This book contributes to a burgeoning field that we might call ‘medieval knowledge studies’, marked by Emily Steiner’s analyses of medieval literary encyclopaedias and Kellie Robertson’s of the intersection between Aristotelian physics and medieval literature, which examines and re-evaluates premodern ways of knowing and their material forms. Shaping the Archive takes up the question of knowledge with respect to the forms and processes of its collection. The book seeks to describe late medieval ideas of the archive by way of literary representations of episodes in sacred history that emphasize collection, with a special focus on the cycle plays. Novacich’s lively, deft, and nimbly associative readings of medieval literature will reward an attentive reader, although the book may frustrate those seeking a more precisely articulated theory of medieval archivalism. Shaping the Archive focuses on ‘extraordinary inventories’ in sacred history, and how these ‘represent the desire to amass collections that fully account for the world’ (p. 2). Its chapters focus on three crucial sites of ‘archival desire’: the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and the Harrowing of Hell. Throughout, Novacich reads the concept of the archive as a form and an object of representation, particularly in poetry and performance. The cycle plays constitute a through line in the book, even as Novacich ranges widely in her own archival desires by analysing a compendium of Middle English and medieval Latin literatures. Her most trenchant observations centre on the relationships between archive and performance. For example, discussing Diana Taylor’s famous distinction between a static and textual ‘archive’ and embodied, living ‘repertoire’, Novacich notes that cycle play performances of Noah’s Ark ‘collapse even the theoretical poles of Taylor’s working distinctions between repertoire and archive, locating performance and archival space … simultaneously upon the pageant wagon stage’ (pp. 87–8). Even more expansively, ‘[i]f we then think of theatrical space as ark-space, or as archival space, crowded with continuously stored and then divulged memory, we create something of a repeating archival chain: the ark of the heart within the bark of the player’s body within a theater of memory, cast as the ark of the flood’ (p. 88). This sentence captures Novacich’s style; her thinking and writing are ambitiously capacious, like the inventories she analyses, linking terms conceptually and etymologically without definitional pedantry. The book also explores the relationship between history and archive; in particular, how the making of historical narratives can depend upon or resist the totalizing force of archival collection. Thus its early chapter on the Garden of Eden queries the idea of origins, taking up Derrida’s notion of the ‘fever of beginnings’ in archival desire, and asking how representations of the Edenic model world—and of earth and gardens more generally—challenge the idea of a complete and originary archive. The earthly paradise refutes any distinction between original and record that is central to how historical narratives use archives. The concluding chapters on the Harrowing of Hell again take up this concern, arguing that medieval representations of hell as a lost archive demonstrate how histories are perpetually vulnerable to a chthonic explosion of forgotten pasts that ‘unsettl[e]… the security of historical record’ (p. 116). A space of temporal suspension in advance of Christ’s death and redemption of mankind, hell in the Christian tradition is a repository of Jewish patriarchs, at once reifying medieval historical typology and, in Novacich’s reading, challenging it: ‘What if this place offers not only record, but also the potential for counterfactual history?’ (p. 132). Sharp readings of medieval images of the ‘hell mouth’ and of the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo in this section bolster the argument for reading the medieval hell as a permeable and unsettled repository. Shaping the Archive has clear theoretical debts to Derrida, especially ‘Archive Fever’ and Specters of Marx, as well as to the performance theory of Joseph Roach and others. At the same time, Novacich perceptively explores the critique of Derridean archivism as eliding the material, situated archives: the ‘dustless’ versus the ‘dusty’ archives, in a formulation she borrows from Carolyn Steedman (pp. 5–6). Performance theory assists in reconciling these camps, with the embodiments of theatre giving material form to the conceptual problematics of archival theorizing. Yet this book is too quick to assert that the archive has come to mean any collection of things or knowledge practice committed to capaciousness. Novacich associates a number of terms and concepts with ‘archive’ without elaborating their relationship or justifying their homology. These include: book (70), chronicle (52), collection (56), compendium (14), compilation (15), editing (17), historia/story (53, 131), knowledge (87), noise (131), and repertoire (87). A reader may be willing to believe that these terms are all crucial in a discussion of archival theory, or indeed to accept their association as a theory in itself. Nonetheless, a more deliberate exploration and analysis of these terms and their relationships to the idea of the archive (and to each other) would give the book’s central argument more impact. For instance, the term historia, as story or historical narrative, implies a selection and interpretation of archival materials, even as it depends on the ideologies that underlie what its archive contains. The problem of term definition seems to arise from certain theoretical assumptions that are never fully articulated. If associative logic is a theoretical foundation for this study, emerging from the Derridean approach to archives as well, perhaps, as a kind of historicism à la David Wallace, a more explicit defence of this methodology is necessary. Such elaborations would make Shaping the Archive a more helpful resource for thinking about how the archives figured in medieval conceptions of knowledge and its representations. In many ways, this weakness emerges directly from the book’s greatest strength, its imaginative, ambitious readings. Novacich’s own archive for the book ranges widely, from the Liber Albus to the Romance of the Rose to Erthe toc of erthe, and she reads medieval texts and images deftly and with an eye towards contemporary analogues: Borges’ conceptual fiction, contemporary poetry, and the Earth-archiving ‘golden records’ sent on the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s. The chapter on Noah’s wife as a figure resistant to archival hegemony ends gracefully with modern verses (by Jo Shapcott) in her voice. Such moments illuminate Novacich’s talents as a gifted and innovative reader across temporal and generic boundaries. In sum, Shaping the Archive enjoyably guides its reader through a Borgesian library of the premodern literature, desires, and imaginings of the archive. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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