The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0130  Monday, 12 February 2007

From: 		Hugh Grady <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Sunday, 11 Feb 2007 20:25:33 -0500
Subject: 	SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Roundtable:  "Whey Presentism Now?"  Week Three

This week we have a short correction from Cary DiPietro and two longer 
contributions from Joseph Egert and Hardy Cook. Egert excerpts passages 
from previous critical comments on Presentism from the SHAKSPER 
archives, and Cook reproduces part of a message from Larry Weiss, which 
suggested that the relatively modest number of responses offered in the 
first two weeks of responses is a sign that the issues raised here are 
of interest only to a few academics. Cook replies by sketching a history 
of changing critical paradigms in the last 80-100 years of academic 
Shakespeare criticism and suggests that the age of new historicism is 
indeed coming to an end and that Presentism deserves investigation as a 
possible new direction for the field.  I will comment briefly on the two 
longer posts at the conclusion.

From: 		Cary DiPietro <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Mon, 5 Feb 2007 20:57:25 -0500
Subject: 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Ammunition for those who will argue that presentism shuns historical 
accuracy:  in my earlier post, I incorrectly attributed Greenblatt's 
oft-quoted desire to speak with the dead to _Renaissance 
Self-Fashioning_, rather than the later _Shakespearean Negotiations_.

From: 		Joseph Egert <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Tue, 06 Feb 2007 23:07:08 +0000
Subject: 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

Hugh Grady with typical generosity invites

  >the many critics of the entire enterprise
  >of presentism among us....to weigh in with reasoned
  >statements that try to identify the problems and issues with this

Rather than repeat my own reservations from the current "A Question" 
thread (SHK 18.0067 & 18.0095), I've extracted below some earlier 
objections from years past on SHAKSPER. All ellipses are mine.

David Lindley:

"I don't think I was ever trying to argue...for 'the integrity of 
"fact"' in a simple kind of way. I was rather worrying that the very 
valuable recognition of the constructedness of history has itself 
congealed into an over-simple formulation which lifts the responsibility 
of scholarship from the shoulders of the critic....I'd actually want to 
go further, and say that abandonment of any notion of the possibility of 
'factual' evidence resisting and challenging interpretation has fearsome 
consequences for our political and social life....Auschwitz - fact or 
construction?" (SHK 6.0080)

"To argue that we can never escape our present as we look back at and 
reconstruct the past is, it seems to me, a truism. But, pace Terry 
Hawkes, I do not believe that we cannot therefore escape from that 
present in any way...  I argue to students...that their simple-minded 
'presentism'...misses the essential point that the past can challenge us 
in the present."(SHK 9.1173)

"whilst of course I would acknowledge the truth that we make the past in 
part out of the investments we have in our present (to paraphrase Tom 
Healy), I do not, as 'presentists' would have me, believe that therefore 
the careful documentation of the past cannot challenge the constructions 
we do in fact make."(SHK 12.0342)

Sean Lawrence:

"the Other exists prior to the self, rather than the self discovering 
the Other. The other precedes the self, in a non-coincidence which is 
the an-archical foundation of temporality...The approach of alterity (it 
approaches us, not the other way around) precedes thematization, 
precedes knowledge itself, and precedes the existence of the ego who can 
theorize about whether and how it is possible to approach the past."(SHK 

"My point was not that the past is an Other which we have to re-create 
after an encounter. On the contrary, it is -absolutely- whether we 
recreate it or not.  In fact, its absolute claims -its Otherness, qua 
Otherness- are removed if it becomes the object of our re-presentation. 
To integrate the past into our categories kills it. It ceases to be 
Other i[n] the radical sense; in fact, it ceases to be past and becomes 
present....And my point is that we encounter the past before 
ideology."(SHK 9.1298)

"A great deal of recent theory in our field, heavily influenced as it is 
by the social sciences, seems to be trying to extend the enlightenment 
project, 'demystifying' or 'deconstructing' (perhaps in abuse of both 
terms) everything which cannot be understood in the most banal (albeit 
sometimes scholastically complicated) terms of power or money. It 
reduces, in other words, what is Other to the Same....More seriously, 
presentists seem at times to extend what is only an empirical 
observation into an imperative, that we ought not allow ourselves to be 
surprised, to welcome the Other as a stranger."(SHK 14.1544)

RDH Wells:

"I had assumed...that, like me, you [Terry Hawkes] find the Orwellian 
implications of radical Presentism deeply depressing. (The job of 
Orwell's Ministry of Truth is to rewrite the past in such a way as to 
bring it into line with present policies; for Winston Smith this 
systematic presentist reconstruction of the past is a crime against 
humanity far worse than 'mere torture'.)"(SHK 10.0005)

Bruce Young:

"The discomfort some have with theory may come from its focusing so much 
on the way things are seen rather than on the things seen....C.S. Lewis 
commented on the shift from the things seen (or experienced) to the 
process of seeing (experiencing) and also on the encouragement this 
shift gives to the reductive impulse, the impulse to explain things 
away." (SHK 14.1519)

Had enough? For more, follow the link below to Graham Good's 1996 "The 
Hegemony of Theory".



Joe Egert

From: 		Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Fri, 09 Feb 2007 10:06:56 -0500
Subject: 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0092 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Presentism

This past week I contributed the following to one of the digests in the 
"A Question" thread:

Response to the Roundtable discussion has not taken off as I expected or 
perhaps hoped that it would. Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe discussions in 
the medium of e-mail depend upon relatively immediate exchanges and are 
not appropriate to the delayed gratification of weekly digests.

Anyway, since this thread involves Presentism, might some of the 
participants here, as one has already this week, consider submitting 
future remarks to the Roundtable discussion?

In response, I received several private correspondences. One member 
wrote to say that he felt I had indeed gotten it wrong and that I should 
keep all of the procedures for the Roundtable discussion the same, 
except that I should distribute Roundtable digests daily with weekly 
comments from the Guest Moderator.

Larry Weiss also wrote to me and I quote, with his permission, the first 
section of that message here:

"I am enjoying the discussion and I am not in the least put off by the 
weekly approach.  True, it sacrifices immediacy for thoughtfulness. 
That is not a bad thing, as I am sure you agree."

I replied that "Indeed, thoughtfulness rather than immediacy was what I 
was trying to encourage."

Larry continued,

"It might be the subject that has restrained debate.  Theory is not the 
burning issue it was ten years ago, and to someone who is not thoroughly 
immersed in it (as I confess I am not) the jargon can be off-putting. 
The debate seems really among a handful of academics at the top of the 
ivory tower who debate with each other about semantic subtleties which 
have more to do with describing what they do than what Renaissance 
authors did.  It is caviar to the general."

As I was writing my reply to the above, it occurred to me that what I 
was writing might be appropriate to contribute to Presentism Roundtable. 
Here it is in a slightly edited form:

You may be correct here; however, frankly this is a subject that I find 
fascinating. In part, it may be because Terry Hawkes began exploring 
some of his own ideas here. But in a greater sense, I am interested in 
how what is now called the "Old Historicism" [along with "Philology"] 
was the foundation of scholarly study when English became an academic 
discipline; how "New Criticism" challenged it and came to dominate 
English Departments for thirty to forty years; how so-called "New 
Historicism" grew out of post-structuralist thinking but was 
subsequently attacked by feminists and others; how "New Historicism" 
spread from Early Modern Studies to much of literary studies and then 
continued to spread into other disciplines perhaps first to History 
itself; how "New Historicism" became "Historicism" and "Cultural 
Materialism" became "Materialism"; how "New Historicism" after becoming 
so dominant in literary studies either disappeared or simply became the 
new orthodoxy or gradually waned in importance, subtly morphing into 
something else without clearly announcing what it was becoming; and THEN 
how "Presentism" challenges "Historicism" and "Materialism" and yet 
seems to me to be, nevertheless, rooted in the same post-structuralist 
assumptions that gave birth to "New Historicism." This is all very 
exciting to me and I don't particularly feel I am "among a handful of 
academics at the top of the ivory tower who debate with each other about 
semantic subtleties which have more to do with describing what they do 
than what Renaissance authors did."

My remarks about the establishing of English as an academic discipline 
are primarily based on my reading of Gerald Graff's  _Professing 
Literature: An Institutional History_  (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987) 
and Terry Eagleton's _Literary Theory: An Introduction_  (2nd ed. 
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996).  My remarks about the morphing of 
"New Historicism" are in part my response to being unable to describe or 
to categorize the methodology that Stephen Greenblatt used in his _Will 
in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare_ (New York and London: 
Norton, 2004.). Some light was shed by my reading Catherine Belsey's 
essay "Historicizing new historicism" in the Grady/Hawkes collection 
_Presentist Shakespeares_ (Accents on Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 
2007), yet I keep thinking to myself "What happened to 'New Historicism'"?

I include the above ramblings in the hopes that they might stimulate 
discussion, comments, or reactions.

Hardy M. Cook

Comments by Hugh Grady

Several of the excerpts reproduced by Egert (and I'm begging off from 
following up on the link he provided) strike me as based on simply 
assuming the worst about Presentism. There is in fact no way to insulate 
any critical method from misuse or insure that it will not be employed 
by the shallow, the ignorant, or the malevolent. I teach plenty of 
students who drift into the kind of simple-minded presentism mentioned 
by David Lindley, and I try to challenge them to take a more 
historically aware direction without losing their presentist insights. I 
devoted most of my initial post on this subject precisely to make the 
case that presentism needs historicism-the two are of course 
dialectically linked. I invite readers to look over the essays in 
Presentist Shakespeares before concluding that Presentism has "congealed 
into an over-simple formulation which lifts the responsibility of 
scholarship from the shoulders of the critic." Let me come out and say 
it: I value and try to practice good scholarship, and so do others doing 
Presentist criticism.

Then there is our old friend "the facts." I'm going to invoke Terence 
Hawkes' mantra on this:  Facts exist but they don't speak for 
themselves.  Facts only take on meaning in language, and words are not 
one-to-one maps of reality-they are concepts which represent but do not 
mirror reality. The dish I'm making for dinner tonight is baking in an 
oven set at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is a fact. But its 
expression depends on our constructing scales and instruments to measure 
heat and a panoply of scientific and cultural institutions that give it 
meaning. Our grandmothers would have expressed the "fact" quite 
differently, in a language of "fast" or "slow" ovens, to take one simple 
example. I would go further and say, with a host of post-Romantic lovers 
of poetry and drama, that we don't read literature for "the facts." At 
best they can help us try to understand the originating contexts of the 
documents we read. They don't give it its meaning.

Sean Lawrence's Levinas-based comments are sophisticated and 
interesting, but I don't have time to do more than gesture at a reply 
here. I suggest anyone interested might take a look at Ewan Fernie's 
anthology Spiritual Shakespeares, in particular his Derridean inflection 
of Levinas's central categories of "I" and "Other" for presentist ends 
(pp. 13-18). Elsewhere Fernie has emphasized the salient point that to 
encounter Shakespeare's plays as works of art is, necessarily, to 
encounter them as they exist in the "now." I would simply add that I 
don't doubt that the past has existed and that all critics of 
Shakespeare depend on that knowledge. But precisely because the past is 
Other, it can never be captured in its precise specificity-whatever that 
would mean. We can of course attempt to conceptualize it and perform the 
useful task of trying to imagine what complex cultural documents like 
Shakespeare's plays would have meant to their original audiences. But we 
will only have a series of approximations in the end, and any reading of 
the historical critics of the past will show that their "past" is not 
our "past." The premise of contemporary Presentist critics is that we 
are beginning to repeat ourselves in this endeavor, or to be pursuing 
more and more arcane and ultimately trivial reconstructions in a 
chimerical search for details that will finally deliver us the 
disappeared truth.  Instead, we might focus on what all of these 
commentators concede, that the pasts we construct are permeated with our 
situation in the present, are always allegories of the present in one 
form or another. We can use that as a starting point for a new critical 

I think Hardy Cook very usefully summarizes the history of academic 
Shakespeare criticism here and rightly points out that we should expect 
that the process of change will continue to develop. As I have written 
elsewhere, signs of the exhaustion of the new historical paradigm are 
multiplying, and we have entered a period something like that of the 
1970s, when New Criticism and the old historicism had clearly waned, and 
when a number of different critical methodologies proposed themselves as 
alternatives. I agree with Hardy that important parts of Presentism take 
their inspiration from the more Presentist cultural materialism and new 
historicism of the 1980s-but I don't see a problem with this so long as 
the analyses produced push in new directions, as I think they do. And I 
agree that these are fundamental questions for the field and have wide 
implications, not only for the actively publishing but for all 
contemporary lovers of Shakespeare.  Perhaps this week listserv members 
might want to pursue these issues-or introduce new ones.

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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