Lecture by Kathleen Davis: From Periodization to the Autoimmune Secular State
Public lecture, organised by ASCA and Premodern Healthscaping Research Project.
My main concern in this talk is the fundamental but often unrecognized work (political, legal, historical) that is accomplished by medieval/modern periodization. By medieval/modern periodization I mean the constitution of the period that we call “the Middle Ages” and its simultaneous distinction from the co-constituted “modern.” I will detail the scope and structure of this periodization and will argue, as I’ve done before, that the constitution of this Middle Ages operated as a space-clearing, exclusionary process that was fully enmeshed with the projects of colonialism. The interrelation of periodization and colonialism was crucial to the formation of academic disciplines and the categories they study, ultimately buttressing both the hegemony of the “modern” that has been so difficult to assail and the apparent undeniability of certain “early modern” events as foundational to politics as it is understood to operate today. It is very difficult to shake off a period concept such as “the Middle Ages” when the effects of its formation saturate every thread of one’s discipline. I will also argue that the colonial legacy of this periodization fully inhabits the categories of the secular and sovereignty, as well as the intersection of these two, and that it is therefore implicated in the autoimmune process of the secular state, which I will address at the end of this talk.
Kathleen Davis is Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She has worked in the fields of Old and Middle English literature, translation studies, and postcolonial criticism. Most recently, her engagement with colonial histories and postcolonial theory led her to examine the periodizing process that gave us the categories of the “medieval” and the “modern,” and to investigate the relation of that process to colonial rule. She is the author of Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time; and co-editor, with Nadia Altschul, of Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of “the Middle Ages” Outside Europe. Professor Davis has also worked on Old English literature and Old and Middle English translation, and is the author of Deconstruction and Translation.
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