“Posthumanism” Entry for Chaucer Encyclopedia

Wrote a thing I agreed to write, and no doubt what I’m publishing here is going to be wrung through the editorial mangler, as is its duty. So here’s what I hope is the penultimate draft of what I hope manages to find its way into the home built for it.

What follows are basically the same ideas as my “Medieval” chapter for the Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, with different texts and slightly modified emphases.

The “post” in posthumanism would seem to demand a state that comes after being human, in a sequence that runs animal, then human, and finally posthuman, with the latter category requiring some technological development that enables abandoning outmoded or inefficient conditions of individuality, mortality, and dependence on the body and its needs. Posthumanist thinkers, however, tend to label this technological dream, or nightmare, as “transhumanism,” while “posthumanism” can indicate, instead, a more general skepticism about what it means to be human, and, in particular, skepticism about traditional claims of human superiority to or separation from all other sublunary things. Posthumanism thus need not await some technological transformation. Rather, posthumanist engagement means raising questions about the unexamined characteristics generally held to be unique qualities of being human. In the Middle Ages, these include the possession of the rational soul, which, unlike the vegetative and sensible souls, would live forever; free will, enabled by the rational soul; articulate, meaningful language; and above all, human dominance over all other life. Poshumanist questioning of these qualities can enable other forms of ethical obligation, based on something other than a presumption of shared rationality, while also discovering the limits to human fantasies of freedom.

The final stanzas of Troilus and Criseyde illustrate a transhumanist fantasy. Before the walls of Troy, the hopeless Troilus dies, and, as his spirit rises through the heavens, it looks down on “this litel spot of erthe”  and laughs at everyone who weeps for his death. Freed from earthly love, the spiritualized Troilus now knows the mutable world to be nothing but “blynde lust, the which that may nat laste.”  With his shifted perspective of time and space, his old loyalties and desires appear ridiculous, and anyone still entangled in them, contemptible. In other words, he has achieved the transhumanist dream, as everything that he once was seems to him pathetically constrained by bodies, their desires, and their brevity, while Troilus believes he has transcended all that by becoming a free spirit. The spirit functions like a technological liberation of the self from its limits, insofar as the spiritualized self reaches past its temporal and spatial constraints to enjoy invulnerability, freedom of motion, invisibility, and “subtlety,” that quality that allows spirits to pass through walls or travel from place to place in an instant (ST Suppl., Q 81-85).

“The Former Age” offers as clear a contrast as imaginable to Troilus’s journey into liberated scorn, yet it too does little to dislodge the certainties of traditional humanism. The poem’s eight stanzas describe the “Golden Age,” that period in human development before the inevitable arrival of commerce, war, money, private property, and meat-eating. Nothing in that now lost era suffers any deliberate injury: not just animals, which have yet to know “offence of egge or spere,” but everything else too — neither vines, as yet “unkorven and ungrobbed [unpruned and untilled],” nor spices, not yet ground in mortars, not the sea, not yet “karf” by ships, nor the ground, not yet “wounded with the plough.” Although Chaucer purports to admire these gentle folk, he describes what they eat as “mast,” the forest food that fattens domestic pigs for winter slaughter. He calls them a “lambish people,” recalling the animals that enabled him to work as controller of the wool custom at the Port of London. From Chaucer’s perspective, these humans, having not yet taken up the practice of human superiority, are as yet little better than animals, unwitting, exploitable resources.

Troilus’s ascent and the “Former Age”‘s immersion in animality offer two fantasies of innocence and perfection: the first an immunity from contact with others, and the other an immunity from conflict, labor, resource scarcity, and the hard decisions these conditions require. Each imagines the human perfected and unpolluted and, through that perfection, somehow beyond what is recognizably human. Neither really challenges the pretensions of traditional humanism. A better posthuman practice might lead humans away from these fantasies by opening them to a more general compassion, so that they experience not innocence, but entanglement. This we find in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, where Canacee, Genghis Khan’s daughter, has received a ring that allows her to understand avian language. Entering her garden, she hears a falcon piteously crying out. She takes it in her lap, and only then do she and the falcon begin to talk. Even prior to the production of rational language, and without requiring any magical gadget, Canacee lets the the bird impose itself on her as an ethically considerable subject. And though the falcon tells her story of betrayed love, she never ceases to be a bird, for at last Canacee furnishes her with a velvet-lined “mewe,” a coop: by laying aside her human supremacy, if not her nobility, Canacee and the falcon meet each other not as “rational subjects,” with the bird “elevated” into being human-like, but as bird and human, each worried about the compulsions of love.

But Canacee is still making a choice to succor the falcon. That capacity for free choice is the most cherished capacity of being human, as it liberates us from the instinct and chain of mere cause and effect to which nonhuman animals and inanimate objects alike are subjected. Chaucer challenges even this human quality, at the very beginning of The Canterbury Tales. For there, April, the West Wind, and Springtime’s general renewal inspire birds to sing all night, and people to go on pilgrimage. What seems to be a conscious human choice may be driven primarily by ecological forces, so that what is felt as a spontaneous, even holy motive is also a kind of migration. That what these pilgrims do is instinctual does not, however, devalue them: Chaucer no more intends that we scorn the “smalle foweles” than we should scorn his pilgrims. Though we have language, spirit, and technological mastery over other creatures, if we think past our human pretensions — as posthumans — we pilgrims can recognize ourselves anew as dependent creatures like others, constrained and enabled by the world we all inhabit and make.