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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: July ::
Re: Shakespeare as Bible
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1413  Tuesday, 18 July 2000.

[1]     From:   Pat Dolan <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Jul 2000 09:10:42 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible

[2]     From:   Geralyn Horton <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Jul 2000 13:02:07 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Jul 2000 20:07:29 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pat Dolan <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Jul 2000 09:10:42 -0500
Subject: 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible

>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.

Oh cool. I first heard the story as a colloquy between Bertrand Russell
and an elderly English lady at a lecture, replacing Orientalism with
contempt for the bourgeoisie. Anybody know where the first instance of
this is? "You can't fool me young man, it's turtles all the way down."

Patrick

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Geralyn Horton <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Jul 2000 13:02:07 -0400
Subject: 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible

I just want to thank you, Hardy, and the list generally, for permitting
me to attend this feast.  "Isabella's Chastity" and "Shakespeare As
Bible" have been grand examples of what I had in mind when as a child I
combed the library for "wisdom", and fantasized sitting in while
Socrates conversed.  I have always read the posts of Sean Lawrence with
respectful attention, but Clifford Stetner's reply today filled me with
awe.  I am personally very grateful that Stetner did not hold to his
intention:

>I really intended to help this thread die off by offering no further
>responses to even the most blatant misrepresentations of the simplest
>truths.

Again, many thanks, "Duke Hardio" et al!-- for an intellectual thrill
equaled only by Michael Frayne's "Copenhagen".

Geralyn
(who sometimes imagines she is Dorothea Brooke)
Newton, Mass. 02460
<http://www.tiac.net/users/ghorton>

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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 >
Date:           Monday, 17 Jul 2000 20:07:29 -0700
Subject: 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1412 Re: Shakespeare as Bible

>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.

Actually, I brought it up, and I think that our different narrative
frameworks are part of the problem.  I was borrowing it from a story
recorded by Stephen Hawking, which doesn't involve a shaman, but an
interlocutor at a public lecture.

As for whether you're responding to me, that's pretty much besides the
point.

>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.

Yes, but physicists do allow for other forces ("weak" force, "charm",
and other exotic terms).  And they don't go around attacking people who
aren't interesting in cosmology, making fun of psychologists that don't
work at the subatomic level, for instance, as "anti-Einsteinian New
Newtonianists", for instance.

And, as your reference to what Catholicism grudgingly admits, the big
bang theory requires a pure given.  It isn't a system to which there is
no outside.  Apart from the originary moment, there's also such factoids
as that neutrinos don't have mass, so obviously all of these forces
aren't at work at the same time.  In any case, we should perhaps leave
physics out of things, since it's more appropriate to another forum.

>But that something is, of course, not something "totalizing?"

No, it isn't.  Ethics is important, it's "good", but it doesn't render
other possibilities impossible.  The Other interrupts my world, but it
doesn't just disappear, or become henceforth understood as his world.
He interrupts, rather than comprehends.

>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.

It does show that he considered it worth placing alongside his own
ideas.  I understand that he has, in fact, recently published a book on
Levinas, endorsing his ideas, though of course with his own
interpretation.  In any case, seeing ethics and aesthetics as
"disruptive", as being able to come from outside the system, has
everything to do language, with reading literature, and even with why
one would read in the first place.

>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.

Actually, I still think that the paraphrases were reasonably fair.  "All
linguistic forms" is merely a variant on the the totality, where
language/history/politics/material are all part of a single game, from
which all appeal is forbidden.

>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.

This is rather a useful argument, since it also shows that there's any
number of other ways to read the bomb's dropping.  And if our purpose is
the chemistry of explosives, knowing who dropped it or why gets us
nowhere.  In fact, even if our purpose is defusing, the politics of why
the bomb drops doesn't help.  The existential problem of my death
remains, regardless of who drops the bomb.

More to the point, why the bombs should not drop is unaccountable in a
world where politics is merely a marketplace, even if it is a
marketplace that can include or play alongside other marketplaces, none
of which cease to be a market.

> >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
> >political/material/linguistic/let's-all-just-call-it-Bob system.
>
> 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.

But you do admit that something informs politics, "human beings as ends
in themselves".  If we turn these human beings into linguistic
constructs (if we say that there is no escaping language, to find a
place for the human), then we have indeed moved beyond humanism, but
only to inhumanity.  Ethics in the sense that I'm using it, is an effort
to see people as people, before they are constructed by language, to see
what makes them more than a grammar that can be deconstructed.

> The habitual nature
> of my antitheses has been the product of the uniformity of the theses to
> which they have responded.

Actually, I think that there's some variance, if you'd look at them
again.  Saying that it's possible to do an aesthetic criticism isn't a
particularly ambitious goal in itself, and it can be inspired by any
number of world views.  The only thing really uniting such efforts is an
attempt to escape the tendency of all discussions in literary studies to
become, as if inevitably, a discussion of politics.

> 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.

I cut your reading to save space, not because I don't admire it or think
it informative.  And, yes, we do need to know what the words mean.  But,
as I keep repeating, there are things to say about words other than
their historical context.  Moreover, we need to recognize people who
speak words, before their speech has any content at all, if it is not to
become a game which absorbs them, and makes them as eraseable as so much
grammar.  No amount of diagnosing the slippages of languages will bring
us to this point.

> 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.

Not quite.  There is also the imperative which drives Antony to speak to
the body of Caesar.  Derrida actually described this phenomenon, in his
funeral oration over Levinas, as the desire to tutoyer the corpse.
Despite the fact that the corpse cannot speak, that it's dead, Antony
still feels that he must speak to it, that he must answer to its
silence.  The body of Caesar has the function that a face has before
it's a sign, of imposing responsibility.

> 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.

Of course, this is to make "the historical contestation of political
power" exclude what you later call "the human condition", or the "human
being as end", and what I would call the shock of the Other, his
importance outside "the historical contestation for political power" in
which he may appear as a means, and not as an end.  To try to make a
human being an end is, simply, to try to find an "independent ground"
for ethics.

My goal, as I think I've made clear many times, is not to construct some
sort of new ethical system, but to find what lies outside such systems
altogether, what calls us to ethics, what makes us wish to engage in the
political world.  It is also what Derrida quotes Levinas as calling "the
Holiness of the Holy".

> 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.

But it's being 'always' political hardly means that there's no other way
to describe it, or that we can't (much less ought not ) describe it in
terms that consciously exclude politics, in order to concentrate for a
while on something else.  Just because we believe in a big bang theory,
hardly means that we can't do psychology at anything but the cosmic
level, or even speak in abstractions, as Freudians often do.

In fact, I feel that the shock of beauty seems to precede
interpretation, to be what calls for interpretation, perhaps even what
calls for interpretation as subversion calls for containment.

> How can any reading provide a position outside its own system except by
> exluding it altogether?

Well, it could note that another approach exists, and state its own
limitations.

> 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?

I would say that it's ridiculous to insist that the cellular biologist
has to become an ecologist instead, or that he can't just publish and
teach in cellular biology, or even that it might be useful, for the sake
of his course structure, to rigorously refuse to get distracted into
discussions of anatomy.

> A pretty black pot if you ask me.  Your as yet undefined "independent
> grounds" are to me the mysterious gods.

Well, your "human beings as ends" is an example.  Nothing terribly
mysterious in it, though it calls, I think, for a further level of
theorizing, and for a proclamation of its importance, though strangely
you dismissed the proclamation of ethics as a confession that no proof
can be provided.

> >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
> >politics?
>
> 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.

But what makes genocide itself wrong?  What makes people into ends, to
be preserved?

> 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.

But surely there is a reason that we should wish to co-op literatures, a
"thereness" to them, before they're used for whatever vile purposes they
are, or even could be used.  Religion, I'll be the first to admit, can
also be co-opted.  None of which is to deny--or to deny
effectively--that literature might have a claim before the various
mechanisms of politics assimilate it as their own.

> 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.

I don't think that there is any break from the inhumanity which led to
the crimes of the past, until we see something outside the mechanism of
the political, until we recognize people as ends in themselves, not as
parts of an ideology to which they are merely abstractions.  Avoiding
ethics will only avoid that which makes "the treatment of Vietnamese,
Cuban and Iraqi children" wrong, because ethics is summarily the effort
to recognize the importance of persons.

> 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.

But without the pure research, the cell biology, there can be no move to
medicine.  Efforts to skip theory and go straight to practice can lead
to some pretty awful medicine.

> 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.

Ah, so there is an outside of politics, the human being as end in itself
(himself?  herself? -- language fails).  It seems that you have just
made an argument for the "independent grounds" that can rest outside the
political, and on which the political, in fact, rests.

> >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
> political processes.

So now everything is politics once again, or at least the "product" of
politics.  Is politics the product of more politics, or it is a response
to the Other, to his destitution?  To the human being as a Kantian end
in itself?  In the first case, we have merely the market, to which we
both rebel, and in the second, we have ethics, and independent grounds.

> 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.

I find the perversity quite contrary, and perhaps we shall have to
simply agree to differ on this.  If it is not to collapse into an
inhuman ideology, politics must recall the "independent ground" of the
ethical.  I might add that the use I'm making of politics here seems the
ordinary use of 'politics', as a sphere in which "political reasons",
"reasons of state", or "the revolution" can become an excuse for just
about anything.  And I'm sorry if you didn't mean this by politics, but
your denying "independent grounds" or even "ethics" seemed to make this
meaning inevitable.

Thanks for your reference to Dostoyevsky.  It seems apt, since Levinas
was a Dostoyevsky fan.

In conclusion, it seems that we roughly agree.  You seem to agree that
ethics has a place alongside politics qua system, since you take human
beings to be ends in themselves, and I agree that political readings are
often helpful.  I would, however, merely wish to point out that those
you ridicule as "antipostmodernist New New Critics" are, in fact, merely
attempting to uncover other aspects of the text, sometimes in isolation,
though as far as I can recall, no-one suggested a permanent abolition of
political criticism.

Cheers,
Se

 

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