Art Home | ARTH Courses | ARTH 213 Assignments

"The Discovery of the Individual"

excerpts from John Martin, "Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: the Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe," American Historical Review, 102 (5), 1997, pp. 1309-17, 1320-42, reprinted in The Renaissance in Europe: a Reader, Keith Whitlock ed.: p. 12: This an effort to underscore the importance of what I believe should still be called "the discovery of the individual" for our understanding not only of high culture --art, music, literature, and intellectual history-- but also for our grasp of social and political history as well. This does not mean that we must approach the Renaissance in traditional Burckhardtian terms. To the contrary, recent philosophical, anthropological, and literary models of the individual have so transformed our understanding of the human person that it is no longer possible to base our analysis of the origins of individualism on the traditional humanistic assumptions that Burckhardt took as a given. We are, in other words, no longer in the comfortable position of believing, as Burckhardt and many of his nineteenth-century contemporaries did, that the individual existed prior to history; that, if the individual was not a central concern of the Middle Ages, this was due to a veil "of faith, illusion and childish prepossession"; that, finally, what emerged in the Renaissance was man as he really is. For in recent years, many analysts, inspired by post-structuralist and postmodern arguments and insights, have begun to argue that individualism itself is a construction, that, indeed, the human self is in many ways nothing more than a fiction, and that it is above all what might be called the Renaissance representations of the self as an individual, expressive subject that require explanation.

In the first part of this essay, therefore, I examine in some detail what I believe to be the most significant recent challenge to Burckhardt's understanding /p. 13 of individualism --namely, the work of the Renaissance literary historian Stephen Greenblatt and the New Historicists he has inspired. As I shall try to make clear, there is much in the New Historicist scholarship that should interest historians, whether social or intellectual, and that needs to be taken seriously. Indeed, at their best, these scholars offer tantalizing insights into the play of social forces and ideological currents on Renaissance texts and Renaissance selves. Yet, as I shall argue, their accounts are, paradoxically, profoundly ahistorical. On the one hand, their analytical strategies tend to view the formation of the Renaissance self from within a synchronic framework, one frozen in time, with little sense of the operation of more slowly developing historical --or diachronic-- forces on the process of what has come to be called "Renaissance self-fashioning." On the other hand, their analyses also tend to be based on a totalizing view of politics and power in the Renaissance world --a view that leaves little room for oppositional or dissenting voices. Accordingly, in the second part of this essay, I try to correct this by offering an alternative approach to a salient aspect of the history of the formation of Renaissance selves. In particular, I examine the effort on both theoretical and practical levels during the Renaissance period to redefine certain moral categories relating to sincerity and prudence and the relation of these redefinitions to the formation of an increased sense of subjectivity and individualism in the Renaissance. As Michael Mascuch has recently cautioned in his study of the self in seventeenth-century England, 'individualism is a multidimensional phenomenon, an amalgam of practices and values with no discernible center. A variety of forces --social, economic, political, intellectual-- contributed to its making, each one of which was paramount at some time or another, either separately or jointly with others. Thus a single account of individualism cannot possibly represent its development, its contours, its functions. Nonetheless, the evidence I have gathered does suggest that this shift in moral vocabulary played a significant role in the construction of new notions of individualism in the Renaissance world.

Over the past few decades, scholars have approached the problem of the emergence of the modern self from a variety of perspectives. [...] But, as I indicated above, the most influential and innovative treatment of the Renaissance self is found in the work of Stephen Greenblatt and, most notably, in his now classic study Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. This book, which was first published in 1980, has proven enormously influential. This is especially true in Greenblatt's own field of literature, where his ideas have been fundamental for the development of New Historicism, a critical movement that, in its reaction against the formalist or idealist readings of the New Critics, has sought to read literary texts as cultural artifacts or practices, dialectically related to the specific cultural, social, and political contexts in which they were written. In addition --and what is decisive here-- the New Historicists also view the self, like a text, not as an autonomous entity but rather as a site on which broader institutional and poltical forces are inscribed. [...] Self-fashioning has become a central theme in the exploration of Renaissance and early modern culture generally. It /p. 14: is deployed in a variety of fields: in social history, art history, intellectual history, the history of science, and it even has important implications for the study of the self in other times and places.

On many levels, this development is not surprising. As a descriptive category, self-fashioning seems to capture much of what is popularly believed about Renaissance life. As Greenblatt notes, "the simplest observation we can make is that in the sixteenth century there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process." Above all, self-fashioning appears to make sense of a world in which the court was central to literary life --for this was a world in which prudent accomodation and even deception were often seen as virtues. And indeed, the Renaissance world was a theatrical age --an age of masks, of masquerades, of role playing, of the studies nonchalance of sprezzatura [ease of manner in style or performance]. even of "honest dissimulation." Clearly, at least among the privileged orders, men and women were often conscious of fashioning particular selves in order to survive or advance in the high-stakes world of court society. [...]

/p. 15: Especially significant, however, is Greenblatt's insistence on a new notion of the human person --one that would have been wholly alien to Burckhardt. For while its title seems to suggest a kind of independence on the part of the self, or, as one critic has trenchantly observed, while Greenblatt seems at times to invite us "to read 'self-fashioning' as free, expressive self-making," Renaissance Self-Fashioning is in fact a study not of the way in which human subject fashioned themselves but rather of the way in which certain poltical and religious forces in the Renaissance created the fiction of individual autonomy. For, in the end, Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning offers a view of the self as a cultural artifact, a historical and ideological illusion generated by the economic, social, religious, and political upheavals of the Renaissance. Greenblatt's project, in short, has contributed in decisive ways to a new historiography of the self. Earlier histories --grounded in the liberal and conservative myths of the gradual but heroic emancipation of the individual-- have given way to histories that explore the varied constructions of the self in different time periods and different cultures....

[I]dentity is not a given; rather, it is a cultural or political artifact, or, as Greenblatt pithily remarks, "we may say that self-fashioning occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien. [...]

To be sure, there are moments in Renaissance Self-Fashioning and elsewhere in his work when Greenblatt longs for a more resilient self --moments that come close to reifying the concept of selfhood that he elsewhere unrelentingly deconstructs. At one point, he characterizes the Renaissance self as "brittle and inadequate"; at another, [...] finally and most poignantly, in the final sentence to Renaissance Self-Fashioning, after offering an anecdote, Greenblatt explains his need to tell a personal story --a story about himself-- because, as he puts it, "I want to bear witness at the close to my overwhelming need to sustain the illusion that I am the principal maker of my own identity." Nonetheless, such /p. 16: passages are fleeting, and for the most part Greenblatt maintains or implies that even the most substantial selves are egos built on fictions. In one of his most revealing discussions of Renaissance selfhood, for example, Greenblatt, after citing a famous passage from Leviathan in which Thomas Hobbes offered his definition of "person," notes that

in Hobbes, the "natural person" orginates in the "artificial person" -- the mask, the character on a stage "translated" from the theater to the tribunal. There is no layer deeper, more authentic, than theatrical self-representation. This conception of the self does not deny the importance of the body...but it does not anchor personal identity in an inalienable biological continuity. The crucial consideration is ownership: what distinguishes a 'natural' person from an 'artificial' person is that the former is considered to own his words and actions. Considered by whom? By authority. But is authority itself then natural or artificial? In a move that is one of the cornerstones of Hobbes's absolutist political philosophy, authority is vested in an artificial person who represents the words and actions of the entire nation. All men therefore are impersonators of themselves, but impersonators whose clear title to identity is secured by an authority irrevocably deeded to an artificial person. A great mask allows one to own as one's own face another mask.

...Like other historicists, [Greenblatt] sees the self not as a free, autonomous subject but rather as subjected to (because generated by) the codes of culture and power, or what Greenblatt calls "the cultural poetics" of a particular set of cultural, political, and social relations. Identity is shaped from the outside. As Louis Adrian Montrose has written: "The freely self-creating and world-crreating individual of so-called bourgeois humanism is --at least in theory-- now defunct...."


Art Home | ARTH Courses | ARTH 213 Assignments