Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Man Is Not like an Ape": Facing Life in PROSOPOPOIA. / or / Mother Hubberds Tale

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

"Man Is Not like an Ape": Facing Life in PROSOPOPOIA. / or / Mother Hubberds Tale

Article excerpt

At the 2006 International Spenser Society Conference in Toronto, one of the more memorable panels was "Animal Being," in which Jane Bellamy, Joseph Lowenstein, and Elizabeth Harvey explored various conjunctions of literary criticism, cultural theory, and taxonomy.1 But what I have since come to see as their call to arms has so far been met with relative silence by Spenserians. The impetus toward replacing and rethinking the human within the larger network of animal species has largely been absent in Spenser studies, even as it has flourished in Shakespeare studies and early modern cultural studies in works by Karen Raber, Bruce Boehrer, Erica Fudge, Laurie Shannon, and many others.2 And yet Spenser is much riper for these new kinds of analysis than any of his contemporaries. Simply to produce a taxonomy of creatures in Spenser would be a daunting task. And that taxonomy would raise many nigh-unanswerable questions. For example, if conceived hierarchically on a scala naturae, would Talus, the iron man of Book V of The Faerie Queene, be above or below Errour, the allegorical dragon of Book I? These kinds of questions are not fanciful or irrelevant.3 Rather, I argue, Spenser's poetry and its many creatures pose ethical, aesthetic, political, and interpretive challenges that Spenserians have only begun to explore.

Animal studies, both in early modern studies and more generally, often concerns itself with the category of the human, including how it is defined and delimited, and how it is related to other forms of life, such as animals, plants, and minerals. The theoretical stimulus for much of this work is provided by Martin Heidegger's apparent exclusion of nonhuman animals from Dasein in Being and Time. For Heidegger, animals live and die in ways subordinate to the ways of men; they are merely ready-tohand or present-to-hand.4 Late in his career, Jacques Derrida developed a serious critique of Heidegger, indicting him (along with the Western philosophical tradition) for speciesist anthropocentrism.5 At roughly the same time, Giorgio Agamben was revealing in a series of highly influential books his investigations of the various ways in which (and the various kinds of categories whereby) biological humans are categorized, either to valorize or demonize them.6 In Homo Sacer, Agamben posits a distinction between the attributes of bios and zoe that he shows going back to Aristotle. In short, bios stands for the form of life normally only available to humans; it is what Heidegger calls Dasein. Zoe, on the other hand, is "bare life," the life that is common to both humans and nonhuman animals. Such unqualified life is apolitical, inhuman, nonindividual, and thus violable. It is a category, but not a very special or exclusive one. The special category is bios. Bios is what everyone wants. Bios is what Hitler gave to the Aryans; zoe is what he attributed to those he persecuted. In a society of capital punishment, bios is given to the victim, zoe to him who can be executed. The liberal humanist struggle for animal rights is an attempt to make animals, which according to Heidegger are mere zoe, accepted as bios. It is this move that is questioned by more radical thinkers who insist upon the dubiety of setting up bios, or human-ness, as a goal in the first place.

Moreover, these issues are not confined to European history, continental theory, or animal rights ethicists. Philosophers of science, too, have questioned the distinctions that Linnaean classification requires. Marc Ereshefsky notes that Linnaeus's system was based on at least two assumptions that most scientists no longer hold: creationism and essentialism.7 Both of these approaches to the variety of life on earth have been diminished (though seemingly never eradicated) by both evolutionary theory and poststructuralism. Darwin's victory is theological man's defeat; the post-structuralist death of the author is related to the Darwinian death of the human as a special category. …

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