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The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 33, 2011
pp. 306-311 | 10.1353/sac.2011.0016

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The chief concerns of this volume are the history of “theory's” attachment to the Middle Ages and the related question of whether and how (our constructions of) the past are present in (our constructions of) the present. Given its focus, however, The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages (LMA) does little in the way of assessing its own temporality. LMA's Introduction says it “intends to compete” with Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (2), with which indeed it fences, in a doughty if somewhat quixotic way. But why should we worry about Blumenberg's futurism in the first place? And who would “we” be? Enter Heidegger and the “phenomenological orientation to history”—for example, Heidegger's “insistence that the Middle Ages lacks a world picture,” and his characterization of medieval metaphysics as “thematic.” It turns out that Heidegger vitiates his own position by also assigning “thematic metaphysics” to philosophers from Thales to “Hegel and beyond.” Nonetheless, this un-Blumenbergian ahistoricism doesn’t stop Heidegger from similarly repudiating scholasticism (10–11). Okay, whatever. But quo vādimus? What is the burning question this windy excursus is meant to address? A number of LMA's essays (Davis, Cole, Knapp, Blanton) also focus on German writers (Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Koselleck, Adorno). Why, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, are die deutschen Düden rolling in again? True, LMA's range is wider than this formulation might suggest: women, and the French, make occasional (and rewarding) appearances. But, the editors say, our work will not be “worthwhile” if we fail to study Hegel and Heidegger. What of the “revolutionary” contexts (and southern disappointments) that cultured American medievalisms, particularly those of the mid-Atlantic academies that cultured so many of LMA's authors? In short, for some readers, The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory will seem a misleadingly ambitious and overgeneral title. Why these theories now?

To be sure, it is inspiring to see a group of medievalists display so much acuity and erudition. LMA is a volume of rare quality and deserves our serious attention. Unfortunately, medievalists who are not theory-prone may have trouble appreciating, for example, Ethan Knapp's painstaking discussion of the relationship between early and late Heidegger and Kittredge, or Blanton's claim that “nominalist turn[s]” in history are “symptoms” of underlying transformations of value (Ockham meets Adorno), or Andrew Cole's analysis of Hegel's and Marx's medievalism (the Eucharist meets the commodity form), or Erin Labbie's and Michael Uebel's vision of Schreber's memoir as “a textbook for how . . . to interpret religious, scientific and poetic relays between the medieval and the modern” (128). But even the minimally adventurous will find admirable scholarship and brainy twists and turns throughout LMA. The responses by Michael Hardt, Jed Rasula, and Fredric Jameson are leavening, for irony, patient clarity, and love of poems and stories. Labbie's and Uebel's “We Have Never Been Schreber,” the most original and thought-provoking essay in the collection, reminds us that “theory” has many mansions: the Providence whose demotion Kathleen Davis seems to lament looks different to a paranoiac who experiences God's interventions in human time as erotized crucifixion. And there are other airs—Charles D. Blanton's dazzling range of motion, and Bruce Holsinger's stylish report on contemporary (disavowals of) apocalypticism. These are all exemplary essays in the history of thought, rational or otherwise. LMA joins Labbie's Lacan's Medievalism, and the work of scholars like John Ganim, Amy Hollywood, and Holsinger, in confirming the legitimacy of writing history by reading theory for the circulations of medieval signifiers.

Still, at times one feels like Alice in Wonderland when reading LMA, as the adults dash about on errands of obscure urgency. It is not always clear why previous critiques of postmedieval self-congratulation will not do, or how LMA's critiques mean to intervene in them. Davis deals a familiar blow to “the familiar Enlightenment ‘triumphalist’ narrative of secularization,” whose “underside is the history of colonialism, empire and slavery” (40); but how does the triumphalist narrative of Christendom, such as Augustine's interpretation of forced...



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