15.10.27, Mitchell, Becoming Human

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Melissa Raine

The Medieval Review 15.10.27

Mitchell, J. Allan. Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. pp. xxx, 249. ISBN: 978-0-816-68996-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Melissa Raine
Independent scholar

Becoming Human argues for an understanding of human identity that is integrated into its complex relationships with the non-human. Emphasising the experimental nature of his project, Mitchell's stated goal is to produce a convincing argument "about why others besides human subjects should be treated seriously as objects of ethical attention" (xx). The static, discrete conception of human life as "being" is interrogated, destabilized and replaced by the dynamic, open-ended notion of "becoming": "flux is a mortal condition of the human individual" (xiii). As such, Mitchell's emphasis on the fluidity of becoming reconceives of human specificity as "the morphology of concrete individuals, given their transience and mortality" (xvi). He questions the assumption that the medieval past cannot provide insights into modern dilemmas related to human identity, finding in medieval thought "a range of medieval ideas and practices [that] register how humanity is articulated and reticulated in a universe of plants, animals, and a welter of other things" (xvii).

In three essays, Mitchell challenges and re-formulates reified concepts and relationships in which "human particularity" (175) is privileged, "track[ing] various ways in which conventional divisions do not exhaust the available ideas, images, and forms of life" (175). Each essay sets out to dismantle a seemingly contained and stable conceptual field, the meaning of which is then to be regenerated through a larger network of animate and inanimate agents and objects. Carefully distinguishing his project from work on "the monstrous", Mitchell focuses on "ordinary processes of generation and growth to show how precarious and parasitic they are" (176), and, significantly, "how it is in the very grain of ordinary life that we can find knotted multiplicity" (176).

In "Being Born," these goals are applied to medieval discussions of the beginning of life, as Mitchell works through the ethical relationships implicit in legal, philosophical, medical, scientific and literary texts towards the vulnerable, unformed infant. The embryonic characteristics of the universe according to medieval cosmology are similarly "full of errancy and eventful change" (52), offering generous scope for reconceiving of the human as connected to a broader ecology. Any attempt to summarise the dense array of medieval thought upon which Mitchell draws will be inadequate. Readings of Middle English literary texts such as Usk's Testament of Love and Pearl stand alongside Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Nicholas of Oresme, Giles of Rome, Albertus Magnus, Bernardus Silvestris, and the cosmogony of Gower's Confessio Amantis, to name but a few.

"Childish Things" focuses on the material presence of "the thing" in the form of a fourteenth-century miniature pewter knight. In his characteristically nuanced and layered mode of enquiry, Mitchell asks: "what would the object make of the one deploying it?" (60), and proceeds to undo--in some respects, reverse--the seemingly self-evident power relationship of the human agent to the miniature object that s/he manipulates. Mitchell identifies an exhaustive array of connections and contexts associated with this object, including "the social construction of children's culture" (64), the value of play, the representation of chivalry, the process of pewter production and crafting, and the significance of the metal alloy itself to the English economy, with attendant political implications. Drawing out the implications of miniaturization and presence in toys (especially puppets) and their capacity to disrupt assumptions about agency and individuality, Mitchell turns to Chaucer's Pilgrim, Sir Thopas and Usk's Testament of Love to consider the ramifications of writing and fiction as play, or "toying."

In "The Mess", the seeming stability and utility of the dining table, and its role in socialising children, is re-evaluated. Mitchell draws out the semantics of "mess" to foreground contingency, and less obvious forms of interconnectedness that undermine the sense of clarity in this relationship that is implied by conduct books. This essay seeks to establish that "texts and tables are material extensions or elaborations of one another" (123). Compared to the broad sweep of medieval thought in the other two essays, there is a tighter focus here on literary and conduct texts; surprisingly, it includes little on the relevance of religious observation to table practice. Two specific problems need to pointed out: when referring to Norbert Elias' The Civilizing Process, Mitchell inadequately cites The History of Manners, the first volume of this two-part work, rather than the more recent and complete edition of the entire work. He relies on Claire Sponsler's argument that Lydgate's "Dietary" represents an emergence of modern consumerism, but Sponsler's essay mistakenly relies on a manuscript which does not contain "The Dietary", and shows no awareness of the poem's connection with the centuries-old regimen sanitatis salernitanum tradition, weakening Mitchell's claims "for what it suggests about the commodification of conduct and the bourgeois subject's cultivation of self-mastery" (125).

The impressive range of medieval texts and discourses considered in Becoming Human is matched by extensive engagement with contemporary theory, within which object-oriented ontology, posthuman philosophy, and the work of Derrida, Latour, Deleuze, Meillassoux and Arendt, are prominent. It is not surprising in such an ambitious and stimulating interdisciplinary project that inconsistencies and contradictions emerge. As with any conceptually far-reaching study, the focus of discussion should be on the contribution of Becoming Human to existing debate, and the terrain that it opens for exploration. It is in that spirit that I would like to contribute these thoughts on the difficulties that emerged for me when reading this book. The first concerns the expectation, raised by the subtitle, of sustained critical engagement with the child, or the related concept of childhood. The "child", however, proves to be an abstracted conduit to "the human": embryology, toys, and conduct texts provide starting points for explorations of becoming, and leave the specificity of "child" rapidly behind. Such a criticism seems to have been pre-empted when Mitchell describes himself as one who "go[es] to sites that resist the parochial human subject (all-too-familiar by now)" (xxx). My desire to find a sustained discussion of "the child" conforms with such parochialism, and as such, presumably exemplifies "the ethical and political bankruptcy of traditional forms of humanism" (xvi) against which he positions his work. I suspect that this might, for Mitchell, also characterize my considerable objections to the treatment of gender in his discussion of embryology, which is suppressed in the name of uncovering "interspecies conviviality" (17)--to my mind amplifying rather than interrogating the deeply problematic gender politics of his sources. Mitchell's avowedly exploratory study, concerned with dismantling rigid and constraining categories, is motivated by ethical shortcomings in current conceptions of the human, but I am not persuaded by his formulation of this problem.

Becoming Human argues that critiques of posthuman approaches "encourage a reductionist antihumanism", countering that what should be seen as problematic is "taking the individual as the starting point...as though everything were naturally separate" (xx). But what, for Mitchell, is "the individual"? If this category is deemed to hinder a more ecological--and ethical--formulation of the human, of what, exactly, does it consist? And, does a dichotomous swing to a de-individualising methodology necessarily fulfil the promise of new insights into what it means to be human? Another way of asking these questions is to look at how Mitchell concludes his exploration of the relationship between the material world and the human. When all is said and done, the most significant category in Becoming Human for understanding the human is discourse. Despite his detailed tracing of connections between animate and inanimate non-human materialities, eventually, "word" is explicitly opposed to "world" (158), and, as his final essay draws to a close, "the world" in all its complexity is subsumed into the "material underpinnings of complex imaginative literature" (163), culminating in the declaration: "becoming human is a literary problem" (163).

The individual that Mitchell constructs appears to be a classically Cartesian subject, where language is privileged as the most significant explanatory and experiential product of an autonomous mind, while the body is relegated to secondary status as an automatous gatherer of sensory information, as seen in formulations such as (referring to Cicero) "an important reminder that human thought is carried along by the sensual qualities of objects" (164). In the discussion of table conduct, the connections traced between human sensory experience, eating environments, and conduct texts tends to produce a sense of embodiment as comprised of disparate physical and sensory components lacking internal organisation. The discussion of embodied responses to miniaturised objects offers a more coherent sense of the significance of body to self, and Mitchell's careful prose in this essay cleverly evokes aspects of bodily experience. Nevertheless, the distinction between what the body experiences and "the mind" thinks still separates and hierarchizes the ideas presented. If there is parochialism in humanism, then externalising the focus of investigation does not resolve the problem. Rather than withdrawing focus from "the individual", Mitchell's study suggests that work on the structure of the subject is far from obsolete.

These disagreements are testimony to the ability of Becoming Human to stimulate debate. Mitchell's commitment to both finding and conveying process, connection and emergence, while revivifying the "ordinary" is refreshing and valuable. Many of the difficulties I encountered were distractions that could have been minimised if not eliminated through different rhetorical strategies or more explicit acknowledgement of the choices that Mitchell is making. For example, in a fascinating reading of Pearl where "the child is...an absolute future with which a parent stands in the most intimate relationship but cannot master" (37), it would have been easy to acknowledge that the narrator of Pearl is never conclusively identified as the Maiden's "father", and, in the process, to acknowledge the existence of critical disagreement over this relationship. To supply at least a footnote of clarification situating his assumption, for which there is strong but not unquestionable support within the text, would have been appropriate. Nevertheless, the breadth of Mitchell's scholarship ensures that Becoming Human will offer thought-provoking readings of medieval texts and modern theories to a broad range of readers, and will contribute to ongoing debates about relationships that cohere into something that we call "human."

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