Monday, November 09, 2015

“Shakestime” (On Method)

by Julian Yates

[Julian presented this piece recently at the Folger. I've been collaborating with him recently for a forthcoming punctum book, Object Oriented Environs: you may read our introduction here. We're honored to share this wonderful meditation on method here at ITM -- JJC]

The following post reproduces the paper I gave in the penultimate session at the highly stimulating Fall Weekend Symposium devoted to “Periodization 2.0” (November 5-7 2015) at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Institute, graciously and expertly organized and hosted by Professor Kristen Poole of the University of Delaware and Owen Williams of the Folger Institute.

I arrived at the symposium with one paper, but the conversation over the two days provoked me to write a new one that reflected on my own training. This trip down one of memory’s lanes led me to articulate the underlying methodology of much of my work as a scholar thus far in my career. I am deeply grateful for the occasion, the papers by fellow speakers, the genial conversation, and the provocation.

I am grateful to ITM for the invitation to post the paper here—I hope that you find it interesting!

“Shakestime” (On Method)

I thought it might be useful at this point in our conversations if I prefaced our entrance to the peculiar temporal or spatial variety that shall have been Shakestime by trying to Polly parrot back to you some of the things I think I have heard over the last two days. I do not have time to do this responsibly, to name names and give credit where credit is due. I apologize in advance as I mischaracterize your contributions—they come back to you from someone who in 1993 or so (that’s the year 5753, of course, in another calendar, also coincidentally the year the Toronto Blue Jays won the World series) embarked on a reading of the philosopher of science Michel Serres with the result that all writers became my contemporary.[1] This didn’t mean very much because all the word “contemporary” meant was that like you and me these writers were or had at one time been finite beings; had to deal with time as they experienced it and as it was mediated for them by their object world or ecological milieu. Just like us, just like King Lear, they were not “weatherproof” and so were buffeted by the eventfulness of this world; subject to physical distress, joy, loss, affective or emotional turbulence. Just like us they created material and discursive shelters, external memory devices, objects (which include texts) some of which remain today in various states of disrepair; some of which survive at the expense of others or do so by the occluded and now invisible labor of a host of animal subjects human and otherwise. Periods are shelters. They provide shelter against the irreversible time of physics.[2]

This contemporaneity—or shared exposure to time (le temps) and to the weather (le temps) meant, so I learned, that in order not to do violence to these writers and their objects, to misconstrue them by marshaling them to the latest interpretive schema, I had to seek “to know them from the position of the known.”[3] I had to work inductively. I had to read without a meta-language; do without symptomatic reading strategies; and avoid synecdoche like the plague. Sociology, anthropology or any explanatory set of terms and paradigms knew no more and no less than the texts they set out to study. Marcel Mauss and Lévi Strauss were very smart. But they knew no more than did Molière who was also very smart. Theater was already a social laboratory that would become, courtesy of the Royal Society, a theater of scientific demonstration.[4] Writing was projective, experimental, and future oriented. Different media interpenetrated and anticipated each other. Moses was a switchboard operator, one in a long line of telephonic intermediaries.

Periodization, to the extent that it was an issue, became a problem of grammar or syntax. Where do you like to end your sentences and begin others? How were you going to emplot texts you declared past so as to produce certain kinds of time effects that would do rhetorical work in what you took to be your present. To periodize was to calibrate, to become the writer of a new text or the producer of a new object, and so to refold the remains of the past to particular ends. To periodize was to delimit. It was violent and so was in some shape or form to be resisted. To declare, for example, that Periodization 2.0 marked the beginning or the end of a Renaissance at the Folger or was a Restoration of sorts was essentially to declare war on a competing narrative or settlement. This declaration enabled you to mark a break with an intervening middle time of benighted bathypelagic sensory deprivation (ages you made “dark”) under the sign of your rebirthed continuity with or reclamation of glories past re-clothed or re-embodied in the likes of, surprise-surprise, oh look it’s us.

Epistemic breaks were right out. They might be posited but only as heuristics or propositions and they were not particularly interesting because they were about reducing the complexity of the noise of things (past, present, and future). They were dangerous because they might all too easily turn into fixed points and reveal themselves to be on ramps to all too familiar intellectual superhighways.

Synchrony versus diachrony was a false choice because timer was multiple, discontinuous, and not linear. It does not flow. It percolates.[5] Different configurations of matter, different objects (the First Folio, a ruff, the Holy Cross Guild chapel, a musical phrase or style) obey different chronologies. They are asynchronous but might also synch up. Things do change. But nothing disappeared. Secularism, for example, was merely a differently religious way of re-tying the knot of belief and belonging. The word religion was to be understood according to a strict Latinism that reminded you that re-ligere means to re-tie. Religion therefore designated all the various processes or routines by which we declare ourselves “fit to be tied,” the narratives, communities to which you claimed to belong thereby authorizing your otherwise irrational, even unforgivable, decision to cut yourself off from other creatures.[6]

Language was about vectoring. Nouns and verbs were less important than prepositions (the pre-placing or positioning of things) or deictic markers. There was no better word or place to be than “between” or, if you like, in the middle.[7] The program, then, was to try to craft something on the order of a “general theory of relations” or poetics of translation or metaphor, a new kinematic aesthetic—how do ideas and things move; where do they go when they seem to vanish; where and how do they come back?[8] Nominalist or inductive forms of historical epistemology; tracing words and gestures; postures; signal tracking, traveling by the turns of a trope, by the force or blow to a figure that impresses itself, were the way to go, but they were not ends in themselves. They were merely translation tools, means of transport, that enabled you to learn how to refold texts that seemed to be separated by vast chronological distances so as to see their similarities, their proximal relations, proximity, and yes, on occasion, their isomorphism.

Time was an effect of space—best metaphorized as a giant hankie that could be unfolded to maximize the distance between two points or folded over and crumpled in order to make two points coincide.[9] Time did not exist without objects; and those objects served as translational relays, crossroads, anchoring points, convocations, which folded together the differently timed remains of persons, animals, plants, and all the various entities that make up our built worlds.[10] They might be palimpsests as Jonathan Gil Harris has argued, but the word overlay seemed more neutral. Objects accreted their uses; abuse, accidents, and decay.[11] Certain objects seemed especially stable—the Eucharist, money, the cell form of the commodity, Shakespeare (sort of) which is to say they spliced together matter, signs, and flesh in ways that could direct or route traffic. All that traffic (repetition as difference) kept them stable.[12]

Agency became annoyingly easy to talk about. Objects or “quasi-objects” didn’t have it; but neither did “quasi-subjects.” Instead they both participated in its production. Subject and object were grammatical positions first and foremost and could be occupied, from moment to moment, by different entities, human and otherwise. This was all best explained by watching rugby, but baseball would work too. For to any unbiased observer the ball was obviously the true subject, giving agency to whoever had it or made it do what was required.[13] The whole subject / object problem was best left well alone and handled by speaking of ties, ligatures, and the way our worlds stack animal and vegetable labor to produce forms of life that confuse all these categories strategically. The only thing you could ultimately say about people is that they were parasites. And, maybe with a lot of hard work we might be able to achieve something on the order of a mutually sustaining relation to our world. Perhaps the parasitic relation that kills might be stabilized or transformed into a symbiosis. But, let’s face it, the Holocene (entirely recent time) if not yet the Anthropocene, hadn’t gone very well so far.[14]

As you can imagine, as a graduate student back in 1993, this all came as a bit of a shock. New historicism (already flagging) looked really strange. It’s synchronic slicing up of things past and bewitching use of synecdoche let you know that it was a powerful mode of translation, a powerful topological operation. Best to steer well clear. So, as a first step, I decided to write a dissertation that, as I would be frequently reminded, had no real literature in it. It’s title, “Cunning Conveyaunce: Space, Narrative and Material Culture in Renaissance England,” let you know that I was very modestly just out to track the peculiar lexical flexibility of the words “cunning conveyaunce” and their compeers “curious contrivance” in describing certain contemporaneous quasi-technological devices in t: portrait miniatures, relics, flush toilets, the printed page, and priest-holes (secret hiding places for books, massing stuff, or priests, a technology that essentially enabled houses to forget). The texts I chose derived from my signal tracking which was, in part, performed by way of a chronological short title catalogue search with a card catalogue; and then reading within the disciplines that claimed expertise for the texts I tried to read. My “period” ran from 1570 (the founding of the Jesuit Mission to reconvert a reformed England) to 1606 (the aftermath of Gunpowder Plot). Antiquarian labor of the early to mid-twentieth century or “fetish labor,” as I like to think of it (and positively so), proved crucial to this endeavor because the labor we have to do now to approach texts and objects always proves reciprocal to the labor they did back then to make and use whatever text or object you are out to understand.[15]

More peculiarly still, as I reckoned with where my reading of Serres and then the sociologist Bruno Latour had taken me, I discovered that I had not been turned into a philosopher or a historical sociologist but had been re-territorialized in questions of media, form, genre, and trope, understood as ways of trying to understand the messy business we call poiesis, making things and the status of the things that we have made and that make us. This was a happy outcome because deep down I was trained as a formalist, had always thought that formal analysis, close reading, narrating the scene of encounter with an object, aesthetics understood as an account of perception, pretty darned inductive—a laboratory of sorts. It also meant that I could finally understand that the lesson of Derridean deconstruction was not a cautionary tale on the irresponsibility of a maximum entropy formalism but a radical empiricism that sought to stop the noumenal or heuristic positing of categories becoming realist by exposing it to the noise that it had sought to filter out but without which there would be no signal to track or to name. That noise was potentially always a set of signals from another differently timed object, echoes of excluded voices, forgotten or invisible labor, human and otherwise. Close reading, deconstructive reading, attempted to hold open the bounded period of the sentence, “the structure of the sentence to the saying,” so that it may be said differently.[16]

What is Shakestime? Who or what, for that matter, is Shakespeare and how is it that he may defy periodization? I have a couple of answers. You could, for example, describe Shakespeare as “a proliferating knot of times and places, a translational node or quasi-object.” “Shakespeare” is an assemblage or activity, a chain of making, whose performance produces an evolving collective of texts, readers, readings, persons, performances, and audiences.[17] More contentiously, if you are a bit fed up with that and want, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s terms, “provincialize” Shakespeare, you might be inclined to re-describe “Shakespeare” not as a now defunct historical person or a series of plays but as:
a mobile, conflicting, conflicted, and partial time-bound set of practices. What happens if we proceed on the assumption that the academic designation ‘Shakespeare studies,’ as well as school curricula, professional Shakespeare theaters, the film industry, media libraries (on and offline) refer not to a series of agreed upon texts or performances but instead to a series of differently distributed fetish communities, each of which tunes itself to the shifting auratics of its chosen ritual objects as they are variously mediated—from manuscript to quarto to folio, on and off and back to the stage, the movie theater, and the home entertainment system—the ontology of the thing we study ‘Shakespeare’ [or Shakestime] waxing and waning, constantly picking up and dropping actants as it goes. The distribution of readers into different fields of study (performance, theater history, criticism, theater production, and so on) would constitutes not a happy holism, but a series of discontinuous and only sometimes intersecting conversations or crowds that converge on variously mediatized forms of Shakespearean texts. The Shakespeare industry, so it turns out, would refer not merely to an elaborated infrastructure, but to the industry of so very many readers and purveyors, whose vital juices the Bard requires to keep on flowing. In this model, the labor of all such fetishists (myself included) stands in reciprocal relation to the past labors of reading, living, and dying that our work posits as ‘past.’”[18]
If you want to imagine something different, if you want to calibrate the past differently, to imagine other more capacious periodizing strategies, you might need to stop reading Shakespeare or to direct traffic to another set of texts and objects which would then anchor your sense of time.

Nothing I have said thus far about what “Shakespeare” or “Shakestime” are or might be should be confused with what it entails to open a reading of or encounter a play. Plays are projective. They wish to become something else: a performance, a reading, a new text. They are necessarily incomplete and so must be joined. By joining them we activate and perform their structures and turning space into place by our time-bound occupation of them.[19] That is, in a sense, the lesson of the plays as I read them, whose predicaments usually seem to revolve around characters not quite being when or where they thought they were and asking for help or failing to find any.

Coming last, as York tells the audience early on in Henry VI Part II, means that you get to reap the benefits of comprehending the situation; time is less important than timing.[20] But judging whether you are timely is really difficult—best not attempted but frequently unavoidable. Lady Macbeth ends up stuck in Act 2 scene 2 even though she’s in Act 5—in one of Shakespeare’s contribution to making king killing seem unthinkable even as he still thinks about it.[21] Macbeth and Banquo register the disappearance of the witches in Act 1 scene 3 as a moment of sensory estrangement. Everything that happened; everything they heard and seemed to have been promised; has gone, or worse, never actually was at all. The futures they were offered: Macbeth’s life and reign; Banquo’s genealogical afterlife; never will have been. We watch as the two of them register this loss and reckon with the residue or remainder of their inflated sense of being. The lives and legends the witches suggested to them, and which they just now imagined, have become less than virtual. All that’s left, until Ross arrives and hails Macbeth “Thane of Cawdor,” (1. 3. 103), as if he were some witchy speech bubble gone awry and only now making it back, is the aching abandonment become giggly abreaction that the two men share: “Your children shall be kings / You shall be king” (1. 3. 84). Perhaps it was all just the wind. “Have we eaten on the insane root?” (1. 3. 82).

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom wakes up in Act 3 scene 1 even though he’s in Act 4 waiting for a cue that never comes or won’t till Act 5; remembers more of what happened in Act 3 than he’s willing to say out loud—more than the lovers, that’s for sure who are totally unable to explain how everything turned out alright.[22] Eager to periodize, to consummate their marriage, Theseus writes them all off along with poetry, dreams, and madness (5. 1. 2-23). But Hippolyta’s the better signal tracker (had read her Ovid apparently); judges that “all the story of the night told over / And all their minds transfigured so together / More witnesseth than fancy’s images, / And grows to something of great constancy” (5. 1. 25-26). She tropes or trumps the play’s lexicon of translation to register the knot, the tying off, that she names a transfiguration. An end is coming—an end she registers in performance either, happily because consciously, with a wink; or, unhappily, strangely, without acknowledgement, at the moment she redacts Theseus’s frustration with the moon in the opening lines of the play in reference to the stunt moon, Moonshine, “I am aweary of this moon, would he would change” (5. 1. 237).

When am I? When are we? Is it in fact now? Does time progress or does the time of others catch us up and out? These questions seem to capture the flavor of “Shakestime,” unless you’re riding the kairos, immanent to the action, at one with the time, or in Iago’s words, “even now, now, very now.”[23] But that won’t last very long.

I am not sure what time it is. But 2016 or year 5777 of the Holocene is coming. I do not know who shall win the World Series but a predictive weather report might safely offer that things will remain changeable, with a chance of shakes-appearing.

Thank you.


[1] Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 44-45.

[2] Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy, trans. Josué Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 115-116. “History,” adds Serres, “flows around physics” (116).

[3] This use of le temps is fundamental to Serres’s philosophy and a continual reference. But see Serres and Latour, Conversations, 58. On Serres’s strange form of empiricism, see Bruno Latour, “The Enlightenment without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres’ Philosophy,” in Contemporary French Philosophy, ed. A. Phillips Griffiths (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 89.

[4] On anthropology and theater, see Serres, Hermes, 3-14.

[5] Ibid., 57-59.

[6] For this coding of religion see Serres’s work generally and in particular, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), in which the word ligature is successively interrogated and “re-tied.”  On the madness and violence of decision as cutting or the creation of an edge, see, in different registers, Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans., 55; and Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans., David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 53-82.

[7] Serres and Latour, Conversations, 64. This engagement with prepositions as the way in which beings incline and attach to one another has been life long. For a book-length treatment of préposés (prepositions, pre-placed entities, employees, postmen) as figures of mediation in art and literature, see Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth (Paris: Flammarion, 1995).

[8] Serres and Latour, Conversations, 66.

[9] Ibid., 59-62.

[10] Serres, Hermes, 115-116.

[11] Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

[12] For a dazzling contribution, inspired in part by the work of Michel Serres, to an analysis of this order of stability, see Michael Wintroub’s analysis of the “metrological work of trying to establish, maintain, and extend the faithfulness of translation--in domains as diverse as literature, politics, religion, and commerce.” Michael Wintroub, “Translations: Words, Things, Going Native, and Staying True,” American Historical Review 120: 4 (2015): 1185-1227.

[13] Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis and London, [1982] 2007), 224-227.

[14] For Serres’s attempts to think beyond the neutrality of parasitic chain with its excluded middles (“the third man”) towards successive figures of symbiosis along with what frequently sounds like despair at what he takes to be “appropriation through pollution,” writing as a form of excremental marking or re-marking, see, among others, Angels, The Natural Contract, and Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution, trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[15] This dissertation would provide the basis for Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

On the reciprocal nature of “fetish” or antiquarian labor, see “Shakespeare’s Kitchen Archives,” in Speculative Medievalisms: A Discography, ed., The Petropunk Collective, (Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2013), 179-200.

[16] For this modeling of deconstruction see, Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

[17] “Accidental Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Studies, 34 (2006): 90-91.

[18] Richard Burt / Julian Yates, What’s The Worst Thing You Can Do To Shakespeare? (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1-2. On provincializing as a strategy, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[19] On play texts as projective, see “Shakespeare’s Kitchen Archives.”

[20] William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part Two, ed. Roger Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3. 1. 381.

[21] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5. 1.

[22] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 4. 1. 197. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

[23] William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1995), 1. 1. 89.

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