The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0351 Wednesday, 6 June 2007
 From: Alan Horn <
Date: Tuesday, 15 May 2007 05:13:30 -0400
Subj: Re: SHK 18.0305 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
 From: Hugh Grady <
Date: Wednesday, 6 Jun 2007 15:55:27 -0400
Subj: Roundtable Summary
 From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Subj: SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
From: Alan Horn <
Date: Tuesday, 15 May 2007 05:13:30 -0400
Subject: 18.0305 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: Re: SHK 18.0305 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
In his response to my Roundtable post, Hugh Grady writes, "In trying to
describe the alien [past], we necessarily make use of the concepts,
languages, and ideologies of our own time and culture, and we never
completely succeed in recovering the lost past."
I'm not sure who suggested that anyone try to "recover the lost past,"
or even what this would mean. A critical understanding of the past would
be a better thing for literary scholarship to aim for.
Scholars working toward this end must do so, it's true, in terms of
present-day concepts (or else of new concepts developed in the course of
their work). This does not mean that "what we learn is not exactly the
past itself, but our own present construction of it." That we grasp what
we study only by means of our concepts does not make these concepts of
ours the ultimate object of our study. Evolutionary biologists using
current scientific concepts learn about the past development of
organisms, not merely about their own present construction of it.
It is true that the critical student of past works will end up not with
the past itself (whatever that means), but with a present construction
of it. Yet not all present constructions of the past are the same. They
can be more or less complex, more or less comprehensive, more or less
detailed, more or less accurate. No doubt none will ever be definitive,
and it is helpful to keep this warning in mind. But just because such
understanding is never absolute-just because it "never completely
succeed[s]"-does not mean it is not useful nevertheless.
On the contrary, I think it is indispensable for coming to a critical
understanding of "the concepts, languages, and ideologies of our own
time and culture," as the passage I cited from Jerome McGann explains
(and which Hugh Grady may want to take another look at if he thinks he
agrees with it).
Perhaps Hugh Grady means to point out that a present construction of the
past can never replicate a past construction of the past. This is again
quite true, but why should it be taken for granted that the former is
inferior to the latter? A present construction of the past has certain
necessary limits, but it also has certain advantages over the past's
(various) construction(s) of itself. For one thing, a present
construction is able to take into account what happened next.
From: Hugh Grady <
Date: Wednesday, 6 Jun 2007 15:55:27 -0400
Subject: Roundtable Summary
From Hugh Grady [
With apologies, for its lateness, I am submitting the final "summary"
statement about the recently concluded Roundtable: Why Presentism Now?
which I moderated over the last few months. At John Drakakis's
suggestion, and with David Lindley's concurrence, I am also reproducing
immediately below the exchange of letters between these two discussing
issues raised in a previously posted exchange between them.
My own closing remarks follow immediately.
From: John Drakakis
To: David Lindley
A pity this strand has closed because I think this exchange would be a
good one to have over the SHAKSPER network.
For once I don't think that we are in that much disagreement. On the
issue of assembling the past, the point made by Hayden White long ago
has to do with the rhetoric of the discourse of historiography, although
I am bound to say that this does not mean that the past is entirely
fictional. I suppose the issue is: what is it that you know more about
the Elizabethan past than you do about the present? I don't think that
this is a facetious question because what is at stake here are the
protocols by which we establish 'knowledge' and the extent to which we
can separate them from an actual past that is only accessible to us
through a series of acts of interpretation. This may sound a little bit
Jesuitical as a distinction, but I think as regards 'presentism' it is
an important one to make. I think it should also be said that historians
have been aware of this for a long time (a very long time).
Also when you say that there are some parts of present day discursive
practice that baffle you (and the generational example you choose is an
interesting one) then you are expressing a form of intolerance. It's
one that I understand because I find myself doing the same thing
sometimes. BUT imported into the discourse that we both inhabit daily
it muddles two categories. I think it was Jacques Ranciere in his The
Politics of The Aesthetic who said recently that what characterises our
epoch (and modernity generally) is the gathering together of historical
and fictional discourse under the same heading. I think that when I
think about 'presentism' then I'm not thinking about the quotidian
present so much as about the historical specificity of the present that
drives me back into the past initially as an attempt to establish some
degree of continuity BUT finding difference. I have two ways of dealing
with that difference: (1) I can edit it out and privilege continuity,
thereby asserting some sort of eternal present or (2) I can register the
differences while at the same time acknowledging the impetus that
directed me towards the past in the first place. |There is a third
possibility, and this is the one that I think Ewan Fernie privileges,
which is to use the present as a launching pad into the future, and to
enlist the past as offering examples of the activity of projection. So,
in Fernie's parlance, the investigation of a 'spiritual' Shakespeare
pays the scantest of lip service to a historical moment, but is more
concerned to accentuate the present and to bring the future into
existence. I have deep misgivings about this kind of practice. This
what I think you mean when you refer to recognising the
'constructedness' of particular 'presents'.
I think you misunderstand me if you think that I am saying that the past
you construct is 'constructed' but that neither mine nor Terry's
[Terence Hawkes's] is, or that we are not willing to acknowledge that it
is. The whole point of Terry's book is to recognise that we have to be
self-conscious about how we construct historical narratives, since they
are all embedded in particular histories. Terry's expert excavations of
the 'lives of the critics' are all predicated upon the gap between what
they say they are doing and what historiographical excavation might be
made to reveal. Nor does he obscure or disguise his own historical moment.
Indeed, the whole purpose of shaping the explication as a narrative,
sometimes almost like a detective narrative, is part of that process of
seeking to advertise its own self-conscious shaping of the material. I
think you may be in some danger of reading Terry's explication as a
'description' whereas in fact it is a very self-conscious 'performance'
- and that itself is political if I may make the point polemically.
I share your disappointment that this strand hasn't generated the kind
of debate that we both hoped it might. This was one of the reasons why I
wanted to see a much more rigorous debate about methodologies. However,
I think that our exchange should have appeared as part of the larger
debate and so I am taking the liberty of sending this to Hugh Grady, in
the hope that he will see fit to try to extend the debate a little longer.
It ain't over till it's over, as the legendary Yogi Berra used to say.
Very best wishes,
From: David Lindley
To: John Drakakis
'Lindley's claim to know more about the past than he does about the
present (though I am sure that he does not intend it to be) is the
expression of intolerance that senior generations often direct at those
coming up after them. In fact, what he 'knows' about the (let us say,
'Elizabethan') past is something that he has assembled himself.'
I obviously haven't made myself clear - I know more about certain bits
of the past than about certain bits of the present: it is not
intolerance but ignorance that is the issue. It is simply a statement
of fact that I can gloss a line of Shakespeare with much more certainty
than I can decode my sons' text messages, or the collections of acronyms
that mark out the present of university administration. More
importantly, it is obviously true that if the 'Elizabethan past' that I
think I know is just a self-assembly kit, then the same can be said of
my, yours and Terence Hawkes's 'Present', can it not?
Terry [Terence Hawkes] is, of course, articulate, witty etc. etc. - but
every bit of the book inevitably reveals what 'the present' means to
him, and what has come to matter to a Birmingham-born, Welsh living
I am not saying, and indeed have never said, that the past is not in
important respects constructed - I read my Hayden White years ago - but
I do want at least the same recognition to be given to the
constructedness of people's 'presents'.
Sadly the lack of contributions to the presentism thread may be a mark
of the degree to which people are simply not interested in it as a
topic. I am; I find it fascinating, and am just writing a piece in which
some of the ideas of Taruskin and presentists will feature - pity the
enthusiasm is not shared.
Roundtable: Why Presentism Now: A Summary Statement
By Hugh Grady
The plan for the Roundtable called for the moderator to write an overall
summary, and I think such a post can be useful for participants,
lurkers, and future Roundtable Moderators. This first exercise in the
forum consisted of 10 weekly postings after the initial statement,
comprised of 26 different statements by 15 different contributors, with
continuing commentary from the moderator. The Roundtable, it seems to
me, was modestly successful in provoking debate and dialogue about
issues in contemporary Shakespeare studies, debate and dialogue carried
on in diverse forms of discourse and methodology.
The topic of critical Presentism had been discussed previously on
SHAKSPER, but in a very fragmented and partial way, and I hoped that by
beginning with a longer than usual (for SHAKSPER) opening
statement-about 2500 words, roughly the length of a 15-minute oral
presentation-I could address some of what I considered several
misunderstandings of Presentist criticism, particularly its relation to
historicist criticism, that had been aired previously, particularly on a
thread called "A Question" that had commenced shortly before the
Roundtable got under way. Accordingly, I made the case for a dialectical
linking of presentism and historicism, arguing that historicism
necessarily always implied a presentist subtext and developed its
reconstructions of the past necessarily within the concepts and
assumptions of contemporary culture. The idea of Presentism is not to
eliminate historicist investigations of the past, but to bring to
consciousness the presentist investments and assumptions of such
attempted reconstructions and underline the processes whereby critics
and readers construct Shakespeare's meaning for us now.
Two kinds of responses followed from this initial statement. There were
those who shared this analysis and went on to suggest further
consequences or alternative interpretations of Presentism. And there
were those who more or less ignored the opening statement with its
argument about the interconnection between presentism and historicism
and went on to criticize Presentism for ignoring history and
scholarship--charged that I thought I had previously shown were based on
misunderstanding. One of the problems of the Roundtable was that these
two sides most often talked past each other without much mutual
comprehension, and a certain repetition of points began to take place.
In this regard, the exchange of views between John Drakakis and David
Lindley which I present above represents an admirable exception to my
generalization, and I want to thank both of them for their positive
example. But let me get back to the more general point.
In order to foster a more informed debate, I had at Hardy's suggestion
posted a reading list of 6 articles that defined and discussed
presentist criticism from various points of view. These were some of the
central statements on the issues, and contributors to the Roundtable
were supposed to be familiar with at least several of them. In the
event, no one to my knowledge actually referred to any of these
readings, and I suspect many contributors simply ignored this
"condition" of participation. And all of this suggests to me that the
membership of the SHAKSPER listserv is so diverse and variegated that
attempts like mine in the Roundtable to conduct discussions according to
the norms of professional academic discourse will always be undermined
by the many readers who simply do not share in nor recognize these norms
(I'm thinking of such basics as avoiding ad hominems, and of taking
responsibility for understanding what one is critiquing). Moreover,
there may be a trans-Atlantic cultural divide at work as well. In my
experience my good British friends relish much more than my American
ones the art of the verbal fencing match, with its thrusts and
counter-thrusts and displays of wit and artful ripostes. This is an art
form I much prefer to observe than to participate in, undoubtedly for
cultural reasons. Often, I suspect, contributors to SHAKSPER are playing
by two different sets of rules-cricketers vs. baseballers, as it were.
This can be great fun, but it can also hinder communication and dialogue
when the dialogue participants are each following disparate discourse
rules, and this may also have contributed to what I sensed in the
Roundtable was often a dynamic of people talking past each other.
All this said, I was glad to have the opportunity to put forward some
ideas and to answer some questions about and objections to them. I was
happy to see many others joining in discussing these ideas, and I can't
see that any harm was done by this exercise, and perhaps some good came
out of it as well. I think Hardy Cook for sanctioning this dialogue and
for the many contributors for adding their voices as well. And I hope
some of these issues will continue to be discussed on the list.
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Subject: SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Now, it is my time for thanks and a few observations.
To begin, I offer my highest kudos to Hugh Grady for volunteering to be
the first of SHAKSPER's Roundtable Moderators. Hugh was a pleasure to
work with, managing to adhere to a broad schedule for distributing
Roundtable Digest much more than I myself was with my various
difficulties this past semester.
Hugh was an invaluable co-worker in setting the tone and methodology for
SHAKSPER Roundtables. I had ideas for how the Roundtable might operate:
Concept: 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
Hugh Grady took my wild ideas and enabled those ideas to become the
first SHAKSPER Roundtable. Hugh has set a high standard for what I hope
will be his many processors.
Obviously, I thank all SHAKSPEReans who contribute to the Roundtable and
who read Roundtable Digests with interest.
Very shortly, the first of two essays I have written about my
experiences as SHAKSPER's editor/moderator will be appearing. In this
essay, I discuss some of the same difficulties with discourse that Hugh
suggests above may have contributed to this Roundtable's not being as
successful as it might have. One of my hopes for the SHAKSPER Roundtable
was that it could be one of the ways that SHAKSPER might regain some of
the excitement of the earlier years of the list by providing scholars
around the world with an alternative venue to conferences and
publications to talk and to explore ideas. I agree with Hugh that the
exchange above between John Drakakis and David Lindley represents what I
imagine as an ideal for Roundtables. On the whole, the SHAKSPER
Roundtable on Presentism, while in some ways was disappointing,
nevertheless points in the direction I envision for SHAKSPER.
Hardy M. Cook
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
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.