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Shaking the Steadfast Globe: Early Modern Futures for the Global Turn
by Ayesha Ramachandran

Such was this Gyaunts fall, that seemd to shake

The stedfast globe of earth, as it for feare did quake.

 

(The Faerie Queene, 1.8.23)

 

               Such was the glassie globe that Merlin made

And gaue vnto king Ryence for his gard

 

(The Faerie Queene, 3.2.21)

 

There are only two uses of the word “globe” in Spenser’s Faerie Queene – in stark contrast to the over two hundred forms of “world” scattered across the poem. Both, perhaps surprisingly, are hidden within elaborate similes that presage their own shattering.

In the epic’s opening book, the impact of the giant Orgoglio’s overthrow by Arthur is so momentous, so unaccountable, so terrifying that the narrator can only describe it as seeming ‘to shake/ The stedfast globe of earth’ as though the planetary body itself were quaking in fear. And in a surprising analogue, Merlin’s famous ‘looking glass’ in Book 3, a mirror of the world (‘Like to the world it selfe’), in which Britomart will first see the image of Arthegall, is described as a globe only after its symbolic destruction has been charted. ‘Such was that glassie globe,’ notes the narrator musingly, after comparing this ‘wonderous worke’ to Phao’s Stone tower, supposedly destroyed by Ptolemy for her faithlessness in love. Within their local contexts, these images cohere with the poem’s narrative action, even if they cast a distinctive Spenserian chill over the apparently triumphant moments in which they appear. The earth’s shaking has been explained as an earthquake, related mythologically to Orgoglio’s own genealogy earlier in the poem; while Phao’s betrayal seems to foreshadow the complexities of Britomart’s erotic life. Not least among these are her own entanglements with Malecasta and Amoret, as well as Arthegall’s later thralldom to Radegund.

And yet, as I consider these tantalising lexical appearances from the vantage of our own moment, three decades into the so-called “global turn” of early modern studies, it is difficult to escape the charged symbolic warnings they seem to contain. Spenser’s globe is both steadfast and shaking, it quakes but endures, registering and absorbing violence to its own body which is also somehow inseparable from the moral-psychic landscape of the persons who inhabit it. The globe is also glassy: mirror-like, it is a self-reflexive vanishing point for its creators whose own self-image is inextricably bound up with the crafted whole they have made. Globe stands against world, in The Faerie Queene, which is a more fluid concept. The Spenserian globe only becomes visible when it is endangered; the recognition of unity and interconnection it signals becomes most legible in the moment of its shattering.

I take these characteristically Spenserian resonances as a starting point from which to reckon with the question of the global in early modern studies in 2022: a year that supposedly marks the end of the first global pandemic in a century; the return, some argue, of cold-war style geopolitics and right-wing nationalisms across the world; and a consequent sharpening consciousness, on a global scale, of various forms of difference (racial, religious, socio-economic, biological) as well as the need to defend, with renewed ferocity, the rights and freedoms of the marginalised – whether persons or the planet. Thus, even as proto-fascist energies seem to be visibly galvanised, so is the laborious struggle to make a decolonial, anti-racist, and gender-inclusive world ever more forceful. We are also on track, in 2022, to mark the hottest year on record yet, as we continue to witness devastating scenes of climate crisis from Pakistan to the Caribbean.

This present context marks an inflection point, I would argue, for scholarship on the so-called ‘prehistory of globalisation,’ what we have come to refer to as the “Global Renaissance” or the “Global Early Modern”.[1] For scholars of my generation, who were just becoming adolescents when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, much of our life has been marked by the promises, the aspirations, the disappointments, cruel ironies, and brutal violence of globalisation. Enhanced international mobilities through the 1990s and early 2000s enabled students and scholars to live, study, and travel across the globe with increasing ease. This new era of the internet and global interconnection almost inevitably brought with it a reflexive ability to see similar connections in the historical field. It is no surprise that the surge of published books and articles on global history from the late 1990s onward and the reframing of the Renaissance in terms of the (global) “early modern” in the wake of the Columbian quincentennial, emerged in dialectical relation to these late twentieth-century concerns.

At the cusp of the twenty-first century, then, the Eurocentric, nationalist, nineteenth-century concerns of Burckhardt, Michelet, Pater et al were being replaced with the paradigmatically global, anti-colonial, non-Western late-twentieth-century foci of Subrahmanyam, Fernández-Armesto, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Sakai.[2] Tales of growing mercantile networks, circulations of objects, materials, and knowledges, transcultural exchange and conjuncture, cosmopolitan go-betweens, and the multilayered encounters that produced hybrid societies across the world proliferated. These narratives – my own work among them – sought to provincialize Europe, to highlight the precarious contingency of early modern geopolitics, to underscore the agency of non-Western actors and the dynamic unpredictability of cross-cultural interchange, shifting our collective critical attention away from what Zoltán Biedermann ironically calls, ‘[hearing] continuously about the threat of an expanding Europe.’[3]

For literary critics and cultural historians, particularly those working with Anglophone materials and within the broad ambit of English Literature, this conversation is perhaps most obviously bound up with Shakespeare’s Tempest and its travels, with the rise of Global Shakespeare as a critical and pedagogical framework, and with the increasing interest in tracing England’s early overseas ventures, beginning with the plantations in Ireland.[4] However, since the expansion of the British empire into a fully global enterprise lagged behind Spain and Portugal, much English-centric scholarship on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has focused on tracing allusions to international contexts and

cross-cultural connections as they emerge in English texts.[5] For scholars of comparative literature, on the other hand, particularly those working in Spanish and Portuguese, the vocabulary of the global turn provided an irresistible frame for describing the textual production of the Iberian empires. New, increasingly global conversations between scholars of early American and early modern European literature, particularly in the wake of Atlantic history, also gestured toward this new expansion of scale.[6]

But twenty years after the initial development of scholarship on the global early modern, this consensus is shattering. Already in 2014, Ania Loomba sounded the alarm by reminding globally-minded connected historians that their vision of a ‘single global modernity was forged, or at least drastically reshaped, alongside colonialism.’[7] In 2021, acknowledging the prescience of Loomba’s postcolonial critique, Biedermann put it more starkly: ‘Do we care about the way the emphasis on “connection” diverts attention from the buildup of European hegemonic ambitions to some loose notion of Geertzian theater states being everywhere? … How do we react if someone tells us that our gesture undermines narratives of suffering and oppression that are crucial to people in formerly colonized societies?’[8] Acknowledging the inescapable entanglement of the present with the past, many scholars now wonder about whether and how we can still engage in writing about a global early modernity.[9] This is of course precisely the dilemma we must confront: that past forms of speaking and representing, both in our primary texts and our critical practices, have ongoing consequences.

Early modern worldmaking and contemporary worldmaking occur in the transtemporal space of critical imagining, simultaneously reshaping the past and transforming our relationship to our present concerns. Those of us who trafficked in the global turn, must now face what we have elided, ignored, or worse (unwittingly) erased. It is unclear if the scale of the global can, any longer, be an ethically grounded category of analysis – or whether we must return, as the global lockdowns of 2020 suggested, to local circles of community and particular lives, in other words, to forms of cultural microhistory. Much recent scholarship suggests as much: the renewed focus on race and religion, on gender and sexuality, on indigenous and marginal communities, has reminded us of the political stakes of individual bodies. But if the enactment of violence on particular persons refracts the intangible macro-pressures of cultural scripts, socio-political structures, or kinship norms, which end of the stick do we hold? 

The fate of Spenser studies indexes these cross-cutting challenges of the global early modern as a critical framework. Long described as England’s Virgil, that is, a nationalistic poet who wraps English history in the attractive grab of romance-allegory, Spenser has more recently been described as a European poet, whose sources and imagined literary communities were continental humanists.[10] Published in 2000, Worldmaking Spenser marks this transition and begins to gesture towards even broader – perhaps global – concerns. In their introduction, Patrick Cheney and Lauren Silberman note that the essays ‘attest not only to the important place of Spenser’s works in English history and European culture but also to the richness and complexity of the notion of place through which Spenser’s work maybe located.’[11] Significantly, in hindsight, it is the volume’s final two sections – on ‘The Colonial and the Criminal’ and ‘The Self’ – where a range of authors grapple with cross-cultural and transhistorical concerns, that we already see the some of the directions that a global perspective would offer. We might contrast this pivotal volume with another critical landmark published almost exactly twenty years later: Spenser Studies’ recent special issue on ‘Spenser and Race’ (2021) which takes up, transforms and critiques the sanguine promise of Worldmaking Spenser.[12] Here, recent global pressures have made visible old fractures – the brutality and violent inequities of racial capital were, after all, a key product of early modern globalisation – and confronting these histories demands a new vocabulary for thinking across space and time. To do so we must find ways to move beyond spatial epistemologies and conversations about scale – the local/global, micro/macro, West/Rest – but instead to imagine how we might simultaneously hold the particular and the universal in view.[13]

Writing presciently of this challenge in the late 1990s, the Martinican poet-philosopher Édouard Glissant noted: ‘the concept of History is falling apart even as it rehashes these returns of the identitarian, the national, the fundamental, which are all the more sectarian now that they have become obsolete.’[14] Against the thrust of what he calls ‘systematic thinking’ or the deadly effects of ‘systems of thought,’ that, is the effort to grasp and describe the whole, the totality of entire systems, Glissant urges us to consider the potentials of the trace as an alternate form of thinking that enables us to perceive new forms of relation:

 

I think that we must in future move towards trace thought, towards a non-system of thought that will not be dominating, nor systematic, nor imposing, but will perhaps be a non-system of thought – intuitive, fragile, ambiguous –which will be best suited to the extraordinary complexity, the extraordinary dimension of multiplicity of the world in which we live… This imagination of a trace thought is an integral part of us when we live a poetics of Relation in the world today.[15]

 

For Glissant, trace thinking is tied to reimagining our understanding of identity not as rooted and singular, but rather as rhizomatic and multiple – as ‘a relational identity, an identity that involves an opening up to the other, without risk of dilution’.[16] Inspired by the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Glissant pushes us to think about the affordances of multiplicities, of creolization, of resisting the pull of singular narratives.[17] But what does trace thinking look like in literary scholarship and how can it be harnessed to imagine critical futures for a global early modern studies?  

Glissant’s insistence on the ‘intuitive, fragile, ambiguous’ has pushed me to consider with more critical eyes the literary forms most closely associated with the global turn in early modern literary studies so far. Unsurprisingly, these are the forms of ‘systematic thought’ – the epic, the (diplomatic) travel narrative, the theatrical performance. Bound by the epistemological imperatives of genetic conventions, these forms aim to grasp forms of totality – the arc of a history, the overview of a place, the completion of a dramatic action. They encode distinct ways of knowing the world that tend towards the vanishing point of the third-person observer, the “objective” knower, the audience outside and above the messiness of the plot. These forms are also most obviously concerned with geopolitics – the history and fate of nations, the knowledge of new domains and peoples, the staging of cross-cultural encounters in an expanding world – and often treat the material world as property that can be acquired, bought, conquered. ‘Forsake thy king, and do but join with me,/ And we will triumph over all the world,’ declaims Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, epitomising the aggrandising global desires of so many states and companies in the period. Our focus on these forms as the “evidence” for the global scope of early modern literature reproduces the privileging of totalising ‘systematic thought’ that Glissant urges us to break with.

Where then can we find ‘trace thought’? We find it, I would argue, in less obvious places, in the forms that themselves break with the epistemology of totality. These include forms of first-person perspective: the letter, the essay, the autobiography, the confession – and as I am discovering in my recent work – the lyric poem. Such forms of personal speaking – many of which languish in archives and never found their way to publication – are the traces of other, often marginalised voices whose perspectives may never have influenced large-scale change, but who lived through those changes. Focusing on such traces might enable us to ask different kinds of questions. We might, for instance, practise moving away from asking questions like: in what ways was the early modern world “global”? Or, what evidence do we have of global connections/ circulations in the early modern period? And ask instead: what was the experience of globality like in the early modern period? In what ways might people – individuals and collectives – understand and express themselves as imagining and engaging with the global? To make this shift is to step away from spatial and epistemological categories and try on different ontological perspectives which multiply our world.[18]

Let me acknowledge, first of all, the slipperiness of such questions, and the speculation, projection, and imaginative friction that they invite. I also recognize the theoretical murkiness of moving between epistemic and ontological frameworks – a problem endemic to early modern thought – but one, I would argue, with which we must reckon again today.[19] Indeed, in seeking to shift the frame in this way, I am drawing on recent work in anthropology associated with the so-called “ontological turn” and its expanding influence in history, religious studies, indigenous studies and other fields. Associated with the work of the anthropologists Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola, and Marilyn Strathern, the “ontological turn” initially involved a methodological recasting of key terms and categories in the discipline, and subsequently opened into a exhortation to enter into multiple perspectives on conceiving the world and its relations – in other words, to consider what different kinds of relation are made possible through different ontologies.[20] When applied to the “global turn” this proposition invites us to ask: from whose perspective are we positing the “global”? In what ways might “the globe” not be a singular entity that we all see and experience in the same way? To put this in Spenserian terms, the ‘globe’ which shakes when Orgoglio is killed in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene is quite different from the ‘glassie globe’ of Book 3 in which Britomart beholds her future. And yet both coexist in the epic, asking us to make sense of their relation.  

 

 

 


[1] See James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim, Art and Globalization (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010).

[2] Each of these scholars has written extensively on and around the question of globality, modernity, and empire. I would single out the following works: Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005) and  Europe’s India : Words, People, Empires, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006) and 1492 : El nacimiento de la modernidad (Barcelona: Debate, 2010); Boaventura de Sousa Santos, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On Japan and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

[3] Zoltán Biedermann, ‘(Dis)Connected History and the Multiple Narratives of Global Early Modernity,’ Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (August 2021): 13–32 (p. 27).

[4] See for instance the landmark volume, William H. Sherman and Peter Hulme, eds., The Tempest and Its Travels (London: Reaktion, 2000) and most recently, Alexa Alice Joubin, ed., The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Shakespeare, Springer Nature Living Reference, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-99378-2 and Jyotsna G. Singh, ed., A Companion to the Global Renaissance: Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, 1500-1700, Second edition (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021).

[5] See for instance the important research produced as part of the TIDE Project (Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550-1700) and Singh,ed.,  A Companion to the Global Renaissance. Sharon Achinstein notes the complex problem of “placing” the early modern in ’“Here at Least / We Shall Be Free”: The Places of English Renaissance Literature,’ English Literary Renaissance 50, no. 1 (January 2020): 1–7, https://doi.org/10.1086/706212.

[6] See, for example, Barbara Fuchs, ‘Another Turn for Transnationalism: Empire, Nation, and Imperium in Early Modern Studies,’ PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015): 412–18; Ricardo Padrón, The Indies of the Setting Sun: How Early Modern Spain Mapped the Far East as the Transpacific West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020); Su Fang Ng, Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia: Peripheral Empires in the Global Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Giuseppe Marcocci, The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[7] Ania Loomba, ‘Early Modern or Early Colonial?,’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 14, no. 1 (2014): 143–48 (p. 145). Biedermann, citing Loomba, notes the gendered division of the historiography.

[8] Biedermann, p. 27.

[9] See the now-classic essay by Jeremy Adelman, ‘Is Global History Still Possible, or Has It Had Its Moment?’ Aeon, March 2, 2017, and Carina L. Johnson and Ayesha Ramachandran, ‘Introduction—The Jaguar’s Beer: Critical Approaches to Multiplicity in the Early Modern World,’ Modern Philology 119, no. 1 (August 2021): 1–12 as well as the essays in that volume.

[10] See the classic framing in Richard Helgerson, Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) as compared to Roland Greene, ‘Spenser and Contemporary Vernacular Poetry,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Spenser, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 237–51.

[11] Patrick Cheney and Lauren Silberman, Worldmaking Spenser: Explorations in the Early Modern Age (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), p.1.

[12] Dennis Austin Britton and Kimberly Anne Coles, ‘Spenser and Race: An Introduction,’ Spenser Studies 35 (January 2021): 1–19 and the essays therein.

[13] On the problem of spatial epistemologies see Valerie Traub, ‘History in the Present Tense: Feminist Theories, Spatialized Epistemologies, and Early Modern Embodiment,’ in Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces in the Early Modern World, ed. Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 15-53.

[14] Édouard Glissant, Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity, trans. Celia Britton (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020),  3. Thanks to Carina Johnson for sharing conversations on Glissant and the significance of his thinking for early modern studies.

[15] Glissant, p. 12.

[16] Glissant,  p. 11.

[17] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[18] See Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,’Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation’ in The Relative Native, 75-94, who draws on Deleuze, for whom the fundamental aim is to ‘multiply one’s own world’: see Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 324. See more generally Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology (Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2014). For the affordance of reading Viveiros de Castro alongside Spenser, see Joe Moshenska and Ayesha Ramachandran, ‘Faerieland’s Cannibal Metaphysics,’ forthcoming in Spenser Studies 37. Thanks to Joe Moshenska for working with me through these connections.

[19] A classic narrative about the emergence of (early) modernity concerns the “epistemic rupture” of the seventeenth century (for instance in Foucault’s influential account) after which there is an emphasis on epistemology as a primary philosophic framework and a move away from ontological questions: see Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) and Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1973). But we might reconsider just how complete this extrication of epistemic questions from ontological ones actually was – some reconsiderations include Jean-Luc Marion, On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (London: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[20] See the useful overview in Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen, The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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    Within their local contexts, these images cohere with the poem’s narrative action, even if they cast a distinctive Spenserian chill over the apparently triumphant moments in which they appear.

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    Within their local contexts, these images cohere with the poem’s narrative action, even if they cast a distinctive Spenserian chill over the apparently triumphant moments in which they appear.

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    The earth’s shaking has been explained as an earthquake, related mythologically to Orgoglio’s own genealogy earlier in the poem

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    This blog really dives into how Spenser uses the word "globe" in Faerie Queene, bringing up interesting points about studying the early modern world. The author does a great job tackling complex ideas, suggesting we shift our thinking for a better grasp of the past.

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52.3.2

Cite as:

Ayesha Ramachandran, "Shaking the Steadfast Globe: Early Modern Futures for the Global Turn," Spenser Review 52.3.2 (Fall 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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