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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: October ::
Re: Politics
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0778.  Tuesday, 29 October 1996.

(1)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Oct 1996 21:38:59 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics

(2)     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 08:34:22 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Politics

(3)     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 08:34:56 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0771   Re: Politics

(4)     From:   David E. Frydrychowski <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 12:48:15 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Oct 1996 21:38:59 -0500
Subject: 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics

Norm Holland writes (reasonably):

>Isn't the problem with "everything is political" or "everything is sexual" that
>the adjectives are being applied in the wrong place? Things aren't in and of
>themselves political or sexual.  We take a political or sexual view of them.
>Properly stated, the proposition would be, "Everything can be looked at
>politically or sexually or vegetarianly or Zoroastrianly or any way you
>choose."

I gather that the assertion "everything is sexual" is meant to be a parody of
"everything is political."  Norm's solution seems moderate and reasonable, but
I think that those who assert that everything is political would reject
moderation and rationality as the worn out tools of the Enlightenment Project.
I think that our political theorists really believe that "politics" (i.e.,
power relationships?) are fundamental to all human acts.  It's not a matter of
approach; it's a matter of what motivates our actions.

Am I wrong?

Yours, Bill Godshalk

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 08:34:22 -0500
Subject:        Re: Politics

Mr. Egan writes:

>There's no point giving one's own set of 'facts' about text and asserting that
>these are un-political. What happens to different models of textuality, and why
>different models are valued at different times, is the deeply political matter
>that students must be able to address.

It was not my intention to expound an exhaustive set of facts about English
texts, but to begin to clear some ground that might provide us with a shared
agreement about what criteria there are that -can- delineate facts about texts.

I profoundly agree that students should be encouraged to engage in criticism of
their own intellectual heritage. But Mr. Egan's account of his class seems to
show that what they are being taught to do there is to "Ask Mr. Egan" to
explain the history and politics of the readings for this week. Are they
researching for themselves "why different models are valued at different
times"? Is there, in fact, agreement about this? Or merely dogma? What might
help us reach agreement? What relevant "facts" might there be in the question?

By all means read Propp. And ask about his politics, if we can judge them. Or
of those who adopted him -- if we can judge them. But also ask, as Propp does:
how are narratives put together? What aspects of a narrative's design does
Propp's model address? What aspects is it incapable of addressing? If one does
this for a poetic text, one is sooner or later going to have to explain that in
English, the regular fronting of stress onto the first syllable, has made
alliteration a prominent element in the patterning of sound. (And yes, here too
there is a political dimension in the influence of French and Latin meters in
displacing alliteration as a primary organizing feature of English verse. Yet
that does not invalidate the observation.) That one does not have to explain it
all the time doesnt mean it's any less a fact. My heart beats even when I dont
pay attention to it (I can prove this).

I agree with Gabriel Egan that an important function of intellectual activity
in the humanities is to ask what assumptions we are making about how to frame
the objects of our inquiries, and further, to inquire into the history of those
assumptions withinand beyond our disciplines.  One source of criticism of our
assumptions is surely, as Mr Egan says, the possibility that the objects of our
analysis have been framed for inspection by political choices or assumptions
that we might wish to dispute.  This exercise of "critique" over our
educational institutions is by no means confined to the present, or to the
Left.  It is at least as old as Plato. It has been one of the ongoing
preoccupations of philosophy since its inception. Bacon is referring to it in
seeking to deliver us from "the Idols."

But Mr. Egan seems to me to be making a further claim, which I am inclined to
dispute. He seems to be claiming that "facts" can only ever exist in relation
to some framework of knowledge that constitutes them, and not otherwise, that
is that they have -no- independent existence. This is a rather odd thing for a
Marxist to claim, if that is what Mr. Egan is, since one of Marxism's major
strengths as a tradition of critique is to point with great and bracing moral
rigour to the indisputable fact of historical oppression and human suffering,
one that demands to be recognized for what it is and -not- translated into
something more convenient for the purposes of the oppressors. This may be
called "vulgar Marxism" by some, but it remains the heart of Marxism's claim to
be taken seriously as a moral and political discourse.  I cannot see how it
could be otherwise without becoming totally inane.  To make this claim as a
historical discipline, it must be able to argue cogently that oppression
exists, that it can be identified and explained. Otherwise, it can have no
basis for imagining what might consitute an improvement and hence developing a
politics in the first place. It must have a vision of human need, of how that
need has been and is being violated, and how it could better be answered. In
order to do this, it must, unless it is merely to become a set of rhetorical
postures, have a view about the facts. For instance, the "fact" that people
deprived of food for long enough will die, will cease to exist as active,
embodied historical agents endowed with will and consciousness.  There must be,
in other words, agreed criteria, according to historical logic, as to what and
how facts exist. That doesn not mean they are easy to determine, but one must
start somewhere. I would have thought E. P. Thompson had laid these particular
ghosts to rest in his great critique of Althusser, whom Egan seems in some sort
to be following here.

Some facts, then, remain facts even if we choose not to address or invoke them
in a particular act of reading. The chemical structure of alcohol remains the
same, even if one chooses not to drink it.  That Propp -- and Mr. Egan's class
-- did not cite phonemic stress in English is neither here nor there. It is
still a fact, and a fact in his class, if not one before his class, if he
conducts it in English. (And I'm sure in fact Vladimir Propp -would- have been
interested in it as a central trait in the phonological structure of English,
if he had turned his mind to it).

I do not have the expertise to discuss the definition of a phoneme or of
vocalic stress (though Roman Jacobson and Calvert Watkins do, and I take their
word for it). Does Mr. Egan? Shall we discuss it? But I note that Mr. Egan does
-not- dispute my claim that "all known human societies practise the composition
and exchange of narratives". Would he care to dispute the framing of that as a
mere fact? It seems a suitably general place to start. It is, if you like, a
"political" fact, purporting to tell us something about human sociality. If we
could understand or agree about it, we might also be on the way to grounding
"politics" in relation to Propp in a new way. At least it might give us
something to chew on on SHAKSPER that we could bring back to the nominal
subject of the list.

Cheers,
Tom

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 08:34:56 -0500
Subject: 7.0771   Re: Politics
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0771   Re: Politics

Surajit A. Bose points out quite rightly that the question of what meter would
best serve the development or "improvement" of English letters was a political
question in the sixteenth century.  It is a good point. But it's a slightly
different one from the one I was making, and the fate of Sidney's own efforts
to wrest English phonology into quantitative patterns makes my point over
again.  Sidney's efforts to impose quantity on English meter by sheer
willpower, for political ends, were a rather embarrassing failure, and most of
the results are now impenetrable, as Bose points out. No-one legislated  for
political ends the eventual dominance of accentual meters: the architects of
these latter were in fact the very ones trying to foment support for quantity
in the 1580, viz. Sidney and Spenser.  The facts of English phonology dont
provide a basis for choosing quantity as the organizing principle of a metrical
system, and no amount of classicist trumpetting can make them do it. Sidney did
not know this, or chose to ignore it out of political zeal.

I would never deny that prosody -can- have a political resonance. No reader of
Paradise Lost, to take only an explicit example, can be unaware of that. That
seventeenth-century theorists often allegorized their meters in political terms
is something we need to know in order to read them carefully and fully. But it
is their habit of -allegorizing- that is historically important, a habit we
(mostly) no longer have. Anything can be allegorized - but this is very
different from attempting to analyze it without allegory.

Likewise I have no problem imagining an English poem in Sapphics -- in fact I
know several. But such a poem needs to do one of two things -- adapt the Greek
quantities to English stress accent somehow (the usual choice), or invent
arbitrary rules for assigning quantity to a language that doesnt use it (the
Sidney option, and, in part, what Latin also may have done in adapting Greek
meters for ends in part political).

I am not proposing that we "teach accentual-syllabic meter as an intrinsic part
of poetic language, an aesthetic fact meaningful in itself."  It is a long way
from the observation of a tendency of English words to stress their first
syllables to the construction of a metrical system based on that fact. I do
however believe that the occurrence of phonemic stress (for instance) in
English is a historical accident, entirely contingent, and therefore, properly
speaking, without intrinsic political meaning until taken up into a specific
political argument -- and that the latter move is an inappropriate one. It is
very dangerous to begin allegorizing some aspects of language as "intrinsically
superior" to others as the bearers of value. Poets like to do this as much as
politicians, I grant you, but, at a certain point, they should both be
resisted.

I do not say that observations about language have not been "framed" for
political purposes. At one time Chinese was held by some Western linguists to
be inferior because of its structure. But I do say that, as a language, Chinese
has certain characteristics which can be described scrupulously, or not.
Sometimes that lack of scruple results from political interest, ideology or
pressure, as was the case with biology in the Soviet Union under Stalin. But
Stalinist biology, like racist linguistics, like creation science, was a
failure precisely insofar as it stopped being scrupulous about defining and
delimiting the relations between fact and theory. The facts, and their limits,
need to be struggled for, not regarded a priori as delusive ideological
phantoms. But no one said that was going to be easy.

Cheers,
Tom

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David E. Frydrychowski <
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 >
Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996 12:48:15 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0777  Re: SEX and Politics

Norm Holland asks us to remember that no political or sexual element inheres
within the text, and that we choose to impose a certain reading on the text.

To me, this implies that we sully the pure phosphor of thought with our
particular interpretation.  Surely the critique has advanced us to the point
where we can see that reading is essentially dyadic - it is far more valuable
to consider our purchase on the truth than it is to long for the roast
partriges which we think to be hidden behind the podium.

To paraphrase Wm. James, perhaps "pure" reading of the texts is posssible, but
where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet is it to be found?

Dave Frydrychowski
MFA Candidate, CWRU/Cleveland Play House
 

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