Medieval, Modern, Post-Modern: Medieval Studies in a Post Modern Perspective
By Robert Stein
Cultural Frictions: Medieval Studies in Postmodern Contexts Conference Proceedings (1995)
Introduction: My remarks today are prompted in great part by a reaction that has taken me by surprise recently in some undergraduate medieval classes. Certain before they begin that such characteristically modern issues as racism or questions of gender and power will be irrelevant to their study of medieval literature (and therefore that Chaucer, say, will certainly be “boring”), some students have begun to react not with interest but with dismay that they have to think about things like rape even in a medieval class. It’s not so much that they feared that the class would be irrelevant to their concerns; they actively wanted it to be. This is not exactly what we have in mind, I take it, when we invoke “the alterity of the Middle Ages.” Or is it?
Historical inquiry always has been motivated by the situation of the historical inquirer even if historical statements have typically been written from a position of universality. In recent years several convergent occurrences have made the appearance of a “universal position” more or less impossible to sustain and have thus brought into strong relief the complex and always only partially acknowledged entanglements of the historian with the material under investigation. I want simply to mention three such occurrences: The first is the “linguistic turn” taken throughout all areas of the human sciences, which in seeing the subject as an inescapable positioning in language reveals the illusoriness of any claims to exteriority and hence universality in the knowing subject. The object of inquiry and the inquiring subject are from this standpoint always and inescapably constituted together within the sphere of representation. The second is the rise of feminist criticism not only to a position of “academic respectability” but as Henry Louis Gates argued a few years ago in PMLA as a model and shaper of inquiry in other areas of academic research. As Naomi Schor puts it, “Two chief axioms of feminist criticism state that all acts of language are grounded in the dense network of partial positions (e.g. sexual, class, racial) occupied by speaking subjects and that to claim to speak for all (women, feminists, literary critics) is to speak from a position of assumed mastery and false universality. This position is precisely the one we as feminists seek to interrogate and dismantle….” 1 The third is the demographic change in the American college population which has taken place in a social context less able than before (although clearly no less willing) to repress ethnic and class difference in the interest of maintaining the power of elites. When the veterans of World War II similarly flooded the undergraduate and graduate schools in the 1950’s, the university was able to play its role as purveyor of the culture goods in a way that has long since become impossible.
What makes this all especiallly interesting to medieval studies is the peculiar position of the Middle Ages as an excluded territory, always situated antithetically to the modern. Understanding to what degree and with what effects medieval studies is complicit with that relationship is, it seems to me, of the greatest importance to the direction of medieval studies now. The story is one we all know. It goes, as Roland Barthes would have said, without saying. The Middle Ages, it goes without saying, is unlike any other historical period in the way it has been named and in what it signifies. Fifteenth Century humanists began writing of their own time as the Renaissance and in the process created the Middle Ages to mark the period between themselves and the classical antiquity they were intent on emulating and appropriating. The designation Renaissance is thus an origin point: it emerges from that definitively modern moment of historical self-consciousness when Western Europe begins to narrate itself. This moment brings into being a notion of modernity and simultaneously with it a narrative of its history. No modernity, no historicity. Or to put it another way, History itself is from the beginning always and only the narrative of modernity’s own coming into being. The Middle Ages, located between two moments in the narrative of the modern, has merely a delaying function — we tarry outside the narrative for a time (a middle time) in order to reenter, to resume, to recommence the story of modernity with the Renaissance. In short, the middle ages is the part of the story that “need not” be told.