51st Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies

September 23-25, 2005

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Indiana

BABEL Working Group panel:

Session #5: Premodern and Posthuman: Bodies, Borders, and Histories

In her 1991 Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Donna Haraway lists some components of historically traditional hierarchical systems of dominance and pairs them with alternatives that may arise in a post-human world; among these contrasting pairs are the bourgeois novel/science fiction, realism/postmodernism, perfection/optimization, representation/simulation, and reproduction/replication.  I believe another instructive pairing might be literature/theory, with literary theory being understood as a post-human, “fyborg” technology. “Fyborg” is a portmanteau word coined by Alexander Chislenko (from "functional" and "cyborg") to differentiate between the cyborgs of science fiction and the everyday ways humans extend their physical and intellectual selves using technologies such as contact lenses, hearing aids, mobile phones, and computers. Theory and/as “fyborg” is most obviously exemplified in deconstruction, whose very name suggests an approach to literature founded in part upon the notions of mechanization and technology that permeate the modern and postmodern world.  This system of organizing and understanding texts has led in some cases to a strange devaluation of the texts themselves and an ever-increasing valorization of, and dependence upon, the fyborg system.  Using the Old English poem, Judith, I wish to explore the way in which the poem has been eclipsed over time by the criticism surrounding it, tracing the evolution of that criticism and commenting upon the way in which the body of scholarship has displaced, if not replaced, the body of the text.

Modernity marks, among other things, the border between the human and posthuman, a border partly formed by various rejections of the inadequate human body in favor of engineered and mechanical enhancements. The premodern faith in the possibilities of the human substantiated in its assumption by divine bodies was replaced by modern forms of skepticism that see future hopes for the body only in terms of its artificial, posthuman regeneration. Premodern Christianity, in particular, emphasized the (temporary) humanity of Christ and was nearly obsessed with celebrating his physical suffering on earth. Medieval writers evoked the human essence of Christ through contemplations of this bodily manifestation of the divine, which not only grounded the truth of the Word but also revealed the divinity within the human, thereby raising the human condition above its fallen state through the eventual salvation promised by this intervention of the divine in history, in the human body. With modernity, the human came to be defined by its utter inability to transcend its fallen physicality. In this environment, to humanize Christ was to remove his divinity (as witnessed by The Last Temptation of Christ and, particularly, the uproar surrounding its release), rather than to elevate human potential. Currently, the limits of the human body are seen as being salvageable only through the “wetware” of the posthuman machine, as seen, for instance, in Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or the human-machine prognosticators of Minority Report.  This paper will explore this border, guided by medieval mystics like Richard Rolle and Margery Kempe and modern visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Gene Rodenberry.

In Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, when King Mark of Cornwall asks his nephew, Tristan, how he would feel about being knighted, Tristan responds that he “would love to be a knight, to train my idle youth and wean it to worldly honours,” but he also bitterly reproaches himself for not having yet exercised his “untried youth”—by which he means, he has never engaged in combat—and he tells Mark and the rest of Mark’s court that he has “read that honour desires the body’s pain, and comfort is death to honour.” Indeed, it could be argued that, although the term “chivalry” in the Middle Ages denoted a whole set of highly-localized social practices and cultural beliefs, that physical violence represented the primary experience through which young, aristocratic men, fictional or otherwise, proved and shaped their knightliness, and also their masculinity. With reference to two “romance narratives,” one medieval and one modern—Chretien de Troyes’ twelfth-century The Story of the Knight With the Lion (Yvain) and U.S. Army Capt. and amputee David Rozelle’s recent memoir, Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude—this paper explores the ideology of chivalry as a form of writing upon the skin and body of the knight-soldier, in which wounding and bleeding become the primary modes for the coming-into-legibility of his identity. The maiming and reconstruction of the soldier’s body, as well as his amalgamation with inhuman forces—in Yvain’s case, with a lion, and in Capt. Rozelle’s case, with prosthetic devices—ultimately creates what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari have termed a “desiring machine,” as well as an “inhuman circuit”: a network of meaning that breaks down human bodies and intercuts them with the inanimate, the animal, and the human.

This paper explores the human geography represented through the lives of the saints in England in the central and late Middle Ages. I’ll argue that the translation (both physical and textual) of pre-Conquest of Saxon and Celtic female saints functions as a sort of literary “furta sacra,” a theft of relics, from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. This conceptual nexus of geography, gender, identity, and ideology is what I’d like to call an “insular imaginary,” in which eleventh- and twelfth-century clerics “englished” the legends of pre-Conquest holy women to promote their local cults among the newly Anglo-Norman clergy and aristocracy, in order to explain the questionable presence of foreign relics in English religious institutions, and to reclaim a British legacy of female piety and power for England. Attributing English origins and identities to Irish, Scottish, and Welsh female saints betrays considerable political and ecclesiastical anxiety over the success of the Norman Conquest in Britain, where the conquest was far less effective than it was in England. As R. R. Davies points out, national identities are “ultimately mythological constructs: they are defined as much, if not more, by a commonly assumed identity, mythology, shared cultural values and attitudes, and state ethnicity (however manufactured) as by borders and institutions” (199). Examining these questions foregrounds two related principles: first, that “no woman is an island,” though they are often represented as such, and second, that England is not the only British Isle, even though much late medieval English hagiography would have us believe that this is the case.