First, before you read any further, go read Steve Mentz's excellent response to the ongoing conversation about Periodization and Its Discontents.
At the end of my last post, I ended with an overly pithy statement about Hinch's "History without transition," and said that I could think of worse things than such historical practices. Mentz responded as follows: "Without in any way defending heroic conceptions of early modernity that insist on leaping high by stomping on medieval plurality, I don’t want history without transitions. I like plurality, multiplicity, radical difference, but I also want narratives of change, transformation, discontinuity." My own critical sympathies are very much in tune with him here. While I can think of worse things than a History without transition, one worse thing would certainly be only History without transition.
Ever since reading China Meiville's The City and the City, I've been thinking about the idea of "cross-hatching" as a way to conceptualize temporality and history, of boundaries that are both interpenetrating yet also visible and firm. I'm interested in how we read continuity and discontinuity not as some fixed binary, but as occurring alongside each other.
What I find most distasteful in Greenblatt's thinking is the privileging of one time period over another, the creation of an abject other out of a segment of the past. To be fair, though, I've only encountered this sort of mentality outside of print once. When I was a graduate student, I did an independent study on the postcolonial Middle Ages, and I received some sideways glances from a few faculty members. But, that's about the extent of it. While Jim Hinch's take-down of Greenblatt was delightful to read, there is a sense, for me at least, that although the older dogmas of heroic conceptions of periodization will never fully die out in various conversations, books like The Swerve are already seeming like the last gasp of a dying species. (I may be too optimistic here.) I think we have the opportunity to have much more vibrant conversations about temporality, history, and periodization. Mentz offers a way that this might happen:
Always periodize — at least twice! With apologies to Jameson, we need periods and transitions, but also need to remember that we should not believe in them too much, that they always do some violence to the full (unknowable) plurality of historical experience. So what about a double (or more) system of periodization, which might be as simple as recognizing that all 21c critical work responds to 21c claims (“presentism”) as well as the demands of historical sources, or as sophisticated as remembering that historical periods never end in any conclusive way, that cultural habits of responding to historical stimuli layer themselves atop and alongside each other, intersecting and accumulating and recombining. With legible but messy transitions.
We cannot ignore the claims and attitudes of our own presentism, nor should we ignore the demands of historicism. We have to negotiate continuity and discontinuity, always.