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The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
Bruce Holsinger
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
272 pp., $34.00

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Lacan's Medievalism
Lacan's Medievalism
Erin Felicia Labbie
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006
264 pp., $26.00

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Peter Leithart


Positively Medieval

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Erin Felicia Labbie apparently learned to write from Lacan, whose Delphic style was legendary. In Lacan's Medievalism she locates the magus' work in the context of the "quarrel of the universals" initiated by Boethius. Surprisingly, Labbie's Lacan comes out a realist. Lacan's obsession with mathematical formulae and his strange fascination with knots reflect the influence of medieval numerology and the pentangle on the knight's shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lacan is an inverted Thomist. His theory of desire rests on an absent cause—that inaccessible Lady of all desire—just as Thomas' theology rests on an absent-present God. The only small tweak is that Lacan puts the unconscious in the place where Thomas puts God.

When Pierre Bourdieu translated Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism into French in 1967, he included a lengthy "Postface," which Holsinger translates in an appendix. There Bourdieu stresses the importance of Panofsky's concept of habitus for cultural analysis. Instead of merely noting surface similarities between Gothic architecture and scholastic theology, Panofsky penetrated to the habitus of high medieval culture, the "meaning-generating core of cultural production" expressed in both cultural forms. For medieval theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries, habitus was a disposition toward particular moral or religious ends. Justification, medieval theologians said, took place through the gracious infusion of a habitus, an inclination toward good works. Translating habitus into sociology, Bourdieu discovers a way to express the link between individual creativity and cultural context. Our actions are unconsciously guided by our inherited cultural habitus, but we put these schemes into action in uniquely creative ways. Habitus avoids both a naïve individualism that ignores cultural conditioning and a stifling structuralism that reduces the individual to nothing but the "bearer—Trager—of the structure."

Derrida's medievalism is more covert. In Of Grammatology, Derrida's main target is Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Language, which traces the decline of language from natural melodious song to artificial harmonious speech. Derrida discerns a tension in Rousseau's argument. Rousseau wants to tell a story of a fall from a linguistic Eden, but in the story he actually tells, the sources of decline are there from the beginning. In thus "deconstructing" Rousseau, Derrida challenges the claim that the Middle Ages was an age of linguistic decadence. Rather, Derrida suggests, the medieval liturgy approached Rousseau's ideal language, the "inarticulate" breath of speech, speech that acknowledges it can never fully express what it experiences. More broadly, for Holsinger Of Grammatology is a critique of the ideological assumptions underlying Rousseau's implicit periodization of history, which casts the Middle Ages as the murky dusk before the dawn of Reason.

Roland Barthes spent his career fuzzying up the boundaries separating text and commentary, writer and reader, poet and critic. Barthes also believed that texts are multiple, not single. Faddish as they are, these habits of reading have precendents in medieval biblical interpretation. In a little-known essay on Ignatius Loyola, Barthes draws directly on the medieval notion of a "fourfold sense" of Scripture and reads Loyola's Spiritual Exercises as four texts in one. Alongside the literal text are semantic, allegorical, and anagogical texts. Barthes' manically close reading of Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine, published as S/Z, employs five literary "codes" that, Holsinger claims, are transformations of the same medieval fourfold method. Though rarely mentioned in discussions of Barthes, the French Catholic Henri de Lubac looms large in the background. De Lubac begins his history of medieval exegesis by citing Nicolas of Lyra's prologue to the Glossa ordinaria, and says his own treatise is "merely a commentary" on Nicholas. In other words, de Lubac writes a "commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a commentary." This appealed to Barthes, who once said in an interview that he could imagine "writing infinitely on past texts." Both Barthes and de Lubac, in Holsinger's words, regard "the multiplicity of the text as the boundless object of hermeneutical delectation."

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