Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Posthumanist Spenser?

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Posthumanist Spenser?

Article excerpt

For a couple of decades now, a set of methods and conceptual frameworks that can be gathered under the term "posthumanism" have come to increasing prominence in the humanities. These methods- animal studies, ecocriticism, actor-network theory (ANT), speculative realism (SR), object-oriented ontology (OOO), vitalism, thing theory-once edgy insurgents, have become increasingly institutionalized. Inspired by such landmark works as Donna Haraway's Cyborgs, Simians, and Women and Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern, posthumanism has questioned the ontological, epistemological, phenomenological, and historical categories around which humanistic studies long centered. Declaring that "we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs," Haraway details three "boundary breakdowns" that she sees as hallmarks of late-twentieth-century culture: those between (1) the human and the animal, (2) the organism and the machine, and (3) the material body and immaterial mind or thought.1 Latour, similarly, challenges many of the dualisms that we associate with modernity. But whereas Haraway sees boundary breakdowns as a part of the postmodern condition, Latour questions whether these boundaries were ever secure in the first place. We have never been "modern," he insists, because the rational and secular disenchantment of the world-the detachment of (human) subject from (animal or inanimate) object, nature from science, language from thing-that we treat as the hallmark of modernity and postmodernity never really happened.2 In other words, these boundaries are not being broken down but were always mythical, a state that scholars are now not so much discovering as acknowledging.

To read this work is to confront earnest arguments in favor of a worldview that rational adults are expected to consign to mysticism or science fiction, to find eloquent endorsements of perspectives that traditional, "serious" scholars have associated with those who are naïve, childlike, amateurish, or maybe just stoned. Objects are animated entities; people are inert matter, mindless robots, or intelligent machines; animals are protagonists who speak, feel, and think; nature has a mind of its own; the earth may be proven not only to precede human existence but to contain "hyperobjects" that exceed human temporality and thought.3 All of this is to say that the world depicted by posthumanist theory is a lot like the world of Spenser's poetry, populated as it is with life-forms that defy any decisive taxonomy: talking trees and crying rocks; human-animal and human-machine hybrids; natural bodies that are also desiring and effectual agents (rivers, gardens, hills, forests, the sun, the moon, the day, the night); and anthropomorphic characters who are also abstract concepts, or what we might call allegorymachines incapable of full self-knowledge or self-determination.

The titular heroes of all of the books of The Faerie Queene, to take a prominent instance, disturb boundaries between mind and world, individual and assemblage, text and reader, past and present. Allegory illuminates by making the abstract concrete, but in the process it also reveals just how limiting is the idea of the discrete, individuated human subjectivity it struggles to delineate. We might think of Redcrosse's flirtation with Duessa and battles with enemies from Error to Despair, in which antagonists "are" equally external threats and figurations of psychic struggle. Moreover, even as each hero is him or herself an assemblage of multiple impulses, materi- als, and forces (from faith to lust to armor to grace), Spenser's Letter to Raleigh reminds us that each hero is but one part of a composite ideal human who has achieved the "twelve private morall vertues"-a hero who in turn both is and is not Arthur.4 Nor is this allegorical, textual creation fully separate from the reader it addresses: Spenser's lesson will succeed only if his book acts on us, its readers, which it will do by persuading us that we, not, say, Guyon or Britomart, are its protagonists. …

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