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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: July ::
Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0572.  Saturday, 22 July 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Ellen Edgerton <
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        Date:   Thursday, 20 Jul 95 11:22 EDT
        Subj:   What is political?
 
(2)     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Thursday, 20 Jul 1995 11:38:53 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Cultural constructions
 
(3)     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Jul 1995 00:15:05 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
(4)     From:   Moray McConnachie <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Jul 1995 11:47:48 +0100 (BST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0563 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
(5)     From:   Moray McConnachie <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Jul 1995 13:22:59 +0100 (BST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0567 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
(6)     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 21 Jul 1995 21:26:44 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ellen Edgerton <
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Date:           Thursday, 20 Jul 95 11:22 EDT
Subject:        What is political?
 
Following this recent discussion with interest, I find I must meekly ask for a
decent definition of the word "political" as it relates to the way everyone
seems to be throwing it around here.
 
Aren't we just quibbling over terms here?  Of course everything is "political"
if you slap that label onto every aspect of human affairs. Is embarrassment
political?
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Thursday, 20 Jul 1995 11:38:53 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Cultural constructions
 
To say that plays, poems, etc. are cultural constructs isn't an "explanation"
of them and, so far as I know, has never been used to serve as an explanation.
It is rather the beginning of a strategy of explanation.  The force of that
strategy immediately appears as soon as one compares it with other traditional
strategies, e.g., that which follows from the idea that plays, poems, etc., are
"expressions" of the author's psychology or feelings or genius.  Obviously the
different strategies are looking at the same things from different angles, and
perhaps not exactly at the *same* things, even though the strategies need not
be mutually exclusive.
 
But do any consequences necessarily follow from adoption of the "cultural
construct" position?  I don't think so.  If you look at culturalist criticism
you will NOT find a whole lot of consensus, though you might find a lot of
fellow feeling. For that reason alone I think it is hard to conclude that the
culturalist perspective is reductive.
 
And is the "cultural construct" position blind to its own assumptions, its
exponents failing to see that they too are speaking from within the confines of
constructs?  Actually, it is just this point, it is just their self-reflexivity
with regard to their own interpretative assumptions and strategies, that has
marked out culturalist criticism from earlier forms of criticism.  T.S. Eliot
thought that he could sit at the banquet with Dante.  Culturalists know they
cannot.  The hard Marxist position, still maintained by people like Terry
Eagleton, not to mention certain members of this list, is based on the idea
that materialist criticism is itself the product of historical forces, that one
could not be a cultural materialist of a certain kind until a certain moment in
time, and that one of the chief virtues of cultural materialist criticism is
that it *knows* this.  Culturalist criticism is *supposed* to be a form of
*self-consciousness*; and if it reflects on an historical artifact it always
also reflects on its own historicity with respect to both itself and its
artifact.
 
A softer position -- usually thought of as new historicism -- isn't so
confident of its own transparency to itself, or of the logic of its historical
position, but it too is based on the idea that criticism is as historically
situated as its objects, and that historical-cultural artifacts cannot
therefore be *reduced* to the explanatory parameters of any single given model,
since all models are constructs, etc., etc. Which is why this form of criticism
so often steps backward into autobiography and what Leah Marcus calls "local
knowledge" -- trying to be very precise about its epistemological limits, and
conscious of "where it's coming from."
 
But all this is common knowledge.  Perhaps what is really at issue here is not
the culturalist position(s), but the rhetoric used by culturalists against
non-culturalists, and vice versa.  Some of you out there are cringing every
time you hear the word "culture," even though you probably share a lot of
culturalist assumptions yourselves.  And there are those of us in love with
art, in love with the beautiful and the sublime and all that, who absolutely
cringe when we hear other people *invoking* these things, as if they were gods.
-- Robert Appelbaum
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Jul 1995 00:15:05 +0100
Subject: 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
A common theme runs through some of the postings in this thread, which can be
summed up thus:
 
'If everything is culturally constructed then the act of noticing this is too,
and we are caught in a endless chain of indetermine meanings.'
 
Two examples of how this has been expressed:
 
Jim Helfers: "The "insight" that all texts are determined by cultural forces is
itself a text determined by cultural forces.  In what way can such a phenomenon
be explanatory?  What do we mean by "explanatory" in this sense? I'm caught in
the house of mirrors and I think I'm beginning to look a bit thin"
 
Sean Lawrence: "Mr. Egan argues that there are only two forms of true
criticism: political or empirical, which are both political anyway, since
everything is political. Leaving aside the argument that a definition of the
political broad enough to encompass everything would rob the term of meaning,
isn't such a position narrow?"
 
Let's suppose God is the reason for everything...does saying so rob the term
'God' of its meaning? Dealing with things in the absence of a God, or any other
transcendent meaning, or even stable terms with which to signify our intentions
is precisely the problem of post-Saussure, post-Einstein (add your own
modernist favourites) epistemology. Complaining that you want your stable
meanings back won't help you.
 
I don't relate 'tangible-empirical' evidence back to politics, as Brian
Corrigan claims, because I mean by 'tangible-empirical' those things we can all
agree on the criteria for (like "did the Globe have 20 or 24 sides?"). We
generally don't argue over the criteria by which such things are judged, but we
do argue over the criteria for what texts mean. This is not a difference of
kind, only of degree. Empiricism is a form of faith too, but the consensus on
it is so great that we agree not to argue about it. Lefty critics sometimes
feel that there is enough consensus amongst themselves that they don't bother
trying to convince their peers except by dropping hints. Perhaps you do the
same when confronted by those who believe in astrology - it's too tiring to go
the full distance every time so you just drop wee hints.
 
Some lefties carry on doing their overt (instead of covert) political
criticism, and I think this is fine. As a career choice I prefer the
'tangible-empiricals' just at the moment, but then I'm not being paid to teach
anyone yet. When I do I expect that in discussions of meaning (which is what
undergrads are supposed to do in English degrees in the UK) 'Marxist
existentialism' will be the commonest words in my mouth.
 
By the way, could Brian Corrigan please let us know what "simple beauty" is?
Kenneth Clark says that "feminine beauty was discovered in Egypt in the second
millenium BC" (_Feminine Beauty_ 1980 p8). My best friend is doing a PhD on the
subject, so a definition would be a great help, thanks.
 
Gabriel Egan
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Moray McConnachie <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Jul 1995 11:47:48 +0100 (BST)
Subject: 6.0563 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0563 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
I should like to join in what I expect will be a long-running debate. I have
enjoyed many approaches from what might be described as culturally
reconstructed scholars, as I have from culturally unreconstructed ones. What I
suppose I object to is the determination from each side to insist that they are
right. Gabriel Egan writes that when we discuss what the plays mean, we find
ourselves talking politics.  Fine - but we are not discussing only politics,
but truth, beauty and other absolutes.
 
But those who maintain that the "cultural construct" approach is the only way
of approaching Shakespeare proceed by defining meaning as a political act. Even
if we believe (and many don't) that language is wholly socially defined, yet we
seek in language to talk about what isn't. And certainly Shakespeare did.
Taking a position in which we hypothesise that the plays look at absolute
values, and then discussing those values, seems to me perfectly reasonable.
Certainly neither I nor Shakespeare can avoid being read politically, but I
defend my and Shakespeare's right to think, or even to pretend to think,
apolitically.
 
Yours,
Moray McConnachie
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Moray McConnachie <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Jul 1995 13:22:59 +0100 (BST)
Subject: 6.0567 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0567 Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
I must say also that I agree with other correspondents who find Gabriel's
picture of the academic sitting down with a student and convincing him in an
"intense" session that political analysis is the proper procedure a frightening
one. The *job* of an educator, a teacher, is not to *convince* a student of
anything, but to provide him/her with the intellectual tools, and a little
empirical knowledge, to convince himself/herself.
 
Give me a student at the age of eighteen, and I will make a cultural
materialist of him? I hope not.
 
Moray McConnachie
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 21 Jul 1995 21:26:44 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0567  Re: Shakespeare as Cultural Construct
 
Brian Corrigan;
 
Ah, beware the frenzied feministi! "Dame Poetry is undoubtedly man-made";
however, since "Man" Himself is "undoubtedly" woman-made, we'll let that pass.
No need to cavil over details. As for the abstract "Man/he", I've found that
"Humanity/it" generally does the job pretty well, and with no loss of meaning.
True, "Mankind" is a lovely word; it really is too bad it's so wretchedly
unfair to half the world's population.
 
Stephanie Hughes
 

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