Holly A. Crocker, Department of English, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I come into the peace of wild things who
Do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
–Wendell Berry, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’
I am delighted to introduce the first online scholarly forum for postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. The idea for this endeavor, like so many others in medieval studies at present, emerged from a BABEL Working Group party: as I talked to various medievalists, it became clear that people were keenly interested in what Paul Strohm, self-described as ‘a sympathizer and certainly a profit-taker back in new historicism’s salad days,’ had to say about the future potential of historicist scholarship (Strohm, 2010, 380). By shifting emphasis from historicism to historicity — the latter term adapted from Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism? — Strohm successfully steers away from historicism’s confining tendencies to endorse what he characterizes as ‘a refined appreciation of the unruly multiplicity of ways in which history can manifest itself within a text’ (Strohm, 2010, 381). Notwithstanding the admiration and excitement surrounding this powerful renewal, the energizing potential of ‘historicity’ was also accompanied by a disquieting sense that Strohm jettisons historicism’s own multifarious past too quickly, or, perhaps, too singularly. Although Strohm avers, ‘historicism is finally getting the unceremonious bum’s rush reserved for faltering disciplinary tendencies’ (Strohm, 2010, 380), as I listened to others I was convinced that critiques of historicism are not born of adversarial opportunism, but collective investment: because scholars have thought long and hard about historicism, its rich promise and its vexed shortcomings, they are particularly attuned to its enduring consequences and ongoing possibilities. These remarks, almost universally positive, were offered with a precision that expressed a thorough scholarly concern for historicism’s past and historicity’s future. When the question of ‘historicity without historicism?’ is raised, medievalists offer powerful answers in response.
As a result, and in the spirit of communal engagement that unifies the BABEL Working Group, it seemed important to open this topic of discussion to others. To do so, notably, I solicited responses from scholars completely outside those galvanizing conversations. In constituting this forum, therefore, I offer my own response to Strohm’s review essay: I asked scholars whose work comments on what I see as historicism’s unfinished business — from politics, to psychoanalysis, to presentism, to feminism — whose work challenges, and potentially even explodes, the disciplinary boundaries of older ‘new’ historicisms. These are scholars who refuse to ‘Ced[e] an interest in the past,’ yet who simultaneously remake what this commitment might look like through their active, creative reimaginings (Strohm, 2010, 380). As readers will see, contributors to this forum made the invitation to respond to Strohm’s review essay their own: while Brantley Bryant emphasizes historicity’s potential ‘to promote the value of our discipline in a time of catastrophic program cuts,’ Bettina Bildhauer reinvigorates terms we might have set aside, encouraging us to ‘Acknowledge Zeitgeister’ in her provocative reading of the past’s co-presence. Larry Scanlon throws down sage tenets that recall us to the political potential of historicism as an interpretive hermeneutic, and Ruth Evans offers an elegantly concise reading of the failed sexual relation at the heart of Troilus and Criseyde as a means to demonstrate the historical capacity of psychoanalysis. Each essay enacts some version of Tara Williams’s ‘enchanted historicism,’ which she develops as ‘a deep curiosity that is broader and more active than wonder . . . a state of being rather than a reaction.’
These scholars evince deep theoretical attentiveness to the political implications of historicism, but there are no advanced declarations of what that might mean within any particular interpretive encounter. There appears to be a shared awareness that, to borrow a quip from Jacques Rancière, ‘If everything is political, then nothing is’ (Rancière, 1999, 32). Consensus is not automatic, but must be assembled from the specific, the concrete, the tangible. As Evans illustrates with respect to sexuality, complementarity is not just a myth, it is a disabling fiction that perdures through presumption. When Bildhauer observes, ‘Any person in 1243 was surrounded by concepts and objects that had persisted over generations as well as by budding new ones’ she calls us to notice the specificity of history’s multiplicity. If this unqualified resistance to abstraction resembles Wendell Berry’s situationist ethics, it is equally (un)naive about the unwavering intellectual and emotional demands that tangible involvement in the past requires.1 Whether it is the pedagogical expansiveness Bryant extols, or the analytic clarity Scanlon realizes, this combination of uncertainty and confidence takes its own time to develop.
For offering a lasting model of historical involvement, we owe a continuing debt to Paul Strohm. He has been a generous co-conspirator in this enterprise, since he immediately recognized the historicity his review essay promotes does not depend on a univocal enunciation. When I asked him if we might hold a scholarly forum on his essay, he instantly agreed to allow other scholars to make free with his observations and reflections. And though it is apparent these scholars had been working on the critical trajectories of their essays long before I asked them to contribute to this scholarly forum, Strohm’s articulation of ‘Historicity without Historicism?’ provided the intellectual impetus to put these different voices together. I am madly pleased by the results of this experiment, which considers historicism’s past and develops historicity’s future. In fact, to read these responses as a collective encounter, I would like to suggest in the strongest terms possible, provides tangible evidence for Williams’s hopeful affirmation of a historicity that never forgets historicism: ‘We can see the complexities of history and text not as surprising or overwhelming, but as enchanting.’
1. Reece (2011) describes Berry’s newest ‘subversive cabal’ as ‘the Society for the Preservation of Tangibility,’ which, according to Berry, ‘Anyone can join . . . . There are no dues, no meetings, no fund drives, no newsletter.’ As Reece goes on to explain, ‘There is only a state of mind, a desire to preserve what’s authentic, what holds substance, what aspires to the whole.’
Berry, W. 1998. The Peace of Wild Things. In The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 30. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
Faulkner, W. 1951. Requiem for A Nun, 92. New York: Random House.
Rancière, J. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Reece, E. 2011. Wendell Berry’s Wild Spirit. Garden and Gun August/September,
http://gardenandgun.com/article/wendell-berry?page=0%2C5 (accessed 25 September, 2011).
Strohm, P. 2010. Historicity without Historicism? postmedieval 1(3): 380–391.