Bruce Holsinger and Gabrielle Spiegel
Disciplinary Dialogue:
Neomedievalism and the Church of Theory:
Academic Prose from the Cold War to the War on Terror
March 28, 2008


Bruce Holsinger and Gabrielle Spiegel

On March 28 the Center brought two renowned medievalists to UWM for the third in its series of disciplinary dialogues. Part of the current research theme Past Knowing, disciplinary dialogues aim to explore practices of knowledge gathering, organization, and dissemination that contemporary disciplines and institutions view as parts of their own past, and the narratives through which they construct their relationship to them. Bruce Holsinger (English and Music, University of Virginia) began the event with a lecture entitled “Neomedievalism and the Church of Theory: Academic Prose from the Cold War to the War on Terror.”

Based in part on his recent study The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory, Holsinger’s presentation explored the way medie-valists and notions about the Middle Ages have played a role in public debates and policy discussions after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in particular the treatment of “enemy combatants.” Holsinger pointed out that the roots of this “neomedievalism” stretch back to Cold War modernization theory, which considered the Middle Ages a crucible of modernity. One manifestation has been the justification of the overthrow of allegedly backward regimes standing in the way of progress as defined by the Western model. Sovereignty, according to this theory, is both limited and contingent.

After 9/11, according to Holsinger, this neomedievalism has permeated think tank literature and neoconservative thinking. As an example, Holsinger pointed to the so-called torture memos from the Bush administration, which have assigned enemies such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda to “medieval” status, and released the United States government from its obligations under international law in its dealings with them.

In her response, Gabrielle Spiegel (History, Johns Hopkins) praised Holsinger for his pioneering work in highlighting the affinities between pre- and post-modernity through his reading of French theorists such as Georges Bataille and Pierre Bourdieu—both medievalists by training. She warned, however, against making too much of the similarities, arguing that instead of theoretical genealogies, neomedievalism involves chiefly analogies. Holsinger’s paper, according to Spiegel, effectively shows how analogizing can get out of control, more specifically how neoconservatives have misappropriated neomedievalism. Spiegel argued that by using the argument—obvious in the “torture memos”—that the Taliban and Al Qaeda can be exempted from treatment under international law, we ultimately take ourselves down to the same level we assign to them. She professed to be extremely skeptical of efforts by medievalists to underscore their “relevance” for current policy debates in the “war on terror,” in part because this kind of thinking is rather anti-critical. “ The place to make a real difference,” she concluded, “is in the voting booths and on the streets.”

In addition to their formal presentations, both Professor Holsinger and Professor Spiegel were gracious participants in the Center’s curricular project. Holsinger held an animated brown-bag lunch seminar with Modern Studies graduate students, while Spiegel, the current president of the American Historical Association, conducted a forum on professional issues with members of UWM’s Department of History, as well as meeting with History faculty over breakfast and with graduate students over lunch.


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Center for 21st Century Studies

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