The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory
University of Chicago Press, 2005
272 pp., $34.00
Erin Felicia Labbie
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006
288 pp., $26.00
Last year I was leading a student through the dark wood of postmodern theory. A week or two into the term, he observed that postmodernism felt like a rarefied form of courtly love. Whatever they call it—the Transcendental Signified, the Other, God—theorists know the Good they long for remains forever out of reach. Derrida. Lyotard. Levinas. They're all panting for la belle dame sans merci who bats her green eyes and toys with them, scornfully hiding behind her veil. That's as good a description of postmodernism as any, and it turns out that the similarity is no accident. Theorists are the frustrated courtly lovers of philosophy because their theories are (sorry, theory is) cobbled from fragments of medieval poetry, literature, and theology.
Medieval influences on theory are widely ignored. They shouldn't be. In The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger, professor of English and music at the University of Virginia and author of Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, examines the influence of medieval studies on a circle of French avant garde intellectuals, several of whom founded the influential journal of theory, Tel Quel, in 1960. By "medieval studies" he means both historical investigations, particularly those of Marc Bloch and others of the Annales school, and theorists' own study of medieval texts. Far from looking to the Middle Ages with quaint Victorian nostalgia, theorists have plundered medieval texts for fundamental philosophical concepts and language, theories of textual meaning, models of inquiry. Theory is a critique of modernity from the perspective of modernity's Other, the benighted Age of Faith. Renaissance Humanists and Enlightened philosophes reached back to pagan antiquity for weapons to bash the medieval system. Postmodern theorists reach back to the Middle Ages for weapons to bash the Enlightenment. It's sweet revenge. That distant rumble you hear—that's Thomas Aquinas laughing from his tomb.
Holsinger examines five theorists: Georges Bataille, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, philosopher Jacques Derrida, and literary theorist Roland Barthes. A Catholic-turned-debauched-atheist, pornographer, and celebrant of limitless eroticism, Georges Bataille was the only trained medievalist in the group. Bataille begat Lacan, and Lacan's mesmerizing seminars, which began in 1951 at Paris' St. Anne Hospital and continued every week for several decades at various Parisian locations, passed on some of Bataille's medieval obsessions to a who's who of theory: Derrida, Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Claude Levi-Strauss (who was honest enough to confess his puzzlement about Lacan's theories).
Bataille's medievalism is evident in the title of one of his major works, La somme atheologique. Though often read as parody, La somme is a seriously theological work of anti-theology that deploys medieval mysticism and negative theology against Thomas' Summa theologiae. La Somme opens with an invocation of the 13th-century mystic Angela of Foligno, and it's organized on the model of Angela's Liber de vere fidelium experientia. Bataille disputes what he (mistakenly) sees as Thomas' pretentious effort to summarize Christian theology once and for all. Every Summa fails. No one can pin down reality with words like a display of butterflies. Bataille's treatise, furthermore, obliquely intervened in the battle for the body of Thomas then raging between paleo-Thomists (who regarded Thomism as the absolute and final system of Catholic theology) and neo-Thomists (who, inspired by Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, placed Thomas in historical context and frequently discovered a more modest and more existentialist Thomism). Neo-Thomist advocates of a return to the Fathers were no doubt surprised to find Bataille beside them in the trenches.
A lapsed Catholic like Bataille, Lacan was contemptuous of his pious, middle-class upbringing. Vain, ambitious, dandified, Lacan cultivated intellectual stardom while giving spare moments to coiffing his impressive hair and servicing his multiple mistresses. His debt to the Middle Ages is most overt in the Seventh Seminar, the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, which invokes St. Bernard and Abelard and examines poems by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel. Courtly love fascinated Lacan because it exposes the character of desire. Courtly lovers impute an impossible beauty to the Lady. The Lady is not merely unavailable, though she is that. She's literally non-existent, since no actual woman can live up to a dreamy troubadour's fantasy. Yet, every self-respecting courtly lover wants to annihilate himself before this desirable void, this nothingness that masters him. Courtly love gives poetic expression to Lacan's Zen-like axiom, "there is no sexual relationship." Lacan subordinates the history of knowledge to the history of desire, and so epistemology has the same structure as courtly love: the "Thing" fades forever from the knower yet seduces precisely by escaping his lustful gaze and grasp. Lacan also sees in courtly love a secular form of negative theology, in which the unnamable God is known only by what he is not, unveiled only in his veiling.