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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: March ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0187  Monday, 12 March 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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Date: 		Monday, 12 Mar 2007 10:37:17 -0400
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Dear SHAKSPER Members,

Despite the lateness of last week's posting, we are preceding with the 
Roundtable on Presentism this week in an attempt to re-establish the 
regular schedule that had to be put aside during Hardy Cook's recent 
illness. We have only two posts, each coming from very different 
critical "places."

Tony Burton, conflating "Presentism" with "subjectivism," asserts that 
its real value lies in its usefulness as a way to draw "attention to 
one's own biases, deficiencies, or limitations, but never discouraging 
one from the quest to overcome them in order to understand more fully 
something felt to be weighty, even though always slightly beyond our 
total comprehension."

Ewan Fernie takes up an issue raised in a previous post by David 
Lindley, the issue of the complexity of the present as a critical 
starting point. Fernie reminds us that the past was just as complex and 
elusive as the present and that historicism in itself is therefore not a 
solution to the problem of complexity.

I will respond briefly to these two posts below and in the process 
propose some possible issues for further discussion.


[1]+++++++++++++++
From:		Tony Burton <
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I've silently been following this roundtable discussion -- and the 
near-parallel "A question" thread on the general forum -- for lack of 
familiarity with the recommended texts and, like my fellow dinosaur 
Carol Barton, lean towards Joe Egert's less intemperate expressions of 
his own point of view. Also like Carol, my independence from academic 
careerism frees me from engaging in the ongoing dialectic of diatribes 
engaged in by adherents to the most recent succession of faux literary 
criticism that, it seems to me, struggles to defeat the texts in 
question rather than elucidate them -- the very possibility of which 
they often deny on principal.

But to Shakespeare. When Cicero remarks in Julius Caesar at 1.3.34-5 
that "men may construe things, after their fashion, / Clean from the 
purposes of the things themselves," isn't he pointing to the eternal 
dilemmas of subjectivism or presentism?  Though it be impossible to free 
oneself from one's own "manner," must one then deny that there are such 
matters as "the things themselves?" Isn't it also true that some of the 
weightier "things" are worth reflecting on generation after generation? 
And isn't it our common view that Shakespeare's works are among those 
weighty things, which brings us all together here in all our several 
manners?

Some of us may be more fascinated by "manner" and some by "things," but 
we can all profit by the insights they produce. In my experience, every 
ideological school that has turned its lights towards the study of 
Shakespeare quickly divides into those who claim that the Bard supports 
(or opposes) a certain point of view, and those who claim that he 
represents it only to subvert it. But none have succeeded in subduing 
his comprehensive humanity to a single discourse, much less to a 
particular and fixed opinion within that discourse.

For me, the clear attraction and only real value of presentism is that 
the attitude it fosters serves as a sort of helpful guru, hierophant, or 
"control analyst" for the reader, always drawing attention to one's own 
biases, deficiencies, or limitations, but never discouraging one from 
the quest to overcome them in order to understand more fully something 
felt to be weighty, even though always slightly beyond our total 
comprehension.

Now, back to the Canon.

Tony

[2]++++++++++++++++
From:		Ewan Fernie  <
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David Lindley writes:

 >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).

I think Lindley makes a moot point: the present is a slippery thing, 
uncertain at its borders, fractured to the point of incoherence.  But 
this, of course, is true of any historical period, including the early 
modern one. We KNOW the elusive complexity of the present, but the 
prestige of history and the poverty of the historical record (which can 
never approximate the confounding richness of 'life') often combine to 
endow history with a fallacious objectivity.  Unease about a generalised 
present might profitably lead to unease about a generalised past.

Lindley's remarks about the relativity of presentism lead him implicitly 
to stress the great variety of readers.  One major advantage of 
presentism, to my mind, is that it could lead us back from historical 
contexts to the presentness of the work of art in any aesthetic 
experience of it.  But the rich privacy and particularity of such 
experience is a major problem for professional criticism.  For most 
readers and audiences, it's the primary, the passionate and pleasurable 
thing, the reason for bothering with literary scholarship in the first 
place. But how to bring such experience into public discourse?  Terry 
Hawkes's Shakespeare is of course different from my Shakespeare, who's 
different from David Lindley's, etc.  A more honest negotiation of the 
gap between the intensely privatised present of aesthetic experience and 
any critical, let alone political, conversation might benefit us all.

Ewan Fernie


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

Response to Tony Burton:

There are so many assumptions made by Tony Burton with which I disagree 
that I don't know where to begin or how many issues to engage, and I 
hope readers will feel free to join the discussion of some of these 
assumptions (along with other issues) in the coming weeks. But I can't 
let pass without comment Burton's claim that his "independence from 
academic careerism frees [him] from engaging in the ongoing dialectic of 
diatribes engaged in by adherents to the most recent succession of faux 
literary criticism." I really think this statement does an injustice to 
the thousands of academic literary professionals, and one that will not 
stand up against even the most casual inspection, starting with a survey 
of the various "diatribes" that have been posted to this very listserv. 
As I understand the term "diatribes," several non-academic contributors 
to this list have shown themselves to be fully as or more capable of 
them than any academics.

But perhaps Burton confuses "diatribes" with the give and take of 
professional debate, the very lifeblood of the field and one of the most 
important of the processes by which reasoned discourse is advanced in 
any field. One of the great strengths of academic criticism is that it 
attempts to guide such debates through a series of professional norms. 
And the most important of these-one often ignored in unenlightening 
"debates" in our own ether-world- is that the critic take on the 
responsibility of studying and attempting to understand the positions 
with which he or she is arguing-and in addition, of providing supporting 
evidence for positions taken, and of avoiding _ad hominem_ attacks in 
favor of substantive debate. These norms, if they honored (and of course 
they are ideals that critics sometimes fall short of), assure that ideas 
are pursued in a way that demands their proponents take responsibility 
for them and learn from criticisms of them.

But I don't know any academic Shakespeare critic who entered the field 
because of what Burton calls "careerism." We did so for a large variety 
of reasons, but nobody goes into this business without loving what we do 
and taking pride in the intellectual probity of our work. Academic 
scholarship is absolutely not the career for anyone desiring power and 
prestige-for that, it is much better, apparently, to be a C student at 
Yale, a baseball team owner, and a recovered alcoholic.

I have written on the perils of professionalism at least twice before in 
print, and I believe that the ordinary processes of academic publication 
and professional promotion can indeed mask repressive disciplinary 
processes beneath a mask of academic freedom and that this process can 
be stifling to new ideas and viewpoints. But this is one facet of a very 
complicated set of practices and institutions, and I want to briefly 
note here the remarkable development of a professional practice over the 
last thirty years that has countered these conservative tendencies and 
produced a body of Shakespeare commentary and criticism unprecedented in 
its intellectual vigor and probing of critical assumptions. It is in 
fact my judgement that this extraordinary "moment" of critical 
creativity is coming to an end that has motivated my championing of the 
idea of "presentist criticism" over the last few years. Intellectually 
honest professional discussion is an important ally in this attempt.

Contrary to Burton's assumptions, I believe that presentist criticism 
has more potential for engaging the "general," non-specialist reader 
than most of the current critical methods in Shakespeare studies. Of 
course much academic criticism is deliberately written for a specialized 
audience, as is the case in any profession. But in principle, presentism 
begins with an invocation of something shared by all contemporary 
readers, specialist and non-specialist-an attempt to characterize our 
present historical and cultural situation, and it proceeds to attempt to 
chart the effects characteristics of the present on the way we read 
Shakespeare. We don't, as in Burton's description, engage in a futile 
attempt to clear away "one's own biases, deficiencies, or limitations," 
but rather to become conscious of them and of the way they affect our 
experience of the plays. General experience thus becomes an asset rather 
than an impediment to experiencing drama and other art-forms.

Response to Ewan Fernie:

Ewan Fernie returns to an issue raised two or three weeks ago by David 
Lindley about the slipperiness of the present.  Fernie's comments speak 
for themselves and make their case strongly, I believe. But his is only 
the latest of several contributions to this Roundtable that have made a 
special point of calling attention to "the presentness of the work of 
art in any aesthetic experience of it."  No contributor to this 
Roundtable that I can remember has acknowledged this interesting point 
or discussed the way in which it gives emphasis to the aesthetic 
qualities of Shakespeare's plays in a way that has been absent from 
almost all of the cultural materialism and new historicism of the last 
20-25 years.  Perhaps this assertion of the necessity of aesthetic 
analysis simply does not compute for many who are so used to the tired 
(and false) binary opposition between "political" and "aesthetic" 
critical analyses. Critics like Fernie are asserting the necessity for 
both politics and aesthetics, and for new forms of aesthetics and 
politics. I hope some readers will attempt to take notice of this 
under-appreciated thread within the discussion over the last few weeks, 
and perhaps the proponents of what I take to be a new configuration of 
these critical concepts will feel moved to explain them at greater 
length. Full disclosure:  I am presently working on a book arguing for a 
specific version of this linking of aesthetics and politics, with the 
working title "Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics."

--Hugh Grady


++++++++++++
A Note from SHAKSPER's Editor

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

I thought that I would take a moment to recount the evolution of the 
SHAKSPER Roundtable and provide links to the discussion of our first 
Roundtable on "Presentism Now."

Hardy M. Cook
SHAKSPER Editor

BACKGROUND:
In the early days of the list, Shakespeareans who taught in smaller, 
relatively isolated institutions around the world would often seek me 
out at conferences to thank me for providing them a kind of virtual 
faculty lounge, a sense of belonging to a community of scholars with 
whom they could share their thoughts and explore their ideas despite the 
comparative dearth of actual colleagues where they lived and worked.  It 
has occurred to me that we might be more intentional about this aspect 
of our community and institute periodic occasions to discuss significant 
topics amongst ourselves - a SHAKSPER Roundtable.

I first proposed the idea of establishing a SHAKSPER Roundtable in June 
2006: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2006/0583.html.

A week later I offered some thoughts about how such a Roundtable might 
be organized: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2006/0606.html.

After another week, I proposed some refinements and issued a Call for 
Discussion, a request for a topic proposal and someone to volunteer to 
become the Guest Moderator for that Roundtable: 
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2006/0628.html.

I received neither a proposal nor a volunteer and a few weeks later I 
put the Roundtable idea on hold: 
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2006/0680.html.

Then in December I brought up the idea once more and began refining the 
procedures as I saw them:
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2006/1089.html.
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0017.html

ROUNDTABLE PROCEDURES:
These roundtable exchanges are designed to differ from the everyday 
discussions that take place on the list.

Topic: They are organized around a focused topic of current interest to 
the discipline of Shakespeare or Early Modern Studies and are under the 
direction of a Guest Moderator.

Guest Moderator: The Guest Moderator of a Roundtable is responsible for 
initiating, moderating, directing, and concluding the discussions.

Reading List: To begin, the Guest Moderator suggests a Reading List of 
three to five items that are announced at least two weeks before 
discussion starts.  Anyone participating is expected to be thoroughly 
familiar with these readings.

Roundtable Discussion: The Guest Moderator initiates the discussion with 
a question or a statement.   Members who wish to participate send 
responses that are clearly identified as belonging to the Roundtable 
thread to me, and I forward them to the Guest Moderator, who organizes 
and comments on the entire week's submissions before suggesting 
directions that discussions might take the following week.

Conclusion: After calling an end to the Roundtable, the Guest Moderator 
provides a summary statement, and then the entire course of the 
Roundtable discussions is given its own page on the SHAKSPER website for 
public review.

SHAKSPER Roundtable: "Presentism Now":

Reading List: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0018.html
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0021.html

Procedures: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0058.html

Week 1: Hugh Grady's "Why Presentism Now":
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0065.html

Week 2: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0091.html

Week 3: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0128.html

Week 4: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0155.html

Week 5: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0168.html

_______________________________________________________________
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Hardy M. Cook, 
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