The Medieval Review 11.09.26

Babel Working Group. Postmedieval, A Journal of medeival Cultural Studies (vol. 1, issue 1/2, Spring/Summer 2010): When did we become post/human?. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2010. Pp. 292. . . Subscription rates: Europe, GBP 237 (Institutional), GBP 45 (Personal); United States, $403 (Institutional), $75 (Personal); Rest of World GBP 237 (Institutional) GBP 45 (Personal). ISSN 2040-5960.

Reviewed by:

Larry Scanlon
Rutgers University

postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is a modish, attractive journal which began production last spring (i.e., 2010). According to the Palgrave journals website (, postmedieval will appear three times a year (spring, summer, fall), the spring and summer issues guest-edited, themed issues designed around a topic of current concern. Its format consists mainly of original essays plus a review essay on a particular theme (as opposed to individual reviews). The themed issues will also include response essays. In the inaugural double issue all of the original essays are brief. 28 in total, most of them are around 10 pages in print, with the shortest five and the longest fourteen. The section is explicitly subheaded "Short Essays." If the short essay is to be part of the journal's standard format, that would constitute another distinctive aspect of this obviously very distinctive journal.

Before I go any further I should concede a book review of a journal is a curious creature. I am using the first issue as a representative instance, yet many of the most crucial factors which contribute to the success of a journal are not necessarily deducible from a single issue. These are things that have to do with its internal workings, the robustness of its peer review, the firmness of its editorial direction, the quality of its copy-editing and so on. The best journals interpret their mandate or mission as capaciously as possible. They work very hard to treat all potential contributors fairly, and work particularly hard to spot and help professionalize newer scholars. Paradoxically, established journals with very broad mandates often find it easier to fulfill this imperative, especially with regard to junior scholars, than newer, ambitiously programmatic journals like postmedieval. Time will tell. One hopeful sign comes from the prodigious energies of the BABEL collective itself. By all reports, the conference it organized this past fall was a tremendous success, and especially noteworthy for the proportion of quality presentations from grad students and new assistant professors. If the postmedieval editors are smart--and there is no reason to think that they aren't--they will mine this and any of their subsequent gatherings for new talent.

I think it fair to say postmedieval has identified a significant lacuna in the field. Medieval Studies in general and Middle English literary studies in particular can definitely use another venue for theoretically informed, interdisciplinary, even anti-disciplinary scholarship. It is not so much that the field is unusually hostile to such work; indeed, I would argue that in the past decade or so Middle English studies has been noticeably more receptive to theoretically and politically inflected work than many other period fields. I would argue further that for whatever reason, our field has developed a deep commitment to and expertise in theory and politics that few other historical period fields can match. There is a definite talent out there that our current array of publishing venues are not fully tapping. postmedieval is also clearly interested in work that is stylistically edgy as well theoretically informed and politically engaged. In terms of what we might call quality and rigor in the traditional scholarly sense, this inaugural issue is truly very impressive. To the extent that the short essay format can bear comparison to other more traditional, long-form journals, I would say that even the toughest, most prestigious journals in the field would have been proud to bring out most of the pieces in this issue. As limitations of space prevent me from dealing with all 32 contributions, let me hit a few highlights.

Valerie Allen offers a concise account of the regression of skills in post-Roman road building, concluding provocatively that "the 'regressive' case of medieval roads calls into question the narratives of progress that inform debates about the posthuman" (16). In his subtle, magisterial meditation on the phenomenology of stone Cohen reorients the question of the posthuman toward the much broader question of the inhuman and its much longer temporality. At the same time, he reframes the metaphorics of stone themselves, noting, for example, that classical and medieval thought considered them composed of water as well as earth. Daniel Lord Smail pushes for a different expansion of the longue durée in "The Original Subaltern," which is how he wants us to think about the peoples of the paleolithic. Ruth Evans takes up the question of the "medieval natural-born cyborg" (69), citing both pilgrimage and the epoch's many schemes of memory training. She concludes, "To recognize the ways in which the Middle Ages offers examples of 'cyborgs without surgery' is also one way of countering claims that have been made about the posthuman as an apocalyptic break with what has gone before" (70). David Glimp explores the unrecognized continuities between natural law theory and posthumanism, focusing on the conceptual debt Latour owes to Hobbes, even as he claims to deconstructs Hobbes's founding assumptions. Jonathan Gil Harris notes the mechanicism medieval Christianity imputed to Islam, then explores this notion's re- emergence in Renaissance drama. Michael Witmore takes up a better known, but no better explored, medieval/early modern continuity in his reading of the emblem of Fortuna in George Wither's 1635 emblem collection. Witmore convincingly treats this emblem as a visual abstraction denoting a counterfactual impossibility and thereby figuring the limit of the human as certainly as the mathematicized theories of nature sometimes taken as the essence of Western modernity's break with the premodern. His conclusion: "If according to Latour, we have never been modern, then we ought to add that we were never not inhuman either" (213).

As I just said, these are only some of the high points. There are many others I have not mentioned. Indeed, my general impression of this project and this issue are so positive I hesitate to say anything negative at all. Nevertheless, the very ambition of this venture puts an obligation on its readers to respond to its largest claims. And in this respect, I have to say I found the whole to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts. I will be blunt: I find the notion of the posthuman almost entirely unconvincing. In spite of the many virtues of this issue, nothing in it made the term any more convincing. Sometimes the letter really does kill, and with the best deconstructive will in the world, there is nothing the spirit can do to quicken. For me this is one of those cases. Taken literally, the posthuman commits one to the view that humanity is about to evolve into a new species, aided by the wondrous prosthetics of digital technology. Untrammeled by anything so vulgar as the support of hard scientific evidence, this claim circulates instead suffused with an aura of technophilic self-congratulation--an aura that is not only all too human, but also all too modern. The idea that scientific progress will cure all of humanity's ills is one of the oldest of modernity's idealizations, and by now, one of its most threadbare. For that reason whatever actual explanatory value the term posthuman might wield is dwarfed by its symptomatization of a fundamental postmodernist anxiety: the fear that modernity's promise to escape the oppressions of the past will never materialize, that all we will get instead is a series of false dawns.

Obviously, this review is not the time or place for a detailed critique of the posthuman. Nevertheless, I would like to point to some anomalies in this issue of postmedieval which illustrate my misgivings. They all have to do with the issue of periodization, that is, the issue the editors of this special issue raise in its title: "when did we become post/human?" I find it revealing that none of the medievalists in this issue actually try to provide an answer to this question. (Indeed, as we have just seen, many of them keep the term posthuman at arm's length.) On the other hand, a number of the early modernists are less reticent. Not surprisingly perhaps, they each suggest we first became posthuman during early modernity. Lisa Blake suggests early modern physics, finding the latter's more expansive theory of the body reflected in the figure of Echo in Webster's Duchess of Malfi and Golding's Ovid. Jen Boyle suggests the invention of new form of contemporaneity she finds first in an early seventeenth-century anatomical image and then in fuller form in Hogarth's "The Reward of Cruelty." Scott Lightsey offers the Boxley Christ as a key transition point between medieval and posthumanist notions of embodiment. Scott Maisano offers Shakespeare; specifically, Shakespeare's "primatology," the many images of primates he offers in his plays, summed up by two particularly striking instances from Hamlet and Timon of Athens. Henry Turner also looks to Shakespeare but in more complex fashion: as the archetypal figure for a posthuman "dramatology." This dramatology draws in a part on a posthuman notion of the machine whose first lineaments Turner finds in Bacon.

I don't blame these early modernists for treating their period field as a privileged site of origin, still less for trying to answer the question this issue poses. But taken as a group, their answers shed a rather odd light on the journal's subtitle, "a journal of medieval cultural studies." For they make the posthuman a postmedieval development, so much so that its lack of contact with the Middle Ages does not warrant mention, even in a medieval journal. To her credit, Crystal Bartolovich is the one early modern contributor who recognizes the dilemma. She forthrightly rejects any possible medieval claim to the posthuman, as part of a larger rejection of recent medievalist critiques of dominant schemes of periodization. She rejects in particular any attempt to attenuate the medieval/modern divide. She opens her essay by declaring that it "will go against the grain of most--perhaps all" of the rest of the issue. However, the irony is it does not, and that is the anomaly I have been pointing to. In other circumstances I can imagine many of the medievalists in this volume going toe to toe with her in regard to her claims for the political urgency of keeping the early modern/medieval divide intact. But in this case they clearly do not regard the notion of the posthuman as worth fighting over. And most of Bartolovich's early modernist colleagues are more than happy to leave the medieval/modern divide right where it is. That brings me to N. Katherine Hayles's response to this issue.

Hayles is unfailingly gracious. At the same time, her repeated use of the term "premodern studies" to include all of the essays clearly shows she is working from an older periodizing scheme. That is the one many of us grew up with, where modern meant the twentieth century, before Renaissance became early modernity. I have not taken a survey, but I highly doubt Hayles is alone among scholars working in more recent fields in taking the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as essentially interchangeable, and essentially equidistant from modernity. (Maybe Bartolovich should worry less about uppity medievalists and more about insouciant postmodernists?) Hayles comes to rest on the question of anachronism, of all things. Addressing those who might feel "juxtaposing posthumanism and premodern studies invites anachronism" she begins with the now standard reminder "that 'human' is a historically specific construction." However, as she continues, she retreats, without even noticing it, into a much older view of the temporality of historical scholarship:

I acknowledge that some of the meanings of "posthuman" mentioned in this response are contemporary, and here the juxtaposition might legitimately be called anachronistic. Yet these versions of the posthuman largely concern the ways in which human cognition works. Although these views are rooted in the contemporary period, to the extent they are valid now, they must necessarily have been true of cognition in the premodern period as well (with the caveat that when they deal with the content of such concepts as the adaptive unconscious, adjustments must be made to take into account historical specificities.) (269) In this account, "human cognition" becomes an invariant essence, one which is fully knowable and transparent to itself, though only from the uniquely privileged position of our own historical moment. Whatever we learn from the past itself will by definition be secondary to this certain knowledge which we bring to it. Thus: a stable human essence underlying all forms of historical variation--is that not what we used to call "humanism?" It may be that the content of this essence is different for the posthumanist than it was for humanists. (Or perhaps not, given the warmed-over positivism that seems to seep through into Hayles's thought at nearly every turn.) But the form of the temporal scheme is the same--and equally reductive. Maybe some "premodernists" will find a concept like "adaptive unconscious" useful. But if Hayles or any other posthumanist have anything at all to teach us about the problem of the past, I have missed it. I can only add that I would have much preferred the "premodernists" address each other directly across the medieval/modern divide, as Bartolovich desired. Perhaps in a subsequent issue.