Signaling to Each Other from Inscrutable Depths: A Response to Gabrielle Spiegel’s “‘Getting Medieval’: History and the Torture Memos”

gulag2[cross-posted to In The Middle]

I don’t understand why scholars — even my favorite ones — totalize fields when they talk about them, and usually do so without citing any work at all. (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, from here)

What does the regulating principle of medieval/modern periodization hold in place, and what does it help to obscure? (Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time)

Recently, someone passed on to me the text of Gabrielle Spiegel’s presidential column from the September 2008 issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, “‘Getting Medieval’: History and the Torture Memos.” I had heard this short essay [really, a kind of op-ed piece] described elsewhere as Spiegel “speaking vehemently against modernist uses and usurpations of the Middle Ages,” which is definitely an overstatement — the essay is in no way “vehement” but it does characterize medievalists who believe that they possess historical knowledge that could be of use to the present [e.g., to the analysis of the Bush White House torture memos or to the critique of “neomedievalism,” a term first developed by British international studies scholars in the 1980s to describe a supposed “return” to non-centralized feudalism and tribalism in certain “rogue” states] to be guilty of engaging in possibly false or facile analogies. Further, in Spiegel’s mind, analogy itself,

with its tendency to transfer insights from one domain to another without demonstrating the validity of the transference, is not a useful historiographical method. Precisely because analogy promises so much more than it delivers, both conceptually and theoretically, it is more often than not a weak instrument of historical thinking, generating similarities where comparisons and contrasts are more apt and, in its tendency to slip into genealogy, arguing on behalf of false continuities and/or legacies. Linguistically and rhetorically, analogy is akin to metaphor in that, like metaphor, it promotes a whole/whole substitution that decontextualizes both parts of the equation and leaves little room for the kind of interpretive operations that properly govern historical investigation.

Spiegel’s remarks in her presidential column last October were partly a response to a debate in which she participated with Bruce Holsinger at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for 21st-Century Studies in March of 2008, where Spiegel served as the respondent to Holsinger’s talk,
“Neomedievalism and the Church of Theory: Academic Prose from the Cold War to the War on Terror.” Holsinger’s talk was related to his recent chaplet-book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War of Terror [Chicago, 2007], and acccording to Spiegel, in her AHA column, Holsinger’s talk at Milwaukee, and also his book, highlight

the use of medieval analogies in contemporary discourse, not least by a handful of neoconservatives, who have drawn upon an odd field of policy studies called “neomedievalism,” first developed by British realist international relations scholars in the 1980s, and adapted by neocons after 9/11 for their own purposes. It was this latter incarnation of “neomedievalism” that proffered a cache of analogies about the “medieval” nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgments expressed by the authors of the torture memos as they set about demonizing the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and recommending the use of torture to a world that, in earlier “enlightened” days, had voluntarily abdicated its use. Although the actual number of analogies with the Middle Ages was limited, they were the sole historical comparisons to be deployed by the authors of the torture memos.

While in both her remarks at Milwaukee and in her column, Spiegel [somewhat] praises Holsinger for delineating the “medievalizing” and falsely analagous moves of neoconservatives in their war on terror [especially in relation to policies on torture initiated during the Bush administration], at the same time, she questions whether medievalists should have anything to do with such policy debates, or even with trying to impart “better” historical understanding to such contemporary political issues:

That both the torture memos and the “medievalizing” moves that helped to frame their thinking appeared to be a suitable subject for scholarly debate by practicing medievalists suggests that we are living at a moment when the temptations for such analogizing between the medieval and contemporary world seem to be spreading in current political language. Something about the post-9/11 world, both in public discourse and among medievalists themselves, is giving rise to ill-considered uses of the term “medieval,” a phenomenon that raises the larger historiographical issue of the place of analogy in the logic of historical thought and the risks that indulgence in such analogizing, whether by the torture memo-writers or by medievalists themselves, entail.

Later in the column, Spiegel asserts that, similar to the neoconservatives,

medievalists themselves are beginning to argue that, as medievalists, we possess crucial knowledge about the ineffectuality of torture currently practiced by our government, since study of the Inquisition demonstrates “conclusively” that torture produces false confessions and lies, and therefore is counter-productive and misleading in generating information. But does one need to study the Inquisition to know this? How about the Gulag, or Algeria, or any of the more proximate examples of the use of torture in the modern world? Analogies such as these may have heuristic value, but they tend to lose their analytic utility when they become reified and slip into a kind of genealogy. “Getting medieval” all too easily turns into “being medieval.” There is a kind of special pleading in these efforts that I find dangerous, since it diverts us from more useful forms of critique and engagement.

In her Milwaukee remarks, Spiegel intimated that some of those more useful forms of engagement with contemporary government policies included voting and protesting on the streets, because, in the final analysis, either medieval studies is not relevant to these policy issues [no matter how much we want to believe they are and, in any case, in order to demonstrate that relevance, we ourselves start analogizing in logically fallacious or overly facile ways], or our critiques would fall on deaf ears, anyway [i.e., those in power are not interested in historical understanding since they knowingly pervert history to certain ends they have determined ahead of time]. Spiegel ultimately asks that we abjure the use of analogy altogether for it is a “weak instrument of historical thinking.” As to what the “interpretive operations that properly govern historical investigation” are, more exactly, Spiegel does not elaborate [although her use of the adverb “properly” implies that some forms of historical interpretation can be placed, hierarchically-logically, above other forms].

Spiegel’s column in the AHA journal troubles me. It troubles me, first, because she herself seems to take a great leap of illogic when she asserts [and/or assumes] that all work by medievalists that addresses contemporary issues, such as the use of torture by the Bush administration, does so only through the mode of analogy [i.e., torture did not work during the Inquisition and therefore it will not work now is the specific example she provides, yet with no citation of any actual scholarship]. This is a facile and I think inaccurate representation, or description, of the scholarship by medievalists, with which I am familiar, on the U.S.’s war on terror and the use of torture in that war [by which I mean, recent articles by Steve Guthrie and Michael E. Moore, both published in the BABEL Working Group‘s essay volume Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, but also Holsinger’s book — and it is hard to tell if Spiegel exempts Holsinger’s book from her critique: she seems to both thank Holsinger for the exposures of illogical “medievalizing” his book provides while also asking, why did you even bother, don’t you have better things to do as a medievalist?].

Which also leads to my second problem with Spiegel’s column: she does not refer to any scholarship or authors directly when she claims that “medievalists themselves are beginning to argue that, as medievalists, we possess crucial knowledge about the ineffectuality of torture currently practiced by our government.” To whom, and to what work, more specifically, is she referring? This bothers me because, without referring us directly to the work that she claims mainly employs the “weak instrument” of historical analogy, we have no way to enter into a more engaged, critical conversation over the very problem she has claimed to detect in such scholarship. Spiegel refers, obliquely, to a medievalist (or medievalists) who has (or have) argued that the Inquisition is directly relevant to the present situation, and then claims that Algeria might be a more relevant historical analogy because it is more proximate to the modern world in which we live now. Again, she provides no specific citations of actual scholarship.

Many things bother me about this claim/argument. First, in the case of Steve Guthrie’s essay [and I have no idea, again, if Spiegel is even aware of it, so I just refer to it as an example of the type of presentist-minded scholarship she seems to argue we should abjure], “Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV,” Steve discusses Algeria [especially vis-a-vis Henri Alleg’s book The Question] as well as the Inquisition, as well as CIA interrogation manuals dating back to the Cold War, the short-lived British reality television “torture” show Guantanamo Guidebook, the Bush White House legal memorandums on torture, modern human rights discourses, and classical, medieval, and early modern laws regulating practices of torture. Nowhere in Steve’s essay is it his purpose to simply draw either positive or negative analogies between the Middle Ages and the present, nor does he argue that the contexts [legal, social, cultural, and otherwise] of any historical period are easily transferable to any other historical period — obviously, that would be facile. Clearly, when we discuss the Bush White House torture memos, we are within the realm of the law, as well as the realm where issues of the law and sovereignty intersect: these are realms in which history matters a great deal and is invoked and instrumentalized in a variety of ways [and with serious material consequences impinging on human lives]. Part of Steve’s purpose in his essay, which was altogether and painfully too short, in my mind, was to provide, not simple analogies, but rather, a longer historical perspective on juridical torture within the realm of state law, not in order to draw some sort of oversimplified genealogy of medieval-to-modern torture, but rather, in his own words, to argue that

[o]ur use of torture is indeed medieval, although in a more complex and troublesome way than popular understandings of the term comprehend. Physical brutality itself is not especially medieval — it seems to be an inclination of the species — and most of the techniques and machines used now are either ancient or modern in origin, but the political and emotional climate of the phenomenon, and the legal policies its rests on, have counterparts in late medieval and renaissance Europe. Our fascination with things superficially medieval can be read as the expression of awareness on some level of this deeper cultural contact.

Michael Moore’s chapter, in the same volume, “Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants,” focuses more narrowly on the symbolic figuration and legal definitions of the “outlaw,” or one who stands outside of the law, in classical and medieval literary and legal texts, and in the Bush White House legal memorandums on “enemy combatants.” Again, the point of Michael’s essay is not to draw simplified one-to-one analogies between these figurations and legal definitions; rather, it raises profound and troubling questions — questions that have long and not necessarily analagous histories — about whether or not the removal of certain persons from the realm of law and torture “undermines the human world,” whether or not justice transcends “positive law,” and whether or not “any terrain still lies open for humanism.” Both Steve’s and Michael’s essays address subjects that are immediately troubling in the present yet which have long, heterogeneous histories. The past, in this scenario, is not simply analagous to the present [in either positive or negative terms], nor, in Steve’s and Michael’s essays, are they offering or arguing on behalf of, in Spiegel’s terms, facile continuities and “legacies.” Rather, their presentist-minded “medieval studies” scholarship demonstrates that the past offers deep resources for thinking the present differently than it ever was or is, while also usefully demonstrating all of the ways in which history is often misused, misplaced, and mistaken, left behind and returned to [and never in the same ways].

This kind of work is especially critical, in my mind, when it attends to matters of the law, which itself relies on historical precedents for many of its arguments and judgments, and which can have such a profound effect on individual lives [whom the law can choose to exile, torture, murder, etc.]. This kind of work is also critical when we realize, as Kathleen Davis well illustrates in her book Periodization and Sovereignty, that time itself and its governance are political matters with seriously material [often violent] consequences, and if medievalists do not want to attend to the ways in which “medieval time” is parceled out and “divided” from other times in contemporary legal, governmental, ecclesiastical, cultural, and other discourses and mechanisms of state and other [global] powers, then who should attend to that? The question is a profoundly unsettling one if we are persuaded by Davis’s provocative argument in her book [and yes, I am persuaded], that “the history of periodization is juridical, and it advances through struggles over the definition and location of sovereignty” [p. 6].

To say, also, as Spiegel does, that Algeria is more relevant to Guantanamo Bay than the Inquisition because the two are more “proximate” to each other in time raises the further troubling question of what might be called a normative historical teleology that seems to be operative here, as well as of a certain type of Western historiographical method that, as Michel de Certeau has written, labors to inscribe a definitive “break” between “now” and “then.” As Certeau writes,

Modern Western history essentially begins with differentiation between the present and the past. In this way it is unlike tradition (religious tradition), though it never succeeds in being entirely dissociated from this archeology, maintaining with it a relation of indebtedness and rejection. . . . it ubiquitously takes for granted a rift between discourse and the body (the social body). . . . It assumes a gap to exist between silent opacity of the “reality” that it seeks to express and the place where it produces its own speech, protected by the distance established between itself and its object (Gegen-stand). [Certeau, The Writing of History, pp. 2-3]

Simply put, Western historiography, from the Enlightenment forward, has labored mightily to inscribe a “break” between the dead Others and ourselves that, in my mind, was shaky to begin with and simply won’t hold [or as Certeau might have said, its “irreducible limit” can never be determined]. Spiegel’s remark about Algeria’s proximity to our “present” situation seems to posit the notion that the further away something is in time, the less relevant it is to the present, by way of analogy or any other way. What does this mean, exactly? I’m always fascinated by how a geologist or biologist thinks about time versus the way a humanistic scholar does. For some of us, 500-700 or so years is so long, that we often assume people who lived in, say, 1300 bear practically no resemblance to us at all, and yet an evolutionary biologist will spend a good part of her career tracing meaningful relations between individuals of a species separated by hundreds of thousands of years. And cognitive scientists are beginning to prove, more and more convincingly, that certain structures of mind are much more transhistorical than we have wanted to believe [as well as they have also demonstrated there is no such thing as dispassionate, or disembodied, reasoning]. Certainly [and who would really argue this?] the past is, in many ways, a very different place than the one we inhabit now, and there have been certain mechanical and technological and other innovations that have so radically altered the way we live our lives, and at such fast rates of speed, that we might say that some of the fundamental conditions of life have changed to such an extent that if a medieval person were to show up among us now, she would think she was on another planet or in another universe, and the level of her discombobulation [perhaps, even, her psychosis] would be severe. On the other hand, the question of where, exactly, this medieval time-traveler shows up is also important to consider here: would she land in 2009 in Bangladesh, the upper East Side of Manhattan, Patagonia, Moscow, Hong Kong, eastern Kentucky, etc.? The question of location matters a great deal when we invoke “modernity,” which is never the same in any two places.

To continue to claim, however, as I will continue to do, and strenuously, that the past is relevant to the present, and that medievalists have something to say about contemporary life and thought that is meaningful and important, is not to argue that the past is like or unlike the present or even to craft little genealogies of the past leading to the present in certain [more false or more “true,” more straight or more queer, Foucauldian] ways and “lines” of descent; rather, it is to recognize that, in some sense, every present moment is inhabited by and also inhabits [consciously and unconsciously] multiple, heterogeneous temporalities — some at a distant remove and others more contiguous, and the task of the historian today might be to make those heterogeneous temporalities more visible and more traceable, in order to aid us in cultivating a deeper attention to, not the genealogies of history, but its entanglements. For time is all knotted up, and we, we are knotted up with time. This recalls me to something Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell wrote on the medieval studies weblog In The Middle when Jeffrey Cohen asked him last April to write a weblog post on David Wallace’s book Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Aphra Behn to Chaucer, and it is worth returning to, I think:

I was re-reading some of the writings of Albert Einstein, and one sentence in particular struck me again: “The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can’t ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn’t happen at once. But those connections don’t account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear. In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of Rome, Chaucer can speak to a Guyanese of Indian descent and lead him to study English at Cambridge while writing of the dissolution of the Caribbean’s ties with Europe.

Kofi is speaking of himself when he writes of the Guyanese of Indian descent to whom Chacuer speaks, and to say that 1341 can touch 1941 is not the same thing as saying either time can fully reveal itself, or be known, to the other. It may even be that, properly speaking, they do not “touch” at all, but rather, following the thinking of the philosopher Graham Harman on object relations,** they “signal to each other from inscrutable depths,” with the historian serving as the vicarious, third “object” and “causation” through which past and present come into sensual, if brief contact [“On Vicarious Causation,” Collapse, Vol. II (March 2007): p. 187]. The alterity of history, and of different times, events, persons, texts and other artifacts in history, will always obtain and thereby, will always remain as a proper object of medieval historiography [as well as a caution against the exhaustion of any historical method — by which I mean, we never exhaust history’s alterity by any one method, but rather, work to make its alterity more complex by a variety of methods and approaches, which is a good thing, in my mind]. At the same time, to say that only those events most proximate in chronological time have the most to say to us about our present situation [whatever that present situation might be], strikes me as an altogether too impoverished view of what history can do and say in the present, and also of where it is we think we are in time — on some island called modernity, floating in open space, completely untethered from “the medieval”?

The fact of the matter is, although many will not allow it, all scholarly studies are really excavations, in one form or another, of the site of the Now, which has folded within it, all of time. We can do this more, or less, mindfully, and yes, some things — things beyond just the “relevance” of medieval studies — really are at stake.

**My thanks to Michael O’Rourke, Nicola Masciandaro, and Myra Hird, who all, through different routes, led me to recent work in “speculative realism,” including Graham Harman’s writings on “vicarious causation.”

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