Kempe and Posthumanity

After she encounters Jesus in her time of sickness, Kempe devotes herself to living by God’s word. As a result, she does things like wearing white despite not being a virgin, or ceasing sex with her husband so she can live chastely. She also speaks of God despite being outside the clergy. Kempe therefore tends to provoke quite a reaction in other people, both contemporary and modern. Do Kempe’s transcendental experiences render her posthuman? Why or why not? How do people see her and her claims? In what ways are their reactions to her similar to or different than how people interacted with possible posthumans in other texts?

4 thoughts on “Kempe and Posthumanity

  1. While Kempe could be seen as enlightened or even divine herself, I do not feel this identifies her as posthuman. The people she encounters tend to see her as crazy and even disrespectful, except for the one priest who turns to her for advice. These responses seem to greatly contrast people’s responses to the posthuman in other texts because in those situations, people respect the posthuman. They may be wary of the unknown, but they do not look down on them as condescendingly as they do to Kempe. Kempe’s uniqueness defines more as a personal, spiritual “calling,” having the ability to absorb into another world, rather than necessarily advancing more than other humans, into the posthuman. This discrepancy proves to be very pertinent in declaring Kempe as not posthuman.

  2. While I think Paige is correct in pointing out the largely negative reactions to Kempe’s transcendental new self, I would make a distinction here between the reactions of others and Kempe’s claimed identity. Indeed, people do generally see Kempe’s spiritually obsessed self as wholly negative and even as Paige points out, “disrespectful.” In her brand of emotional devotion, Kempe borders on annoying and is, for example, sent back to England by those in Rome who grow tired of her.

    Still, I would suggest that Kempe’s changes do constitute an instance of “posthuman” transformation. Reclaiming an alternate identity based on religious structure comes to divide Kempe’s old self from her newly asserted one. In this way, Kempe appears to be unbounded by typical humanist notions of the contiguous or cohesive self. Instead of being permanently tied to one concrete identity, Kempe is able to seamlessly (at least for her) become a nearly different person altogether.

    Placed in a historical context, I think the reaction to Kempe’s posthuman qualities can be attributed to both a pre-humanist culture and, further, period gender expectations. While Kempe ties her process of transformation to the dominant religion, it does ultimately involve an assertion of self and subject hood that may have appeared bizarre or unknown to people of the time. Kempe chooses to undergo such changes as a means of establishing her own individual relationship to God. Moreover, Kempe’s female identity further complicates her assertion of pre-enlightenment free-will. In other texts, especially contemporary ones, we see posthuman characters as departing from a pre-existing culture of individualism and subjectivity. In MK, Kempe’s transformations are far more radical.

  3. I agree with Paige’s suggestions that people did not react well to the strange behaviors of Margery Kempe—she was seen as “crazy” and “disrespectful.” However, I disagree with the suggestion that in other texts posthumans are respected. For example, in Battlestar Galactica I would argue that the Cylons are not respected, and in several episodes we see the ways in which they are feared and seen as “others.” I think that reactions to more modern posthumans are similar to the reactions of Margery Kempe that we see in this medieval text.

    I think that more than just negative reactions to Kempe make her character posthuman. Her transcendental experiences render her posthuman in several different ways. Because of the medieval (and perhaps even its religious) context, certain readers might find it difficult to approach Margery Kempe as a posthuman genre. However, Kempe’s visions, transcendental experiences, and decisions to seek out a new kind of living allow for a kind of great human transformation, and I think that certain qualities of this transformation are eerily similar to other more modern posthuman texts.

  4. I agree that catching sight of the posthuman in this text can be tricky, and that the way to it is in comparing Kempe’s “pre-revelation” self to her spiritually liberated self. Originally Kempe struggles in life and lives with much sin and hardship, but though Christianity and Jesus Christ has her worldview and identity completely altered. She abandons seeing just the material world and her own personal senses and businesses, and enters a new type of identity that recognizes the immutable and multiple divine possibilities of heaven. Kempe becomes post human in living her life in connection to and anticipating a completely altered state of existence, without a body, with endless inexclipable emotions of joy and unity. Kempe’s post human future doesn’t reside in dystopia or mechanized city scapes, but in the Christian heaven.

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