When I was sitting about to get up and read my paper in Hobart, an odd thing happened. For once I was fully organised with pretty much a complete typescript of what I wanted to say. I had followed good conference practice and gone to find a box on which to prop my papers in the absence of a lectern. I wasn't too nervous, and was able to listen attentively to Clare and Louise. And then as my time to speak got closer, I realised I would not be able to stand up. I felt I might fall over (which, as Louise said later, would have been an unfortunate reprise of my Leeds theatrics). I felt quite odd, and a bit faint, so I stayed sitting down to read. And even then, once I started to read, found my voice shaking, and I had to suppress a sob, collect myself, and kind of start again. Once I got going, I was fine, but I think I was just exhausted, unable to muster any adrenaline, or whatever it takes to put oneself together in order to stand up in public to speak. I’m not the only one: we are all just staggering towards the end of a really difficult year in the School.
Anyway, I think I was pleased with the paper, and am going to take what for me is a very bold step and post it here. I know the folk over at In the Middle do this routinely, but it's a first for me. I'm not even going to work over it very much, so it'll sound a little raw, I'm sure, and quite odd without the papers of Clare Monagle and Louise D'Arcens, which grappled much more closely with the terms of the book's own inquiry. It might also sound as if I'm criticising Bruce Holsinger for not writing the book I'd like to read. I hope not. But if, as I hope, I get the chance to publish this, I'll expand it and slow it down a bit, so questions and comments will be welcome.
There was some very interesting discussion afterwards about what the book seemed to license, and about the always vexed relationship between "theory" and medieval studies.
I'm also trying to figure out how to abbreviate posts on blogger: it seems very complicated, so please bear with me as I try and sort this.
“Transgression, perversion, and fanaticism”: Postmodern Medieval Conditions
From a panel discussing Bruce Holsinger’s Premodern Condition
From a panel discussing Bruce Holsinger’s Premodern Condition
Word is out: something is happening to the Middle Ages. As a field of academic study, as a sequence of historical and cultural formations, and as an idea about the past, the Middle Ages is undergoing radical transformation. The Middle Ages have never looked so rich and complex as they do now; as a series of multi-disciplinary projects and imperatives brings the Middle Ages into productive dialogue with other disciplines and other periods; and as we re-think many of our inherited scholarly narratives and traditions of study. The question of periodisation is being re-visited, with the effect of re-making the boundaries between medieval and post-medieval. Similarly, a range of new histories of affect, some politically motivated, some less so, help us to “touch” the past, to bring it into closer dialogue with the present, in a way that used to be forbidden on strict historical grounds.
And if we add the field of popular culture and the imaginative revival of the Middle Ages in fiction, film, gaming, and on-line culture, for example, it is easy to see that interest in and general familiarity with the Middle Ages is stronger than ever before.
But this is nothing new. As soon as they were declared over, as soon as they became the matter of the past, something has always been happening to the Middle Ages. Sixteenth-century editors of Chaucer generated publicity for new editions of texts “never before imprinted”, while successive waves of twentieth-century critics have re-discovered a new feminist Middle Ages, or a heretical, sexually diverse or revolutionay one, or have rhapsodised about new critical modes and new perspectives. The titles of our book series and essay collections tell the story: The New Middle Ages (Palgrave); Making the Middle Ages; The New Medievalism. The imperative to find novelty in the Middle Ages, to renew our study of this distant era is powerful indeed.
And each time we renew, or re-visit the Middle Ages, it seems as if we are discovering them anew all over again.
My opening sentence, for example, reprises Alexandre Leupin’s words, in 1983:
Word is out: something is happening in French medieval literature. It’s beginning to be understood that far from being the province only of specialists medieval studies could play a crucial role in ongoing discussions of literary theory.
Writing in Diacritics twenty-five years ago, Leupin attempted to capture current excitement about the potential of medieval literature to play an active role in contemporary literary theory. It was not just that medieval literature could benefit from literary theory; but that it could make its own distinctive contribution to the field, especially in the study of semiotics and psychoanalysis. Leupin was writing principally about the Lacanian work of Roger Dragonetti, in La vie de la lettre au moyen Age: Le conte du Graal (1980) and Le gai savoir dans la rhetorique courtoise (1982).
This perpetual rediscovery and reinvention of the middle ages, and re-writing them anew for a new generation, or putting them to work in a different way is a structural condition of modernity. We know that modernity defines itself in opposition to the medieval: we might go further and say that modernity defines itself by its capacity, and indeed, its desire, to re-invent the medieval; and to declare, over and over again, the novelty and the newness of those re-inventions. If Lyotard talks of the post-modern condition, and Bruce Holsinger of the pre-modern condition, I suggest we might also diagnose a modern condition, at least in relation to the medieval past: a condition that perpetually desires to re-invent and to renew the medieval, and to foreground those acts of renewal as, themselves, novel.
Holsinger’s “discovery” of the importance of medieval philosophy and literature to the invention of “theory” is part of this formation, part of this modern condition.
It is interesting to speculate about this seemingly perpetual novelty of the Middle Ages. The “medievalism” of Holsinger’s sub-title, “Medievalism and the Making of Theory” refers to a somewhat narrow understanding of medievalism, as closely approximating medieval studies, and perhaps shading very slightly into that sense of the word which tries to encapsulate the cultural desire for the middle ages. But he is resolutely unconcerned with popular or imaginative medievalism, and so I thought it might be interesting to try and triangulate Holsinger’s work, to look at some of the relations not only between the Middle Ages and high theory, but also this broader understanding of medievalism.
The presiding figure here, of course, is Umberto Eco, and Holsinger does refer to his work a number of times.
In 1972, Umberto Eco inaugurated several decades of interventions into the relationship or more specifically, the affinities between modernity, postmodernity and the Middle Ages. In the first essay in this series, “Towards a New Middle Ages”, he sketches out the contemporary political, social and technological contexts in which the first world was heading into a new middle ages. He re-visited the essay in 1985, and then again in 1986, when he published his better known essay, “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”, in which he discusses the work of contemporary medieval studies, dismissing as tedious the iteration of “all the round tables and symposia that have recently been devoted to this problem, as the topic of ‘the return of the Middle Ages’ has become obsessive.”
The essays Eco wrote around this period are riddled with interesting contradictions. The new Middle Ages are both new, and yet not newsworthy. “Dreaming” of the Middle Ages risks the indulgence of “escapism à la Tolkien”, but is also a fundamental condition of modernity. The Middle Ages are the infancy of modernity, the primal scene of childhood that produces our present neuroses, but repressing the complex and unreliable hermeneutics of the primal scene, Eco insists on the importance of discovering a “reliable Middle Ages”.
There is another set of contradictions in Eco’s essays that similarly haunt Holsinger’s work: the question of the relationship between high theory and popular culture; and I’ll return to this in a moment.
Eco’s problem, about the new-oldness and the old new-ness of the new Middle Ages, and Holsinger’s book both suggest that we can, and should still usefully ask the question: what do the Middle Ages have to do with the twenty-first century?
Recent local events make the question imperative for us to consider, especially at this time, and in this place.
Medieval literary studies is a highly sophisticated critical field; and contemporary medievalism is ubiquitous, yet for all this novelty and all this re-making, we are all familiar, I’m sure, with the claim that the medieval has nothing to do with modernity, or with contemporaneity. The simplest way to answer this question is to appeal to the vast enterprise of popular medievalism, and the great extent to which our fantasy literature, our cinema, our game-playing, our unconscious fantasy life and dreams, our social models and aspirations are still to a large degree medievalist in both form and content.
This is not the place to develop a theory of how to read contemporary medievalism, but it is the place to probe the repression of popular medievalism in the work of both Holsinger and Eco.
In The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger draws a contrast between contemporary culture, where “the Middle Ages represent a semiotically rich site of transgression, perversion, and fanaticism”, and the 1960s avant-garde, whose theorists disclose a medieval “archive of cultural and intellectual production”. This is clearly a value-laden contrast: Holsinger’s preferred Middle Ages offer deadly serious and high-browed meditations, fitting subjects for the heavy-weight theorising of Bataille, Lacan, Derrida, Bourdieu and Barthes. But even when they are more playful, as in the obscene poem by Arnaut Daniel, the message is serious.
Daniel’s poem dramatises a lover’s reluctance to fulfil the anal desires of Lady Ena, that he “blow in that funnel between spine and mount pubic, there where rust colored substances proceed. He could never have been certain that she would not piss all over his snout and eyebrows.” In Holsinger’s reading, Lacan reads this “as a kind of ethical mirror in which his auditors are to view the alterity of the medieval even while recognizing in this trashy bit of medievalism the lingering Thing at the core of modernity” (86).
It’s hard not to be struck by the term “trashy bit of medievalism”, cheek by jowl, as it were, with the “core of modernity”. It shows us that for Holsinger, medievalism is barely distinguished from the medieval, but we must also note his willingness to abject medievalism, and medieval popular culture, as trashy.
It’s a dynamic that threads through the whole book. As I said, Holsinger is not particularly concerned with medievalism in the sense that scholars who study the post-medieval invention of the Middle Ages use that term. He is frying a very different kind of fish altogether. But I am suggesting that the sense of novelty and innovation about this book is barely distinguishable from the sense of novelty that also characterises the work of medievalism. Medievalism is often described as the act of re-making or re-inventing the Middle Ages for present concerns. Medieval Studies and Medievalism have much more in common than is customarily believed, and I suggest they are part of the same productive enterprise, which we might define as making the Middle Ages new again, bringing them into dialectic with the present.
Let me quote Holsinger’s most specific remarks about popular medievalism, from his Epilogue, in which he writes:
If the Middle Ages represent a semiotically rich site of transgression, perversion, and fanaticism for contemporary popular culture, for the 1960s avant-garde, the medieval provided above all an archive of cultural and intellectual production that seemingly escaped the moral compass of the Enlightenment — and (in this reading) without the baggage of humanism, capitalism, colonialism, and triumphalist individualism represented by the Renaissance (p. 197).Holsinger attempts to put some distance between himself and this redemptive view of the Middle Ages, which he goes on to describe as “idealized”, and conducive to “nostalgia”, but it is hard not to hear the enthusiasm in his characterisation of the way this version of the Middle Ages “provided postwar critical thought with an almost inexhaustible source of intellectual sustenance in its assault on post-medieval legacies to the Western tradition”. If anything, this resolutely muscular version of the Middle Ages is a powerful antithesis to the nostalgia of popular medievalism. And it is not just a historical account, either: Holsinger suggests that “the avant-garde pre-modern might perform a considerable corrective function in relation to other modes of critical neomedievalism that have gained some currency in recent decades” (198).
Holsinger doesn’t give much content to the “transgression, perversion and fanaticism” of the Middle Ages in contemporary popular culture, but it’s not difficult to see how the stakes are stacked against popular culture in favour of intellectual history: the latter will “correct” the former.
Tom Prendergast and I have suggested elsewhere that much of the resistance to contemporary or nineteenth- or eighteenth-century medievalism by medieval scholars actually masks a resistance to popular culture, and I think it’s not difficult to see a similar dynamic in Holsinger’s work.
And yet he is, in spite of himself, drawn to popular culture, and to the energetic and frankly exciting dynamic it can bring to academic work. In discussing the Daniel poem, for example, Holsinger comments that it is perhaps the only occasion in which Lacan — “the master” is how he describes him in this sentence — “recited an entire literary text, from beginning to end, before his Parisian audience” (86). It is also the only literary text Holsinger quotes in full. He admits that he is following Lacan in doing so, but it’s hard not to read his characterisation of this “spectacularly gynephobic poem” as an invitation to thrill at an example of the “transgression, perversion, and fanaticism” he associates with popular medievalism.
A similar thrill ran through me when I realised Holsinger was describing the workings of modern avant-garde intellectual culture as a subculture. Perhaps this is an attempt to dramatise his own work of recovering its widespread interest in the Middle Ages; but from many perspectives now, the idea that the work of these influential theorists represents a subculture seems to suggest a very special kind of subculture — certainly not one that’s related to popular culture.
Umberto Eco is similarly conflicted on the question of the relations between the Middle Ages, medievalism and popular culture.
When measuring the extent of interest in the Middle Ages, he remarks, “If one does not trust ‘literature,’ one should at least trust pop culture.” Eco, after all, is one of the founding figures of modern cultural studies, and its valorisation of popular culture, and the argument for respecting the enthusiasm and knowledge about popular culture and its consumers. But two pages after this, he writes:
Thus we are at present witnessing, both in Europe and America, a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages, with a curious oscillation between fantastic neomedievalism and responsible philological examination. Undoubtedly what counts is the second aspect of the phenomenon. (‘Dreaming of the Middle Ages,’ 63).
Similarly, in his famous taxonomy of the ten little Middle Ages of which we dream, he privileges the eighth, the Middle Ages of “philological reconstruction” as a kind of uber Middle Ages:
Not fully free from the curiosity of the mass media these Middle Ages help us, nevertheless, to criticize all the other Middle Ages that at one time or another arouse our enthusiasm. These Middle Ages lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look more “human” (71).
This privileging of the position by which expert medieval scholars can criticize all the others, those manifestations of what Eco calls “enthusiasm”, and which Holsinger calls “transgression, perversion and fanaticism”, is buried deep within Eco’s taxonomy, and is rarely foregrounded by those who simply use this list to classify the particular example of medievalism they are describing. But it sets up a crucial hierarchy between the work of scholarship (“responsible philological examination”) and the work of the imagination, between the Middle Ages and medievalism, between medieval scholars, and scholars of popular culture and popular medievalism. It also gives force — thank God, he says — to the idea that we can retreat into the safety of academic research, without the risks of the sublime, to criticise the work of popular enthusiasts.
Holsinger’s book is a wonderful archaeology that demonstrates the mutual imbrication of medieval literature, philosophy and theology with some of the most influential movements associated with high theory. Commendably, in my view, it eschews anything so crude as a critique of modern scholars’ understanding of the Middle Ages: it is not so much concerned to correct their scholarship as it is to correct some aspects of the trend towards popular medievalism. But in its abjection of medieval popular culture as the salacious or fantastic, and its absolute separation between intellectual work of and about the Middle Ages, and the work of the popular imagination, Holsinger’s book, it seems to me, revisits the dynamics of Umberto Eco’s work.
In Holsinger’s epilogue, he emphasizes the sacramental character of the avant garde’s relation to the medieval past.
Modes of critique, habits of mind, and means of subjection are not simply inherited from the medieval past, nor patiently reconstructed out of its ruins; rather, they are invoked, called into being, summoned from another place, translated from isolated fragments into whole systems of thought that maintain the dialectic of belief and doubt that characterized the sacramental culture of the Middle Ages.
I like very much this dialectic model. But I suggest the dialectic could be fruitfully expanded to consider not just the dialectic of the Middle Ages, and the dialectic between the Middle Ages and modern intellectual culture, but also the dialectic between intellectual and popular culture.