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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: March ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0170 Thursdays, 1 March 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Saturday, 24 Feb 2007 17:29:17 -0500
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

This week's Roundtable includes eight posts: brief comments from new 
contributors Edmund Taft (on the "newness" question) and Linda Charnes 
(on definitions and labels), and a longer ones from new contributors 
Alan Dessen (from the point of view of a theatrical historian trying to 
discover stage practices of past theaters) and from Neema Parvini (who 
challenges Presentist critics and others to undertake a renewed interest 
in theory by questioning many of the assumptions inherited by critics 
from the writings of Foucault and Althusser.  In addition previous 
contributor Michael Luskin takes up in detail the issue about 
historically "authentic" musical performances while Larry Weiss, Louis 
Swilley, and Hardy Cook revisit issues discussed in previous 
Roundtables-problems of using critical labels (Weiss and Cook), and the 
issue of "timeless" moral content in great works of art (Swilley).

Your moderator feels he has had his say in plus and overplus over the 
last few weeks and happily will yield the floor to the many readers of 
these posts who might wish to respond to them. Therefore, I am omitting 
this week a commentary (except for two factual notes on the posts by 
Taft and Luskin) in the hope of bringing forth more from readers. I ask 
only that contributors adhere to norms of ordinary civility and to have 
a point (or points) expressed clearly. -Hugh Grady

[1]+++++++++++++++
From:	 	Neema Parvini <
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I have read the contributions thus far with great interest. I am happy 
that Hugh Grady recognizes that new historicism's and cultural 
materialism's attempts to theorize themselves have been 'suspended' 
leading to the 'intellectual stagnation' of their respective critical 
practices. Indeed, I would argue that there is much theoretical work to 
be done, especially in relation to how theory has been applied in new 
historicist and cultural materialist methodology to date. Whilst I can 
understand 'Presentism's' reticence to oppose historicism completely, it 
surely has an obligation to question methodological assumptions that 
currently dominate literary studies. I am not only referring to the 
importance of establishing a workable theory of aesthetics, as Cary 
DiPietro has argued for, but also to the now unspoken acceptance of 
Foucault's Power/ Knowledge model as the limit of our theoretical 
development. In the 1980s, attacks from the likes of Edward Pechter and 
Frank Lentriccha questioned Foucault's assumptions and methodology. 
Although these attacks were, in the main, ideologically or politically 
motivated, they still had value in demanding that new historicists and 
cultural materialists should work critically, with theoretical rigour. 
It appears that now, dissident voices such as these have faded rather 
than been answered. Deep lying concerns - about, for example, the 
ramifications of employing an overwhelmingly synchronic methodology that 
effectively flat-lines historical moments, a residue of structuralism 
that can be traced back to Althusser - have never been properly examined 
in the way that one would expect. The problems of the 
'power-containment' model that dominated much of the early debates 
surrounding new historicism are in many ways a product of working within 
structuralist assumptions. Whilst Foucault divests himself of the 
theoretical baggage associated with the term 'ideology' by replacing it 
with 'power', he never moves beyond Althusser's view of society as a 
monolithic totality. When it comes to incorporating these assumptions 
into critical practice, the critic is suddenly able to make connections 
between cultural artefacts that do not necessarily exist.  It seems to 
me to be a mistake to suggest that every aspect of a given culture 
necessarily has an impact on every other aspect of that culture. This is 
especially so when working within the necessary but none the less, still 
artificial, periodizations that Fredric Jameson has stressed. Some of 
the linkages, sometimes ranging across different decades and countries, 
even continents, that Stephen Greenblatt makes, whilst masterful and 
fascinating, are only enabled by this overriding synchronicity. Without 
it the links begin to look more forced, even arbitrary. I am not 
suggesting that Foucault and Althusser don't have their uses, just that 
it remains a contradiction that whilst new historicists and cultural 
materialists would probably sneer at the suggestion that they were 
structuralists (emerging, as they did, out of an opposition to formalist 
approaches to literature) their dominant methodology is, ironically, 
rooted in structuralism.  I think that this is partially down to the 
'institutionalization and popularization' that Grady speaks of, as a 
brand of criticism becomes more popular it becomes less and less 
necessary to justify the terms of its practice, let alone question them. 
'Presentism' should not fall into the trap of opposing new historicism/ 
cultural materialism on the issue of recognising the formative nature of 
our present ideology but then replicating their problems in its methodology.

  [2]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Edmund Taft <
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Concerning the "newness" of "Presentism," it's instructive to remember 
that shortly after the start of the 1900's, Collingwood and Croce, two 
historians, put forth the theory that the best historians can ever do is 
construct a model of the past, based on evidence interpreted from the 
vantage point of the present. Sounds a lot like "Presentism" to me.

Ed Taft

Moderator's Note:  Thanks to Ed Taft for adding Collingwood to my 
discussion of Croce as a previous theorist of Presentism last week.

[3]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Michael B. Luskin <
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I can't imagine how I in the middle of this, but, as Macbeth more or 
less said, I am in ink stepped in so far that should I write no more . . 
.  I know a bit more about music performance than I do about 
Shakespeare, so I found David Lindley's comments thought provoking.  But 
there are several differences between the questions of early music 
performance and questions of presentism.

First, the question of access. Relatively few actually read Mozart's 
scores, and discuss musical ideas, whatever that might mean, but many, 
if not most, people read Shakespeare's plays, and talk the ideas, etc. 
To say nothing of the meaning!  The debates about using early 
instruments and early music standards deal almost entirely with 
performance, not ultimate understanding.

I must mention pitch.  Every now and then, we discover in an old 
document or letter commenting on a performance, someone mentioning 
amusedly that a particular note made a chandelier, window, or other 
object sound sympathetically.  (I remember at a performance by the 
Guarneri String Quartet, playing a movement ending on a D, while at the 
same time, a police siren outside hit the same note.  Everybody 
laughed.)  From this, assuming we still have the chandelier, window, or 
whatever, we are able to infer standards of tuning and pitch.  It turns 
out that in general we tune, roughly, a half-tone sharper today than 
Mozart did.  There are hundreds of old instruments still extant, lots of 
organs, which demonstrate pitch, which also illustrate that our standard 
of pitch is sharper by about half-tone than Mozart's.  What makes this 
so interesting is that two hundred years ago, certain keys were 
associated with certain emotions or ideas.  For instance, the key of A 
might have been associated, maybe, with sadness, but the key of A sharp 
might have been associated with happiness.  So playing a piece written 
two hundred years ago, with modern tuning, might be in a key with 
exactly the opposite meaning than it was composed with.

But, as students of harmony would say, that is a technical issue.

A rite of passage for students taking what one might call Music 102 is, 
sitting at the piano, taking a piece of music written in one key and 
transposing it to another.  For a thousand laughs, listen to a student 
string quartet doing the same thing with a late Beethoven string 
quartet. I guarantee that you will not do it again unless someone is 
paying you.

Music is a different art.  The ideas in music are more abstract than the 
ideas in literature, there is usually, Strauss notwithstanding, little 
or no distinct poem to the tone.  A play has plot, characters, etc.  And 
musical ideas are not as intellectually nuanced as written ideas.

I wonder if the Wagnerian notion of leitmotif has any parallel to 
historicist contexts.  Without doubt, the cruelest and ugliest thing 
ever done by an artist to another was done by Bartok to Shostakovich. 
In the coda of the Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok quotes a few bars of a 
Shostakovich work and then gives a musical belly laugh.  Sitting in New 
York, Bartok could easily afford to do that.  Sitting in Moscow, waiting 
as he often did, for the midnight knock on the door, Shostakovich knew 
the true value, in more than one sense, of the trite Soviet realist 
music that he hoped would keep him and his family out of an Arctic slave 
labor camp.  That is all you need to know about historicism.

I am not sure of the parallel, but I think you could argue that 
instrumentation, orchestration, harmony, (early) music performance 
standards, the devices of music, are more or less parallel to poetic 
form, vocabulary, etc., in a play.

It would be difficult to look at a Mozart score and see 1770 in it, 
except technically, one would not expect Moussorgskian harmonies in it. 
While 1600 is all over Shakespeare.  While writing this, I read Larry 
Weiss' report of an exchange with Greenblatt at Davidson, discussing a 
reference to the Gunpowder plot in Macbeth.

Finally, the following is tantalizing, but how I wish that authors would 
give web accessible addresses:  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_).

Mbl

Moderator's Note:  The world of English studies is still not always at 
our fingertips, alas. _Representations_ is available, I believe, through 
many college libraries' electronic subscriptions, but the new work 
_Presentist Shakespeares_ is still only available in bookstores and 
libraries. After all, the piper must be paid.

[4]+++++++++++++++
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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Date: 		Monday, 19 Feb 2007 15:12:27 -0500
Subject: 18.0157 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0157 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

It is, of course, the role of the Roundtable moderator to synthesize the 
participants' contributions.  So it is with some trepidation, but no 
intent to tread on Prof. Grady's toes, that I venture to say that much 
of what he, Michael Luskin, Louis Swilley and I have said make similar 
points.  Where Prof. Grady and I differ is in his faith in the utility 
of labels and my skepticism about whether they help or hinder a 
discourse.  He sums up his position in this regard by saying:

[T]here 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.

True enough that labels can be useful; but they can also be mischievous. 
One way they are, as Prof. Grady points out, is in their tendency to 
conceal the complexities.  Another way, as I shall show, is that they 
create new and unnecessary complexities.  Finally, I will try to answer 
Prof. Grady's implicit question about how we can do without them.

Labels as rhetorical constructs have vitality beyond their descriptive 
function.  If they were merely descriptive, and if the descriptions were 
accurate, they would be unobjectionable.  The problem is that they tend 
to canalize thought and distort the subject material in the process.  I 
hope that is not what Prof. Grady had in mind when he refereed to their 
"rhetorical effectiveness."  As a lawyer, I have a fairly good grasp of 
what makes something effective rhetorically, and it is frequently not 
the accuracy, logic or coherence of the argument.  But more specifically 
with respect to labels:

Every lawyer is familiar with the mischief that can be done when we try 
to shoehorn facts into doctrinal rubrics which were not originally 
designed to cover them.  There is a famous case in England of a man who 
was injured by a safe which fell out of a loft.  He was unable to 
identify any act or omission by the loft owner that caused the safe to 
fall, so under traditional notions of what is required to prove 
negligence he would have been out of court.  The court, however, 
concluded that safes do not ordinarily fall out of lofts without someone 
having done something careless; in other words, the jury might infer 
negligence from the occurrence as the thing speaks for itself.  However, 
the judge who wrote the opinion wanted to show off his classical 
learning, so, instead of just expressing the result in words similar to 
those I just used, he employed the Latin term "res ipsa loquitur." 
Voil

 

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