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On Being a Medievalist and More
The core of the Colloquy is three items from the conference, which I describe briefly here. However, we welcome contributions on how the field of medieval literature has changed over the past fifty years and how philosophy, media studies, and performance studies have catalyzed medieval studies, as well as the more circumscribed topic of medieval studies at Stanford.
In an interview that marks the centerpiece of this Colloquy, I drew Gumbrecht out on a series of questions about the influence of medieval studies in his intellectual biography and the presence of medieval studies at Stanford from the time of his arrival in 1989 to the present day. Starting our discussion with how the difficulty of the medieval period nourished new ways of approaching literary texts, we also covered foundational experiences and encounters. We spoke about the influence of Hugo Kuhn and media studies and its translation to American Humanities, the Grundriss der romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters in the age of electronic media, the inspiring otherness of medieval culture and how it has productively shaped his work on presence, athletic beauty, and other phenomena—work that seeks to "conjure the past in a non-narrative way." I was fascinated by Gumbrecht’s encounters (both personally and intellectually) with Kuhn, Paul Zumthor, and certain epistemological genealogies concerning performance, media studies, and semiotics via medieval studies. He describes colloquia where he, Zumthor, Jean-François Lyotard, Niklas Luhmann and others were pursuing the "anti-hermeneutic effect," that is, "dealing with cultural artifacts or cultural phenomena that are not circumscribed to the attribution of meaning." He also describes in candid detail the convergence of an intellectual milieu at Stanford—a "technical" university in the best sense of the word, e.g. with "vibrations from computer science, engineering"—whose intersection was medieval studies. A core group of scholars cultivated a Stanford style of humanities, where "medieval studies mattered," Gumbrecht explains, because it "could never be taken for granted as with other universities." This was a time when Michel Serres, René Girard, John Freccero, Brigitte Cazelles, Jeffrey Schnapp, and Robert Harrison in the French and Italian department were publishing major works on medieval topics and authors that registered an impact in all spheres of humanities.
As Gumbrecht puts it, "performance creates its own situation. Like in our conversation." And this is true for the interview: people past and present, events local and international, colloquia, and publications came together as a story about medieval studies at Stanford and beyond in the course of the conversation. As part of this colloquy, you will also find two presentations given at the "After 1967" conference: my paper on "The Production of Medieval Life Forms in the Work of Gumbrecht" and "The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today" by Heather Webb. These two papers describe the consequences of Gumbrecht's scholarship in our respective fields of medieval French and Italian, and touch on the motifs of his thinking such as mood, performance, and transgression.