What’s Medieval Got to Do With It?

President Bush’s response to September 11 — he has
called this “war on terrorism” a “crusade” — is terrifying
in its own right, framing the future as a reprise of the
medieval past: several centuries of battle between Christianity
and Islam. It’s “going to take a while,” Bush said. The White
House may have subsequently backed off that rhetoric, but
the metaphor (if it is one) draws on entrenched habits of
thought. It reminds me of the rhetoric of an earlier description
of Afghanistan as itself stuck in the Middle Ages: Diane Sawyer
did a “20/20” program in the fall of 1996 called “Behind the
Veil — A Report on the Woman [sic] of Afghanistan,” in which
the women were described as having been returned “to the
middle ages.” Sawyer in fact characterized her travel to
Afghanistan as time travel: their plane “is going to take us
about an hour and a half back into the mountains, and . . .
that’s several hundred years in time.” Lately, in the last three
weeks, if conditions in Afghanistan haven’t been described as
medieval, they’re labeled downright “primitive,” as is bin
Laden’s network.
As a medievalist by training, I know the subtlety and
compassion to be found in the works of Chaucer. So how is it
that “medieval” comes to play such a part in a warmongering
vocabulary? (I increasingly feel the need for a Concerned
Medievalists for Peace group.)
Granted, there was no shortage of violence in the
Western Middle Ages: the 100 Years’ War lasted for more than
100 years. But calling a culture “medieval” does something
more than simply associate it with historical violence. It’s one
way of rejecting and dissociating ourselves from practices that
we find abhorrent: The medieval is opposed to the modern.
But also — and somewhat paradoxically — the medieval is
what we once were and have moved beyond. Calling a culture
“medieval” asserts our Western time-line of progress,
understanding the whole world in terms of Western progress
and development.
And that’s what so challenging about September 11:
That Western chronology doesn’t work anymore. The standard
Western imperialist move, adapted from evolutionist anthropology,
is to understand difference as distance: geographical
difference is mapped as temporal distance. As Johannes Fabian
has seen, to make sense out of “the distribution of humanity in
space,” the world gets graphed on a time-line. This has
produced “modern” Americans and “medieval” Afghans: we
have progressed, they have not. According to this consoling
view, they are us at an earlier point of evolution. But the
massively effective incursion of Osama bin Laden’s “primitive”
network into American modernity and its effective use of
“medieval” Afghanistan as his host, should make us reconsider
our reliance on linear notions of a “historical progression of
mankind,” as Walter Benjamin put it.
The other day a friend mentioned that his sense of time
has been weirdly upset in the past three weeks. No doubt this
is part of the profound psychic disorientation resulting from
the trauma of September 11. It draws, in fact, on a basic
geopolitical reality: our clock is not the world’s. The way many
Americans have up until now felt time moving forward in the
world has been fundamentally altered. Thus calling Afghans
“medieval,” or bin Laden “primitive,” becomes a defensive
strategy: It chronologizes them as part of our evolutionary
world and asserts our superiority again. In this way it is like
calling the terrorists “cowards”: as Paul Chevigny of NYU’s Law
School has pointed out, that is a crucial propaganda step for
the US government. But it can’t hide the fact that time is
not—and never was — our own.

[See Kathleen Davis, “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, the
Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now,” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,
editor, The Postcolonial Middle Ages (New York: Saint Martin’s,
2000), 105-22, for fuller discussion of these issues.]

Carolyn Dinshaw is Professor of English at New York University
and Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.