The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0170 Thursdays, 1 March 2007
From: Hugh Grady <
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
From: Neema Parvini <
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.
From: Edmund Taft <
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.
Moderator's Note: Thanks to Ed Taft for adding Collingwood to my
discussion of Croce as a previous theorist of Presentism last week.
From: Michael B. Luskin <
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
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_).
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.
From: Larry Weiss <
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."