Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Going Outside: Human Subjectivity and the Aesthetic Object, the Faerie Queene, Book III

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Going Outside: Human Subjectivity and the Aesthetic Object, the Faerie Queene, Book III

Article excerpt

If, in the spirit of posthumanism, we were to make a taxonomy of posthumanists (as we might of, say, plants or animals or metals), a recent category would certainly be those who attribute a radical degree of agency to things. Jane Bennett, for one, describes looking in the gutter at a pile of trash and suddenly discovering a new "thing-power," a vital materiality that seemed to her "to shimmer and spark." Even as she was not able to understand what this trash was saying, she knew it "issued a call."1 Along similar lines, Maurizia Boscagli talks about "unruly stuff " that addresses her in ways that are "intensely intimate, somatic, and unpredictable." Her language, like that of many thing-oriented posthumanists, is of rebellion against established orders-she likes theories, she says, that "refuse to play by the rules."2 Bruno Latour advocates for what he calls "quasi-objects," things which he describes as equidistant between subjects and objects, and goes so far as to suggest convening a "Parliament of Things."3 Such thinkers want to forego, in different ways, the old divide between subjects and objects by tuning in to the frequency of things.4

This kind of thing-oriented posthumanism is meant to overturn hierarchies. Broadly speaking, the claim is that attention to things offers a way of going outside hegemonic orders of thought which divide everything into active subjects and passive objects, and which give clear priority to the former. This dualism is understood as a legacy of our dominating orientation to the world in that all things are rendered our objects, submissively awaiting our mastery. In response, such posthumanists want to make contact with what exists in its own right outside this structure, the world of things, which, they say, is buzzing with its own inherent vitality.5

The question is whether such an attempt to tune into things actually brings us beyond the complex problem of the subject-object divide-or merely, despite the efforts of these thinkers, just shuttles us from the subject-side to the object-side of this same dialectic. In that case, new problems emerge. One is the danger of an escapism that only leaves us more entrenched. In a recent critique of object-oriented philosophy, Andrew Cole suggests that this posthumanist attempt "to hear the call of things" is really pre-humanist, and he locates one of its closest precursors in medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart. For Eckhart, "a heavy object cannot be checked by time or place," but is always speaking and calling out, "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord our God'" (Rv. 4:8; Is. 6:3).6 Eckhart's speaking object is not unlike Bennett's speaking trash (plus the divine, or one complex notion of it). If the connection with the past is potentially problematic, so is the connection with the present. Other critics, including some posthumanists themselves, like Rosi Braidotti, have worried that things can take disturbing inflections in our advanced capitalist world, leading to what she calls "a perverse form of the posthuman."7 If the soda bottle seems to speak to us, to beckon and call out to us; if we want to touch our computers all the time, and to gaze endlessly at our phones; if, moreover, these objects seem to be looking back at us with loving recognition of who we are, it is also the case that much corporate research and money have gone into producing these powerful effects. "You Like It," says one 7-Up advertisement that Bennett uses as an epigraph, and "It Likes You."8 Even when irreverently 'slumming it' by taking up trash as the focus, such thing-oriented posthumanism is not entirely distinct from commodity fetishism.9 It is a familiar lesson of pastoral that the escape from the hierarchies of the social world turns out to be no escape at all; so, too, does this escape from the capitalist world of today risk merely looping us back into its illusions.10

I don't consider myself a posthumanist. When I read the works of thingoriented posthumanism, there is for me a semi-post-apocalyptic quality to the light, as if I were trying to reconstruct from a peculiar mix of sermons and diagrams what existence on earth is like. …

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