A fluid sense of selfhood

Studies of the early modern passions often seek to interrelate their research with the experience of selfhood. If the early modern phenomenology of the passions, of the relation between emotions and reason, of body and mind, is very much different from our own post-Cartesian conception of those concepts, then how did this difference affect the early modern experience of selfhood – how is it different from ours?

In his Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2000) Michael Schoenfeldt argued that the processes of temperance, regulation and self-control of the body dictated by neo-Stoical philosophy and post-reformation theology enabled a sense of selfhood: the individual rather than state control of the body in Schoenfeldt’s view has an emancipatory value: it is constitutive of early modern subjectivity. (See the EMLS review of Bodies and Selves)

Gail Kern Paster’s recent book Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (2004) in many ways counters Schoenfeldt’s assertion that subjectivity derives from such self-control. Instead, Kern Paster presents her readers with a world in which it is precisely the lack of self-control and the permeability of the body that is central to the experience of selfhood. Drawing on early modern plays as well as humoral treatises, medical texts and natural histories, the book reconstructs a fluid sense of selfhood in which a person’s humoral ecology is constantly negotiating its environment. Paster describes a world in which fire could enhance a person’s choler, or in which humans feel the melancholy of a cat, and in which these exchanges were not one-way traffic, but reciprocal. This idea of an unstable humoral ecology makes it much easier to account for a constantly fluctuating identity, than for a stable sense of selfhood. “There is only humoral change itself,” Kern Paster writes, “brought about by the continual, reciprocal interaction of body, mind, culture, and the environment” (50). That the early modern sense of subjectivity which she thus uncovers – despite her repeated emphasis on the differences between the experience of the body before and after Descartes – very much resembles our postmodern notion of unstable identity, appears also from Kern Paster’s affinity with the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. Their notion of a Body Without Organs and moments of ‘becoming’ prove a useful theoretical tool for Kern Paster’s exploration of this fluid early modern sense of selfhood.

Perhaps I have here overstated the controversy between Schoenfeldt’s emphasis on containment, and Paster’s on the leakiness of the body: could not both notions have coexisted? Whether you pit these books against each other, or read them as two sides of the same coin, they are bound to enlighten you on the early modern experience of subjectivity.


2 thoughts on “A fluid sense of selfhood

  1. Ah, that question reveals that you are locked in post-Cartesian thinking. Now you definitely need to go read ‘the leaky one’. Part of Paster’s argument is that the separation between body and mind that we tend to make in our culture did not exist as such in early modern thinking about subjectivity. Think of the humours: we now see them as referring to a state of mind (as in: a woman of sullen humour); but in Shakespeare’s lexicon, they would refer literally to the four fluids of the body. References to choler that we now read metaphorically, had a literal – or visceral – meaning as well. In humoral theory, mind and body were one.

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