Nancy Partner (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?

"Hello, I Must Be Going": The Medievalist's Theme Song

The place of the present in medieval studies is, of course, where it always was: flooding the conscious foreground with our shared anxieties and ego-needs, surging around in the deep background with darker fears and more importunate desires – informing our minds and emerging in many ingenious disguises as intellect and politics suitable for public exposure. In other words, the present occupies the same place in medieval studies as it does everywhere else in human social and cultural life. But that is to say nothing, or nothing in particular that applies to our quite unusual bourgeois situation as the professional academics who occupy and own the very early post-Roman, pre-modern, European past, “The” Middle Ages, with our assigned homework being to define the “medievalness” of the Middle Ages. We conduct this work (or play) in American universities (and conferences, research institutes, publications) in the extraordinary privileged American position: entirely free of the burden of a national medieval past. The Middle Ages is not part of our national narrative: we don't have to uphold or debunk the constitutionality of Magna Carta; our ancestors are not “the Gauls.” This privilege is a difficult gift, as too much freedom always is. The American Middle Ages is a field defined by the aesthetic, cultural, and psychological investments of its professional practitioners, whose commitment to a history, literature and art far less generally known than almost any other areas of the research curriculum is not exactly self-explanatory to most people. In the American university, medieval studies has to compete for time, space, and attention in a way that it doesn't in countries where the national narrative is constructed on monumenta of the medieval past. This special situation is an engine, a difference engine, that drives us towards the edges of our disciplinary conventions, configured hopefully as the cutting edge. We should admit it: we crave attention.

Medieval studies vacillates between interpretive poles of alterity and intimacy. Alterity, the strong condition of otherness, drives antiquarian work – a patronizing word now, with a noble history. Under the sign of alterity, the allure of medieval culture beckons like that of populated planets in distant galaxies, whose sentient and probably superior inhabitants offer us complex traces of their vanished civilization for respectful interpretation and understanding, artifacts intelligible only if we are willing to leave behind self-involvement and sentimental ideas about continuity over time. Antiquarian scholarship is deep paraphrase; it takes its interpretive instruments from the cultural repertoire of the artifact under consideration – contextually appropriate. Antiquarians get it right – this too should be conceded – if, for example, we want to understand the narrative program of the images in a set of 13th century stained glass windows. (And if we don't care at all about antiquarian reconstruction, then it raises the question of why we are in the business we're in.) Finally and most importantly, the antiquarian respect for profound alterity, the ineluctable differentness of the past, is the foundation of our concept of history as history. Because the antiquarian realization has permeated intellectual culture, we don't unselfconsciously dress our ancient Romans in up to date 13th century fashions, and when we decide to dress them in fashion-forward queer party frocks, we are being self-consciously perverse. Antiquarianism made that possible. I could add something about dynamic feedback loops and interdependency, but I think we already know all that.

So I think that being snarky about the contextualists, the respectful constructionists, traditional scholarship, is not a very strong platform for presentist medieval studies, especially since the traditionalists in literature have adopted most of the linguistic turn repertoire for their own purposes. Admittedly, we must regret the passing of the dear old days when talking postmodern could actually get an angry rise out of an academic audience. It was fun, but it's over. The project of a presentist medieval scholarship is not a needed response to a boring cabal of hegemonic antiquarians, but has to prove itself interesting and valuable on its own terms, find its own self-demonstrating integrity. There are two problematic areas that seem to me to require direct and tough-minded confrontation by everyone involved in presentist medieval studies: 1) the “medievalness” of the project, and 2) the shifting location of the “present.”

If the connection of radical theorizing, its intimate confrontation with the historical and literary core of the medieval discipline feels forced or capricious, if it fails to arrive at something sharp and convincing, then what's the point? The question that wants to be acknowledged and implicitly answered is why should these concepts  (postcolonial, queer, feminist) be about anything medieval? Or that subjects like George Bush, Iraq, and suicide bombers connect with medieval anything in any way that people really ought to know. I think it's a good intellectual discipline to step back and recognize that the “medievalness” of queer, postcolonial, or feminist medieval studies is not exactly self-evident. Most of the energy tends to flow into working on and announcing the exciting theoretical weapons (performativity related to gender, queering of normative sexualities, etc.), less into justifying why anyone invested in these seriously radicalizing enterprises should bother to be a medievalist, of all things? Why bring these discordant things together? In therapy confessional mode, we might here admit that medievalists suffer from a collective resentment at being ignored and slighted, a fear of being considered boring by definition, and are thus pathetically susceptible to acting out in exaggerated bids for attention. There is no known therapy for this pervasive academic neurosis, but the work can cure itself.

Presentism itself has its problems; it has a limited shelf life. Self-conscious presentism in the traditional scholarly fields is the legacy of postmodernism. The problem is not that current theoretical formulations are too radical or not radical enough, but the the “present” keeps changing (a banal idea) and its changes contaminate the intentions and consequences of presentist work (a non-banal idea). There is an odd non-synchronized disconnect between the medieval literary and historical disciplines. In history generally, the allure of the splintered non-unitary non-self engaged in incessant self-creation in a dissolving polity (rather fun ideas in the 1990s) faded rapidly in a world of clash of civilization hatreds and suicide bombers acting on behalf of non-state entities. And the spectacle of what used to be boring Eastern Bloc Yugoslavia delaminating into semi-functioning sub-state fragments (let's add in Lebanon, and nearly all of Africa) has sobered up even historians who liked Foucault. The integrated self, site of agency in its social and political world is making a comeback, and its operations within the legal boundaries of a traditional soverign state (if lucky) don't look so smug and complacent a target anymore. Memory studies, with focus on “memory sites” anchoring narratives connecting individual and collective identities over time, are big. Febrile instability as a desired condition of personal identity, so attractive to queer theory, is a difficult fit with the unhappy fissioning of ever tinier neo-nationalisms. The theory that is genuinely 'good to think with' is having to be reconfigured as we find out what post-postmodernism requires. And working out the place for medieval anything, the “medievalness” of our middle ages in our present moment takes work.