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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1235  Friday, 4 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Thursday, 03 Dec 1998 09:26:08 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Presentism

[2]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 09:26:11 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1225  Re: Presentism

[3]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Thursday, 03 Dec 1998 07:32:49 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1225  Re: Presentism

[4]     From:   Kristine Batey <
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        Date:   Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 10:06:29 -0600
        Subj:   Re: Presentism

[5]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 18:18:06 GMT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1215  Re: Presentism

[6]     From:   Jason Vernon Starnes <
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        Date:   Friday, 4 Dec 1998 00:34:18 -0800
        Subj:   Presentism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Thursday, 03 Dec 1998 09:26:08 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Presentism

I think that Sean Lawrence is right once more when he argues that many
of us act as if nothing of consequence was written about Shakespeare
before the advent of "theory." Actually, Sean, your statement is
dramatically illustrated by many (not all) of the Ph.D. dissertations
wholly or in part on Shakespeare produced each year. I abstract all of
them (about 125 per year) for The World Shakespeare Bibliography, and I
can tell you first hand that many of our new Ph.D.'s seem not to have
read an article or book written before 1980! (I want to quickly add that
some, however, are excellent contributions whose authors clearly have
done the "literature search" that used to be part and parcel of a good
dissertation.)

In other words, a kind of "vulgar presentism" is filtering down to those
who will soon take over the profession, and it does not bode well.

--Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 09:26:11 EST
Subject: 9.1225  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1225  Re: Presentism

Bill Godshalk as usual raises an interesting question (with his glass
of  Zinfandel):

>Do we hold historical figures (like Shakespeare) accountable, morally
>accountable, for their actions using our standards?  Or do we judge them
>historically, by their standards?

>  And if the latter, at what point does historical evaluation kick in? Do
>  we judge political criminals from fifty years ago by their standards or
>  by ours?

A distinction must be made between social morays (the ethics that
prevail by means of the unwritten code of social contract at any point
in a given civilization) and criminal law.  First of all, to my
knowledge, criminal law is not "grandfathered"-that is, if you committed
murder twenty years ago in a state that has since abolished capital
punishment, you would not be executed there if tried and convicted today
(our own Larry Weiss or Ed Taft, Esqs. can give us a more definitive
reading on that).  But in contractual (non-criminal, civil. mercantile)
law the opposite is true: a contract issued twenty years ago and still
in force today is construed according to its specific terms and
conditions, not whatever amendments or modifications have been made
outside that contract since its issue date in other contracts using the
same clauses.  Imagine what would happen in business if we did
otherwise: you would make a proposal and price a task or product
according to what you knew to be true today about the permits required,
the way you were allowed to operate your factory and use your labor
force.  Then a few months or even years later, OSHA and the EPA would
step in and tell you had to go out and buy all kinds of special safety
equipment and reconfigure your factory with expensive safeguards and
environmentally safe equipment and practices, driving the cost of your
product up a millionfold, while you were still bound contractually to
sell it at the agreed-to price.  Authors are not criminals: like the
manufacturer in the second case, they operate according to the
epistemology that obtains at the time that they are writing, and either
subvert it (_Huckleberry Finn_), satirize it (_A Modest Proposal_), or
glorify it (_Gone with the Wind_).  It would be as unfair of us to judge
and condemn a Chaucer for thinking the world was flat and the stars were
fixed as it would be to ban Canterbury Tales for portraying a less than
ethical clergy, and as futile to try to construe The Merchant of Venice
in terms of Marxist economics or modern ecumenical principles as it is
to attempt to evaluate the dramatic worth of Taming of the Shrew by
means of modern feminist standards.

Whenever I teach "controversial" literature, I remind my students that
it is natural, even sometimes crucial, for human beings to operate by
means of discrimination and prejudice (the first time we stick our
fingers into that pretty blue and red and yellow wavy thing, we learn to
stay away from anything that looks like fire).  Indeed, we are taught
formally from our first cognitive moments to distinguish one thing from
another by means of stereotype (think of the abstract concepts "doctor"
or "chair," and if you are of a certain age, you will envision your
first grade workbook's man with a mirror on his head and a piece of
four-legged spindle-backed wooden furniture).  The difference between a
bigot and a reasonable intellect is that a bigot maintains his or her
prejudices even in the face of enlightenment, whereas a reasonable man
or woman backs off of the prejudicial position he or she has taken when
alerted to the fact that it is stereotypical-I have never actually seen
a doctor with a mirror on his or her head, and I have seen and sat in
many chairs made of something other than wood that didn't have a single
spindle, so it strikes me funny that I still think of generic doctors
and chairs according to those childhood images.

I can't help the ingrained association -- but I can overcome it.

Thus, though I can't blame someone who has only ever met predatory,
scheming, manipulative females from being reluctant to approach me when
he recognizes me as female, I can blame him if, after getting to know me
personally, he still insists that all females are predatory, scheming,
and manipulative-or if he refuses to get to know me at all on that
premise.  We don't have to endorse things like misogyny or Southern
belle simple to suspend our disapproval of them in context, nor do we
have to see all black females as simple-minded darkies who don't know
nothin' about birthin' no babies to understand why Margaret Mitchell
places such a character in the Civil War South.  Since we know
Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Twain, and writers like them had something
transcendent to say about the human condition, perhaps our time would be
better spent looking at the ways in which they were anachronistic in a
positive sense, rather than castigating them for being products of their
intellectual time.  The baby need not be discarded with the bathwater.

My apologies for holding forth at such length, but since the issue under
consideration is such an important one, I hope I may be forgiven.

With all good wishes,
Carol Barton

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Thursday, 03 Dec 1998 07:32:49 +0000
Subject: 9.1225  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1225  Re: Presentism

> Is it indeed about how we judge the past? Do we hold historical figures
> (like Shakespeare) accountable, morally accountable, for their actions
> using our standards?  Or do we judge them historically, by their
> standards?

> And if the latter, at what point does historical evaluation kick in? Do
> we judge political criminals from fifty years ago by their standards or
> by ours?

It seems to me that one of the great values of history, perhaps to the
true historian the greatest (and one of the main reasons why we go into
the discipline in the first place), is the depth of perception that
comes from seeing with both eyes, our own, and with those of our
forbears in a way that isn't possible with current events, or even the
events of the recent past.

To the extent that we bring theory, of whatever sort, to the process of
determining what that vision of our forbears truly might have been, we
limit ourselves unduly.  To accept the insights of historians who bind
themselves to some theory is to accept the opinions of one wearing dark
glasses on the colors of a painting, and in the case of a declared "ist"
of some sort, one who insists on telling you that his insight is the
true one not in spite of his limitations, but because of them.

Pshaw!  A true historian come to the process unencumbered by "theory,"
gathers the evidence as it presents itself, follows every lead, cross
checks every fact, questions those that can't be supported by other
facts, and keeps the urge to theorize in check, using it only as needed
for those areas where there are no "facts," using it as a sort of
jerry-rig to hold other parts of the picture in place until such time as
true facts are found.  There is such a thing as the truth, and it is
possible to discover it, but not when hog-tied by some theory or other.

The only value to be found in passing modes in perspective (theories) is
that for a time they may bring fresh insight, which is then absorbed
into the general view.  They should never be held to longer than needed
to expand the overall picture.  The tendency to crown every fresh
insight with a name that ends in "ism" and set it on some sort of throne
of importance is a form of intellectual hegemony that we should refuse
to allow.

As for "judgement," do we judge which eye sees truly, or do we rather
seek a synthesis of both to give us a three-dimensional picture of the
world we live in? A culture looks to its historians to give it, not
"theories," but this kind of a synthesis, this sense of depth that comes
from looking with both eyes; from seeing the land as Lewis and Clark saw
it, for instance, with one eye, and with the land as it is now.  Neither
the one nor the other is the more "true"; truth lies in the depth of
vision provided by the synthesis of both.

Such syntheses enable us to move towards the future not blindly, but
with vision.  This is just as true with literary history as it is with
mainstream history.  The lives of the great writers are bound up with
the meaning of their works and can't be separated.  The literature that
has been up until recently the pride of the language, the lingua franca
of our time, is in danger of being leveled by those who have no sense of
its history? Why? Could it be because they were fed theories at school
instead of history?

Stephanie Hughes

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristine Batey <
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Date:           Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 10:06:29 -0600
Subject:        Re: Presentism

>> 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.
>
>I think that this raises a point about the state of our discipline at
>the moment generally.  Throughout literary studies, there seems to be an
>assumption that the world slumbered in lethargic naivety for all of time
>before the 1960s or 1970s.  We only refer to ideas that cropped up since
>about 1968 as "theory", implying that everyone previous to the
>generation now tenured wasn't doing any 'theory' at all-which, in the
>broad sense, means not thinking at all.

Funny. I started my undergrad in 1969. The same comment could have been
made at the time, except the date given would have been something like
1948, rather than 1968. I have a sneaking suspicion that as far as
academic research is concerned, the definition of "cutting-edge" is
something like "anything that's come up since the current crop of profs
have entered academia."

Kristine Batey
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA

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[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Thursday, 3 Dec 1998 18:18:06 GMT
Subject: 9.1215  Re: Presentism
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1215  Re: Presentism

I'm grateful for Sean Lawrence and Carol Barton's clarifications of, and
modifications of my original posting - but I think I'd better don my
fire-proof gear and respond to John Drakakis's flame-thrower myself.

First of all, I don't have 'contempt' for undergraduates at all - but I
do recognise that, they are capable of simplifying complex ideas in a
way that is not always helpful - and that Terry Hawkes's suggestion that
'we mean by Shakespeare' is in unsophisticated hands liable to come out
as 'Shakespeare means whatever I want it to mean' - but then, perhaps,
that doesn't worry some.

> 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 put upon it", seems to me to misrepresent totally all
> of the Hawkes that I've read (and I've read all of it).

So have I, John, and am on record, in print, as finding a good deal of
it both entertaining and suggestive. My point here has, I think, been
accurately re-presented by Sean Lawrence, so I'll say no more.

> 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.

Probably both - but that's to miss my point entirely.  When you make
your decision about punctuation it will, presumably, be informed by your
many years of immersion in the language, syntax and rhetoric of the
Early Modern period, which (one assumes) most of the users of your
edition will not have.  Your best guess, together with the note in which
you will no doubt explain your choice and the alternative possibilities,
will, therefore be informed by knowledge of 'what was' or, more
accurately, 'what seems probably to have been' the case.   When you
annotate lexical items - and it was those I suppose I had in mind - you
will, no doubt, consult the OED, LION and all the resources of your
knowledge base to suggest that this meaning or that was available in the
period, whereas a particular 'modern' meaning was not. Of course this
will be a hypothesis, of course it will be liable to correction, of
course you will want to question the datings of the OED, but, I would
contend, the fact that you could (in my view should) ask that kind of
question, rests upon a necessary conviction that it is, however
tentatively, possible to recognise difference in the historical meaning
of words.

> 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.

I am sorry if this seems 'nonsensical' - it seems self-evident to me.  I
don't like parading my own work in this forum, but I'd argue that my
book, The Trials of Frances Howard,  investigated precisely this
triangulation.  I came to it from my present position as a person
sensitised by feminist criticism, and driven in part by contemporary
issues concerning the ways in which female criminality is perceived; I
was interested in the ways the story of Frances Howard was constructed
through history, and the uses to which it had been put in writing about
the Jacobean court; but I was also convinced that by looking very
carefully at the archival record I could ask important questions which
challenged both the way in which her story was conducted at the time,
and has subsequently been received and retold.  How successful I might
have been in bringing these three things together, others must judge;
but I would argue most forcefully that to pre-empt the third element
would have made the book impossible - and would still want to suggest
that 'presentism' occludes its importance.

> 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!
>
This, I think, is unnecessarily insulting. 'Sophistication' is, after
all, culturally constructed.  I am not sure what wheel you want to
invent for me, but would be glad to receive it gift-wrapped for
Christmas.

David Lindley
School of English
University of Leeds

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jason Vernon Starnes <
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Date:           Friday, 4 Dec 1998 00:34:18 -0800
Subject:        Presentism

Hello everyone,

I've been enjoying this discussion immensely.  I thought I might touch
on Hans-Georg Gadamer's idea that the past is inescapable: the moment
that we consider our present it is past, and so can only be dealt with
by projecting "horizons" which are ever in motion.  There must be some
interesting areas of contention and intermingling between historicism(s)
and presentism around this [admittedly niggling] point.  Very powerful
is Gadamer's study of effective-history: briefly, that no
"understanding" (including that of presentism) would be possible if, to
quote Mueller-Vollmer, "the interpreter were not also part of the
historical continuum which he and the phenomenon he studies must share."

I'll end with a relevant quote from Gadamer's Truth and Method: "In fact
the horizon of the present is being continually formed, in that we have
continually to test all our prejudices.  An important part of this
testing is the encounter with the past and the understanding of the
tradition from which we come.  Hence the horizon of the present cannot
be formed without the past.  There is no more an isolated horizon of the
present than there are hisotorical horizons.  Understanding, rather, is
always the fusion of these horizons which we imagine to exist by
themselves.  . . . In a tradition this process of fusion is continually
going on, for there old and new continually grow together to make
something of living value, without either being explicitly distinguished
from the other."

Cheers,
Jason

P.S.  More respect for and consideration of undergrads like myself would
be greatly appreciated in the future.  Some of us are listening. . .
 

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