievalists, but among medievalists. I must admit that for me this desire of the present to invoke the medieval has always been hard to reconcile with the stereotypical stance of medievalist as misunderstood outsider. Obviously such is not the case in popular culture (or at least no more so than any other academic discipline – i.e. Eileen’s recent blog post), although it would seem to be the case in the academic realm. Nor can I ignore the parallels to Chaucer’s literary persona of schlubby, mildly befuddled bystander (somehow I always see him as Phillip Seymour Hoffman although my students usually see him as the naked Paul Bettany from The Knight’s Tale). And how to reconcile this self-image with the knowledge that much of twentieth century critical theory was driven by medievalists?

What is at stake with our own mis-conceptions was made clear for me by two seemingly unrelated instances at the last New Chaucer Society meeting in NYC. During the conference, I visited some old friends from college, one of whom asked me, with a faint hint of pity in his eyes, “why would you study the Middle Ages?” – which he then went on to define as a time of stasis, Christian piety etc (we all know the litany). It was only later that I realized that the fact that he asked the question was significant. My friend is an educated, savvy New Yorker, who also happens to be managing director of Sotheby’s – in other words, a fellow toiler in the fields of culture. If he doesn’t see the point of our field – and he certainly sells enough artifacts from it – then the real question is not why am I studying the Middle Ages, but even more so why haven’t we made the vitality and importance of our field clear to everyone else? Especially since our field clearly does have cultural appeal and economic capital in the present.

But let me juxtapose this story with the subject of my talk at the same conference: the inability of Chaucerian scholars to see the very nature of our own discourse. In that paper I considered how a historical review of Legend of Good Women critique reveals its critics enacting the same form of dialectic that Chaucer is trying to overcome within the Legend. Considering these two conference moments against each other leads me to conclude that while we’re engaged in the dialectic over who’s right, we’re forgetting to think about, let alone pursue, the question of why our field should matter to everyone else – at least beyond the hand-wringing the topic usually produces.

Certainly such internal/external blindness can be attributed to the very nature of academic discourse, grounded as it is in a dialectic dating back before the medieval university system to classical rhetorical training. This kind of either/or thinking usually ends in the hermeneutic gridlock I found in Legend criticism. Such blindness is also attributable to the pretty fundamental human desire to be “right.” But anyone in academia longer than ten years, let alone twenty or thirty, discovers the folly of the “right answer” which changes from decade to decade and from critical approach to critical approach. (See Elizabeth Scala’s recent TMR review of A.C. Spearing’s Textual Subjectivity.) This blindness is also attributable to the essential concern presentism reveals: presentism alerts us to the necessity for acknowledging our own presence – our very selves as well as the world we inhabit – in our scholarship. To think that our own embodied “now” does not enter into our relationship to the past, to the text, and to our scholarship is naïve at best, detrimental at worst. As Terence Hawkes states, we can’t step out of time. [also connections to Bourdieu] And unless we deal with the specter of the present within ourselves, I’m not sure what we do have to say to a contemporaneous audience about the past.

But I would like to suggest that the (seemingly insurmountable) past/presentist rift could actually serve as a possible solution by allowing/creating what I would like to call hermeneutic juxtapositions. I initially chose the word “rift” to describe this divide since one of its definitions is “a serious disagreement that disrupts good relations” – an accurate description of this long-term academic virus. But a synonym for rift is “opening”; I think we need to start thinking of this rift as an opening for new ideas, i.e. for hermeneutic juxtapositions. But (thanks to Eileen) I discovered that William Connelly also uses this idea of rifts in time, advising us that “it becomes wise to fold the expectation of surprise and the unexpected into the very fabric of our explanatory theories, interpretive schemes…. And to work on ourselves subtly to overcome existential resentment of these expectations” (Neuropolitics, p. 146). It seems to me that we could/should pursue an exuberant scholarship driven by the very divide itself, a continuous production of different and differing critical perspectives, a multiplicity of approaches. Will all approaches be fruitful or insightful? No, but that does not negate the necessity to try. Moreover, such a multiplicity infers that we don’t have to agree to it all.

That was certainly the idea behind Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages. This project was founded on the idea that examining past and present things in juxtaposition could expand our understanding of both – ie. hermeneutic juxtapositions or what Jeffrey has called in his Afterword, “unexpected conjunctions,” that negotiate the rift dividing past from present. My contribution to the volume was initiated by an observation I had while watching reality television – that the BBC production of Manor House reminded me in striking ways of Chaucer’s Legend. However, it was never as simple as: the Legend is like reality television or the obverse, reality television is like the Legend. In fact when I start thinking about the project, I really didn’t know what I would discover. What I found in the end bore little relationship to where I thought I would end up – always a truism of the scholarly process – but this was different from the usual. Initially, I could never have suspected that the key point of similarity in either genre was its emphasis on community; even though I have spent years reading game and liminal theory, the profound necessity for community I discovered made me think anew about the importance of liminality/play in the here and now as much as in the past. In the end, liminality is a necessary and normative experience, one which reminds us that individual identity is grounded by/in community. (i.e. the isolated tutor and unhappy spinster of Manor House, the lost women of the Legend) Another insight, applicable to today’s context, is that the level of critical anxiety over the nature of reality television, and the discourse it creates, is similar to the critical anxiety we are discussing here. Such anxiety is always interesting and indicative of something, a something we should be pursuing.

I actually think of the book itself as a miscellany in the medieval sense – only in this project could Steve Guthrie’s essay on the history of torture and mine on the ludic role of the liminal co-exist. Yes, it’s a bittersweet symphony of cacophonous, yet euphonious, juxtaposition: as the song says, “But I'm a million different people from one day to the next.” And in order to make that co-existence productive, we, as readers, have to read back and forth and through the various essays and ideas. Is such a method THE answer for all our anxieties? No. But if you know the song, The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony, then you also know that its main chorus is, “I can't change my mold, no, no, no, no.” There is a future for the medieval, and for medieval studies; in fact, that’s not the question. I think the real question is if we’re going to change our molds and let ourselves be present in it.