The Medieval Review 10.04.14

Scala, Elizabeth and Sylvia Federico . The Post-Historical Middle Ages. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2009. Pp. xi, 237. $90 ISBN 978-0-23060-787-3. .

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Davis
University of Rhode Island

The very title of this book designates its topic as one of dilemma and controversy, both of which the editors and essayists embrace. The "post" of its "post-historical" is not simply temporal, of course, any more than is the "post" of "postcolonial." Rather, it marks a disruptive engagement with the status quo, one that seeks to operate with and against current constraints without establishing a new dominant. Thus the editors explain, citing Derrida, that the contributors "seek not an end to historicism but a renewal of its focus on 'history a stratified, differentiated, contradictory practical series'" (5). The volume's goal is to unsettle the position of "business as usual" historicism in literary studies (with reference principally to fourteenth-century British literary studies), but its bold engagement with the politics of criticism, as well as its consideration of the current plight of medieval studies and the humanities more generally, will interest medievalists in all fields.

The "historicism" that the volume reexamines is itself a moving target--in part because neither "historicism" nor its histories can be singularized, and in part because the contributors approach the issue from different, sometimes contradictory positions. Such contradictions are integral to the volume's project, in that it seeks not only to examine the institutional formation of historicism, but also to explore ways of reimagining its limits. The essays are experimental and sometimes risky, and are most successful when they acknowledge the risks they take.

In their Introduction, "Getting Post-Historical" (obviously referencing Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval), Scala and Federico take "the pioneering work of scholars such as David Aers, Sheila Delaney, Lee Patterson, Paul Strohm, and David Wallace" as their point of departure. Focusing particularly upon Patterson's own insistence in Negotiating the Past (1987) upon the limits of historicism--that is, the inevitability of its politically positioned values and commitments--they suggest that this once vibrant, defiant movement has become not only complacent but at times complicit in the system it had once challenged. In other words, it has not "resisted the claims to power of its literary and critical texts," but rather "has claimed, and now often wields, that power [i.e., institutional power] for itself" (3). This project does not, however, plot literary criticism as a linear development. Many of the "pioneers" named above, especially Paul Strohm and David Wallace, are often cited for critical interventions important to the goals of this collection. One aim of the volume is to revitalize and rethink what "historicism" can be for medieval literary studies. Another is to imagine how we "might bring the medieval into more pleasurable and productive contact with the present" (5), and thereby secure a more central role for medieval studies in the academic curriculum. The Introduction avoids polemic, and the task of addressing the specific debates regarding psychoanalysis and historicism--clearly a central concern for the volume--falls to individual essays, particularly Edmondson's and Scala's own (discussed below).

The volume's first three essays, as the editors suggest, establish the core conversation about methodology, and they contrast significantly in style and argument. Patricia Clare Ingham's intricate "Amorous Dispossessions: Knowledge, Desire, and the Poet's Dead Body" addresses an issue close to the editors' own concerns: the difference between historicist and psychoanalytic approaches to "truth" (here thought in terms of the Lacanian "Real"). Bringing together Lacan's "Courtly Love as Anamorphosis," the issue of Chaucer's relation to Petrarch, and nationalist "possession" (British and American) of Chaucer, she argues that apparent fraudulence and unexpected interlopers--like the substitute skull in Petrarch's grave--do not run counter to literary history; rather, they serve as accurate markers of how the circulation of texts and artifacts works. With characteristic subtlety and careful exposition, Ingham ultimately suggests that our "amorous dispossession"--that is, the impossibility of securing the truth we desire--is not the end but the most promising beginning, or one might say the condition of possibility, for creative scholarly activity.

In a more performative mode, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Time Out of Memory" ponders the limits of unknowability, rather than knowability, across time. Channeling his own desire to believe "that material objects can be active historical agents rather than inanimate traces of lost stories," Cohen juxtaposes his readings of several medieval texts with his personal response to ancient artifacts (such as stone circles and the mummified remains of "Lindow Man"). Asking whether the past can "speak in a voice of its own" (43), he seeks narratives that make the past "alive." One such narrative would be the personal, familial story running through Cohen's essay--his own and his children's palpable responses to objects from a past that, he suggests, has "a desire ever to remain alive" (57). Cohen acknowledges in closing that this "phenomenologically grounded approach might risks solipsism," but presses nonetheless for the necessity of remaining open to the living materiality of the past. The appeal is persuasive. Strangely, though, this project leads Cohen to readings of texts that are for him uncharacteristically binary, particularly with respect to Augustine's City of God. Reading Cohen's essay as well as the texts he reads, Maura Nolan suggests a different tack. Concerned about approaches that might endanger historical sensibility altogether, she urges against the flattening of differences between present and past, as well as between past and past, present and present. In other words, turning the critique of historicism around, she warns against erasure of the very difference and plurality that this critique would champion. Nolan's chief interest is the relationship between historical thought and literary form. Early historicist work, she notes, took risks by "insisting on the heterogeneity, variability, and sheer diversity of the Middle Ages--an insistence that is central to every revisionary account of medieval texts and practices, even those explicitly opposed to historicism" (63). Most broadly, she argues that the best techniques invented by historicism--that is, ways of reading that are sensitive to alterity and difference--must survive if literary criticism is to allow in the future for "the strange, the exceptional...[and] the notion that such oddities are endemic to art" (84). These two essays are most valuable read as a pair, for together they illustrate what can be gained and what lost in rethinking historicism.

The second cluster of essays considers how, and to what effect, the present informs our reading of medieval texts. Two of these essays, Aranye Fradenburg's "(Dis)Continuity: A History of Dreams," and George Edmondson's "Naked Chaucer," expressly focus upon psychoanalysis but take markedly different trajectories. Linking her longstanding critique of discontinuist historicism ("the idea that different periods of time are simply and radically other to one another") with Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and with the temporal complexities of dreaming, Fradenburg confronts Freud's (non)knowledge of medieval dream theory. In this capacious essay, which gathers together Aristotle, Chaucer, Freud, Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, to name a few, she tracks multiple series of displacements of Freudian interpretation to the level of historical method. Regarding Freud's supersession of prior authorities, she suggests that the "very psychoanalytic concept of the archaic past forever preserved by memory-inscription can thus be imagined as apotropaic with respect to the presumptions of scientific method" (105). To this observation she connects the struggle to "de-territorialize the place of the past in our bio-history," whether that pertains to plans for alternative energy or military crusade. In "Naked Chaucer," Edmondson names the academic skirmish that went curiously unnamed in the volume's introduction--that between Lee Patterson and an array of critics regarding the appropriateness of psychoanalysis to the interpretation of medieval literature. "My primary ambition in the essay," Edmondson remarks, "is to take up the opposition...against the limited notion of historicism advanced by Lee Patterson: historicism as the moral obligation to understand those who preceded us, and their worlds, exclusively in terms with which they themselves would have been familiar" (140). Using the Helgeland film A Knight's Tale as exemplary text, Edmondson takes the nakedness of Helgeland's Geoff as a metaphor for the necessarily split condition of the subject; likewise, "Chaucer coincides not with the timely life he once led but with the untimely afterlife that he continues to lead" (142). The impossibility of pure self-identity applies as well to epochs. Thus, perhaps drawing off the tension between Cohen's and Nolan's essays, Edmondson works against the notion that a present affiliation with and an estrangement from the Middle Ages are mutually exclusive: rather, their paradoxical but necessary coincidence traces the condition of the life of the subject.

Thomas Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg consider the implications of this non-exclusivity for the relationship of medieval studies and medievalism studies. They suggest that the "long cherished opposition" between medieval studies (taken as serious, academic, learned) and medievalism studies (lightweight, popular, fanciful) "may turn out to be less about epistemology, as the historical purists would maintain, and more about different kinds of desiring subjects" (118). Their first sections seek less to trouble this divide (which has often been done) than to examine how arguments about their relationship act out politically, displaying the erotic and temporal investments of politics, whether national or global. Their final section moves from the academically familiar question of historicism to another form of medievalism--an apparently less serious, non-academic, ahistorical medievalism "characterized as a form of play." Here, they too examine A Knight's Tale, as well as interviews with Helgeland. In a subtle but brilliant closing move they demonstrate both how the film disrupts attempts to secure a medieval that is "stable and knowable," and how the quest for a "naked truth" reverberates between medieval texts and desire to "recover" the past.

The final set of essays considers the "familiar" from three very different vantage points. Daniel Birkholz's "Biography After Historicism: The Harley Lyrics, the Hereford Map, and the Life of Roger de Breynton" brings medieval studies into the critical conversation about the possibility of biography, from which, he observes, it is generally excluded: in medieval studies, "evidence is not just scarce but always of the 'wrong' sort" (162). Against this denial, Birkholz insists that "biographical desire is never absent from the system of literary interpretation" (168), and, in a move similar to Cohen's, he writes a life for Roger Breynton that defies scarcity of evidence and acknowledges the role of his own desire. The life he fashions is fascinating and ingeniously documented, but Birkholz tends to caricature the "history" that he pits against the interests of "New Biography" (which, as he states, took shape under the influence of Renaissance New Historicism). Despite its wealth of detail, then, this essay seems less than fully engaged in the volume's complex, open approach to rethinking historicism.

Elizabeth Scala's "The Gender of Historicism" takes direct aim at the "theory wars" surrounding historicism, particularly with reference to Lee Patterson's attack on psychoanalysis and the debate that ensued. In other words, Scala pointedly addresses both the immediate and the ultimate provocation for this volume. While advocating "a variety of historicisms," Scala insists that calling a truce between the debating parties would effectively result in "historicism as usual," which continues to hold the institutional levers of power--power that is "markedly gendered" (192). We might, she suggests, think of the legacy and continuation of this power as "our institutional 'family' history," which belies a profession "underwritten by a patriarchal politics" that in other circumstances would draw heavy critique (195). Scala traces and documents various threads of this history, extending from patterns in textual editing, the gendered politics of book reviews, the gendering of German (masculine) and French (feminine) theory, and even--boldly--to a particular case of denied tenure, usually an off-limits topic: "With a critical reception and set of responses played out in the public world of print (and the private realm of tenure decisions), the Margherita case is one about which almost nothing can be said openly" (204). The debates about critical theory cannot be disassociated from the trajectories of personal academic careers. In this arena, Scala insists, the personal is the political. Of all the essays, this is clearly the most engaged in specific institutional battles, and it is admirable for its rigor and its honesty.

In the face of shrinking resources for the humanities, digital overload, and data-driven pragmatism, R. Allen Shoaf's closing essay, "From Clio to JHMuse©: Literacy and the Muse of Digitalia," argues passionately for the importance of poetry as a counter to damaging types of historicism. Looking back at the contributions to the volume that focus upon psychoanalysis, even as he looks back upon his career as a teacher, editor, and advocate in the humanities, he suggests that historicist repudiation of psychoanalysis is "flight from the mother," the text being "the mother of us all." It is "dispossession from the mother's body," he insists, "that conditions and constrains all knowledge" (224). Shoaf thus closes the volume with a dark foreboding of the inexorable "degradation of the humanities"--a concern obviously born of long personal experience. He pairs this concern, nonetheless, with a determined "nurturing" of the profession. Despite his overview of some essays, Shoaf's essay, in tone and topic, does not serve as a conclusion to the volume. This is just as well, for if it is to remain honest, such a project must remain unconcluded.