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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: February ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0092  Sunday, 4 February 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Sunday, 4 Feb 2007 10:25:17 -0500
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

The Roundtable on "Why Presentism Now?" continues with two thoughtful 
statements, a brief  contribution from Julia Crockett and a longer one 
from Cary DiPietro. Both writers amplify the concerns I raised in my 
initial statement. I want to thank both contributors for their thoughts 
and will comment briefly on their statements at the end this message.

***************
From: 		Julia Crockett <
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Date: 		Thursday, 1 Feb 2007 13:49:06 -0000
Subject:  	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Where do we go from here?

The transvaluation of the term 'presentism' Hugh Grady explores in his 
introductory remarks signals a welcome challenge to the recent hegemony 
of positivist materialist and historicist criticism in the field of 
Shakespeare studies. Presentism, in this sense, understands our sense of 
the past - of, for example, Shakespeare's historical, philosophical, 
political context - is inextricably mediated by our own ideologically 
and culturally constructed present; that there is no 'pure' access to 
the past without taking into account our situatedness in the present. As 
Jean Howard, quoted in Rackin (2000), states, 'there is no transcendent 
space from which one can perceive the past 'objectively'. Our view is 
always informed by our present position.'

The essays in Presentist Shakespeares offer a diversity of critical 
practices, of alternative narratives, which put pay to the idea that 
'the great age of theory is over'. Rather, the re-orientation in reading 
Shakespeare for the present opens possibilities for an experimental 
dialogue with the future just as radically significant as engagement 
with the past.

***************
From: 		Cary DiPietro <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 30 Jan 2007 18:25:32 -0500
Subject: 18.0060 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0060 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

A critical and productive presentism, for all of the theoretical 
complexity the term both invites and necessitates, begins with a simple 
premise, one that, rather remarkably, is rarely articulated openly in 
early modern studies; that Shakespeare's plays, perhaps more than those 
of his contemporaries, are not dead relics, but continue to live for us 
in the present.  To be fair, this has been the working premise of a 
number of sub-disciplines within early modern studies for some time, 
most obviously performance and film studies, a premise even finding 
occasional expression within more theoretically nuanced critical 
approaches such as feminism, post-colonialism and queer studies.  If 
this premise is not stated clearly or openly enough, perhaps the reason 
is that a critical commitment to the present comes at the cost of a 
relative marginalization within early modern studies more broadly, a 
field dominated both professionally and pedagogically by an orthodox 
historicism.

The stakes of this debate are very high.  That these plays continue to 
make great theatre and compelling cinema, and that they continue to be 
at the centre of a scholarly debate whose diversity and energy is truly 
remarkable no doubt because they continue to be relevant to us as 
scholars and teachers, flies in the face of a critical methodology that 
attempts to reduce them to antiquarian relics, curious historical 
artifacts separated from us by the insurmountable obstacle of 
chronological distance and the alterity that distance produces.  The 
debate is even rooted semantically in the 'early modern':  to what 
degree is Shakespeare 'early', a sensibility or state of subjectivity 
which is both chronologically and ideologically irreconcilable with our 
own 'late' or 'post'-ness some four hundred years later, and to what 
degree does he share in our own essential 'modernity', giving expression 
to those characteristics which define a broad historical epoch?

The new historicism, in its earliest manifestations in America, and 
echoed and refined across the Atlantic in the predominantly British 
cultural materialism, was, in the heady days of theory, undoubtedly 
aware of the need to qualify its own critical practices with a 
dialectical awareness of its situatedness in the present, a positioning 
inflected in America by the then fashionable post-structuralist lexis. 
One thinks of Stephen Greenblatt's now tired and overused metaphor for 
the new historicism intoned in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, a Sisyphean 
desire to speak with the dead.  As both Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes 
have recently argued, however, the initially radical and countercultural 
impulses of the 'new' historicism were quickly absorbed and 
institutionalized, losing their once radical edge to become professional 
orthodoxy, with the result of a more recent return to less sophisticated 
antiquarianism.

This antiquarianism is exampled for Hawkes, as he notes in the 
Introduction to his Shakespeare in the Present, by David Scott Kastan. 
Kastan's own attempt to reposition early modern studies in the wake of 
the post-structuralist and materialist interventions of the late 1980s 
and early 1990s culminates in his popular volume, Shakespeare After 
Theory.  Kastan, for his part, is a reluctant adversary and remains 
largely bewildered by his sudden emergence as the poster boy for a 
historicism dialectically positioned in opposition to an emergent 
presentism, as Kastan would surely argue, an otherwise reductive, 
largely rhetorical positioning which fails to reflect the complexity and 
diversity of historical approaches within the field.  As recently as at 
the 2006 MLA, however, Kastan has continued to give voice to the common 
supposition that the period of 'theory' is now complete, and that, 
rather than discarding theory's central observations, we can take the 
lessons we've learned and move forward, not without some irony, by 
looking back into the past.  For Kastan, this means nothing less than an 
ethical and even moral commitment to the past, in the case of 
Shakespeare, to restoring his works to the original imaginative and 
material conditions in which the plays were first written and engaged. 
By comparison, presentism's stated mission, as articulated by both 
Hawkes and Grady, is to remind us of the social and cultural connections 
to the present of our engagements with the past.

Again, this is not an unfamiliar argument, and presentism is clearly 
more than a simple reassertion of the counter-institutional energies 
that are now two decades old.  To avoid being labeled a merely renewed 
new historicism, presentism, I would argue, needs to refine, qualify and 
make explicit its commitment to the continuing presence of the 
Shakespeare play. But what exactly does this mean, and how would this 
commitment take shape in a 'critical' practice?  Hawkes would likely 
recoil from the apparent positivism of such a commitment, perhaps 
baulking at its lack of irony.  Grady's own definition of presentism, as 
exampled in the earlier post, has yet to return to sentiments originally 
voiced in his first book, Shakespeare and Modernism, about materialist 
perspectives that reduce the artwork to so many variations on the theme 
of capitalist reification.  Perhaps the closest to come to an avowed 
investment in the aesthetic is Ewan Fernie, who draws largely upon 
Derrida to speak of 'presence' in Shakespeare.  No presentist has yet, 
to my mind, successfully explained how such a critical practice will 
negotiate successfully the path between historical analysis and our own 
positive investment in Shakespeare, mapping out a theoretical position 
which will both anticipate and provide an answer to the charges of 
teleological positivism and poststructuralist aporia to which the term 
'presentism' will inevitably lead.

I would suggest that one way a critical presentism might map this 
terrain is by returning to the initial theoretical encounters of the 
early new historicism and cultural materialism and their attempt to 
develop a (still incomplete) philosophy of history.  My own interests 
here circulate around Fredric Jameson, and his attempt to update 
post-Marxist materialism for post-structuralism in The Political 
Unconscious, a work that begins, whether famously or notoriously, with 
the slogan "Always historicize!". Jameson here articulates a highly 
nuanced (some would say impenetrable) model of history which explores 
the commensurability of a Lacanian psychoanalytic model of narrative 
identity with an ultimate commitment to a Hegelian truth-ground of 
History.  His complex argument, in a necessarily reductive summary, 
begins with an axiomatic principle that is more or less orthodox 
thinking in historicism; that history is a narrative that, like all 
narratives, is not only produced and conditioned by a material past, but 
is also the only way by which that material past can ever be 
articulated.  For Jameson, these narratives, as they progress through 
time, become sedimented with accumulated layers of narrative encounter 
(his always-already-read) that are evidence to the alterity which 
separates us in the present from a material past. Much like the Lacanian 
Real, the past remains an unobtainable otherness which the narrative 
encounter can only ever approximate (much in the way that the Real only 
ever enters the Lacanian Symbolic in inert fragments).  The point for 
Jameson is that our narratives, whether historical or literary, are 
bound to a material past whose attainment is both impossible, but also 
endlessly desirable.

Narrative is, on the one hand, a densely overdetermined encounter with a 
material past always clouded in the moment by our own attempts to see 
ourselves in its reflection, to self-determine in the mirror image. 
Nevertheless, Jameson argues, we have an obligation to remain committed 
to that past, to make the attempt (however finally impossible) to reveal 
and understand the relations of domination and oppression that shape the 
histories that shape ourselves; thus, always historicize. On the other 
hand, narrative, and especially literary narrative, articulates a 
psychological and social resistance to that material reality (to 
oppression, torture, death, and so on) by imagining a world that either, 
and usually both, projects a utopian future and/or realizes the fear of 
a dystopian tragedy.  The desire for an unobtainable History is thus 
commensurate with a psychosocial impulse of wish fulfillment on the 
order of the Lacanian Imaginative.

The Jamesonian explication of history as narrative process, and in 
contrast to a material past, is not inconsistent with either new 
historicism or cultural materialism.  But where these earlier critical 
practices remain incomplete is in their exploration and articulation of, 
especially, literary narrative as a form of psychosocial 
wish-fulfillment, of collective Utopian desire.  Historicism's continued 
failure to account for the literary dimension of the text is exemplified 
by the historicist analogy, which begins by placing the literary text, 
usually, in a non-literary context to reveal how the text is 
interpenetrated with contemporary discursive practices and ideologies, 
wholly pierced through with invisible bullets. The reigning principle 
here is intertextuality, which reduces all manner of signification to 
discursive expressions of the same or similar sets of social relations 
and matrices.

For Jameson, the poststructuralist containment model poses the greatest 
threat to an affective historicism; the answer he offers in The 
Political Unconscious is a philosophy of history that both respects the 
radical difference and specificity of the past, while disclosing its 
polemics and passions with those of the present day. He thus offers two 
lessons for presentism; one, that presentists, much like their 
dialectically opposed counterparts, must, rather ironically, continue to 
historicize literary narratives, to admit to the radical difference and 
specificity of the past; and, two, that presentists must also recognize 
that the imaginative content of narrative, imagined in the moment of a 
social and cultural past, is precisely what continues to speak to and 
for us in the present.  If historicism expresses itself as a desire to 
speak with dead, presentism continues its ongoing conversation with the 
living.

While such metaphors remain catchy, they do little to explain or 
demonstrate the practical applications of a critical practice, or to 
account for Shakespeare's privileged position within that critical 
practice. Presentist criticism of Shakespeare, then, argues that, even 
while a play or series of plays gives evidence to an originary context 
which is determined by a materially specific past that is necessarily 
discontinuous with our own present, there are also necessary lines of 
continuity that connect us to that past.  For Grady in his most recent 
work, these lines are the "discursive underpinnings of modernity as they 
circulated and interacted in texts of Machiavelli, Montaigne, 
Shakespeare, and others. Such discourses enter into some of the cardinal 
institutions and practices which produced the post-Enlightenment world 
we inhabit - the nation-state and state power, mercantile capitalism, 
and the modern self."  These same discursive underpinnings are 
manifested and cross-pollinated within the accumulated practices and 
ideologies of gender, sexuality and coloniality through the modern 
period, a point which explains the possible affinity of other 
sub-disciplines of early modern studies with presentism.  In somewhat 
simple terms, Shakespeare continues to live for us in the present 
because his own moment in time, a fractious, often violent and uncertain 
moment in the paradigm shift from feudalism to modernity, continues to 
resonate in our own, often violent and precarious moment in late 
modernity, as it has, in different ways, through the course of modernity.

Quite clearly, then, a practical and central concern of presentism will 
be the epistemological and historiographic boundaries of modernity; what 
it means to be 'modern' and what systems of knowledge and power 
constitute that modernity, in both the late sixteenth century and, as 
compared to, the early twenty-first century. These two points 
necessarily occupy a privileged, though not exclusive, position in the 
continuum of modernity.  With presentism set in this context, what 
hardly seems surprising now is that presentism should begin largely with 
Hawkes and Grady whose own early interests in Shakespeare focused on the 
intersection of Shakespeare with the modernist resistance to capitalist 
reification and instrumental rationality endemic in modernity.  If 
historicism employs the analogy as a rhetorical device to resituate the 
text in its past, the double-focus of presentism, by comparison, lends 
itself to the use of productive anachronism. Anachronism serves to 
emphasize the historically specific conditions that are disparate with 
those of our own present; simultaneously, anachronism functions to 
interrogate that sense of continuity which otherwise makes the aesthetic 
object a living work of art for us in the present.

A corollary to presentism's concern with modernity, a second practical 
concern will be the need to map out a theoretical ground; and my 
suggestion for that project here is something on the order of a 
materialist aesthetics.  If, on the one hand, the argument for a 
materialist account of the text in modernity echoes Jameson's 
requirement for a genuine and still incomplete philosophy of history, on 
the other hand, Jameson's investment in the untapped Utopian potential 
of narrative attests to the need for a genuine philosophy of the 
aesthetic.  Really, the absence of a plausible and comprehensive theory 
of the aesthetic in literary studies, even the general lack of regard 
for such questions, is nothing short of remarkable.  A presentist 
criticism will therefore need to re-stake its claim to literary studies 
by investing, after the modernist fashion, in the aesthetic; for what 
finally distinguishes our critical pursuit from that of historical 
studies more generally, is our shared belief and investment in literary 
and dramatic art. What is the point, after all, if we are unable, as 
scholars and teachers, to communicate to our students and to society 
more broadly, the continued relevance and positive importance of 
Shakespeare in the present?

***************
Comments:

Julia Crocket welcomes the development of Presentism as a way to revive 
the field's commitments to studying Shakespeare from the point of view 
of larger theoretical views of cultural productions in danger of being 
forgotten in our current preoccupations with historical context.

Cary diPetro writes from a similar point of view but offers his own 
"take" on the possibilities for moving forward. He writes: "Presentism, 
I would argue, needs to refine, qualify and make explicit its commitment 
to the continuing presence of the Shakespeare play. But what exactly 
does this mean, and how would this commitment take shape in a 'critical' 
practice?" This is a very good question. Arguing that my own 
formulations in the original post might create the impression that 
presentism would amount to a simple revival of 1980s new historicism and 
cultural materialism, he advocates a turn to the idea of a materialist 
aesthetic, to a sense of Shakespeare's plays as works of art that, as 
Ewan Fernie has put it, re-invent themselves with every new reading and 
performance as works of the "now." This is a point I would heartily 
endorse myself, and I am happy that he brings it up here. Similarly, his 
fruitful encounter with Fredric Jameson's wide-ranging discussion of 
historicism in The Political Unconscious is, I believe, a highly 
promising one and deserves further discussion. By defining an 
inescapable need for the critic of the past to negotiate with both past 
and present, Jameson as interpreted here by DiPietro offers a model for 
dealing with Shakespeare that I believe almost all practicing 
Presentists would endorse, but which has perhaps not been as well 
articulated as it is here. So thanks very much to Cary DiPietro.

I'm wondering if this week's contributors might wish to address some of 
the points he raises, particularly the critique of earlier cultural 
materialism and new historicism as insufficiently aesthetic and 
insufficiently committed to identifying the qualities of Shakespeare and 
related early modern texts that make them meaningful in our times. And 
perhaps the many critics of the entire enterprise of presentism among us 
might wish to weigh in with reasoned statements that try to identify the 
problems and issues with this approach. Lastly, I hope we can hear from 
those with specific ideas about the development of a presentist approach 
that have not been discussed so far.

--Hugh Grady

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