Sunday, December 2, 2012

History Without Transition, Part Deux

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.


Steve Mentz said...

Great stuff, Rick! I'm with you on both points: I think Swerve-ish historical abjection is a dying beast in academic culture, though perhaps still hanging on elsewhere and with still a zombie-like presence and pressure. I also agree that we need richer ways to think about the presence and absence of historicism and presentism in everything we write.

I also agree about some confusion about where to post this comment!

You make me think I should really read *The City and the City*. I like Meiville's *The Scar*, & *Perdido Street Station*.

Jonathan Hsy said...

YES! Love the conversation that has been unfolding online (now in TWO languages!). I really should read "The City and the City" as well...

Eileen Joy said...

This is so weird, because I actually *did* call for Mievillean cross-hatching in my postmedieval essay on Chaucer's Clerk's Tale and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, in the New Critical Modes issue. I wrote there:

"China Mieville's novel The City & The City is set in two Balkan-type cities – Besźel and Ul Qoma – that are supposedly separate from each other, with different languages, habits, customs, architectural styles, and governmental regimes, and with heavily policed borders and checkpoints between them, yet they inhabit the same geographical space. The citizens of each place can glimpse each other's dim shapes, but they have also been trained from childhood to ‘unsee’ each other. The two cities function as ‘topolgängers’ to each other and each possesses areas of ‘totality-alterity,’ where they are completely unbreachable by the other, but there are also ‘crosshatched’ spaces – which might be a park or a neighborhood block or a street or even one room in a building – that are completely permeable. Nevertheless, it is illegal to cross from one to the other or to ‘see’ persons from the other city who might be clearly standing right beside you. The two cities have long, ancient histories and it is surmised, alternately, that they were simultaneously built on the same ‘Romanesque’ ruins of an even older city, or that they were once one ancient city that, at some point in time, underwent a ‘cleavage.’ Similar to some of the varieties of parallel universes, or ‘quilted multiverses,’ described by physicist Brian Greene, Besźel and Il Qoma might be ‘hovering [in space] millimeters away’ from each other, or they may have merged completely (‘grosstopically,’ Mieville's narrator, Taydor Borlú, would say), or more strangely, ‘the very notion of their location’ might prove ‘parochial, devoid of meaning’ (Greene, 2011, 5, 35).

Although situated in very different cultural and historical milieus, I see Chaucer's Griselda and von Trier's Bess McNeill as ‘topolgängers’ who share a quilted multiverse of literary self-objects who figure the compressed and diagrammatic arcs of certain impossible (saintly) virtues as well as of the monstrous (perverse) enjoyment occasioned by subjecting oneself to that impossibility. At the same time, their stories contain moments of the mechanical failure of those ‘virtues’ and enjoyment (both structural and figural), as a result of which, ‘crosshatches’ are formed where they are able to ‘breach’ and make contact with each other."

I have also often turned to physicists' work in the past [including Greene, but also Julian Barbour and David Bohm and Heinz Pagels], for helping me conceptualize news ways of thinking about temporality and cross-temporal, cross-spatial "entanglements" in history, and also in literature.

Rick Godden said...

Eileen, now I need to go back and read your essay. I think I skimmed that part a bit since I knew I wanted to read Mieville, but hadn't done so yet. Now I feel less than original! Hah. I'm using the idea of crosshatching in my paper for the Productive Anachronism session at Kzoo.

Eileen Joy said...

That sounds great, Rick, and no one is really "original," by the way. We're all thinking similar things at different speeds and in different places, but regardless, I find Mieville's notion of the cross-hatch very productive for thinking about intra-temporalities.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks for reminding us about your Essay re: Mievillean cross-hatching by the way! I feel like this idea has been "in the air" quite a bit esp. in BABEL circles and I often forget who has formally written (published) about it in what venue...!

Peter Buchanan said...

Mentz's system of double periodization reminds me a lot of what Gadamer says about conceiving of interpretation as a fusion of horizons:

Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of a tension between the text and the present. The hermeneutic task consists in not covering up this tension by attempting a naive assimilation of the two but in consciously bringing it out. This is why it is part of the hermeneutic approach to project a historical horizon that is different from the horizon of the present. Historical consciousness is aware of its own otherness and hence foregrounds the horizon of the past from its own. ... In fact the horizon of the present is continually in the process of being formed because we are continually having to test all our prejudices. An important part of this testing occurs in encountering the past and in understanding the tradition from which we come. Hence the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the past. There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves.

What I love about reading medieval literature is that so often it is about engaging with tradition, so we can see multiple horizons projected all at once which coalesce around the material remains we are interpreting today. I feel like part of Greenblatt's problem is that he too naively assimilates Poggio and Lucretius with himself, imagining that they are when we became modern and not bringing out a tension between that time and our own.

Historian on the Edge said...

I have my (provisional) take on this issue, here: