Jean Feerick and Vin Nardizzi (eds), The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 304pp. £52.00 Hb. ISBN 9780230340473
What is an indistinct human—or indistinct about the human? When did such odd questions become askable? The mere title of this collection of thirteen compact essays introduced by two careful editors provokes such inquiries, and the stakes of those questions (in terms of disciplinary boundaries, ontologies and epistemologies) show the value of what first seems a rather out-of-the-way topic.
The topic in fact follows from a current of inquiry in early modern cultural studies—a phrase that, more than “literature and science,” characterizes the work of this book, and the eponymous series by Palgrave- Macmillan to which it belongs—which aims to displace the human from its unsurprisingly central place in the humanities. Doing so lets us acknowledge the fullness and variety of the other organic and inorganic forms that participate so vitally in our lives as to be conceivable as extensions of ourselves. Put less anthropocentrically, we are (this book posits) extensions of them. We do eat such things, from dandelion leaves to bits of dirt not washed from them, and so render parts of them part of us; many more and smaller such things inhabit us, incognito until they make us sneeze. The ashes have long settled from the explosion of the notion of individual identity as a juvenile (merely post-Enlightenment) myth; in this volume, the legacy of such debunking extends from mind to body, as part of the increased pressure scholarship is putting on the material at its border, if one can briefly be imagined, with the immaterial. Nobody is a body and nobody has one—or not just one—and now even cognition is understood, or at least advertised, as distributed and networked, much like our favourite tech toys. Descartes might smart.
This volume shows that preoccupations with the liquid boundary (should that be plural?) between human and nonhuman, one body and another, is not exclusively late modern but already evident in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Editors Feerick and Nardizzi note that “human indistinction is the dark underside of Renaissance celebrations of man’s preeminent place within the cosmos” (2). Dark how? For one, humans were seen as in some ways worse—slower, less furry—than other creatures, and easily sliding into bestial behaviour rather than aspiring toward godliness, while even meat might infest us not only with its flesh but moral failings. These essays thus tell “the story of humankind’s complex embeddedness among creaturely life on the earth” (2-3). That story begins long before early modernity, as is made clear by the many chapters rehearsing Aristotle’s theory that “man extends outwards, as it were, from elemental and vegetable origins into his animal existence,” with “two-thirds of man’s functions and attributes ... shared by other animate and sentient beings” (3).
The editors distinguish their collection not least by refusing to characterize inter-species crossings only or especially as generative of confusion or anxiety. Instead, they persuade, such crossings were often useful ways to think and be. Building on a decade’s formation of a subdiscipline known as animal studies that has softened our perception of human exceptionality, these studies extend such work, not least by their inclusion of both conceptual and material minglings of human with vegetable and mineral. Laurie Shannon, perhaps the presiding spirit of the collection (alongside the oft-cited Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter), aptly sums up the rationale: “early modern humanity is relatively ecosystemic; it always has animality (and divinity and plants and elements) in or with it” (23). Yet those parentheses seem not incidental but indicative of the ongoing privileging of the animal as the preeminent Other among others, biggest and toothiest among the littler glittering green fishes.
The book has three sections, one with only one essay, then two with three subsections of two essays each. The first section foregrounds Shannon’s piece, Part II investigates how indistinction was achieved (through hybridity, consumption, or prostheses), and Part III explores products of these processes, from vegetative virgins to politic worms. This structural complexity is justified as salient to the project, since it replaces the rubric of earlier drafts—animal, vegetable, and mineral—that only reinscribed conventions under interrogation. Yet, reading between the subtitles, the palimpsest is clear: chapters 1 through 4 chart animal-human overlaps, the next five essays treat people and plants in continuum, and the final four illuminate the illusive boundary between things animate and allegedly otherwise (stones, dirt).
To open the book, Shannon examines Shakespeare’s few (she counted: eight) uses of the word “animal,” in order to show the falsity, historically, of the human/animal binary we often rely on today and in our studies of early modern culture. Steve Mentz documents the imagined origins of dolphins as humans (in fact, pirates!) to understand ocean-going early-moderns using dolphins “to imagine the limits of humanity in nonhuman seas” (30). Dan Brayton expands this analysis to all cetaceans, filling in the classical tradition Mentz documents with biblical and medieval variants and surveying how whales characterized powerful, passionate Shakespearean figures like Falstaff and Hal—the latter, later Henry V, but first the Prince of Wales. Not all will find such metaphorical patterns and echoes as compelling evidence of indistinction as the minor but vivid metonymy that Jay Zysk (in “You Are What You Eat”) finds in a funny seventeenth-century poem about a food fight, where warriors “ultimately become their weapons” (72). Here, the work of in- distinguishing humans from edible creatures is fully achieved; less so when, shortly after Zysk claims that Ursula (the piggish pig-seller from Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair) is “normative rather than transgressive” (76), he concludes that she challenges boundaries that, if present, surely precluded her normativity. The logic of human indistinction is not always easy to think with, at least today.
The five essays that follow prod “the porous border between the human and plant worlds” (86), as Erin Ellerbeck puts it in the first of two insightful essays (the second by Miranda Wilson) on horticultural grafting as a version of human propagation in various play texts, an archive also plumbed by Nardizzi on the lexical and material conjunction in the phrase “wooden leg” and what it denotes about tree stumps and fleshly ones. Marjorie Swann writes wittily of the Restoration discovery of botanical sexuality disrupting fantasies of vegetative virginity that attracted writers from Browne to Marvell, while Hillary Nunn shows the “greensickness” of early modern virgins to have blurred both their complexion and capacities with the plants whose dominant hue they took on.
In the final section, Tiffany Jo Werth compellingly portrays conflicting biblical and classical bases for “the perceived fungibility of stones and bones” (190); Ovidian lithic metamorphoses showed the iconic power of durable minerals, which alarmed iconoclastic Protestants for whom the “homeopathic” (183) remedy offered to stony-hearted atheists was stoning—a potentially monumental martyrdom. Jennifer Waldron similarly sees Shakespeare inoculating classical lore on lively stones into dramatic scenes that “hijack Protestant doctrine” (221) about stony idols by showing them come to life, and living things turn to stone: in death, or in imposing it on others. Feerick reads three tragedies as emblematic of a larger erosion of the special proximity of the landed nobility to the earth, owing not least to the way in which the plays “close with images of commoners transforming into earth” (247)—even if, again, only through death and decay. In his fascinating closing chapter, Ian MacInnes similarly gestures to the dissolution of “human social distinctions” (268) through the material fusion of human bodies and those of worms, creatures as ubiquitous as they were wrigglingly ambiguous in early modern bodies, economics, and politics.
The quality of these essays make the collection a valuable addition to, and perhaps even a new vanguard for, studies going by the names of post-humanism, eco-criticism, and animal studies. It ably stirs the pot in which these loosely-formed entities are complementary ingredients.
Leah Knight (Brock University)