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Obstinate Spenser
by Jeff Dolven

There is a tradition in the Spenser Review of essays about the poet’s relation to Big Thinkers, Gordon Teskey on Spenser and Derrida and Joe Moshenska on Spenser and Hegel—or at least, there is now, if three makes a tradition, and if Alexander Kluge counts as a big thinker. My nominee is a figure who is likely less familiar to Spenserians, and certainly has had less influence on Spenser scholarship, if he has had any. My acquaintance with him is a recent fascination rather than a longstanding debt. With those qualifications out of the way, I’d like to try to say something about reading The Faerie Queene alongside History and Obstinacy, a big book of political and economic theory, Marxist in derivation but of no recognizable orthodoxy, co-written by Kluge and the philosopher Oskar Negt and published in 1981. On the one hand, it is a spectacularly inappropriate juxtaposition, given that History and Obstinacy is a study of the political economy of labor power written out of the specific turmoil of late-seventies Germany. On the other, the book explores an attitude to history that is in many ways premodern, and has about it a power of analogy that approaches Spenser’s own. On balance I thought it would be worth a try—and perhaps like many of us, I’m secretly not sure I understand a book until I know what it might say about The Faerie Queene, and what The Faerie Queene might say about it.

The version of Kluge’s work in which I have been immersed is the English translation, published three years ago with a wonderful introduction by my colleague Devin Fore. (I will speak of it as Kluge’s, because he was principally involved in making the new version, but Negt’s role should not be forgotten.) It is quite different from the original Geschichte und Eigensinn, about a third of the original length, condensed and redacted, but also expanded in places with new material, including reflections on intervening decades and many short stories. (Kluge is also well known in Germany as a fiction writer and filmmaker.) Flipping through the volume immediately communicates a sense of its idiosyncrasy. Some pages are printed black on white, others white on black; the short sections are typographically freewheeling, and they mix theoretical exposition with stories and pictures; the pictures, which sometimes illustrate the argument and sometimes carry it all by themselves, suggest an interest in anthropology, natural history, warfare, evolution, cosmology, geology, and the sentimental comportment of animals. That phrase “political economy of labor power” is the book’s most concise formulation of its own objectives. It stands for an attempt to use the basic tools of Marxist analysis to understand the full spectrum of human labor: not only what the market recognizes, but the moment-by-moment work of carrying on, of balancing, the labor of the heart and lungs, the wing-spreading stretch of the arms during a break from the assembly line. Kluge offers a kind of anthropology of human energetics, refusing a simple distinction between work and leisure, productivity and waste, in order to undermine the division that capitalism has erectedand that Marxist analysis has mostly honoredbetween the categories of labor and experience.

One objective of this holistic analysis is to understand better how labor in the narrower sense is possible, by attending to the kinds of unremarked, unmeasured, unpaid exertions that sustain the worker in her work. The worker is homo compensator, in Kluge’s phrase; she sustains the performance of attention in her cubicle by surreptitious excurses onto the internet, or rituals of plant-tending or gum-chewing or long talk at the water cooler. An adequate political economy must reckon with the work of this balancing. It is in that work that obstinacy resides: Eigensinn, which has also been variously translated as autonomy, willfulness, and self-will. Obstinacy is “a resistance to primitive expropriation,” historically and on-goingly; resistance to the moment when property is seized, capital founded, and alienation begins (390).[1] Obstinacy is the labor of the cigarette break or the work song, “the underside of history,” as Fore puts it: “for every trait that is singled out and capitalized, a resistant trait gathers force underground” (36). About such tacit resistance Marx had little to say. For Kluge, it is critical, for such miscellaneous activities constitute a great reservoir of unrecognized labor power, labor that might be redirected, realigned, or liberated for other purposes. Labor is emancipatory, but that emancipatory potential only becomes visible, and accessible, when it is understood with a holism that repairs the fragmentation capital has wrought.

There are any number of obstacles that might impede carrying such concepts into the world of The Faerie Queene, not the least of them the history of capitalism. But Kluge is fearless in historical translation—obstinacy is “a fundamental current observable throughout human history” (390)—and his analogical courage is both an invitation to think across time, and a defense of the practice. His basic concepts are both historical events and ongoing structures of experience, which can be said of the concept of separation, or Trennung, as well as of obstinacy. He follows Marx in diagnosing a separation of the worker from the products of her labor. But he identifies a separation within the worker as well, a mutual alienation of labor capacities, pitched against each other to achieve a bitter homeostasis. So the motor control demanded in operating the machine punch is hypertrophied by repetition and rewarded by pay, while the wing-like stretch so necessary to the work’s continuance must be understood as different in kind, incidental at best, antagonistic and wasted at worst. Whereas for Kluge, the stretch is labor, too, for the worker “must exert herself in order to endure this abstraction” (134), the abstraction of the task.

Spenserians may feel the temptations of an analogy between Kluge’s separations on the one hand, and on the other, the rift between matter and meaning that The Faerie Queene is forever rending and stitching, or, on a different scale, the narrative estrangement of Arthur and Gloriana, or both. But Kluge’s diagnosis directs our attention to a different separation again, that among all the characters, the analytic distinctions drawn by the allegory in its work of teaching. What if these differences were the poem’s primal injury—as though the proliferation of hypertrophied allegorical agents were a function of its fallen division of labor, the self-agonistic fragmentation of its own capacities?

Such a thought experiment touches virtually any locus in the poem. Is it an alienation of labor to have six characters representing six stages of seduction, none able to enjoy the process in its continuity, let alone its culmination? Or for the Knight of Justice and the Knight of Courtesy to have only a cursory acquaintance? Capitalism can’t be said to be to blame for their separation—unless such overdeveloped, mutually estranged capacities are understood to be an instrumental response to the poem’s avowed work of fashioning a gentleman. (Richard Halpern’s Marxist analysis of humanist pedagogy might help make the argument: for the gentleman, the poem is didactic, but for the culture, it might be said to be productive, like a school built to make as many of those gentlemen as it can.)[2] Against such separations, Kluge would have us look for the obstinate capacities that develop as homo compensator self-balances. On the level of the character-repertory, we might find those capacities in the proliferation of blocking agents, one, it would seem, for every drive. On the level of the individual character, capacities are grotesquely overdeveloped and allegorically unintegrated. Serena is no figure for Shame, but in resisting her employment as erotic object, she becomes a specialist in shame’s self-secreting.

The Faerie Queene would seem to treat such separations and specializations as differences to be overcome, ultimately in that syncretic union of Arthur and Gloriana, the longed-for, ever-yet-to-come resolution of its discordia concors. Kluge, however, will not push the reader in this direction. History and Obstinacy is neither a nostalgic nor a visionary book. Its emancipatory project proposes not an ideal of unity, but a recognition of connectedness, for which separation is a necessary condition. He offers a way of thinking about these dynamics that is dependent neither on loss nor prophecy, and therefore quite different from the way Spenser teaches us to read. The question is whether it is possible to adopt something like his recombinatorial curiosity as a reader of Spenser’s poem, a curiosity that would also have to carry something of Kluge’s serio-ludic, wise-naive tone. In order to assess the promise of this alternative, it will be necessary to say something about how Kluge treats history itself.

The last pages of History and Obstinacy, in the English translation, are a newly-written “Atlas of Concepts.” The entry on History concludes: “Not a criterion of substance, but rather a search criterion” (390). The use of “search” takes advantage of the translation’s appearance in the age of Google, but it captures something fundamental about the whole book’s employment of historical material, in forms ranging from anecdote to artifact to statistics. Take for example a discussion late in the book of the labor of warfare and the development of the pike square. The pike is the beginning of the end for hand-to-hand combat, a dissociation furthered by firearms and ever-wider in the age of drones. Lost to war, in this increasing remoteness, is the versatility of what Kluge calls the precision grip, now under-employed in button-pushing and touch-typing. This grip, we learn earlier in the book, had its origins when “early living beings that eventually became human initially clawed their way into their parents’ fur when faced with danger. Their parents would then carry them on their back to safety. The mark of this tender grasp is present in the distinguishing prints they bear on our [sic] fingertips” (95). The fine tenderness of the grip, still best tuned for the intimate work of clinging to the mother, is a kind of obstinacy. It is in excess of anything that war or wage labor has trained the hand to do.

The mix not only of historical moments but of kinds of history is characteristic of Kluge, as are the unexpected etiologies. Are they allegories, or just-so stories, or agendas for further research? The search criterion hand is allowed to range over so many kinds of time and kinds of knowledge. Take another instance, chosen almost at random from the book’s great catalogue: Kluge’s account of the flood of knowledge that issued from the printing press, a historical development to which most early modernists will have given some thought. One consequence, on Kluge’s reading, is the new necessity of a self that is constructed on principles of exclusion or filtering. Amidst so much information, how to know what not to know? The work of Immanuel Kant, he then tells us, is a corollary. “His three great Critiques can also be understood as providing their readers the chance to deselect what we humans need not know” (196), sparing us false and unnecessary speculation. (Presumably by translating what we thought we had to know about the world into a priori structures of experience; perhaps also by allowing us to forget a good deal of earlier philosophy.) The digital-age anachronism “deselect” is an advised analogy. A historical trajectory might be elaborated between these moments, filling in the gaps between Gutenberg, the Critique of Pure Reason, and Google, but that continuity of explanation is not necessary to the usefulness of the connection, and may very well undermine it.

Familiar here to Spenserians, and to any wide reader in Early Modern literature, is the open state of the disciplines. Military history, media studies, evolutionary theory (of a somewhat speculative variety), and philosophy are all ready to hand, brought into relation around particular puzzles of experience. Spenser enjoys a similar freedom when he weaves together mythography, chronicle history, genealogy, and natural history. Kluge’s search criteria, however, do seem to exclude, or at least downplay, principles of historical organization that Spenser honors. One such principle is the narrative legitimation of authority, the main work of the poem’s interludes of chronicle, the continuous histories of Britain or Faerie Land and even the retellings of the Troy story. Kluge’s use of the past, by contrast, does not privilege the order nor indeed the contiguity of its events. The book is full of stories, but they are episodic, not explanatory over any longue durée. Another missing principle, dear to Spenser, is exemplarity. The use of the past as a fund of example, good and bad, is basic to humanist history writing, as it is to Spenser’s cast of characters and their advertised value for the reader. Kluge does not hold up his pieces of the past for imitation. His search criteria are not optimized for either storytelling or example-making. If they are optimized for anything, it is for surprise; maybe even the sort of energy-liberating surprise that Freud finds in a joke.

Which is to say that there is indeed an affinity between History and Obstinacy and The Faerie Queene as works of history. For surprise, or even something like grace, is a basic principle of organization for the past in Spenser’s poem, too. This is particularly true of the past as it accumulates within the poem, over the course of its six books. The endless work of the Spenser critic is pre-eminently the harvest of analogy, of the poem’s copious self-likenesses. James Nohrnberg is the great apostle of its analogical systematicity, the way it all fits together in fearless symmetries, but even his magisterial account allows for an excess of interconnection, a surplus of relatedness that could be described as in every sense gratuitous.[3] Angus Fletcher’s term for such connections is parody, a development of the typological ideal that allows for the proliferation of nodes and, most importantly, for free, or perhaps equivocal, passage back and forth between them.[4] Which way, exactly, is up? The direction of parody counts less than the association itself. There is nothing in Spenser’s poem that is not complicit in the cultivation and exercise of this habit, but thinking with Kluge, we might find ourselves pointed particularly to recurrent moments of somatic impediment or interference, like sweating or sleeping, or excessive sympathy, a care that seems beyond or underneath or just beside the point of the poem’s moral discriminations. Conspicuous irrelevance, Harry Berger might call it. Another name might be obstinacy, obstinacy as a principle of association, as a ground of analogy.

So what might an attunement to obstinacy mean for reading an episode of Spenser’s great poem of episodes? Let me take the example of the House of Care, in the fifth canto of Book IV. The goings on there have always attracted attention from students of labor in the poem, with a blacksmith at work alongside his six groomsmen, slaving away in the production of iron wedges “to small purpose” (IV.v.35).[5] What clearer picture could we have of Early Modern alienated labor? Together they make something like an assembly line, “All sixe strong groomes, but one then other more, / For by degrees they all were disagreed” (IV.v.36.5-6); they are ordered by size, from small to large, strong to strongest, and though it is not clear that the wedges move like Adam Smith’s pins down the line—maybe the biggest groom just makes his wedges faster, or stronger, or something like that—the meaninglessness of the work is shared. They do not stop to stretch, or stop at all, ever: “For they for nought would from their worke refraine” (38.5). Allegory has entire dominion, a perfect nightmare of daemonic labor, and there is no place for a realistic, sympathetic anthropology of work.

Or is there? Reading with Kluge may lead us to see things we would not otherwise see. First of all, that smith, with his “fingers filthie, with long nayles vnpared, / Right fit to rend the food, on which he fared” (IV.v.35.4-5). Perhaps there is more here than grotesquerie, a defiant life force in those crazed fingernails and in the appetite they serve; homo compensator, outgrowing the work he is bound to, even if he cannot set it down. Or consider the hammer strokes of the groomsmen, which “Like belles in greatnesse orderly succeed, / That he that was the last, the first did farre exceede” (36.8-9). The orderliness of the six is unexpected, and the musicality is strange indeed. It is not that the anvils are bells, nor is theirs a Sunday morning din. Still the music comes from somewhere. It is almost like a work song, for keeping their rhythm, or—as always with work songs—for keeping the work bearable. We wouldn’t want to go too far, anthropomorphizing, or better anthropologizing these daemons of dark productivity. But then again, what else could that music be about, or for? It is in at all events in excess of the allegorical occasion. An excess of meaning, we Spenserians are accustomed to say. An excess of labor capacity, for Herr Kluge, always with a utopian sense that it could be put to better use.

Things look different, too, when we start to stitch the episode back into the poem. It begins with a moment of shelter-taking, with Scudamour and Glauce seeking refuge from a “cloudie storme” (IV.v.32.2). Their need recalls Redcrosse and Una back at the start of everything. The connection is linguistic, “shrowd” (32) and “shrowd” (I.i.6.9) and other echoes. It is also experiential, somatic, a common feeling. The poem is sometimes connected to itself by the reader’s question, when have I felt that way before? Sleep is another such node of experience. I have always thought of it as a kind of borderland between Spenser’s allegorical idealism and his materialist realism: sleep is bad, a failure of moral vigilance; and sleep is necessary, a requirement of the organism, below the level of moral reckoning. What happens to this problem if sleep itself is taken to be another kind of labor? Consider how much more sleep is than the negative image of wakeful exertion. It can take work, discipline, to get to sleep; work to stay asleep (think of the elaborate mechanisms in the Cave of Morpheus). And that is to say nothing of the labor involved in providing for the conditions of sleep, quiet and safety. Scudamour works hard to sleep and his shifts are effortful as he fights against Care’s insidious campaign of wakefulness: “He by no meanes could wished ease obtaine: / So euery place seem’d painefull, and ech changing vaine” (IV.v.40.8-9).

How much labor capacity is hidden in that tossing and turning—taken not as a moral symptom, or not just a moral symptom, but as an energetic reserve? And how much, by extension, is hidden in the network of sleep-scenes to which the good student of the poem will be transported? Guyon’s faint, the luxurious torpor of Cymochles and Verdant, Arthur drifting off as he waits for the return of the Salvage Man, so many others? These episodes can be read parodically, making a map of the intersections of moral value and corporeal need; they can be and should be. But it might also be possible to recognize them as instances of an obstinacy that runs through the whole of the poem, not the stubbornness of mere matter, but of a labor of resistance which, as labor, could be put to other purposes, too, purposes emancipatory and even utopian. The Faerie Queene might be said, from that vantage, to be ceaselessly torturing its characters at the limits of the physical, by allegory (daemonic repetition) and narrative (ceaseless questing), working them to death and even trying to do the same to the reader. Where do we find the energy to resist it? What Kluge tries to show us is that the energy is everywhere.

Any time you read an old poem with a newer book of theory, there is a question whether the theory lights up the poem because the poem is just part of the world the theory was written to illuminate, or whether the poem is a fellow traveler, working through cognate questions on its own terms. Is Spenser a theorist of obstinacy? Certainly his poem is full of counter-labor, of compensations that are the stubborn balancing-out of the work it sets itself. These obstinacies are a network of their own, a web of analogy independent of the order of narrative and of the allegorical architecture. They can be taken to make up what Kluge calls “an economy of combined trivials” (54), unrecognized exertions that the poem reports, without celebration, perhaps, but with a kind of oblique diligence. Frederic Jameson, describing History and Obstinacy when it was first published, observed how the reader navigating among its vagrant arguments and incidents becomes “willing to entertain the possibility of some utopian way of establishing relations between themes and exhibits.”[6] He points out affinities with the critique of historicism in Benjamin, or with rhizomatic potentials of organization offered by Deleuze and Guattari, theorists who already have their own history with Spenser. But there is something different in Kluge’s curiosity after the labor capacity latent in patterns of resistance. Perhaps something Spenserian.

I have read the poem differently in the past, in particular as an artifact built out of panic, taking even its most poised, structural antitheses to be the fossil remnants of violent reaction, of shame and overcorrection in an endless cycle.[7] Panic still seems to me to be the secret of The Faerie Queen’s architecture. Kluge offers something to a description of that dynamic, recognizing the resistant labor in panic itself, which certainly takes energy. But I hear in Spenser the utopian undersong of Kluge’s opportunistic search criterion, too. With him one discovers an organization of the poem that is not teleological, not systematic, and it should be said, not particularly anguished or passionate—neither in the giddy grip of conspiracy theory, nor ravished by wonder. Such feelings, Kluge knows, are easily turned to holy causes. The Klugean organization is something more like a polyglot potential for readjustment, a body that is not the duodecimal Arthur but an intricate nervous system, the kind where, when the physical therapist digs into your shoulder, you feel it in your heel—the kind of body we have, locked in agonistic accommodations to the stresses of our narrower labors, but full of energy to reorganize itself. Collating The Faerie Queene’s incidents and episodes around the accidents of effort makes for a discovery of the poem’s uncaptured energy, the energy obscured by its historicisms, by the causal determination of its historical context and of its own narrative interior. An anthropology of labor carries the promise that everything might be reintegrated, rebalanced. The first step is to know the energy is there. To attempt such a reading is to approach the poem therapeutically, therapy for the blacksmith and for the reader and even for the poem itself, therapy for the ailment of its storytelling and its meaning. It is a thought experiment, but one I recommend, not least because I think Spenser has already thought of it.


Jeff Dolven
Princeton University 

[1] Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt, History and Obstinacy, edited by Devin Fore, Zone Books, 2014.

[2] See Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, Cornell UP, 1991, pp. 18-102. Cf. Philip Sidney’s ambitions for the poetry’s economy of scale in his “Defense,” the power “not only to make a Cyrus, which has been but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses,” in Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Oxford UP, 2009, pp. 216-217.

[3] James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene, Princeton UP, 1976.

[4] Angus Fletcher, The Prophetic Moment, U of Chicago P, 1971, pp. 34-37.

[5] Citations of The Faerie Queene, given in parentheses in the text, are to A. C. Hamilton’s edition of the poem, rev. 2nd ed., Longman, 2006.

[6] Fredric Jameson, “On Negt and Kluge,” October, vol. 46, Autumn 1988, p. 153.

[7] Jeff Dolven, “Panic’s Castle,” Representations, vol. 120, no. 1, Fall 2012, pp. 1-16.


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Jeff Dolven, "Obstinate Spenser," Spenser Review 47.1.2 (Winter 2017). Accessed October 17th, 2017.
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