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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: March ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0199  Monday, 19 March 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <
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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.

--Hugh Grady

[1] +++++++++++++++
Tony Burton <
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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 
bedfellows

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.

Tony

[2] +++++++++++++++
David Lindley <
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I originally wrote that: 'there seems a great reluctance to interrogate 
whose 'present' is being invoked' in 'presentism'. To which Ewan Fernie 
replied:

'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 
past.'

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.

David Lindley


+++++++++++++++
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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