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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: January ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0060  Monday, 29 January 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Saturday, 27 Jan 2007 11:33:48 -0500
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

[Editor's Note: The following statement is intended to stimulate 
discussion on the topic of Presentism in this the first SHAKSPER 
Roundtable. -HMC]

Why Presentism Now?
By Hugh Grady

Note: I have drawn this contribution to the Roundtable from a number of 
presentations at Shakespeare conferences over the last few years, and 
some passages, in this age of word processing, have found their way into 
print.  My apologies for what will be some repetition to those who might 
have already heard or read some of these remarks.

"History is far too important to be left to scholars who believe 
themselves able to make contact with a past unshaped by their own 
concerns," wrote Terence Hawkes in the Introduction to Shakespeare in 
the Present (p.  3). I want to amplify that point in what follows by 
explaining the great stakes that a developing presentist critical 
practice has, precisely, in dealing also with its dialectical opposite, 
historicism.

Within Shakespeare studies over the last twenty years, historicism has 
come to be an almost unquestioned and unexamined assumption of 
professional academic literary criticism. As I wrote previously, "Today 
in early modern literary studies, historicism, new or old, interwoven 
with feminism and psychoanalysis or not, has become virtually an 
unrivalled paradigm for professional writing. The turn to historicism 
has become taken for granted, its connections to the cultural present 
often unexamined or suppressed"  (Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and 
Montaigne, 1).

This monolithic development has begun to efface distinctions that were 
once crucial ones to make. For example, only a few years ago, it was 
necessary to add adjectives to the nouns designating the leading 
critical methodologies in the field: one spoke of the new historicism 
and of cultural materialism, whereas today it has become common to drop 
the adjectives, to refer to historicism and materialism without 
qualifiers. In both cases, the loss of the qualifier signals a lack of 
theoretical specificity, a fuzzing of the signified as well as the 
signifier. The nineteen-nineties, it was said, was the decade of 
Post-theory-a curious condition in which the results of a previous era 
of critical labor would be retained, while the on-going attempt to 
theorize itself would be suspended, in the name of application and 
consolidation. That this was a recipe for intellectual stagnation should 
have been apparent to everyone, but the dialectic of modernity was at 
work, and the newness of the term, its status as a final "post'" in a 
triumphant series that had begun with post-structuralism, then 
post-modernism, then post-feminism and Post-Marxism, seemed to have a 
certain inevitability about it. And of course the idea had a pragmatic 
rationality as well: all successful revolutions-and critical ones are no 
exception- have to move from insurgency to institutionalization, from 
negativity to construction. New historicism and cultural materialism 
would need to move from the scholarly monograph, the critical anthology, 
and the journal article into the new edition, the new collected works, 
the popular biography, the new handbook and the new student guide-and 
all this is of course now very much in progress.

Unfortunately, the widespread sense in the field that one phase of 
work-that of the critical paradigm shift-is finished, while another 
phase-that of institutionalization and popularization- is almost 
complete has not, as yet, produced much of a debate about where we go 
from here.  There have been, however, observable trends, and perhaps 
discussions like the present one can help create more consciousness of 
these trends, more of a realization that there are choices to be made, 
not just footsteps to follow. I would characterize the two trends (with 
an obvious bias), this way:  the first is an emerging form of 
historicism and materialism anxious to shed its previous engagement with 
literary theory in favor of a positivist "restoration" of the past 
through an accumulation of facts; the second is a presentism committed 
to a theoretical situatedness in our own cultural and political moment, 
while it is open to explorations of Shakespeare in the past, present, 
and future. There are numerous forms presentist criticism might take and 
several veins of critical practice already in existence, like feminist, 
post-colonialist, and performance studies, that are presentist in 
principle if not in name. But the labels can be clarifying and useful.

Clearly, each of these directions has descended from polar tendencies 
within the new historicism and cultural materialism of the 1980s.  In 
the 1980s both the new historicism and cultural materialism were 
healthily self-conscious of their rootedness in our present and 
emphasized the impact of the present on the new understandings of the 
past which they constructed. Stephen Greenblatt, for example, wrote: " . 
. . if cultural poetics is conscious of its status as interpretation, 
this consciousness must extend to an acceptance of the impossibility of 
fully reconstructing and reentering the culture of the sixteenth 
century, of leaving behind one's own situation" (Renaissance 
Self-Fashioning, 5). But it is precisely this kind of presentism that 
has largely disappeared as the new historicism has become more hegemonic 
and academic over the decades. How far from this is the self-description 
by David Kastan in the 1999 Shakespeare After Theory: "But this book 
would restore Shakespeare's artistry to the earliest conditions of its 
realization and intelligibility: to the collaborations of the theater in 
which the plays were acted, to the practices of the book trade in which 
they were published, to the unstable political world of late Tudor and 
early Stuart England in which the plays were engaged by their various 
publics" (16). Of course, such goals are not in themselves either 
unapproachable or unintelligent. But as an agenda for the next 
generation of Shakespeare studies (which Kastan claims they must be), 
they are much too narrow, and alternatives to them deserve to be considered.

These two quotations, then, constitute a trajectory from a kind of 
cultural insurgency to one of cultural conformity, from an understanding 
of literary studies as culturally and politically engaged to an attempt 
to normalize and de-politicize its practices. And this trajectory is 
one, I believe, which characterizes the mainstream of contemporary 
critical practice, not merely the individual critics cited. This 
opposition in effect defines the choices facing the field today.

While this is a large-scale development, and one driven by structural 
characteristics of academic professionalism itself, like the need to 
develop reproducible methods for the instruction of new generations of 
young professionals and for professionally acceptable publications, it 
need not remain monolithic and unchallenged. Today's Presentists differ 
in our critical practice in many ways, but all of us have come to a 
similar conclusion. The most direct way to challenge what has become a 
suffocating historicist hegemony is to re-assert the undeniable 
influence of the cultural present on all our attempts to understand and 
make our own the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Presentism 
has been up to now a pejorative term; it was coined to designate 
universalizing historical methodologies which denied historical 
difference and naively imposed their own concepts and rationality onto 
an understanding of the past. The term in that sense can still play a 
useful role as a pejorative, but in the present situation in the field, 
we need to re-define and transvalue it as a positive term, to designate 
methods which understand the limits of historicism, its inability to 
transcend our own situation, and the need to come to terms with the past 
from within our current, unique point in history- to grasp, as Walter 
Benjamin put it, "the constellation which [our] own era has formed with 
a definite earlier one. Thus [we] establish... a concept of the present 
as 'the time of the now' which is shot through with chips of Messianic time"
(Illuminations, 263).

By presentism, then, I mean work based on the understanding that all our 
knowledge of the past, including that of Shakespeare's  historical 
context, is shaped by the ideologies and discourses of our cultural 
present.  Far from being an impediment to our knowledge, this 
understanding is its enabling foundation. Following this insight, it is 
possible, as Benjamin demonstrated in his many critical essays and most 
impressively in The Arcades Project, to move into a number of different 
directions, from, for example, assessing the work from the liberatory 
standpoint of what he calls Messianic time in the cultural present to 
re-interpretations based on the new insights which cultural development 
has given us, to attempts to correlate the culture of the past with the 
culture of our present.

With the recent publication of Presentist Shakespeares (eds.  Hugh Grady 
and Terence Hawkes, Routledge, 2007), it is possible now to consider a 
variety of methods for investigations into the possibilities and 
directions raised by these ideas, and I invite interested readers to 
have a look. In what follows, however, I'm going to concentrate on the 
approach to presentism I have been working on for the last twelve years 
or so.

My view is that one way to think about Shakespeare's texts that both 
historicizes them and relates them to our own situation four hundred 
years later is to refunction elements of the Hegelian and Marxist 
narratives of the formation of long-term modernity-it is a narrative 
largely shared by Foucault as well-but updating them to account for our 
open-ended situation in the Postmodernist present. I don't offer this as 
some exclusive solution.  All periodizations, as Fredric Jameson has 
recently reminded us, are figural and heuristic rather than fixed or 
closed. But he usefully adds, "We cannot not periodize" (2002: 29-30). 
There is no conceptualizing the events of the past without implied or 
explicit periods, however invisible they have become to many. In 
addition, all periodizations have their moments both of insight and of 
blindness. But I think there is a strong case to be made for a 
problematic of  (early and late) modernity in situating Shakespeare and 
us, precisely because so many of Shakespeare's works thematize the 
constituting structures of a continuing modernity-whether in the 
autonomous, instrumental reason of Iago, the Lear villains, and 
elsewhere throughout the histories and tragedies; the indictments of 
commodification and capitalism in Merchant, Timon, Troilus and Cressida, 
the sonnets, and other works; the investigation of unfixed 
subjectivities-in-flux of Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV,  As You Like It, 
and Hamlet; or the deconstruction of new gender roles in the Elizabethan 
comedies and Jacobean tragedies- to name a few key examples. This 
problematic places us firmly in a dialectic of then and now, and the 
works of Shakespeare form a fertile ground of research within it.

Some have argued that such a problematic necessarily implicates us in 
the kind of teleological history which is a hallmark of both Hegel's and 
Marx's approaches. But the development in recent years of 
non-teleological Marxisms-Marxisms like that of Benjamin himself, who 
worked so assiduously to exorcise the ghost from the machine-or "the 
little hunchback"  inside the chess-playing  puppet, to use his own 
figure-suggests otherwise (see Callari, A.,  Cullenberg, S. and 
Biewener, C., Marxism in the Postmodern Age,1995). As I argued in my 
1999 article "Renewing Modernity," a turn toward a concept of a 
developing, always unfinished modernity has been a striking feature of 
several different strands of recent social and cultural theory. In  my 
2002 Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne  I attempted to model some 
of the possibilities of such a methodology through a close study of 
Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy. As I hope I have made clear, 
the method of this particular work-and perhaps I should state explicitly 
that I think it is imperative for the profession also to develop, 
tolerate, and encourage multiple methods, especially now non-historicist 
ones-represents not so much a break from new historicism/cultural 
materialism as a new development of it, one renewing its early 
orientation to cultural theory and de-emphasizing its most merely 
empirical arbitrariness. Such an effort can draw inspiration from 
another of Benjamin's useful dicta:  "In every era the attempt must be 
made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to 
overpower it." (Illuminations, 255)

Benjamin's emphasis on the power of the "now" in shaping our 
understanding of the past means that historicism itself, as Richard 
Halpern has re-asserted, necessarily produces an allegory of the present 
as it describes the past. The term "allegory," of course, implies 
multiple levels that interact with each other but do not cancel each 
other out (Halpern, Shakespeare Among the Moderns, 1997).  Historicism 
can and does give us more or less adequate conceptions of the past, but 
it always does so from within the mentalities of the present. How could 
it be otherwise? Far from being a defect of our knowledge of the past, 
let me emphasize, this allegorical quality is inescapable and a key to 
understanding the necessary cultural labor of renewing the past as we 
create new art and new culture for a new century. The past takes on new 
contours and qualities for us as our own thinking and conceptualizing 
shift in the present. History changes as we evolve and develop, and so 
do historical figures and cultural icons like Shakespeare. I tried to 
demonstrate one aspect of this dynamic in a previous book, Shakespeare's 
Universal Wolf (1996), by showing how overly familiar themes of "good 
and evil" in four central Shakespearean plays could be reconceptualized 
and re-interpreted in the light of recent cultural and social theory as 
representing emerging modernity and its logic of reification. Such a 
work of re-interpretation involves coming to understand how and why 
themes of late modernity might have been produced in early modernity in 
conceptual forms close enough to our own to seem cognate to us.  Thus, 
it is possible to be "presentist," in the sense of using theory from our 
cultural present to help understand and re-interpret works from the 
past, without jettisoning a historicist dimension, an investigation into 
those qualities of the early modern mentalit

 

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