Greenblatt on Fashion

A couple of quotations from Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning , with a comment appended. He is talking about the changing meanings of “fashion” in the English Renaissance:

“In the sixteenth century there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of a human identity as a manipulable, artful process. Such self-consciousness had been widespread among the elite in the classical world, but Christianity brought a growing suspicion of man’s power to shape identity. As a term for the action or process of making, for particular features of appearance, for a distinct style or pattern, the word had been long in use, but it is in the sixteenth century that FASHION seems to come into wide currency as a way of designating the forming of a self. This forming may be understood quite literally as the imposition upon a person of a physical form ?E’Did not one fashion us in the womb?’ Job asks in the King James Bible, while, following the frequent injunctions to ‘fashion’ children, midwives of the period attempted to mold the skulls of the newborn into the proper shape. But, more significantly for our purposes, fashioning may suggest the achievement of a less tangible shape: a distinctive personality, a characteristic address to the world, a consistent mode of perceiving and behaving. As we might expect, the recurrent model for this latter fashioning is Christ?E ‘We are exhorted,’ Archbishop Sandys remarks in a sermon, ‘to fashion ourselves according to that similitude and likeness which is in him,’ while in the 1557 Geneva translation of the New Testament we read that Christ ‘was disfigured to fashion us, he died for our life.’”

Once separated from these theological roots, the notion takes on a broader reference: “it describes the practice of parents and teachers; it is linked to manners or demeanor, particularly that of the elite; it may suggest hypocrisy or deception, an adherence to mere outward ceremony; it suggests representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions.”

Comment: This appears to be connected to the Renaissance notions of poesis and human creativity and making in general. With Cusa, as Milbank has pointed out, there arises the notion that human life is inherently poetic; we are always making, always bringing new things into being, not merely rearranging the old. For Cusa, this is in no way an assertion of autonomy, because God the Workman, God the Poet, is writing the world as His poem even as we write, He is writing in and through us. Extending this to personal identity and character, we get Greenblatt’s notion of self-fashioning, again not as an assertion of autonomy (though it could go that way) but in the sense that God works in us to will and do according to His pleasure, in the sense that we are His workmanship, his poiema .

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