The Medieval Review 17.12.10

Seaman, Myra, and Eileen A. JOy, eds. Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016. pp. viii, 281. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1304-9. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

William Rogers
University of Louisiana, Monroe

Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, the title of Myra Seaman and Eileen A. Joy’s edited collection, seems to be almost elegiac in tone. But the ten essays, including a coda written by Craig Dionne and an introduction by Joy and Anna Klosowska, instead show how the history of Humanism might be full of promise for an emergent posthumanism or for a humanism that doesn’t necessarily privilege a human at its center. In their introduction to the volume--which really qualifies both as a unifying opening to the essays which follow and an exciting meditation on premodern nonhumanity itself--Klosowska and Joy write that they "want to continue filling in (and further complicating) what we believe has been a definitive lacuna or gap in post/humanist studies more generally: the absence of a theoretically rigorous longer (premodern) historical perspective" (9). In a discussion that begins fruitfully discussing Vergil’s "thingly tears" (1) and the Heian concept of "mono no aware," (2) Joy and Klosowska make a case for looking at the past as an arena that contributes equally to a supposedly modern posthumanism.

And this call animates each essay that follows, with the eight main essays organized into two groups: "Singularities, Species, Inter/faces" and "Human, Inhuman, Spectacle." In the first essay of the first section, "Paleolithic Representations of Human Being at Chauver and Rouffignac," Jeffrey Skoblow explores some paleolithic depictions of humans--especially human faces which have grown indeterminate--as his essay helps one to face the literal span of history in the development of the human together with the inhuman. These drawings presumably point to living beings, but as human and rock merge, depictions and inanimate matter become one, blurring the distinctions between the timeworn lines of these ancient drawings and the even older rock which serves as the canvas for the drawings of human and animal. As an aside, it is refreshing to see "premodern" understood broadly here, encompassing times and settings far removed from those studied by most medievalists. The next two essays emphasize again how the past might not be the past at all, at least as a hermetically sealed period from which humanity has escaped. The second essay in this section, Eileen A. Joy's "Eros, Event, and Non-Faciality in Malory's 'The Tale of Balyn and Balan,'" begins with a kind of microhistory of modern views of the individual subject, demonstrating how these views of that subject as loosed from traditional mores, often buffeted by forces beyond her control, and tied to a kind of constant "becoming," often situate themselves against a stable sense of identity and static individuality in premodern societies. Joy, however, shows instead how "The Tale of Balyn and Balan" from Malory's Morte darthur> calls attention to a different relationship between the world and its heroes, as the former is described both in generic formulaic terms and as an almost active participant, deleting some of the distance between human actor and non-human scene.

This relationship between the human and the non-human, between technology and the self, or technologies of the self, finds expression in the next essay, Tim Spence's "The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics, and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self." There Spence unpacks his notion that "the collapse of identity in the Digital Ages has a structural similarity to the collapse of identity in the High Middle Ages" (72). Comparing individual relationships to medieval Books of Hours, Spence tracks the individual relationship between lyrics of prayers and songs, which not only seem to make (or make clear) the individual but also to forge an almost unbreakable bond between devotional object and devotional subject. The essay's repeated linking of David Bowie and Richard Rolle is laudable and a model for how medievalists inhabit medieval and modern modes of thinking, reading, and listening. And this productive modeling of a temporality that blurs boundaries between medieval and postmedieval texts and times is one that is again used in the next essay to call into question the effect, the very substance of language and how it might speak us, as the collection moves from listening to the non-human to speaking and feeling the human. Daniel C. Remein and Anna Klosowska juxtapose Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval alongside Samuel Beckett's Molloy in "What Does Language Speak? Feeling the Human with Samuel Beckett and Chrétien de Troyes," as they explore "a queer desire to think with--not about--matter" (98). In an essay which calls attention to the beauty of its own form--it's hauntingly elegant in its prose--the tracing of names for Chrétien and Beckett offers medieval and postmedieval instances of language as matter that "articulates beings not out of any totality, but out of the shards and fragments of language that can fleetingly operate in erotic complicity with the allure of accidents" (124). As with the essays that precede it, this final essay in this first section makes clear the effect of the non-human in bringing together the fragments of a history of the human, prehistoric, premodern, and postmodern.

The first essay of the second section, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Aninormality," examines the enjoyment of beauty by inanimate and animate beings alike, borrowing Roger Caillois's term "aninormality": "an antiutilitarian conception of the nonhuman that propels us into a lovely realm where human and nonhuman counterinfect, where all kinds of bodies lose the rigor of their boundaries and become animated, anomalous" (140). This essay's emphasis on the blurring of boundaries between the inanimate and animate in the enjoyment of the esthetic or in the realm of the esthetic reflects well some of the concerns of the first essay of the first section, adding to the collection's thematic cohesion. In particular, Cohen's emphasis on stone and earth in his description of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, along with his closing thoughts on Marie de France's Yonec demonstrate the reach of the esthetic impulse and draw of the inhuman and the inanimate. Moving from the inanimate to waste, the next essay, Michael A. Johnson's "Humanist Waste," imagines how these ideas of premodern posthumanity might be productive waste, as he traces, via troubadour poetry, the relation of human waste to human production and enduring connections between humanism and human waste. Indeed, according to Johnson, "the troubadour corpus is also a literary tradition in which a persistent metaphorics of excrement troubles the question of the human" (152). Johnson's meditation on waste, its sublimation, and ties to humanism reflect ultimately an ambivalence about humanism that the "inhuman linguistic economy" of troubadour poetry renders both waste and production.

In an inverse of the digestive process, the collection moves from waste to food, as Karl Steel explores taste and anthropophagy in "How Delicious We Must Be/ Folcuin's Horse and Dog's Gowther, Beyond Care." In an essay that asks its reader to be "aware of decision making" (189) in meetings or interactions between human and animal by facing the seemingly impossible--that humans could eat other humans--Steel's exploration of anthropophagy shows how the consumption of humans troubles a boundary between human and animal that is perhaps artificially constructed--if animals are meat, then aren't humans as well? Concentrating on a narrative of a horse named Folcuin in the Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin and Sir Gowther, Steel demonstrates that these stories destabilize the "any naturalized foundation for a decision" (188) while maintaining the violence which sanctions the consumption and use of non-human animals, reflecting a messiness in the crafting of ethical decisions, by both medieval and postmedieval human animals. This examination of the human and non-human and their ethical contexts finds voice in the next essay, "Excusing Laius: Freud's Oedipus, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Lydgate's Edippus." There, Dan Kline brings a new reading of the Oedipus myth, offering a reappraisal of the Oedipal story, through John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes and its narrative of Edippus. According to Kline, "understanding the protagonist of Oedipus Rex as an enlightened though tragic hero is itself a pervasive humanistic myth, or more importantly, a misinterpretation," which Lydgate's version and his concentration on Edippus's childhood moves beyond. Indeed, central to Kline's essay is the role of this premodern narrative to correct the assumptions of a modern misreading of Oedipus. Centering on the myth of the Sphinx in Lydgate's Siege, Kline's essay shows how Edippus's response to the Sphinx's riddle is one which turns away from the universal idea of the human as static category, offering instead a body in time and movement, tied to circumstances and irreducible to one station in life.

At the end, in "The Trick of Singularity," Craig Dionne offers something of a way forward, as he explores a singular problem in literature in the era of the posthuman--"that the posthuman turn has yet to fully discuss the new relationship between theory and text that is suggested in its applications of seemingly anachronistic pairings of digital-aged semiotics with illuminated manuscripts" (225). Concentrating on Derek Attridge's The Singularity of Literature and Twelfth Night, Dionne sketches out the ethical dimensions of thinking through literature as both reflection of material conditions and the singular nature of the language of the text, which might stand alone from its past contexts. This emphasis, both on Malvolio's maneuvers and Feste's songs in the play, suggests how pre- and early modern literature might be of the posthuman present and the posthuman past.

These essays, in total, achieve something that is rare for an edited collection: they manage to treat diverse subjects, deeply and with care, while nevertheless working together to make a large and coherent argument. The reviewer found each essay challenging, yet accessible, especially on subjects outside of his expertise, an argument ultimately for the book's purchase and enjoyment.

Copyright (c) 2018 William Rogers

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login