The enduring charm of hybridity

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In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity.

I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am.

One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images ranging from the hybrid cars I mentioned to creatures of fantasy and science fiction.

But I insist, what is a hybrid? Anyone will say that it’s anything made up of two different types of elements. A hybrid vehicle is part combustion part electric. A sci-fi hybrid is part human part machine. And so on.

But a hybrid is culturally so much more than a blend of two irreconcilable elements. Here, the Middle Ages may educate us because the medieval period is really the elevation of hybridity to the status of a reality to be reckoned with.

In the Middle Ages, there were many hybrids. The Western medieval culture was itself hybrid, a blend of classical and Christian parts knocked together to work together. The fact that we had a Renaissance, a revival of the classical part, proves that the Middle Ages didn’t resolve its hybridity into a monolithic whole. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Medieval hybridity is responsible for so much cultural development. The medieval imagination was populated with hybrids, many of them inherited from the classical past: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, harpies, sphinxes. Others were purely medieval coinages, though most don’t have a name, such as the countless figures in the margin of manuscripts: half- human half-pig half-fish half-whatever. Don’t be fooled by the apparent randomness of all this monsterdom. The medieval hybrid was symptomatic of an inner cultural tension: the unpredictability of the unknown.

It is no wonder that the medieval hybrid lies on the edge of things. The edge of the manuscript, the edge of the world. The farther one moved from the centre – the central text, the known, familiar world – the more likely was one to encounter hybrids. The hybrid embodied the fear of the unknown, though not every hybrid was potentially deadly or dangerous. The East, which for the medieval mind was akin to the great beyond (=the great unimaginable) was littered with hybrids, with the so-called ‘monstrous races’: people with eyes on their chests, with large lower lips, the sciopods (having one leg with two feet), or the cynocephalae (half human, half dog).

The hybrid belongs to the future, to the unknown liminal space which only the imagination may conquer. In that respect, the modern world hasn’t budged from that existential stance.

The post-industrial imagination is replete with hybrid visions of transhumanity: half human, half-machine. The augmented human, too, belongs to the edges of the known world, captured by a vision of a future half-desired, half-feared.

The enduring charm of hybridity points to an enduring feature of our humanity and of our shared culture: the fear of the unknown, the desire to go beyond the mark, the spectacle of endless possibility.

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