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A Special Issue on Commons and Collectivities: Renaissance Political Ecologies
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To invoke the “commons” or the “common” in Renaissance texts is usually a defensive rhetorical move, one that asserts the privilege or priority of the traditional, the time-honored, and the shared over and against that which threatens to disregard, displace, or dissolve it. The unity to which these invocations of the “common” gesture—common land, common law, the common people, common prayer, etc.—is provisional and strategic, a unity constructed for tactical reasons. Indeed, with the benefit of historical hindsight it is not hard to read these references to the common as responses to social and political change, particularly to those upheavals that accompanied the emergence of the market, the rise of the nation-state, and the so-called birth of the subject—developments that would later be said to characterize modernity, but that were already in the early modern period beginning to irrevocably transform the practices of communal life, eroding some forms of organization while making possible others. Early modern writers were better able to positively articulate and delineate the common than the still-nebulous forces that threatened it. The opposite is true today: it is not particularly difficult to name or to decry the forces that devalue and destroy all sorts of communal practices and communities, human and nonhuman alike—global capitalism, financial crisis, armed conflict, ecological disaster—but it is neither intellectually honest nor politically defensible in a pluralistic and radically unequal world to speak on behalf of “the common” in any generalized, categorical sense, as to do so would be to assert a commonality or unity that does not in actuality exist. And yet, because these same forces have global effects that bring into sharp relief the seemingly banal but inescapable fact that our lives are bound up with those of others, it is both necessary and useful to reconsider the concept of the common in ways that do justice to our shared predicament while recognizing the uneven, unequal, and sometimes unknowable ways in which those effects are distributed across different populations. This special issue, “Commons and Collectivities: Renaissance Political Ecologies,” brings together theoretically and methodologically diverse critical work that engages with early modern articulations of the common in order to explore the collectivities and networks to which subjects and objects belong, and to examine the difficulties involved in conceptualizing these forms of interrelation and connectivity.

Political Ecologies: From the Common to the Collective

This issue intentionally juxtaposes two influential modes of recent criticism in the field of early modern literary studies. The first of these is the turn to the political, which has largely been characterized by a shift away from new historicist discussions of “politics” as historical context (e.g., the relations between a state and its subjects at a given historical moment) toward an understanding of “the political” as a concept of a particular sphere of action in which subjects exercise agency. In dialogue with the theoretical work of Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, and Chantal Mouffe, this criticism (whose various lines of analysis include studies of political theology, biopolitics, citizenship, human rights, and sovereignty) is invested in the political largely in terms of its capacity to organize, manage, and mediate individual and collective forms of human life.1 The second critical mode that informs this collection is one that interrogates and puts pressure on the central term of political criticism—the human subject—and its effective separation of the sphere of human action from the world of nature and the nonhuman, drawing upon the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour to argue instead for an understanding of agency in terms of networks and assemblages composed of human and non-human actants alike.2 Practitioners of this kind of criticism (operative in eco-criticism, posthumanism, animal studies, and object-oriented ontology) tend to reconceptualize ecological thought itself, shifting its parameters from an environmentalist discourse to one which uses the term ecology to articulate new understandings of collective life and connectivity—a mode of critical practice that, as Timothy Morton puts it, is concerned with the “everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans” (2).

The essays included here explore these two (inter)disciplinary vectors as they intersect in “political ecology,” our organizing...

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