Practicing: Notes on the Theoretical Perspectives of the Middle Ages Workshop

May 2, 2013 - 2:43pm

By Marisa Galvez and Michael Ursell


This year the Stanford Humanities Center hosted a series of workshops under the title “Theoretical Perspectives of the Middle Ages,” curated by Marisa Galvez and Gráinne Watson.


A medievalist (Marisa Galvez) and an early modernist (Michael Ursell), who both work on lyric and consider themselves comparativists, traded notes throughout the series during the past few months. We gave ourselves this task: could we draw out the connecting threads between workshops and share them with you? To find out, we remixed each other’s notes and came up with a brief report on some of the insights that have come out of the series so far.


Michael Ursell: Let’s start with the title of this workshop series. Because, "Theoretical Perspectives of the Middle Ages" says a lot with one little preposition. Not "perspectives on the Middle Ages," which would imply that current literary theory -- the word itself implies a way of seeing -- acts as a screen or window onto the past. Instead, participants are asking: what medieval perspectives could we consider to be properly theoretical? How do we take seriously the imaginative intellectual work and the speculative methods and yes, the theories that come from the period?


I caught up with the series when Niklaus Largier came to Stanford on a chilly December evening to lead a workshop on "Authentic Experience" in medieval Christianity. He used terms that have a lot of theoretical currency right now, especially these two: affect and intensities. They show up in conversations about "the affective turn," one possible new direction in the space that has opened up well after the post-structuralist "linguistic turn."


Although the talk could have been a lesson on both the state of affect studies and medieval studies in parallel, Largier did something different. Focusing exclusively on pre-modern confessional practice, he excavated terms for affect from the twelfth-century devotional texts themselves. He brought Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141), a theologian who claimed in a treatise on prayer that "the number of affects is infinite,” into the good theoretical company of Brian Massumi and Rei Terada and maybe even Spinoza, without once having to use any of those more recent theorists’ names. And he didn’t make an argument for turning back to a new point of origin for affect studies now. He kept us focused on affects in another time.


By not explicitly positioning his readings as part of the affective turn, Largier helped me rethink the way we tell the history of theory through turns. The linguistic turn. The cognitive turn. The affective turn. And now, (this shouldn't come as a surprise to those of us in the workshop), the most recent issue of The Minnesota Review has assembled a compelling set of short articles in a Special Focus section on “The Medieval Turn in Theory.” Sometimes turn after turn gets dizzying. But turning also conveys that theory is always in motion, which is why we are still moving with it. Medieval texts too, in themselves and on their own terms, of course, are our partners in this dance. (More on dance in a second).


Marisa Galvez: In forming the workshop and proposing a topic such as “Theoretical Perspectives OF the Middle Ages” rather than ON, I hoped to gather medievalists from different disciplines and area studies in order to grapple with speculations and abstract ideas emerging from medieval texts themselves. Perhaps such ideas have been hidden from view due to either trenchant medievalisms in their different guises: disciplinarities, methodologies, or even our modern preponderancy to sometimes impose post-structuralist theories that drown out nascent, inchoate medieval versions of those theories.


What I have found especially productive is how the discussion gravitates toward how we can discern medieval authors (or medieval texts) expressing a theoretical mode in an idiom in formation, in process.


There is a potential for medieval studies to invigorate contemporary theory. Medievalists have a natural tendency to consider texts from many disciplines (theology, history, literature) as well as genres, and registers. And we find ourselves in such an exciting time for both medieval and contemporary theory (rather than in a dark ages). This moment includes, to give only the short list: digital humanities, new ways of thinking about subject-object/ecology orientations, new literary histories (Mediterranean Studies, the shifting north-south/east-west axis of francophone literature, see the Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France, and David Wallace’s “multi-centered” Literary History project) and a proliferation of scholarship revealing latent medievalisms (e.g. Zrinka Stahuljak’s recent book on medicine). The workshop conversations have also revealed in a useful way how much we medievalists still rely on the deep fundamental legwork of philology, deciphering sources, and history in order to make theoretical leaps.


Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418

We all want to come away from strictly historicist interpretations, and embrace the multiplying interpretive tools at our disposal (think cognitive science, disability studies, etc.) and the rise of digital humanities. But, we still often rely on historical or descriptive accounts rather than boldly theoretical positions.


So, how do we illuminate theoretical perspectives of the Middle Ages in a manner that is historically and materially informed, and does justice to the context and our sources?


As a collaboration between the medieval texts and modern theoretical insights, Shahzad Bashir’s first presentation on comparing Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffgeschichte with Islamic historiography was a great example of thinking about these issues, and started off a great discussion about East/West periodicity. In revisiting conventional paradigms through such comparative discussions we hope to maintain the integrity of our materials and objects of study (much of the workshop involved looking at timelines of events and historical documents that comprise Islamic “history”) in the midst of DH and institutional and media-driven politics around the legitimacy of the humanities. Such inclusive discussions can invigorate medieval studies.


Seeta Chaganti’s concern was to make methodological and theoretical interventions into how we approach documents concerning dance, from literary accounts to dance manuals. Looking at her dance manual we realized how much we are of course trained to read representations for words in manuscripts in certain ways, but what about representations for dance movements, words, and music? There she talked about the need to develop a theoretical approach that won’t just be subsumed by a historicist or narrowly formalist description if she wants to try to argue for a different kind of poetics.


We need to practice—I like to think of the workshop as a practice in doing medieval studies—balancing the theoretical with the concrete and specificity that is at the core of what we do. So in this age of trying to emphasize the humanities in new ways in the context of MOOCs and shrinking departments, we need to ask the fundamental, bold questions, but we also need to cultivate those questions among medievalists in other area studies, disciplines, and language traditions in order to make medieval studies a vital field for the greater public.


This practice is expansive, inclusive, challenging, and makes people get out of their disciplinary comfort zones. You talk to scholars from outside your language tradition. You talk about more than the same five theorists from the last twenty years . You make interdisciplinarity more than a buzz word.


Michael Ursell: What does it mean to really take seriously that influential theoretical statement of our moment: “we have never been modern?”


Well, I think we got some answers when Seeta Chaganti’s presentation, centered on a medieval manuscript treatise on basse danse, considered the limits of historical reconstruction. As she said, just figuring out how to re-perform or re-embody a medieval dance in the now feels unsatisfying, because in some ways the historical dance is fundamentally invisible.


No matter how hard we look at a medieval dance manuscript, we still can’t see the medieval dance itself. And of course, the centuries-old manuscript itself will offer its own opaqueness. But the artifact is still there, still inviting interpretation. How do scholars adjust their disciplinary postures toward this little archive of a medieval dance? Well, like dancers, they practice. And I’m with you, Marisa, on the idea of a workshop as a practice, as putting something into practice, as practicing our craft. Practice, practice, practice. Seeta got the audience practicing together, trying out new approaches (new media studies) and rehearsing tried-and-true methods (paleography).


Medieval perspectives can help scholars re-discover a sense of inchoate theory. Inchoate is your term, Marisa, and I like it. Because it has the sense that we are at the beginning of something and there will be necessary imperfections. Rather than dwelling the origins of our theoretical practices, or on what is over, what comes “after theory,” I’m seeing how theories can begin again. That the work of theory, like the work of the Middle Ages, can remain unfinished.


This series of workshops also reminds scholars not to cut themselves away from theoretical or historical periods too quickly. Don’t be so sure that we can just get over or be safely “after” either theory or the medieval.


Marisa Galvez: Yes, Michael, the limits of historical reconstruction has been an interesting topic that has emerged in the recent workshops, particularly in Susan Boynton’s  discussion of the Mozarabic rite. I was intrigued by how much the “restoration” of the Mozarabic rite in Toledo was an early modern invention. Boynton analyzes a process of combining old and new, a hybrid liturgical tradition that spans the thirteenth to early sixteenth centuries.


Together we compared different editions of the rite to see how much there were humanistic “corrections” of medieval manuscripts, but moreover how the medieval tradition did not exist (practically invisible, the word you used before for Seeta’s dance issues), or was undecipherable so that from a practical view the tradition had to be invented. The totemic power of a medieval rite that is lost or indecipherable animates the invention or “restoration” of a national identity. What I took from this session is how much this kind of medievalism cuts across disciplines (music, literary studies).


And getting back to inchoate theory, or tracking the theory in progress as we dismantle an originary one, Beate Fricke’s presentation on blood and animation in medieval art tries to revise the teleology of late medieval painting to Renaissance naturalism by focusing on the representation of blood. By looking at contemporary medical and alchemical writings (e.g. Giles of Rome), theories of animation and mimesis associated with blood, she proposes a “liquid history” that “traces the representation of blood backward through time”—investigating the subtle changes in the representation of blood perhaps influenced by contemporary debates about animation, nature, and life.



Pacino di Bonaguida's Chiarito Tabernacle (CC image courtesy of Anna L Conti on flickr)


I like this concept of an animated ebb and flow of ideas and art that changes direction (Beate described moving constellations of ideas in local environments of painting traditions) through an investigation of a material substance and its representation—blood—once we start putting different discourses together (in this case, visual art, medical, scientific).


I’m realizing that we constantly return to the “practice” of “theory”—these two terms being opposed to each other strictly speaking—from two vantage points: how medieval texts propose theoretical perspectives even if ‘in formation,’ experimental, or latent, and then how postmedieval readers make sense of these perspectives through our own paradigms. The workshop has been useful for making us conscious of our own modes of generalizing for the sake of speculative and imaginative criticism. As we turn (!) now to graduate student presentations, I look forward to discussing how these kinds of issues arise in the process of dissertation writing.


Editor’s note: Watch for part two of this conversation, which will focus on workshops led by Elaine Treharne and Michael Widner, who dealt specifically with the role of Digital Humanities in medieval studies.