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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: December ::
Presentism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0820  Saturday, 8 December 2007

[1] 	From:	Martin Mueller <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 09:26:58 -0600
	Subj:	Absentism

[2] 	From:	Carol Barton <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 10:38:18 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[3] 	From:	Clay H. Shevlin <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 07:57:52 -0800
	Subj:	RE: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[4] 	From:	Anthony Burton <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 11:19:23 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[5] 	From:	Larry Weiss <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 11:53:00 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[6] 	From:	William Godshalk <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 15:30:56 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[7] 	From:	Joseph Egert <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 13:06:11 -0800 (PST)
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[8] 	From:	William Godshalk <
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	Date:	Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 21:57:32 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

[9] 	From:	R. A. Cantrell <
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	Date:	Thursday, 6 Dec 2007 06:01:34 -0600
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Martin Mueller <
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Date:		Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 09:26:58 -0600
Subject:	Absentism

I vividly recall a memo sent many years by the president of a university 
I was then teaching at, informing the faculty that his chief of staff 
had resigned effective this morning. The most striking thing about this 
terse letter was the absence of any of the things one usually finds in 
such memos. There was clearly more to this story, although I never 
bothered to find out what it was.

What is not said is a very powerful part of "everyday hermeneutics," the 
whole bundle of procedures by which we try to make sense of what is 
going on. Literary hermeneutics is a special case of everyday 
hermeneutics, and there is every reason to attend to what is not there. 
Ascham in The Schoolmaster has a lovely passage about comparing Cicero 
with Demosthenes or Vergil with Homer, and he urges his student to ask: 
"Why did Tully leave out this passage?"

As an instance of intentional acts by some human(s), a play, including a 
play by Shakespeare, is an aggregate of choices to do this rather than 
that and to it this way rather than that way. I have never thought much 
of a conspiratorial hermeneutics that treats a text as a cover-up to be 
exposed. Hermeneutical rules that work well in present day Washington 
and probably served you well at the Roman or Elizabethan court may not 
work well with the representations of such (or more innocent) worlds. 
But attending to what is not said and asking why it is not said is often 
a terrific tool for finding out things about a text, provided you keep 
in mind the hermeneutical rule that the simplest interpretation is often 
the best: it is not there because it did not matter.

Absentism, then, is a wonderful method. It is also very old.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Carol Barton <
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Date:		Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 10:38:18 -0500
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

If I may briefly enter into this latest fray on the side of the 
historicists, it seems to me that this discussion continuously mixes 
apples with oranges in an attempt to produce chimpanzees. Like most of 
the other literary theories (including historicism), the problem with 
presentism as argued here is that it insists on its own universality 
(i.e. on its panacetic ability to apply to at all times to all people 
and all things in all situations and contexts). It doesn't. It is a 
useful construct when we are discussing Shakespeare, about whom we know 
so very little, because it makes us conscious of the fact that he lived 
in another place and time, and because of his different world-view, may 
have "meant" things differently than we interpret them. It loses its 
potency as an interpretive tool when we're dealing with a Milton, about 
whom we know so much--and, I would argue, about whose "intent" we can 
make more reasonable conjecture. That sense of "knowing" a writer, 
especially one who is polemicist and prolific correspondent as well as 
poet and statesman, is enhanced the longer one studies him, just as one 
comes to "know" a living person better and better the longer he or she 
interacts with the individual. After 30-odd years of marriage to him, I 
think that in most instances, I (and others who have studied his canon 
and his biographical and state materials for a lifetime) can reasonably 
claim to know what Milton "meant"--even when he's being cagey or 
disingenuous--and I think Joe and Nicole are arguing against 
presentism's dismissal of that knowledge claim. Bill Godshalk is unable 
to transport himself into another era--just as some people are incapable 
of visualizing the way a wallpaper pattern would look in an entire room, 
or of mentally "tasting" a proposed combination of foods or spices 
without doing so in reality. (Quick: do you want some cinnamon on your 
onions?) That doesn't give him the right to dismiss that ability in the 
rest of us.

The point is, the more facts we can gather about a specific 
individual--even one at three or four centuries' remove--the more we can 
come to "know" him or her (as much as we can "know" anyone). We have 
very little of a truly personal nature to go on regarding William 
Shakespeare--whom and what did he love, whom and what did he hate, what 
did he like to do when he wasn't writing plays, where was his favorite 
place to work, what were his politics, religion, issues, and so on? It's 
harder to make a definitive knowledge claim about what he "meant" than 
it is to do so in the case of someone like Milton. We can't "get inside 
his mind" to the same degree, because he hasn't left us the tools that 
would make that possible. To that extent, it's important to remember 
that how we interpret his meaning may not be consistent with what he 
"meant." But we can also look at things like contemporary word usage, 
stylometrics, and the characteristics of the canon (e.g., he uses this 
word this way 192 times; what is the likelihood that his meaning in 
event #193 is something "other"?), and we can--to some degree--make a 
case where we see definite patterns. Pace Bill and Terry and John, we 
can never make that case with full certainty (any more than we can test 
Shakespeare's body's DNA to prove his identity): there is simply no 
"control," no referent against which the validity of such knowledge 
claims can be measured.

But as Nicole and Joe have insisted on insisting, that *doesn't* mean 
there is no validity to a carefully researched and logically-founded 
educated guess.

One is an argument of strict empiricism, and in its context, it's 
appropriate: the fact that both the pregnancy rate and the consumption 
of ice cream increase in the summer does not mean there's a causal 
effect between them.

The other is an argument of empathetic intuition, what I believe based 
on what I know.

Terry and Bill and John can tell me sternly that I don't know John 
Milton--that there's no way in the realm of logical possibility that I 
could even begin to think I know him, without traveling back in 
time--and they're right.

On the other hand, after so many years of reading him and studying the 
world in which he lived, I feel that I know him better than any other 
human being I have ever encountered--and that he *wanted* future readers 
to know him--or, at least the intellect that his writings reveal--in 
precisely that way. I'm right, too.

For that reason, the participants can carry this thread on into 
infinity, but those parallel lines are never going to meet. Seems to me 
the combatants should agree to disagree, or else acknowledge the 
validity of the other side's points without yielding the validity of 
their own. Otherwise, this is going to be "the song that never ends."

Best to all,
Carol Barton

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Clay H. Shevlin <
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Date:		Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 07:57:52 -0800
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	RE: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

Presentism is oral relativism.

Or a literary mobius strip.

If you are inclined to favor the latter statement, and you do your 
homework, you will discover that presentism is the brainchild of M.C. 
Escher.

Clay H. Shevlin

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Anthony Burton <
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Date:		Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 11:19:23 -0500
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

What I admire most about presentism is that it is so quaintly old- 
fashioned in its literal adoption of Shakespeare's words. That is to 
say, Cicero's, when he remarks to Casca

"But men may construe things, after their fashion,/ Clean from the 
purpose of the things themselves."

What I gain from presentism (when in danger of forgetting Shakespeare 
and his Cicero) is its persistent reminder of the need for me to be 
aware of my own "fashion", lest I import it -- more than my best efforts 
can overcome -- into my views about "things," such as literary texts 
(not to mention last week's news).

What irks me most about presentism is the seeming confidence of its 
proponents that they are, like Monty Pythons without the humor, offering 
something completely different. I find instead that they are more often 
than not retailing ancient insights and producing the  deadly opposite 
of Pope's "true wit", reporting Nature to disadvantage dressed, what oft 
was thought, and oft far better expressed.

Tony B

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Larry Weiss <
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Date:		Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 11:53:00 -0500
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

Ed Taft raises some interesting questions:

 >Why is Lear's wife absent? Why does the absent Falstaff
 >haunt _Henry V_? and what about those pesky children
 >of Lady Macbeth?

More interesting, however, is Why did John Drakakis take Don's post 
seriously?

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		William Godshalk <
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Date:		Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 15:30:56 -0500
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

Joe Egert wonders if I'm not burning a straw man. "No one here is 
denying our limitations in seeking the truth. The present sitz is merely 
one of many such obstacles--an elementary truism acknowledged by every 
competent scholar before and after Aurelius, but carried to a defeatist 
extreme by Hawkes and company."

But, Joe, once you acknowledge the "limitations in seeking truth," that 
acknowledgement has certain consequences. That is, we believe that we 
know nothing for sure. If this belief leads to "cognitive defeatism" and 
reduces "scholarship to a mere groundless rhetorical exercise," then 
that's where it leads.

Bill

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Joseph Egert <
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Date:		Wednesday, 5 Dec 2007 13:06:11 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

John Drakakis writes:

"Perhaps we should leave Joe Egert to toil in the labyrinth of truth;
when he gets to the centre he'll find, pace Derrida, that the centre is
not the centre. Just make sure that you take a reel of cotton with you
Joe, it'll help you when you are trying to get out!"

JE: Frankly, John, it's a wonder you've emerged from your own 
self-refuting labyrinth long enough to edit Shakespeare and help others 
navigate theirs.

Stay well,
Joe Egert

[8]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		William Godshalk <
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Date:		Wednesday, 05 Dec 2007 21:57:32 -0500
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

 >John Drakakis writes: "I'm afraid that Don Bloom's 'absentism'
 >just won't fly, partly because these plays aren't modern
 >naturalistic soap operas." John goes on to discuss what we
 >must not discuss and concludes: "All good novelistic stuff, but
 >misplaced."

This sounds to my ear like an old-fashioned history professor telling us 
exactly what the past was like. John knows what Shakespeare's plays are 
-- or are not -- and there's an end on it. If this be presentism, I want 
no part of it.

Bill

[9]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		R. A. Cantrell <
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Date:		Thursday, 6 Dec 2007 06:01:34 -0600
Subject: 18.0813 Presentism
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0813 Presentism

 >JE: I wonder, Bill, if you're not burning a straw man. No one here is
 >denying our limitations in seeking the truth. The present sitz is merely
 >one of many such obstacles--an elementary truism acknowledged by every
 >competent scholar before and after Aurelius, but carried to a defeatist
 >extreme by Hawkes and company. I've not yet reached Cantrell's point of
 >impugning their motives. The effect, however, of such cognitive
 >defeatism is much the same, i.e., reducing scholarship to a mere
 >groundless rhetorical exercise.

You come near me now. I don't think that T. Hawkes has as a conscious 
motive the idiotizing of children, but he was once someone's child. This 
entire thread is, once again dear friends, a romp through the skeptical 
tropes. I'm weary of scolding my elders and betters for their ignorance 
of Formal Skepticism. Somebody younger and stronger than me; do something.

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