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  • In the Middle of the Early Modern
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (bio)

The term “early modern” is sometimes deployed to indicate a bounded and distinct span of human history. This alterist approach to periodization emphasizes that whatever span of years the term brackets will be understood to differ substantially from the centuries that precede and follow. Or “early modern” might signify a commencement, the time during which institutions, epistemologies, and subjectivities familiar today found their first articulation and burgeoned, an inaugurative and continuist mode of temporal partitioning. Though in critical practice these temporal frames tend to blend quietly into each other, neither serves the period very well—and not simply because both begin by abjecting the Middle Ages. Medievalists learned long ago that when you carve your scholarly habitation out of time’s wilderness of flux and declare this secure home exclusively yours, you may as well have retreated to the monastery. Or, if instead of attempting to live apart from modernity you enter its conversations by insisting that “All your base are belong to us” (or AYBABTU, as the kids write)—that it all started c. 750 or 1200 or 1500 or whatever—you will be the person in the corner attempting to be cool by citing old Internet memes while really just giving those nearby an excuse to step quietly away.

In this position piece I will offer a few words about each approach, alterist and continuist. Both are as familiar in medieval as they are they are in early modern studies. Tracing the results of happy accidents (the Middle Ages carries a strange designation its scholars did not choose) and complicated self-nominations (the Renaissance became the Early Modern period through internal retitling), I will argue for polychronic approaches that allow for difference and change but do not swerve into stark discontinuity. Medievalists did not opt to be in the middle, but as it turns out mediality provides some surprisingly handy tools for thinking about time outside of linearity. “Early [End Page 128] modern” has so much incipience built into the term that difficulty inheres in moving toward the nonteleological and nonprogressive frames that various periods christened with a “post-” have accomplished.

Derived from the Latin word modo (“ just now”), modern demarcates a temporal break as well as a changed way of being, a distinct mode of cultural and subjective existence. If time is a forward-moving line, then “early modern” is in the alterist framework an autonomous segment cut from that vector and stabilized into self-containment. The detritus of a surpassed history will, of course, remain visible, as will some seeds of a future to come (early modern intimates a more modern modernity yet to arrive), but when time is cut into supersessionary periodizations each section of history will also stand as fairly discrete.1 Each well-delineated temporal expanse must then be approached through the precision of historicism, with its insistence upon the contextual and relational determination of meaning. At its worst, historicism’s discontinuist method of interpretation can freeze a period into stasis.2 Historicist pronouncements of inherent rigor and the singularity of truth have made life rather difficult, for example, for feminists, queers, those who believe a text might demonstrate a temporal heterogeneity irreducible to inscription of the present, or those who hold that no temporal moment owns a total ethos. Newer historicisms may be friendlier to scholars who once had been outliers, but historicism is in its foundational acts exclusionary. The early modern is not medieval, and so a great deal of what becomes legible or earns the esteemed label of “emergent” is going to depend upon what gets sloughed into the Middle Ages. Dissolving text into context or human subjectivity into disciplinary discourses is also, in the end, a rather impoverished way of apprehending how a work works. As Graham Harman has recently written of New Historicism and its “fiesta of interactivity” (192), relational readings of texts imagine that works are exhaustible through emplacement into context. Yet, like any object, a text holds reserves of un-plumbed relations that ensure its resistant vitality.

Arguing for the absolute difference of one’s time period is also an excellent way of requesting that...


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pp. 128-132
Launched on MUSE
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