I open with an iteration on desire and the past:
We are never past desire. We are never past desire’s past. We are never past the past’s desire.
It is inspired by Meghan’s post last month on Nicholas Birns’s use of the concept of the plupast—past conceptions of the past—as a way to think about the links between Shakespeare and Chaucer. Birns explicates the plupast in part as an awareness of temporal multiplicity: “Examining the plupast of a text that to its current readers is already in the distant past solicits a transtemporal intricacy, a complex, striated tension that requires we become aware of multiple temporalities at once, that we abide on more than one historical plane” (365).
I keep misreading “intricacy” as “intimacy,” but I think “transtemporal intimacy” works, too. It opens up a new dimension on the multiple “historical planes” to which Birns refers. The condition of polychronicity (to borrow the term Birns borrows from Jonathan Gil Harris), is inseparable from the vagaries of desire. And this is true, whether or not multiple times are brought into conscious awareness. I think Meghan’s post suggests that Shakespeare privileges certain kinds of desire over others in what he re-articulates from Chaucer: geopolitical desire over domestic. What if we also then conceived the plupast as how the past desires its own past(s)? What are the implications of threading desire together with “awareness of multiple temporalities”? What follows are several strands that I hope will evoke the knottiness of temporality, periodization, disciplinarity, and desire.
Meghan closes by asking a series of questions that foreground “the growing conversation about links between Chaucer and Shakespeare” (Birns 364). Those questions about reading across periods and against the period divide are precisely at the heart of criticism directed at Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and at MLA for awarding the book its major prize. Twitter and Facebook erupted with incredulity and scorn about the award essentially on the same day Meghan posted. Discussion of the award and connected issues of periodization continued apace in posts by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen at In the Middle; Elaine Treharne, Rick Godden here and here, and also Steve Mentz.
Then a funny thing happened. This discussion seemed to just stop. Within a week the shouts of dissent to what seemed to many an ill-considered institutional recognition fell silent. What took their place, ironically in the way that only real life can be, was the MLA’s meeting in Boston, where digital humanities and alternate academic careers emerged as central topics of discussion. Constructions of the past and contested articulations of futurity are inherent to discussions of DH and altac, with their fundamental questions about the current status of the discipline and its future.
Carolyn Dinshaw’s recent How Soon is Now? The book explores, as the subtitle states, “medieval texts, amateur readers, and the queerness of time.” Dinshaw offers her book “as a contribution to a broad and heterogeneous knowledge collective that values various ways of knowing that are derived not only from positions of detachment but also—remembering the etymology of amateur—from positions of affect and attachment, from desires to build another kind of world” (6 emphasis original). Remembering the amateur, moreover, is counterpoint to critiquing the expert: “Constitutively disenchanted, fully Enlightened, the modern expert that is my focus is a ‘scientific’ creature. Expertise—any and all modern-day expertise, I maintain, in literature and history as well as in, say groundwater hydrology—is regarded as such because of the mystique of scientific method: experts’ analyses are mystified as objective and disinterested; such analyses are believed to observe a clear and unbroachable separation between the researcher and the objects of study” (21).
For Dinshaw, desire is front and center—desire for contact, for purposefully rubbing up against the past instead of pretending that engaging the past requires holding it at arms’ length.
One form the articulation of desire takes is dissent. I was reminded of this with postmedieval’s latest forum on Dissent. In the ensuing discussion there, Julie Orlemanski, writes: “[W]hat are the environments in which progressive desires, leftist or radical subjectivities, are going to take shape? How will such dissenters come to be who they are, to want the social goods they want?” Julie’s comment makes it completely obvious that to dissent is to want something. I’d somehow forgotten this, though, even as I had been misreading Birns’ “intricacy” as “intimacy” and had just begun reading How Soon is Now? Yet the question “What do you want?” is also often thrown at dissenters in order to shut them down, get them to stop dissenting, as though the articulation of a specific desire evacuates the multiplicity of desire.
Thinking with Dinshaw here: is Greenblatt’s problem with history one of being too professional, too “modern”—i.e. scientific and detached? With an opening that meditates on his mother’s death, The Swerve’s problem doesn’t seem to be detachment. Perhaps the issue is that Greenblatt wants to identify his chosen period so closely with the modern, with his attachments to modern subjectivity (back in his Hamlet days) or materiality (now in his Lucretian phase) to such an extent that he misses out on important historical and argumentative qualifications to his work. Maybe the real problem with Greenblatt’s book is that it doesn’t own up to this desire? (But even this I’m not sure about; Greenblatt began a book, “I begin with a desire to speak with the dead.”) Too, the book’s historiographical mistakes can be understood to be “amateur” in the sense that they wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be made by a professional: someone up on current discussions in the discipline, privy to the discourses, movements, and patterns of scholarly discussion and publication. The book’s mistakes and missing qualifications take other professionals to point out.
I’ve perversely aligned Dinshaw and Greenblatt not because I actually think Greenblatt’s work exemplifies what Dinshaw is getting at. Instead, I find Dinshaw’s points about temporality, desire, and expertise uncomfortably compelling. Compelling because her dissent from longstanding modes of academic work “mystified as objective and disinterested” forcefully articulates how so many of us feel about our work. Our study of earlier periods matters personally and politically, and each of those are inseparable precisely because they are wrapped up in our desiring of and with the past.
Uncomfortable, however, because as a graduate student I am sensitive—meant not simply but in the full array of its meanings—to disciplinary constructions of expertise, to prompts about defining periods and projects, about what kinds of work one is allowed to do at what time in one’s career, and about the kinds of career paths open or closed to me at this moment in academic history. What does it mean, in light of Dinshaw’s book, for me to be response-able to the disciplinary strictures and structures that, in important ways, determine my future as a professional? Does the critique of the expert only really work coming from an expert? For the humanities in general, but especially for grad students, contingent faculty, and, increasingly, altac professionals, what one wants or not is crucially tied to the warp and woof of disciplinarity and periodization.