Betsy McCormick

Mount San Antonio College

34th Annual Meeting: Southeastern Medieval Association

Saint Louis University

BABEL Panel: The Place of the Medieval in the Present

Let's Do The Time Warp Again: Rifts, Juxtapositions, and Critical Capital

Figure 1. The Clock of the Long Now Foundation

My initial idea for this paper was to pick up where I left off in my Kalamazoo paper, but with the temporal shift in the session title comes a shift in perspective. Instead of considering what part the present plays in the past, now I am considering what of the past is still present in the now. In May I said “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.” Let me turn that around in order to consider what the specter of the past within ourselves as medievalists has to say to a contemporaneous audience about the present. In other words, let’s do the time warp ... again.

I’d like to start with the handout you have in front of you, selections from a September 5, 2008 book review for a recently published bestseller (#4 in hardcover fiction this week). Your version leaves out key words/phrases in order, paradoxically, to make certain ideas clearer:

In all three books, ______________ creates women who must sell pieces of their souls to maintain their “good girl status.” They do their duty as daughters, wives and mothers. It’s a duty defined by our moralizing culture, with slight variations _________.

Alice is a nice Christian girl. She has modest aspirations, good manners and loving parents. Even Charles __________, scion of a big, old wealthy ___________ family, says she’s “ideal wife material.”

In ___________, ________ hits all the hot spots: daughterhood, sex, money, __________, marriage, motherhood.

Alice endures it all, the little unmarked rites of passage for the ________ female: the fear of burning in hell, the lumpish first kiss, the choice between the bad man and the good man, the pressure to engage in humiliating sex, the sad gratefulness for the first lover who actually cares about her pleasure.

Alice, on the other hand, watches her life spin out of control until she no longer recognizes herself. Her daughter grows up with questionable values; she gives up everything for Charlie. It’s a form of human sacrifice.

Since I’ve spent most of my career considering the medieval debate about women, the conventions at play here seem obvious. This story seems similar to the tales of Constance or Griselda or any of Chaucer’s good women in the Legend of Good Women. Defined by her relation to a man as virgin, wife, and/or widow, the ideal medieval “good girl” is identified by her sexuality--just as the bad girl is. A good girl is well-mannered, pious, and dutiful; most importantly she remains chaste, steadfast and true. Certainly these characteristics alongside the fear of burning in hell, the moralizing culture, the self-sacrifice in order to maintain the status of goodness found in this review are all familiar territory to the medievalist.

Yet this review is not of a medieval text, a revision of a medieval text or even inspired by anything remotely medieval. Not the story of Constance, or of patient Griselda, these are from a review of the new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife, her re-vision of Laura Bush.  With the blanks filled in [like some sort of medieval Mad Libs], this review reads as follows:

In all three books, Sittenfeld creates women who must sell pieces of their souls to maintain their “good girl status.” They do their duty as daughters, wives and mothers. It’s a duty defined by our moralizing culture, with slight variations neighborhood by neighborhood, mall by mall.

Alice is a nice Lutheran girl. She has modest aspirations, good grades and loving parents. Even Charlie Blackwell, scion of a big, old wealthy Republican family, says she’s “ideal wife material.”

In American Wife, Sittenfeld hits all the hot spots: daughterhood, sex, money, career, marriage, motherhood.

Alice endures it all, the little unmarked rites of passage for the American female: the fear of burning in hell, the lumpish first kiss, the choice between the bad man and the good man, the pressure to engage in humiliating sex, the sad gratefulness for the first lover who actually cares about her pleasure.

Alice, on the other hand, watches her life spin out of control until she no longer recognizes herself. Her daughter grows up with questionable values; she gives up everything for Charlie. It’s a form of human sacrifice.[1]

Suddenly this is a contemporary, American story. Salter’s review concludes by saying “And yet, Alice’s life has something in it for every American female. Some terrible aha moment, followed by a deep sigh and – heaven help us – that utterly feminine “Grapes of Wrath” determination that is the true and unsung backbone of America.” Joyce Carol Oates’s New York Times review of this book opens with the line “Is there a distinctly American experience?”; Oates sees the novel’s protagonist as a “sister-variant of the American outsider.”[2] Yet when I read this review with the eyes of a medievalist, the only words which mark it as distinctly “now” rather than “then” are American, Republican, Lutheran, grades, career and mall; the rest remains the same.

While such a tale may indeed reference the Grapes of Wrath or the American outsider, this story itself comes straight from what I would call the “Good Girl Handbook” of the Western tradition. Yet the assumptions underlying these and other reviews of American Wife are that this story of good girl outlined by the novelist, and her critics, is one that is all too familiar and distinctly American; while degrading in parts – furtive sexuality, lack of autonomy, self-sacrifice – it is how things are now. In other words, this conventional story is presented as a contentious, but accurate, story of American life, with little consideration of the long-term structures that underpin it. And it would seem that while the term “medieval” in current popular code is often used to connote “old,” “dead,” and most important of all, “so over,” there are indeed currents that flow from our past into our now whether we wish to see them or not. In this instance, is there really as much of a difference between the good medieval woman and the good American woman as we might like to believe?

This is one instance among many that reminds us that while it just as naïve to think that our own embodied “now” does not enter into our relationship to the past, to think that our relationship to the past does not enter into the now is just as imprudent. The Western tradition (what the Annalistes termed the longue duree) is long and continuous, an underlying river with currents rippling right up to the now. I’m invoking the metaphor of water here on purpose although I wish to shift the metaphor from river to ocean. For an ocean’s waves do not represent the movement of water across space – rather a wave is, quite literally, the memory of wind. The memory of the initial contact with the wind is transferred from water molecule to water molecule, growing ever larger to create what we finally see wash on shore as a wave. As one surfer writes, “the water that was roaring toward me was quite literally a memory …. When I heard the roar of that wave behind me … what I was actually hearing was the sound of the past arriving in the present with me directly in its path.”[3]

I think the past is always roaring up to the present, with us directly in its path; we’re surfing the memory of time whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. I first considered this in a paper where I compared contemporary surf culture and Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women--nowhere near as bizarre as it sounds. Just as the crux of the medieval debate about women centered on one question, “Can a woman be good?”, surfing culture debates a central question, “Can a woman surf?” Both rhetorical arguments follow the same dialectical structure. By starting with such a loaded question, any opposition must first engage in compulsory counterargument before beginning to make its own case. Since the opposition must continually rehearse and cite the other side in order to oppose it, their argument tends to become reactive rather than proactive.  In the medieval defense of women, such a reactive stance was used by the anti-feminist side as further proof that their side was indeed correct. And, in turn, the same highly structured and closed dialectic would act itself out again, simply becoming more ingrained in its contrary positions. But this fixed form of dialectic doesn’t just occur in medieval texts, or in a Western tradition that lies solidly and fixedly in the past, or in an obscure contemporary subculture--rather this rhetorical structure is part of our Western DNA.

Certainly the idea of two entrenched positions that argue and counterargue in parallel, seemingly inexhaustible, closed circles should sound familiar in this political year. I heard its echo during the primaries, particularly in terms of the two Democratic front-runners. Much of the political commentary in relation to Senator Clinton was driven by the central question, “Can a woman be president?” just as much discussion in relation to Senator Obama was/is driven by the central question “Can a black man be president?” With the entry of Governor Palin, a new question has arisen “Can a mother be president?” [While this issue was dominant in discussions of Palin, it was never really raised with either Geraldine Ferrarro or Hilary Clinton, probably because their children were older during their respective campaign; of course, its corollary, “Can a father be president?” is never at issue.] This rhetorical structure based on a loaded question, both agonistic and antagonistic, is just as prevalent in the academic realm as it is in the political; the form, and its rhetorical performance, is grounded in a structure which dates back to the classical-medieval model of education and the medieval university. Certainly as students of classical and medieval rhetoric it seems we should more easily see how these forms operate in the world around us.

That we don’t see such inherent structure in our thinking can be explained by Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of blind spots: those parts of our world which remain invisible to us because we are too deeply embedded, and embodied, within our own structures to see them. Because such structures are “internalized as a second nature” according to Bourdieu, they are “forgotten as [our] history.”[4] [which would certainly explain such instances as the American Wife review.] For Bourdieu, any one of our internal structures--educational, cultural etc.--are only “complete and fully viable” when generated by a correspondence among structures, objects and bodies; they become what he terms “mutually intelligible” because all operate along the same embodied habitus.[5] In more simple terms, if we understand the past, if we find it mutually intelligible, it is because we are still part of it as it is part of us. Medieval tropes, rhetorical patterns, institutional habits are all part of our embodied history, the substructure of our thought.

The idea of the long reach of the past as substructure alongside the question of how to approach the future is a central principle of the Long Now Foundation. Created by a group of scientists, journalists, engineers and others in 1996 (or 01996 as they would have it) to combat what they saw as the danger of the “faster/cheaper” mind set, it promotes “slower/better” thinking. The writer and inventor, Stewart Brand, explains in his book, The Clock of the Long Now, that the Long Now places us “where we belong, neither at the end of history nor at the beginning, but in the thick of it.”[6] The phrase, “the Long Now,” was created by one of the project’s founding members, the musician Brian Eno. While living in New York City in 1979, Eno noticed a difference in connotation between New York and England when referencing “here” and “now”; suddenly he was living in what he termed the “Big Here” and the “Long Now.” [This was also the period when Eno was inventing ambient music--in other words as he was naming the present, he was also inventing the future.] Part of the foundation’s mission is to create the Long Now Clock, to keep track of the Long Now, and the Long Now Library, to document the Long Now. So what, exactly, is this Long Now?

The Long Now is a 20,000 year period: beginning with the year 02000, it stretches 10,000 years back into the past to 8,000 BCE while also stretching 10,000 years forward into the future to 12,000 CE. The Long Now proposes six sub-layers of civilization, with the higher, faster layers (Fashion, Commerce) as the source of innovation and the lower, slower layers, like Infrastructure and Culture, providing stabilization and continuity. The goal of the Long Now project is to create the “seed of a very long term cultural institution” (italics mine), not as you might suspect, a scientific institution. While science and education have their place as Intellectual Infrastructure, it is the penultimate sublayer, Culture, where the Long Now truly “operates,” moving at the pace of “language and religion.”[7] Two of the Long Now’s guidelines include Serve the Long View (and the long viewer) and Mind Mythic Depth. In many ways, this is exactly what I have been considering in this paper.  The long view takes into account past and future in its vision of the present. Minding mythic depth means to consider the long-term connections between peoples and cultures. Certainly as medievalists, we have much to contribute to this conversation; and since the Long Now Foundation wants such participation, it seems that as medievalists, we not only should but must contribute to such a project. [Not to get on a soapbox about it, but if we value what we do as scholars of the medieval, and I think it is obvious we do, then we need to transmit this value, this passion. We do have something to contribute to the present and to the future. But first we need to think about what we have to say to the present, and second, we need to spend more time saying that to people other than fellow medievalists. One place to start would be the Long Now project. Despite its desire for wide-range thinking the organization is almost devoid of humanists and other experts in culture or the past. Yet they model their idea of the Long Now library on the library at Alexandria and the libraries maintained at medieval monasteries; it would seem that our participation is already in play--just without us.]

In the end, to consider time is to consider past, present and future together: to consider rifts and juxtapositions; to consider waves and the structures that ride those waves; to consider the Long Now and libraries and clocks. All aim at the same goal: examining the past/present in order to expand our understanding of both and also to anticipate the future. In order to speak to the “now,” let alone understand it, we have to consider what of the past is still present in the Long Now which we inhabit--whether we wish its presence or not. Considering such hermeneutic juxtapositions as the American Wife and the medieval good girl, medieval debate and contemporary political rhetoric, can allow us to negotiate the rifts that only seem to divide our past from our present and to ride the waves that connect us to the past. Or as Riff-Raff, Magenta and Dr. Frank-N-Furter remind us, “With a bit of a mind flip / You're there in the time slip / And nothing can ever be the same.”


1. Susan Salter Reynolds, “This ‘Wife’ Seems Familiar,” LA Times 5 Sep 2008: E1.

2. Joyce Carol Oates, “The First Lady,” NYT Sunday Book Review, 28 August 2008.

3. Steven Kotler, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, New York: Bloomsbury, 2006.

4. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990, 56.

5. Bourdieu, 58.

6. Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, New York: Basic Books, 1999, 31.

7. Brand, 38.