Gower’s Social Poetics: A Thought Experiment

Lately, I’ve been concerned wit604px-DeathWatTylerFullh the social. In fact, I think it’s a fair assessment (or just fair) to say that we’ve all been concerned with the social—whether the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Syrian refugee crisis, or the always-shifting, never-ending war on terror with its most recent manifestation in San Bernardino, CA. My moments of introspection about these matters have led me to consider how what I do as a medievalist speaks to such moments of social unrest, upheaval, etc. For example, can we compare moments of social unrest in medieval England, such as the Rebellion of 1381, to the current wave of protests in the US and abroad? Aren’t the economic situations and class stratification eerily similar?

And, inevitably, in this process I turn to John Gower.

Immediately, though, some readers will wonder why I would turn to Gower. We who work on this poet constantly must answer this question (see the titles of the previous two blog posts). However, my goal in this post is not to defend Gower. Rather, I write from the premise that it is only Gower who allows us to find something of ourselves in the tales that he spun over five hundred years ago. As Lynn Arner notes in her recent post, “The end of Confessio stages a miraculous transformation of Amans into Gower’s ideal reader: the narcissistic, apathetic lover becomes an enlightened reader who understands the need for social change and who abandons amorous pursuits to reflect on societal strife and to pursue the common good” (par. 10). Rather than consider Gower’s specific goal for change, however, I want to consider how Gower envisions the social.

As Shyama Rajendran quite astutely points out in her recent post, “we should take seriously the forcefulness of [Gower’s] critique of social systems” (par.9). But then I pause on the word “social” again.

Does Gower understand the social in the same way as we do?

I quote Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social at length here in order to query this term, social:

A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. Once this domain had been defined, no matter how vaguely, it could then be used to shed some light on specifically social phenomena—the social could explain the social—and to provide a certain type of explanation for what the other domains could not account for—an appeal to ‘social factors’ could explain the ‘social aspects’ of non-social phenomena (3).

This definition of the social typically guides our analyses and considerations of Gower’s work in relation to the systems of late feudalism in fourteenth-century England. We, as Gower scholars, have spilled an enormous amount of ink on how Gower’s poetry addresses a number of social phenomena. In so doing, we have tacitly declared that the social is defined, understood, agreed upon, and, even in the tumultuous fourteenth century, somewhat stable.

My point here is not to claim that all of this scholarship (including my own) is wrong and/or faulty. Instead, I want us to consider how, borrowing from Latour’s title, we might reassemble our conception of “social” to bring about new insights about the social in Gower’s poetry and, in so doing, find connections to networks and systems in our society today.

Latour redefines the social in his work as “the tracing of associations,” and continues, “in this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves “social” (5). We eliminate the ambiguous framework that we refer to as social and replace it with a system of networks made up of the interactions among the individual components. In this new formulation of the social, the only way to discuss such phenomena is through observing, describing, and critiquing the exchanges between independent entities.

And isn’t this exactly what Gower does? The entire tale-telling process in Confessio Amantis is about the social. Through these tales, Gower examines interactions between individuals, entities, things, etc. We tend to assimilate these individual tales into the larger picture of the work as a whole—one that supports the traditional notion of society as always existing infrastructure—yet in their conception as tales they are aimed toward individual associations, first among the characters within the tales and then moving outward between Amans and the glosses Genius provides. The act of reading itself, too, becomes social in this understanding of the idea of social because, as Latour discusses above, it is a way of connecting—associating—ourselves with the text and its component parts. (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Of course, rereading Confessio from this perspective seems counter to the text’s own professed aim. Gower, so it goes, espouses unity and (conservative) establishment throughout Confessio. However, Gower’s understanding of how such unity may be accomplished does not always follow. For instance, in the Commons section of the Prologue, Gower writes that there is “defalte non” in God and “So moste it stonde upon ousselve” (Pr. 524-25). We must not be divided within ourselves, then, because “man is cause of that schal falle” (Pr. 528). In other words, what is yet to come will be the result of humankind’s actions. Gower is not necessarily arguing here that humans (the commoners, in any case) adhere to established order; rather, he points out that we cannot succeed in our interactions if we ourselves are internally divided.

Internal division problmatizes both agency and intention, which leads inevitably to a failure of the social in this reconsideration. The fault is not the human to accept a preexisting order—it is our inability to associate externally as a result of what we might consider internal dissociation. This theme of internal division continues throughout this section of the Prologue, and we see the clearest exposition of this situation when the narrator states: And thus stant al the worldes werk / After the disposicioun / Of man and his condicioun (Pr. 942-44).

The world’s division results from the internal division of humankind. The social has broken down because the individual components within the network of associations have broken down.

Reading Gower’s Confessio is a necessarily social act in Latour’s understanding of the social. As we examine the connections between the individual pieces—estates, humans, animals, boats, nations—we examine ourselves in connection to these same pieces and to the larger tales in which they occur. Some critics may consider this relationship to be didactic, but I would instead offer this association as simply another connection to examine as we reassemble our understandings and definitions of the social.

To return to the question I posed earlier: Does Gower understand the social in the same way that we do? I do not know for certain, but I think Confessio‘s representation of social differs markedly from traditional modern conceptions. Gower offers a social poetics that engages the reader in a co-creation of interpersonal connections and relationship. As a result, the reader, whether premodern or modern, is always a part of the social contexts of the text. The text speaks to us, and we speak to the text. This ongoing textual conversation does not just allow for coeval comparisons—it creates them. As readers bring themselves to the text, they bring their contexts, too, to bear on it, thus automatically making associations, comparisons, and networks of ongoing communication.

Gower’s social poetics, then, speak to the questions and answers provided by Arner’s and Rajendran’s previous posts. Whether we “like” Chaucer more than Gower, as Arner acknowledges, depends on our tastes for narrative. Gower makes us read and, therefore, think in a way fundamentally differently from Chaucer. Whereas Chaucer provides explicit depictions of types, Gower provides only associations. With Gower’s social poetics that often lack narrative depiction, then, we find the coeval that Rajendran suggests. We may insert ourselves—perhaps even must insert ourselves—into these associations, and in so doing, we may discover how to bring such associative relationships into our present discourses. In essence, we create opportunities for coevalisms in any reading of Gower’s Confessio because we enter as a component in an ever-expanding network. We may also, then, serve as a conduit between our present environment and Gower’s in order to increase our understanding of both in a newly formed context.

This latter point is especially disorienting to those of us who have lived under the impression that society exists independently from its various components as a historically situated context. But by reading Gower, as I hope this entry has at least begun to show, we find a way to question such monolithic structures through reasserting that they do not exist outside of the interactions of their component parts. We, like Gower, must consider how our networks of associations create, rather than are created by, the social. Following Gower’s lead in Confessio, we, too, can productively query our present assemblage of the social in order to change it. We can create coeval networks that connect the premodern past and the present in ways that alter our understanding of both.

Jeff Stoyanoff
Spring Hill College