- The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature ed. by Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi
Coedited by Jean Feerick and Vin Nardizzi, The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature is an important collection not only for early modern ecocritics, but also for ecocritics and Renaissance literary scholars more broadly. With rich, careful—sometimes even startling—excavations of the porous boundaries between human and nonhuman living things, the volume identifies the intricate crossings between humans and nonhuman actants, ranging from worms, dolphins, and vegetables to earth, apricots, stones, swine, and more.
The Indistinct Human challenges the dominant narrative of the Renaissance as an era in which Man was preeminent. Productively unraveling the (still entrenched) Burkhardtian notion of the Renaissance as the seminal moment of human individuation and selfhood, the volume is also relevant to current discussions of human subjectivity and periodicity. It seeks to establish the fullness with which conceptions of the early modern human are enmeshed with nonhuman [End Page 119] life-forms, elucidating the many ways that human exceptionalism—“the premise that humanity alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies”1—does not apply to pre-Cartesian constructions of humanity. As such, the collection recovers a perspective that more than resembles the posthuman disposition advocated by contemporary eco-theorists and highlights how early modern texts engage crucial and relevant ecological concerns. Feerick and Nardizzi’s introduction, “Swervings: On Human Indistinction,” opens the volume with strong statements regarding the book’s intent. As they write, “the potential for human indistinction is the dark underside of Renaissance celebrations of man’s preeminent place within the cosmos, and it is the subject of the essays brought together in this collection” (p. 2). The chapters in the volume “are united in their interest to explain a widespread cultural tendency to perceive only the most provisional and ‘illusory’ of ‘boundaries’ separating human ‘selfhood’ from nonhuman life forms” (p. 4). Moving deftly from Hooker’s “tangled” chain of being to Aristotle’s tripartite soul (vegetable, sensitive, intellective), the coeditors elucidate how humans and nonhumans intersect in overlapping, nesting ways.
Feerick and Nardizzi duly credit those individuals in animal studies who have “proposed the animal as a crucial border-figure to the human being in Renaissance materials” (p. 3). However, they also note how The Indistinct Human departs from previous scholarly investigations of the dispersal of the human, noting that such work tended “to identify an anxious awareness of suspect boundaries on the part of early modern writers” (p. 4). The Indistinct Human presents a more expansive range of responses to early modern cross-species identification: “Anxiety does have a role in the stories that our contributors tell of these exchanges and transactions, but they also detail postures of desire, admiration, disappointment, even release in the intricate relations perceived to conjoin human and nonhuman agents” (ibid.). The second key departure begins with the argument that recent scholarly work focused on questioning the human/animal divide is, even if by way of critique, a descendant of Cartesian thought. This collection seeks to recapture a pre-Cartesian sense of human indistinction, working across multiple frontiers and evincing the full range of relations invited by Aristotle’s three souls, “imagining vegetables and animals as similarly ensouled forms of matter,” and including “mineral life forms” as well (ibid.).
The coeditors note how they also almost fell into the familiar taxonomy of animal, vegetable, and mineral. Late in the process, however, they recognized the hierarchy embedded in these categories and revamped the structure fully: part 1, “The Head-Piece”; part 2, “Modes of Indistinction (Crossings, Bodily Ingestion, Technologies of Conjunction)”; and part 3, “Indistinct Bodies ([Un]Sexed Bodies, Stony States, Soiled Bodies).” While part 2 is structured with paired chapters focused on modes of indistinction, part 3 presents paired chapters on indistinct bodies. Laurie Shannon’s “Head-Piece” (the only reprint in the volume) articulates and develops the governing perspective of the collection, arguing for the necessity of abandoning the “spurious compass of ‘the human/animal...