Friday, February 19, 2010

When Did We Become Post/human? Table of Contents and Preview Essays

Figure 1. still image from Doll Face (2005 film by Andrew Huang)


As of this week, the inaugural (and now somewhat big-ish double) issue (281 pages) of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is in the final production phase and ready for its debut in April 2010. And yes, some of us are very tired and desperately need sleep and wonder what the living do during the day and evening hours? Is it nice out there? Has anything happened we should know about? Please wake us in the spring when the yellow and purple crocuses are blooming. Thanks so much.

Speaking of thanks, let me thank here publicly all of the contributors to the inaugural issue (representing disciplines from Literature to History to Philosophy to New Media to Theater & Performance to French to German to Film to Archaeology to Neuroscience) who were willing to tackle the seemingly anachronistic subject of the post/human from the time of the Big Bang [seriously] to the Paleolithic era to Plato to Dante to Shakespeare and beyond, and in highly creative fashion. I would describe this issue as a wild ride along the fractal coastlines of an inter-temporal premodern studies or, as one of our contributors David Gary Shaw puts it, "the zoology of the intelligent." Let me also publicly thank here our three Respondents--Andy Mousley, Kate Soper, and Katherine Hayles--for reading all of these essays (and for Soper and Hayles, in historical periods far removed from their own areas of research) and engaging their ideas with such care and willingness to also provoke further reflections. It is our hope that this issue will highlight the value of an alliance of premodern and modern studies across the so-called Enlightenment divide, especially with an eye toward the advocacy of the continuing value of historical studies and the humanities to contemporary life and thought. Here now, is the more detailed Table of Contents for the issue, including essay abstracts, and if you click on the banner below, it will take you to full-text preview versions of four of the essays [by Jeffrey, Karmen Mackendrick, Scott Maisano, and Julie Singer]:

When Did We Become Post/human?" ed. Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1.1/2 (April 2010)

Table of Contents

Eileen A. Joy (English, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) and Craig Dionne (English, Eastern Michigan University), EDITORS' PREFACE: Before the Trains of Thought Have Been Laid Down So Firmly: The Premodern Post/human

Valerie Allen (English, John Jay College, CUNY), The Pencil, the Pin, the Table, the Bowl and the Wheel
The commodity created under global capitalism originates from everywhere and seems to have been made by everyone. Endlessly fungible, it is also endlessly divisible. Analysis of the commodity reveals the indissoluble link between commodification and technologization. Although the medieval commodity is a very different kind of object, not issuing from an economy dedicated to commodity production, and being produced more regionally, the link between production and technology applies to the Middle Ages as much as it does to now. Medieval technology, in particular road-building, is commonly regarded as a regression in comparison to Roman engineering skills. I argue, however, for the directedness of medieval technology, even when in apparent regress. This ‘regression’ calls into question the narratives of progress that inform debates about the posthuman, with all its attendant anxieties and heady possibilities. The case of medieval roads exposes the contingency of ‘efficiency’ as any standard of measure.
Crystal Bartolovich (English, Syracuse University), Is the Post in Posthuman the Post in Postmedieval?
Strategically offering the case for 'modernity,' the 'human,' and ‘progress,’ this essay seeks to expose some of the problems with a too-hasty exclusivist adoption of their counter-concepts. With Bruno Latour as my principle target, I argue that unless we recognize the Great Divide that capitalism produces historically, we cannot supersede it, and thus we would consign ourselves to an eternity of the capitalist market, in whose totalizing embrace global social justice can never be realized. Above all, I show that ‘alternative modernity’ and ‘we have never been modern’ arguments, in their eagerness to salve the prestige of oppressed populations, actually rationalize their material exclusions from the privatized benefits of modernity. I suggest, instead, that negative dialectic provides the best approach to problems of periodization raised by ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ -- as well as the boundary disputes aroused by the ‘posthuman.’
Bettina Bildhauer (German, St Andrews University), The Co-presence of the Dead
Posthuman thought demands that animals be granted co-presence with humans rather than treating them as objects without a face. This essay observes that we treat the human dead similarly to animals, and wonders whether we could grant them co-presence, too. Audiovisual media are taking up the task of imagining how this might work, and the film Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007) is here analysed as an example. It shows the price and ultimate unsustainability of both co-presence and disavowal of the dead.
Liza Blake (English, New York University), Posthuman Physics
The question of embodiment is at once the question that makes posthuman theory so exciting, and the area in which posthuman discourse sometimes stumbles over its own false alternatives. In order to consider the body of the posthuman, and the modes of corporeality available to posthumanity, we need to develop a more expansive body theory that can encompass nonhuman as well as human bodies. The place to start is with early modern physics, which is the study of what we would consider today both physics and physiology. This article dwells on the figure of the Echo in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, arguing that reading the scene through the lens of early modern physics illustrates an alternative mode of corporeality for the posthuman.
Jen Boyle (English, Coastal Carolina University), Biomedia in the Time of Animation
How does mediated time become human (historically, affectively)? What can the results of an attention to ‘new’ mediation tell us about duration as embodiment and about becoming human in time? This essay approaches the question of when we become post/human through an exploration of anatomical images that mark the connection between bodies/embodiment and the historical reproduction of knowledge. These transhistorical images offer competing glimpses of the reproduction of bodies in time and the temporality of mediated embodiment. The various modes of mediation that these images embody impose or evade a transtime, a temporality caught up in the production of mediated time as a form of bio-reproduction.
Jeffrey J. Cohen (English, George Washington University), Stories of Stone
Explores the life of stone, following its matter-energy as it confounds the boundary between organic and inorganic, art and nature, human and mineral.
Ruth Evans (English, Saint Louis University), Our Cyborg Past: Medieval Artificial Memory as Mindware Upgrade
The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has recently argued that humans have always been 'natural born cyborgs,' that is, they have always collaborated and merged with non-biological props and aids in order to find better environments for thinking. These 'mindware upgrades' extend beyond the fusions of the biological and the technological that posthumanist theory imagines as our future. Moreover, these external aids do not remain external to our minds; they interact with them to effect profound changes in their internal architecture. Medieval artificial memory systems provide evidence for just this kind of cognitive interaction. But because medieval people conceived of their relatonship to technology in fundamentally different ways, we also need to attend to larger epistemic frameworks when we analyze historically-contingent forms of mindware upgrade. What cultural history adds to our understanding of embedded cognition is not only a recognition of our cyborg past but a historicized understanding of human reality.
David Glimp (English, University of Colorado-Boulder), Moral Philosophy for Cyborgs
Emphasizing the role of self-preservation as an important principle within seventeenth-century natural law theory brings into relief the moral imperatives of posthumanism. The work of Bruno Latour, primarily his influential We Have Never Been Modern, in particular describes an ethical framework organized around collective safety as the legitimating principle of an imagined new democratic dispensation.
Jonathan Gil Harris (English, George Washington University), Mechanical Turks, Mammet Tricks, and Messianic Time
This essay considers the uncannily persistent figure of the Mechanical Turk, a spectre that haunts medieval theology, early modern theater, and modern philosophy alike. In all three cases, it functions as the mechanical, inhuman antitype of a futurity figured as meaningful and human. These attributes are materialized also in the Renaissance 'mammet' or mechanical puppet, an object whose name bears the trace of a supposedly lifeless and regressive Islam. Turning to Romeo and Juliet, the essay concludes with a consideration of how Shakespeare's play deploys the mammet to counter-intuitive, untimely ends: by figuring Juliet as a mammet whose mechanical compulsions enable a messianic refusal of the old patronymic law, Romeo and Juliet explodes the temporal as much as ontological distinctions between human and machine, Christian and non-Christian, pre- and post-.
Anna Klosowska (French, Miami University of Ohio), The Post-human Condition: Subject Modes in the Poetry of Madeleine de l'Aubespine (1546-96)
Madeleine de l’Aubespine (1546-96), patron and literary protégée of the great poet Pierre de Ronsard, reverses the expected user/tool, active/passive dichotomy of premodern sexuality by placing women in subject positions and reifying men in her erotica. Far from conjuring up hostility or cynicism, l’Aubespine erases the abjection and misogyny expected in that genre and casts sexually explicit verse in a sensuous, domestic setting. Her instrumentalization of men complicates premodern definitions of the human, including the Aristotelian distinction from animals and objects based on three elements: free will, reason and language. In turn, Roland Barthes’s reflection on dismembered body parts and Michel de Montaigne’s essay on cannibalism explore the limits between body and flesh, being and non-being. The three literary texts form a constellation where disembodied objects allow romantic attachment, eating, sex, and keeping alive, illustrating the multiplicity of subject modes and allowing premodern and postmodern subjects to inform each other.
Scott Lightsey (English, Georgia State University), The Paradox of Transcendent Machines in the Demystification of the Boxley Christ
The discourse of posthumanism considers the body a site of negotiation between the material and the transcendent, and medievalists have noted the resemblance between this posthuman body-as-nexus and the medieval notion of the body of Christ as a material pathway to transcendence. The physical incarnation of Christ, in elevating the standing of humanity through a synecdochic association between the embodied divine and the body of the faithful, provided a material means to salvation. But whereas posthumanism imagines a body readied for a literal transcendence through machinic interventions, the late medieval relationship to the divine body was largely affective. These discourses therefore mostly run parallel, but may be bridged through an interesting if little-known incident in the representational history of the embodied divine, in the story of the Boxley Christ.
Karmen Mackendrick (Philosophy, LeMoyne College), The Multipliable Body
In the modern understanding of the living body, bodily division is both fatal and distinctive; in the contemporary, the body is biologically and technologically multiple. Four premodern religious phenomena suggest a yet another, much more fluid and multiple, conception of the living, spirited body. In relics, the divided body of the saint retains its miraculous vitality across its scattered locations, even restoring wholeness to other bodies. In transubstantion, the host multiplies, according to the Eucharistic formula, “the body of Christ” in all its specificity. Stigmata multiply the wounds of that body onto those of devout believers, yet retain the identity of these wounds as Christ’s. The development of wound imagery furthers this curious multiplying of the nonetheless carefully numbered wounds; they may appear arrayed behind the body of Christ or even heraldically arranged on their own. The very ontology of the body is different here.
Scott Maisano (English, University of Massachusetts, Boston), Shakespearean Primatology: A Diptych
Shakespeare alludes to apes, baboons, and monkeys in twenty-four, or roughly two-thirds, of his plays. This essay joins together two of the most striking images, from Hamlet and Timon of Athens respectively, to create a diptych illustrating the variability and adaptability of what I am calling Shakespearean primatology. Shakespeare anticipates the discoveries of twenty-first-century primatologists by demonstrating that neither morality, including acts of interspecies altruism, nor nepotism, including the global in-group bias known as speciesism, originated with humanity.
Nicola Masciandaro (English, Brooklyn College, CUNY), Individuation: This Stupidity
The problem of individuation exposes the insuperable stupidity of human being and guarantees the groundlessness and illegitimacy of any systematic understanding of it.
Michael Edward Moore (History, University of Iowa), Passage to Arcadia
In the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, the pastoral landscape of Arcadia was developed as an ideal region of benevolent nature, shepherds and hunters, and the ardent springs of poetry. In Virgilian nature, close to the sources of art and scholarship, meditation could be practiced, and awareness of ultimate reality achieved. During the Middle Ages, a severe kind of Arcadia was brought to life in monasteries and hermitages. In the Renaissance, Arcadia was further developed as a realm of humanistic study, combining solitude in nature with book learning. Arcadia was later reimagined as a distant classical landscape of the arts and humanities. In late modernity, the humanities are challenged by the norms of totalizing reason, and a sense of historical closure. Drawing upon an anonymous journal, the author seeks passage to Arcadia.
John Moreland (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), Going Native, Becoming German: Isotopes and Identities in Late Roman and Early Medieval England
Perhaps not surprisingly in a world menaced by climate change, catastrophic explanations for the origins of the English have re-emerged. However, analyses of the biological make-up of those who were there in the fifth and sixth centuries reveals the persistence of choice, knowledge and adaptability as key characteristics of humanity.
Susan S. Morrison (English, Texas State University-San Marcos), Postmedieval Fecopoet[h]ics
To understand the ethical aspect of paying attention to waste, this article is grounded in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, who argues that an openness to the ‘Other’ is a sign of the ethical. If we are complacent, we cannot act ethically. The horror, fear, shock, and disgust we feel when confronted by waste jolts us out of our complacency. We recognize in waste not only the humanity of the other, but also the affinity the other has to us. Waste is everywhere and deserves, indeed insists on, moral attention. Ethically informed literary criticism may help us to understand how we theorize, manage, and are implicated in waste. Only through that understanding might we change our hearts and hope for social action, justice, and responsibility. An examination of the Old English poem Beowulf illustrates how we might read in this way.
Masha Raskolnikov (Comparative Literature, Cornell University), Transgendering Pride
Examining a moment where the female figure of Pride claims phallic potency in a particular, perhaps accidental, moment in the C-text of Piers Plowman, this essay asks: what can medieval studies do for transgender/transsexual scholarship, and vice versa? A certain version of medical discourse about transsexuality affirms a split between the body and the soul (as when it is said that a trans person has a ‘female soul within a male body’) that seems rather medieval in its near-allegorical dualism. However, the moment when the figure of Pride, personified as a female being, claims to be ‘stiffest under the belt’ in a moment of boastful confession, a different medieval model of trans consciousness is offered, that of a female-to-male person’s courage to be themselves, which this essay reads alongside the journalistic account of Brandon Teena.
David Gary Shaw (History, Wesleyan University), Embodiment and the Human from Dante through Tomorrow
Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman matches its rhetoric to its argument by highlighting anxiety in its cybernetic subjects as we face the prospect of disembodied humanity. Medievalists should be sympathetic since embodiment is key to the conception of full medieval personhood. Hayles reacted against a new desire to loosen the link of person to body and much speculative thinking continues to push in this direction. As contemporary science fiction shows, we can conceive a variety of technological advances that might allow intelligence to exist electronically and humans to become increasingly independent of their bodies. While some form of materiality and localized perspective seem necessary, in the future a person will be identified less by materiality or information than by understanding. The ability to recognize a being as a durable, comprehensible interlocutor will be the litmus test of the posthuman being.
Julie Singer (French, Washington University in Saint Louis), Toward a Transhuman Model of Medieval Disability
To elaborate an understanding of medieval humanity rooted in the body, we must consider a broad class of ‘bodies’ beyond the physical. Applying the methodologies of disability studies to textual corpora offers new ways to reflect on the boundaries of the human in medieval literature. The dits, generically mixed texts, may thus be read as a corpus generated from a posthuman blending of textual elements; the prevalence of disabled narrators in the dits compounds their play with the margins of humanity. This essay proposes a ‘transhuman’ model of medieval disability, an elastic and non-binary paradigm of corporeal difference. According to this transhuman model, disability in medieval texts can represent an enhancement, a constructive alteration of the human state. A brief reading of lyric ‘insertions’ in Guillaume de Machaut’s Livre du Voir Dit suggests the concept of textual prosthesis as a productive point of contact between Disability Studies and the posthuman.
Daniel Lord Smail (History, Harvard University), The Original Subaltern
This essay invites readers to consider how exclusions operate in the framing of history. In conventional historical thought, agency was accorded only to the limited few. Marginals, ranging from third world nations to subaltern groups of all types, were excluded from the making of history. The task of recuperating the historicity of marginals has been underway now for decades. As I hope to suggest in this essay, however, we have yet to restore historicity to the original subalterns: the peoples of the Paleolithic. The field of medieval studies, curiously enough, is implicated in their exclusion. In the developmental narratives that emerged early in the twentieth century, medieval Europe was presented as the point of origins from which modernity sprang. To the extent that medievalists continue to reaffirm the prehistoricity of the Great Before, they instantiate the very same historical exclusion that modernists currently impose on the Middle Ages.
Karl Steel (English, Brooklyn College, CUNY), Woofing and Weeping with Animals in the Last Days
The medieval eschatological tradition of the 15 Signs of the Last Days pays special attention to the anguish of animals. This attention seems unnecessary, as animals will not be judged, or resurrected, but only destroyed. Their unnecessary cries might be heard as the cry of life for itself, now useless to God and humans, and also as a reminder to humans of the richness of the worlded selves they abandon in their fantasy of celestial life freed from the flux of worldly being.
Elly Truitt (History, Bryn Mawr College), Fictions of Life and Death: Tomb Automata in Medieval Romance
While automata appear in medieval European textual sources in many different settings, they frequently cluster around tombs, memorials, and other places associated with the dead. In several different literary examples, automata expose the unstable definitions of ‘life’ and ‘death,’ and reveal contemporary ideas about the complexity and permeability of these categories.
Henry S. Turner (English, Rutgers University), Of Dramatology: Action in the Form of Tools and Machines (Weiner, Plato, Aristotle, Latour, Shakespeare, Bacon)
This article examines Norbert Wiener's notions about self-reproducing machines in his work on cybernetic systems; it them compares Wiener's arguments to classical discussions of tools and instruments, with particular reference to Plato and Aristotle. The article argues that all three writers provide a way of thinking about the category of 'action' in posthuman terms: they offer examples of a mode of artificial, performative action that has been dissociated from subjects and persons and that flourishes in technology, in theater, and in philosophy of science. The article closes by briefly considering how this model of posthuman action might help us understand two areas in early modern writing: the drama of Shakespeare and the philosophy of Francis Bacon.
Michael Witmore (English, University of Wisconsin-Madison), We Have Never Not Been Inhuman
This essay uses a reading of an emblem of Fortuna from George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes (1635) to challenge one interpretation of Western modernity: the notion that a mathematicized theory of nature involved an unprecedented inclusion of limit cases -- counterfactual or impossible states of affairs -- into accounts of the real behavior of bodies. Instead of viewing the arrival of such mathematical limit cases as beginning of a worldview that embraced the inhuman, the essay argues that pre-modern texts and cultural forms also made use of known impossibilities in the form of visual or narrative abstractions: these too were limit cases of actual experiences (rather than pure impossibilities), thus, we have never not been inhuman.
W.B. Worthen (Theater, Barnard College), Posthuman Shakespeare Performance Studies
Is there (or are there) posthuman Shakespeare(s)? Or, to frame the question slightly differently, what would a notion of the posthuman lend to our thinking about early modern dramatic writing in late (posthuman) (post)modernity? Much as digital writing has opened a material critique of the status of the printed work, so, too it provokes a reinspection of the stabilities often attributed to dramatic performance, especially those seen to arise from an artificial understanding of dramatic performance as predicated on the dramatic text. Rather than seeing contemporary 'postdramatic' theater merely as a succession in technologies, we might more productively take the constituitive instability of performance -- and perhaps especially of dramatic performance -- as a location for the ongoing negotiation of the technologies of the posthuman.
Julian Yates (Cultural Studies, University of Delaware), It's (for) You: The Tele-T/r/opical Posthuman
This essay asks what kind of trope or rhetorical operation is activated by the call of the post-human? What modes of inscription does the term deploy? I argued that the 'post-ing' of the human proceeds by refiguring the 'human' as telephone or screen, as a surface that registers the action or presencing of the inhuman via an overwhelming apostrophe or prosopopeia. Allied to this call is a refiguring of the post-humanities as an inquiry into how the modeling of non-human entities inflects the constitution of a common world, leading us to embark on a quest for less lethal or more friendly modes of inscription or writing. The philosophical movement known as 'speculative metaphysics' provides a rubric for this quest and so for a speculative literary history that would reconfigure our contacts with the textual traces named 'past' as a contact zone with alternate ways of being.
zooz (Bryan Reynolds, Drama, University of California, Irvine and James Intriligator, Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University), Continuous R(E)volutions: Thermodynamic Processes, Analog Hybridizations, Transversal Becomings, and the Post-human
In a land far, far away, there wander analog hybridizations. In this story, guided by the theory, aesthetics, and methodology of transversal poetics, we adventure to some previously explored and unexplored territories in the Xanadu of which this land appears. Marvelous encounters with folk physics, evolutionary theory, neuronal activity, and massive energy storms glitter our journey. These encounters lead us across boundless spacetime, through kaleidoscopic variations on the post-human, and beyond established parameters for conceptual and practical differentiations in particles, processes, species, and consciousnesses. We experience, become, and come-to-be super creatures, and pause not with conclusion, but rather with incentive for further fugitive explorations and transversality.
Andy Mousley (English, De Montfort University), RESPONSE: Limits, Limitlessness, and the Politics of the (Post)human

Kate Soper (Philosophy, London Metropolitan University), RESPONSE: The postmedieval Project: Promise and Paradox

N. Katherine Hayles (English, Duke University), RESPONSE: After Shocks: Posthuman Ambivalence

Suzanne Conklin Akbari (English, University of Toronto), BOOK REVIEW ESSAY: Becoming Human
Books Reviewed: Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Germany and Beyond (Pennsylvania, 2007); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles (Palgrave, 2006); Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, eds., Queering the Non/human (Ashgate, 2008); Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (Zone Books, 2007); Eileen A. Joy and Christine Neufeld, eds., Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project, special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007).


York CMS Postmedieval Reading Group said...

This all looks so great - (how fanboy of me is that?).

We've had a great two sessions at the York Postmedieval Reading Group, meeting a fortnight ago on 'temporality' and earlier this week we discussed 'Chaucer's Cook/Chaucer's Punk', reading Dick Hebdidge's 1979 book: 'Subculture: The Meaning of Style' alongside The Cook's Tale. (We got to play some Medieval dice games, and talk about gambling a little bit, too)

(Shameless plug time: follow our blog:

Ben and I are currently looking for ideas for our next session, in two weeks' time, and having read the preview articles, we may run a session on Medieval disability, or something similar - unless someone on here is essentially willing to do my work for me (!) and suggest a brilliant topic?

Even if not, I'm really quite looking forward to losing a weekend to the first issue when I get my hands (or eyes) on it.

Much Love,


Eileen Joy said...

Mike: interestingly enough, the Newberry Library in Chicago [just up the road from me] is hosting a 1-day symposium today [Feb. 20] on Disease and Disability in the Middle Ages and Renaissance:

Christopher Baswell is there presenting, and I believe he spent some time at York not that long ago as a visiting professor [?], and also Edward Wheatley [Loyola University, Chicago], who is supposed to have a book coming out soon from Michigan: "Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability":

Anonymous said...

There is stuff there I would like to read. I wonder if anywhere in Cambridge is subscribing... I should probably suggest it to a few places if not.