Towards the end of the book, in a chapter called 'Margery Kempe Answers Back' (which also deals with The Book of Margery Kempe, an account of the life of a fourteenth-century female visionary from Norfolk in the UK, and with the recent novel Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck which reuses Margery's story to talk about queer male experience in the twentieth century), Dinshaw does some intelligent and really exciting close-readings of the ways in which American Republican politicians referred to mediaeval studies in order to discredit arts and humanities research, and ultimately to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities, in political debates in the late 1990s. One of the projects which was repeatedly referred to as an example of the kind of self-evidently irrelevant research which wastes of public money was a conference on Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages - Dinshaw cites Representative Hostettler in the Senate, saying:
Mr Chairman, how, when faced with a $5 trillion national debt that continues to grow, can we continue to spend money on projects like these: Sex and gender in the middle ages, 1150-1450. This course received $135,000. Let me give a free lesson here and save the money - there were men - and there were women. The fact that we are here today lets us assume some of them had conjugal relations.
Dinshaw concludes her close reading of this and other moments in the debate by saying:
Motivating this list [of absurd or wasteful research projects] is a thorough resistance... to the very concept of engagement and relation across time as well as across other divides (of gender, sexuality, religion, race, class, nationality). Because the very basic idea that history lives, that even distant and relatively unexplored times and places are relevant to twentieth-century American lives, suggests sites of cultural relation that are unpredictable, uncontrollable. In the mention here of at least half these funded projects, the possibility that we can forge dynamic relations to the past, even the distant or unfamiliar past, even if at present we cannot know where such relations will lead, is closed off.
Which is some of the most cogent reasoning I've heard for taking Walter Benjamin very seriously when (as I posted about recently) he argues in the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History') that political resistance, revolutionary energy, come from engagement with the past in 'uncontrollable' ways, rather than fantasies about the future.
And isn't that quote from Hostettler revealing, too - that 'sex and gender' must refer only to men, women, and reproductive heterosex, and our relationship to the past must be framed solely in those terms, as biological inheritance via heterosex (this is what I call 'the order of generations', following Derrida in The Post Card, the ordering force of a reproductive, heterosexual understanding of time and history). And here it is in the House of Representatives, in a debate about government funding, as the explicit principle for allowing/denying funding, for legitimating academic enquiry!
It's nice to be reminded sometimes that what I do is important, that it's not just the contemporary and the 'now' that has urgency and political weight.