“[This] volume opens a productive channel to yet another way of thinking about history – in this case, the history of our discipline, its philosophical underpinnings, and the contributions of medieval thought and medievalism generally to practices of cultural and textual analysis. . . . [T]his volume represents an endeavor of considerable intellectual significance, a strong opening into a set of important questions about the terms and conceptual conditions for the survival of medievalism and medieval studies. . . .
In The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages, modernists and medievalists, as well as scholars specializing in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century comparative literature, offer a new history of theory and philosophy through essays on secularization and periodization, Marx’s (medieval) theory of commodity fetishism, Heidegger’s scholasticism, and Adorno’s nominalist aesthetics. One essay illustrates the workings of medieval mysticism in the writing of Freud’s most famous patient, Daniel Paul Schreber, author of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). Another looks at Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a theoretical synthesis whose conscientious medievalism was the subject of much polemic in the post-9/11 era, a time in which premodernity itself was perceived as a threat to western values. The collection concludes with an afterword by Fredric Jameson, a theorist of postmodernism who has engaged with the medieval throughout his career.
Contributors: Charles D. Blanton, Andrew Cole, Kathleen Davis, Michael Hardt, Bruce Holsinger, Fredric Jameson, Ethan Knapp, Erin Labbie, Jed Rasula, D. Vance Smith, Michael Uebel
“Amidst the trash talk of theory in the past tense and the drive of the corporate university to dismantle the conditions of possibility for critique . . . the essays collected in The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages will hearten scholars and also invite them to reflect on their own complicity with current academic events. The volume marks yet another powerful contribution to ongoing investigation into the intersections of the medievalisms of modernity and the modernities of Medieval Studies.
“[This] volume opens a productive channel to yet another way of thinking about history – in this case, the history of our discipline, its philosophical underpinnings, and the contributions of medieval thought and medievalism generally to practices of cultural and textual analysis. . . . [T]his volume represents an endeavor of considerable intellectual significance, a strong opening into a set of important questions about the terms and conceptual conditions for the survival of medievalism and medieval studies. . . .” - Paul Strohm, Postmedieval
“Amidst the trash talk of theory in the past tense and the drive of the corporate university to dismantle the conditions of possibility for critique . . . the essays collected in The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages will hearten scholars and also invite them to reflect on their own complicity with current academic events. The volume marks yet another powerful contribution to ongoing investigation into the intersections of the medievalisms of modernity and the modernities of Medieval Studies.” - Kathleen Biddick, The Medieval Review
“Those already engaged in ongoing debates about the complex relation between medieval and modern will find this book to be an essential addition to an important area of inquiry. Those who have never given much thought to the subject will discover a stimulating, and perhaps even transformative, introduction to a crucial set of terms and concepts.” - George Edmondson, Speculum
“[T]he collection should be read as a collaborative work of intellectual history with serious implications for the study of modernity.... It opens up some rich dialogues between medieval and post-medieval studies, and with historians and students of modernity.” - Stephanie Trigg, Partial Answers
“An uncompromising riposte to the notion, in Medieval Studies as elsewhere, that critique is dead and that we should quietly return to tasks of description. A potent demonstration that without critical theory, modernity and the medieval are unintelligible.”—David Wallace, author of Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn
“These exciting and challenging essays show that medieval ideas have exerted a huge influence on Freud, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Žižek, and Negri, thus shaping our understanding of politics, aesthetics, literary criticism, and cultural critique. It is now evident that we all need a medieval basis to found modern Theory.”—Jean-Michel Rabaté, author of The Ethics of the Lie
“Those already engaged in ongoing debates about the complex relation between medieval and modern will find this book to be an essential addition to an important area of inquiry. Those who have never given much thought to the subject will discover a stimulating, and perhaps even transformative, introduction to a crucial set of terms and concepts.
“[T]he collection should be read as a collaborative work of intellectual history with serious implications for the study of modernity.... It opens up some rich dialogues between medieval and post-medieval studies, and with historians and students of modernity.
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The Legitimacy of the Middle AgesOn the Unwritten History of Theory
Duke University PressCopyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Sense of an Epoch
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Periodization, Sovereignty, and the Limits of Secularization KATHLEEN DAVIS
This moment of suspense, this épokhé this founding or revolutionary moment of law is, in law, an instance of non-law. But it is also the whole history of law.-Jacques Derrida
"Where is the now?" The challenge of this question lies less in its riddle than in its suggestion that we must not answer. Were we to supply a location for "the now," for a present already made strangely singular yet ubiquitous by the definite article, we would privilege a specific position-whether cultural, geographic, economic, political, or technological-as the perspective from which a "present" is made apprehensible. We would thus be proposing a particular content, and by extension a set of potential meanings, for the apparently global time of "the now." In short, we would periodize. Through its trick of catachresis, this question redirects us to the "where" of our own speaking position as the premise that makes it possible to say "now," and to the periodizing structure shared by this subject position and any conception of a global moment or politics. At its most extreme, this question references the global violence we witness today and reminds us that every faction engaged in this economic, religious, or ethnic strife must attach not only to a legitimating history but to a theory of history, not only to a particular claim upon "the now" but to a conception of how "the now" can be thought.
I take the question "Where is the now?" from Dipesh Chakrabarty, who raises it as a challenge to scholarship that presupposes a "certain figure of the now" in its approach to current political dilemmas, insisting that "how we periodize our present is connected to the question of how we imagine the political," and that the insufficiently examined historicity of fundamental concepts-such as religion, secularism, democracy, and politics-renders the logic of many events across the world unrecognizable to dominant strains of critical theory. The history of these fundamental concepts is also the history of medieval/modern periodization, consideration of which is essential to any rethinking of critical theory and its limits.
This essay focuses upon the problem of "secularization," which as a term suggests the transference or transformation of something from a "nonsecular" to a "secular" status, whether that something is a plot of land, a priest, a government, or an attitude. As an ecclesiastical term since early Christianity, it has referred to the movement from monastic life to that of secular clergy, and as a legal term in European history after the Reformation it refers to the expropriation of ecclesiastical rights and property. In a less concise and far more controversial sense, secularization has been understood as a periodizing term that attempts to narrate the modernization of Europe as it gradually overcame a hierarchized and metaphysically shackled past through a series of political struggles, religious wars, and philosophical upheavals. This is the familiar Enlightenment "triumphalist" narrative of secularization-for which the privatization of religion, along with the freeing of the European imagination from the stranglehold of Providence, came to mark the conditions of possibility of the emergence of the political qualities designated "modern," particularly the nation-state and its self-conscious citizen. The temporality of secularization in this sense is qualitative, and its underside is the history of colonialism, empire, and slavery. This triumphalist narrative is fast losing credibility as current controversies over secularization, coincident with the "resurgence of religion" in many parts of the world, including the United States, have exposed the historicity of its qualitative story.
My interest here is in the role of medieval/modern periodization in the constitution of the fundamental categories in question, and how taking this periodization into account can make a difference in understanding the contours and implications of the debate. The belief in a break between a medieval and a modern (or an early modern) period ever more intensively assumes world-historical implications for categories such as the sovereign state and secular politics-that is, categories with both ideological and territorial stakes. For exactly this reason, the "Middle Ages," like "modernity" before it, has been vaulted from a European category to a global category of time. This globalized Middle Ages operates in two conflicting ways. On the one hand, literary and political history-whether of Europe, Asia, India, or Africa-is increasingly organized along a conventional medieval/early) modern divide. According to this scenario, the world moves in unison, in tempo with a once European story written at the height of, and in tandem with, colonialism, nationalism, imperialism, and Orientalism. On the other hand, the "Middle Ages" is a mobile category, applicable at any time to any society that has not "yet" achieved modernity or, worse, has become retrograde. In this mode, it provides a template for what Johannes Fabian has aptly termed the "denial of coevalness."
Our coming to terms with medieval/modern periodization, to put this more forcefully, is prerequisite to addressing the disavowal by "secular" politics of its founding paradox-a disavowal that, despite all good faith efforts (toward justice or freedom, for example) has enabled and continues to enable the sanctification of particular vested interests. The theory of history sustaining medieval/modern periodization, I suggest, bears a direct relation to this global violence, particularly with respect to the centrality of "religion" to "politics" in current bids for sovereignty. As a way of exploring within "secularization" the links between concepts of historical time and claims to sovereignty, I focus particularly on the relations between the thinking of Carl Schmitt on sovereignty and that of Reinhart Koselleck on historical time. The obvious pertinence of Schmitt's theory of sovereignty to recent political events helps to explain why it has long resonated with political advocates on both the left and the right and continues, as Éienne Balibar notes, to "haunt the defenses as well as the critiques of national state sovereignty." Koselleck's essays on the semantics of historical time in Futures Past, which center upon issues of secularization and have been crucial to arguments regarding the discrete identity of "modernity," do not overtly address problems of sovereignty. Yet as I show by considering their relation to arguments by Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Karl Löwith, and Hans Blumenberg, these essays take up central issues in discussions regarding sovereignty, periodization, and "world order." Indeed, Koselleck's project of identifying historical-political conceptions in the "given present" is at its core a question of "the now" as I address it above.
Periodization, above all, concerns the relation between the history of fundamental political concepts and its enabling theory, between a conception of "the now" and the conditions of its being thought. The word "periodicity," coined in the nineteenth century as a scientific term to describe recurring intervals (for instance, one might monitor or set periodicity in an experiment),O has moved into literary studies by analogy to "historicity," thus raising for "periods" and "periodization" the problematic issue of the event. An event occurs, unique and for the first time, yet it is recognizable and has meaning only within existing systems that anticipate it, predisposing or delimiting-although incapable of fully determining-the potential of its arrival. This paradox of the event describes the nature of the tie between periodization and periodicity, between the political history of "periods" such as medieval or modern and the potential of "the now," which this history anticipates and upon which it exercises a powerful tug. Periodization, even when it applies to a distant past, is always a critical intervention in "the now," always a bid to set conditions for the present experiment. In an important sense, we cannot periodize the past, although interventions in "the now" always draw upon available schemes of intelligibility, including already consolidated "pasts" made accessible by the politics and historiography attending former periodizations.
The qualitative or overtly ideological narrative of Europe's secularization disavows the implication of the épokhè at the foundation of law. Operating in the void of the suspense of the law, the constitution of law, in the sense of a radical founding or revolutionary moment, has by definition no basis of justification in already constituted norms, resulting in a fundamental paradox that, as my epigraph from Derrida suggests, involves the sense of an epoch. This suspense of the law is akin to what Carl Schmitt has described as the "exception": a singular event that, like a miracle, entirely exceeds the existing order and thus suspends it. Sovereignty, the force that must "decide" upon the state of exception (Ausnahmezustand) and that is relevant only in relation to it, is analogous to the "divine" in the sense that its decision must come ex nihilo (although even for Schmitt the purity of this decision cannot be absolute). The legal order of a state, Schmitt argues, can never be fully self-enclosed; there is always the possibility that a "state of exception" might exceed the expectations of all juridical norms. The exception "can at best be characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state, or the like," but by definition it cannot actually be predefined or "made to conform to a preformed law." Constitutional development tended toward honing legal order into a pure mechanistic system for which all circumstances are calculable, thus eliminating, in Schmitt's eyes, the state's capacity to confront that which is incalculable according to its laws.
In order to protect its autonomy, Schmitt argues, a state requires a sovereign, whose position it is to decide that an exception has occurred and to suspend the existing legal order for the preservation of the state. Schmitt makes it clear that he is dealing with a limit concept. Paradoxically, if a state is to be sovereign in the sense of being "autonomous" (auto, "self"; nomos, "law"), it must at its core be antinomic: it requires a sovereign who is both inside and outside the law, and whose decision, like creation ex nihilo, simultaneously defines and breaches the limit of that law. Rigorously true to the concept of sovereignty as underived power, the decision is "independent of argumentative substantiation.... Looked at normatively, the decision emanates from nothingness." The foundation of this sovereignty, then, is not locatable. One goal of this essay is to show how medieval/modern periodization frequently serves as a substitute for this absent foundation of sovereignty and thereby installs certain ostensible characteristics of the "modern" in the place of the sovereign. In this sense, periodization functions as sovereign decision.
The term "secularization" as Schmitt uses it differs subtly but importantly from the qualitative narrative of secularization that I describe above. Indeed, he critiques such a narrative, and it is within the meaning of "secularization" that battles over sovereignty and periodization are fought. Rather than being a story of Europe's extrication from theological constraints and a consequent rise of modern political freedom and democracy, secularization for Schmitt, as well as for many of his contemporary theorists of sovereignty and history, means the transference of theological forms to the politics of an ostensibly "secular" state, in which "theology" thus becomes immanent. This change is generally understood to occur in the seventeenth century, or in the course of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, but the "Middle Ages" invariably serves as the presecular exemplar for both the proponents and the detractors of this "secularization theory."
We find a sense of secularization with affinities to Schmitt's in the work of Walter Benjamin, who had also dealt with the "divine" suspension of all existing law in his "Critique of Violence," but who differently conceives the relation between sovereign decision and theological form. Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which acknowledges its heavy debt to Schmitt's Political Theology, also addresses the alignment of sovereignty and history with respect to epochality. The "true object" of the German Trauerspiel, Benjamin explains, is "historical life as represented by its epoch," and "the sovereign, the principal exponent of history, almost serves as its incarnation." In this, Benjamin suggests, drama coincides with politics: "The Sovereign represents history. He holds the course of history in his hand like a scepter. This view is by no means peculiar to the dramatists. It is based on certain constitutional notions."
Rather than validating this sovereign representation, however, Benjamin calls it into question by linking it to the problems of literary representation and interpretation, thereby intersecting several aspects of Schmitt's invocation of "drama" and political representation:
Confronted with a literature which sought, in a sense, to reduce both its contemporaries and posterity to silence through the extravagance of its technique, the unfailing richness of its creations, and the vehemence of its claims to value, one should emphasize the necessity of that sovereign attitude which the representation of the idea of a form demands. Even then the danger of allowing oneself to plunge from the heights of knowledge into the profoundest depths of the baroque state of mind, is not a negligible one. That characteristic feeling of dizziness which is induced by the spectacle of the spiritual contradictions of this epoch is a recurrent feature in the improvised attempts to capture its meaning.
By emphasizing the "necessity of that sovereign attitude which the representation of the idea of a form demands" (my emphasis), Benjamin returns us to the paradox of the sovereign decision, which must be made-and can only be made-in the face of its own undecidability: technically, representation is impossible. Whereas Schmitt negotiates this paradox by predisposing sovereign decision to the interests of the state, Benjamin, as Samuel Weber argues, concentrates on the disarticulation of sovereignty. On the one hand, Benjamin recognizes that the necessity of sovereign decision "demands completion of the image of the sovereign, as tyrant." On the other hand, the sovereign "who is responsible for making the decision to proclaim the state of emergency reveals, at the first opportunity, that he is almost incapable of making a decision." Rather than representing the solidity of an epoch, the sovereign instead represents its impossibility in the form of his own madness: "there is this one thing to be said in favour of the Caesar as he loses himself in the ecstasy of power: he falls victim to the disproportion between the unlimited hierarchical dignity, with which he is divinely invested and the humble estate of his humanity." Benjamin's depiction of this mad Caesar perhaps gives reply to the image of a rational, secular modern state and the world order over which it would lay claim.
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