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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: August ::
Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0598.  Wednesday, 2 August 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Bill Mcrae <
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        Date:   Monday, 31 Jul 1995 14:15:09 -0500 (CDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0594  Re: Cultural Construct
 
(2)     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Monday, 31 Jul 1995 15:38:51 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   Re:  Cultural Contruct
 
(3)     From:   John Lee <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Aug 1995 18:24:21 +0100 (BST)
        Subj:   Shakespeare as cultural construct
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Mcrae <
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Date:           Monday, 31 Jul 1995 14:15:09 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: 6.0594  Re: Cultural Construct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0594  Re: Cultural Construct
 
I'm troubled by Edward Friedlander's sweeping dismissal of constructivism in
his recent posting, though I'm not surprised by his conflating bardolatry and
traditional science.  (This almost makes me wonder if Gross and Levitt's
*Higher Superstition* will now enter the standard Shakespeare bibliographies.)
 More to the point, I wonder why so many are disturbed by the really quite
simply proposition that what we KNOW is culturally constructed. Note the stress
here on KNOW, not BE.  Were Dr. Friedlander to read, say, Foucault's *Madness
and Civilization* or Laquer's *Making Sex,* he would, I hope, no longer be
quite so willing to play the role of Dr. Johnson in the scenario that puts
Derrida in the place of Bishop Berkeley.  As I say, one could hope.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Monday, 31 Jul 1995 15:38:51 -0700 (MST)
Subject:        Re:  Cultural Contruct
 
I've enjoyed reading the lively exchange my posting about "Shakespeare as
cultural construct" has helped provoke.  As I had hoped, I've learned much from
the exchange, from those who disagree with me as well as from those who agree.
Since the discussion doesn't yet seem to have run its course, I thought I'd add
a few more of my thoughts.
 
In case there are any who still don't quite grasp the point I made, I want to
reaffirm that I see value in the "cultural construct" and "literature as
politics" points of view.   What I object to is the tendency to use these
points of view to dismiss (usually with a tone of superiority) the value of any
other view.  What I meant to recommend is that, instead of using one point of
view to deny the validity of any other, we should maybe listen to each other
more generously.
 
Some points I would like to add now:
 
(1)  In defense of Jacques Derrida: He has stated that he does not accept the
"social construct" or "cultural construct" view (I suppose because he considers
such views, like all views, to be suspect).  But clearly there are some
affinities between how Derrida has been understood and the "construct" views.
 
(2) The "cultural" and "political" views have some limitations that others have
pointed out (such as a difficulty explaining their own explanatory validity).
Their claim to embrace all other explanations is, I think, both ethically and
intellectually (and I would add culturally and politically) problematic.
Certainly politics is one significant aspect of the way we experience, act, and
understand.  But how could anyone possibly know that it is "the real topic
underlying all human activity"?  In what (ontological or other) position would
you have to be to be able to make such a statement? And what (politically or
otherwise) would motivate someone to make such an all-encompassing statement?
 
(3) As a response to such questions, someone has brought up the conscious
self-reflexivity of some "cultural" and "political" critics.  Yes, it's true:
Many of those who use the "cultural construct" model are quite aware of some of
the problems--and in particular, the "self-reflexivity"--it involves.  So I'm
not accusing them of naivety.  It's just that I've heard no one resolve the
problems to my satisfaction.
 
The most common attempt is to argue that all understanding, all explanation, is
necessarily self-reflexive--it's just that the "political" or "cultural"
critics recognize this fact, while others don't.
 
I would question this last assertion.  And I would add that the insistent
self-reflexivity of some versions of political or cultural criticism seems to
me a sign, paradoxically, that such criticism does not adequately question its
own assumptions.  Cultural or political critics of a certain variety simply
KNOW that all criticism is political or culturally constructed.  (For instance,
we were recently told that, while "T. S. Eliot thought that he could sit at a
banquet with Dante," cultural critics "know they cannot.")  My question is,
What is involved in that "knowing"?  How could it possibly take place?  What
does it mean? If the answer is, "The knowing itself is a political or
culturally constructed act," I still wonder, "How do you know it is?"  If I'm
told, "Because all knowing is political or culturally constructed," I still
ask, "How do you know it is (and, further, why do you call it a 'knowing')?"
Through all of this, I keep having the nagging intuition that the circularity
of the discussion means either (1) that it is redundant or (2) that this very
circularity must point to something else going on beyond the terms to which the
discussion insistently returns.
 
Let's take Dante or Shakespeare as an example.  If critics say they "know" they
can't sit at a banquet with Dante, I'm not satisfied with the response,
"because we know that all possibilities (including possibilities of
understanding) are historically determined."  I want to understand what you
mean by history and how you know that it determines all possibilities. I want
to know what it means to be unable to sit with Dante or Shakespeare and how we
would (a) be unable to do it and yet (b) KNOW that we are unable to do it.
 
To put the problem in more concentrated form, I would ask: if our historical
situation really makes it impossible for us to read Dante or Shakespeare in any
other than our own terms--and thus makes it impossible for us to know what it
would have been to read them in their own or their contemporaries' terms--how
in the heck would we ever have become aware that there were any terms other
than our own?  How would we have noticed that our terms were different from
these other (presumably unknowable or unusable) ones?  How is it possible for
us to compare the inescapable (our own terms) with the unknowable (theirs) so
as to have any inkling that there is such a thing as a difference in sets of
terms?
 
Furthermore, is it really true that we all now (at this moment in history) have
essentially compatible sets of terms, but that those of Shakespeare or Dante
and their contemporaries are utterly incompatible with ours? I sometimes wonder
if the distance between my way of seeing and that of some of MY contemporaries
isn't on some matters actually greater than between my way and Shakespeare's.
To sum up the problem:   If there are really inescapable terms in which we see
and understand, and if these really change radically through time or differ
radically from "culture" to "culture," how is it that we are able to measure or
even simply to notice and talk about the distance between these ways of seeing
and understanding?
 
(4) Perhaps it's true (at least for humans) that there's no such thing as a
"theory-free" experience.  But that doesn't mean that there is NOTHING EXCEPT
theory, that theory is all there is, and that any effort to talk about anything
else is impossible and foolish. It's this second claim (that theory is all
there is) that I consider reductive and that I believe tends to suppress rather
than encourage discussion and understanding.
 
I'm sure I've already asked enough questions for anyone to want to try to take
on, so I'll leave my further comments (for instance, on  whether we grade
papers and exams only by how they match our biases) till later.
 
Again, my thanks to all for their insights (assuming--as I do--that there is
such a thing as genuine insight).
 
Bruce Young
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Lee <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Aug 1995 18:24:21 +0100 (BST)
Subject:        Shakespeare as cultural construct
 
I've come in on the end of this, and perhaps too late, but what strikes me
about the phrase cultural construct is its ambiguity.
 
I take a basically constructivist view of the world.  So, as I see it, culture
is a construct -- as are plays and personalities and so on.
 
But constructed by whom?  What much of the discussion here seems to assume is
that construct equals constructed by, product of -- an exterior force
(culture).  And from here we go down the path of person as subject and
subjected.
 
But there is no need for this assumption and the belief that agency vanishes,
is there? The 'I' is, to an extent, not simply product but self-producer; the
'I' will construct itself from what is around it.  (So says Piaget.)  Although
it is a construct, and culture is a construct, and it has constructed itself
through culture, it is not a cultural construct.  The choice is not, as it
seems to often be posed, essentialism & agency or constructivism &
subjectivity.
 
Similarly, though Shakepeare's plays are constructs, and his cultures were
constructs (different from our own cultures ...), and though his plays are
constructed through and out of those cultures, they are not cultural constructs
-- though it's often interesting and profitable to approach them as if they
are.
 
And to an extent, they are; but not purely.  If they were purely a cultural
construct, how would they argue with their culture (if, that is, you think they
do)?  Indeed, if everything is a cultural construct, and agency is denied,
where does change or history come from?
 
John Lee
 

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