Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser's Dead/Response

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Spenser's Dead/Response

Article excerpt

The posthumanist critique of the conviction that "the human" can be regarded as representing a distinct and privileged ontological category has had far-reaching implications in a number of disciplines. My goal here, however, is not to pursue and elaborate these implications but rather to explore and comment upon some instincts and problems that predate and even motivate the posthumanist critique, and to propose that we can discern their stirring in Spenser's Faerie Queene. I propose that posthumanist scholarship reprises a move that Stanley Cavell sees as impelling "the motive to philosophy." To read Spenser, and indeed posthumanist scholarship, in this light is not to see them as cooperatively engaged in a critique of humanity's blind spots concerning its place in the world. Rather, it is to see each as living with and also working through the instincts that both constitute the human and spawn the philosophical enterprise.

The posthumanist critique of the conviction that "the human" can be regarded as representing a distinct and privileged ontological category has influenced fields ranging from medical ethics, cybernetics, and law to theology and literary studies.1 There is a genuinely revolutionary dimension to this work, which has laid bare some of the complacency that can bedevil human efforts to come to terms with the experience and ethical stakes of inhabiting the world. My goal here, however, is not primarily to pursue and elaborate these implications, nor is it to locate examples of such complacency in Spenser. Rather, my goal is to isolate and comment upon some instincts and problems that predate and even motivate the critique itself, and to propose that we can discern their stirring in Spenser's Faerie Queene. I propose that the posthumanist critique that has moved to one of the forefronts of scholarship over the past two decades reprises a move that the philosopher Stanley Cavell sees as having impelled what he calls "the motive to philosophy" across many centuries.2

To read Spenser, and indeed posthumanist scholarship, in this light is not to see them as cooperatively engaged in a critique of humanity's blind spots concerning its place in the world. Rather, it is to see each as living with and also working through instincts that at once constitute the human and spawn the philosophical enterprise. At stake in The Faerie Queene is, among Spenser's other preoccupations, a daring poetic vision of the nature and limits of the human. As we might expect, Spenser frequently studies these limits in relation to beasts and monsters-which is to say, in relation to beings that trouble the limits of the human. More surprisingly, perhaps, I will propose in the second half of this essay that Spenser is equally interested in surveying lines of thought that at once connect and separate the living and the dead. At key moments, Spenser's poem seems to propose that our efforts to understand the relationship between living and the dead, spirit and voice and body, are in some sense continous with our efforts to understand the relationship between the human and the inhuman.

Throughout his career Cavell has rehearsed numerous versions of the assertion that "in philosophizing we wish to escape our humanity-our finitude-from above or below."3 He regards this as a product of "the all but inescapable wish of the human to become inhuman, as if to accept a monstrousness would be to escape the perpetual knowledge of our disappointments, the maze of infinite desires in finite circumstances." 4 Though he is not concerned here with posthumanist scholarship, I propose that his formulation makes it possible to regard the posthumanist critique, if only provisionally, as an epiphenomenon of instincts that are to be regarded as constituting the human as human.

Cavell advances the propositions I have cited in the course of his interpretation of a 1943 essay by Wallace Stevens titled "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet," a text bent on exploring distinctions between what Stevens regards as philosophical and poetic uses of language. …

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