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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: February ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0157  Monday, 19 February 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Monday, February 19, 2007 7:46 PM
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

This week's Roundtable presents five responses to the issues raised by 
my initial posting, "Why Presentism Now?"  David Lindley defines two 
"anxieties" he feels about Presentism, one having to do with the issue 
of its newness or lack thereof, the second about the protean quality of 
the idea of the "present."  Andrew Wilson asks for clarification in the 
form of a hypothetical confrontation between "presentist" and 
"historicist" readings of the same text. Michael Lufkin expresses 
astonishment that anyone is debating the idea of critical presentism, 
which he characterizes as "incredibly obvious."  Larry Weiss advocates 
the avoidance of labels for critical methodology like "presentism" in 
favor of critical debates without labeling. And Louis Swilley argues 
that both presentism and historicism miss the point that what counts 
about literature is its engagement with timeless issues of conscience.

I will comment on these messages, as has become the established 
practice, at the end of this digest.

[1]+++++++++++++++
From: 		David Lindley <
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Date: 		Monday, 12 Feb 2007 11:25:32 -0000
Subject: 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Two observations:

First, that something very like the arguments about 'presentism' were 
being debated in the arena of 'authentic' musical performance in the 
1980s. (See, for example, the collection of essays edited by Nicholas 
Kenyon, Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium (Oxford, 1988).) Many 
of the arguments that Terry Hawkes and Hugh Grady advance about the 
impossibility of knowing the past have a kind of pre-echo in the attacks 
by Richard Taruskin on what he sees/saw as the fantasies of early music 
performance.

But my second anxiety is that there seems a great reluctance to 
interrogate whose 'present' is being invoked. Who, in short, is the 
'our' in the statement by Jean Howard quoted by Julia Crockett; who is 
the 'us' that Terry Hawkes frequently invokes in his Shakespeare and the 
Present - a dazzling and entertaining series of essays, but one which 
leaves me in a good deal of uncertainty about where 'the present' begins 
and ends, and in whose name it is being created. It sometimes looks 
rather depressingly like the old fantasy object, 'the reader', who 
always happened to respond in exactly the way the critic desired or 
needed (and was usually male - 'the reader . . . he' is a locution I 
still shudder at in some of my own earlier writing).

David Lindley

[2]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Andrew Wilson <
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Date: 		Monday, 12 Feb 2007 14:02:06 -0800
Subject: 18.0130 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0130 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

I believe this roundtable discussion suffers from a dearth of down to 
earth, specific examples of where Presentism comes into conflict with 
its opponents.  It would be a great help if someone (Hugh Grady?) could 
cite a few example cases where the two sides of the conflict can be 
expressed in concrete, easy to understand terms rather than in 
generalized, abstract verbiage.  For example, something along these lines:

In Shakespeare's play "XYZ" a Presentist might want to make the 
following argument: ____________ (= something having to do with text of 
the play, characters in the play, or anything an average reader of the 
play could easily relate to).  However, his anti-Presentist opponent 
would say the Presentist's approach is flawed for the following reasons: 
____________.

Thanks very much .

Andrew Wilson

[3]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Michael B. Luskin <
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Date: 		Monday, 12 Feb 2007 18:37:49 EST
Subject: 	Presentism

 >Elsewhere Fernie has emphasized the salient point that to
 >encounter Shakespeare's plays as works of art is, necessarily, to
 >encounter them as they exist in the "now." I would simply add that I
 >don't doubt that the past has existed and that all critics of
 >Shakespeare depend on that knowledge. But precisely because the past is
 >Other, it can never be captured in its precise specificity-whatever that
 >would mean. We can of course attempt to conceptualize it and perform the
 >useful task of trying to imagine what complex cultural documents like
 >Shakespeare's plays would have meant to their original audiences. But we
 >will only have a series of approximations in the end, and any reading of
 >the historical critics of the past will show that their "past" is not
 >our "past." ... Instead, we might focus on what all of these
 >commentators concede, that the pasts we construct are permeated with our
 >situation in the present, are always allegories of the present in one
 >form or another.

I am not a literature scholar, so am bemused by the discussion of 
presentism.

It seems that the point of presentism is incredibly obvious; I don't 
know why people debate it or talk about it.

And old joke: Someone is trying to explain Einstein's theory of 
relativity to his grandfather and decides to offer analogies on time 
dilation. "Suppose you're in the dentist's chair. Ten minutes seems like 
an eternity. Now suppose you have a beautiful woman sitting on your lap, 
pressing herself against you.

An hour seems like a second."  The grandfather replies, "From that your 
Einstein makes a living?"

We see the past through today's eyes. That's news?

In a discussion of Shylock a couple years ago, someone posted here about 
Lopez' execution.  Apparently the more he protested his innocence, the 
more people laughed, since he was doing exactly what you would expect a 
devilish, lying, Jew to do.  But nowadays we read the speech 
differently.  What else do you need to know about presentism?

Michael B. Luskin

[4]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 14 Feb 2007 02:10:57 -0500
Subject: 18.0130 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0130 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Hardy accurately quoted my post to him, including my comment that the 
debate has "more to do with describing what they [academics] do than 
what Renaissance authors did."

I think Hardy makes my point for me when he observes in his reply that 
"My remarks about the morphing of "New Historicism" are in part my 
response to being unable to describe or to categorize the methodology 
that Stephen Greenblatt used in his _Will in the World .... "

Why is it necessary to categorize that methodology?  Does a taxonomy of 
critical techniques make any of them more or less valid?  Do labels add 
to the persuasiveness of any given approach?  Or, in other words, aren't 
we really just discussing what critics do, not what the authors did?

Here is an example of how a critical issue can be debated without 
reference to labels: At the conference held at Davidson College last 
weekend, Stephen Greenblatt and I had a brief colloquy about what I 
believe is a topical allusion in Macbeth.  In the panel entitled "Clues 
about Shakespeare and Religion," Prof. Greenblatt quoted a 19th Century 
critic who wrote in 1819 that it was remarkable that Shakespeare never 
alluded to the Gunpowder Plot.  In the question period I challenged the 
19th Century critic (not Greenblatt) by pointing out that the critic 
evidently did not remember the porter, who offered an equivocator a 
place in Hell -- "here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the 
scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's 
sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.  O, come in equivocator." It 
seems to me that there is no escaping that this passage refers to the 
Gunpowder Plot trials of 1606 (the year before Macbeth was written), and 
particularly the testimony of Fr. Garnet. Greenblatt expressed 
skepticism about this, although the other member of the panel, Maurice 
Hunt, agreed with me. However, at no point did our entirely civilized 
colloquy invoke labels.  Did I adopt a classical Historicist approach? 
(If I did, I would be as astounded as I was when I was first told I was 
writing prose.)  Was Greenblatt's skepticism a function of New 
Historicism?  Who cares?  Would I be wrong and Greenblatt correct to be 
skeptical if we decide that New Historicism is preferable to a more 
traditional approach?  Does the critical question cease to be 
interesting if we all decide to be Presentists?

[5]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Louis Swilley <
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Date: 		Friday, 16 Feb 2007 07:16:39 -0600
Subject: 18.0151 A further question
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0151 A further question

Do Presentism and Historicism both ignore the fact that human constants 
are expressed in the works, constants that make the classics meaningful 
to us generation after generation? Those constants - expressed so 
beautifully in great works - are characters responding to challenges by 
following or ignoring their consciences. These are not lost in the 
historical circumstances in which they are expressed, nor are they 
dependent upon changing factors in present-day experience. However a 
play may produced to reflect a current problem - Shakespeare in modern 
dress - the director and actors had better be aware that the real 
"stuff" of any great play is the "deep-down-diving, long-down-staying, 
mud-up-bringing" matter of the characters' responses to moral 
challenges, challenges and responses that remain the same for all 
generations that were, that are and that will be, until we can leap from 
the womb totally physically self-sufficient. Only in those circumstances 
will our human nature change to the degree that the conditions of 
conscience are altered and that the human image in art is significantly 
changed.

L. Swilley


+++++++++++++++
Commentary by Hugh Grady

I'd like to begin with my thanks to Michael Luskin for his forthright 
statement about the obviousness of the basic idea of presentism.  As I 
told him in a private message in which I suggested he post his idea to 
the Roundtable itself, I have longed shared his incredulity at the fact 
that many people find the idea objectionable or incorrect. The influence 
of changing political, cultural, and aesthetic ideas on how we interpret 
cultural objects like Shakespeare's plays has always struck me as more 
or less self-evident. Theatrical practitioners especially generally 
accept the idea of presentism as completely obvious and unexceptional. 
But, alas, experience shows that the obviousness of the basic idea 
escapes many people for reasons which they are better at explaining than 
I am. I should add that despite what I take to be the obviousness of the 
basic idea, I think there are innumerable ramifications for critical 
practice that flow out of the basic insight, and these ramifications 
deserve exploration and definition. The essays in _Presentist 
Shakespeares_ might be considered just an opening foray in a much larger 
task.

David Lindley reports that many of the issues raised in recent debates 
about presentism in Shakespeare studies have a kind of "pre-echo" in 
debates about "authenticity" and musical performances in the 1980s. I 
wasn't familiar with this obviously relevant discussion within a 
sister-art, and I thank Prof. Lindley for bringing it to our attention. 
  I wasn't sure whether this point was related or not to one he raised 
in the "shadow" discussion of Presentism that went on, amidst much 
intemperate language and ad hominems, in the thread "A Question," in 
which he questioned the "newness" of presentism. But it may be 
worthwhile to try clarifying an ambiguity about the issue of "newness." 
  Of course, the "obvious idea" behind presentism that I just discussed 
is hardly a new one-as I and many others have repeatedly observed in our 
publications on this issue. It goes back to at least the nineteenth 
century as an issue that was unavoidable after Johann Gottfried Herder 
first defined in 1773 (in an essay on Shakespeare, incidentally) and in 
subsequent works, the idea of the unique cultural and historical 
conjuncture behind each art-work. Thereafter, critics would need to 
attempt to distinguish between the work's origins and the work's 
subsequent reception. In other words, Herder can probably be counted on 
as the first "historicist" critic. But debates about historical 
methodology did not stop with his seminal writings. The philosopher 
Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) was perhaps the earliest consistent 
developer of the basic notion behind presentism in his multi-facetted 
argument that all constructions of the past are created within the 
intellectual frameworks of the present. Walter Benjamin, in his 1940 
"Theses on History and Philosophy" continues this tradition, and even T. 
S. Eliot in an article he composed for Granville-Barker and G. B. 
Harrison's 1934 _Companion to Shakespeare Studies_ concedes that "The 
views of Shakespeare taken by different men at different times in 
different places form an integral part of the development and changes of 
European civilisation during the last 300 years."

What _is_ new about today's Presentism is that these ideas are being 
mobilized self-consciously by critics and scholars uneasy with the 
recent direction of Shakespeare studies towards a "post-Theory" 
historicism that is harder and harder to distinguish from old-fashioned 
positivist historicism. It is because of this relatively recent 
development that several of us have decided it is time to offer an 
alternative path to the field. There has never been to my knowledge an 
avowedly "Presentist" school of critics (however loosely associated and 
different from each other in a number of ways) up to now.

Professor Lindley also raises a point about the slipperiness of the 
concept of the "present" and the complications this raises for 
Presentist criticism. Of course the present does not stand still and of 
course an individual critic construes the present in a partial, 
position-based way. But I see these qualities of the present as 
resources for, not obstacles to, a presentist criticism. Precisely 
because the present is complex, contradictory, and changing, it is a 
rich concept to take as a starting point for critical interpretation. 
Indeed, one way of discovering qualities of the present is through 
re-reading classic texts like Shakespeare's and noticing how our 
responses to them have changed since our last reading. I agree with 
Professor Lindley that the pronoun "our" in a phrase like "our present" 
is a rhetorical construct, in some ways akin to the convenient 
rhetorical construct "the reader."  But these usages are simply part of 
the overall persuasive (or non-persuasive) rhetoric of critical 
discourse, and I think their uses have to be judged on a case-by-case 
basis, rather than attempting universal judgments about them a priori. 
Defining "our times" is surely a problem-laden undertaking-but what kind 
of valuable discourse in the humanities is not? We will always fail, but 
that doesn't mean the attempt was not valuable or that readers cannot 
learn from it.

I'm going to resist what I'm sure was a sincere and well-meaning request 
from Andrew Wilson for a simple and hypothetical example of 
"historicism" vs. "presentism" in interpreting some text. I do so 
because, as a long-time teacher of courses introducing students to 
critical methodologies, I have too often observed the harm that 
well-meaning textbook writers often perform when they try to accommodate 
such suggestions. The problem is, of course, that they thus treat 
critical methods as pasta-making machines through which to run texts and 
generate automatic readings.  This is simply not good criticism in my 
view. Criticism is much more of an art than that procedure suggests, I 
think. What might be a better alternative would take some work on the 
part of the questioner, but nothing comes from nothing, and work is 
needed to understand these matters (he said professorially). Anyone 
interested might, for example, start with Kiernan Ryan's bracing 
presentist reading of _Troilus and Cressida_ in _Presentist 
Shakespeares_ and compare it with some earlier (old or new) historicist 
essay, like, say, Eric Mallin's excellent new historicist essay on the 
same play "Emulous Factions and the Collapse of Chivalry," in 
_Representations_ 29 (Winter 1990): 145-79 (the essay was 
recontextualized in Mallin's book _Inscribing the Time_). Other pairings 
are of course, possible. And in the case of comparing these two 
particular methods, historicism and presentism, their dialectical links 
would definitely get in the way of any clear binary oppositions.

I think Larry Weiss's preference for critical debates without labeling 
is related to this issue, and it should be clear from the above 
paragraph that I have sympathy with aspects of Weiss's statement here. 
But again, there is the issue of rhetorical effectiveness to deal with. 
Labels can be reductive, but they can also be useful. We have to make 
judgments for each particular case. I and others began using the label 
"presentist" because we had a point to make about the current direction 
of Shakespeare studies, and the use of this label seemed a good way to 
start raising the issue. I hope it is clear how complex the issues 
behind critical methodology are and how a label can hide the 
complexities. But in the give and take of critical discourse, I don't 
see how we can do without them.

Louis Swilley voices what was once a commonplace about literary classics 
like Shakespeare, that they engage us in "timeless" issues, especially 
moral ones. There are semantic issues at work here as well, and 
connections between our own cultural assumptions and those of the play's 
originating moment, I don't doubt. To keep it short, my own view is that 
the "timelessness" effect comes into play precisely when something in 
the text resonates strongly with our own current cultural concerns and 
that a review of the history of almost any Shakespeare text will 
demonstrate how views on what ideas are most "timeless" turn out to 
shift as we move through historical change. _King Lear_, for example, 
was once considered a play in which a few precious bits of poetry could 
be discovered in a junk pile of "barbarous" excesses and egregious 
violations of poetic justice. Nowadays it is held by many to be the most 
profound of the tragedies.

Thanks to all who wrote in, and I hope the discussion will continue on 
these or new issues next week.

Sincerely,
Hugh Grady

[Editor's Note: We invite thoughtful responses to any of the individual 
contributions to this week's Roundtable digest; responses to Hugh 
Grady's commentary on them; responses to Hugh Grady's initial posting -- 
"Why Presentism Now?" <http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0065.html>; 
responses to previous digests in the Presentism thread 
<http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0091.html> and 
<http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0128.html>; as well as 
observations, queries, or discussion points on the topic under 
consideration, Presentism. The Editor of the list, Hardy M. Cook, 
normally forwards all contributions from the week to the Guest 
Moderator, Hugh Grady, on Friday evenings. The Guest's Moderator's 
comments are returned to the Editor on Sundays and posted to the 
SHAKSPER membership on Monday. -HMC]

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