I am finally back from a lovely and stimulating Kalamazoo. It was great to meet so many people, and to hear some excellent papers.
I've posted here my contribution to the panel on "Productive Anachronism" organized by Jonathan Newman and Anna Wilson. It was excellent, and dare I say, productive. Our conversation considered the connections between our work as scholars and our work as teachers. Also, see here for Robin Wharton's (one of my fellow presenters) essay. I had hoped to clean this up and include notes, but like many of us (tell me I'm not alone!), I am returning to a mountain of grading. I plan on expanding this, actually, into a slightly longer piece. So, watch this space.
Anachronism as Responsible Pedagogy
Let me begin this short paper with an analogy—not a historical one, but hopefully a productive one nonetheless. In China Mieville’s The City and the City, citizens of Beszel live in a city that somehow shares space with another city: Ul Qoma. (It is never made clear if this is an alternate reality or if the situation is purely psychological bifurcation.) Citizens in one city can physically see citizens from the other, but because of some exceptional political mechanisms and long-standing social taboos, a Besz citizen must unsee a neighbor from Ul Qoma and vice versa. Typical spatial logic is broken up in the world Mieville creates, and so the two cities are interwoven as opposed to occupying discrete areas. The result is that your neighbor just a few feet from your elbow might be in another city, and thus unseeable. Mieville’s notion of unseeing has resonance with many contemporary concerns regarding how communities are created and maintained (including how some are excluded), but perhaps because I heard Carolyn Dinshaw’s excellent talk “All Kinds of Time” at NCS Portland during the time I was reading this book, I have also come to think that this idea neatly describes a dilemma of responsible historicism and interpretation. Apprehending the distant (and even the near) past creates an epistemological problem, for we want to understand the past in its own terms without imposing presentist biases. But, to apprehend the distant past without acknowledging that we see through other time periods and temporalities is to essentially unsee those times. In this short paper, I take the position that anachronism, as well as historical analogy, is not only a productive and responsible way to approach the past, but it is also perhaps the most intellectually honest way as well. Specifically, I want to advocate that we encourage anachronism in the classroom, not just in discussion (this, it seems to me, is almost inevitable), but also in the written works and projects we assign.
In my own experience in the classroom, my students often want to make anachronistic or analogous connections during discussion. Something we read reminds them of a movie or tv show or book, and when they start to make their point, it is always with embarrassment and self-consciousness. Sometimes they are just embarrassed to admit their viewing habits to me, but I am increasingly convinced that they feel like it is simply taboo to bring in their own life-worlds as a part of our analysis. Acknowledging that they come from a specific point of view would, they feel, shatter the claim to objectivity, which for them is the ideal they ought to reach for. What I repeatedly remind them of during the semester, however, is that objectivity in their writing is mostly a rhetorical fiction. Lee Patterson, in his Negotiating the Past, discusses the fault lines in any claim to objectivity in historical scholarship, observing: “Moreover, it must ignore the correlative fact that the objects with which the human sciences deal can never be wholly other from the interpreting self over against which they stand; on the contrary, they are themselves constituted by means of the very subjectivity that characterizes the interpreter. Rather than a dangerous intruder that must not be allowed to contaminate the procedures of historical research, subjectivity is in fact the condition of all understanding: if texts are to be understood at all they must be capable of being taken up into consciousness and rendered part of the subject.” I quite love the term “dangerous intruder,” incidentally. The phrase truly captures how my students often react to the idea of using “I” in their essays. To do so, they have invariably been taught, is to allow a dangerous interloper, their own subjectivity (demeaningly cast as “mere opinion”) to run rampant through otherwise objective literary analyses. Even if they don’t acknowledge the “I” that is writing, I tell them, it’s there. We might as well embrace it.
We cannot, then, separate so easily the interpreting-“I” from the object it surveys. This entwining of subject and object creates, as Dipesh Chakrabarty describes in Provincializing Europe, a sense of temporal heterogeneity, causing, at once, the subject analyzing to be out of sync with the present moment and the object analyzed to be contemporaneous. Chakrabarty writes “One could argue, for instance, that the writing of medieval history for Europe depends on this assumed contemporaneity of the medieval, or what is the same thing, the noncontemporaneity of the present with itself. The medieval in Europe is often strongly associated with the supernatural and the magical. But what makes the historicizing of it possible is the fact that its basic characteristics are not completely foreign to us as moderns.” He goes on to argue that for history to have any meaning for our own life-worlds, we must, in addition to historicizing, also think through anachronism, treating the past as contemporaneous rather than remote and distant.
With this in mind, I would like to now turn to how I have seen anachronism and analogy work in my own classes. When I wrote the abstract for this short paper, however, I suggested that I would share the fruits of my encouraging my students to embrace anachronism. Upon sitting down to write this, though, I realized that what I really want to talk about is they pushed me to think about the productive value of anachronism.
In the first instance, I offered a creative option as an assignment and let my students write a short scene that would occur within one of the narrative gaps of the text. One particular student decided to write about Caliban in the Tempest, and reimagined Caliban as a blogger. When I first assigned this creative option, I expected that everyone would write in the spirit of, shall we say, historical fiction. The student decided instead to move Caliban forward into the future. As a way to express his rage and his fondness for cursing, she gave him a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. He impotently raged against Prospero, and it never was clear whether or not poor Caliban had any sort of readership. I thought that I was innovating by allowing a critical/creative assignment in my class, but my student challenged me to rethink the sort of creative work I was really after. In her imagining of Caliban’s blog, she helped me to see how modern a figure he might be, even if his modernity was undercut by his evident wildness. Caliban may exist as someone outside of time, a wild man figure, but he is also of the moment, painfully contemporary. For example, he may represent the latest spoils of colonialist exploration. The Tempest is a text imbricated with all sorts of time, and my student only heightened its sense of anachronism. In going back to her essay to write this paper, I also discovered a detail I had forgotten. As a component of the assignment I asked students to write what I call metacommentary, that is a self-reflective discussion of the choices they made as writers. In going back, I discovered that she was partly inspired by the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution. My student wanted to restore Caliban’s voice, just as the internet gave voice to the Egyptian people.
In my second example, another student of mine wrote her essay through the lens of a contemporary event. This time the text was Marie de France’s Bisclavret, which I have taught a few times. During discussion, most students initially feel a sense of revulsion against the lady. "How could she betray her husband just for a slight lycanthropic problem?" The lordly werewolf was the clear hero, and his one-time lady was a clear villain. No one seems particularly concerned at first with how the lady is tortured and punished. After pursuing such a reading for a while, I then pose the following question: "is there any way to read the lady as a victim?" After a few blank stares, they start to take to this new subject. They realize that the lay opens with a description of ferocious werewolves, and that this might be the only knowledge of the beast that the lady would have, and so the lady might be justifiable in her decision to escape her husband at any cost. At some point in this discussion, I state that although we could not necessarily read the text as a strict parable of domestic violence, the parallels should at least give us pause. In response to this, my student decided to explore this idea even further, reading the text in light of Congress's failure to authorize The Violence against Women Act. In her analysis, she was sensitive to historical readings of the place and power of women during the Middle Ages, and she did significant research on this subject. But in closing her essay, she sought to make a broader point, that Marie's text can serve as a reminder and as a warning about the fragile power structures that women still find themselves enmeshed in.
Now, in closing this essay, I want to return to the short quote I offered from Chakrabarty—immediately following it is a parenthetical that reads “(which is not to deny the historical changes that separate the two).” Taking the past as in some ways contemporaneous does not erase the efforts of historicism, which tries to understand the past in its own context. We need to do this work, and we need to encourage our students to do so as well, but we cannot easily claim that we can purge the present from our thinking. We cannot unsee other times when we view the past. Anachronism does not deny the difference between past and present, but it makes interpretation possible, and it bridges the gap between different times while also preserving and highlighting the distance between them, a distance that can only be crossed through subjective and creative apprehension. And, after attending postmedieval’s session today on Thriving, I am also reminded that anachronism can make this work joyful as well. Thank you.