- Open Subjects: English Renaissance Republicans, Modern Selfhoods, and the Virtue of Vulnerability by James Kuzner, and: The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity by Joseph Campana
To call something vulnerable is usually to suggest that it needs to be strengthened or protected. It is to describe a condition that may be inevitable and that may elicit pity or concern, but that is rarely embraced as salutary. And although today vulnerability is primarily a psychosocial condition, in a world such as that of early modern England vulnerability of all kinds—political, military, medical—was frighteningly real. It is hard to imagine an early modern Englishman championing the vulnerable for its own sake. Yet James Kuzner’s Open Subjects and Joseph Campana’s Pain of Reformation both make the case that for at least some writers in the early modern period vulnerability could indeed be a virtue.
Open Subjects locates its theory of vulnerability in politics and public discourse, especially “between two languages, one republican and the other radical” (2). Rejecting both Quentin Skinner’s “‘neo-Roman’ theory of freedom as non-domination” (13) and Michael Sandel’s communitarian emphasis on civic virtue and shared existence, Kuzner turns to Cicero as the thinker who best understands how “republics both must make peace with, and even recognize their dependence on, vulnerability of various kinds” (19). Cicero is linked to the more radical tradition of Bataille, Derrida, Butler, and others who advocate “more total, dangerous forms of openness” (24). While Cicero can feel out of place in this company, Kuzner’s central claim remains a powerful one: that the limited vulnerability of republican politics often relies on the more uncompromising forms of openness exposed by contemporary French thought.
In the second chapter, Kuzner links Cicero to Bataille and Butler through a patient study of friendship in book 4 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. At first Spenserian friendship seems decidedly unradical in its ends, reaffirming the self ’s invulnerability through momentary exposure and self-loss or through the displacement of vulnerability onto an unwanted other. However, for Kuzner, the deaths of Priamond and Diamond, the battle of Satyrane and Bruncheval, the encounters of Britomart and Amoret and then of Britomart and Artegall—all exemplify “states of extravagant incapacity” (65). Whether or not they are truly Ciceronian, these moments offer compelling illustrations of a surprising maxim: “one reason for fashioning ourselves . . . lies in the unfashioning that follows” (67).
If vulnerability’s politics still seem to be in the background with Spenser, in Kuzner’s reading of Coriolanus vulnerability is center stage. Kuzner’s Coriolanus is the voice of an almost aristocratic disdain for the conservative protectionism implicit in republican selfhood. Refusing to show his wounds, which “would mean [End Page 238] acceding to a process of social exchange that leads to the public fabrication and recognition of separable identities” (100), Coriolanus instead embraces a “radical form of bodily openness” (98) in which it is impossible to tell whether the blood on his body comes from himself or from another. Coriolanus “says and does whatever will accelerate his unravelling” (99), and in doing so he becomes Kuzner’s most charismatic radical, even if he expressly qualifies Kuzner’s vision of uniting that radicalism with republican selfhood.
In Andrew Marvell, vulnerability becomes a linguistic condition. Kuzner shows how in “Upon Appleton House” Marvell moves from a rigid, anti-Catholic suspicion of language’s penetrative and transformative powers toward an embrace of “positive linguistic vulnerabilities” (126). The notion of vulnerability pervades almost every facet of the poem, which provides ways of experiencing what “the imperfection of personal boundaries might be like, particularly when that imperfection is linguistically, transubstantially felt” (140). A final chapter on Milton similarly focuses on linguistic vulnerability, though here as the effect of rhetorical...