The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1412 Monday, 17 July 2000.
From: Clifford Stetner <
Date: Saturday, 15 Jul 2000 13:04:02 -0400
Subject: 11.1407 Re: Shakespeare as Bible
Comment: Re: SHK 11.1407 Re: Shakespeare as Bible
Sean Lawrence suggests:
>Clifford claims that the charge of being "totalizing" is
>incomprehensible. I refer him to an earlier thread, where he says that
>"it's material all the way down", thereby claiming a place for politics
>which excludes all else in literary and (for that matter) every other
>sort of analysis, as an illustrative example of totalizing thought. If
>he doesn't want to be held to this statement, he can always recant.
I really intended to help this thread die off by offering no further
responses to even the most blatant misrepresentations of the simplest
truths. But Duke Hardio has allowed us at least to respond to personal
addresses so I pray you good Duke for mine honor, let me not be hurt
under your arm.
In reply to Sean then: the tale of the turtles (elephants in your
version) involved a European trying to get some indigenous colonized
shaman to explain his tribe's religion. The world, says the Shaman,
sits on the back of a great turtle. "Upon what does the turtle sit?"
asks the Christian. "It sits on another turtle," replies the shaman.
"What's under that one?" persists the Christian. "Nothing," says the
shaman; "it's turtles all the way down." I believed you had used the
apparent absurdity of this cosmology to emphasize what you perceive to
be the absurdity of "pure" (emphasis mine) materialism in the study of
history, by claiming it was equivalent to the claim that history is
material all the way down. The "is" in my statement quoted above should
be stressed, indicating that it is a response to your original statement
to the contrary.
I, perhaps foolishly, succumbed to the temptation to point out that, on
the level of cosmology (this distinction will become important later
when I address the charge that I claim that "everything" is political)
the shaman's account can be read as equivalent to our own current
models. The Big Bang created the four elements: time, space, matter,
and energy, and "everything" in this universe is a combination of these
humors; i.e. material all the way down. Even the Catholics have
acknowledged the likelihood of the Big Bang origin of the universe;
although I have not heard yet whether it came out of God's right hand,
or his left foot, or sprung fully formed out of his head. I introduced
the question of the absurdity of the shaman's cosmology as a way of
introducing the idea that the same mistaken assumptions of absurdity
also permeate your political philosophy; not to assert that "everything"
about human existence should or can be reduced to materialism.
>I would further refer him to Levinas's _Totality and Infinity_, a work
>by a well-known Talmudist, showing how monotheism implies something
>coming from without, rather than the mystificism of rapture or the
>"inhuman determinism" of politics.
But that something is, of course, not something "totalizing?"
>This work was admired not only by
> the current Pope, who invited Professor Levinas to the Vatican,
Not, of course, a political state devoted to the propagation of
>by Jacques Derrida, who delivered his funeral oration. The theses of
>the work have been taken up by a large number of thinekrs, notably
>Jean-Luc Marion, whose works such as _God without Being_ argue for
>something coming to the totalizing system from without. It is cited
>with some admiration, though not with entire agreement, by Derrida in
>the footnotes to "Comment ne pas parler?" So much for my being an
>"antipostructuralist New New Critic".
As this charge relates specifically to ways of reading literature, it is
in no way refuted here. What you seem to take it to mean might be
brought into question by Derrida's endorsement, but his admiration is
not enough to dispense with anything.
>Cliff claims to have used the argument that everything ultimately relies
>upon politics only once.
I have never used this argument. Again, carefully constructed terms
like "all linguistic forms" or "all publication of literature" in my
discourse get reduced to "everything" in your paraphrases. You then
attack your own totalizing paraphrase with the charge of totalizing.
The fact that I die when an imperialist state drops a bomb on my house
has nothing to do with politics, but the reason the bomb drops does.
>He did, however, strenuously defend the thesis
>that "it's material all the way down" on an earlier thread
Again, this was an anti thesis and in a particular context.
>Yet a further example is provided in his respond to Mike that "purely
>aestheticist critics, or those who claim that such a thing is possible"
>rely fundamentally on history, once more arguing that there is no
Death. "Escaping history" is an ambiguous term which I don't believe I
would ever use, as the distinction between methods of reading literary
texts, thinking about man's soul, and thinking about mankind's past,
while usually exagerrated, are therein effaced.
>The example of the changing meanings of a word does
>not in any way disprove my strong claim that it is not elephants all the
>way down, that ethics or aesthetics have independent grounds which are
>not fundamentally products of politics however much they may be
>imbricated in politics. This does, however, provide a further example
>of what is clearly a habitual argument, that there is no outside of the
In a linguistic discourse, like literary criticism, there is no getting
to any outside of language, ethics, aesthetics or otherwhere, except
through more language. And so, as totalizing as it may sound, good luck
calling it something other than a bunch of words. The habitual nature
of my antitheses has been the product of the uniformity of the theses to
which they have responded. My recent posts regarding Shrew and Henry IV
made no reference to politics (in your reduction of the term)
whatsoever. I would suggest that the reiteration of the term
"totalizing" "materiality," etc. suggest that they're being cooked up in
a pretty black pot.
I recently puzzled over the changing meaning of the word "surgeon" which
is used to describe Gonzalo in his role as royal counselor to Alphonso
in the Tempest. I remarked that in pre-modern times a surgeon was a
relatively menial laborer whose actions were directed from above by a
physician. This relationship better than the modern one would reflect
the role of Ariel acting through Gonzalo in awakening him from his
charm, as well as that of Prospero acting through Ariel and a half a
dozen other examples in the play. Without the element of historical
knowledge, in this case of historical structures of political (in my
reduction of the term) hierarchies, not just a minor device, but a major
key to the play's themes is invisible. There is no reference by which
to assign meaning to words that is not historically situated. Only a
prior familiarity with the historical context, directly or indirectly
through their encoding in familiar cultural forms, makes any
intelligible meaning possible. There is no escape from this exigency.
Furthermore, the desire to escape it is equivalent to a drowning man's
desire to touch solid ground. The intensity of his desire may lead him
successfully to tread water, but it doesn't mean there must be a solid
ground to touch. Awareness of the importance of the slippage of meaning
in language is everywhere in Shakespeare. Note the use of the words
"ambitious" and "honorable" by Brutus and Marc Antony respectively and
how the slippage of their meaning succeed in transforming the meaning of
the signifier of Caesar's corpse. For Shakespeare, the corpse has no
meaning; it's dead. There is only the contestation for control over
what meaning the mob recognizes as authoritative.
>Moreover, I have always been willing to admit that politics is, that is
>has a basis and a logic all too painfully and often at odds with ethics
>or aesthetics. I challenge him to find a single instance in which I
>claim that politics is not, or that it does not have its own logic and
>structure. He has never once, as far as I can recall, admitted a place
>for ethics and aesthetics which would be independent of politics.
Guilty. Like Nietzsche, I view the genealogy of morals (is this what
you mean by ethics? Because ethics usually refers to the rules by which
people treat other people in practice, and by way of definition of
terms, this is what I have meant by "politics") as an historical
development. Once it was considered ethical to roast a slave over a
slow fire for after supper entertainment; now it isn't. Had history
progressed another way, they might have been doing so on television by
now. What you consistently fail to recognize is that it is the claim
for "independent grounds" that is precisely what you continually
denigrate as totalizing, rather than the claim for no "independent
grounds" beyond the historical contestation for political power. The
former remains constant and immovable, the latter is up for grabs, and
the major grabber has always been the proclamation of access to the
"independent grounds" on which "our" ethics are based.
As to aesthetics, I am in conflict. I admit a principle of beauty in
nature that is as much a part of its essence as its physical and
mathematical properties, but I am at a loss to find intellectual access
to it that does not force me through the exigencies of my culture's
language. The subject of this list is literature, and principles of
aesthetics in art follow an historical genealogy similar and parallel to
that in morals. The question becomes: according to what principles has
beauty been translated into concrete art forms? And, again, I plead
guilty to identifying these principles with the historical contestation
for power. Note that this is not equivalent to the statement that
"everything" is political, but that a particular aspect of the
mobilization of a particular aspect of being is "always" political.
>say that "there is nothing in historicist criticism that prevents making
>use of [exploiting?] aesthetic and structural elements in developing a
>reading of literary works," but such a reading would remain a
>historicist reading. It would not provide a position outside the
How can any reading provide a position outside its own system except by
exluding it altogether? If I study the structure of a living cell,
should I object if my studies are then incorporated by another biologist
studying multicellular organisms and their evolution because they
provide no place outside for the cell to stand alone? Which provides
the more complete understanding? An understanding of the organism
necessarily rebounds upon and alters the understanding of the structures
and functions of the individual cell. Is it inquisitorial to add to a
cellular biologist's observation about cell structure an observation
about how that structure functions in the larger structures whose own
functions have dictated their construction?
>This is all I have been arguing for, and I'm willing to believe that
>it's all anyone on this list has been arguing for, the right to do other
>types of criticism unapologetically, to escape the command of that
>mysterious god who has made all things politics.
A pretty black pot if you ask me. Your as yet undefined "independent
grounds" are to me the mysterious gods.
>I should end on a note of bewilderment. Cliff argues against the market
>on ethical grounds in another thread, that the market is only "fair"
>insofar as labour is not seen as people:
>> As long as you never succumb to the temptation to see people as
>> human beings, or to the delusion that human suffering is relevant to the
>> market (beyond helping to set the level of "market wages") you can pass
>> free market capitalism off as "fair."
>More power to you, since we seem strangely to be agreeing. My question
>is why, having said this, are you unwilling to admit an outside of
I always admit an outside to politics. The eternal motion of the
spheres, the miracle of the quadratic equation, the cosmic war between
life force and the law of entropy. But my definition of politics,
unlike my definition of the market, is centered around the experience of
the human condition. My abject hatred of contemporary capitalism and
the free market ideology by which it justifies itself is not based on
the notion that it is bad politics, but that its genocides in fact
outweigh (and will outweigh) all the utopianist genocides in history.
My arguments against ahisoricist literary criticism refer to the fact
that all literature that gets published, gets published through
political processes and that these must be understood if we are to
understand their true nature. It is the denial of the political forces
governing its publication and reception by culture that allows
literature to be used to support the "independent grounds" for the
construction of ideologies that make the treatment of Vietnamese, Cuban,
and Iraqi children compatible with Christian morality. Until we cease
to repeat the crimes of our past, I do not feel the leisure to explore
the music of poetry for its own sake and am therefore opposed to reading
that stops at the aesthetic and censors its political implications.
While the body is poisoned, I do not feel the leisure to study the cell
for the sake of its beauty alone without permitting the use of that
study for the development of better medicine.
>Why does the system's anonymity and amorality offend if we
>call it the market, but not if we call it politics (i.e., the market of
>power) or language (the market of meaning)?
For me, "market" reduces human beings to means, while "politics" can and
should always make them ends. Any anonymity and amorality in my use of
the term is, I assure you, your own projection.
>Surely if there is an
>outside the market, which allows the market itself to be judged, this
>argues also for an outside of language and politics.
Argues for it, yes, but the argument only succeeds in emphasizing that
language is the exception in that all arguments must by made within
linguistic forms which are always both the product and the instrument of
>So why do you come
>along like the Grand Inquisitor when someone tries to make an argument
>for reading and writing in terms which are not variations on the
>political, to tell them that they are doing politics (i.e., that it's
>elephants all the way down)?
I don't always, but when I do it's because I see a great danger, not, as
I've said, in acknowledging the structural, aesthetic, and spiritual in
art, but in attempting to reduce art to no more than these functions.
As I've also said, the accusation of the reductive nature of historicism
by these intentionally limited readings is perverse.
Unlike Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, the danger I perceive is not to
my own authority to proclaim independent grounds for my own power, but
to a future in which people with an enlightened understanding of history
(and the role of art therein) are better armed to protect themselves
from the continuing assault of increasingly powerful and self
interested political forces.
I will respond no further in this thread unless something new is added
to your criticism.