Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

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9780812247510: Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England

"Disknowledge": knowing something isn't true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded.

Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change. Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women's role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction.

Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge—willfully adhering to something we know is wrong—resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era.

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About the Author:

Katherine Eggert is Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," says Hamlet to his friend, "Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." On the face of it, this is a quite reasonable thing to say at this moment in the play. Occasioned by the Ghost's appearance, which has rattled both men, Hamlet's remark suggests that ghosts are not something that you can think about properly, not in the framework you have at hand. When Horatio calls the Ghost "wondrous strange," Hamlet's observation assures him that this apparition falls into the category of things not knowable (1.5.172).

The question then becomes, though, how you are to think at all. One option—one that may seem tempting at this point in Hamlet—is to leave off thinking altogether. Certainly thinking has gotten no one anywhere so far in act 1. The watch and Horatio alike have been utterly wrong about what the Ghost's appearance portends, and Hamlet himself has already cast the political and familial complexities of the royal household in the half-light of his own highly idiosyncratic, and hence highly questionable, speculations and emotions. Now, after the Ghost's revelation raises more questions than it answers, Hamlet recommends to the other men that they suppress any desire for knowledge they may have. "For your desire to know what is between us"—that is, between Hamlet and the Ghost—"O'ermaster it as you may" (1.5.145-46). What a relief to be permitted to remain simply ignorant! If you never have to try to know anything, you never feel the shame of coming up with a theory that is manifestly wrong.

It is quite possible, however, that what Horatio calls "wondrous strange" is not the Ghost but Hamlet himself, whose "wild and whirling words" Horatio has already noted (1.5.139). And one of the most wondrously strange things Hamlet does in this sequence is put Horatio and the soldiers of the watch in what appears to be an untenable epistemological position. First, despite the fact that Hamlet excuses them from epistemic effort, it is clear that they do know something, or else Hamlet would not warn them to keep their knowledge of the Ghost close: "Never make known what you have seen tonight" (1.5.149). Second, what they are not to make known includes the fact that they know what Hamlet is up to when he "put[s] an antic disposition on" so as to hide his intent: "never . . . note / That you know aught of me" (1.5.177-87). While the men don't know what Hamlet has learned from the Ghost, they know that he has deemed the Ghost "honest" and thus has established a kind of working relationship with it (1.5.144). The sum effect of these remarks is that Hamlet evidently wants them not to know about the Ghost and about Hamlet's relation to the Ghost, even while they do know about the Ghost and about Hamlet's relation to the Ghost.

It is the founding premise of this book that Hamlet's epistemological request, while perhaps "wondrous strange," is perfectly plausible. It is possible not to know what one knows. Indeed, Hamlet, Horatio, and others like them—that is to say, humanistically educated men of the turn of the seventeenth century—were especially in need of this tricky epistemological maneuver as well as especially good at it. The knowledge practices of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I will be arguing, found themselves in such a long-standing crisis that such gyrations started to make sense. In this long interval of time England saw humanism, with its faith in how classical letters could shape moral and civic virtue, becoming less and less credible. But despite calls by the likes of Francis Bacon to sweep aside antiquated learning and start fresh, there was nothing to replace humanism—not yet. A discredited knowledge system that is nonetheless the only game in town: such a thing, as I will argue toward the end of this book, is largely what Hamlet has in mind. Before I get back to Hamlet, though, I will establish that Hamlet's age—an age that we may call late humanism, the Counter-Renaissance, or merely England's late Renaissance—develops a number of strategies for managing knowledge that are peculiar to the needs of a society governed by a threadbare but still ubiquitously operative educational scheme.

Many of those strategies amount to means for knowing less. The equal and opposite impulse of what William West has called the "encyclopedia culture" of early modern Europe—a culture "obsessed with collecting and sorting information . . . driven by the desire to map the world's order and to construct a universal theory of everything"—is an impulse to keep knowledge small, comfortable, familiar. While it is a commonplace that early modern intellectual culture experienced an explosive proliferation of knowledge at the same time that it experienced a proliferation of (mostly printed) texts, the recent work of historians like Ann Blair casts doubt on how cheerful early modern people were about this development. Blair describes a backlash of new techniques intended to organize, censor, and restrict the flow of information. Another form that backlash could take was simply to ignore new knowledge, either because it seemed revolutionary or subversive or merely because it would require that people adjust their views. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin comment, for example, on the curious fact that, despite the prominent appearance in print of accounts of Europeans' explorations of the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and the Far East, these works were unpopular and relatively uncited in comparison to familiar and inaccurate works on geography that dated from before the great age of exploration. One response to the discomfort of the new is to stick with the old.

Other strategies for managing unpalatable knowledge in an age of late humanism, however, are more complicated and epistemologically interesting than simply constricting information's flow. These strategies cultivate the stance Hamlet advocates: being acquainted with something and being ignorant of it, both at the same time. I have invented my own word, disknowledge, for this peculiar epistemological maneuver, because neither the Renaissance nor my own age provides me with exactly the right term. True, the early modern period devised wonderful new language to express how it feels to believe one knows nothing. The sixteenth century, for example, saw the word skeptic enter English as a way of describing the state of epistemological anguish that Maurice Blanchot would later call "unknowing." In their turn, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have devised invaluable terminology to describe how one acts in a fashion contrary to what one knows to be true, with Sigmund Freud's "disavowal," Jean-Paul Sartre's "bad faith," and sociology's "strategic ignorance" being perhaps the most useful. Yet none of these terms adequately pinpoints the process this book describes. The term disknowledge describes the conscious and deliberate setting aside of one compelling mode of understanding the world—one discipline, one theory—in favor of another. The state of knowing that results from disknowledge is not pure ignorance, but rather something more like what Peter Sloterdijk calls "enlightened false consciousness."

In this book I seek to catch disknowledge in action in a number of literary texts, and a few nonliterary texts, from England's late Renaissance. I ask what purpose disknowledge serves. From what kind of knowledge is the text turning, and to what other kind, and why? What I am looking for is what Harry Berger, Jr., calls "the Technique of Conspicuous Irrelevance": a text's "perverse insistence on . . . digressive elements." I am interested in that "perverse insistence," however, not when it is an irruption of the text's political unconscious but when it is a demonstrably conscious choice.

One sure sign that disknowledge is operating in a text is when bad ideas—or nutty ideas, or simply irrelevant ideas—start to look good. My focus in this book is on one discipline that literary texts persistently choose as a sign or signal of epistemological digression: the discipline of alchemy, which, among its many other attributes, was dogged by the reputation of being an especially bad idea. The literature and culture of early modern England were immensely attracted to alchemy for a number of reasons, not least because alchemy offers a treasure trove of metaphors for metamorphosis, or purification, or falsehood, or capitalism. But the literary texts I discuss in this book use alchemy not merely because it is a rich source of figurative language. They use it to signal the way that one knowledge system may be used to displace another, in a manner that allows the displaced system to be both known and not known. Alchemy can serve this purpose because of its own unusual status as a discipline of study and practice. Alchemy seemed, throughout its history and especially in the period with which this book is concerned, to be both true and false, both profound and risible.

In recent decades scholars have evaluated the truth value of early modern alchemy in several different ways. The first stems from the simple fact that "practical" alchemy—using heat to transform substances, primarily through either distillation or its "dry" counterpart, calcination—was truly useful. The working practitioners that Tara Nummedal calls "entrepreneurial alchemists" provided communities with medicines and metalwork, provided the mining and smelting industries with assaying techniques and furnace management, and provided artists and artisans with everything from the composition of new pigments (Jan van Eyck's extraordinary vermilion and verdigris) to a language that could adequately describe the transformation of goldsmithing materials under the influence of heat. Practical alchemists' workroom expertise has recently led a number of historians of early modern science to emphasize a second reason for alchemy's credibility: they have argued that far from being a sidetrack from the development of modern physics and chemistry, alchemy lent method, if not quite yet science, to what would become the scientific method of hypothesis and experiment. For example, William Newman and Lawrence Principe detail the similarities between the laboratory practices of Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry, and those of his contemporary, alchemist George Starkey, both of them translating the mystical alchemical treatises of Jean Baptiste van Helmont into recognizably modern scientific techniques such as precise material quantification and the synthetic analysis of repeated experiments.

A third characterization of alchemy's truth value stems from the foundational work of Frances Yates, who argues that the "Hermetic tradition" of which alchemy was a part exerted a deep and abiding influence on early modern thought. As opposed to practical alchemy, this "theoretical" or esoteric alchemy explored alchemical purification as an analogue or even a partner to the highest aims of theology, philosophy, and moral philosophy. While the "Yates thesis" of a unified esoteric body of thought has been largely dismantled, her work has borne fruit in a number of fascinating studies of the seemingly endless proliferation in early modern Europe of alchemical symbology, in everything from emblem books to landscape paintings to ceramic tableware. Such exploration has proved especially useful for literary criticism, since alchemical imagery and sometimes larger alchemical structures pervade Renaissance literature, including texts that do not focus explicitly on themes of the magus or the alteration of material substances. Indeed, Karen Pinkus reads alchemy as something like the work of literature itself, "as much defined by a set of images, practices, rhetorics, and fetish-objects, as it is by the goal, the finished product."

So far we have covered some of the scholarship that emphasizes alchemy's truths and profundities. But it is equally the case that early modern alchemy was seen as a powerful delusion, one that possesses addled alchemical practitioners or is inflicted by alchemical con artists on greedy dupes. The connection of alchemy with falsehood and delusion applies to both its practical and its theoretical sides. Practical alchemists since the Middle Ages had garnered a reputation for counterfeiting and other forms of small-time cons and chiseling. Similarly, esoteric alchemy was labeled by any number of writers on natural philosophy as a fool's or a charlatan's game. Between the unsavory reputation of practical alchemy and the charges of intellectual incoherence leveled at theoretical alchemy, by the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the very word alchemy was convenient shorthand for obfuscation, misguided learning, and outright scams. As the alchemist's apprentice in John Lyly's 1583 play Gallathea comments, "such a beggarly science it is, and so strong on multiplication, that the end is to have neither gold, wit, nor honesty." Stanton Linden's important book on this topic directs us past the most obvious instances, stories about alchemists, into a widespread and long-standing satiric tradition that associated alchemy with falsehood; his examples include not only classic con artist tales like Geoffrey Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist but also Francis Bacon, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and more. A separate but similarly fruitful line of inquiry—one traced by Peggy Knapp, William Sherman, and David Hawkes, among others—explores the literary associations between alchemy and counterfeit money, suggesting that the charges of falsifying or debasing coinage that were typically leveled against alchemists signal the bad faith at the heart of nascent capitalism.

Alchemy as practical art; alchemy as protoscience; alchemy as esoteric knowledge and literary ally; alchemy as falsehood. It is easy to see how all of these explanations for the continued allure of alchemy can hold true in a single culture. Alchemy need not mean the same thing at all times to all people. This book, however, explores something quite different: how all of these seemingly incommensurable aspects of alchemy are, for some writers, all true at the same time. For the authors I examine in this book, alchemy can be, all at once, true (a practical art, protoscience, or syncretic philosophy), false (a delusion or a con game), and unprovable (a literary model). Crediting alchemy's reputation for creating new physical materials and new metaphysical and moral states of being but also remembering its reputation for falsehood, some writers associate alchemy with that same dual state of awareness. Alchemy, in other words, suggests for these writers a special and important epistemological status: it can be characterized as knowledge that is also nonknowledge. More precisely, as I have already suggested, these writers can deploy alchemy to signal a mode of choosing not to know what one knows.

Investigating how disknowledge works and the uses to which it may be put is part of the project that Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger have called "agnotology," or the study of applied ignorance. While my own book is an effort in agnotology, one that also (as I will detail in Chapter 1) draws inspiration from the relatively new field of "ignorance studies," it is so because the likes of Edmund Spenser, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Margaret Cavendish, and the other authors addressed in this book a...

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Descripción University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2015. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Disknowledge : knowing something isn t true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded. Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change.Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women s role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge-willfully adhering to something we know is wrong-resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era. Nº de ref. de la librería AAJ9780812247510

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Descripción University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2015. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Disknowledge : knowing something isn t true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded. Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change.Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women s role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge-willfully adhering to something we know is wrong-resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era. Nº de ref. de la librería AAJ9780812247510

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Descripción University of Pennsylvania Press. Hardback. Estado de conservación: new. BRAND NEW, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert, "Disknowledge": knowing something isn't true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded. Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change. Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women's role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge-willfully adhering to something we know is wrong-resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era. Nº de ref. de la librería B9780812247510

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Descripción University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2015. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Disknowledge : knowing something isn t true, but believing it anyway. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England, Katherine Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded. Eggert argues that English writers used alchemy to signal how to avoid or camouflage pressing but discomfiting topics in an age of rapid intellectual change.Disknowledge describes how John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, William Harvey, Helkiah Crooke, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare used alchemical imagery, rhetoric, and habits of thought to shunt aside three difficult questions: how theories of matter shared their physics with Roman Catholic transubstantiation; how Christian Hermeticism depended on Jewish Kabbalah; and how new anatomical learning acknowledged women s role in human reproduction. Disknowledge further shows how Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Margaret Cavendish used the language of alchemy to castigate humanism for its blind spots and to invent a new, posthumanist mode of knowledge: writing fiction. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge-willfully adhering to something we know is wrong-resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era. Nº de ref. de la librería BTE9780812247510

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