Publications

Here are excerpts from my three most recent academic publications:

A book review in Speculum, where I conclude by going after a bad habit in literary criticism:

Both Langdon and Warren take as an axiom that categorical strain, instability, openness, and “blurred boundaries”—still such a persistent metaphor—are good, and that constriction, understood broadly, is bad. Each believes, then, that its analysis somehow frees their objects of concern from constraint. I find this logic at least vaguely supersessionary, participating as it does in a language of freedom inherited from, among other places, the Christian scriptures. We ought to be more suspicious of the enthusiasm for “blurriness” or its accompanying fantasies of liberation.

I deal with some of this as well in a long book review essay in Postmedieval, whose opening paragraphs include the following:

What dominant humans imagined themselves having, above all, is freedom. Whatever reason’s many advantages, its best and most general one was the gift of a kind of unimpeded existence. The body constrained, as do all material forms of thought; but the rational subject was supposed to be free: guided by its own decisions rather than instinct, unhampered by its attachment to merely superstitious belief, not driven by unnecessarily distracting emotions, and not enthralled to merely sensory appetites or the compulsions of the material world.

The corollary to that fantasy of freedom was the answering fantasy that others stolidly endured, more or less unwittingly, a condition of unfreedom. The earliest Christian scriptures (Romans 6:14, for example) argue that the new dispensation of grace liberates its beneficiaries from the burden of sin that had been placed on them by the yoke of the Law. Medieval European Christian thinkers often thought of Jews as particularly unfree: as unchanging and sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience, incapable of true thought. I’ll offer but one typical example of this Christian collapse of Jewishness, animality, and the accusation of bestial exegesis, from the twelfth-century autobiography by a convert to Christianity who calls himself ‘Hermann, the Former Jew.’ Hermann says of his former coreligionists that ‘the Jews, like certain brute beasts of burden, are contented, in these things, by the letter alone, like unto chaff, [while] Christians, as men who use reason, may be refreshed by spiritual understanding, like unto the most sweet kernel within the chaff’ (qtd. in Kruger, 1992, 155). Christians want to believe themselves to be truly rational subjects, and thus as dissatisfied with merely material things; to realize that faith in themselves, they imagined that others lacked freedom of thought; imagining yourself as a free actor requires imagining that others are merely instinctual. They needed to believe that Jews were content to live like cows, and, in Hermann’s case, they needed to believe that their choice to apostatize was an act of true freedom.

And I treat the animal metaphors of early modern drama in Karen Raber and Holly Dugan’s anthology, The Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Animals. There I make my own, incidental error, I suppose, of praising conceptual liberation, as my I’m on the way to complicating any simple meaning of what it means to “animalize” someone:

The following pages will explore three limitrophic problems of animalization’s varieties: humans metaphorized as beasts are antisocial, a class of unclassifiable things, but, as I’ll observe, antisocial only to a certain point. Those humans described as a particular kind of animal—a wolf or a fox or a sheep—are likened to something with qualities (unlike a beast), but usually just one, predictable quality: here “animalization” is a temporary simplification of human character into a single, familiar trait; but, as my final section will explore, humans metaphorized as particular kinds of animals might also explode the settled expectations of the familiar, because early modern natural science still preserved some of the wonder of classical and medieval natural science. To be a sheep is one known thing, but to be a bear’s embryo, or a hyena or panther, quite another—here, in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, an animalized human might be understood not as insulted, nor as constrained, but rather liberated through animal metaphor.

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