A Methodology of Postmodern Historicism?
Bettina Bildhauer, Department of German, University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, UK
Paul Strohm’s thought-provoking methodological reflections raise one main question: how can we situate a text within its historical context without falling back into the traditional pattern of linear thinking, of perceiving time as an irreversible chronological progression? I offer five practical, if not entirely new, suggestions towards an answer, inspired by medieval film and Strohm’s essay:
- Age-map. It might help to think of a historical moment as co-present (Strohm, 2010, 390) with lots of others, rather than as non-present (Strohm, 2010, 382). In particular, any historical moment includes old things co-present with new things. Contrary to what films often imagine, not everyone in the 1340s dressed in the latest fashion and lived in the latest Gothic houses. Old ideas, too, have great longevity, and not always through a direct intertextual influence. Bakhtin’s idea of genre memory is useful here: the idea that a genre preserves conventional forms and ideas even without its practitioners’ necessarily realizing it (Bakhtin, 1984, 12). 1 Any person in 1243 was surrounded by concepts and objects that had persisted over generations as well as by budding new ones; we should age-map any historical moment to include such traces of the past and future.
- Acknowledge Zeitgeister. Is zeitgeist really no more than an ‘enabling fiction,’ as Strohm claims (Strohm, 2010, 381)? Or can we know that one text expresses beliefs that were widely held at the moment of its production? It is hard to explain why ideas and fashions like courtly love, alliteration, imitatio Christi or transubstantiation were particularly widespread in one century and not in the next. They were partly deliberately promoted in the interest of powerful groups, and partly just found useful or beautiful by many members of medieval cultures. But that a phenomenon is difficult to explain does not mean that it does not exist. One does not need to assume that ‘an age represents an expressive totality’ to understand that different writers, texts, images, media, if they originate at the same time or come from the same tradition, may also share similar assumptions (Strohm, 2010, 381). This is the case especially when it comes to unreflected fundamental beliefs, like attitudes to the human, to gender or to time. Of course, there is no one spirit of the age, but lots. But if we cannot make generalizations, such as that most (not all) medieval people perceived their body as a container of liquids, while most modern westerners see it as the container of identity, then we can say nothing meaningful about the past that might differentiate it from the present. A postmodern view of time as co-present does not mean denying historical change or giving up trying to characterize it, but it means being aware that no change happens suddenly, and no change is complete.
- Learn from the object. The medieval art, texts and artefacts we study are often much more attuned to non-chronology than contemporary academic discourse. Well-known examples are the way in which medieval art and sculpture dress biblical characters in the latest fashions, or in which heroic epics compress early medieval history into a mythical pre-historical age in which all the famous heroes from Attila to King Arthur were each other’s immediate contemporaries. They can help us to think about time differently, whether or not people really perceived time as passing more slowly, more cyclically or more contained within eternity.
- Face the dead. If time is not chronological, the Middle Ages are not confined to the past and can be acknowledged in their persistence in the present. On the most basic level, this means that the points of reception of a medieval text or object are as important for understanding it as the points of production and reproduction. It also means not just analysing a text or object, but letting it ‘do all its talking’ (Strohm, 2010, 385); and treating the medieval people who produced it as still having face or identity rather than being passive objects of one-sided scrutiny.
- Non-chronological is not necessarily better. As Strohm points out, an erasure of historical difference serves nobody. The idea that what matters is not accurate representation of the medieval past and its antiquarian details, but its continued relevance in the present may currently be fashionable, but so it was in Nazi film-making. The value of precision so dear to historicism should not be thrown out with the bathwater of postmodern conceptions of time.
1. For a discussion, see Morson and Emerson, 295–297.
Bakhtin, M. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Morson, G.S. and C. Emerson. 1990. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Strohm, P. 2010. Historicity without Historicism? postmedieval 1(3): 380–391.