Abstracts for MLA 2018 Session 247: Medieval Futures (Friday, 1/5, 10:30-11:15)
3 December 2017 at 9:16 pm #1015753
Lisa H. CooperParticipant@lisahcooper
MLA 2018 Session 247: Medieval Futures
Friday, January 5, 10:15-11:30 am, Murray Hill West, Hilton
Arranged by the forum LLC Middle English
Presiding: Lisa H. Cooper, University of Wisconsin-Madison
1) Fata Morgana Machines, Carolyn Dinshaw, NYU
Among the many curious capabilities of Arthurian enchanter Morgan le Fay is the conjuring of magic castles in the air. The fata morgana, a complex atmospheric refraction (a mirage) that appears as multiple images stacked on each other, layered, flipped, inverted, and floating above the horizon – was named (according to a mid- seventeenth-century account) when residents near the Strait of Messina saw a spectacular mirage and thought it could only be the work of the medieval fairy: according to a later eighteenth-century etymology, the term refers to “the great exultation this appearance produces in all ranks of people, who on its first commencement run hastily to the sea, exclaiming, Morgana, Morgana!” Its aura of magic and the supernatural associate it with the “medieval.”
A fata morgana is a real geophysical phenomenon, though, that occurs when light rays pass through steep temperature gradients in the air and are refracted upward, creating complexly layered and stacked images. The fata morgana is never here and now but is always over there, beckoning. Approach it and it vanishes: it draws the viewer toward it but any attempt at contact will always be dashed. It holds out the promise of fulfillment but that future will never arrive. Unlike King Arthur, then, this mirage is not a “once and future” entity in a temporal cycle of imminent return and final fulfillment; it suggests something authored by Morgan, something that is at once both there and not there, a shimmering unreal reality.
Medieval writers referring to optics, as Dallas Denery argues, both university scholars and practicing preachers, were obsessed with visual error, with the difference between appearance and reality, with what he calls “vision’s infinite promise and infinite deferral” (179). But it is the medieval romance aura of magic and the supernatural that are picked up in the early modern naming of this complex atmospheric effect. And that association of magic and the supernatural are never abandoned, even as the effects of atmospheric refraction are fully rationally explained.
In a science fiction story by Salomo Friedlaender written around 1920, “Fata Morgana Machine” (“Fatamorganamaschine”), the paradoxical understanding of technology as both magic and science, medieval and modern, underwrites a vision of a dystopian future. Friedlaender envisons a world in which simulation is indistinguishable from reality; people can’t tell what is “real,” and this situation is exploited for power and profit. I want to explore this vision of medieval futurity; with all its preoccupation with representation, truth, and power, it is not only resonant with medieval narrative but is hauntingly relevant now.
2) Archiving the Medieval Future, Kara McShane, Ursinus College
In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida describes the archive’s political nature and examines its impact on the construction of knowledge and of reality. As he explains, the structure of the archive influences what can be preserved and how it is remembered. The archive is by its nature a curated version of the past presented as authentic and complete, preserved for an imagined future. Thus, changes to archival practice change how societies experience the world. As Derrida writes, “What is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way.”
In this talk, I apply this archival thinking to the presentation of monuments in Middle English poetry, focusing on key moments in Chaucer’s House of Fame and Gower’s Confessio Amantis. As a form of public history, a record of the past made tangible, monuments shape the future through curation of the present. Textual monuments are particularly rich in meaning, and I suggest that the preoccupation with writing as a medium, present in many Middle English texts, represents authorial attempts to nuance the limits and constraints of the traditional monument. I end by examining the memory of the Middle Ages in the present, particularly the multiplicity of “Middle Ages” in contemporary medievalism.
 Archive Fever, p. 18.
3) Futures of Days Past: The Temporal Imagination in Chaucer\’s Speculative Fictions, Timothy Miller, Sarah Lawrence College
Over the past century of contemporary science fiction\’s flourishing, Chaucer has maintained a considerable presence in 20th and 21st-century attempts to imagine the future. Nevertheless, science fiction scholars and medievalists alike have generally been reluctant to position Chaucer\’s works within long history of speculative fiction. The master narratives of a Renaissance or an Enlightenment shattering the darkness of a premodern past remain difficult to resist even for many scholars of literature and science: the alterity of medieval science is such that it can be summarily rejected as pre-experimental, pre-empirical, pre-rationalist, pre-scientific. As such, there remains a need to challenge this view of the Middle Ages as less worthy of study in the context of literature and science, and I argue above all that many of Chaucer\’s works exploit narrative as a special space where medieval (proto-)scientific discourses can be extended and occasionally critiqued. Indeed, we find this supposed champion of realism to be highly invested in the narrative exploration of the not-now-possible that has become the special province of later science fiction. Part of a much larger project, this roundtable contribution will argue that medieval narrative frequently — if counterintuitively — imagines the future by means of the past, and will focus primarily on two of Chaucer\’s shorter poems, the Boethian meditation known as The Former Age and the intricate astronomical tour de force that is The Complaint of Mars. The latter text artfully marries ancient narrative tools with astrological prediction, one of the most common and indeed highly practical ways in which medieval thinkers imagined their future(s). In similar but more urgent fashion, the former poem\’s appeals to a prelapsarian historical moment do not amount to some reactionary gesture of impossible desire, but rather strategically invoke the past in order to imagine possible futures, comparable to John Ball\’s famous invocations of a utopian future-past, \”When Adam delved…\”
3) Longing in the New Middle Ages, Arthur Russell, Case Western Reserve University
My contribution features two performances, each touching Doubting Thomas, each probing what I term a “poetics of longing”—an imperfect phrase accounting for the imperfect ways we represent, aestheticize, and operationalize the past in service of the future. The first performance draws from the fifteenth-century York Scriveners’s Doubting Thomas. We first encounter Thomas mourning the loss of his teacher, his friend. More than a cynic, here is a disciple in despair. While we best remember Thomas for his conditional “unless I touch,” in this moment we see the power of longing to call forth a lost corpus. Nostalgia and trauma, I suggest, are here offered as vehicles for recapturing the past and remediating the future. The second performance involves Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture, Doubting Thomas (2103). The sculpture comprises only those details necessary to the operations of touch: a pointed finger mounted to a mechanical arm and an exposed torso set atop an industrial-sized spring. A viewer may choose to activate the sculpture with a foot pedal. Once activated, the finger strikes the torso in a succession of clumsy, ultraviolent jabs until disengaged. Critical to the artwork’s operation is a viewer-turned-user’s willingness to do harm. To fully engage the sculpture’s storied past a user must sacrifice its future. My proposed contribution places these performances in conversation to query the past and future longings of medieval studies: how we long with the past impacts what we make of the future.
4) Future Swans Past: Occidentalism, Biodeterminism, and Swan-Knight Romance, Randy P. Schiff, University at Buffalo, SUNY
The future past is a powerful propagandic tool in medieval literature—and its legacy still haunts global politics. Discourses of future past can be elitist and biodeterministic, presenting allegedly exceptional noble lines as markers of a fixed future. Scholars know this politico-temporal strategy best in the mode of political prophecy, wherein thinly veiled prophecies of historical events within a factitiously ancient discourse imbue writers with predictive power. The most influential example thereof is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which channels the predictive power of pagan gods and wizards to lead to a final prophecy that a lapsed British line will return through a past King Arthur still charged with futural power. Family romances often exploit this propagandic power: one tradition shows how such personal exceptionalism readily translates into generalized, Western territorial claims. Analysts believe that Swan-Family and Swan-Knight stories were fused to glorify the background of medieval Worthy and First-Crusade conqueror Godefroy de Bouillon. Both in explicitly propagandic renderings (Old French Crusade Cycle) and in universalized versions (Cheuelere Assigne; Dolopathos), the noble exceptionalist narrative involves movement from a mother’s self-predicted and tragic pregnancy to a closing catalogue of hybrid descendants. That most of her descendants go on to conquer Middle Eastern lands suggests that family romances’ biodetermined framing of conquest serves a more general (and ongoing) Western exceptionalism that presents violent Eastern territorialism as governed by fate rather than by intention.
5) Making Medieval Scribes’ Modern Heirs Visible: Manuscript Digitization and the Erasure of Living Labor, Bridget Whearty, Binghamton University, SUNY
Digitization is the present and future of Medieval Studies. Yet the apparent ease of the digital is an illusion. Those field-changing images of medieval objects, which appear as if by magic on our screens, are created and maintained by an enormous amount of human labor.
This paper argues that the central question of medieval futures is not researchers’ relationship to the dead but our connections to the invisible living laborers upon whom those futures depend.
I begin by tracing some of the steps involved in digitizing a medieval book, emphasizing the resonances between medieval scriptoria and modern digitization studios. Next, I connect the invisibility of digitizers to the shifting place of the scribe in medieval criticism: from the hapless hack who “rapes” his master’s text, to the active co-creator who shapes old texts to new ends. Ultimately, I contend that manuscript digitization provides an important challenge to medievalists. By disregarding living laborers’ contributions, we both impoverish our current research and fail to preserve information for future researchers looking back on this digital-incunabula period. By contrast, if we use the lessons of medieval scribal cultures (particularly those outside western Europe) to change data standards for digitization, medievalists can correct profound wrongs of the past and present—and write scribes’ modern heirs back into the shifting histories of medieval books.
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