Plague, war, violence, sectarianism, takeover of bodies and lives of women and disenfranchised people, denials of climate change and democratic election results, books and entire segments of knowledge banned from teaching and access, control over independent media sources, personal carrying of arms in shared public spaces, insurrection and attempted government overthrow, the menace of famine, the struggle over resources (water, agricultural land, habitable land), the list is incomplete because it is rapidly growing—globally. There is no need to make a reference to the Middle Ages or to “less civilized,” “obscurantist,” and “barbaric” times of the past, or to seek parallels to different times and places in history that could provide guidance or a lesson for the present. Let us face it: this is our present, uncomfortable, lethal, ideological, and unjust.
If the problem of the specialists of the past in American academia has for a long time been how to make the past relevant to the present, this may no longer be the question. How to make the past relevant may now have an entirely different resonance if the past is no longer held as a research object but has become a mythical, phantasmagoric, unchanging, sempiternal state of being. Despite being presented as “historical” by the originalists on the Supreme Court, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that struck down Roe v. Wade is not grounded in history, but is a spectral past of origins that ignores the passage of time. It signals a hastened arrival of eternity, that is, a lack of (the passage of) time. In citing the historical origin—a gesture of literalism—the Supreme Court denies the very possibility of history, of evolution and new formations throughout the passage of time. It gives a new reading of the end of times: an eternal present.
In this originalist and literalist eternal present—hardly a paradisiac state unless one takes the biblical lesson of the originary moment of the Fall literally and stops eating from the Tree of Knowledge—what role for the study of the past, for the humanities? In our Western democracies, scholars and researchers, thinkers and critics, teachers and learners, in short we, the citizens, are not (yet) subject to the direct orders of political powers; rather, we operate in an intellectual universe that recognizes the line of division between science and politics, between knowledge production and governance. Therefore, rarely since WWII has the question of the relevance of the global past to the present and, above all, to the global future been more acute. Perhaps two things can be highlighted from the global archive: that Christian theology is not the only worldview; and that the past is irrepressible—it in fact does always return, albeit transformed—and that is our chance, because it means that there is history, that is, evolution and renewed formation through time. The past is irrepressibly a future. Put differently, as long as there is time, there is future. And this is where the speculative future of the past haunts the originalist present and becomes the bane of its existence, of its presentism.
As a scholar, I have a commitment to interrelating the past and the contemporary, not because the past will teach the present a lesson, or because the present repeats the past, but because in their comparison and confrontation, we get to ask of each questions that we could not have thought of otherwise. And so I note that the humanities are at least one academic generation ahead of events. Humanities are “inactual”—not in sync with their time—not because, in the case of our early fields, they talk about inactual, irrelevant things, but because the work actually precedes its own actuality, it is ahead of events. Sara Lipton said poignantly at the last meeting of the Medieval Academy of America in March 2022, in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, that she did not know that her work on anti-Jewish polemic was going to be at the heart of recent events linked to anti-Semitism. The same can be said of the work of Monica H. Green, who spent most of her scholarly life working on medieval medicine, but her research on the Great Plague of the fourteenth century is only now of utmost—global—currency. I couldn’t have planned for all the media interest that my book on medieval and Afghan fixers was going to generate when published in early September 2021, at the very moment when those who had helped the Westerners were left behind during the catastrophic US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. I have elsewhere called this phenomenon the future anterior of humanities work. We should keep an archive of every instance in which the scholarly work preceded its own actuality and bring it as proof to any administrator who is asking for deliverables and outputs or to any politician who denies history and differentiation in time. Speculative futures are the domain of the humanities even when we study them as a past. Perhaps one of our main contributions can be to deepen this understanding of the relationship between the past and the future, and to do so through the lens of the global past.
To that end, CMRS Center for Early Global Studies has put forward a set of thematic priorities for the next two-year cycle:
Travel and Traveling Forms
Our current Call for Proposals (due October 1) is timely, and I encourage all members of CMRS-CEGS faculty to reflect, directly or indirectly, on the proposed themes—for example, issues of ecology and climate change, knowledge and censored knowledge, the senses (and bodies and sexualities), sovereignty as rights and liberty. Designed to encourage, rather than to limit, these themes can be taken up as standalones or can be combined in different ways. Of course, we continue to accept proposals that fall within the Center’s chronological span, that is, from the 3rd to the mid-17th century CE. I hope you will find our open collaborative research platform of five main research axes nimble for thinking about the past and the future.
Our CFP also seeks synergies between research and teaching by offering formulas that can serve scholarship and pedagogy. We thus wish to enable faculty to bring their research to a greater variety of students through CMRS-CEGS Research Seminars and through participation in the Graduate Certificate in Global Medieval Studies. In Fall 2022, the 11th edition of the CMRS-CEGS LAMAR Methodology seminar will be taught by Calvin Normore (Philosophy). First taught in Fall 2012, the LAMAR Methodology Seminar is intended to provide interdisciplinary training to graduate students in the fields of Late Antiquity, Medieval, and Renaissance (LAMAR). Three more CMRS-CEGS graduate research seminars will be offered, in Winter 2023, by Barbara Fuchs (English/Spanish & Portuguese) and Giulia Sissa (Political Science/Classics/Comparative Literature) and, in Spring 2023, by Greg Woolf (History). We continue to encourage using graduate seminars as public research venues; in the past year, we supported a number of online public lectures presented as part of CMRS-CEGS sponsored graduate seminars.
Alongside this, we continue with plans for larger scholarly gatherings, with conferences on ethno-religious interaction in Iberia (F22) and the future of medieval European scholarship today (W23). We are excited to welcome to the UCLA campus the next Byzantine Studies Association of North America (BSANA) Annual Conference (Nov. 3–6)!
We will continue our support of junior and mid-career faculty through two more Book Manuscript Workshops; three were held last year. We have maintained the increased levels of graduate support: in a combination of dissertation fellowships, recruitment fellowships, summer fellowships, and travel and conference grants, we supported 22 applications in the amount of $160,730, in the disciplines of archaeology, art history, history, Indo-European studies, and literatures. We continued our partnership with the Medieval and Early Modern Student Association (MEMSA) through a yearlong student-faculty Race Reading Group and graduate conference on Intersectionality in the Early Global World, and strengthened our regional and institutional connections through a series of cosponsored events (e.g., Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts; Comparatism and Slavery; Qur’an and Torah in Comparative Perspective; Petrarch’s African Canzoniere). Our audience, thanks to the hybrid capacity in Royce 314 and 306, and our online presence, kept at record numbers.
I hope, as we grow and our work takes on more relevance with every passing day of this age, that you will support us, whether through your involvement in the intellectual life of the Center or financially. Please give what you can. I wish you a safe and healthy AY 2022–2023 and invite you, as always, to connect with me at email@example.com and to join the Center in activating the past in the future.
Director, UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies