Myra Seaman (seamanm@cofc.edu)

College of Charleston

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms

No Place on This Earth: Toward a Humanities of the Posthuman

 

 

What has come to be called the “crisis in the Humanities” cuts across disciplines and periods, breaking down boundaries and scattering traditional hierarchies, revealing the very postmodernism seen by some as the source of the crisis. Those on the right tend to associate the crisis with the ascendancy of theory and cultural studies, while those on the left see it as the product of the commodification of education and the corporatization of the university. While much could be (and has been) said about the crisis as interpreted by the left, that view situates the crisis as coming from without. Viewed from the right, the crisis comes from within, the product of the 1960s campus radicals and their progeny, particularly those who see the Humanities as the study of culture in action (hence “cultural studies”) rather than the study of the aesthetic products of individual human minds. From this perspective, the Crisis in the Humanities highlights the Crisis of the Human, and it is this that I would like to consider today.

Expressing the views of the right in this debate is Marjorie Perloff, professor of Humanities at Stanford, English Ph.D., and president of the Modern Languages Association; she seeks the roots of the trouble by reminding us that the current academic usage of the term Humanities was uncommon before World War II, using this observation to argue that “[g]iven [the current] climate, perhaps we can think more seriously about the state of the ‘humanities’ if we begin by getting rid of the word ‘humanities.’" It’s not only the word humanities that concerns her, though. She urges a return to the Liberal Arts, predecessor of the Humanities, as a way of cleansing ourselves of the developments of the past 25 years.[1] Although she presents the trouble with contemporary Humanities as mainly a matter of text selection and critical method, she reaches back to Aristotle’s Poetics and the study of rhetoric—with the aim of training students to “read” literature—and thus seeks anew that universal, fixed (and superior) Human whose artistic product she believes will enlighten and transform us: she argues for a return to tradition in which “[a] poem will be read, less for its potential truth value. . .than as the product of particular human skills and genius.” In her return to the Liberal Arts, to the study of the “product of particular human skills and genius,” she appears to insist on the individual human genius which seems possible only by sacrificing the Human in the Humanities–so that individual “human genius” can replace a focus on the “potential truth value” of literature.

Perloff might well not see this as a loss of the Human, though, because the Human for her has already been removed from the Humanities. For cultural studies, the Human is no longer the spiritual essence that has broken free of its physical shell but rather is inherently embodied. Perloff proclaims that, with cultural studies replacing traditional literary studies,
the what of mimesis has become much more important than the how. Subject matter—whether divine right kingship in Renaissance England or the culture of condoms in early twentieth-century America—becomes all.

It is, in fact, “the subject” and “matter”—the “what” as opposed to the “how”—that she places at the center of contemporary cultural studies, and it is this particular focus on the subject that she finds threatening—in the way the subject of study is now ‘any’ text, be it a golf course or Ulysses, and the knowledge acquired through the study is an understanding of the collective human body, rather than the individual genius.

This human body presumed by contemporary Humanities is more easily rejected by Perloff et al. because it looks so different from the Human at the core of the Humanities taught in the post-War era—just as the Humanities themselves are nearly unrecognizable in their new cultural studies-influenced manifestation. What Perloff and others seem to be positing as the Post-Humanities is, conveniently, implicitly associated with what has come to be known as the Posthuman. The posthuman is the new, “improved” human form allowed for and, it would seem, encouraged by developments in technology, whereby the problems of aging and disease, among others, can be counteracted technologically. It is commonly associated with the single-minded, extreme makeover of the human physique into an all-powerful machine, or, at the other end of the spectrum, its refinement into an indestructible disembodied consciousness. The scientific posthuman offers hope that we might move beyond our flawed bodies while making the fullest use of our reason—thereby revealing its deep connection to liberal humanism. The popular culture posthuman evokes nightmare visions of Robocop, of the Terminator, of Darth Vader—revealing a fear that becoming posthuman is dehumanizing. Yet the ease with which we have incorporated such developments already in our conceptualization of the human—pacemakers, prostheses, laser surgery to achieve 20/20 (or better) vision—suggests those transformations which currently seem at home only on the movie screen or in the sci-fi novel may enter our collective identity gradually and without a jolt.

In fact, as medievalists such as Jeffery Cohen and Caroline Walker Bynum have demonstrated, such a fluid conception of the human is hardly the new and unnatural offspring of postmodernism. In the medieval imagination, the human was commonly blended with the inhuman, as seen in stories and images in which humans become birds, werewolves or half-oxen. Such fusions continually confirmed the human within the apparently inhuman. Gerald of Wales tells in the Topography of Ireland a now-famous story, discussed by Bynum and Robert Mills among others, of a priest’s encounter with a talking wolf, who asks the priest to give the viaticum to his mate, which the priest does only when the she-wolf’s skin is torn off to reveal a woman inside, thereby confirming her suitability as a sacramental recipient. This story combines in one gesture two hybrid manifestations of the human seen in the English romance William of Palerne: the utterly humane werewolf—man literally as wolf—and the hero and heroine in bear skins, merely posing as bears but acting the part, living in the wild; in the transformed werewolf, whose appearance is the result of a curse placed on him by his stepmother, and in the threatened lovers, who must be disguised as animals in order to hide their nobility, we see the human forced to take on animal form by others’ inhuman behavior. Gerald uses this example of the she-wolf to question whether such beings are man or brute (Mills, "Jesus as Monster," in Bildhauer and Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages), relying for judgment on Augustine’s cases of humans who become beasts, while their minds remain “rational and human.” For medieval audiences the slipperiness of the bodily form was not matched by a fluidity of essence. Instead, the external, shifting body contained a stable core. Such a conception seems to depend upon the shape-shifting of Christ—become man, become bread and wine—which was accompanied by no such change to his essence. This quality of Christ Mills calls “the excessive potentialities of Christ’s body,” its “inherently hybrid status” ("Jesus as Monster"). Such bodily transformations of the human, in its connection to Christ, would not reduce it to the bestial.

Such possibilities for imaginative external transformation do not, however, indicate a pre-Enlightenment disembodied conception of the human. In fact, earthly human Christians in the Middle Ages saw their humanity as so embodied as to support the doctrine of bodily resurrection; as Bynum points out, “[The return of the physical self] makes the body crucial to the self in a way that it is not in most other cultural traditions.”[2] Based in part on such observations of a unity of body and spirit, Bynum concludes that

the way the body behaves may change profoundly over time because the body is not simply an appendage of the mind, nor a separate thing to which mind or soul is attached. The person is a psychosomatic unit. What we are is a complicated and unitary self, so as pressures, society, and ideas change, the way in which the body actually performs changes [such that, for instance. . .] some of the radical behaviors that one can find in history—things like the somatic miracles that are talked about in the thirteenth century—stigmata and trances and levitations—. . . may be genuinely new bodily behaviors.

Bynum’s description of the (medieval) human, particularly its corporeal manifestation, thus goes much further than would many a proponent of the contemporary and future posthuman. The premodern and postmodern human thus exhibits varieties of hybridity and fluidity. The medieval werewolf finds much in common with the postmodern mechanical-human body, and with the contemporary consideration of “deviations” such as hermaphroditism as “still human,” despite their having been labeled monstrous in centuries past.

While such conceptions of the human offer hope, they are accompanied by other destructive forms of the posthuman: humans whose identity is legally and politically removed from them so that they might be declared inhuman. As Michael Moore wrote in a chapter he has contributed to the forthcoming Palgrave book Medieval, Reality, Television: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History, the Bush Administration has insisted post 9/11 that the President has the right, as Moore puts it, to “exclude certain individuals from the realm of law and the circle of humanity, by declaring them to be ‘enemy combatants’.” As a result these individuals lose all right to protection or trial, for they have become the “outcast, unable to claim any law,” stuck in a position that was created for such people specifically “to strip, rather than to assign, a legal identity,” making of the individual human “a demonic being . . . outside the law.” We legally transform the human into something other, human in physical appearance but without the human essence. Thus the somatic fluidity and essential human stability of the Middle Ages is replaced by an instability of the essence, contained within a body apparently fully human.

In the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the lone defendant in the 9/11 attacks, I observed the powerful effects of the Administration’s redefinition of identity, and in the process, of the human. In a report on the death penalty phase of Moussaoui’s trial, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen on April 13 described Moussaoui’s ongoing outbursts, his delight in the success of the 9/11 attacks, as “such an inhuman perspective on a tragedy, so full of spite and hate, that jurors may decide there is no place on this earth for this guy.”[3] Note that it is not Moussaoui’s actions in causing the deaths of thousands of people (or even his inaction, his lying to authorities in the days leading up to 9/11) but rather the nature of his attitude toward the tragedy, that Cohen deemed “inhuman,” that he finds the jury likely to conclude merits him “no place on this earth.” It’s not simply that he deserves to suffer what his victims suffered, or that the rule of law must be supported by his punishment, but rather that his beliefs and expression thereof are inhuman and, beyond that, unearthly. Not only we humans, but even our planet cannot include him. The same phrase, and the attendant view, appeared 11 days later in the closing argument of federal prosecutor David Raskin, who told jurors that they should have Moussaoui put to death in order to “put an end to his hatred and venom“ and, ultimately, because "[t]here is no place on this earth for Zacarias Moussaoui.”[4] As a result, I would have to agree with federal public defender Gerald T. Zerkin, who in his closing argument told jurors that their verdict "is more about us than it is about him” (see footnote 4).

As historian James J. Sheehan declared in 1991, “Never before have the conceptual boundaries of humanity been less secure” ("Coda," in Sheehan and Sosna, eds., The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines). Philosopher Bernard Williams (in the Prologue, “Making Sense of Humanity,” in The Boundaries of Humanity) notes, “Humanity” itself, as a name for the quality we associate with the species, might be a central source of the distrust of the humanities, given contemporary despair for the future of Humanity, greater even than the despair for the Human. The fear is not that the human will become a machine, but that humanity will disappear. From the sociobiologists I would like to borrow a conceptualization of creativity as that which marks the human and, more specifically, humanity: while a machine—an “information-processing device,” as Williams states—could solve problems creatively, these solutions would not be possible in “some less formalized intellectual domain or in the arts” ("Making Sense of Humanity"). Williams insists that this is not because creativity is counter to the laws of nature, but because that which we value as creativity is thought which, as he puts it, “yields not merely something new or unlikely but something new that strikes us as meaningful and interesting; and what makes it meaningful and interesting to us can lie in an indeterminately wide range of associations and connections built up in our existence, most of them unconscious” ("Making Sense of Huamnity"). Williams calls for a joint effort on the part of the sciences—social and hard—and the humanities that I would like to end with, as a way to respond to the Crisis in the Humanities and to the associated crisis in Humanity witnessed by the apparent lack of home here on earth for those we don’t define as Human: Williams says, speaking primarily to scientists, that “[i]f it is an ethological truth that human beings live under culture, and if that fact makes it intelligible that they should live with ideas of the past and with increasingly complex conceptions of the ideas that they themselves have, then it is no insult to the scientific spirit that a study of them should require an insight into those cultures, into their products, and into their real and imagined histories” (20). Williams encourages scientists to turn to the Humanities, to the “potential truth value,” to he “what” of these human products, in order to discern the Human.

My colleague Doryjane Birrer, who studies Contemporary British literature and was a member of the inaugural BABEL-sponsored medieval/modern humanisms roundtable at the 2005 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, spoke there about “shapeshifting and the blurring of boundaries” as a potential foundation for an engaged humanities (“Monstrous Progenies: A New Species of Humanities,” https://ww2.coastal.edu/babel/SEMA05EssayBirrer.htm), a move she shares with many medievalists such as Jeffery Cohen, who in Medieval Identity Machines issued the call for a posthuman Middle Ages, based on an expanded conceptualization of “the human” and including a range of identities. Birrer and Cohen speak for many of us when they urge us to see in the monstrous, the machine, or the animal, the human not as other but as the monstrous, the mechanical, the animalistic itself—as Birrer puts it, “to conceive of monstrosity not as a function of difference, but as arising from hybridity, as is the case with the werewolf.” Birrer turns to Colin Milburn, himself turning to Derrida, who saw in “the figure of the monster. . . a means of thinking otherwise,” and in which Milburn himself saw the “nascent germ of a species about-to-become” (“Monsters in Eden: Darwin and Derrida,” MLN 118.3 [2003]). I would like to join with Birrer in concluding that “the monstrous discourse of humanistically rooted theory, the monstrous presence of a theoretically grounded humanism“ might allow for “a new species of humanities.” Like the jury in the Moussaoui trial, whose verdict demonstrated greater creativity than did legal analyst Cohen or federal prosecutor Raskin, this new species will find a place on this earth for itself, in all its forms.

FOOTNOTES

1. See Marjorie Perloff, “Crisis in the Humanities,” 2001, http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/articles/crisis.html.

2. “From the Medieval to the Modern: A Conversation with Carolyn Walker Bynum,” an interview of Bynum by William R. Ferris, Chairman of the NEH, published in Humanities 20.2 (March/April 1999), available online at www.neh.fed.us/news/humanities/1999-03/bynum.html.

3. “Moussaoui has ‘No Regret, No Remorse’,” CBS News 13 April 2006, http://wfrv.com/topstories/topstories_story_103111932.html.

4. Neil A. Lewis, “Jury Begins Deliberating Moussaoui’s Fate,” The New York Times 24 April 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/us/25moussaoui.html.