Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Temporal identity

So I’m returning to this idea again, which I first floated back in September over here, of temporal identity. I’ve still not really seen it explored anywhere, but I do think it’s potentially a valuable methodological approach. 
The idea is to interrogate texts for a sense of identity defined with significant attention to one’s place in time.  This identity may be personal, or attached to membership of a small group (family, parish, social stratum), or on a larger scale approaching national or universal.  It may also involve the deliberate exclusion of other groups (we are more advanced / more traditional than they are), or an attempt to forge a more inclusive future.  It may be unconscious, assumed, or defensive of something that ought to be generally assumed; or it may be deliberately constructive of a particular historical moment.
For example, we know that (broadly speaking) some Renaissance texts could be found to define themselves deliberately against an immediate mediaeval past, particularly certain aspects of it that they found repellent or obstructive, and simultaneously assume to themselves similarities with a more distant classical past, in an attempt to construct (in collaboration with other people now) a more idealised future. 
Millenarians (which I know nothing about) could also be an interesting case in point, as investing (or professing to invest) an exceptional degree of identity in one clearly defined future point, beyond which there would be no future (or would there? how does divine/infernal eternity relate to this?).  But to what extent do they (individually - I doubt they were ever really a body as such) acknowledge a debt to the Biblical and classical traditions on which they were drawing, or relate the coming final moment to the sinful actions of the distant past, immediate past or present?  How did they understand the effects of one moment in time, or one age, on another, on themselves, on the world around them, on the moments to come?
Other potentially interesting fields of investigation:
- On a smaller scale, and prompted just now by thoughts of millenarians’ focus on a specific immediate future point: what about individual testimony within individual lives? such as a pregnant woman awaiting childbirth, if such a testimony exists? Could we extend this sort of investigation to such an intimate, complicated test subject?
- Genealogy. In every age that I’ve investigated there is a degree of interest in one’s ancestry to be traced, especially amongst the nobility for whom it can prove land claims and precedents.  We could therefore perhaps study it across several centuries to ask what it can reveal about changing temporal identities.  For example, who was interested in it at any given time? 1066 and the next generation or two doubtless provided a crisis in England for both the locals and the invaders in terms of tracing one’s bloodline and preserving a connection with the past – are there similar moments later on? What effect did it have? Was it exclusively or primarily a noble (or gentle) pastime until the late mediaeval/early modern times? and is pastime the correct word? How and when did it spread, and to whom? What was it used for? proof? of what? to what ends? And what could prove it? The Earl of Warren’s sword with which his great-grandfather helped William invade England? A diagram on paper shaped like a tree whose roots are literally in the bowels of William the Conqueror?
- What about ‘progress’? Whose idea is that? And I mean that in a continuous way – not ‘where did it originate’, which is not a helpful question, but ‘in any given generation, was the idea of progress present, and was it positive or negative according to any given member or group in a given population’.  Of what did it consist, where were the emphases laid, and did it give any sense of a continuum in which the past, via the present, informed the future? or was the past being discarded?
- Is there any particular polemic associated, at any given point, with temporal identity? Is it continuous enough to trace any sort of history of it? To what extent do people use temporal concepts as insults (and do they in that context have an implicit identity-forming function by contrast)? I imagine, for example, this might come up a lot in theological/academic argument – accusing someone of being outmoded, or of abandoning auctoritas, places a value judgement on intellectual temporalities (or rather, lends them a temporal angle).  Or to look at it another way, the age of an individual – Chaucer’s Januarie/May repeats a well-established pattern of despising the body of the aged in comparison with the fresh body of youth, but of course there is more to the discourse of age than that, and the compliment might often be reversed (wisdom of age vs folly of youth, etc).  And how does this alter when someone has died, is past?
- And of course, most interesting from my point of view – how does a person’s perception of their individual relation to history, of their age’s place within a broader (divine?) scheme, of their duty to a future time (and/or present patron) affect their perception of their immediate task when they sit down to write a chronicle, write history? And what else gets in the way?


Anonymous said...

Three thoughts occur: one is that I should go back to my copy of Kathleen Davis's Periodization and Sovereignty to see what she cites for identities expressed by time, because I feel sure there will be some. I can report.

Till then the names that spring to mind are Jacques le Goff, whose Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages may contain things of use; Chris Wickham's "Lawyers' Time: History and Memory in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Italy" in the Ralph Davis Festschrift and reprinted in Wickham's Land and Power; and Patrick Geary's Phantoms of Remembrance, especially for the transformation of the use of and record of genealogy between early and high Middle Ages. These are perhaps more about memory than identity but the two are obviously linked.

Thirdly, when you say:
I imagine, for example, this might come up a lot in theological/academic argument – accusing someone of being outmoded, or of abandoning auctoritas, places a value judgement on intellectual temporalities (or rather, lends them a temporal angle).

I think the latter is much more frequent than the former; an accusation of novelty is a theological slapdown and no mistake, and genuinely new thinkers like Eriugena have to work quite hard to hide it in places.

Don't know much use that is, but lack of sleep, coffee and an open question are an impossible combination for me to resist...

Ceirseach said...

Kathleen Davis I had not heard of! I shall look into her. I've been reading Jacques le Goff recently for other things, but yes; and I know there's been a lot of work on forms of memory, in which Geary's name (of course) figures large; but also Rosamond McKitterick and Walter Goffart.

And thank you for the other thoughts. I don't have much time to get into theory this week, but I'll be needing to sort out the existing literature for my thesis proposal soon enough, and this looks like a good string to add to the bow.

Open questions are fun, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Well, I recommend Kathleen Davis with mixed feelings; I reviewed the book for a journal dealing with the early Middle Ages (not yet out) and found it almost useless, especially given as its main argument (which is quite powerful, just not relevant to the EMA) was already out in an article of which the book is essentially an inflation (read: full of air). The article was: "Sovereign Subjects, Feudal Law, and the Writing of History" in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 36.2 (2006), pp. 223-261, online here if you have access, DOI:10.1215/10829636-2005-001. the book may however have more bibliography dealing with your actual concerns here, whereas the article is more the half of her argument that doesn't.

More widely, now that I have slightly more sleep to balance the coffee, it seems to me that you will meet work out there dealing in questions of continuity versus connection, whether through genealogy or ideological stances like, "we, unlike our rough uncultured/pagan forebears...", but your frame places that as one of many options in a much wider scheme. There are other wide schemes of which such ideas, and here's Davis's home territory, have formed part, and I suppose I'm mainly thinking of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval here. But you're asking about contemporary perspectives, rather than historiographical ones, where I think much more could be done with these ideas (not that I know the field that well: In the medieval Middle would be your go-to Internet denizens for this sort of work I think!). All the same a them vs. us comparison is going to keep calling to you, I expect.

A closed question is such a rarity in our field that I think we have to learn to love the open ones; people who wanted their questions closable presumably went elsewhere long ago...

Anonymous said...

And now, indeed, see, if you choose, Brandon Hawk's review of Davis's book here.

Kath said...

Re. 'progress', I think one is more likely to find 'degeneration' in the sources as a concept, and even though it may be expressed in temporal terms, I would say it is to be read as referencing an 'atemporal' ideal age. Such as in the sense of people writing 'if only we/you/they hadn't sunk so low compared with x former standard (insert mythical golden age), we/you/they wouldn't now be suffering y, and z god-given retributions.' And I wholeheartedly support Jon's point about novelty, which is kind of related: 'good' was always 'back then' (except perhaps when it was in the Paradise to come).

Re. Millenarians: you might like to read the cautionary words of Dominique Barthélemy in his recently translated 'The serf, the knight and the historian', in which he argues that they are essentially a historiographical construct drawn from monastic texts using 'the end of the world' not as a proximate threat (which, if it were true, could undermine every social control mechanism including the ecclesiastical), but in a general 'you guys should do what God says' way.

So, all in all, while I personally find the question of how medieval people thought of time, and their place in it, quite fascinating, I think you have to be careful about applying what we would consider 'temporal' interpretive filters before assessing context. Ain't it always the way?!

Anonymous said...

Drat it, I keep forgetting about that Barthélemy translation. It's really quite important that I stop doing that and, y'know, read it. Thanks for the reminder.

Kath said...

Yes, you should! I'm reviewing it at the moment. It's really very good. And despite being ostensibly focused on the feudal transformation issue, it enters into the philosophical debate on many, many fronts. Such as whether reliance on *words* (individual and specific, rather than general) to deduce social structures is an adequate historical method. (*miles* being a case in point: did 'knights' only exist once this word is used for them? or was there really a lot more continuity out there than the vocabulary has led some to believe?!)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I've met this argument from both Barthélemy and Susan Reynolds; though they come at it a different way, they both think that the words people use are to be considered separately from the things that the words describe. The counter is that if words change there must be a reason why people develop a preferred usage; but there's obviously scope for a lot of variation.

Er, sorry Ceirsach, we seem to have stolen your column.