File this under: rumors of demise. No sooner did I announce that I was retiring this blog, then I decided to write a new post. Maybe I just needed to close out one chapter before starting another. No idea how frequently I will post, but apparently things ain't over yet!
Because the present is never just “the present” but rendered unstable by the flux and turbulence of its coming-into-being it continually compels us to find referents for it that either mark it as arriving from the future or the past. Journalists and commentators succumb to a kind of shorthand as a result when reporting on disasters, in particular, relying on the same set of terms to mitigate this temporal anxiety. Two examples of the moment: the word “surreal” used to describe the devastation of the Southeast tornados, or “medieval” as it’s applied to the siege of Misurata in Libya. Yet tornadoes have been a fact of life for recorded history, and sieges are hardly events safely relegated to and contained by the Middle Ages.
In the former case, the shock of the real can only be described in terms of dream logic. The sublime appears as a force unleashed from the unconscious, or visited upon us as a kind of perverse special effect, an overpowering trauma that reduces language to a gestural scrawl taken from disaster movies. In the latter case, the medieval functions as modernity’s Other.* When invoked, it acts to preserve our sense of ourselves as civilized, as having got past our barbaric origins. The medieval in this context signifies an aberration, an eruption of primitive energies which culture has successfully transcended or repressed. There is often an element of coded racism at work in the terms’ use. Thus, attacks by Libyan loyalists are medieval, unlike, say, the use of depleted uranium shells or Predator drone strikes by US forces in the Middle East.
The shock of events is often so severe that the response to them seeks refuge in the bunker of clichés. The sense of massive displacement is so overwhelming that the present can only be described as something else. In this way its fragile claim to continuity is preserved. It either belongs to the barbaric past or to the distortions of the unconscious and the stock of figures populating the cinematic imaginary. The tropes of the surreal and the medieval safeguard it, immunizing it from its own messiness and the fear that it might collapse.
* Carolyn Dinshaw is maybe the first to note the slipperiness of this well-traveled term in her 1999 “Getting Medieval,” while Bruce Holsinger, in his brilliant examination of the perverse legal tactics used by the US after 9/11, aligns the emergence of “Neo-Medievalism” as a powerful ideological structure with the rhetoric and policies of the neocons and their assault on non-state actors.