I’ve been musing about the method by which we approach our study of the past, with the goal of coming up with some context for my literature review. What are the problems of intellectual history that I want to address? How does the model of analysis I am working on fit into the general scheme of things? I thought i’d take a little time to get my thoughts down in a coherent form, to share them with others, and perhaps to gather some feedback.
The problem, as I see it, with medieval history is not the quality of material being produced, but the approach to creating this material. When faced with a research project (such as, for example, the daunting task of creating a doctoral thesis), approaches seem (to my mind), to fall into two streams.
- Find some novel material, and discuss it. Go to the archive and dig up a rare manuscript, or use new archaeological research to shed new light on an existing question. Good work comes from this approach, and valuable work. However, not everyone has either the training or the desire to take this path, leading to…
- Develop a new approach to well covered topics or material. This is where the problems seem to occur, especially with my area, since the twelfth century has really been done to death as a general topic. Now this can work well if pulled off successfully, but comes with some hidden traps.
Enter the singularity! I have observed that when a researcher sets themselves the task of applying a new approach to an old topic (the equivalent of teaching an old dog new tricks), there is a hidden risk. E.H. Carr famously said that history exists as a dialogue between the past and the present, but what if the present just won’t shut up?! How is the past supposed to speak to us, if we keep blabbing our presentist paradigmatic monologue, and it never gets a word in edge-ways?
The biggest risk of this approach is that the noisy present, with its multiplicity of philosophies, attitudes and debates, begins to draw in the content of historical texts, creating a fusion of past and present. Crushed closer and closer together, time, space and ideology is fused into an ahistorical vortex, in which there is no distinction between Boethius and Baudrillard, Medieval and Modern, Aquinas and Alterity, Past and Present or text and context. And there we have it, a great big blob of stuff, floating around projecting very interesting outcomes, but outcomes that are ultimately self-reflexive. From within ‘the singularity’, the past is a mirror in which we are reflected back. This helps us (a lot) to understand ourselves, but what about the past? What happened to historicity?
This seems to be the challenge of creating models for the understanding of thought-worlds of the past. How do we study them without absorbing them into our present? To my mind, the first step is, as Stephen Greenblatt said when outlining his approach to ‘new historicism’, to historicise ourselves, the past, and the dialogue between the two. The result of failing to do so (often intentional) is, it seems, a Jungian Analysis of Beowulf, a Lacanian interpretation of Marie de France or one of many other possible inhabitants of the singularity. The Jungian analysis of Beowulf actually exists, and is really interesting, but is it historical? Cultural Studies has a mandate to perform these tasks, for it studies the present and the understanding of the present. History, however, has a duty to be historical, or so I tell myself. These are the problems that have been keeping me up at night, the goal of a thesis according to a professor of mine.
To those who live in the singularity, I send my greetings. Your work is helping contemporary culture to better understand itself, and I adamantly defend your right to do what you do. I love reading your work, but it isn’t me. Perhaps my search for historicity is a delusion of objectivity or a phantom of enlightenment positivism, but I believe that historicity exists, and that the task of the historian of ideas is to bring it out.
Thanks for listening to my ramblings once again,