For Public Seminar, I wrote about time, parenting in a pandemic, Augustine, and Piers Plowman. Thanks to Helaine Olen and Jim Miller for their helpful editing work.
William Langland’s Piers Plowman (composed 1370s-1380s) is a poem of social upheaval. It grapples with new social realities in the wake of the plague, which devastated England in 1348; its title character became a codename in an uprising of peasants, laborers, and artisans in 1381; fictionally, it depicts a society on the brink of implosion.
The 1381 connection has, rightly, attracted a lot of attention from Langland’s modern readers (Justice). During the uprising, rebels beheaded government officials, burned legal documents, and exchanged letters calling on Piers the Plowman to “go to his work.” To adapt a phrase that Ben Lerner uses to characterize the ideology of the avant-garde, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel” (39). There are not many poems that come with a death toll–and none that I can think of that are such good poetry.
Piers Plowman is a poem of social upheaval in another sense, and here I’m moving from critical commonplaces to a new argument that I make in a forthcoming article. Langland’s poem takes the form of a search for truth and justice in this world, including social justice, but a search that is known ahead of time to be an abject failure. Why? Here Langland would spread his hands theatrically wide. The wretchedness of the world was, for him, self-evident. A truth that Piers Plowman repeatedly discovers is this: perversely, describing a better world drives home how awful this one, the actual one, is. Langland expresses this truth by obsessively hitting the poetic reset button that was available to him in the dream vision form (first-person dreamer falls asleep in springtime, has a disorienting allegorical vision of dubious significance, etc.). Other medieval dream visions are one long dream; the dreamer of Piers Plowman is always falling back asleep.
In the article, I write:
Piers Plowman deepens or intensifies but does not progress. It is a tensile poem, responsive to the world, but it does not move, really. Running in parallel with the successive invocation and dismissal of [literary] genres, Piers Plowman proposes extrainstitutional principles for the refoundation of Christian society, all of which fail in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. This is Langland’s “negative utopianism,” as identified by Karma Lochrie . […] The whole poem expands and expounds the opening dream of a society gripped by debilitating hypocrisy.
(In making this argument I join one strand of modern commentary on Piers Plowman, which sees its structure as basically recursive, like a Möbius strip [Middleton]. There is another strand that views its structure as basically progressive, like a pilgrimage. This scholarly schism is fascinating in its own right and tells you a lot about the poem.)
My article defines Piers Plowman‘s recursive form and proposes a new analog for it, the tradition of political prophecy (think Merlin). But there is maybe more to say about the political implications of literary recursivity and failure. Lerner again: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Langland felt that. Piers Plowman is a massive failure, and knows it. It is a theological failure; it is a political failure; it is a social failure; and it is therefore a poetic failure. It has to be: it is a “particular poem,” not a sublime abstraction. Piers Plowman includes asides in which the narrator/poet Will is berated by a range of allegorical figures–Reason; Conscience; even imagination, who might be expected to be a fan–for wasting time writing all that dumb poetry.
Piers Plowman‘s circuit of frustration and failure conforms to some modern political and social problems. The sterile debate about whether everything or nothing in society nowadays is neoliberal, and, interlocking that debate, the sniping at and among the various strands of socialism share a structure that will be familiar to a reader of Langland. The problem of a term meant to encompass an entire mode of social organization, like feudal or neoliberal, might be that it is being pressed to do too much conceptual work; or it might be that it is too apt, that a mode of social organization is at that moment oppressively total (Song).* Correspondingly, the problem with political labels/ideologies like socialism–but equally small-l liberalism, and fascism–might be that their political content is inimical to a given person’s disposition, experience, and social placement; or it might be that the distance between the world as it is and the ideal state of affairs that those terms differently demand is insufferable. We are all familiar with how fruitless it is to argue against one of the isms armed only with an actual example. It is always possible, and in practice easy, to exclude the example from the ideal. Socialists, liberals, and fascists all do this: actually existing inequity can only ever be blamed on someone else’s abstraction. To an extent, this is understandable. One’s political ideals are ideals precisely insofar as they’ve never been put into practice. Nothing will wreck the beautiful poem in your head faster than trying to write it down.
This two-sided discursive problem–a political description that seems uselessly repetitious with the totality of lived experience, and one that seems uselessly abstract and unattainable–maps onto what I see as the major poles of Langland’s vacillating thought throughout the poem. It’s not as if there is for Langland a middle ground, where terms are just useful enough. It’s failure all the way down: either a failure to imagine anything different, or else a failure to imagine anything achievable. Piers Plowman expresses its optimism that things could change for the better in a fashion that would seem strangely pessimistic if it were not also the signature move of academic ideology critique: to demolish, one by one, ideas that won’t work.
But social upheaval does occur. We know this. Langland knew this, too. Piers Plowman alludes more than once to the time “before the plague,” a period represented in the poem as obviously better than the present but sealed off from it by the cataclysm of 1348. The political and social realities which vexed Langland in the 1370s, in turn, gave way to something else. And our unacceptable present reality, whether neoliberal is a perfect or an inane descriptor for it, will end, too. Song on 2010s neoliberalism could be Langland on a post-Edenic world and post-plague England: “a kind of postlapsarian moment that exists ever in the shadow of a time before” (283). Langland did not expect or want his poem to inspire a rebellion, but it did anyway. There seems to be an inevitable asymmetry, a slippage, between the experience of one political/social moment and the remediation of texts and ideas from that moment. Maybe we can just call this slippage (literary) history. It’s something that will continue to fascinate me; and it holds out hope for achieving some measure of justice in a world that is often intolerable. At the same time, it suggests that Langland was right to sense that a poem, no matter how brilliant, would not cut it. “A kind of value no particular poem can realize. . .” A devastating critique of the status quo does not normally change things. It can only be a starting point.
*Hugo Raine has a splendid essay for Verso’s blog on “Marxism and the Middle Ages,” in which he argues that a fundamental error of some Marxist medieval historians is to assume, with Marx, that the totalizing structure of modern capitalism implies prior totalizing modes of economic/social organization. (Hence feudalism.) What if there weren’t any? What if capitalism is in this respect unique? It’s a very smart thought, and I think that in general I agree with it. But Langland does seem to represent the economic/social system of fourteenth-century England as totalized, as implicated in every sector of human existence, even if feudal isn’t the right word for it.
Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016.
Lochrie, Karma. Nowhere in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
Middleton, Anne. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Mortwon W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 91-122.
Song, Min Hyoung. “An Ethics of Generosity.” In Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 281-98.
Weiskott, Eric. “Political Prophecy and the Form of Piers Plowman.” Viator (forthcoming).
In my forthcoming book Meter and Modernity in English Verse, I begin by defending metrics, the study of poetic meter, a.k.a. prosody. As you probably know if you read this blog, meter is my thing. Metrics needs defending not just because it is a contentious and technical subject, but because it has come in for wounding criticism lately.
I’ll ventriloquize the case against metrics, to avoid naming names. (I do name names in the book.) Metrics, say its critics, is a faux science. It is fruitlessly technical. What do metrists have to show for all those graphs, statistics, symbols, and Greek terms? A relic of Victorian philology, metrics can’t create the knowledge about poetry that it claims to create. It is of historical interest, like alchemy, but it is not worth the paper it is printed on. A sure sign that metrics is a bunch of hot air is the fact that metrists can’t even agree on the basics, such as the nature of stress, the proper placement of accents in a line of poetry, and where poetic forms come from. Each generation’s terminology becomes unintelligible to the next.
This critique sometimes extends to a second target. Meter, the object that metrics purports to disclose, can’t matter in literary studies nowadays. It is a fantasy. The historical stability and formal knowability of meter, implied by techniques of metrical analysis, are illusory. Worse, meter is an illusion that distracts us from what really matters: the political and social meaning of poetry.
I had to respond to these criticisms, because the goal of my book was to build metrical history into a new account of English literary history. If meter had no value, my book had no value!
My basic response is to point out a self-contradiction. The anti-metrists must posit a type of impossible, transcendental knowledge, in order to criticize metrics for not creating it. They choose to judge metrical scholarship against a standard that does not apply to other methodologies, as if metrics, to be legitimate, had to be an infallible truth discovery mechanism, instead of, say, an informed approximation of what poets do. In the book, I write:
To reject metrics as a fantasy of absolute, dehistoricized knowledge is to accede, per negativum, to that fantasy. Metrics is indeed historically contingent, inherently political, and prone to self-confirmation. In this, metrics resembles all other approaches to the study of literature. The choice between affirmation of metrics and acceptance of the limits of historical interpretation is a false one. Metrical form is indeed a literary correlate of politics and ideology. Precisely because it lives in history, however, it refracts as much as it reflects. Poets never make metrical choices in a vacuum. Metrical histories pressurize individual moments of creation and reception, just as political histories pressurize individual moments of action and affiliation. Ideally, metrics accomplishes the very dialectical movement between general and particular, form and history, literary practice and social stratification, that its critics accuse it of short-circuiting.
Criticism of metrics can be so pointed only because few scholars “do” metrics anymore. It’s easy to dismiss a type of knowledge you don’t seek. Plus, meter is still regularly taught to undergraduates, yet the metrical theory in use in the classroom is a century out of date. The lag between textbooks and scholarship leaves the subject all the more vulnerable to criticism.
Lest this sound like the usual complaint that everyone should devote themselves to my hobbyhorse topic, I’ll say (and I say in the book) that metrists are equally to blame. The critics have a point. Metrists bandy about terms that are opaque to other literary scholars; they sometimes appear to promise scientific knowledge about literature; and they often do not explore meter’s intersections with political and social history. In rehabilitating metrics for literary history, my book strives to do better in each respect. The result is, I hope, a metrically inflected literary history that both metrists and anti-metrists can understand, and accept.
to understand why political discourse today is so furious, look to medieval England
Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. With this vote, the political situation would appear to inch closer to the result that liberals have been expectantly predicting since 2016.
There’s more than a little anxiety about defeat baked into liberals’ expectations of victory. From the prospect of Brexit to climate catastrophe, from Elizabeth Warren’s “I Have A Plan For That” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” predictions about the future are the bread and butter of political discourse. They are more than campaign promises, wishful thinking, or a scientific consensus, though they are these things, too. Like predictions of the apocalypse in various religious traditions, political predictions instill the sense of a common cause, galvanizing believers to agitate for the future they demand. Thinking of politics today as a form of prophecy clarifies why political dialogue can be so furious—and so impervious to fact-checking. It also means politics today is not as different as we might wish from politics in the European Middle Ages, when a more overt type of prophecy energized political action.
In pre-Enlightenment Britain, this political prophecy was associated with a particular strand of history writing, the one whose cast of characters included King Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was, among other things, a prophet. People took very seriously the obscure “prophecies of Merlin,” which represented political and ethnic conflict between the English and the Welsh in terms of dragons, lightning bolts, and rivers of blood. From the Wars of the Roses to the English Revolution, people experienced contemporary political developments through the prism of a vast and complicated future imaginary. You can read the binding real-world force of prophecy in any number of historical episodes: Richard II fleeing to Ireland in 1399, because he feared that certain lines in a popular prophecy referred to himself; the prophecy book that nearly convinced Anne Boleyn not to marry Henry VIII; the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton, hanged in 1534 for spreading “false” prophecy.
Political prophecy is supposed to be something that we cast off, like a sheath of skin, on the way to becoming modern. The German social historian Reinhart Koselleck, who has perhaps the best claim to being the theorist of prophecy, associated apocalyptic prophecy with the Middle Ages and a special kind of self-fulfilling secular prophecy with modernity. According to Koselleck, thinking primarily of northern Europe, only during and after the Enlightenment did it become possible to imagine a future and then work to make that future real. Koselleck’s ideas are powerful, but they are incomplete. The cultural dynamic he described as quintessentially modern was already in place in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI, when supporters of Henry’s rival, the once and future Edward IV, commissioned manuscripts of prophecy in order to stoke partisan rage and redirect English political history.
Prophecy is still with us, but we no longer call it by that name. Following the religious and political persecutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe—a new phase of cultural absolutism that we are still working through—prophecy came to be concealed inside the seemingly rational machinery of political platforms, advertisements, speeches, and negotiations. Prophecy went underground.
The subterranean history of political prophecy extends right through the 20th century. In that century, communism, fascism, and liberalism laid claim to three mutually exclusive visions of a utopian future, and the world went to war over them. Or think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line about “the arc of the moral universe.” What is this if not political prophecy? King’s phrase orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized. His commitment to prophecy (biblical as well as political) lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.
The politics of climate change have a similar structure. I am not the first to notice the religious overtones of the debate, with charges of apocalypticism on one side met by charges of denialism on the other. A more apt comparison would be with medieval political prophecy. Human-caused global warming is scientifically indisputable at this point, but that fact can’t explain the intransigence of people and corporations with an interest in denying that there is a problem. What unites these groups is a belief in the future of capitalism, the infinite scalability of exploitation: a dangerous idea, challenged by the approach of an increasingly uninhabitable future.
Another example is the spectacular failure of pollsters’ predictions in the ramp-up to the 2016 US presidential election. For Trump’s opponents on the left as well as his backers on the right, in opposite ways, the inaccuracy of most pre-election polling lent his victory the stature of a singularity, an extension of American history into an unplanned-for future.
Trump seems particularly at ease in the prophetic mode. In his inaugural address, he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” During the campaign, Trump had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, the hollowing out of the blue-collar professions, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” His critics’ tendency to focus on Trump’s lies and opportunism is understandable, but it misrecognizes the source of his political appeal. In 2008, Barack Obama was the chosen prophet for a leftish alliance (an alliance later riven by the discrepancy between prophecy and reality). Trump has consistently nominated himself as a counter-prophetic voice for those backward-looking, mostly white American voters who could experience not only 2008 Obama’s predicted future but even the political present of the Obama years as an apocalypse scenario.
Looking back to the European Middle Ages is a sobering reminder of the political power that imagined futures hold over the present. When it comes to politics, the choice has never been between facts and imagination. (This is what the term post-truth, the word of the year for 2016, gets wrong about our political and cultural moment.) Every political proposition implies a new future. We are still learning this essential lesson of the 20th century, and every century before that: choose a future, or a future will choose you.
I’m teaching a graduate seminar called Periodization. We have been reading critical and theoretical texts addressing the content, history, and politics of the periods in which English literature is conventionally studied. These include medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, antebellum American, post-1945, and so on.
Midway through the semester, one of my students pointed out that an awful lot of our texts are from the late 2000s and early 2010s.
- Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity (2002);
- James Simpson’s Reform and Cultural Revolution (2002) and theoretical companion essay “Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies” (2007);
- a Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies special issue (2007);
- an English Institute meeting (2008), generating an essay collection edited by Virginia Jackson (2010);
- Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty (2008);
- Eric Hayot’s provocative essay “Against Periodization” (2011), later incorporated as chapters 10-11 of On Literary Worlds (2012);
- a PMLA cluster (2012);
- Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered (2013);
- Jacques Le Goff’s Must We Divide History into Periods? (in French, 2014; translated into English, 2015).
Ahead of the curve were David Aers’s “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists,” in Culture and History, 1350-1600 (1992); William A. Green’s very helpful overview essay, “Periodization in European and World History” (1992); the collection The Challenge of Periodization, edited by Lawrence Besserman (1996); and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000; reprinted 2007), which frames the problem of periodization within the paradox of the European specificity of the general concepts operant in historical scholarship. Green and Chakrabarty are historians like Le Goff, and historians have a longer history of discussing this topic. Green’s title echoes Dietrich Gerhard’s “Periodization in European History” (1956). Aers and Besserman, like Simpson, Davis, and Le Goff, represent medieval studies, which for obvious reasons has led the conversation on periodization.
This is also specifically a University of Pennsylvania phenomenon. David Wallace, Margreta de Grazia, and Ania Loomba, who teach in the English department there, were all involved in the JMEMS cluster. University of Pennsylvania Press published Davis’s book.
I was in graduate school in 2009-2014, so perhaps the chronological clumping in my syllabus is partly attributable to my formative reading during those years. But I think something more than that is going on. As a field, we appear to be exiting a phase of intense scrutiny of periodization. Not much literary scholarship worrying out loud about this topic had existed before 2000, and perhaps not much will appear after 2020. Somewhere in the late 2000s, periodization even became trendy, which is the only explanation for the English Institute’s decision to focus on it in 2008.
What’s surreal about this pattern of research production in literary studies is that “periodization” has come and gone without any appreciable effect on English department curricula or hiring practices–the intransigence of which has become a trope in our writing on periodization (as in this blog post itself). We have noticed the chronological boxes we’re working in, but we have largely stayed inside the boxes. There are two honorable exceptions: queer theory, and American studies insofar as it operates as an area studies.
What was “periodization” (2002-2015) about, if it wasn’t about revising our institutions or improving our scholarly practice? Underwood’s book can help. Writing at the tail end of the “periodization” phenomenon, Underwood argues that defenses of periodization aren’t really defenses of periodization. They are defenses of a social institution, of a particular attitude to the past that has been very prestigious in literary studies since (he claims) the 1840s, and for which the traditional periods have always felt like unusually suitable vehicles. This seems right to me. Evidently, in the 2000s and early 2010s literary scholars became a bit more comfortable publicly challenging these social institutions–but not comfortable enough to change them in any way!
Jameson writes, “We cannot not periodize” (29). But Davis writes, “In an important sense, we cannot periodize the past” (5).
I’m not sure where to go from here. I have always been interested in this topic, which strikes at the heart of historical study. There’s a contradiction inherent in our belatedness as readers, our desire for an encounter with a past that obviously did not understand itself to be past. My first book was on poetic meter and Old English/Middle English periodization. I’m writing a second book about meter and medieval/modern periodization. The political and institutional problems involved with traditional period categories haven’t gone anywhere, and so I’ll risk being the only person in the room still talking about periodization in the 2020s.