Eileen A. Joy
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

“Breaking Down Barriers”
1st Blackwell Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference
19-30 October 2009


Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny: Pre/modern, Post/human, and the Question of Being-Together

Figure 1. bombed ruins in downtown Grozny, Chechnya, 1995 (© Eddy van Wessel)

Go HERE for actual videocast.


. . . the loss of the University’s cultural function opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication. At this point, the University becomes no longer a model of the ideal society but rather a place where the impossibility of such models can be thought—practically thought, rather than thought under ideal conditions. Here the University loses its privileged status as the model of society and does not regain it by becoming the model of the absence of models. Rather, the University becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question for the past three centuries or so.

—Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

From December of 1994 through January 1995, and again in August 1996, Russia launched bombing campaigns against Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, as part of its war against Chechen separatists. The air raids and artillery bombardments were so devastating that, in one sense, the city of Grozny ceased to exist, leaving behind only wreckage and rubble, about 100,000 dead, and over half a million displaced persons. A siege of the city in a second war, from late 1999 through February of 2000, left Grozny, according to the United Nations, “the most destroyed city on Earth.” To see the photographs taken in Grozny during these times periods is to witness a zone of destruction so complete, that you think you must be looking at pictures of the cities fire-bombed in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. And yet, when the city of Grozny vanished, it did so, for the most part, without the world’s notice of it. Aside from the attention Grozny received from a few committed and brave journalists and from certain human rights organizations, the plight of Grozny and its citizens never really seized the public imagination and could even be argued to form a kind of blank spot in the late twentieth-century historical memory; this is especially distressing when one understands that the Russian government took advantage of the climate of fear generated after the 9/11 attacks to engage in systematic “sweep” operations and nighttime raids that resulted in the “disappearance” (likely after torture and extrajudicial execution) of thousands of Chechens, many of whom have since turned up in mass, unmarked graves (perversely, some of the Chechen rebels—themselves caught up in fractious divisions—may have helped to facilitate these sweeps and murders).[1] At the same time, Russia kept Grozny unreconstructed for almost a decade as a “lesson” to the Chechen rebels. Grozny has since been rebuilt, and at a frentic, almost manic pace, which only adds to the blankness of our memory of its former (and very recent) destruction.

At the same time that some of us might struggle to approach the situation, or scene, of a devastated and missing Gronzy as a site—now irrevocably past—that should have commanded our concerted moral attention, human rights discourses within the academy have been disturbed and somewhat dislodged by the weakening status of terms such as “the human” and “universalism.” Further, there has been a significant turn both to and beyond “the human” (or, the liberal humanist subject) in aesthetic, historical, sociological, theoretical, and more scientific studies—a turn which is often accompanied by a nod to post-histoire, or the “end of history.” This poses a great challenge to those of us concerned with the future of humanistic letters and with the human rights discourses founded upon those letters, especially when, as John Caputo has written, “one has lost one's faith in grand récits,” and “being, presence, ousia, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams.” As Caputo writes further, “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.”[2] We are situated, in other words, at a point of crisis with regard to how to formulate and put into effective practice international human rights, or any concept of justice, at a time when the category of “the human” itself (and “human dignity”) is viewed as primarily fictitious and increasingly questionable as a basis for rights and justice. But, the question has to be asked: was the category of “the human” ever stable to begin with? This raises the question of history, and deep history at that.

According to Katherine Hayles, “the humanities have always been concerned with shifting definitions of the human,” so “the human has always been a kind of contested term,” but “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.”[3] The posthuman condition, then, in some respects, is thoroughly modern (even, postmodern) because of its connection to technological and medical innovations such as cybernetics and genetic engineering that could not have even been imagined in the past. It has to be admitted that in most posthmanist discourses circulating within the academy, whether in the humanities or the sciences, the scholarship of those who work in premodern periods (such as classical antiquity or the so-called Middle Ages) is not considered relevant to the discussion—even when that scholarship is concerned with issues of the human and the animal, self and subjectivity, cognition and affectivity, singularity and networks, corporality and embodiment, bare life and sociality, and so on. It is the first premise of my keynote address that we would also do well to keep in mind Charles Taylor’s assertion that there is not just one modernity, but rather, multiple modernities—multiple modernities, moreover, that are predicated upon the self-understandings that have been constitutive of a plurality of different social and cultural groups that have each “modernized in their own way.”[4] There are certain features and institutions of modernity that become inescapable: the bureaucratic state, secularism, the market economy, science, technology, and the like, but each is inflected by certain local particularities, each moving at their own speeds, calling to mind Fernand Braudel’s important insight that, “[w]hether 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.”[5]

Following Taylor, I want to propose that modernity is also predicated upon a plurality of different temporalities: there are many different Nows existing alongside each other and within each of them, multiple pasts, and the figure of the human is inextricably bound up with these multiple pasts—pasts in which the human never was itself. It will be the hope of this address to demonstrate some of the ways in which current scholarship in premodern studies, especially in queer premodern studies, is contributing important historical insights into the ways in which “the human” is ever-mobile, unbounded, pluralistic, creatively anachronistic, and open-ended, while also being, in the words of historian David Gary Shaw, a “highly localized site of awareness.”[6] I will also argue that there are many texts from the so-called Middle Ages—especially literary ones—that offer important critical resources to us, not only for formulating what we mean when we invoke or move toward the posthuman (which move we should make with as much historical consciousness as possible), but also for developing new vocabularies that might help us to grasp the liberatory potential (on both personal and more broadly social levels) of more enworlded and inter-subjective senses of being—human, posthuman, and otherwise. Finally, I hope to also demonstrate the importance of historical and aesthetic work to the excavation of sites of destruction—whether Grozny or the fictional great hall Heorot in the Old English Beowulf—for it may be that the so-called “project” of human and other rights is one that always comes after, that arrives belatedly, and yet must still make repair. This is a project, moreover, that is undertaken in the ruins of a university whose classical, medieval, Enlightenment, and national cultural “times” are also past, yet which remains a critical site for raising the question, again and again, of what “being-together” means.


1. See the Briefing Paper, “Worse Than War: ‘Disappearances’ in Chechnya—A Crime Against Humanity,” Human Rights Watch, March 2005, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/ eca/chechnya0305/index.htm. On the dismal human rights situation in Chechnya in general from about 1999 through 2005, see the series of reports collected in “Chechnya: Renewed Catastrophe,” Human Rights Watch, 2006, http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/russia/Chechnya; “Memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Chechnya,” Human Rights Watch, 18 March 2002, http://www.hrw.org/un/unchr-chechnya.htm; and Anna Politkoskaya, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, trans. Alexander Burry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

2. John D. Caputo, Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 6.

3. Quoted in Don Solomon, “Interview with N. Katherine Hayles: Preparing the Humanities for the Post Human,” National Humanities Center, May 2007, http://asc.nhc.trp.nc.us/news/ ?page_id=81.

4. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 1.

5. 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].

6. David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 12.