The Medieval Review 10.09.12

Cole, Andrew and D. Vance Smith. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Pp. 276. $84.95 978-0-8223-4652-4. $23.95 ISBN 978-0-8223-4644-9.

Reviewed by:

Kathleen Biddick
Temple University

Amidst the trash talk of theory in the past tense and the drive of the corporate university to dismantle the conditions of possibility for critique (of interest to medievalists, for example, are the current plans to eliminate the position in paleography at King's College, London and to terminate the degree-granting program in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto), the essays collected in The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory will hearten scholars and also invite them to reflect on their own complicity with current academic events. The volume marks yet another powerful contribution to ongoing investigation into the intersections of the medievalisms of modernity and the modernities of Medieval Studies. To be fully appreciated its German focus needs to be complemented with the recent publications by Helen Solterer and Michelle R. Warren. [1]

The contributors to The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages (many of whom are former students of Fredric Jameson) explore the theoretical unconscious and argue that "to forget 'the medieval' is to conjure a modernity that can never be known" (28). How is it, then, that contemporary theory forgets its traumatic formation in the crucible of Catholic anti-modernisms--and I would add, Protestant Kriegestheologie, and the new thinking of German-Jewish philosophy (Franz Rosenzweig)? [2]

The collection is striking for its lucidity and range of textual readings: G.F.W. Hegel, Karl Marx, Daniel Paul Schreber, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Hans Blumenberg, Paul Zumthor, Reinhardt Koselleck, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. In Part One, Theological Modernities, Kathleen Davis offers a concise and perceptive overview of how theories of sovereignty contested among key Weimar and post-War German thinkers (such as Blumenberg) have temporalized history. Andrew Cole investigates how the early religious writings of Hegel shaped Marx's conceptualization of the commodity fetish as a mode of the Eucharist: "Marx's modernity often looks like Hegel's Middle Ages" (87). Bruce Holsinger weaves a compelling critique of the apocalyptic tone of Empire (2000), the widely read study by Hardt and Negri, with an analysis of the medievalisms prevalent in the discourses around 9/11. He wisely cautions about the New Augustinianisms percolating in a diversity of contemporary theory ranging from the Oxford-based Radical Orthodoxy to Jacques Derrida.

Part Two, Scholastic Modernities, features a provocative rhetorical reading by Michael Uebel and Erin Labbie of the memoirs (1903) of one of Freud's most famous patients, Supreme Court judge, Daniel Paul Schreber. They use their reading to expose the paranoid medievalisms of Jacques Lacan and to suggest how Schreber's paranoia can provide a productive resource for thinking the legitimacy of the Middle Ages. Ethan Knapp excavates the Habilitationsschrift (1915) of Heidegger, written on meaning and categories in the work of Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), and traces how Heidegger's exercise in analogy flipped into his reflections on facticity. Knapp's archaeology reveals the challenge of rethinking the versions of scholasticism fabricated by Catholic anti-modernisms in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. In an elegant essay, Dan Blanton also takes up the question of scholasticism, in its nominalist manifestations, and explores the persistence of nominalism in the critical writing of Adorno "as a tendency of thought and form" (199). His study broadens into an analysis of the famous Marxist debates over the transition from feudalism to capitalism in order to show how nominalist ponderings over the category of substance (matter as difference) repeat themselves in Marxist thinking of the monetary relation. In other words, Peter John Olivi (1249-98), an advocate of radical definitions of Franciscan poverty and a scholastic theorist of capitale, could take on Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy, interlocutors of the transition debate. [3] Blanton concludes by meditating on the aesthetic in modern art as a secret sharer with medieval forms of nominalism. Short responses by Michael Hardt and Jed Rasula syncopate the essays and an afterword by Frederic Jameson offers a reprise.

The cover illustration of this volume, a montage, has inspired my strategy for reviewing such rich and complex material. On the cover, the reader sees a photograph of Heidegger juxtaposed with a portrait of Saint Thomas Aquinas painted by Sandro Botticelli. The latter image is itself a montage, since Botticelli fitted a portrait of his patron, Pope Sixtus IV, onto the body of Aquinas. The famous bulls of Sixtus IV, Exigit Sinceras (1478), establishing the Inquisition in Castile, and Aeterni regis(1481), confirming Portuguese rights along the African coast by force or trade, along with his art and governmental projects (Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Archive) circulated late medieval desires for sovereignty, orthodoxy, and aesthetics. The cover montage, thus, condenses the problem posed by the essays, how to keep open the gaps between the semantic terms of these images within images without invoking the sovereign decision to periodize desire?

The protagonist of the collection is the famous study by Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966, revised 1973, translated 1983). Blumenberg engaged in a sustained debate with Carl Schmitt, theorist of sovereignty and a Nazi jurist, over the question of secularization. [4] In 1927 (which year also saw the publication of Being and Time, and note that Schmitt and Heidegger exchanged letters), Schmitt argued that the concepts of the modern theory of the state were secularized theological concepts. Blumenberg eschewed this model of transference and claimed that modernity, Neuzeit, broke with theology and constituted its own legitimacy. In their introduction, Andrew Cole and R. Vance Smith offer a persuasive challenge to Blumenberg, but, paradoxically, they leave unremarked Blumenberg's own complicated Catholicism and the links of his medieval doctoral thesis with his post-war scholarship. Labeled by the Nazis as a half-Jew and thus excluded from university matriculation, he ended up attending the theological schools of Paderborn and Frankfurt during the war. In 1945, he was one of the first students to enroll at the recently re-opened University of Hamburg--a city whose population and infrastructure was traumatically devastated by Allied fire-bombing (1943-45). He completed a thesis on the origins of ontology in the Middle Ages and then went on to write a Habilitationsschrift on Edmund Husserl, whom he would later accused of crypto-theology. [5] This story suggests a shadow montage for the volume--the mnemosyne of the combustible Nolan (Blumenberg's sign of the modern) juxtaposed with an aerial photograph of the Hamburg fire-bombing: (; and (accessed August 4, 2010).

Out of the rubble emerged Legitimacy. This compendious work is uncanny for its silence about Nazism and the Shoah (surely, tests of the legitimacy of the modern age) and for its pointed use of Gnosticism as a frame for its thesis. Research into Gnosticism, an important topic among theologians, historians and cultural critics of the 1920s and 30s, had its dark side in its complicity with popular efforts to purify German Christianity of its Jewish roots. Alfred von Harnack, the leading Protestant scholar of early Christianity, authored a book on Marcion (Blumenberg cites the second edition, 1924) and claimed (in the spirit of Marcion) that eliminating the Hebrew Bible from the Christian canon would complete Luther's Reformation. [6] It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that the Jewish Question of the 1920s and 1930s is the restless ghost in Blumenberg's legitimacy machine.

Rhetoric was the link that separated Blumenberg and Schmitt. Schmitt understood the sovereign decision as a speech act, a curse, Sacer esto. For Blumenberg rhetoric performs linguistic secularization--rhetoric is a kind of sonar that answers old questions in a new metaphorical language. Eschatology is the site where Schmitt's curse and Blumenberg's metaphorology collided. When he and Schmitt corresponded in the 1970s, the question of eschatology and historical consciousness inevitably surfaced. Blumenberg decided that question "whether eschatological faith and historical awareness are mutually possible: "This question will almost always be answered in the negative". [7] Thus Schmitt and Blumenberg decide eschatology as a rhetorical problem. [8] What might seem like an obscure moment of debate from the 1970s has everything to do with The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages.

The volume is very guarded about futural thinking in medieval studies. Davis touches upon the folds of such thinking when she discusses Walter Benjamin's Jetzt-Zeit and Holsinger untangles the stakes of the apocalyptic tone of Hardt and Negri. Following Zumthor, Cole and Smith argue that a future can be generated from a medieval past: "to be medieval is to posit a future in the very act of self-recognition, to offer a memory or memorial to a future that will be recognized at a time and place not yet known" (19). [9] The rhetorical structure of their vision comes close to what Jacques Derrida has called a promise and for him the promise opens on the messianic. [10] In this time of proliferating messianic thinking among theorists and the intensification of their yearnings for its revolutionary potential (for example, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, Eric Santner, and of course, Hardt and Negri), this volume raises important questions about the intersections of the legitimacy of the Middle Ages, futural thinking, the messianic, and the eschatologic.

Let me return to my example of Blumenberg and Schmitt. They were each trapped in their rhetoric of decision; but surely, as Eric Santer reminds us, it is the refusal to choose that matters: "My own sense is that it is not a matter of choosing one of these options over the others--say, the Freudian over the Rosenzweigian or Benjaminian--but rather of thinking them together and trying to appreciate the ways in which each one provides a resource for deepening our grasp of the others. Rather than a form of religious thinking, I'd like to consider this to be a first, tentative step along a path of what we might more modestly call postsecular thinking. [11]



1. Helen Solterer, Medieval Roles for Modern Times: Theater and the Battle for the French Republic (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010); and, Michelle R. Warren, Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Age (Minneapolis MI: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

2. For an excellent study relevant to the volume under review see, Jane O. Newman, "Enchantment in Times of War: Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin, and the Secularization Thesis," Representations 105 (2009): 133-67.

3. For an important study that complements Blanton's argument see, Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

4. Their correspondence is now available: Hans Blumenberg /Carl Schmitt Briefwechsel und weitere Materialen, eds. Alexander Schmitz and Marcel Lepper (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2007). Jonathan Sozek has translated these letters in his Master's Thesis Secularization and Political Myth: Lessons from the Schmitt-Blumenberg Debate (Leuven: Katholikae Universiteit, 2010). I am grateful to him for sharing his study with me.

5. Olive Müller analyzes the early writings of Blumenberg in his Sorg um die Vernunft: Hans Blumenberg's Phänomenonlogische Anthropologie (Paderborn: Mentis, 2005).

6. For important work on these topics see, Benjamin Lazier, God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

7. I am using Jonathan Sozek's translation of a letter dated 7-8-1975.

8. Graham Hammill offers an incisive analysis of their rhetoric in his "Blumenberg, Schmitt, and the Rhetoric of Secularization," in Points of Departure: Political Theology and the Scenes of Early Modernity, eds. Graham Hammill and Julia Reinhardt Lupton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming Spring 2011).

9. Their discussion of Zumthor could have usefully drawn upon the published work of Helen Solterer and the recent volume on Zumthor: Traversées de Paul Zumthor, eds. ric Méchoulan and Marie-Louise Ollier (Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2007).

10. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

11. Eric L. Santner, "Miracles Happen: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud, and the Matter of the Neighbor," in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries In Political Theology, eds. by Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, Kenneth Reinhard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 133; also, Cesare Casarino, "Time Matters: Marx, Negri, Agamben, and the Corporeal," Strategies 16 (2003): 185-206.