Response to Linda Charnes' Response

Jonathan Gil Harris

 

     1. Believe me, I share and applaud Linda Charnes's will to resist the institutional interpellations by means of which period boundaries, and hence historicist conceptions of synchronic and diachronic temporality, have been reproduced. Still, I can't help but feel that - optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect! -- these interpellations may prove to be a bit stronger than the walls of the Folger Shakespeare Library. I've no doubt that, as Charnes notes, many of the "established institutions" of early modern scholarship and knowledge production are now welcoming heterodox, theoretically informed work that challenges periodicity. But to what extent have such welcomes really transformed not just how we early modernists read, but also what we read? Doesn't the fact that self-styled "early modernists" professionally self-identify in the terms of their historical period of specialization suggest something about what we are inclined not to read -- i.e. writing from and about other supposed periods?

     2. Even those who want to question periodicity can fall prey, unwittingly or not, to period parochialism. I myself plead guilty. To question the way in which early modernists have tended to reproduce the reifications of historicist time, my own contribution to this forum enlists the critical authority of recent re-theorizations of temporality -- primarily those of queer theory, actor-network theory, and post-colonial ethnography -- but entirely neglects work done by scholars of other periods of literature and culture. In this, I'm probably like a good many early modernists who have read and enjoyed theoretical critiques of historicist time, but who have tended not to read what (say) medievalists have been writing about time. Surveying scholarship grounded in archival materials that supposedly belong to other epochs can often reinforce our sense of periodicity because of differences between not just "our" primary materials and "theirs," but also "our" critical idiolects and "theirs." But it's precisely such partitions between "ours" and "theirs" that nominally pre-modernist scholars have been questioning in a growing body of theoretically rich, edgy work on medieval temporality.

     3. Studies such as Carolyn L. Dinshaw's Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, Kathleen Biddick's The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History, and Jeffrey J. Cohen's Medieval Identity Machines all theorize temporality in ways that have a great deal to offer those of us working on problems of time and periodicity in early modern studies. Each exhibits what Dinshaw calls the "queer historical touch," risking anachronistic connections between and across a heterogeneous array of historical agents, cultural artifacts, and supposed periods -- Margery Kempe and Lynn Cheney (Dinshaw), King Alfred and Gilles Deleuze (Cohen), thirteenth-century bibles moralisés, German Enlightenment philosophers, and modern critical theory (Biddick). I should add that these are not "presentist" studies, at least not in the sense that presentism has acquired amongst early modernists. Too often presentism, it seems to me, has followed historicism in dividing and reifying two solid entities named "now" and "then," without theorizing the possibility of a non-binary temporality that is -- in the words of Biddick -- not one.

     4. To put more pressure on the institutional interpellations that Charnes and I are both trying to resist, then, perhaps we early modernists need to change not only how we theorize time, but also our practical habits as readers. And that may well necessitate more reading outside of the period archives we have been trained to read in, as well as new trans-temporal networks of affiliation and conversation -- if only we would take the time.

 

 

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Content copyright © 2007 Jonathan Gil Harris.