Constructions of the Early Modern Subject: Introduction

Paul Dyck and Mathew Martin,

Dyck, Paul and Mathew Martin. "Constructions of the Early Modern Subject: Introduction." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 9 (January, 2002): 1.1-3 <URL:>.

  1. At least since Burckhardt's discussion of "The Development of the Individual" in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), the Renaissance or early modern subject has been the hero or villain of a number of historical and critical discourses. The uncertainty surrounding the appropriate period term to apply to this subject under question is symptomatic of its discursively contested nature, a subject subjected to a variety of constructions by an array of differing and often antagonistic Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment renderings of European history. If literary as well as political and historical liberalism has venerated the period it calls the Renaissance as the cradle of the triumphant liberal individual, then Marxism and its variants consider the period to be early modern, the embryonic period of modern capital and its alienated, disciplined, consuming subject. These two metanarratives have provided, and continue to provide, theoretical frameworks for the literary study of the period and its literature, but the theory revolution in literary studies has seen the development of a number of powerful alternative models of the period and its subjectivities: psychoanalysis, new historicism, cultural materialism, and feminism. In collaboration or conflict with each other, these recent theoretical approaches analyse the contours of early modern subjectivity in order to revise our understanding of the period, of the lives of those who lived during the period, and of the period's relation to the present. Other scholars have argued that our understanding of early modern selfhood should be grounded in the terms and models of self-understanding available to early modern individuals and that such an understanding problematizes the linear narratives of transition from medieval to Renaissance or early modern that explicitly structure the metanarratives of liberalism and Marxism and are frequently invoked by or implicit in more recent theoretical approaches.

  2. The debate on this subject shows no sign of flagging, much to the delight of the editors of this special issue. As we began putting the ideas for it together, our interest was not to close but to focus the debate, to take stock of its central issues and the key questions it raises. What exactly is the object these discourses intend to study? If early modern subjectivity is a mode of interiority, then how should that interiority be analysed, and what is its relationship to the socio-economic formation of which it is a part? What evidence does one use to support a claim about early modern subjectivity, and is this evidence sufficient? How do modern scholars justify privileging the terms of their own analyses over the (primarily theological) terms of self-understanding used by the people of the period? How should modern scholars deal with the limits placed on their own inquiries by the historicity of their own hermeneutic assumptions? Do recent theoretical paradigms "discover" an early modern subject or merely construct one according to their own imperatives and desires? If the reconstruction of early modern subjectivity is possible, how can literary texts be used in such a reconstruction? In what ways is the reconstructed early modern subject a site of discursive struggle within the academy? What claims are being made about/on/on behalf of this subject and why?

  3. The three papers that constitute this special issue respond to these questions. The papers are diverse but illuminating, covering different ground but mutually informing, speaking to each other's concerns in a variety of interesting ways. The complex relationship between surveillance and the secret self as manifested in early modern rogue literature is the focus of Dr. Woodbridge's paper. Woodbridge warns against reading this relationship in the Foucauldian terms of subjective interiority produced by a culture of surveillance. By distinguishing between the literary realism of the rogue pamphlets and the realism of actual documentary reporting, Woodbridge suggests a reversal of the Foucauldian equation: the fearful recognition of the socially transgressive possibilities of the secret self generated tropes of investigation, discovery and surveillance that filled rogue literature and a range of other early modern discourses before finding--perhaps causing--systematic institutional embodiment. Turning from underworld to New World, Dr. Jonathan Hart approaches early modern European subjectivity from the margins of its formation, New World encounters between Europeans and the aboriginal peoples they struggled to other. Hart uses kidnapping and mediation both as concrete instances of the difficulties of generalizing about early modern European subjectivity and as metaphors for the problematic procedures we as twentieth-century scholars employ when we attempt such generalizations. Dr. Bruster's contribution concentrates entirely on methodological issues, but the colonial metaphor continues. In a series of highly provocative aphorisms Bruster suggests that too much critical writing on early modern selfhood is "costume drama," our concerns dressed up in period clothing. Bruster urges us to reevaluate and reform our research methods in order to become "resident aliens" in the period. He is well aware that his proposals are contentious, and indeed they raise as many questions as they answer. The editors are sure that you will find these three papers to be as timely and as thought-provoking as they have.

2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(PD 23 January 2002)