- Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism ed. by Myra Seaman, Eileen A. Joy
Many scholars have recently been energized by the posthumanist turn—a determined, scholarly effort to counter our anthropocentric tendency to see agency and desire as uniquely human. This turn has generated some anxiety. As ecocritics or object oriented ontologists investigate perspectives ranging from nonhuman biological life to everyday inert objects, some critics worry that posthumanism menacingly invites literary critics to abandon the human entirely.
Happily, such critical nervousness has inspired a lively and fascinating collection: Myra Seaman and Eileen A. Joy's Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism. The volume provides a platform for cutting-edge medievalists intent upon linking humanist concerns with posthumanist thought. As Anna Kłosowska and Joy explain in their stirring introduction, this collection seeks to 'think with, and not merely about nonhumans' by having medievalist scholars engage in posthumanist 'thought experiments' (p. 30). Kłosowska and Joy compellingly argue that humanist fascination with fragmentariness enriches criticism by linking medievalists and medieval subjects, as each are struggling in an 'ongoing, never finished' effort to define the human (p. 15). Craig Dionne powerfully complements these literary historiographical reflections in his 'coda' to the volume, which turns to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to ponder how we can 'make the past speak to' contemporary 'concerns' while still respecting its 'alterity' (p. 225). Urging us both to investigate 'subaltern' figures and to take care not to 'aestheticize' such 'bare life' into our own, post-modern self-image (p. 243), Dionne voices the volume's concern with allowing the allure of fragmentariness to help us coordinate our formalist and historicist instincts.
The volume does fine work by creating space for bold juxtapositions of medieval and modern texts. Tim Spence uses a striking comparison between medieval books of hours and contemporary iPods to invite us to think broadly about the ways in which privacy and ritual emotionally amplify prayer and lyric. Arguing that these 'technologies of the devotional self' (p. 65) show that both medieval and modern practitioners sought mystical transcendence within their everyday environments, Spence provides rich discussion of music and spirituality. Daniel Remein and Kłosowska offer a stimulating essay that brings into an unlikely conversation two texts that each involve self-naming and a failed search for one's mother—Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval and Samuel Beckett's Molloy. Intriguingly placing Perceval within a romantic 'medieval protohistory' of the novel (p. 124), Remein and Kłosowska see [End Page 89] these texts as each revealing what language itself speaks as both utterly and erotically incomplete.
The volume also features thought-provoking analysis of the profound relationship between aesthetics and fragmentariness. Jeffrey Skoblow uses the simultaneously ambiguous and intriguing quality of prehistoric cave art at Chauvet and Rouffignac to dwell on the ways in which fragmentariness is co-constitutive with the humanity that we share with our pre-linguistic ancestors who communicated through the more fundamental power of 'metaphor' (p. 50). In her fascinating analysis of the Balyn and Balan episode in Malory's Morte DArthur, Joy locates a 'pastmodernity' generated by the figures of Balyn and Balan, who are uncannily modern because they are 'nonlinear,' and who give us glimpses of the fragmentariness of contemporary identity (p. 56, author's emphasis).
Fragments also features essays that compellingly revise traditional critical vantage points. Michael A. Johnson moves from the analysis of challenges made to Freud's correlation of human progress with 'sublimation' enabled by 'technologies of waste disposal' (p. 153) to an engaging reading of a 'fecal playfulness' in troubadour poetry that is essentially 'avant-garde' (p. 172). In 'How Delicious We Must Be,' Karl Steel turns to chronicle and romance to wake us from our human-exceptionalist slumber, showing how the 'special horror' generated by cannibalism reveals the 'privilege' structured into our concept of the human (p. 181). In an essay that powerfully places aging at the...