Time to Reach Out
Brantley L. Bryant, Department of English, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA
Premodern literary scholars are traveling in time, touching the past, hearing distant voices, and imagining the ‘co-presence of the dead.’1 This growing interest in interconnection with the past could not be better for the future of our pedagogy.
Paul Strohm’s postmedieval review essay charts how ‘historicism’ has given way to ‘historicity,’ an expanded attention to the ‘multiple and contradictory temporalities’ of texts and to the ways that the past communicates textually with the present (Strohm, 2010, 381). While Strohm’s essay sticks to insider questions about method and notes that ‘a good deal of enjoyment’ is in store for us professionals from these new relations to history, there’s even more to be gained: the energy of historicity can hail into existence a more energized pedagogy (Strohm, 2010, 387). A newly urgent and self-aware historicity provides compelling ways to promote the value of our discipline in a time of catastrophic program cuts that prioritize commercial compatibility and STEM innovation over study of the past. Current meta-critical discussions of historicism, in their attribution of agency to the past and their focus on imagination, allow us to explain our strengths to the public, to colleagues, and to students. Premodern literary studies offers a sustained, enjoyable, rigorous engagement with the past that no other discipline or modern entertainment can match.
Although Strohm’s concerns are with interpretation, his essay’s focus on the values of historicity points to strategies for disciplinary renewal. We need to be better PR agents, speaking publicly and accessibly about the value of our work. Recent developments in our thinking about the past give us the perfect tools. Discussions of the future of historicism tend to deal simultaneously with insider questions of interpretive methods and also with questions of institutional politics. Dinshaw (1999) strikes this note early on, combining the queer historical idea of ‘touching the past’ with an analysis of NEH funding debates. Strohm notes these larger stakes when he observes that to ‘ced[e] an interest in the past’ would be to ‘acquiesce in the state of marginality and neglect that architects of higher educational policy currently propose for us’ (Strohm, 2010, 380–381). We can gain much by dwelling on the relation of scholarly method to institutional and public outreach. Indeed, certain kinds of past-directed study play better than others. Scala and Federico explicitly connect a searching post-historicism with public outreach; their project is to ‘bring the medieval into more pleasurable and productive contact with the present’ in order to ‘resist [medieval studies’] ideological and institutional tendencies toward self-marginalization’ (Scala and Federico, 2010, 5).
‘Post-historicist’ interventions (in their many current permutations) propose a compelling vision of the past as unfixed, lively, and possessing its own agency. This is pedagogical gold. Critical emphases on temporality (part of what Strohm terms a commitment to ‘historicity, if not historicism’) argue that reading is a two-way encounter with the past (Strohm, 2010, 382). As Strohm notes, such methods position critics not as detective-soliloquists but as sympathetic interlocutors who see ‘the text and its formal devices as sources of discovery and revelation’ (Strohm, 2010, 386). This approach resists the dominant contemporary view of the past as ‘inert’ (Watson, 2010, 36). The rule of the day is to avoid ‘tidy particularities’ that restrict and reduce (Strohm, 2010, 384); as Jeffrey J. Cohen puts it: ‘We must keep the distant past, the present moment, and the future — near and distant — alive, capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change’ (in Scala and Federico, 2010, 57). Exploring the potential of a lively cross-temporality, Cohen elsewhere speaks out against three dangerous views that make the past seem inert (and unexciting for students): ‘monologic history’ (as ‘context’ or ‘chain of flat, serial causality’), ‘progress narratives,’ and ‘linearization’ (reduction of the past to either ‘mere antecedent’ or a tool for ‘render[ing] predictable the future’ (Cohen, 2003, 3).
The goal of learning with the past, recognizing its agency and our responsibility to it, offers a powerful rationale for historical education at a moment of almost programmatic historical forgetting (Watson, 2–4). This philosophy of the past also urges us to engage in pedagogical experiments that would promote an affective, respectful reading, an encounter in which past and present concerns blend together to examine anew ideas, ethics, and assumptions. The further apart in history, the greater the potential power of the encounter; the perceived distance of medieval texts — what makes them seem most irrelevant — becomes a strength. A broadly growing public eagerness to write off the past can be answered with the ethical and trans-temporal call for ‘creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future’ (Dinshaw, 1999, 206). A critical mode that reveals the agency of the past is a benefit in itself, but it can also cultivate imagination and sympathy: we teach chronological pluralism.
Imagination itself is central to many of the reconceptions of historicist work. It is through imagination, sympathy, and memory that the connections between times flicker into being. Bettina Bildhauer’s powerful argument for imagining the ‘co-presence of the dead’ presents a challenge for the imagination: ‘Understanding the sufferings of 1000 CE as equally real as those of yesterday’ is a task to be taken up (Bildhauer, 2010, 34). Strohm’s own earlier work on ‘Rememorative Reconstruction’ envisages the encounter with the past as one of imagination and memory, a ‘responsible and purposeful reconnection’ through contemplation of ‘the scant and partial evidence that survives’ (Strohm, 2001, 8). Similarly, Nicholas Watson holds up medieval ideas of the ‘recombinative’ abilities of the imagination, as used in poetic fictions and in mystical practice, as models for connecting with the past (Watson, 2010).
Strohm reminds us that we premodernists must not ‘ced[e] an interest in the past,’ but I would add that we also must passionately and publicly share our interest outside of our discipline (Strohm, 2010, 380). Encouraging and developing an imagination of time’s complexity, premodern literature classes are neither erudite nor obscure pursuits but rather the most fundamental aspects of general education. Imagination is a faculty whose practical benefits are numerous but which, sufficiently developed, offers us the tools to perceive the limitations of the practical benefits first sought. By showing how chronological pluralism fosters imagination, we can promote our discipline without falling into the danger, noted by Aranye Fradenburg, of defending our enterprise with the same languages of ‘necessity’ and ‘utility’ used to criticize it — dangerous because such a move lends credence to the reductively utilitarian rhetoric that justifies program cuts (Fradenburg, 2002, 246). Pundits and politicians often champion a limited definition of ‘innovation’ as commercial entrepreneurship or technological invention, but the kind of imagination developed through, and necessary for, encounters with the past can point the way to deeper and more fundamental innovations (Fradenburg, 2002, 240–246). A recent defense of the liberal arts notes that innovation does not spring solely, as planners might think, from ‘isolated research in technical disciplines’ (Roth, 2011). ‘Effective vaccine delivery programs,’ the writer explains, ‘require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning’ (Roth, 2011).
Premodernists can take this defense one step further. Such planning, understanding, and reasoning are not based only upon the understanding of a static present, but demand consideration of the complicated and plural pasts that are enmeshed in cultures, economies, and ethics. It is timely indeed that the most specialized discussions of our method align so well with the task we must now set ourselves: reaching out.
1. All of these phrases come from medievalists’ works: Mortimer, 2009; Dinshaw, 1999; Wallace, 2011, 1; Bildhauer, 2010. Many other projects, especially those affiliated with the BABEL Working Group, could be identified with such language and goals. Moore, for example, emphasizes “real contact with the living and the dead” (Moore, 2007, 192).
Bildhauer, B. 2010. The Co-Presence of the Dead. postmedieval 1 (1/2): 32–38.
Cohen, J.J. 2003. Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Cohen, J.J. 2010. Time Out of Memory. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. S. Federico and E. Scala, 37–61. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dinshaw, C. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fradenburg, L.O.A. 2002. Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Moore, M.E. 2007. An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism. In Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project, eds. E. A. Joy and C. M. Neufeld, special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory 37(2): 191–216.
Mortimer, I. 2009. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Touchstone.
Roth, M. S. 2011. Why the Liberal Arts Matter. CNN. com, May 21, http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/05/21/roth.liberal.education/index.html.
Scala, E. and S. Federico. 2010. Introduction. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, 1–11. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Strohm, P. 2001. Rememorative Reconstruction. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23: 3–16.
Strohm, P. 2010. Historicity without Historicism? postmedieval 1(3): 380–391.
Wallace, D. 2011. Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory 1347-1645. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Watson, N. 2010. The Phantasmal Past: Time, History, and the Recombinative Imagination. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32: 1–37.