The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0199 Monday, 19 March 2007
From: Hugh Grady <
Date: Monday, 19 Mar 2007 09:44:15 -0400
Subject: SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
This week's contributions to the Roundtable on Presentism include two
follow-ups to last week's postings-a reply to some of my comments by
Tony Burton and a reply to remarks by Ewan Fernie on his own earlier
post by David Lindley. I will conclude with a few brief comments below.
I'm thinking that this Roundtable is reaching its endgame, and I invite
readers who have been procrastinating in sending in their comments to do
so within the next couple of weeks.
Tony Burton <
Oh dear, let me try to disentangle from Hugh Grady's legitimate
criticism from that which seems to be simply a debatable point of view,
and then also from misunderstandings of what I may have phrased badly,
and so rescue my wounded name a trifle.
First, I don't conflate presentism with subjectivism. I merely said
they confront similar dilemmas, and my use of "or" is to be read as
disjunctive rather than conjunctive. Unlike Shakespeare, my ambiguous
constructions sadly end up as barriers to clear understanding, rather
than stimuli to greater insight.
Second, I would say that becoming truly conscious (in Hugh's sense) of
one's own "biases, deficiencies, and limitations" is so close to the
effort at overcoming them (in my sense, which is not exactly Hugh's
'clear them away') that a practitioner with Hugh's sense of discipline
would make an admirable presentist, free from its most irksome abuses.
Regarding careerism, I don't by any means impugn individual scholars for
willfully selling out. Hugh is right, to be sure, that one doesn't
become a Shakespeare scholar for reasons of careerism, in the ordinary
sense of the word. But I am surely not alone in noticing that journals,
including the most prestigious in literature and Shakespeare studies,
are known to have strong biases in favor of exploring-perhaps for a
decade-one or more points of view only, and refusing to consider others
until the wheel turns and they once again become fashionable. So,
papers are written according to the publishable fashion, as it may be
from time to time. In a world where publishing is so important to career
development, it seems not unfair to me to characterize the consequence
as careerism. However, many-often the best-university departments are
dominated by a single strong personality who has often built a
reputation on a narrow if worthy style of inquiry. Graduate students and
junior faculty are predictably encouraged to advance the agenda of the
"star" and ignore other (and certainly, contrary) avenues of inquiry.
None of this is new or revolutionary and none of it is meant to suggest
that the work done is unscholarly. In fact Hugh seems to agree with me
here, pointing to his own credentials for having pointed out and opposed
what he calls "repressive disciplinary processes." This seems to be
exactly what I refer to and, if it weren't for my unfortunate gift of
being misconstrued, I would say the topic brings us together as strange
But the same "repressive" process does result in a narrowing of focus
within academe, and sadly consistent with presentist viewpoints, when
the author lacks Hugh's consciousness of his or her own biases. It
often also results in disputations over ideological positioning as to
this or that subject, long before the nature and content of the subject
is adequately understood. Since Shakespeare's works in general, i.e.
"the things themselves" of my earlier post, still remain highly
debatable as to their nature and content, I simply want to lobby for
greater attention to them than to the features of our own contemporary
"manner," with which presentism is most concerned. My sense of the
matter is that attention to the "things" is happily now more in evidence
than it has been for many long years, and ideology less prominent.
If my reference to "diatribes" is not justified by the evidence of
postings on this list alone, without going elsewhere -- if they are
merely the "give and take of professional debate" which Hugh Grady
defends-then I apologize without seeking a referendum. My private, and
clearly unprofessional and maybe hypersensitive opinion, is that too
many of them are intemperate and that they personalize disagreement to a
degree that suggests intolerance and ideological inflexibility; it must
then remain a private opinion only, and I regret having used the
offending word in what I meant to be a serious and constructive observation.
In other respects, Hugh makes a series of valid points. Anyone who
reads both posts will see that I don't agree with all of them. But I
respect them and gladly let them stand on their own merits alongside my
own thoughts, as here clarified.
David Lindley <
I originally wrote that: 'there seems a great reluctance to interrogate
whose 'present' is being invoked' in 'presentism'. To which Ewan Fernie
'I think Lindley makes a moot point: the present is a slippery thing, .
. .' and then asserted:'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
To which the answer is, of course, that in any responsible history that
is undoubtedly true; I repeatedly question the generalisations of my
students precisely by asking them to consider how various opinion now
is, and how it might also have been in the past. But Fernie is slightly
missing my point. What I was remarking, having read the prescribed
texts, is the way a good deal of what is there offered precisely does
not interrogate the notion of the present that it constructs, and is
quite as uncritical of its generalisations as any history might be.
What I would also believe is that in certain respects, sad individual
that I am, I actually know (bits of) the past rather better than I do
(bits of) the present - I can certainly gloss a Shakespearean text with
a good deal more certainty than I can an adolescent text message; and it
is absolutely true that the music of Byrd and Dowland speaks to me with
much greater immediacy, richness and subtlety than 98% of the music that
pours at me from multiple sources.
Fernie goes on, interestingly, to comment on the primacy of aesthetic
experience, suggesting that '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' and remarking the
difficulty of articulating this in 'professional' criticism. I would
nearly agree, on both counts - but I'm not sure that 'literary
scholarship' can so simply be wholly identified with aesthetic pleasure
- and it's in the area of difference between them that, perhaps,
something of this debate is negotiated. I myself would say that the
pleasure of scholarship (as distinct from aesthetic pleasure) starts
with simple questions like 'what does this word mean'; 'what on earth is
Shakespeare talking about here' - questions which lead one, or in my
view lead one, inevitably to historical enquiry - to the OED and beyond.
I am still convinced that unless one is prepared to ask and attempt to
answer these historical questions, then one risks diminishing the study
of literature (and, possibly, the aesthetic pleasure that one takes in
the objects of the past).
Fernie concludes: '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'. This is
certainly true - but I think it's a rather different argument from that
with which he began - and I would want to include in my 'intensely
privatised' experience of the text, my attempt to understand its
pastness, as well as its presentness in my experience of reading.
I am just a little bothered by the moral nudging implied in the
adjective 'honest', here. It has been the way of criticism to cast
aspersions on those who went before - on benighted liberal humanists, on
ahistorical new critics, on unpolitical old historicists, and now on
dishonest historicism. I'm now old enough to have been through the
discarding of orthodoxies several times, and for that reason, if none
other, am ready to be sceptical of the latest credo - willing to learn,
even to change - but not to become a subscriber.
Commentary by Hugh Grady
I am sorry to see that my call for greater attention to the issue of the
necessary "presentness" of works of art and the relation of the
political and the aesthetic has gone unanswered, except for a few
remarks by David Lindley that, in distinguishing between aesthetic
pleasure and scholarship, touch obliquely on the topic. I hope that
next week might be different in this regard.
I don't want to re-direct the forum's topic into the issue of the
institutions and practices of academic criticism, so I will simply stand
by my previous comments on this subject and thank Tony Burton for
clarifying his earlier points, apologizing for unintended meanings, and
further elaborating them for us.
As I stated in the introduction to this week's Roundtable, the time is
now for those who may have been putting off contributing to the
discussion. Since repeated back-and-forth debates between specific
contributors become tedious, I especially want to invite new voices into
the forum in what will be its last few appearances.
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