Eileen Joy (ejoy@coastal.edu)

Coastal Carolina University

Southeastern Medieval Association, September 2005

BABEL Panel: Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms


The Wild, Uncontrolled Time of the Individual-Becoming

[written while flying above posthuman America]


            Not too long ago, while watching CNN News, I was struck by what might be called a bricolage of disturbing stories and images, one right after the other. First was a story about professional divers who were helping to clean up post-Hurricane Katrina debris in Pontchartrain Bay in New Orleans, and who were commenting that one of the interesting sights that day had been a shark feeding on the corpse of a horse. Next up was a story about an alarming outbreak of avain flu in Indonesia, accompanied by images of a man drilling the lid shut on a child’s coffin and then of Indonesians strolling through cosmopolitan streets, buying flowers and vegetables, eating in sidewalk cafes, and wearing face masks. A medical expert warned that human-to-human transmission of the flu was likely around the corner, and might prove catastrophic, not only in Asia, but also here in the United States. Finally, there were satellite images of Hurricane Rita churning in the Gulf of Mexico, followed by an advertisement for Ambien, a sleeping pill. The news stories and the advertisement that followed them offered, one after the other, what might be called the queer landscapes of a world in which “the human” is either missing, sick, strange, or asleep. Either drugged or ethically numb, and thanks to globalization and various technologies (and even the "aftermath" of various technologies--think "global warming"), “the human” appears to have come unstuck from what might be called the consolations of local times and places, and is spiraling wildly out of control on what Anthony Giddens has called the juggernaut of modernity, from which, no one is able to “opt out.” There is no longer an “us versus them,” according to Giddens, only a “‘we,’ facing problems and opportunities where there are no ‘others’” (Modernity and Self-Identity, p. 22, 27). This is not to say that we do not have ethnic, religious, political, and so forth, types of fundamentalized conflicts, in which groups do very much square off against each other in “us versus them” configurations—it’s just that the fatal consequences of these so-called “local” conflicts are now global and spill over so-called territorial borders. As an Afghan woman in Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul, written prior to 9/11, exclaims to an American visitor, “We must suffer under the Taliban so that the U.S. can settle a twenty-year-old score with Iran! . . . You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don’t worry, they’re coming to New York!” And then with disgust, she adds, “Americans!” (p. 83).

But what of the individual in this global, paradoxically collective “we”? If there is one term that ties together the very palpable anxiety many social and political theorists seem to hold toward and for this figure, it is precariousness. According to Zygmunt Bauman, whereas in the pre-modern era one was “born into” his or her identity—an identity, moreover, with fixed norms and patterns of social behavior—in modernity, a fixed and normative “social standing” is replaced with “compulsive and obligatory self-determination” ("Foreword: Individually Together," p. xv). And the end result is “a combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability) and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possessions, neighbourhood, community)” (Liquid Modernity, p. 161). According to Scott Lash, the modern, non-linear individual is “a combinard. He puts together networks, constructs alliances, makes deals. He must live, is forced to live in an atmosphere of risk in which self-knowledge and life-chances are precarious” (p. ix). Further, the modern individual is a nomad who lives in “regularizable chaos,” at “the interface of the social and the technical” (p. xi), a place where the self is always fundamentally incomplete. Lash is careful to distinguish between the individual of the “first” Enlightenment (or, industrial) modernity and the individual of the “second” informational modernity—the first was “institutionalized” through “property, contract, the bourgeois family and civil society”; the second is destabilized through the “retreat of the classic institutions: state, class, nuclear family, ethnic group,” as well as through the general indeterminacy of knowledge, and as a result he begins to spin in perpetual, self-reflexive motion (pp. vii, ix-x). And the reason the “second” modern individual is “reflexive,” as opposed to “reflective” (with “reflective” denoting the individual’s ability to subsume an object under a subject of knowledge), is because he or she never has time to reflect, only to quickly and reflexively make decisions and choices—decisions and choices, moreover, that must be continuously re-thought and re-chosen because knowledge is always, in late modernity, uncertain, “probabilistic, at best; more likely ‘possibilistic’” (Lash, p. x).

Lash’s comments are part of his foreword to Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s groundbreaking work in social theory, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences.  In their work, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim define “individualization” (not to be confused with “individualism”—the neo-liberal philosophy of individual identity, à la Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, etc.) as a “non-linear, open-ended, highly ambivalent, ongoing process” in which, supposedly for the first time in history, “the individual is becoming the basic unit of social reproduction” (p. xxii). Put another way, supposedly for the first time in history, “Central institutions of modern life—basic civil, political and social rights, but also paid employment and the training and mobility necessary for it—are geared to the individual and not to the group,” and the individual is in a continual process of “disembedding without remembedding” (pp. xxi-xxii, xxii). We have to be careful to distinguish between this new, or what Beck and Beck-Gernsheim term, this “second modern” self and the “neoliberal idea of the free-market individual” which “rests upon an image of the autarkic human self” as someone who can “master the whole of their lives” and is able to “derive and renew their capacity for action from within themselves” (p. xxi). According to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, the late-capitalist modern individual is decidedly not this “monad but is self-insufficient and increasingly tied to others, including at the level of world-wide networks and institutions,” and the so-called “freedom culture,” in which each person supposedly has a right “to a life of his or her own . . . . is being destroyed by capitalism” (pp. xxi, xxiii). The human being, finally, is “a choice among possibilities, homo optinis” (p. 5). Beck and Beck-Gernsheim do not necessarily read in this state of affairs only negative consequences—whether in the personal or more political realms; rather, they see late modern processes of individualization as releasing individual creativity which, in turn, creates a “space for the renewal of society under conditions of radical change” (p. xxi). Nevertheless, they also concede that “the do-it-yourself biography is always a ‘risk biography’ . . . a state of permanent (partly overt, partly concealed) endangerment” (p. 3).

In order to describe and also grapple with what is believed to be the unique character and predicament of the individual in our current modernity--a modernity, moreover, that some label “second,” “late,” or “post-,” and Bauman, more elegantly, terms “liquid”—social and political theorists often have need to capitulate what is “recent” and “non-traditional” against what is supposedly “premodern” and “traditional.” As a result, the Middle Ages often stand in as a convenient background, or past, out of which the modern individual stumbles, or perhaps escapes, but only by first passing through the vectors of later, yet still “earlier” historical phases, such as the Renaissance, post-Kantian Enlightenment, or Industrial Age. Whereas in the second modernity, the individual is “a tray full of sparkling snapshots,” in “traditional, nationally-closed societies, the individual remains a species concept: the smallest unit of an imagined whole” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, pp. 23, 27). Further, according to Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, in the Middle Ages, one was born into “traditional society and its preconditions (such as social estate and religion),” and individuality was “deviant and sinful” (pp. 27, 3). Somewhat oddly, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim quote Jakob Burkhardt’s 1860 work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, in order to make the point, via Burkhardt’s words that, in the Middle Ages, everyone was “dreaming or half-awake, beneath a collective veil,” and “The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, corporation—only through some general category” (qtd. in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, p. 8). For Burckhardt and the social theorists bold enough to cite him as a lasting authority on the subject, the modern individual was suspended in a kind of sleep in the Middle Ages, yet awoke somehow and came into flickering, unquiet being somewhere in the early European Renaissance. He is made more fully flesh in the Enlightenment (yet is also set on a post-Kantian pathway there that will ultimately lead to the dethroning of all former havens of empirical knowledge), acquires a pseudo-emancipation through the modern marketplace, suffers vertigo and weightlessness through the deconstruction and down-sizing of everything, and can be seen milling around in post-traditional postmodernity as a socially disembedded, fundamentally incomplete, perpetually self-reflexive subject-consumer full of radical doubts and compulsive addictions (and perhaps, positive potentialities as-yet-untapped?), under constant threat of annhiliation (most likely due to global environmental or biological causes).

I do not want, for one minute, to make the facile argument that the modern individual is not so very different from the medieval individual (but which modern individual?, and which medieval individual? already over-complicates that notion, and we know better for so many other reasons), or that modernity is really no different, in its social forms, than the Middle Ages (and again: which Middle Ages?), although it can be argued, I believe, that the lines we often want to draw between “premodern” and “modern” are attempts to discern in history something that may not be there—a regular unfolding of “whole” world time in a particular, teleological direction. There has been much work in contemporary science, philosophy, and cultural theory that convincingly demonstrates, in the words of political theorist William Connolly, that “time flows into a future neither fully determined by a discernible past nor fixed by its place in a cycle of eternal return, nor directed by an intrinsic purpose pulling it along” (p. 144). Nevertheless, what I do want to suggest here is that many of the so-called “characteristics of modernity” described by contemporary social theorists rely upon an overly facile understanding of premodern histories (note the emphasis on the plural), while they also call forth, in beautiful detail, a picture of a world I am very familiar with already, not only in my own life, but through the texts of medieval literature. I recently taught a course in Arthurian literature—a body of work with which I must confess I have zero familiarity, knowledge, and training, and from which, with great delight, I have discovered a world brimming over with what I thought was modernity, and even, postmodernity. Although this literature is, indeed, invented and fabulist and only pretends to be historical, it does represent, I think, in many respects, the anxieties and aspirations of the process of becoming modern in the Middle Ages. To simplify matters somewhat, I want to look at three things Giddens has said are unique about our current modernity, and test those notions against Malory’s fifteenth-century story of “Balyn and Balan,” included in his Morte D'Arthur and based on the French prose Suite de Merlin.

According to Giddens, in his book Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, in late modernity, time and space become separated, whereas “in premodern settings . . . time and space were connected through the situatedness of place” (p. 16). Further, also in late modernity, there is a general “disembedding” of social institutions, whereby social relations are “lifted out” from local contexts and re-articulated “across indefinite tracts of time-space” (p. 17). Finally, one of the defining conditions of late modernity, obviously intimately related to the two characteristics just described, is globalization, which Giddens describes as being concerned with “the intersection of presence and absence, the interlacing of social events and social relations ‘at a distance’ with local contextualities” (p. 21). Therein lies almost the whole story of Balyn “le Saveage,” whose name almost says it all: Balyn begins his story by coming, as most knights do, from the outside of Camelot—a place not so much local, as anywhere you need it to be when you’re ready to arrive there—but Balyn is a little different from the other knights in that he came to Camelot as a prisoner, and is therefore the ex-con of the court. Balyn’s story begins when a damsel shows up wearing a scabbard and sword, which disconcerts Arthur because, frankly, women should not wear swords. But apparently this is an enchanted sword, and the damsel can only be “delivered” from it by “a passing good man of his hands and his deeds, and without villainy or treachery, and without treason” (p. 40). It goes without saying that no one, not even Arthur, can pull this sword out of its sheath, and when Balyn steps forward to try in his “poure araymente”—in other words, he is dressed like the poor, white, ex-con trash he supposedly is, and looks nothing like a knight—you might say the entire court is in shock, and the damsel herself lets him know he simply isn’t worthy of even the attempt. Balyn’s response to this rebuff is a unique instance of the idea of the wholly interior self in this literature, and it is an idea that, unfortunately, will bring about his undoing. “Fair damsel,” he says, “worthiness and good traits and also good deeds is not only in clothing, but manhood and honor is hidden within a man’s person, and many an honorable knight is not known to all people—and therefore, honor and strength is not in clothing” (p. 42). Of course, in this world, clothing really is everything, and Balyn’s statement that honor emanates from the person, which is somewhere within the visible body and its clothing where it can’t be readily visualized, marks a moment of uncanny eeriness in this world where honor is almost always conferred from the outside and once accomplished, is not recognizable (or even worthy of recognition) unless worn on the outside of the body, in the form of a shield or banner with special insignia, a uniquely forged sword or helmet, etc. Of course, as anyone can guess, Balyn is able to pull the sword from the lady’s scabbard, but regardless of this feat, the court is mainly aghast and even angry. After all, he simply doesn’t look the part, and he’s a pushy brute on top of it. As soon as he leaves, with extra sword in hand, thereafter becoming known as the knight with two swords, another knight, Launceor, rushes off to find him, and essentially, kill him, for, after all, Balyn is like the black cat in the film The Matrix that signifies the “glitch” in the system.

And what does Balyn do next? Time does not permit me a full recounting of his story, but it suffices to say this about the arc of his narrative: no matter what anyone tells him, he does the opposite. He refuses to give back the damsel's sword, even though he is told it will be his destruction; he cuts off the head of the Lady of the Lake when she shows up at Arthur’s court, because, apparently, she had at some time previously killed his mother, and it little bothers him that he has greatly dishonored Arthur and his court as a result—yes, he is a bit discomfited, and he wants Arthur to be proud of him as a knight, and even fights for him later in a war against King Lot of Orkney, but as is typical, actually, with most chivalric stories, he mainly chooses the solitary and undirected path through what I would call the unfurnished drawing-rooms of the medieval romance landscape, in which a kind of wild, uncontrolled time is always separated from what might be called the local, yet floating context of Camelot. Although it is in the world of the court where everyone gathers as a community, self-identity can never really be discovered there: it is always on the outside where the social relations of what might be called Arthur’s world are “lifted out” of Camelot (technically a “non-place” no matter how many times Malory tells you it is Winchester) and rearticulated across those indefinite tracts of time-space Giddens writes about. For Balyn, there is no solidly established tradition into which he can simply be born, and his is the modern “traveling” life which is multi-local, non-linear, and Other to everything. It’s worth noting, that in his one of adventures, when he decides to chase after a knight, Garlonde, who is basically evil precisely because he is invisible and no one can ever see him coming or going (and okay, he also likes to sneak up on knights and kill them), Balyn accidentally delivers the “dolorous stroke” to King Pellam—Malory’s Fisher King—which causes Pellam's castle to break apart and fall into rubble, time to literally stop for twelve years, and everyone to drop down, as if dead, but no . . . it’s just a medieval form of Ambien. In other words, Balyn's refusal to take anyone's advice, including Merlin's, or even to slow down, leads to a series of affairs where Balyn not only accidentally kills good people but also causes time to literally stop—Balyn as the Knight of the Wrinkle in Time, as it were.

Although Balyn insists that his “manhood” and honor are integral to something called “a person” (that autarkic neo-liberal subject, perhaps?), nevertheless, he is still somewhat tragically bound to the communal and supposedly very medieval group-think he is trying to contest (and also, conversely, desires to join, but on his own terms), for when he meets his own brother in combat on an island at the end of his tale, after he has fled the collapsed landscape of Pellam's kingdom and ignored the sign leading to the island that warned “IT IS NOT FOR NO KNYGHT ALONE TO RYDE TOWARD THIS CASTEL” (P. 58), because his brother is wearing the shield of a knight he defeated on that same island, and Balyn himself chooses to discard his own shield in favor of a better one just before the fight, and even though he has his “signature” two swords with him, each brother does not recognize the other, specifically because it is their shields, and not their persons, or anything else attached to their persons, that mis-signify. As a result, in a fulfillment of every warning Balyn has received along the way, the brothers kill each other. Ultimately, this story is the tragedy of that thing we call the person, and what I want to draw our attention to is that the precariousness which contemporary social theorists believe is one of the defining characteristics of the situation of the late modern individual’s livelihood and future, body and person, has always been a fundamental condition of the self—a condition, moreover, that has always left the individual person vulnerable in the most literal sense of the word—available for wounding—while at the same time, that very same precariousness has served to help us connect to others who are like us in their vulnerability.

I think it would be useful to explore what might be called the social terms of, and anxieties (both personal and more broadly social) attendant upon, the precariousness of the individual in different historical periods, both early and late, in order to grapple more successfully with what I believe are very important (and troubling) ethical questions that have always been at stake and remain unresolved: how is it possible, for example, for the individual to be moral without recourse to what Charles Taylor has called the “social imaginary”—broadly speaking, how a given group of persons imagines their collective social life and shares common understandings, without which a moral order of any sort is not possible? At the same time, how to protect the individual when, as George Kateb has written, “groups are imagined too vividly” and individuals “lose sight of themselves and are lost sight of,” leading to a situation where ordinary persons “cooperate with their undoing and the victimization of other ordinary persons”? (p. 209). But the precariousness of the individual in the Middle Ages and in late modernity share certain features and point to similar ethical risks—not just because, in all times and places, human beings are ontologically frail and subject to environmental hazards, but because some of the social factors that many social and political theorists believe are unique to late modernity, were also present or beginning to emerge in the Middle Ages, such as “globalization,” when we understand globalization, as Giddens defines it, as being concerned with “the intersection of presence and absence, the interlacing of social events and social relations ‘at a distance’ with local contextualities” (Modernity and Self-Identity, p. 21). Likewise, certain aspects of the supposedly more “localized” premodern past thought to have been left behind, such as “tradition”—as Giddens describes it, a ritualized and normatized “medium of identity” ("Living in a Post-Traditional Society," p. 80)—are still very much present in both older and newer forms, yet do not necessarily, either then or now, guarantee more ontological security for the individual. And what does any of this have to do with humanism? I don’t think we can begin to talk about humanism, or human-ness, without also talking about the individual, especially since so many human rights discourses are founded upon the notion of supposedly inviolable “human persons”—singular individuals, in other words, who of course, can never really be singular, and yet, are always vulnerable in their singularity. Herein lies the tragedy of both medieval and modern life.

In Book 12 of his City of God, St. Augustine wrote that, unlike all of the other creatures and animals, God chose to create man from one individual, “not certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of society, but that 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” (p. 406). Augustine got it part right, and part wrong, of course. We humans, by nature and regardless of this thing called “society,” are profoundly solitary beings, while at the same time, without a sense of community, we can’t place ourselves, and as Bauman has written, “society [has] always stood in ambiguous relation to individual autonomy: it was, simultaneously, its enemy and its sine qua non condition” (Liquid Modernity, p. 40). Of course, being an individual now is not the same as it was in the Middle Ages, nor in the imaginary worlds of its romantic texts, but there are interesting conjunctions, I think, between past and present processes of what I would call “the wild, uncontrolled time of the individual-becoming,” and it is always going to be difficult to have or to invent a humanism that depends, ultimately, on a notion of a particulate being whose individuality is supposedly “separate,” but always “attached.”

Special Note: I think it is important to note here that much of contemporary social theory’s historical and philosophical account of the contours—psychic, historic, cultural, social, political, and otherwise—of the modern self are firmly placed within a Western tradition, and therefore do not take into account non-Western conceptions and expressions of the individual self, either from the past or the present. And given social theory’s heavy emphasis on the role of “detraditionalization” (as Beck and Giddens put it) and globalization in shaping the lives of modern individuals, this strikes me as somewhat of a blind spot. In addition, when describing the ways in which various forms of social life have changed radically in the present, mainly due to new technologies of communication, travel, and doing business, as well as new epistemologies and living arrangements (etc.), it is not always acknowledged that these radical changes do not affect everyone equally, and in fact, may not have affected some individuals, due to their poverty or location, at all. Of the social theorists reviewed thus far in this essay, Bauman stands out for continually addressing this point in much of his work and he has even devoted one entire book to the subject of who gets “left out” of modernity: Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004). For this reason, I consider Bauman to be a kind of chief moral conscience in contemporary social theory. Likewise, Lash has spent some time in his work delineating reflexive communities not taken into full enough account in the work of social theorists such as Beck and Giddens (to whose work Lash is nevertheless and obviously very much indebted), as well as pointing out some of the dangers inherent in the radical energies unleashed through “individualization.” For this reason, Lash considers himself as a kind of retriever of “communitarianism” against the positive or possibly utopian “individualization” of Beck and Giddens. See, especially, Scott Lash, “Reflexivity and its Doubles: Structure, Aesthetics, and Community,” in Beck, Giddens and Lash, Reflexive Modernization, pp. 110-73. For other responses to, as well as elaborations and critiques of Beck’s and Gidden’s ideas regarding “risk society,” see Barbara Adam, Ulrich Beck and Joost Van Loon, eds., The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2000).

Works Cited

Augustine. The City of God. Trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950).

Bauman, Zygmunt. “Foreword: Individually, Together.” In Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization. xiv-xix.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

Beck, Ulrich and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. “Preface.” In Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. Trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Sage Publications, 2002). xx-xxv.

Connolly, William E. Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

Giddens, Anthony, "Living in a Post-Traditional Society." In Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994).

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

Kateb, George. The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).

Kushner, Tony. Homebody/Kabul (New York: Theater Communication Group, 2002).

Lash, Scott. “Foreword.” In Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization. vii-xiii.

Malory, Thomas. "The Tale of Balyn and Balan." In Le Morte D'Arthur. Ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004). 40-61.

Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).