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All Kinds of Time

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 35, 2013
pp. 3-25 | 10.1353/sac.2013.0025

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In preparation for this year’s congress I’ve been watching all available episodes of Portlandia . This is the television show on the Independent Film Channel that satirizes the city and its greener-than-thou, more feminist-than-thou, alt-music, hyper-foodie, artisanal-light-bulb culture. Not only does Portland, in the show, have a maniacally intensive recycling program (administered by the eager Sanitation Twins); not only does it have a feminist bookstore where the resistance to dominant paradigms is so acute that no sales transaction has ever been completed; and not only do restaurant-goers care so much about the ethical treatment of animals that before ordering chicken they get a complete file on the bird, including photographic documentation (“his name was Colin,” reports the waitress), and then they check the information by visiting the farm where Colin was raised—not only all of that, but the entire city actually exists in a different temporality altogether. It’s a place where “the dream of the 90s is alive,” as its TV inhabitants sing: the dream of the 1990s, that is, complete with tribal tattoos and save-the-planet idealism—and the dream of the 1890s, too. For Portland, according to the show, is not just a simple throwback to a time 20 years ago, or 120 years ago. In Portland you can hang onto the preoccupations of the 1990s (you can prolong your younger days, that is) and you can also find yourself in a bygone era further back in time (you can actually turn back the clock). If you want to experience a different kind of time from that of the rest of the nation—if you want time that passes very slowly, or that stands still, or that travels in reverse; if you want to be in a different era from the present one in which the rest of the United States exists; if you don’t presume that time advances ineluctably forward and leaves the past behind—says the show, come to Portland.

Really, what an excellent setting for a convention of medievalists. Our business, after all, is to think analytically and creatively about the past and our relation to it, and by extension then, to think analytically and creatively about time. We do time: our research projects inevitably draw us into questions about the status of medieval texts and our historical relationships to them, even if temporality or historiography per se have not been our concerns outright. But many of us here today have indeed dedicated ourselves to exploring temporal problematics explicitly. Some such studies have focused on medieval time-keeping systems and technologies, and their impact on society and culture. Our studies have included medieval as well as modern theories of history, historiography, and political theory: arguments about historical periodization in particular have sparked a range of compelling theoretical engagements with temporality. We have inquired into the historical and temporal modes specific to medieval religious doctrines and beliefs, and have analyzed specifically Christian, Jewish, and Islamic temporalities and their interrelations. Our researches have targeted the profoundly disjunctive temporal workings of the mind, as observed in medieval theories of memory and dreams as well as in modern and current psychoanalytic theories. We have analyzed the temporal characteristics of linguistic and literary forms and genres themselves. And of course this brief list doesn’t account for the full range of medieval research that engages time.1

In many ways, then, time is what we do, and recognition of temporal heterogeneity—of the multiplicity of temporal systems, or time frames, or time consciousnesses in any present moment—is a hallmark of some, I’d even say much, of this work. In this work there is the unmistakeable claim, if only implicit sometimes, that the present is not a singular, fleeting moment but comprises relations to other times, other people, other worlds. Though the ordinary image of time is of identical forward-moving points in a sequence—at least since Aristotle theorized it in the Physics —the present is more multifarious and heterogeneous than that image would allow. Today I want to push that claim further: while for many of us, studying the Middle Ages arises...



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