Fragments Toward a History of a
Editors: Eileen A. Joy and Myra J. Seaman
What qualifies as a human, as a human subject, as human speech, as human
. . . as scholars and teachers we believe we are right to call what we
do “humanistic” and what we teach “the humanities.” Are
these still serviceable phrases, and if so in what way? How then may we view
humanism as an activity in light of its past and probable future?
For a long while now, there has been a significant turn both to and beyond “the human” (or, the liberal humanist subject) in aesthetic, historical, philosophical, sociological, and more scientific studies—a turn, moreover, which is also often accompanied by a nod to post-histoire, or the “end of history.” This poses a great challenge to those concerned with the future of humanistic letters and education, especially when, as the philosopher of religion John Caputo has written, “one has lost one’s faith in grand récits,” and “being, presence, ouisa, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams.” As Caputo writes, “we are in a fix, except that even to say ‘we’ is to get into a still deeper fix. We are in the fix that cannot say ‘we’,” and yet, “the obligation of me to you and both of us to others . . . is all around us, on every side, tugging at our sleeves, calling on us for a response.” Caputo expressed these sentiments (which are also worries) in 1993, but they accord well with the anxieties of the editors of the most recent issue of The Hedgehog Review on “Human Dignity and Justice,” who are concerned that “transcendent accounts of why the lives of all persons should be valued” no longer “make sense,” and therefore “one might ask whether a rhetoric of human dignity can be sustained and whether calls [in numerous human rights discourses] to honor the dignity of every individual can gain traction”? Is it possible any longer “to sustain justice without the idea of human dignity, or a similar concept?”
In relation to these concerns and anxious questions, multiple posthuman disciplines are already in full swing in the fields of both the arts and sciences and in 2006 the National Humanities Center announced a three-year project, “Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity: The Human & The Humanities,” which seeks to “crystallize a conversation already begun” by “a small but growing number of philosophers, literary scholars, and other humanistic thinkers” whose thought and studies have “turned to the work of computational scientists, primatologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, and others” in an attempt to “gain a contemporary understanding of human attributes that have traditionally been described in abstract, philosophical, or spiritual terms.” The NHC wants to consider the possible ramifications of the approaching “posthuman era” by bringing into conversation with these humanists the scientists who have been turning their attention to questions typically reserved for the humanists—questions that have to do with “the nature of human identity; the legitimate scope of agency in determining the circumstances or conditions of one’s life; the relation of cognition to embodiment; the role of chance, luck, or fate; the definition of and value attached to ‘nature’; and the nature and limits of moral responsibility.” From 2006 through 2009 the National Humanities Center is offering residential fellowships and convening symposia and seminars that bring together humanists and scientists to engage in a more full dialogue on the following three “distinct but related areas”:
1. Human autonomy, which entails the capacity for self-determination, self-awareness, and self-regulation that is central to our conceptions of free will and moral accountability.
2. Human singularity, on which our privileged place in the order of being, distinct from animals on the one hand and from machines on the other, is premised.
3. Human creativity, through which mankind demonstrates its capacity for representation and expression, and which many take to be the distinctive feature of the human species.
According to Katherine Hayles, a Senior Fellow in NHC’s Project, “the humanities have always been concerned with shifting definitions of the human,” so “the human has always been a kind of contested term.” But for Hayles, “what the idea of the posthuman evokes that is not unique to the 20th century but became much more highly energized in the 20th century, is the idea that technology has progressed to the point where it has the capability of fundamentally transforming the conditions of human life.” The posthuman condition, then, in some respects, is thoroughly modern because of its dependence, partly, on technological and medical innovations that could not have even been imagined in the past.
Also within the humanities, in the realm of academic publishing, a book series has recently been launched—POSTHUMANITIES at the University of Minnesota Press—to address the post-humanities and posthumanism. For Cary Wolfe, the editor of this new series, posthumanism cannot be glossed with reference to terms like “post-industrialist” or “post-structuralist” or “post-modern,” for “the question of ‘posthumanism’ is more complicated than any of these [other ‘post-isms’], because it references not just chronological progression (what comes after the industrial, the modern, and so on) but also takes on fundamental ontological and epistemological questions that are not reducible to purely historical explanation.” Indeed, it is Wolfe’s hope that the books in his series will draw “renewed attention to the difference between historicity and ‘historicism’ that seems to have been largely elided or avoided in much recent work in the humanities.” The series, then, is “not ‘against’ history, of course, but against historicism in its more unreflective and problematic forms.”
It is precisely to Wolfe’s hope of a theoretical posthumanism that would pay better attention to the difference between historicity and an unreflective historicism, and to Hayles’s assertion that certain aspects of the posthuman can only ever be modern (or, driven by certain post-19th-century technologies), that our volume of essays, Fragments Toward a History of a Vanishing Humanisms, addresses itself. More specifically, we want to begin filling in what we believe has been a definitive lacunae, or gap, in posthumanist studies more generally: the absence of a theoretically rigorous longer (premodern) historical perspective. Many of the contemporary discourses on posthumanism have mainly focused on the ways in which new findings in fields such as biotechnology, neuroscience, and computing have complicated how we believe we are enacting our human “selves,” ushering in the language of crisis over the supposed destabilization of the category “human” in its biological, social, and political aspects (the futurist-dystopic view). Or they have concentrated on a theoretical reform of a humanistic tradition of thought (from the Renaissance through modernity) believed to have produced, in Iain Chambers’ words, an oppressive “history of possessive subjectivism” (the self-critical philosophical view). Or, finally, in some circles (primarily scientific, but also cultural, studies) the same posthuman turn has led to a language of hope and elation over all of the ways in which we—whatever “we” might be—might finally be able to escape or somehow make less vulnerable or more joyful the death-haunted “trap” of our all-too-human bodies (the futurist-utopic view).
But what is missing from most of these discourses, even when they claim to address the question of history, historicism, or historicity, are what we would call the incorporated dialogue of scholars who have a deep expertise in premodern studies (antiquity through the Middle Ages), for while “the past” is often invoked and (crudely) drawn in contemporary theory, it is rarely visited via the route of, or unsettled by, actual scholarship in premodern studies—scholarship, moreover, that in recent years has been equally concerned with issues of the human and the animal, self and subjectivity, cognition and affectivity, singularity and networks, corporality and embodiment, and in a theoretically sophisticated manner that also calls into question the “straight” teleologies and causal explanations of a traditional, or in Wolfe’s terms, an unreflective historicism. This is not a scholarship, either, that Hayles worries might adopt the “attitude that there’s nothing that has happened or could happen that has not already happened in the past,” but rather, these studies pose the Middle Ages, in the words of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, as an “interminable, difficult middle” that stresses “not difference (the past as past) or sameness (the past as present),” but “temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity.” Although seemingly wholly “Other,” the past in these studies is “lodged deep within social and individual identity, a foundational difference at the heart of the selfsame,” and could even be described as a kind of “unbounded” space-time that is generative of human identity through a “constant movement of irresolvable relations that constitute its traumatic effect, an ever-expanding line that arcs back through what has been even as it races toward what it shall be.” These are also studies that acknowledge, as Caroline Walker Bynum writes, that “the past is seldom usefully examined by assuming that its specific questions or their settings are the same as those of the present. What may, however, be the same is the way in which a question, understood in its context, struggles with a perduring issue such as, for example, group affiliation.” But these are lines of critical thought that, for a while now, have been mainly confined to conversations between premodernists (who might be discussing with each other, for example, “old” versus more “new” historicist approaches to their subjects of study), and they do not always productively connect with the work of humanists (or scientists) working in disciplines concerned with more contemporary, or posthuman, subjects, and who might view the too-distant past, perhaps, as either beside or opposite the point.
Nevertheless, as Cohen has provocatively argued, the Middle Ages were already posthuman, for it was a period fascinated with composite and monstrous bodies-becoming, and with the transformations between inhuman and human, corporal and more abstract forms. Even in the medieval period, human identity was, “despite the best efforts to those who possess[ed] it to assert otherwise—unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous.” It was partly with this idea in mind—of both a posthuman Middle Ages and an approaching posthuman era, neither of which can be free of concepts, identities, and social forms that are always both dead and alive at once—that the BABEL Working Group (hereafter referred to as BABEL), a loosely organized collective of medievalists, was formed in 2004 in order to create new and mutually productive alliances with scientists and cultural theorists, especially in relation to the anxieties that currently pace and fret around the historically vexed terms, human, humanity, humanism, and the humanities. To that end, we have initiated a series of conversations (at academic conferences, but also through online media and in print) between humanists working in different periods with social scientists, scientists, and artists that have been structured by these questions:
This last question has special prominence in BABEL’s collective project. There is no doubt that humanism—especially of the variety in which, in Iain Chambers’ words, “the human subject is considered sovereign, language [is] the transparent medium of its agency, and truth [is] the representation of its rationalism”—has a terrible reputation and has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated in history. Furthermore, we are aware that any attempt to recuperate humanism now may always come too late if, as Foucault supposes in the conclusion to The Order of Things, “man” has already been “erased,” like “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Nevertheless, there are good reasons, we believe, for hanging on to the idea of the possibility of a recuperated and recuperative humanism such that, while we are fully aware that humanism has a long and troubling history that implicates it in violent exclusions, deprivations, and disenfranchisements of all sorts, we would also aver that humanism (of different philosophical varieties) has also been responsible for heroic acts of psychic and material sustenance, rescue and redemption, mutually-productive alliance and overcoming, and personal freedom. This is also to say, following Edward Said, that what might be called the canonical texts of Western humanism, “far from being a rigid tablet of fixed rules and monuments bullying us from the past . . . will always remain open to changing combinations of sense and signification; every reading and interpretation of a canonical work reanimates it in the present” and shows us that history is “an agonistic process still being made, rather than finished and settled once and for all.” And even the most compelling anti-humanist texts, such as Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites, continue, in Kate Soper’s terms, to “secrete” humanist rhetoric.
There can be, in other words, no anti- or posthumanism without the space of the university humanities where, as Derrida has written, the principle of unconditionality “has an originary and privileged place of presentation, of manifestation, of safekeeping” as well as its “space of discussion and reelaboration.” And all of this “passes as much by way of literature and languages (that is, the sciences called the sciences of man and culture) as by way of the nondiscursive arts, by way of law and philosophy, by way of critique, by way of questioning—where it is a matter of nothing less than rethinking the concept of man, the figure of humanity in general, and singularly the one presupposed by what we have called, in the university, for the last few centuries, the Humanities.” In this sense, BABEL desires what Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley have termed a critical or “baggy” humanism that “takes the human to be an open-ended and mutable process.” And like Halliwell and Mousley, we wish to develop a new or post-humanism that is “both a pluralistic and a self-critical tradition that folds in and over itself, provoking a series of questions and problems rather than necessarily providing consolation or edification for individuals when faced with intractable economic, political, and social pressures.” This is a humanism that acknowledges, with Chambers, that “[b]eing in the world does not add up, it never arrives at the complete picture, the conclusive verdict. There is always something more that exceeds the frame we desire to impose,” and also agrees with Wolfe that “the human” is “not now, and never was, itself.”
A heretofore underdeveloped consideration of the deep past in the posthumanist project is where BABEL locates its point of entry into the ongoing conversation, but the (posthuman) present always provides, for BABEL, the pressing questions. We are therefore intensely invested, as Fernand Braudel was in the 1950s, with the idea that “nothing is more important, nothing comes closer to the crux of social reality, than [the] living, intimate, infinitely repeated opposition between the instant of time and that time which flows only slowly. Whether it is a question of the past or of the present, a clear awareness of this plurality of social time is indispensable to the communal methodology of the human sciences.” As regards our more narrow purview—literature, history, philosophy, narrative and critical theory, and the arts—BABEL is especially concerned with developing, from a long or “slow” historical perspective, a critical humanism that would explore: 1) the significance (historical, socio-cultural, psychic, etc.) of human expression, and affectivity; 2) the impact of technology and new sciences on what it means to be a human self; 3) the importance of art and literature to defining and enacting human selves; 4) the importance of history in defining and re-membering the human; 5) the artistic plasticity of the human; 6) the question of a human collectivity or human “join”: what is the value, and peril, of “being human” together? and finally, 7) the constructive, and destructive, relations (aesthetic, historical, and philosophical) of the human to the nonhuman.
As a natural extension of our conference sessions, various online dialogues, and of our recently published volume, “Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project,” which comprises essays by five medievalists, a Victorianist, a critical theorist, and a psychotherapist, BABEL now proposes to publish Fragments Toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism, which brings together scholars working in premodern and early modern studies in order to demonstrate the importance of the longer historical view to posthumanist theory and to also argue for the value of a presentist premodern studies—one that directly engages with posthumanist discourses already in progress and that critically reroutes those discourses in directions that we hope will be productive of a new interdisciplinarity that will not just lapse into what Cary Wolfe has termed a system of “‘hetero-reference’ that is always a product of ‘self-reference’.” Moreover, we look toward the building, in the words of Bill Readings, of a “community that is not made up of subjects but singularities”: this community would not be “organic in that its members do not share an immanent identity to be revealed,” and it would not be “directed toward the production of a universal subject of history, to the cultural realization of an essential human nature.” (Readings 1996, 185). It is not our objective to produce consensus on the status or question of the human and humanism, but rather to create, again in the words of Readings, a community “of dissensus that presupposes nothing in common,” and that “would seek to make its heteronomy, its differences, more complex.” And instead of aiming for a new interdisciplinary space that would “reunify” supposedly estranged disciplines, we seek instead a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how [our humanist and posthumanist] thoughts fit together.”
The volume is divided into two sections, the first part (I. Singularity, Species) focusing on critical issues that circulate around questions of human “singularity” and human “species,” and the second part (II. Human, Inhuman) concentrating on the oppositions and relations of the human to the inhuman. Although all of the essays in the book, regardless of their exact placement, can be read productively in relation to each other (because each essay, in one form or another, takes up the question of the status—epistemological, ontological, psychic, historical, cultural, aesthetic, and so on—of the “human being”), the division of the book’s contents has been very carefully structured to highlight, in the first section, the historical and critical problematics surrounding the attempts (both in the past and the present) to delineate “the human” as a singularity (whether as an individual or as a unique species), and in the second section, to foreground the ethico-cultural dilemmas that arise when “the human” is marked off from what is supposedly nonhuman or inhuman. Each section begins with what might be called the most historically “mute” period—the so-called “prehistoric” (the chapters by Jeffrey Skoblow and Jeffrey Cohen, respectively)—and then includes chapters that consider “instants” of modern critical thought and/or culture (such as, for example, Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” the surrealist biology of Roger Caillois, the iPod, and the Showtime television series Dexter) in relation to the “slower” currents of premodern thought and culture that still inhere in the present (such as, for example, the heroic quest, the devotional manual, the Oedipus myth, and the idealized “Lady” of troubadour poetry).
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part I. Singularities, Species
“Paleolithic Representation of Human Being at Rouffignac, France” Jeffrey Skoblow (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
This essay attempts a close look at the Paleolithic paintings and engravings in the cave of Rouffignac, in southern France, with a particular focus on representations of human faces. These images are dated at (roughly) 13,000 years old, but are similar to all Paleolithic images reaching back over 30,000 years and found from Siberia to Cantabrian Spain, both in matters of style and in the fact that we know virtually nothing of the Ice Age cultures which produced them, and even less of the meanings these images might have held for the people who made them or for others who looked at them.
My aim is to examine these earliest representations of ourselves in the context of this hermeneutic vacuum, to take the Paleolithic as a kind of limit-situation (as Paulo Freire would call it) of human representation. What can we make of such images of ourselves, or of the makers of these images, when we are unable to historicize them, or to culturally contextualize them, or psychologize them? How can we talk about such images at all, stripped so bare of signifying codes? And how might we talk about “the human” in this context? What images of “the human” are we seeing? These are the essential questions I want to address. The prehistoric context frames the question of humanity in the starkest possible terms, and makes the question of meaning itself more than usually problematic. These earliest images of human beings are closely associated with the more well-known images of animals, at Rouffignac as everywhere else in the Paleolithic, including some instances (as at Chauvet, Trois-Freres, Pech-Merle, Gabilou, and El Castillo, cave sites also addressed, though briefly, in this essay) of hybrid human-animal beings—so the conception of “the human” is not as plain as it might be right from the start. And while the images of animals are almost always quite shocking in their artistic perfection and verisimilitude, the images of humans are unfailingly crude in execution, grossly schematic cartoons at best. How we are to understand this simultaneous conflation of and distinction between human and other animal beings is another part of the puzzle. Ultimately I am trying to demonstrate both the shakiness and the sturdiness of “the human” as a conceptual construct, and the methodological difficulties involved in approaching it in its earliest manifestations.
“He Did Not Know Him by the Visage: Eros, Event, and Faciality in Malory's Tale of Balyn and Balan” Eileen A. Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
This essay will explore the tension between two assessments—one medieval and one modern—regarding what might be called the question of the “species” of the human individual. In De civitate dei, Augustine wrote that, unlike all other living creatures and animals, God chose to create the entire race of man from only one individual, “not certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of society, but by this means the unity of society and the bond of concord might be more effectually commended to him, men being bound together not only by similarity of nature, but by family affection.” But according to most contemporary social theorists—such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash—the late modern individual, in contrast to the individual living in the premodern world, has been, in a sense, completely cut loose from her social bonds and does not even retain, as a remainder, her own intact selfhood (whatever “intact” might mean). According to Lash, this individual is “a combinard” who “puts together networks, constructs alliances, makes deals,” and “must live, is forced to live in an atmosphere of risk in which self-knowledge and life-chances are precarious.” Further, she is a nomad who lives in “regularizable chaos” at “the interface of the social and the technical.” In Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s formulation, the modern individual is caught in a continual self-reflexive processes of “disembedding without reembedding” and the human being is “a tray full of sparkling snapshots”: only “a choice among possibilities, homo optinis.” One of the supposed reasons for this state of affairs, according to Giddens, is that, whereas “in premodern settings . . . time and space were connected through the situatedness of place,” in late modernity social relations are “lifted out” from local contexts and rearticulated “across indefinite tracts of time-space.”
Beginning with Bauman’s statement that society has “always stood in ambiguous relation to individual autonomy: it was, simultaneously its enemy and its sine qua non condition,” and through a reading of the purposeless “quest” of Balyn, the knight with two swords, in Malory’s Morte dArthur, this essay will propose that the supposedly late modern “combinard” had already emerged in a Middle Ages that could be as multi-local and non-linear as Bauman’s “liquid modernity.” It will be argued that “the human” has always been in the process of coming “unstuck” from what might be called the consolations of local times and places and tightly-woven “family” groups, partly because the idea of the heroic individual “mastering” the world—whether the knight in Camelot or the financier on Wall Street—has been essential to the valorization of the human subject, while at the same time, that same heroic individual can only ever really succeed or fail on the terms set by the group from which she is always coming “undone.” This is ultimately problematic for any humanism that would depend on a notion of a particulate being whose individuality is supposedly uniquely separate (and sacred), yet always has to be “attached” somehow to the group who would recognize the rights (or sanctity) of the “person.” Following the thinking of Leo Bersani that “we are neither present in the world nor absent from it,” and Claude Romano's "evential hermeneutics" (formulated in his book Event and World), this essay will ultimately argue for a conception of the human person as a type of queer location (a “highly localized site of awareness” in the words of medieval historian David Gary Shaw) that is always in the process of "becoming" through the impersonal events of the world that never cease "happening" to it.
“The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self” Tim Spence (Hollins University)
This essay compares two seemingly alien technologies that have surprisingly similar effects on the people who use them: the iPod and the medieval Book of Hours. I argue that today’s iPods are yesterday’s Books of Hours, and I demonstrate that we can learn quite a bit about the culture of devotion that produced a boom in the production of prayer manuals in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries by thinking of these manuscripts as akin to the iPod and mp3 players in today’s popular culture. These devices help to “individualize” us, allow us immediate access to our private passions. At the same time, however, these technologies also habituate our emotions to function within a larger corporate structure. I develop my argument by reading lyrics composed by the premodern mystic, Richard Rolle, and the postmodern mystical rock-and-rollers, David Bowie and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig. The medieval mystic and rock-and-roller stand as bookends opposed to modernity. Both icons extend far beyond modernity’s scientific reason and the logos of the printed word. Richard Rolle claims to have embodied—and tried to instruct others how to embody—a constant state of sweetness in the form of a song. Rolle’s notion of embodiment has much more in common with Hedwig’s “angry inch” than either do with the scientific gaze of Grey’s Anatomy.
The “mystic rocker”—what I identify as a perennial form of humanistic being—embodies a habitus of devotion based on complex systems of imagery. The images of these cultures of devotion focus on a limited number of themes, including personal suffering, particularly in love and fighting. Unlike a habitus based on scientific reason, the mystic rocker embraces emotions as a viable medium for cultural memory and social communication, and as vehicles through which individuals might experience a particular physical sensation—oftentimes describable as “bittersweet”—whenever s/he wants. In 1407 the most popular vehicle, or media, for an intimate and immediate invocation of this pleasure/pain through spiritual devotion was the Book of Hours; in 2007 it is the iPod. But the intimacy of the devotional manual and the intimacy of the iPod belie their corporate function. Using a prayer book or an iPod habituates an individual into a mode of being that links the emotions to a corporate identity that is both omnipresent and invisible.
“Labor, Language, and Laughter: Aesop and the Apophatic Human” Nicola Masciandaro (Brooklyn College, City University of New York)
In the last quarter of the fifteenth century, when Pico della Mirandola’s Oratio de hominis dignitate (1486) asserted so radically the self-determinability of human nature, an alternate fresh version of the human, like a shadow or counter-image of the Renaissance man, was making its way around Europe in printed vernacular translations of the thirteenth-century monk Maximus Planudes’s Life of Aesop. As introduced in Caxton’s Aesop, the father of the animal fable, a slave, was “deformed” and “could not speak, but notwithstanding all this he has a great wit and was greatly ingenious, subtle in calculations, and joyous in words.” Contrary to medieval and Renaissance concepts of human dignity, Aesop, a wise laughing laborer, embodies the distinguishing powers of human nature (animal risibile, animal rationale, animal laborans) in a form that exposes rather than resolves the ambivalence of the human, the doubleness of its belonging to what is “above” and “below,” soul and body, logos and zoe. If the humanist “discovery of man” is more deeply, as glossed by Agamben, “the discovery that he lacks himself, the discovery of his irremediable lack of dignitas,” then Aesop may be understood as incarnating this lack, as figuring the instabilities of the human that humanism labors to contain. Where Pico’s man is fashioned from no archetype, Aesop’s most frequently applied adjective is “counterfayted.” Where humanism essentializes “man,” finding for humanity a single proper name, Aesop speaks ambivalently of “humayne man.” Aesop, as the embodiment (both exemplar and subject) of self-otherness, as a body that is at once so patently not its possessor and so literally the medium of the thrownness of its possessor’s life, from the “accident” of its birth to the arbitrariness of its death (thrown from a cliff!), points towards unknowing and non-identity as wisdom’s home—a fruition of Aesop’s gift of wisdom, received from the goddess of hospitality in reward for his welcoming, and sharing his labor’s fruits with, another.
This essay will use Aesop as a touchstone for two related arguments, one about late medieval human nature and another about the coming humanism, which I envision as an apophatic humanism, a humanism grounded in unknowing, the arbitrariness of identity, and the self-as-question. Both arguments draw upon late medieval negative theology (Cloud of Unknowing, Eckhart, Cusa) and the permutations of apophatic principles in contemporary philosophy: Agamben’s “whatever being,” Levinas’s “Other,” and John Caputo’s “radical hermeneutics.” Read through the categories of labor, laughter, and language, the figure of Aesop serves to illuminate similarly ambivalent models of human nature in late medieval literature. Via synthetic readings of these themes in three fourteenth-century English texts—labor in The Cloud of Unknowing, laughter in Piers Plowman, and language in The Canon Yeoman’s Tale—I explore the possibility that medieval human nature, as a distinct phase of human self-definition, is characterized to a special degree by ambivalence, by being both divine and animal. The lesson of the late medieval human in this sense lies in its apophasis, in the human as the negation of its own event. Defining the human in this mode is not only inherently true—the human is an animal that does not know what it is—but supremely practical. Understanding ourselves as not ourselves is an essential foundation for labor and love as sacrifices of selves that are not us for others who are equally thrown. As an open, non-essentializing procedure, apophatic humanism can both preserve the transcendence of the human and preclude speciesism. Prioritizing the apophatic nature of human being acknowledges self-knowledge as the humanistic quest, but not without offering a basis for extending that quest beyond the operations of letters and philosophy, as well as beyond human nature itself into the greater world of embodied beings, who are similarly other than what they appear to be.
What Does Language Speak? Feeling the Human in Chretien de Troyes and Samuel Beckett
Daniel Remein (New York University) and Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio)
This essay will ask what language speaks: what "the human" spoken by language feels like in two texts separated by a strange passage of language and time, and how those speakings are, together: poetically, erotically, historically. The book in which this essay is to be published would ask, among other questions, what it means to still desire something human. At the end of such a book—whether we want to save or destroy certain fragments from a vanishing humanism; whether we would catalogue or remember them; whether or not such fragments will survive or for how long; and what the stakes are of their survival—in advance of the parting of such verdicts, before all that, the authors of this essay would first name a desire for each other. In advance of a verdict on the future of a vanishing humanism, this essay is meant to release a fragment of what our desires would speak: an invitation to read Chrétien de Troye’s Perceval and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy near to each other, face to face, as in the same neighborhood. They each, to use phrases from Heidegger, “draw into the others’ nearness,” a nearness which “does not depend on space and time considered as parameters” (On the Way to Language, pp. 82, 103). We will describe how Molloy and Perceval address each other as questions rifting the space-time of literary and intellectual history, indeed the history of language and of the human—an extraordinary address, a call to nearness from each to each which still “does not wrest what it calls away from the remoteness” (Heidegger, Poetry, Language Thought, p. 196.).
Part II. Human, Inhuman
“The Life of the Past” Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University)
This essay examines two enmeshed questions: What is the relationship between art and time? Do humans alone possess art, or is art an inhuman force practiced by nature and inhabiting the human? My point of departure is the writings of the surrealist-biologist Roger Caillois, whose work on animal mimicry and geological formations challenges the assumption that art is a uniquely human achievement. In bioluminescent creatures which glow for no audience and in city-like spirals embedded in stone unworked by hands, Caillois sees an excess of meaning, of substance, of beauty that exists defiantly outside reduction into context or use value. What Caillois calls the “systematic overdetermination of the universe,” evident within its smallest and largest elements, its most fleeting and most enduring components, suggests a non-anthropocentric mode for viewing the world, one in which humans are one group of artists among many (or even one art project among many).
Yet in Caillois’s The Writing of the Stones the vast temporal spans necessary for geoartistry are barely acknowledged. The ruinous effects of history upon human-made stone art (megaliths, cities) contrasts sharply with the near temporal immunity of Caillois’s sedimentary designs. Perhaps art isn’t so much inherent in a thing itself, a superfluous but inert aesthetic effect, but instead inhabits a story-laden encounter with beauty in time. That is, art may have an inhuman component or trajectory, but without some testimony attached to its near-immobile objectivity, that art lacks vitality, lacks the life that only narrative can dream, bestow, and mourn. Narrative is clearly not uniquely human. DNA replication, for example, works through a chemical process that could be described as life narrative, unfolding permutations of flesh through subtle readings (and misreadings) of genes, of codes. The universe has developed according to its own narrative, the laws of physics that went into place at the Big Bang. Human narrative uses words, images, and emotions to unfold a story at the pace of life, that is, in the brief span of the organism-time. These stories are less bound by causality than DNA or physical law stories. They come from life, retain a life of their own, even engender a life that can be called humane. This humane difference can be clearly glimpsed in meditations upon ruins, such as the Old English poems “The Wanderer” and “The Ruin”: narratives that look simultaneously backwards and forwards across great temporal gaps, entwining a deep past with an impossibly distant horizon to come. Such is also the theme of the Australian writer Randolph Stow's The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980), a kind of postcolonial meditation on the inhuman in history, on the life of the past. In eruptions of leafy green fecundity in the midst of human despair, or in the encounter with stone brought to dust and emptied of its human content can, paradoxically, be seen what is human about art: a desire for being in time, not for beauty out of time—for time, that is, that lives, not time as frozen in perdurable stone.
“My Lady Dumps” Michael A. Johnson (University of Texas, Austin)
When electro bad girl singer Peaches posted her parody of Alanis Morissette’s parody of (Black Eyed Peas singer) Fergie’s hit song “My Humps”—entitled “My Dumps”—the YouTube community got a notion for the critical power of shit to reveal ideologies at work both in Fergie’s self-commodification and in Morissette’s (privileged white) feminist critique of Fergie’s commodified “lady lumps.” By converting the song’s refrain from, “my lovely lady lumps” to the absurd, but queerly resonant, “my lovely lady dumps,” Peaches forced her audience to think about the relationships between women and commodity, and between the feminine and the excremental, which bear ultimately on the question of the elevation of the human (and the debasement of its others). I suggest that this YouTube phenomenon of parodied parodies has a distinctly medieval character to it inasmuch as the versions are produced in a spirit of mouvance. I also argue that Fergie’s “lady lumps,” to the extent that they become the idealized object of critical attention, both in her own self-presentation and in the parodies of her song, might be compared to the idealized figure of the Lady in troubadour love poetry.
Taking seriously both Dominique Laporte’s observation that humanism might in fact be defined by its penchant for human waste and Lacan’s assertion that an important feature distinguishing “man” from animals is that, with humans, the disposal of shit becomes a problem, “My Lady Dumps” examines the relationship between the excremental and the elevation of the human through the (paradoxically inhuman) figure of the Domna, or courtly Lady, in troubadour love poetry. In Lacan’s 7th Seminar, which most Lacan scholars agree marks a shift in his thinking from a purely structuralist to a more materialist understanding of subjectivity, he discusses the figure of the Domna at length. Therein, he refers to the excremental as the formless remainder of a quasi-theological elevation of the Domna. In effect, the troubadours were preoccupied with the excremental and with the animal, both anxiously related to the feminine in their poetry. Raimbaut d’Auregna uses the senhal “Mon Anel” (‘my ring’, but also, ‘my anus’) to refer to his Lady while Raimon de Miraval describes his Lady as a sexually rapacious lioness who makes men into shitting horses. The “invention” of fin’amors is a critical—maybe even primal—scene in the pre-history of humanism. By paying attention to the excremental dimension of these and other troubadour poems, we may gain some perspective as we begin to rethink the human in and against this late-capitalist paradigm we currently inhabit.
“How Delicious We Must Be: Anthropophagy, Again” Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, City University of New York)
Medieval discourses of anthropophagy have been productively studied as a profanation or desublimation of the Eucharist and as metaphors of tyranny, conquest, and ethnic hybridization. In their attention to anthropophagy as a metaphor of interiority, exteriority, incorporation, and of the horrific substratum of individual, familial, and communal self-formation, such studies have drawn on the psychoanalytic fascination for anthropophagy. For Freud, ancestral anthropophagy catalyzed the formation of the law of the father, for Klein, infantile anthropophagous desires organized the self along axes of guilt, rage, and nostalgia for a world without distinctions between self and objects, and for other thinkers, Wilhelm Stekel for example, anthropophagous desires are vestigial, but everpresent, remnants of our primordial cultures. In their enthusiasm for tropic understandings of anthropophagy, such studies have neglected human flesh itself, the literal desired object of anthropophagy. They have also neglected why this particular form of carnivorousness should be so fascinating and scandalous. My study foregrounds this flesh in its human meatiness to explain the fascination of anthropophagy as a communifying process for the human itself. In the course of my argument, I demonstrate that the human is a site of anxiety, something that must be, but can never be perfectly, established.
According to dominant Christian discourses in the Middle Ages, and indeed according to most currently dominant discourses, animals possess mere biological life, zoe rather than bios (see Agamben, Homo Sacer, "Introduction"). They lack reason, language, and an immortal soul, everything that grants human life its unique value. They are legitimately edible. But according to many medieval references to the taste of human flesh, human, not animal, flesh is the most restorative and delicious of meats. To cite but two of these references, in a tale by Poggio Bracciolini, an anthropophage “confessed that he had eaten many other [children], and that he had done this because they seemed tastier to him than any other flesh”; and in the fifteenth-century hunting manual of Edward of York, wolves, having once tasted human flesh, "will never eat the flesh of other beasts, though they should die of hunger” because “man’s flesh is so savoury and so pleasant." Simply put, since humans are superior to animals, their flesh must be superior too. Whatever doubts one may have about the specialness of one’s own humanity, the delight of anthropophages in human flesh convinces them and us through them (see Zizek on “interpassivity”) of the specialness of humans among other living things. Indeed, our own temptation to partake of this best of meats convinces us that there must be something more to us than mere life; we must be creatures who cannot simply be put to use; our slaughter should not simply be a job, but a sin, an object of desire, a pleasure.
“Kill Your Inner Child and Embrace Your Inner Serial Killer: Against Liberal Humanism” Daniel T. Kline (University of Alaska, Anchorage)
Violence names the single most important point of conceptual contrast between liberal humanistic and poststructuralist thought. If I were to generalize, I would say that liberal humanism believes in the possibility of controlling or even eliminating violence through mediating, substitutionary, epistemic, and salvific mechanisms (contract, treaty, censorship, reason, science), while poststructuralism radically suggests that there is no “outside” to violence. It simply changes forms but is never eliminated. Thus, liberal humanism’s response is to “solve” the problem of violence (a teleological focus), while poststructuralism’s task is to recognize violence in its latent forms prior to its physical expression (an etiological emphasis).
This essay stages the contrast between liberal humanist and poststructuralist thought by examining two contemporary and explosive popular culture productions, one a cable TV program and the other a successful movie franchise, in light of a medieval rendition of the founding myth of psychoanalysis. The Showtime series Dexter (based on a couple of best selling novels) features the provocatively novel, even twisted, premise of a moral serial killer. Dexter is a serial killer who kills only (bad) serial killers, and the first season of Dexter depicts the birth of a conflicted human being from the shell of a remorseless though ethical killer. The Bourne trilogy, starring Matt Damon and loosely based upon the Robert Ludlum novels, presents a complementary narrative arc. Jason Bourne, the amnesiac killer produced by the clandestine Treadstone program, likewise moves from thoughtless violence to ethical potential primarily because of his supremely violent personal efficiency. In both characters, their teleology is known and fixed and their search is for their origins, their etiology, and that search discards morality (following the dictates of a socially determined system) in favor of a Levinasian ethics (an attitude of being held hostage to the ethical demand extended by the other) prior to subjectivity. In these violent representations, we witness the birth of an ethical human out of horrific violence justified by humanistic culture.
Against the conventional inevitable Oedipal reverberations in these texts, particularly each character's search of their origins, I read Dexter and Bourne in light of Lydgate's rendition of the story of Edippus in The Siege of Thebes, who unlike Freud and psychoanalysis after him, tells the whole story of Edippus/Oedipus, including his violent origins and their relentless and increasingly violent and violating consequences. Thus, against the liberal humanist ideal that persons—children—are born tabula rasa (innocent and with a clean slate) and are later shaped, even perverted, by cultural processes, I argue that by recognizing the ubiquity of violence, defined by a particular poststructuralist understanding, both demonstrates the fatal limitations of liberal humanism and necessity for a Levinasian ethics as first philosophy, prior to knowledge and even being.
Part III. Post-Script
“Trick of Singularity: Twelfth Night, Stewards of the Posthuman, and the Problem of Aesthetics” Craig Dionne (Eastern Michigan University)
This paper will argue that Twelfth Night stages the problems associated with the latest turn to ethics in the field of literary studies. Following the work of Derek Attridge, especially his Singularity of Literature, critics want to establish a more concrete relationship between the traditional aesthetic ideals from the past and the contemporary reader’s “ethical awareness,” and promote a new concept of singularity to express what makes a poem or literary artifact “unique.” The term allows for a finessed theory of artistic creation, describing what is special, distinct, or uncommon about literariness. By returning to aesthetics, teachers and critics—the “stewards” of ruling class values—also defend the disciplinary boundaries that are questioned by the radical historicism(s) that promoted an interdisciplinary approach to the literary text as a composite of social discourses and cultural performances. Trying to avoid the pitfalls of Romantic metaphysical categories of sublimity and transcendence (the target of materialist literary criticism since the 1980’s), critics like Attridge have attempted to carve out a critical language that means to reveal how the social importance of a piece of work resides in its ability to represent the object world with a distinct vision, to capture “Otherness” and replay for the reader an uncommon experience that exercises the mind’s ability to live in accord with social difference. The return to ethics is staged as a neo-deconstruction, borrowing loosely from Derrida’s discourse of différance, and its ability to read literary texts as allegories of theory.
I want to explore Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in this vein, arguing that at its core, the uncanny story of a unique heroine whose strength and voice is “duplicated” in her same/different brother, Sebastian, offers a kind of parable of the problem of posthuman aesthetics. Malvolio’s attempt to acquire “singularity,” I will argue, through affecting the bearing of an aristocrat—his dream of class ascendance—exposes the perils of such a return to traditional ethics. His attempt at constructing a persona of “singularity” and his subsequent exposure as being “mad” bear witness to the time bound and contingent nature of meaning, as in the Renaissance voiced anxiety over the term meaning “distinctive” and “noteworthy,” but also “foreign” and “conspicuous.” If he wants to force a return to aesthetics (ignoring the new place of literary studies in the corporate university), then the price is a kind of madness and the risk of being exposed for social pretense. On the other hand, Viola’s own class aspirations can be read as an aesthetic posturing in its own right, as a more “natural” form of art and self-awareness, more in keeping with the “order of things.” Clearly, it is a different kind of ideological compromise where her “living difference” and ignoring origins is a parable of theory’s integration into literary criticism, what John Guillory describes as the deconstructive “fetishization of rigor” that accompanied theory’s assimilation into the pragmatic day-to-day work of traditional criticism. We sense that Shakespeare is seeking to assuage his own class ambitions by displacing his father’s will to class ascendance through Viola’s etiquette. Her seeking love by following her lord is akin to finding one’s “place” in an established politics of patronage (this would be the marriage of liberal critical theory to a rearguard aesthetics, assuming the role as stewards of culture to the new technocrats). Both perspectives of aesthetics—that is, both Malvolio’s forced conversion, and Viola’s natural course of assimilation—play out the dialectic of aesthetic conversion and stewardship. Twelfth Night argues for a careful reexamination of the problem of these options, asking us to be wary of any appropriation of terms of difference and Otherness that may lead to undervaluing difference or appropriating critical categories—like that of Otherness—that have the potential to de-legitimize postcolonial and cultural studies even though they may offer a new critical language to refashion a traditional aesthetic framework.
9. For the best example of the “crisis” perspective, see Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). See also Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, Eng.: Blackwell, 2000); Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2000); and Langdon Winner, The Reactor and the Whale: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
11. For an excellent overview of “critical humanisms,” see Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley, Critical Humanisms: Humanist/Anti-Humanist Dialogues (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003). See also Tzvetan Todorv, The Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
12. On the futurist-utopic (or more affirmative) view, in both scientific and cultural studies, see especially Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. Bernard and Caroline Schultze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988); Nick Bostrom, “Why I Want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up,” http://nickbostrom.com; Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press, 2002); Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, “Introduction: Posthuman Bodies,” in Posthuman Bodies, ed. Halberstam and Livingston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) and When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Eduardo Kac, Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 2007); Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1999) and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005); Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1988); Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (New York: Avon, 1997); and Gregory Stock, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
13. Regarding a medieval studies that is critical of and subverts traditional historicist teleologies, see Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, “Introduction,” in Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Burger and Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. xi–xxiii; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Introduction: Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Cohen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 1–17 and “Time’s Machines,” in Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 1–34; Bruce Holsinger and Ethan Knapp, “The Marxist Premodern,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34.3 (Fall 2004): 463–71; Eileen A. Joy and Myra J. Seaman, “Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History,” in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 1–20; D. Vance Smith, “Irregular Histories: Forgetting Ourselves,” New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 161–84; and Paul Strohm, “Postmodernism and History,” in Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 149–62.
14. Hayles elaborates on this concern further when she says that, even though “one of the deep ideas of the humanities is that the past is an enduring reservoir of value, and that it pays us rich dividends to know the past,” there are some things “that have never happened before in human history. . . . we’ve never had the possibility for manipulating our own genome in a generation as opposed to 150 generations. We never had the possibility for individually manipulating atoms as in nanotechnology, and so forth” (quoted in Solomon, “Interview with N. Katherine Hayles”).
17. This is not to say that scholars working in premodern studies are not ever seeking a more cross-disciplinary or “modernist” audience. Some of them are and in pointed fashion; see, for example, Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007).
25. See Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of the Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Kate Soper, Humanism and Anti-Humanism (London: Hutchinson, 1986).
31. Fernand Braudel, “Histoire et sciences sociale: La longue durée,” trans. Sarah Matthews, in Histories: French Constructions of the Past, ed. Jacques Revel and Lynn Hunt (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 117 [115–45].
36. See Kathleen Biddick, The Shock of Medievalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998); Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines and The Postcolonial Middle Ages; Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Kruger and Burger, Queering the Middle Ages; Holsinger, The Premodern Condition; Erin Felicia Labbie, Lacan’s Medievalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Karma Lochrie, Heterosyncracies: Female Sexuality Before Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); and James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).