EESE Review # 4
Erica Fudge, Ruth Gilbert and Susan Wiseman (eds.).
At the Borders of the Human: Beasts, Bodies and Natural Philosophy in the Early Modern Period.
Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999.
If the buzz-word of 'nineties Renaissance studies was "power," then one of the interpretive strategies that developed from this critical concern was the search for the faultlines that unsettle power from within. This search informs At the Borders of the Human, a collection of essays dedicated to "The Dislocation of the Human" (1), as the title of the introductory chapter suggests. But while this concern insinuates an affinity with twentieth-century "critical reconsiderations of the term 'human'" (1) and their "increasing awareness of the unstable place of humanity" (1), the explicit aim of the book is to problematise the postmodernist context thus invoked.
Probably the most influential of these critical reconsiderations has been the concept of the cyborg, central to the work of Donna Haraway. While in their introduction the editors of this stimulating volume acknowledge the crucial significance of Haraway's argument, in the current debate on subjectivity, that the distinctions between human and animal or machine have become increasingly fluid in the course of the twentieth century, they do not aim to appropriate her postmodernist anti-humanism in order to apply it retroactively to early modern texts. These essays are not "anti-humanist" - this label would only reiterate the traditional view that "the human" emerged as a homogeneous concept with Renaissance humanism - but aim to show that "the category of the 'human' had never been stable or consensual" (1, my emphasis).
Unsurprisingly, then, the only essay in this collection that takes up Haraway's thesis, Jonathan Sawday's "'Forms Such as Never Were in Nature': the Renaissance Cyborg," seeks to provide a paradigmatic alternative account to the familiar postmodernist narrative by illustrating the importance of the machine to the emerging concept of "the human." The liberatory optimism Sawday detects in his selection of early modern texts (Shakespeare's Coriolanus and early modern machine-books by authors like Agricola, Besson, Ramelli and Zonca) indicates the positive, prosthetic function of the machine, its role as "a refuge, a place of sanctuary, a hardened carapace into which the battered psyche might flee" (174). Susan Wiseman's essay in the same collection seconds this view from a collective perspective, illustrating the crucial significance, in the early modern period, of "art" and "artifice" for the conceptualisation of both "the human" and "the state."
This puts in perspective Haraway's contention that the cyborg has no origin. For the cyborg that defies "man" does have a predecessor: a cyborg that provided the mould for the human ideal. If the rational machine liberates the human by imposing order on her/his uncivilised volatility, if in Sawday's words, "only to be an engine is to be free" (174), then it is the unrefined human that haunts the machine. Rather than our concepts of subversion, therefore, it is our concepts of order that need rethinking. Our unease with regard to machines and hybrids might be rooted in the fact that this hybridity so crucially enables our thinking of what is human in the first place. Scientific gestures of empowerment, as the essays in this volume explore in ever new contexts and constellations, are inevitably undermined by the element of uncertainty introduced into the order of rationality by human experience and historical contingency.
This unsettling element does not spare the father of empirical science, as Erica Fudge illustrates in her essay on Bacon's logic of progress and perfection. The stable distinction between nature and science of Baconian empiricism is flawed because it relies on the natural world it wishes to master as its argumentative basis: "while setting up the possibility of human perfection based on human separation from the natural world, Bacon was unable to remove the human link to that world" (106). This dialectic also disrupts other fields of scientific enquiry. Jess Edwards describes how the Platonic ideal of scientific neutrality of early modern cartography is unsettled by the "vacillation between the universal and particular" (130) that enables and taints the establishment of that neutrality. Like painting and architecture, early modern cartography enacts a compromise in the shadow of the logic of the supplement. The alleged mathematical neutrality of the map and, by implication the colonial supremacy that relies on it, is always challenged by the historical experience of/with the colonised other, which the metaphorical substitutions of map-making strive but fail to eclipse. This is true also of the anatomical maps discussed by Stephen Speed, who sees in the disruptive materiality of the body the trigger for an ultimately constructive process: "The body provoked a creative disorder, an instructive confusion, an interpolating space in which the imagination carried the anatomist in every direction, even towards the previously unthought" (112).
Early modern science, as these essays show, thus locates "the other" firmly within its bounds. If the "monsters," freaks and curiosities that pervade the literature of the time hold a mirror up to science, they do so to reflect back to it its integral, formative fallibility. Susan Wiseman's essay on the role of the ape in early modern science analyses how the ambiguous, border-crossing spectre of the ape (How human is the ape? How ape-like are humans?) provided an optimistic, social and scientific fantasy of transformation: "the ape acts as a figure not for a fixed animal-human border, nor for the stability of social institutions, but for the simultaneous transformability of body and commonwealth" (228). A similar attitude characterises early modern medicine and proto-anthropology with regard to the biologically ambiguous, the hermaphrodite, and the colonial other, although, as Ruth Gilbert and Brian Cummings show in their respective essays, both fields are inevitably haunted by their constitutive others.
These "others" are often female. Julie Sanders' essay on popular representations of midwives reveals how the very circumscription of the all-female territory of midwifery by the New Science actually created a potentially disruptive enclave within the scientific discourse at large. The resulting tensions find an outlet in popular culture, as the ambiguous treatment of the midwifery topos in Ben Jonson's The Magnetic Lady shows. These tensions might also explain the obsession of Elizabethan and Jacobean domestic drama with deviant and excessive human behaviour, as Margaret Healy suggests, who reads these plays against and with early modern (vernacular) medical regimens and conduct books. To critique domestic drama for the psychological implausibility of its characters is therefore to fail to see how these plays engage the conflicts and contradictions within contemporary medical discourse.
In the eighteenth century, the female other helps to mediate the conflicts around the nascent market economy. Mary Peace's reading of M. D. T. Bienville's Nymphomania, or a Dissertation concerning the Furor Uterinus reveals the ambiguities of this text's sentimental surface and shows that the image of women as the "bulwark against the evils of an increasingly appetitive society" (243) relied heavily on the notion of feminine desirous deviancy. Daniel Defoe's essay Mere Nature Delineated, about a feral child discovered in Germany in 1725, provides a slightly more differentiated view of the emerging capitalism. The isolation of the "savage" other here illustrates that economic exchange not only separates but also connects individuals. Nevertheless - and to make such diachronic connections is the great strength of this richly diverse collection - economic anxiety was already a concern before the emergence of homo economicus proper. As Alan Stewart's essay on the correspondence between Erasmus and Budé reveals, its supposed amicable altruism founders as soon as the epistolary tokens of friendship are circulated on the market - for public recognition as well as profit.
This engagement in the discourses they critique is the fate humanists and the critics of humanism share. Not only is criticism always overshadowed by commercial interests, it also inevitably engages in the discourses of scientific neutrality and objectivity it critiques. Unfortunately, this collection only rarely evinces such a self-critical perspective. The editorial stance at the end of the introduction resounds of the Baconian ideal of visibility that the collection subsequently sets out to challenge: "Perhaps we can look back to the early modern period, a period when the modern self - self-determining, individual, self-knowing - was apparently being created and see instead - or as well - the beginnings of human dislocation" (8, my emphasis). As such the essays in At the Borders of the Human should perhaps be seen as a point of departure for a criticism that allows itself to be viewed "from the borders of the human."