Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pastist and Presentist

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. Though I generally have little good to say about the book, Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”)and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

So, a plea -- has anyone out there run into terms that are roughly synomous with pastist and presentist but have a bit more elegance to them?

*That contemporary sage Ferris Bueller mocked the ugly and promiscuous slapping of suffixes on ideas during his notorious day off. As he teaches, "Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism." I would argue that the same goes for -ists. Also, let us not call this idea "Buellerism" except in the most ironic way.


  1. I find similar problems as well with my work (I also work on medievalism-- another -ism that Bueller would assuredly not condone). The difficulty is, when trying to describe a somewhat complicated concept in as pithy and simplistic a way as possible-- in order to not run headlong into the trap so many 'critical theorist' types fall into by inventing or appropriating a word whose meaning is not evident from its component parts-- I find myself inventing words that feel clunky, almost amusingly so. In my thesis I find myself using the word 'medievalishness' often-- even though it is as ugly as sin-- almost comedically so-- it describes a concept that isn't readily described any other way, that is the subjective quality or amount of how 'medieval' something is perceived to be.

    I have something of a love/hate relationship with those words.

  2. Which Middle Ages and which present? You have lived in Korea, and you know it's not like the United States, but it's not incomprehensible either. It might be more or less comprehensible than some other culture in the world. Similarly, you could pick out a medieval culture that you find really exotic and compare it to the present, or do the same thing with a medieval culture that you find kind of tame and boring in its familiarity. But your neighbor who unlike you has never lived on a farm in Iceland (to take a hypothetical example) might find everything about Iceland to be exotic, more so than South Korea, where at least they have traffic lights.

    That is the problem I find when we talk about these issues of presentism and pastism. these discussions turn the past and present both into cartoon versions of themselves.

  3. Anonymous8:13 PM

    My first thought was to agree with your asthetic judgement of the terms but, while rummaging around the wordhoard looking for substitutes, I realized I was insticntively looking for something from the romance family. I wonder if we both aren't suffering from an unconscious prejudice against simple english words as the roots for such coined terms. A prejudice, probably, dating back to 1066.