The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance.
By Drew Daniel
New York: Fordham University Press, 2013
Drew Daniel's book navigates territory well mapped by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, and theoretically plumbed by Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin. The topic was reframed within English literature in Lawrence Babb's 1951 study, and then rediscovered more recently through gender studies, historical phenomenology, and affect theory by such scholars as Juliana Schiesari, Douglas Trevor, and Gail Kern Paster. Is the subject of melancholy, which is already so richly explored, an exhausted topic? Daniel asks this question of his study, and rather than seeing its overdetermined quality as an impediment, he understands melancholy's accreted, contradictory, and multiple history as intrinsic to its nature. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's theory of assemblage provides him with a supple theoretical framework for confronting the complexity of melancholy's formulations. In its simplest definition, "assemblage" describes how things come together, a relational ecology that is both intrasubjective and intersubjective. Daniel accommodates the concept to early modern thought through a lexical history that demonstrates the capacity of the word and its cognates to signify not only the solipsism of an individual body's experience of melancholy but also its implication within a larger social network, "the consolidation of a crowd" (8). The idea joins the "bodily realm of actions and passions" with the "semiotic realm of enunciations and statements" (9), providing an agile concept with which to investigate the specific, historically situated manifestations of melancholy, whether as an image or bodily posture, an expression within a social system of "spectatorship" and "diagnosis," or as a body of knowledge. Daniel's approach opens into a complex range of representations, allowing for a new and versatile understanding of affect theory and of the early modern passions.
Daniel deftly accommodates the complex resources of assemblage to central questions in early modern studies. He distinguishes two strains of melancholic theory, the "genial" variety, derived from Aristotle and Theophrastus, associated with "exceptional excellence" and genius, and memorialized by Petrarch and Ficino. The second strain, the "pathological" expression of melancholy, was disseminated by Galen, linked to the dark humoral imbalance that produced fear, sadness, anxiety, and paranoia, and anatomized unforgettably by Robert Burton. Building on Babb's insight, which recognized the "intellectual battleground" (24) between these two expressions of melancholy but dismissed its importance, Daniel contends that the early moderns anxiety about melancholy's apparently contradictory genealogy was epistemologically and culturally generative. Negotiating the historically burdened category of melancholy, its "discursive surplus," Daniel argues that its composite legacy persists to our present day, albeit in a new iteration, continuing to disturb the border between "biological and discursive explanation" (5).
His book is organized by a recurrent theoretical strategy that locates two oppositional terms and then proceeds to explore the space in between, for he understands the binarities as intertwined and mutually constitutive. Assemblage theory allows Daniel to chart the interstitial space between the biological or physiological causes of melancholy (overabundance of black bile) and the linguistic or affective results. He returns to this idea in his Epilogue, where he offers a cogent critique of the neurologist Antonio Damasio's biological theory of affect. As important as physiology and affect are as opposed yet imbricated terms, the opposition between the individual subject and intersubjective context of social relations becomes at least as important in his arguments. Is melancholy an interior experience or is it realized by and in social interaction? Daniel claims that it is both, and the delicate play between inner and outer that he traces is one of the real theoretical contributions of the study.
Three chapters are devoted to Shakespeare (Love's Labours Lost, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet), one to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and one to Samson Agonistes. The first chapter examines images of melancholy beginning with Albrecht Durer's famous engraving. Daniel theorizes the idea of posture, arguing that the head cradled in the hand is an iterated image that encodes the experience of melancholy. He examines the way the body is "read" by onlookers, as well as the place of thought and its vexed relationship to the body. Tracing the history of medical semiology in painting and image, he suggests that affect is palimpsested in the body and that it produces character, gait, and the shapes of bodily posture that are then read as expressions of interior experiences of emotion. The implications of this chapter are extraordinarily rich, and although Daniel does not push the full implications of his claims, nor does he engage affect theory as much as he might, opting to close the chapter by analyzing an avant-garde film as the "afterlife" of the tradition he traces, this is fascinating and important work.
Of the three Shakespeare chapters, The Merchant of Venice chapter is the most sustained analysis, whereas Love's Labor's Lost receives relatively slighter attention. Daniel places the problem of homoerotic desire at the center of his exploration of The Merchant of Venice, suggesting that Antonio's sadness motivates the play and ultimately produces the trial and that Antonio's threatened execution is a theatrical expression of his own masochistic desire. The chapter engages the conflicted territory of masochism and psychoanalysis, which Daniel navigates with great skill and nuance. His account of Hamlet's melancholy in the subsequent chapter evokes the daunting critical literature on innerness and subjectivity that has accumulated around the play, but Daniel again discovers a new angle in his brilliant consideration of the "aside," an ambiguous stage direction that bridges soliloquy and conversation, public and private utterance. This interstitial discourse defines Hamlet, Daniel argues, for it positions his language in the space of melancholy, the zone that mediates between "the private self and the social body"(137).
In many ways, the chapter on Robert Burton, "Rhapsodies of Rags," is the book's centerpiece. Articulated as a comparison between Benjamin's Arcades Project and The Anatomy of Melancholy, the chapter is must reading for Burton scholars and for students of early modern melancholy. Daniel contests Stanley Fish's analysis of Burton in Self-Consuming Artifacts, rightly claiming that Fish limits himself to an account of the Preface but doesn't really venture into the guts of the labyrinthine work. Daniel, by contrast, does, and his survey allows him not only to dissect the weirdness of melancholy's physiology but also to suggest how Burton makes his own analysis of the condition a performative act: he cultivates the reader in order enlist him or her in a "hermeneutic of affective contamination" (169), an argument that is more satisfying and true to Burton than Fish's influential model of a "self-consuming artifact." I suspect that Daniel's analysis will send readers back to Burton's text armed with new bravery and purpose.
Daniel concludes his explorations of early modern literature and melancholy with a brief chapter on Milton's Samson Agonistes. Reinvoking assemblage theory, he suggests that Samson's melancholy is never either the genial, redemptive expression of the malady or simply its black, pathological, self-destructive counterpart, but rather always "both / and"(216). Daniel's reading of Samson engages the Renaissance gendering of melancholy in fertile ways, reframing the poem from its most recent interpretive place in the "religious politics of terror" debates (202). His musings concern Samson's self-accusations about effeminacy, masochism, and the nature of early modern manhood, and given the persuasive framework that Daniel has set up in the book, the chapter brings his arguments to a satisfying, if slightly predictable, conclusion. The virtues of this chapter exemplify the book as a whole in its fluent movement between theory and a historically grounded treatment of melancholy. Daniel's nimble conversancy with both lexicons is especially appropriate for a topic that traverses literary, medical, social, and psychological understandings of the self. His arguments are rooted in the early modern period, but he gestures repeatedly to the vitality of melancholy's legacy in the twenty-first century, where we too must grapple with our "postures of sorrowful knowledge" and our strategies for outlasting them (251).
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|Author:||Harvey, Elizabeth D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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