The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0303 Friday, 23 July 2010
Date: July 21, 2010 10:07:41 AM EDT
Subject: 21.0284 Microhistory
Comment: Re: SHK 21.0284 Microhistory
My thanks to Duncan Salkeld for his taking the risk and exhuming the "old topic" of
presentism. It continues to have relevance in my view. And thanks to Harry Rusche
for his kind words about learning something important from the anthology Terrence
Hawkes and I co-edited for Routledge in 2007. It's always heartening to hear
reactions like this.
It took a few days to procure a copy of Duncan Salkeld's article (Cahiers
Elisabethains, 76 (Autumn 2009), 35-43-it will probably take a college library with
a good Interlibrary Loan service for most list-members-but I did so. I read it with
interest and had very mixed reactions. On the one hand, I appreciate the intelligent
and fair-minded summary of our argument and some of the (varied) examples of
presentism discussed. I agreed with much of what Salkeld said and want to underline
that if, as we discussed the complex interactions of past and present in reading
400-year old texts like Shakespeare's text, we sometimes wrote as if the past and
the present were clearly distinct, it was because of language and rhetoric rather
than theoretical intuition, and as Salkeld notes we attempted to counter this
possible (mis-) reading of our ideas at other points in the article.
My main misgiving about Salkeld's article has to do with the project of "micro-
history" which the second half of it deals with. I truly hope that literary
criticism does not evolve into the study of finding Thomas Kyd lurking under some
beloved's bed in the late sixteenth century! Perhaps I misunderstood the example.
But I think one of the crucial important functions of literary study in contemporary
Western societies is to as a way of asking and attempting to answer the big
questions of meaning and significance and of power and powerlessness. We continue to
need "macro-history" understood as rooted in our own present situation to do this.
Micro-history, I fear, can too easily fall into the trap of Peter Stallybrass's
joking label, "the new boredom."
Don't get me wrong. There will always be notes and queries in literary study, and
the scholarly search for facts is never going to go away. Nor -- and perhaps things
are different on alternate shores of the Atlantic -- do I see any danger of the
demise of historical criticism and the search for facts in Shakespeare studies. It
was rather our perception that historical approaches had become so hegemonic that
other kinds of criticism, like "presentism," were in danger of being ruled out as
viable forms of professional scholarship in the institutions of higher learning,
that several of us had the idea of championing at this point in professional history
kinds of criticism that had been going on in many different forms for a long time
anyway. Salkeld seems to have the opposite fear, that presentism has become so
influential that historicism is now in danger! I can assure one and all that this is
very far from the case and that there remains the need to argue for a place for
presentism in professional academic criticism.
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