Doryjane Birrer (

College of Charleston

Southeastern Medieval Association, September 2005

BABEL Panel: Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms

Monstrous Progenies: A New Species of Humanties

[unrevised transcription]

My research and teaching fields are firmly rooted in the present, but as I move toward some ideas about conceptions of the human and the fate of the humanities, I’m going to play around with a premodern-postmodern connection that’s a bit out of my field and maybe way out in left field.  Because I’m going to start with werewolves.  The medieval romance William of Palerne tells the story of a werewolf who is actually the bewitched heir to the Spanish throne (bewitched, in fact, by his father’s wife).  He is a friendly werewolf.  A helpful werewolf.  In short, a humane werewolf, in both uses of the word “humane” outlined by Raymond Williams in Keywords: this werewolf is possessed—as those terrifying werewolves of horror films like The Howling are not—of “human nature,” of “human reason.”  And he is also humane in the later sixteenth-century sense of being “kind, gentle, courteous, [and] sympathetic” (Williams 148).  He rescues a young boy (the William of the romance’s title), he is sorrowful when William leaves him, he later becomes a sort of lupine protector to William, and so on, and so on.  William, in fact, characterizes the werewolf midway through the tale as being “of man’s kind,” and, near the end of the story, declares that the wolf has more human nature than himself and the king of Spain (another figure in the romance) combined.  

This conception of the werewolf as more human than beast—in fact more human than two humans—is an intriguing one, given that the classical conception of “human” as defined against “beast” or “monster” had only recently begun to shift toward the more medieval conception of human as defined in relation to divinity (Williams 149).  Perhaps that’s what makes this romance also a slightly disturbing tale: when a werewolf can be a friend and a parent can be an enemy, how can true “humanity” be identified—let alone defined—with any accuracy?  This brings me to my second, postmodern example, from season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This season marks the entrance into Buffy’s world of “The Initiative,” the blinkered, diabolical government military agency dedicated to capturing and de-fanging all monsters, when they’re not busy using them for torturous (in fact, I’ll say inhumane) experiments (or taking parts from them à la Victor Frankenstein to create a superhuman monster who talks like a Nietzschean Übermensch—but that’s a topic for another day).  So when Buffy’s season four lover Riley Finn, who is in fact a high-ranking Initiative commander, captures a werewolf whom his Initiative cohorts then proceed to torture, it should be business as usual.  And yet this particular werewolf is Buffy’s dear friend Oz, and Riley’s own former psych student (Riley is a teaching assistant)—and Oz has been one of the most humane characters on the show.  Riley’s military “us and them” mentality is severely challenged, as he is disturbed to discover how increasingly blurred are the boundaries between us and them, human and monster—and ultimately, given the methods of the Initiative, human and humane.

Okay, so William of Palerne still relies heavily on a pretty clear binary between good and evil despite its humane werewolf, and Buffy continually pits her white-hatted “Scooby gang” against each season’s baddies despite the show’s student werewolf and a couple of vampires with souls.  Some of you may have been itching to point this out, if I didn’t cop to it.  But of course I would point it out.  Much as the human capacity for higher reasoning is said to separate humans from beasts, a capacity for even higher higher reasoning might be said to separate academics from the more general populace, no?  Some sort of savvy self-reflexivity?  An awareness of the contingency and provisionality of our arguments?  And yet even as we employ such higher higher reasoning to contest the self/Other binaries that support, say, the rapacities of Imperialism and colonialism—civilized/barbaric, rational/superstitious, self-restrained/perverse, Christian/heathen to name a few—those binaries come in so darn handy when talking about humanism itself.  At least I find this to be the case when humanism is pitted against its most prominent Other: postmodern theory.  As with person versus werewolf, human versus monster, it’s so much easier to define humanism against theory, or the reverse (as was so often done, for example, in the too often polemical English studies debates of the 1980s).  From a liberal humanist perspective, theory is monstrous, given that tenets such as the construction of human identity, the mythical quality of any idea of universal “human nature,” the contingency of meaning and provisionality of truth threaten to undermine the values seen as crucial to the maintenance of a humane—in fact, “truly” human—society.  From a postmodern theory perspective, liberal humanism is monstrous for its complicity in so-called humane value systems that have led subjects (I hesitate to say “humans” or “humanity” in this context) to be dupes interpellated with the illusion of free will into, for example, oppressive social systems or ideological state apparatuses, to swipe briefly from Althusser.

Back more or less to my quirky governing metaphor.  Homo homini lupus est: Man to man is a wolf, as the Roman proverb runs.  And in an academic world in which professional interests and livelihoods, if not the fate of the humanities—indeed of humanity—are at stake, it is easy to treat each other rapaciously.  The nasty academic in Byatt’s Possession: A Romance is Fergus Wolff.  Theory is the wolf huffing and puffing at the door of humanism.  Humanism is the wolf lurking deceptively under comfortable grandmotherly clothing.  To construct a monstrous Other in English studies, from whatever perspective, provides a position to define oneself against—to give shape to what might otherwise be somewhat nebulous value systems, and to establish a hierarchy in which one’s own term in a somewhat spurious yet nonetheless seductive binary is privileged.  Naturally, then, it would be disturbing if one were to look into the eyes of the wolf and register a glimmer of something NOT other, but in fact like oneself—a truly uncanny recognition of the familiar at the heart of the unfamiliar.

Yet this startling recognition of similarity within difference is precisely what I think underlies recent discussions of the future of the humanities, particularly in relation to their conflicted grounding now in both liberal humanism and literary theory.  Jonathan Culler once described theory as a state of continual self-reflexivity; Gerald Graff described it as “the talk we talk when nothing goes without saying.”  Edward Said (in a series of lectures collected shortly before his death) argued for a more productive conception of humanism in very nearly the same terms.  Drawing on Vico, Said described humanistic knowledge NOT as totalizing and transcendent—theory’s major charges against it—but as “radically incomplete, provisional, disputable, and arguable” (12).  Said continues that humanism today must “take account” of that which it has repressed or deliberately ignored in its original White/Eurocentric patriarchal incarnation (46).  Humanists, he argues, “must situate critique at the very heart of humanism, critique as a form of democratic freedom” (47).

Similar sentiments were pervasive at the 2003 Critical Inquiry symposium that gathered together theorists of all stripes.  Rhetoric calling for a more humane world was ubiquitous in these theorists’ meditations on the future of theory, as were calls for a reevaluation of possibilities for human agency, reconsideration of what Homi Bhabha—who identified himself directly as a humanist—called “modes of personhood” or human identity, and increased attention to the “languages of cultural description and representation” as characteristic of humanistic discourse.  Terry Eagleton in the same year (in After Theory) called for a belief in at least some absolute truths (“racism is evil” being one; “corporate greed is poisoning the planet” being another), and for more attention to such messy subjects for theory as morality.  Bruno Latour’s statement for the symposium covered much the same ground, suggesting that theory’s own tendency toward absolute relativism and indeterminacy had undermined its grounds for political action—in which case, I would add, it might well be characterized as less than humane.  And William Haney’s recent work in consciousness studies—in an intriguing argument whose complexity defies the truncated scope of a roundtable—outlines how “many of the principles of deconstructive postmodernism . . . do not necessarily contradict and in fact often complement the principles of humanism,” including helping to constitute a productive story of the unified, irreducible, and autonomous self (21).

I can’t do justice to all the boundary blurring I’ve recently noted between theory and liberal humanism, nor can I even begin to touch on the positive impact this formidable solidarity—in Zygmunt Bauman’s useful sense of the term—might have on the humanities.  So I’ll return instead to my opening werewolf, or “monster” metaphor, itself about shapeshifting and the blurring of boundaries.  I want to conceive of monstrosity not as a function of difference, but as arising from hybridity, as is the case with the werewolf.  As Colin Milburn reminds us, “In the work of Jacques Derrida, the figure of the monster embodies a means of thinking otherwise,” or what Milburn, drawing on Darwinian concepts of monstrosity, calls the “nascent germ of a species about-to-become” (603-4).  So what I want to propose is that the monstrous discourse of humanistically rooted theory, the monstrous presence of a theoretically grounded humanism might well be the marvelous—if somewhat uncanny—progeny resulting in a new species of humanities.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt.  “Postmodernity, or Living with Ambivalence.”  A Postmodern Reader.  Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon.  New York: SUNY P, 1993.  9-24.

Bhabha, Homi.  “Statement for the Critical Inquiry Symposium.” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2003).  20 September 2005.  <http://>.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season.  1997.  Created by Joss Whedon.  Dir. Daniel Attias, Reza Badiyi, Joss Whedon, et. al.  Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendan, Alyson Hanigan, Seth Green, Marc Blucas.  DVD.  Twentieth Century Fox, 2003.

Byatt, A. S.  Posession: A Romance.  London: Vintage International, 1990.

Culler, Johnathan.  Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Eagleton, Terry.  After Theory.  New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Graff, Gerald.  Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.  New York: Norton, 1992.

Haney, William S.  “Science of Mind, Consciousness, and Literary Studies.”  Humanism and the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century.  Ed. William S. Haney and Peter Malekin.  Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2001.  17-52.

Latour, Bruno.  “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.”  Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2003).  20 September 2005.  <>.

Milburn, Colin.  “Monsters in Eden: Darwin and Derrida.”  MLN 118.3 (2003): 603-21.  JSTOR.  College of Charleston Libraries.  27 September 2005.  <>.

Said, Edward.  “The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice.”  Humanism and Democratic Criticism.  New York: Columbia UP, 2004.  31-56.

The Romance of William of Palerne: Otherwise Known as the Romance of “William and the Werewolf.  Ed. Walter Skeat.  Early English Text Society.  London: N. Trübner and Co., 1867.

Williams, Raymond.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  London: Fontana, 1975.