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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: January ::
Re: Postmodernism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0044  Monday, 12 January 1998.

[1]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Friday, 9 Jan 1998 12:52:52 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 9.0028  Re: Postmodernism

[2]     From:   Jacqueline Strax <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Jan 1998 03:08:20 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0038  Re: Postmodernism

[3]     From:   Laura Fargas <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jan 1998 01:03:46 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0030  Re: Postmodernism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Friday, 9 Jan 1998 12:52:52 -0500
Subject: Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        SHK 9.0028  Re: Postmodernism

Dear Mike Jensen: Does this mean you won't be supporting my application
for the post of Cultural Materialist to the Queen?

T. Hawkes

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jacqueline Strax <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Jan 1998 03:08:20 -0500
Subject: 9.0038  Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0038  Re: Postmodernism

 Laura Fargas wrote:

> > One era's trashy entertainment becomes another era's gate to the
> > sublime.  Why? At least in part because the people of the second
> > era have been given, or have developed, "eyes to see with." Whence
> > cometh that gift or development?  From the precise kind of
> > interrogation of value judgments, both explicit and so implicit as
> > to be nearly invisible, that is the manifest project of
> > post-modernism.

In questioning this idea, I said: "an infant registers the difference
between sublime and disgusting." Laura replies:

>etymologically, 'sublime'
> is 'beneath the threshold [of conscious attention],' whereas
> 'disgust' is 'bad taste, repellent to the appetite.' Etymologically,
> at least, these things are not opposites, but somehow they have
> traveled forward in time to a point where they can be plausibly used
> as such.

Has something gone astray here?(I don't mean through travel in time -
nor even through history and what it takes for people to make history).
It seems worth sorting out because Shakespeare makes trash/garbage vs
the sublime thrilling (in _Ham_) by mystifying and demystifying them at
the same time.

As people will recall, for this play trash/garbage came to him as plot
elements from his source, where the hero collects trash in order to
appear crazy and also as tokens of truth.

Perhaps I might skip the objection to my putting disgust over against
the sublime? The context was my claim that babies are programmed,
binarywise, to know what's good for them. Babies have a spit-it-out
reflex (and a suck-it-in, root for milk reflex).  Spit it out, gag, cry,
involuntarily make a characteristic face (recognizable worldwide as
disgust). Drama as an art engages with such strong, initially (and to
some degree enduringly) involuntary responses. It seems to lock on
especially powerfully to responses whose involuntariness has been
partially overcome.

Let's look at this etymology, though. Laura says that the sublime and
the disgusting are not "opposites." True. The opposition (which I'd be
happy to deconstruct) was between rooting for the appetizing and
nutritious (mother's milk) and spitting, gagging, ejecting the repellant
(I said, poison). Sublime and disgusting aren't polar opposites but
neither are sublime and trash, really. Trash is leaves and twigs cut off
and/or littering the ground; trash is people regarded as worth no more
than gum wrappers. Sublimities, we're in awe of and reach up toward, or
aspire to. Why say, then:

"etymologically, 'sublime' > is 'beneath the threshold [of conscious
attention]..'"?

Actually, this is a definition of "subliminal." The subliminal is a term
figured (I would guess) by psychologists who, writing perhaps in German
or English (where threshold, from f. "therscold," to tread, is something
one steps across) chose a Latin root for its prestige and authority. The
upshot is a bit uncanny, which is just right poetically but perhaps not
with regard to psychological explanation.

Sublime is not beneath the threshold it is under the lintel.. Roman
entrances had the upper and lower limen, the upper being the lintel, the
lower, the threshold. Sublime (f. sublimis,  "high, raised up"
literally, reaching up to the lintel from below it) seems pretty
unequivocal for reaching up and /or carrying something up to a higher
level.

(Hamlet imagines Claudius reaching up for something Hamlet regards as
sublime when he takes the crown of Denmark off a "shelf").

Modern psychology, it seems, wanted a term indicative of a line crossed
at a place of entrance, a border. In English, "threshold " is such a
line, which is "crossed" (ritually on the Wedding Night and on New
Year's Eve). But if one talks of something *beneath* the threshold,
where is it?  Is it something uncanny, something in the cellarage? It
sounds like that, but is this what psychologists use "subliminal" for?
Not necessarily at all. When they talk about "threshold" ("the point or
degree of intensity at which a stimulus, gradually intensified, becomes
just barely perceptible"), they can be referring to quite non-mysterious
situations - e.g. stimuli coming from an electric device out on the
table, such as a computer.

On reflection, "subliminal" seems mystifying or confusing as a term for
what comes through some entrance into conscious awareness.  The sound of
a dog barking outside may suddenly cross my threshold.  Or a memory long
suppressed may do so. While one seems ordinary (not really from
"beneath"), the other may seem profoundly  mysterious (though much less
mysterious, while no less awesome, the more we learn about how the brain
works). If the subliminal comes across the threshold and under the
lintel, then it is simply walking through the doorway.  On the other
hand, if it comes beneath the threshold (sub limen inferum) it is
pictured as though entering through Freud's subconscious (or rambling
with Shakespeare's Ghost in the cellarage).

Is this jaunt into etymology turning up anything significant?  No doubt
it makes for grist for the poetic mill. Nothing normal crosses *beneath*
a threshold; and with the other limen, the lintel, as metaphor for the
sublime, there now is indeed is a polarity. It matches up with the
ambivalence aroused by what happens outside the range of "normal"
consciousness."  Sometimes such "stuff" (to use T.  S. Eliot's word for
pathological material he sensed in _Ham_) is viewed as trivial and
worthless, possibly pernicious and evil; sometimes it's viewed as
invaluably, awesomely prescient, possibly divine. (Either way it may be
judged dangerous.) Logic may see this is amere mixing of metaphors
(what's spookily underfoot with what's sublimely overhead). For making
poetry and drama it's really useful for setting up codes for mixed
attitudes toward things imagined or sensed or actually observed slipping
across the border of awareness.

One might say, the concept of the subliminal promulgated by psychology
is what G. Bateson, in the case of instinct, called a "black box,' a
place-marker for something posited and believed in but whose existence
is unproven.

In the closet scene of _Ham_ (as I'm sure many have noticed) Shakespeare
does something subtle with the threshold of awareness. He has the prince
register uncanniness not when the Ghost comes in but when it leaves:

"Why, look you there, look how it *steals* away."

Apart from forgetting, is there a term in psychology for something's
slipping away from awareness? (Forgetting of course is crucial in this
particular play). Hamlet says "Look where he goes even now out at the
portal." Without going down or up, the Ghost leaves as though going into
the next room or into the orchard. This too is uncanny.

Jacqueline Strax

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Laura Fargas <
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 >
Date:           Monday, 12 Jan 1998 01:03:46 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 9.0030  Re: Postmodernism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0030  Re: Postmodernism

> Bob Dennis wrote:

> On Mon., 05 Jan 1998, Laura Fargas <
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 > wrote:

>      >The most cursory knowledge of the era-which
>      >is exactly all I can claim -- teaches that in
>      >his plays Shakespeare was not trying to write
>      >transcendent material.  He was trying to get
>      >a show on the boards.
>
> Doesn't this pronouncement itself violate the principles of
> post-modernism under whose banner Ms. Fargas has charged forth?

<Sigh> The only banner I charge forth under is the strangely-device'd
one the boy who cried Excelsior did-poems.  If that statement violates
the principles of post-modernism, okay, fine.

I am not a postmodernist theorist, I am not an academic:  I am a working
poet with great interest in Shakespeare and genuine respect for
deconstruction as an intellectual approach to literature.  So shoot me.

> To
> suggest that Shakespeare was trying to write something equivalent to a
> weekly Seinfeld episode, concerned _only_ with getting the show on the
> boards appears to be a modern interpretation of an era about which Ms.
> Fargas by self-admission knows little.

Someone might argue that Seinfeld, which purports to be "about nothing,"
is written in an effort to hold a mirror to its age, which is certainly
a serious aesthetic project, but that person is not going to be me.
Since Seinfeld is not borrowing its plots from Saxo-Grammaticus or
recent dynastic history, my guess is that the show's writers weren't
consciously competing with Shakespeare for his place in the Western
canon.

I do think, however, it is not purely a matter of "modern
interpretation" to say that the educated and/or "better-born" classes of
Tudor England valued "serious" poetry (however Tudor England may have
defined that term) more highly than popular plays.

> With regard to putting his show
> on the boards, I would agree that Shakespeare probably faced numerous
> hassles doing that; but is it not possible that he was doing _more_ than
> that?  One might say he was "doing just that", but not "doing
> _just_that".

The word "just" isn't in either of my sentences.  My remark was in
reaction to what seemed to me a somewhat romantic view of Shakespeare's
writing, so I emphasized the element of commerce and dailiness.

So I agree with this as a possibility, but I also don't *know* one way
or the other. I do think, on the basis of what I do know, that he valued
his poems more highly than his plays as intentional "art."  In my
personal judgment, stuck like a fly in the resin of my own century, I
think the plays are a greater "artistic" achievement than the poems.


> Claiming that Shakespeare intended nothing more than the play's action
> itself to be communicated to the viewer . .

The "claim" proposition is a straw man, or at best an _extensio ad
absurdum_ of what I said.

I think we don't *know* what Shakespeare intended.  Do I think we
*can't* know?  Undecided, but I lean toward answering that question
'yes.' Do I think it's worthwhile to attempt to "read" what we've got on
the page and stage without feeling controlled by any particular
"intentionality" of the author?  Yes.  Do I think that's the *only*
valid way to try to read these texts?  No.  Do I think there can
possibly, and indeed probably, and in fact almost certainly, be
"material" in any given text that the author didn't necessarily intend
to put there?  Yes.  Do I think it's interesting and worthwhile to try
to articulate any hidden assumptions that can be found or guessed at in
the text?  Yes.  Do I think those articulations, however interesting,
ain't necessarily so? Yes.

Until someone builds a time machine and flies back to *ask* him, I don't
suppose anyone will have a definitive answer to what was going on in
Shakespeare's mind as he wrote. And of course, given the nature of what
someone has called "the Shakespeare industry," even once W.S. answers
the time-traveler's question, we still won't have an answer; we'll just
have something else to debate.

>                            . . .  is perilously close to the
> opinion, "[..any writer..] was only doing what _I_ am capable of
> understanding".

The "perilously close" proposition would certainly strike me as dumb, a
kind of intellectual-Luddite approach.  Nobody's work depends on the
capacities of any individual reader.  This include the capacities of its
author, in my opinion, but I know that's a subject for debate.

 But
> such a claim is quite different from a claim that the author actually
> never had any intentionality at all.  The claim of no intentionality is
> as weak as the opposite claim of specifically detailed intentionality.
> Neither critic has priority for reading the mind of the dead author.

Did anyone claim Shakespeare had no intentionality?  What a useful straw
man that argument is, but no one put it forward.  Certainly not me.

> My experience in reading and in watching plays and movies, has taught me
> that if literary material lends itself to a larger-scope interpretation,
> it pretty much was the intent of the author to put it there.

My experience as a reader is that I find things in poems that poets
didn't see there-validly perceived or not, that's another question.  In
conversations with living poets, I've run my readings by them a few
times and found them welcomed and accepted; I've also been told I'm
wrong a few times.

My experience as a poet is that readers do that to me, too.

My experience in teaching creative writing is that students often have
no clue what they've written; my experience is also that students often
think they've written overmasteringly brilliant illuminations of the
human soul or society, when in fact they've written purely personal
utterances.  So I could argue either side of that question with examples
from my personal experience, but instead the answer I reach is that the
presence of authorial intention can go either way in terms of what makes
it onto the page and then back off the page into the mind of a reader.

 In fact,
> most, if not all, writers appear to be putting more than just the words
> on paper; some writers are much better at sugar-coating the pill than
> others.

"Sugar-coating the pill" is not how any working writer I've ever met
thinks of the deeper content of his or her work.  Of course, I never met
Howard Fast.

> I stand with the crowd (?) who think the extremists among
> post-modernists are wrong: that literary institutions retain a great
> deal of validity, and that the axioms of literary quality are neither
> arbitrary nor necessarily historically determined.

Personally, I think extremists of all stripes are likely to be wrong.
But "wrong" is itself one of those sneaky, deconstructable terms, in
nearly every field.

> Sincerely, and with great respect for professional critics and
> theorists,
> 
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... which leaves me out since, like you, I'm a civil servant.  I didn't
intend to be the poster child for postmodernism on this list, am neither
qualified nor inclined to defend its every article of faith, and find
this thread far more stressful than any other topic on the Shakespeare
list.

Laura Fargas
 

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