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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1215  Wednesday, 2 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Patrick M Murphy <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 09:23:17 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[2]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 09:57:44 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[3]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 11:03:02 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Presentism

[4]     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 16:58:36 -0000
        Subj:   RE: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[5]     From:   Naomi Liebler <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 12:47:00 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[6]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 19:00:35 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[7]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 11:09:13 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[8]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 20:36:06 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[9]     From:   Maria Concolato Palermo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 02 Dec 1998 08:15:44 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

[10]    From:   R. D. H.Wells <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 2 Dec 1998 11:27:34 +0000 (GMT)
        Subj:   Presentism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patrick M Murphy <
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Date:           Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 09:23:17 -0500
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

Just a thought about this presentism matter:  Concern with both the past
and the present arises because we all face the future as a possibility.
Without the possibility of the future (its persistent approaching),
there would be no past or present as we currently understand it. We need
to develop measures (and have done so with much success) to assess the
past accurately, but an adequate (or correct) grasp of the past, while
necessary, is not sufficient for an understanding of our relation to it,
for this understanding is driven by our futurity.  I hopes this helps, a
little.

Yrs, Pat

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 09:57:44 EST
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

David Lindley writes, in part, that what he

" would still claim to be the basis and central point [of his and
others' arguments against Terry Hawkes' view of 'presentism'] - that a
facile adoption of 'presentism' - Hawkes as boiled down by the average
undergraduate, perhaps - ignores the ways, large and small, in which the
past talks back and refuses, repudiates, or wriggles out from under the
constructions we put upon it. . . . It's the triangulation of our
present, our construction of and response to the past, and the evidence
of that past which seems to me to be of most value."

Given, that we as twentieth century, post-Freudian, post-Marxist,
post-whatever-fashionable-"take"-you-please readers cannot help but
construe the past (at least initially) from the perspective of the
present: but as David points out, some things stubbornly resist our
attempts to modernize them.  The "perfect" tense in English grammar is
"perfect" not because it is flawless (without blemish) -- the current
connotation-but because it is complete (finished, over with), the
meaning of the term when (in the English seventeenth century) the
grammar rules were first constructed.  Any Globe we reconstruct today is
bound to be an anachronism, no matter how close it may actually come to
the original, because our present-day understanding of what causes
things like the Great Fire of London requires compliance with building
codes and hazard prevention laws that did not obtain in Shakespeare's
day, and no matter what else we mimic faithfully, we have no choice but
to adhere to them.  Like any theory, presentism is one of many tools,
which, used properly, enlightens, and misused, obfuscates even further:
one need only read the Iliad to see how little humankind has changed
over the millenia (we still bicker about preferential treatment, pull
rank, sulk, mourn, do crazy things in support our friends, and spite one
another unmercifully), and that recognition has a cognitive value-but it
doesn't mean we should picture Achilles dragging Hector's body around
tied to the back of his Masserati.  The problem is not simply one of
chronology: we cannot live another's reality, even in the present.  My
life in Virginia is different from Hardy's in neighboring Maryland,
which is different from David's in Leeds or Bill's in California, so
that even the imposition of one's twentieth century ontology on his or
her contemporaries ("your light switches are upside down," "you drive on
the wrong side of the road," "what do you mean, knock you up in the
morning?!") exposes real-and sometimes culturally impenetrable-
differences.  (I can comprehend why an American business colleague would
ask me not to attend a meeting with his Saudi customer, but would be
rightfully indignant if the same request were made in the case of a
transaction with the British, just as I recognize-intellectually-why
female Indian and Pakistani immigrants are forced to wear those beastly
veils and scarves and shawls and other cover-ups in the hot and humid DC
summers, walking next to husbands clad so much more comfortably in
American polo shirts and shorts- but it doesn't make me
"understand"-condone or accept-it.)  I cannot imagine actually living
life that way, though I can empathize momentarily with the concept as
much as my own experience will allow me to do; that is, I can try, if
you will, to walk a mile in another's shoes in an attempt to see things
from his or her perspective.  As I see it, the danger of reading the
present into the past (or in reading all of the past as if its only
raison d'etre were to have relevance for the present) is that (as in the
case of the perfect tense in grammar) in doing so we lose something
meaningful, valuable, even unique, in the evolution of the human mind
"in the translation."  I am hardly shocked to find a woman in business,
or a woman CEO, in the world today, but if I don't see Dame Alisoun as
someone special in Chaucer's world, I will lose a great deal of the
meaning of who she is.  Likewise with Milton's prose: I can read it
without knowing anything about the English Civil War, but I will get out
of it a tenth of what I would if I read it knowing what he was
talking/shouting/polemicizing about.  Presentism has its value . . . but
so does historicism.

Best regards,
Carol Barton

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 11:03:02 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Presentism

Sean Lawrence makes an important point when he observes that sometimes
"presentist" critics assume moral superiority over the past, always a
risky assumption. In fact, would argue that many recent critics see
Shake-speare and all literature of the past as a series of
moral/conceptual "errors" to be rooted out, exposed, and condemned. The
problem with this position is obvious: if we rush to judgement about,
say, the illicit, out-of-wedlock affair between Antony and Cleopatra,
then we rush to condemn the play without realizing everything else that
is wonderful in it. If we condemn the hierarchical marriage pairings at
the end of As You Like It, we miss all the other marvelous aspects of
the play.

It's a case of premature, self-induced blindness that nips insight in
the bud. Or so I think. End of sermon.

--Ed Taft

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 16:58:36 -0000
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        RE: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

David Lindley seems to be hunting after a different quarry from the one
I thought we were chasing.  I'm a little surprised at his contempt for
what he calls "the average undergraduate", but let that pass, or maybe
we shouldn't.

I'm also regretful that a pearl of Bill Godshalk's wisdom is still
circling in cyberspace, and has yet to reach me!

The idea that  Hawkes, passed through the digestive tracts of Lindley's
"average undergraduate..ignores the ways large and small, in which the
past talks back and refuses, repudiates, or wriggles out from under the
constructions we piut upon it", seems to me to misrepresent totally all
of the Hawkes that I've read (and I've read all of it). What is the
"consequence" to which Lindley is referring? The point of my drawing
attention to Greenblatt's negotiation of this problem is to suggest that
the problem is nowhere near as simple as Lindley would like it to be.
What exactly are the hierarchies of meaning to which Lindley refers? I
have a number of instances in the text of The Merchant of Venice that I
am presently editing where the introduction  or omission of a
punctuation mark radically alters the sense of a line, or phrase. I have
no idea if an Elizabethan reader or auditor read the line one way or the
other. Moreover, how he can come up with a nonsensical formulation such
as "the triangulation of our present, our construction of, and response
to the past, and the evidence of that past" (my italics) is beyond me.
May I respectfully suggest that the  "facile adoption" that is being
boiled down is not Hawkes' "presentism" but Lindley's confusion. Most of
my "average undergraduates" know only too well that if you "construct"
the past then you can't respond to it as something other than a
construction. I suspect that most of Lindley's do too, but he's too busy
looking for the mote in their collective eye to bother about the beam in
his!

I thought we were talking about more sophiticated matters, but then, I
should have guessed that now we have to go back and re-invent the wheel
for Lindley as well!

Yours
John Drakakis
Theoretically sophisticated presentist to HM the Queen

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Naomi Liebler <
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Date:           Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 12:47:00 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

I get the points John, Terry, and Hugh (inter alia) make about
understanding the past from the perspective of the present. My problem
is that I can't figure out the present! Maybe that's why I keep looking
to the past for help. But of course, it doesn't help.

Cheers,
Naomi Liebler

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998 19:00:35 -0000
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

>Loggerheads may be developing because we're at such a high level of
>generalization.
> Hugh Grady

Or maybe (as well) the opposite.  To rack the level of generalisaton up:

Is there an analogy with the debate over the nature of access to the
external world through the senses?   We directly know the (present)
world as little as we (directly) know the past.  Radical Presentism
equates with Acute Solipsism.  Is Terence Hawkes Locke or Berkley?

And is 'the present' entirely uncontentious?  6.56 pm. on Tuesday 1st
December?  The Nineteen Nineties?  The Twentieth Century? (Leave alone
where your present is, and when, as my personal present isn't the 1.56
pm it would be in Washington D.C.)

This isn't (I think) simply trivial-the same question arises in the area
of de Saussure's distinction between synchronic and diachronic
linguistics.  Although I admire him just this side of idolatory, it's
always bothered me that Saussure doesn't explore this issue in the
Course.

Robin Hamilton.

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 11:09:13 -0800
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

Hugh Grady writes:

"Loggerheads may be developing because we're at such a high level of
generalization. But as I see it, presentist criticism needn't/shouldn't
deny the otherness of the past, which I believe should/must be posited.
However, the term Other as received via Lacan and Postcolonial studies
comes from Hegel and implies a dialectic: the Other is what the Self is
not; the Self is what the Other is not, and the two require/presuppose
each other to know themselves."

Such a dialectical reading of alterity is not to be simply assumed.  The
Hegelian dialectic produces synthesis, where both terms, self and other,
are subsumed under a third term, a "neuter". This is what we must avoid,
if we are to preserve the otherness of the Other, and her historicity,
her non-simultaneity with me. (In Time and the Other, Levinas first
articulates his theories of alterity as a non-Heideggerian temporality).
Psychology, and other thinkings which follow Hegel, tends to reduce the
other to a factor in the make-up of the self, or as a resource to be
used and exploited by the self as agent. The ego is "first", logically
and sometimes temporally. The other is understood phenomenologically as
an object of an intention, or simply a will to power. As exemplars of
such a reduction of the "not-me" to a resource, comfort, etc., of the
sovereign agent we might look at the exploitation of nature by
technology, the exploitation of people in the poco setting and
elsewhere, or the treatment of texts as infinitely manipulable putty by
certain critics. In any case, the ego remains at the centre of the
equation, with the world around brought into beingness by the
consciousness of Dasein.  Heideggerian "solicitude", Levinas argued at
length, does not truly overcome this.

What might overcome this centrality of the ego (egological thought,
Levinas would say) is a rupture in the dialectic of self and other.
And, in fact, such a dialectic is avoided in what we might term the
everyday-people whom we encounter (assuming that we're not psychotic)
are encountered as different-they can surprise us, cheat us, slip away
from under our grasp. So, as David pointed out in a post concurrent with
yours, can history. The Other can resist me with all her strength, or
not at all. In any case, she resists me in the very nakedness of her
face, in the helplessness of their gaze. She imposes on ne a
responsibility. I am the powerful and rich, while she is the widows, the
orphan or the stranger at my gate. Efforts to reconcile her with me in a
Hegelian synthesis are never entirely successful.

To bring this back to the question of presentism, we must merely recall
that the past is Other. It is not only a pool of 'retentions' which we
can 'project' forward in our will to power.  Not is it simply a source
of object lessons we can deploy to show why not to vote Tory (or Labour,
for that matter). On the contrary, it is the giver of responsibility.
Our relationship with the dead is an ethical one, with those who are
unlike us, with those who no longer speak, who cannot speak for
themselves any longer. Levinas, being a holocaust survivor, likes to
relate this to "the nameless" six million, but the principle applies
elsewhere, as well. Perhaps it is not coincidental that it is after
Levinas's death that Derrida has turned his energies to explicating the
work of his late master and friend.

"'Tis strange," says Horatio.  "And as a stranger," Hamlet replies,
"give it welcome."

Respectfully,
Sean Lawrence.

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
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Date:           Tuesday, 01 Dec 1998 20:36:06 +0000
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

Although I would love to pitch in on this debate, I simply can't find
the time right now, but I thought I would

a) recommend Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History (Routledge, 1991) for a
very accessible take on what is involved in "accessing" the past.  And

b) recommend the movie "Courage Under Fire" - the Meg Ryan, Denzel
Washington film about the Gulf War.  I used this with students in the
past to explore this issue.  For those who don't know the film,
Washington's character is faced with the task of assessing the dead Ryan
character's eligibility for a posthumous medal for, you guessed it,
courage under fire, and has to try and piece together the "truth" from a
number of eye-witness accounts of other soldiers - members of her crew
and some she went to save - all of whom have some kind of "agenda" in
the stories they tell of what happened.  Furthermore, Washington's
character is assessing these stories with his own perspective
skewed by guilt: he accidentally killed some of his comrades in a
friendly fire incident in the same war. Using this led naturally into
looking at the way the war was represented by the media in the West, and
raised some interesting issues about facts, bias, etc. etc.

Stevie Simkin

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Maria Concolato Palermo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 02 Dec 1998 08:15:44 +0100
Subject: 9.1208  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1208  Re: Presentism

The following is only the second part of a poem by our great poet
Eugenio Montale.I imagine there is an English translation but I don't
possess it:

"La storia non e' poi
la devastante ruspa che si dice.
Lascia sottopassaggi,  cripte, buche
e nascondigli. C'e' chi sopravvive.
La storia e' anche benevola: distrugge
quanto piu' puo': se esagerasse, certo
sarebbe meglio, ma la storia e' a corto
di notizie, non compie tutte le sue vendette.

La storia gratta il fondo
come una rete a strascico
con qualche strappo e piu' di un pesce sfugge.
Qualche volta s'incontra l'ectoplasma
d'uno scampato e non sembra particolarmente felice.
Ignora di essere fuori, nessuno glie n'ha parlato.
Gli altri, nel sacco, si credono
piu' liberi di lui.

da "La Storia", in "Satura" (1969)

[10]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           R. D. H.Wells <
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Date:           Wednesday, 2 Dec 1998 11:27:34 +0000 (GMT)
Subject:        Presentism

Dear Terry,

Many thanks for filling me in on Presentism - "History is far too
important to be left to historians who believe themselves able to make
contact with a 'past' unshaped by their own concerns" (26 Nov) - though
I wasn't sure about the inverted commas: I take it you don't mean that
the 'past' has gone the way of 'facts' and 'extra-linguistic reality'
and that sort of thing?

I have a feeling that we went over this ground last Christmas. But never
mind: good to see you once again endorsing such solid, traditional,
commonsense principles (eg, "All historical writing is a selective
process governed by a sense of contemporary relevance", RG Collingwood,
The Historical Imagination, 1961). John Drakakis is obviously right when
he says that "Terry's proposition is really very straightforward" (29
Nov).  I'm sure he must be right too about "lazy, glib, and frankly,
knee-jerk, moralizing", though I'm not quite sure who this applies to.

I had been in two minds about whether to respond to Hugh Grady's
contribution to the Presentism debate. But when I read your jocular
Postscript I realised that you were working yourself up to another
Christmas Puzzle, so here's some grist for your joke mill (below).

Best wishes,
Robin

PS: do give us your 'lengthy and closely reasoned account'; it sounds
fun.

Hugh Grady says (20 November) that 'raising consciousness about the role
of the present in our constructions of the past strikes me as very badly
needed'. Given that historicists have been saying much the same kind of
thing for the best part of a century, some people may be wondering why
the need to say it all over again is so urgent. Postmodernists will know
that the answer lies in the principle of Representation - in this case
the way historicism has been represented in modern scholarship.

In Shakespeare's Universal Wolf Professor Grady tells us that
traditional historians of Renaissance culture posit 'a single-minded
authoritarian culture in which cultural documents have stable,
affirmative, and unitary meanings'. But now, thanks to 'the clarity of
focus provided by the new critical paradigms of our own day' we have
left behind such notions as 'the transcendent author ... and
transparent, single-levelled meaning'.

Professor Grady doesn't mention any names, though we all know who he
means. We also know that Tillyard was an anomaly. Even his own
contemporaries complained about his doctrinaire view of intellectual
history. In 1950 Hiram Haydn argued that if there is a ruling principle
in Elizabethan writing it is not hierarchical order but paradox:
'inconsistency runs through all their work'. In the third quarter of the
century the dominant theme of Shakespeare criticism was not
'transparent, single-levelled meaning', but ambivalence. Norman Rabkin
argued that recognition of the fundamentally dialectical nature of
Shakespeare's vision puts the plays 'out of the reach of the narrow
moralist, the special pleader for a particular ideology, the
intellectual historian looking for a Shakespearean version of a
Renaissance orthodoxy'. Emrys Jones pointed out that Shakespeare was the
product of an educational system that was fundamentally antipathetic to
the notion of a single unchallenged way of looking at things. WR Elton
described the typical structure of Shakespeare's plays as 'a dialectic
of ironies and ambivalences, avoiding in its complex movement and
multi-voiced dialogue the simplifications of direct statement and
reductive resolution'. So much for 'unitary meanings'.

One of the controlling myths of modern Shakespeare criticism is the idea
that it took 'the new critical paradigms of our own day' to rouse us
from our Tillyardian slumbers. But go back to the 1950s and you find
Helen Gardner reminding us that when you reinterpret the literature of
the past, it is always in part your own age that you are describing;
insisting that the historical imagination is itself historically
conditioned; and urging us above all to get rid of the positivist notion
of a fixed background that tells you what everyone at that time was
supposed to have thought (_The Business of Criticism_). In claiming that
all history is necessarily written from and coloured by present
perspectives, Gardner wasn't saying anything new. She was merely echoing
what many had said before. As Croce famously put it in 1941, 'All
history is contemporary history'. In the 1960s and '70s a series of
important historical studies confirmed Haydn's and Gardner's suspicions
about the notion of a homogeneous Elizabethan World Picture.  Scholars
like Talbert (1962), Keeton (1967), Bevington (1968), Kelly, (1970),
Prior (1973) and Boris (1978) showed that in Elizabethan England
politics, theology, the law, and historiography were all subjects of
conflict and debate.

People who know more about postmodernism than I do will be able to tell
me whether or not Terry Eagleton was right when he described it as 'a
game in which one solemnly sets up a grotesque travesty of one's
opponent's view, and then proceeds self-righteously to bowl it over'.

Robin Headlam Wells
 

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