Jeffrey Jerome Cohen


    What if middleness did not suppose progress?[1]

    What if, for example, instead of looking to discern a ‘premodernism’ and a ‘prehumanism’ that lead naturally to modernism and humanism and thence to postmodernism and posthumanism we imagined time as a vortex rather than a line? What if we abandoned human-centric narratives of history altogether, narratives that assume every idea has an infancy, maturation and perhaps eventual death, as if concepts must inhabit the all too human frames of those who dream them? What if some ideas are never born, never exactly perish? Spontaneous generation anyone? Non-paternal origins? Parthenogenesis? Queer ideation? Generative cross-species or cross-ontological hybridities? What if humanisation itself is an open and unfinishable process? We need better metaphors, better ways to convey that the life of the human is always lived and thought and written from the thick of things, not from a story of heroic beginnings and self-satisfied, culminative ends. What about a midhuman where all kinds of becomings are possible, and are not harnessed to trajectories of commencement and termination?

    Let’s begin then with the poet of the unstable ‘middel weie’, the London poet John Gower (died 1408). His poem the Confessio Amantis actively proliferates middleness, stressing the continuity between humans and their world, with the human body functioning as ecological interface.[2] Environmental turbulence is the result of human actions – so that Gower’s word ‘climat’ means earthly zone of habitation but is also becoming climate in the sense we now know it, as barometer of anthropogenic industry as well as register of affect. For Gower, human bodies are enmeshed with a cosmos that reaches all the way to weather in the ‘welkin’ and the distant stars, offering a miniature version of that inhuman universe. Man is microcosm because he is midway on the ladder of Nature. Above him are the angels, whom he resembles with his reasonable soul. Just below him are the beasts, which likewise have the ability to feel. On the next rung down are plants, which grow. Finally the ladder’s base is stone, which can at least be said to exist. This ladder is not built upon transcendence but continuity, and has a tendency to intermix what it seems to compartmentalise. The human at its middle is much to blame. “The man” writes Gower, is “as a world” – but not a self-enclosed one. When human society is divided against itself, turbulent and divisive, the world likewise becomes unstable, stormy. Our contemporary world is an intensified version of the ecology of disarray Gower describes. As Alan Mitchell puts it so well in his own reading of Gower’s “ecocentric and epigenetic” cosmology:

    “There is no neutral background or foreground for individuals in this universe – all the elements are equally ‘there’ – key to what Timothy Morton calls ecological thought […]. Anthropogenic change affords a much-needed view of the total catastrophe. And it is a medieval view”.[3]

    Midhuman, where human is difficult to tell from world, macrocosm and microcosm entangled rather than parallel.

    How to escape this endemic terrestrial turbulence, a “dedly werre” (904) so profound that it catches up the very elements? Well, we could just leave. Good-bye, Blue Marble that we see in the rear view mirror as we depart the only home we’ve known. In retrospect and from space you are a beautiful globe, land enclosed by shimmering sea. Escape the Earth and escape our midhumanism, become something more refined. You might think that I am describing any number of science fiction movies (and of course I am), but the impulse to imagine oneself above the Earth in order to escape the tumultuous vicissitudes of being human is an ancient one. Medieval authors knew that vision as the Dream of Scipio, narrated by Cicero in the sixth book of his De re publica and available through a detailed commentary composed by Macrobius, who used the dream to detail the contours of the cosmos. The Roman general Scipio is visited in his slumber by his famous adoptive grandfather, who gives the young man a view of the Earth from the heavens. To the melodious soundtrack of the planetary spheres, Scipio the Younger peers down from the high ether at the Earth become a small spot, Rome almost nothing on its surface. The various climates of the globe resolve into five bands: two polar ice fields, two temperate and habitable zones on either side of the equator, and a torrid desert dividing them from each other. In manuscript illustrations this Earth resembles a small version of Jupiter with its vivid stripes. When Scipio returns from this dream-enabled vantage point, where he had been surrounded by shimmering stars, the Milky Way and the souls of the great among the departed, he is fortified with a Stoic contempt for all things terrestrial. He has his perspective: this world is beautiful from space, perhaps, but its human and climatic dynamism is just bustle. More lasting worlds are at its exterior. Scipio rises above it all to gain some perspective. He beholds a Striped Marble rather than what the Apollo astronauts called a Blue Marble, but there is a continuity here: technology only realises a dream humans have long had, imagination as propulsion out of our human boundedness.[4]

    Our desire to be less Earthbound, at least during the space of a dream or a science fiction film is a desire to escape our midhumanism, our entanglement in a world that exceeds us and yet is intimate to our thoughts and deeds. We can’t quite manage that escape. But we are also unlikely to stop trying. What we can choose, though, is to refuse the example of Scipio, who looks back upon the Earth and convince himself that most lives do not matter, that a proper response to rising above the tempest is to laugh. Gower got it right, I think: embrace the problem of human middleness, explore its implications, stay with it, stay with the world, think rigorously about the unexpected environmental consequences of human actions, midhumanism.

    — The George Washington University, June 2017

    Keywords: humanism, posthumanism, climate


    [1] This essay riffs on work I did on the ‘midcolonial’ in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp. 1-17. I am thinking as well of Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997).

    [2] Quotations from John Gower, Confession Amantis vol. 1, ed. Russell A. Peck (Kalamazoo, MI: TEAMS Medieval Texts, 2006).

    [3] J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 42-43.

    [4] For more on this topic see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda Elkins-Tanton, Earth (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).