Another Book for the List
I woke up this morning to Jeffrey Cohen's post on the end of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, and realized that what she says is kind of what I wanted to say in my dissertation (who needs coffee now?). I should preface this by saying that, as the title indicates, I have not yet read Dinshaw's book, and so this post is a reaction to Jeffery's post more than it is to Getting Medieval. The discovery that Dinshaw is demanding what I want to demand should not have been as surprising as it was; after all, medieval studies is a field in which the past constantly shocks the modern world. But nine years on, Dinshaw's call to use "the ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future" (206) seems from this end of the field like a project only barely begun. Perhaps it has led to to some very useful research and thought, but the full potential of this reading remains, well, potential.
And that's the problem. Literature, and the humanities as a whole, are not just a tool for academics to mumble on about things that should be done—communities, politics, lives expressed in the subjunctive. I know that neither Dinshaw nor anyone at In The Middle believes this, but I do think that is how the academic community tends to see the humanities: it is a field that does nothing but talk about potentials and becomings while having little to no effect on potentiality or actual change. If Althusser (my old standby) is still right, and the academy continues to exist in a position of power the ideological state apparatus, then we have a responsibility to do more than just "acknowledge" our status and "include" marginalized people within the apparatus. We have a responsibility to change how people think, in a way all people can understand, in a way that touches them directly. We may not be able to touch the past, but we can touch the present, and do more than "touch."
Based on what I've read at ITM this week, I would say that Dinshaw's message is an excellent start, but it needs revisiting (or visiting, in my case). I think—I hope—that a careful synthesis with utopian theory and a Marxist hermeneutics will help us discover not only how we can build those "selves and communities," but also why and to what end those selves and communities exist: to change the future, to make it a place without hunger, without exploitation, with, as we used to say (and believe when we said it), "liberty and justice for all."
NB: I like that ending, but I think the "synthesis with utopian theory and a Marxist hermeneutics" might need explaining. I believe this will be useful—despite all the problems that a late-Enlightenment rationalist philosophy has—because I believe that the only way to effect real material change is to believe in a real material world. I think the bridge between that and the ideological/ideal world is utopian theory, and thus I am in solidarity with Ernst Bloch's docta spes: hope, yes, but an educated hope, one that returns to the ground to show how what it saw in the sky can be used on the ground.
Edit: On rereading Jeffrey's post, I think the power of the adjective queer finally hit me: it's a gender-flavored version of the same politics I've been aiming for all along. If we queer the middle ages (borrowing Glenn Burger and Steven F Kruger's phrasing), we make it unheimlich enough that it becomes a critical position in discourse. In other words, queering makes the medieval (or any field) different in a way that lets us argue for (and even argue our way into) real change.
All this has made me more certain that my final chapter is going to be programmatic (without being dogmatic): after moving through numerous medieval texts, I'm going to talk about what those texts show us, and the possibilities they open up for us. To use an example some of you might hear me deliver at SEMA in a few weeks, the potential of Winner and Waster is that it shows a way that one class can "win" a major victory purely through language, leading to a restructuring of society in which everyone, from the king to the Winners, the Wasters, and even the poor, can be better off than they were before. It's not a perfect victory, but it's a good idea, and one we can build from and perhaps even try again.