The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0187 Monday, 12 March 2007
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
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
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.
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
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
Now, back to the Canon.
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
>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.
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."
A Note from SHAKSPER's Editor
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
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
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:
I received neither a proposal nor a volunteer and a few weeks later I
put the Roundtable idea on hold:
Then in December I brought up the idea once more and began refining the
procedures as I saw them:
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
SHAKSPER Roundtable: "Presentism Now":
Reading List: http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2007/0018.html
Week 1: Hugh Grady's "Why Presentism Now":
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
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.