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  • Neomedievalism in Three Contemporary City Novels: Tobar, Adichie, Lee
  • Caren Irr

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson famously asserted that “[t]he idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation” (26). He imagined national communities organically cohering in the shared textual experiences of simultaneity provided by modern forms such as the newspaper and the realist novel. This nationalist experience of time and text emerges out of and largely replaces a pre-national medieval sensibility premised on heterogeneous populations, porous borders, and patchworks of geographical specificities. Building on Erich Auerbach’s account of the medieval focus on the eternal and “omnitemporal,” Anderson describes “simultaneity-along-time” (24) as a pre-modern spatialized perspective overwritten by the modern, nationalist “meanwhile”—or simultaneity in time.

In the more than three decades since Anderson’s influential study appeared, the discourses and social restructuring associated with neoliberal globalization have assaulted the vision of the coherent nation-states that is so crucial to Imagined Communities. Many discussants have debated the thesis that national sovereignty has been eroded in favor of global ‘flows,’ scouring literary, filmic, and other representational works for figures that express a global imaginary. While this quest for emergent geopolitical aesthetics often stimulates vital readings of the structure and effects of social units larger than the nation-state, the accelerated and futurological tendencies of such mapping projects sometimes also obscure an inverse tendency— the revival of certain medieval figures that provide another sort of friction with a nation-state imaginary.

The contemporary medievalism traced in this essay revolves around an ideological fantasy, not a historical revival. Authenticity is not its concern, and for this reason it is best described by Umberto Eco’s neologism “neomedievalism” (61–72). As Eco [End Page 439] reminds us, images of the Middle Ages serve many purposes in hyperreal conditions, including anchoring tenuous national identities in a moment of “national grandeur” or lost purity (70). The proto-national imaginary associated with the medieval model of the city-state in particular creates an ideologically forceful fantasy space in narratives of modern national decline. For Eco, the postmodern bricoleur’s reuse of materials from the past is continuous with medieval practice, regardless of the specific political vision offered by medievalisms. Recycling medieval tropes can unsettle the developmental logic of the time-stamped national Bildungsroman. In both content and form, then, neomedieval narratives can generate friction with the homogeneous empty time of Anderson’s national imaginary.

Recently, a few scholars in international relations, such as Bruce W. Holsinger, have taken up Eco’s concept, arguing that the rise of non-state actors such as NGOs, corporate militias, and terrorist organizations signals a neomedieval tendency in world affairs. Others, such as David Graeber, identify neomedievalism as a response to the emergence of an ultra-rapid hyperbourgeoisie in postcolonial and post-Communist environments of state collapse. Neomedieval accounts position these mobile networked figures in a highly fortified, discontinuous, and heterogeneous geography of city-states. Parag Khanna briefly describes the forty city-regions that account for two-thirds of the world economy, asserting that in this highly urbanized environment super-entrepreneurs or local sovereigns may have more influence than national actors. While retaining a healthy skepticism about the demise of the nation-state, Jürgen Neyer makes a similar argument about the inability of national systems to ensure domestic safety in concentrated urban areas and tracks the corresponding rise of private security firms as well as occasional interventions into urban affairs by supra-national entities. Neomedieval elements appear, in other words, not only in the built environment of the contemporary city-state (such as the castle-like Trump Tower), but also in the juridical, military, and economic roles imagined for the city as its rulers assert their position in imperial and/or regional projects.

Cities are thus crucial to the neomedieval discussion. Historians of the Middle Ages distinguish the city-state from the commune by its rule over hinterlands; a city-state had, in essence, a foreign policy and a military as well as the capacity to extract taxes or tributes. Whether oligarchic or dynastic in their forms of internal rule, medieval urban...


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pp. 439-453
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