Sin and Structure in Piers Plowman: On the Medieval Split Subject
This essay was written for a special issue of MLQ on ‘Inevitability’. The other essays focus on texts and contexts from the eighteenth century onwards, and discuss the forms of inevitability attendant from capitalism’s rise to the present moment of global capital. Throughout the volume, ‘the inevitable’ emerges as a name for the troubled intersection of agency and structural necessity. This essay shifts to a medieval context, and argues that sin provides medieval culture with ways of thinking through that intersection. Far from grounding the medieval subject in a set of theological norms that give it stable coordinates for desire and action, sin indicates the subject’s splitting by the norms that organize it. PPl explores the medieval split subject through its formal experimentation. Literary form serves L as a medium for repeatedly encountering the demands of political, ethical, economic, and spiritual life, and repeatedly problematizing any available terms for representing the subject’s responsibility to those demands. The essay locates L in relation to Paul’s and Augustine’s accounts of sin and to Lacan’s accounts of demand and of the death drive, in order to describe the poem’s trajectory beyond anything representable, a trajectory that finds its most direct expression in the poem’s apocalyptic energies. But PPl treats even the apocalypse as an anticlimactic avoidance of the subject’s responsibility to its own self-division. If the poem drives beyond any terms in which its target can be represented, what compels L is finally the unrelenting character of the demands to which the subject can never be adequate. In this respect L distances himself not only from the apocalyptic mode but also from the mystical fascinations of many of this contemporaries.