Among the various reactions to the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, one comment really got under my skin: “Welcome to the 21st century.” Almost everything about it irritated me. For unless the person who made this comment was partying somewhere like Sydney on the evening of 31 December 1999, I suspect that we have both been sharing the 21st century for exactly the same amount of time. So how come he gets to welcome me to it? And with all the assumed and self-satisfied cultural superiority of a native welcoming an immigrant off the boat at Calais.
Back in 1983, the German anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a brilliant account of how western anthropologists often used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview. In Time and the Other he noted there was something fishy about the way early anthropologists went out and studied other cultures, talking and interacting with people in the same temporal space, yet when such encounters came to be written up, the people being studied/talked with tended to be situated back in time. The anthropologist always lives in the present. The people being studied live in the past. It’s what Fabian calls “a denial of coevalness” – a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations. This denial of coevalness, argues Fabian (very much in the style of Edward Said), is often a political power-play, a discourse of “otherness” that was commonly used to buttress the colonial exploitation of others.
But it’s not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.
But the problem with the idea that the current age is the triumphant pinnacle of historical achievement is that Isis is very much a 21st-century phenomenon. And not just because its members are good with the internet. Their violence and brutality have not appeared directly from the middle ages through some wormhole in time. To think as much is to deny the need to look for contemporary causes and contemporary solutions. As the historian Julia McClure has written: “Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.”
Yes, it is understandable that we want psychologically to distance ourselves from the mindset of those who decapitate prisoners. And so we speak of them as if they were born in 1490 rather than in 1990. But this denial of coevalness hardly encourages us to seek to understand the phenomenon of contemporary jihadis or think more clearly about the best ways to respond. So yes, welcome to the 21st century: women bishops, violent extremists, arrogant colonialists – nothing, in fact, far beyond the imagination of the medieval mind. But more to the point, as much a part of our world as it was of theirs.
Here are some poignant replies:
I’m not sure you’re doing yourself any favours with this article. And I’m glad the ‘welcome to the 21st century’ comment got under your skin; it was meant to.
Not a salvation myth at all. Computers are real things. At least, the one I’m typing this into is. Science is there to help us understand the meaning of real things like computers. Science is just a few basic rules: look for evidence, systematise it (laws) and draw out basic principles (theories). Rationality is a bit like science but applied to rules of thinking, discourse, and communication; a systematization to allow more meaningful communication to help us agree. None of those 3 things are salvation myths.
Salvation myth itself is just a projection of religious tropes onto the non-religion world. Wake up, try to realize that everyone doesn’t think like you. We don’t really care about your religion. What counts to atheists is how your religion affects us. We won’t be happy if you try to behead us. In contrast, waving incense around, while singing and dressing up in silly clothes is rather cute and beguiling.
in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers.
A tad sweeping, Giles, to rely on the smugness of one brand of digital gizmo and its customers (insufferable though I agree it is) to damn the entire Enlightenment project?
I can’t recall anyone telling such a ‘simple story’. Let me offer you a slightly more nuanced one as a more worthy opponent for a man of your moral scrupulosity to grapple with:
Progress is slow, muddled, often goes backwards or sideways and is full of inconsistency, opportunism and hypocrisy. Neverthless it is better to live in societies where the aspiration – if not the fully achieved reality – is that people of different genders, races, beliefs and sexualities are all equally human and deserving of the same basic rights; where economic relations are based on freely negotiated and impartially enforced agreements rather than on hereditary rank or servitude; where destitution is relieved as a matter of public policy rather than private charity; where illness is treated with evidence-based medicine rather than blamed on demons and dybbuks; where the odd and awkward are not ostracised and persecuted as witches; where knowledge and literacy are accessible to all, and not hoarded by a priestly elite who can exploit ignorance to terrorise and manipulate the majority.
I’d say we are extremely fortunate to live in a society that gets closer to this than almost any earlier one, and is surpassed only by a handful of other European ones; that trying to move closer to this is good, that attacking and undermining it is bad, and that societies that glory in the opposite are bad.
Don’t you agree?
When I worked in a very authoritarian university, a colleague complained that it was like being in a mediaeval institution. I pointed out that if we had been in a medieaval institution, faculty would have elected the Rector.
(As it was, the Rector was appointed by and answerable to the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole institution, a very 21st century arrangement).
I’m not sure you can define progress in all its spheres as a secular salvation myth.
Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that
Once we talk about “Middle Ages” we refer to specific time in European history, say from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until the opening of the Americas to European colonisation in late 15th Century. We are not talking about the Muslim word, or about the Chinese, Indian, Native American or African (these were the glory days of Ashanti, Ghana and Mali!) civilisations. So, let us examine their predominant characteristics:
1. A majority of population at the status of serfs (or “bonded labour” in modern parlance): a property of feudal lords, to be used, abused or traded by them at their pleasure.
2. Absolutist hereditary monarchy, totally dominating the political (but also the legal) space.
3. Total dominance of a single religious creed (Catholicism in the West, Greek Orthodoxy in the East) with secular and religious power joined at the hip.
4. Zero right of dissent, whether spiritual or temporal, no concept of human rights.
5. Women considered as sub-human and the legal property of the male head of the household.
6. Whatever passes for scholarship, science and medicine totally based on religious doctrine or on superstition.
(All this, except for the last point, fits contemporary Saudi Arabia like hand in a very well-crafted glove!)
So, let us return to Fraser’s quote:
a. Founding of the great cathedrals: Exactly. The only edifices allowed to dominate the public space and assert the power of the ruling orthodoxy.
b. Founding of the great universities: Giles Fraser tends to forget that just because something is called “university”, it isn’t necessarily a university in the modern sense of the word, a centre of open-minded, free enquiry and instruction.
c. The Islamic development of mathematics: Muslims, as a matter of fact, developed very little new mathematics, their great service to this subject was in preserving and translating the Greek greats and melding their work with South-Indian influences (the concept of zero). But this is precisely the point of the (European) Middle Ages, that their own secular scholarship was virtually non-existent! The onlyMiddle-Age European significant name in history of mathematics is Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom – and no, he wasn’t Christian.
d. Leonardo da Vinci: The Italian Renaissance augured the death knell of the Middle Ages. From Giotto onwards, this was the new era.
The world has moved, Giles Fraser, since the Age of Enlightenment onwards. This movement often meanders, it is not any well-defined time-arrow of progress. But overall, averaged over time, it is moving forward. Your church is ever-so-hesitantly moving with it and you should see “welcome to the 21st Century” as a compliment – I can think of faith communities in Saudi or in Texas to whom “welcome to the 16th Century” would have been progress.
Very sloppy historical analysis.The author uses Middle Ages and Dark Ages interchangeably. Leonardo da Vinci was part of the Renaissance, not the Dark Ages. the Dark Ages were also a European phenomenon and in that context provides a reference point for European commentators.
That Isis shares contemporary space in the physical sense does not mean they share our cultural space. It is also dangerouus to argue that this difference amounts to some equality in the value structures of Isis and anyone else other than similar power-centred ideologies to whom massacre is seen as a tool of obtaining and retaining power such as the Khmer Rouge, Bolsheviks etc.The methods and thought structures behind them are similar to those of the 14th century when those of no value as hostages in defeated christian armies were beheaded according to the teachings of the Koran.
The interesting question is why these movements seek to replicate the practices in the past in response to the present. The Khmer Rouge wanted to reestablish an former agricultural model of their society, Isis wants a previous Caliphate model. In this sense it is they who are making reference backwards. I think it is fair for commentators to point that out.
The point of the “offending” sentence is clear but seems to have been either misunderstood, or perhaps missed entirely. To my understanding, “welcome to the 21st century” simply says that the idea of female inequality is backwards when viewed in the light of modern knowledge. Perhaps Giles doesn’t think modern knowledge is better than antiquated knowledge but surely that would say something rather damning about his view on the acquisition of knowledge, if true.
The fact of the matter is this; we know better now, about the abilities of women, about the right way to treat prisoners and so on but some people/groups/faiths cling to the bad old ways because they are driven by faith not by rational thought.
The literal approach examined in this article is woefully short of the mark.
Before reading the 294 comments that came before this – this is an extremely perceptive piece, as I would expect from Giles Fraser. It is not, as knee-jerk atheists and anti-religionists will claim, an apologia for religion in general or Christianity in particular, it is an intelligent comment on the arrogance of those who think that what they call “joining the 21st century” is a sign of moral and intellectual superiority. It isn’t.
and here is the McClure article:
This week the Guardian reporter Kevin McDonald took issue with Nick Clegg’s description of ISIS as “medieval”. McDonald reported: ‘given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.’ Unfortunately analysis of the meaning and implications of this political use of the Middle Ages ended here, and the article instead constructed a somewhat flawed comparison between ISIS and the history of the French Revolution. However, this recent use of the category ‘medieval’ as a label for the things that we refuse to acknowledge or understand is not unique.
Many shocking crimes against humanity, such as torture, slavery, and public executions, frequently occur in our modern world, and yet are described as medieval. This conundrum was discussed by John Dagenais, who argued that ‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism’. The ‘denial of coevalness’, a phenomenon first identified by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, is the practice of locating people, cultures, or events within another time. Within Fabian’s analysis, the ‘denial of coevalness’ was a way to structure colonial power. For example, a ‘remote society’ might be described as primitive, signifying that that society is not only geographically remote from Europe but also remote from ‘modernity’ as it has been defined in the Western historical tradition.
‘Modernity’ is often assumed to be the product of historical evolution, the triumphant outcome of the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Yet many dark crimes and threats of chaos occur close to home, challenging this glossy image of post-Enlightenment modernity. Rather than accepting responsibility for flaws in our society, or questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and progress, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time. Instead, shocking crimes and phenomena that generate fear are described as medieval. As Dagenais observed, ‘the typological use of “medieval” was a way of exercising and containing those aspects of modernity that are inadmissible to itself’. Exploited in this way, the Middle Ages cease to be a dynamic and complex period and become a handmaiden for the mythology of modernity.
With the realisation that the governments of Europe and America have engaged in extra-ordinary rendition to conduct torture overseas and that ISIS fighters and perpetrators of public decapitations in the Middle East can have grown up in the UK, it is no longer possible for this generation to interpret shocking crimes against humanity and threats to our imagined social order as something geographically remote. People in Europe and America therefore have two options: they can accept that crimes occur in their world but describe them as ‘medieval’, part of another time, and refuse to acknowledge them; or they can critically reflect upon the ways in which the society they are part of has created the problems it has.
This recent use of the Middle Ages as a label for describing ISIS is dangerous since it justifies a refusal to reflect upon the causes and potential solutions to the problems being faced in the contemporary world. It provides an excuse for not engaging with the difficult and challenging process of introspection, the process of looking at ourselves and asking how have we, as a global society, created this problem and how can we respond to it.
The irony is that, globally, there have been many developments in technology, there are more devices to record and circulate messages to ever increasing audiences – but we refuse to analyse the complex messages channelled by the high tech global communication system. The lenses of social media are distorted. So perhaps we are, after all, living in the ‘dark ages’; yet this dark age is not the medieval period, but a dark age of consciousness.
Julia McClure is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI.
Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barrel_bomb_aftermath_Aleppo_February_2014.jpgNote: The barrel bombing of Aleppo has been generally blamed on Syrian government forces, not ISIS.
 Dagenais, ‘The Postcolonial Laura’, Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2004), pp. 365-389. p. 374.