Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Misery of the Early Modernists?

by J J Cohen

Among the many activities to keep me busy at Kalamazoo 2012 is a presentation for a roundtable on teaching the canon sponsored by the Graduate Student Committee of the Medieval Academy. The event has been organized by Elizaveta Strakhov, and I sent her the following abstract yesterday. Warning: it paints its argument in VERY broad strokes.
Taking as a point of departure two recent collections of essays in early modern studies (ShakesQueer and Ecocritical Shakespeare), I will speak about what it means for medievalists in English Departments to have no figure comparable to William Shakespeare exerting an inexorable authorial gravity -- a pull that can be productive (creating the commonality that may foster community), but can also be a black hole (triggering compression and attendant squabbling over shrinking territory). Though Chaucer looms large in medieval studies, he never dominated the field so thoroughly as Shakespeare does the Early Modern. Medievalists have always been working in a non-canonical discipline requiring work in multiple languages, so that often our work has more in common with scholars who work in (say) literature of the Americas or postcolonial studies than those whose fields have tended to roam an "English only" ambit. It is possible, however, that an implicit canon does exert its lingering effects: Latin theological works that long after D. W. Robertson continue to ground medieval meanings in Christian meanings while ignoring more secular possibilities.
I posted this abstract on Google+. Soon afterwards, Roland Greene was kind enough to comment and direct me towards his provocative essay "Misplaced Horizons in Literary Studies," where he describes the "in Shakespeare" problem:
consider what it means to examine social, historical, and intellectual issues entirely within literature, as though the empirical world has been reduced to a perspective within a literary horizon. 

I pose the problem this way because in my main field, which is early modern English, Romance, and transatlantic literatures, it's not uncommon to find projects that treat some hyper-canonical author, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, not as a participant in the wide-ranging discourses of the period but as a horizon itself.

When I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, I called it the "in Shakespeare" problem. Suppose I'm conceiving a new book on sixteenth-century aesthetics, or political or scientific thought, or knowledge of the Americas. I can treat Shakespeare as one voice among many, including non-literary writers as well as people who not only write but do things; this way, I can attend to what literature makes possible that other discourses and enterprises cannot. Or I can install my hyper-canonical figure as the project's horizon: political thought in Shakespeare.  

Somehow we've made an industry in which literary critics are rewarded for conceiving their work in this latter way. No one objects to the foreshortening of ambitions, or to the cynicism involved in pretending to consider real-world issues within the safety zone of a canonical figure.
Greene offers some cogent explanations for why this problem should be so enduring: longstanding and unspoken tradition; the professional reward system; publishing houses that demand a titular Shax citation because more books are thereby sold. I'd also add to the list the academic pressure of teaching Shakespeare unceasingly. Controversy unfailingly always erupts whenever an English department abandons its Shakespeare requirement, but as departments that never had such requirements have long known, students love and demand these courses, required or not. Shakespeare classes invariably fill, regardless of curricular mandates. That means that Early Modernists in English Departments (which are certainly the largest employers of literary Early Modernists) must teach a great deal of Shakespeare, creating some ambivalence about his works, but also ensuring that Shakespeare is always on the scholar's mind, for good or ill.

The problem with this circumscribed-in-advance horizon, writes Greene, is twofold:
To follow the "in Shakespeare" model of criticism is to make two kinds of mistake: a methodological one, in which the critic attempts by sleight of hand to seem to be addressing topics of wide interest without leaving the zone of canonical literary works—and ends up creating a project that doesn't matter to anyone except a dwindling population of professional readers; and an ethical one, in which he or she evades the responsibility to take literature seriously, which means (against some people's expectations) not treating it as the scene of everything important.
The medievalist version of this problem would be an exclusive focus upon literary documents as if they were revelatory of all that is important within an age. That dwindled perspective is a difficult one for even a medievalist trained in a literature department to inhabit, since what counts as literary and artistic is more of a problem than a given, and medieval studies is ideally thoroughly interdisciplinary; but such literary overreaching isn't an impossible approach, of course. Offhand, I can't think of many medieval studies books with overinflated titles to compare to, say, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, but there must be some. And there are projects that claim too much for their perhaps too rarefied texts to support. Still, without a Shakespeare to exert such ineluctable magnetic pull over the field, I wonder if medievalists in literature programs struggle with the same problems of canonicity, predetermined horizon, and terrain. What do you think?


Sebastian Sobecki said...

For the same pragmatic (and existential) reasons with which you close your entry I cherish every single day of the Shakespearean ascendancy: it maintains a protective bubble for us premodernists by placing a premium on older literature. Shakespeare keeps English departments busy besides offering students a relatively early historical focus that is close to our comfort zone. We may have known for a long time that many of his plays are overrated, that some aren't even his, and that Marlowe's material was probably more fun anyway, yet I see a bleak horizon for English departments and medievalists in a world beyond Shakespeare. I certainly do appreciate the burden this places on early modernists and on the integrity of their hermeneutics, but early modern studies isn't exactly in a shabby hermeneutical condition these days. Perhaps all of these Shakespearean obligations have sharpened a form of critical resistance? If a revolution is indeed looming, I'll be following it closely - from the sidelines.

Unknown said...

I'll start by saying that there are certainly valid reasons to object to Shakespeare's centrality to early modern studies -- but I would also say that it would be very wrong to conflate "Shakespeare" or even "Shakespeare studies" with "early modern studies." Yes, our major conference is called the Shakespeare Association of America, but even a cursory look at the program over the last several years shows the extraordinary variety and vitality of the current work in early modern studies, much of it having little to do, at least explicitly, with any conventional notion of "Shakespeare."

As Sebastian says in the comment above, Shakespeare can provide a "protective bubble" that guarantees us the space (and perhaps the safety) to experiment with new modes and methodologies. I think this should be a point of pride for us in the earlier periods -- many of the major, influential critical and/or methodological movements have originated in, or at least been most visible in, the earlier periods of study. For early modernists, Shakespeare gives us the canonical cover we might need to undertake new and exciting research -- and then the visibility to show everyone else the value in that kind of approach, (far) beyond Shakespeare or early modern studies.

Now, the inevitable gravitational pull of convention does exert significant force, as Roland Greene argues -- there will always be plenty of folks content to stay "(with)in Shakespeare" and/or are content to characterize early modern studies as a whole as simply "Shakespeare." There are ample objections to this -- but considering the wide variety of critical approaches, and especially the most exciting new scholarship in the field, this particular characterization risks becoming a straw man. Saying we shouldn't ignore non-literary, non-Shakespearean texts is in some ways tantamount to saying that we should practice engaged, energetic, responsible scholarship. Don't be lazy, and do go beyond your comfort zone. (Very, very few scholars, at least among the younger set to which I belong, would even think of constructing a solely Shakespearean project -- yours truly excepted, I suppose). On the other hand, there are significant pressures to write and publish on Shakespeare -- part of the "professional reward system" Greene mentions (although this might better be re-phrased as "the job market," which makes more conventional demands of job candidates). But again, even a project that takes Shakespeare as its focus may not be blind to everything else -- there is now a huge and well-established body of scholarship to interact with, and often these kinds of projects are about a critical tradition more than Shakespeare him/itself.

I try to explain to graduate students that "Shakespeare studies" is vastly larger and more exciting than simply sitting down with the complete works and reading them, over and over and over again. You can do (and get away with) a lot in early modern studies. To my undergraduates, I try to explain the value in my approach to teaching, which often focuses as much on the critical, historical, biographical, and cultural traditions as on what Juliet said to Romeo, or what the deal is with Hamlet and Ophelia. (And that is why I am at times increasingly cranky with non-Shakespeareans teaching Shakespeare, but that's a different story).

Finally (really!) we could also think about the "canonicity" problem as a "historicity" problem, since that is how most post- pre-modern fields tend to define us (and that is how departmental requirements are phrased as well). It's the historical gap between "early" or "pre" and "now" that unites us (and defines us), just as much, if not often more, than the overwhelming presence (or lack of) a suitably authoritative canonical guarantor.

Lucia said...

I have to say, I'm fairly confused by this discussion. In the G+ thread, I was so focused on the abstract and its central-author questions that I didn't even notice what the abstract was for. This is about teaching the canon? Why do we have to approach teaching the canon from the perspective of what we don't have? And for that matter, why do we have to approach teaching the canon from the perspective of Early Modern studies? I could fill an entire book on teaching the canon in medieval literature courses without ever mentioning Shakespeare. There's so much else to talk about! My primary concern, when it comes to this sort of topic, is not how we teach the canon but how we maintain the canon. I admit that there are countless ways in which we could go about extending the canon (e.g. teaching minor works, teaching literature from less-frequently-studied languages, turning our gaze eastward, teaching historical documents as literature, etc., etc., ad infinitum). But all of that tends to crowd out the literature that I love ... the literature that led me to this field in the first place (and which, presumably, could have the same pull for future students). Obviously I'm not suggesting that we maintain the same reading list we received as undergrads, but I think it's useful to talk about how we can find some sort of middle ground ... even if that middle ground has to be renegotiated every time we write a new syllabus.

I guess I am also questioning the "non-canonical discipline" part of your abstract. Does our lack of a central author (if that's even true) mean we don't have a canon? And what other fields (besides Early Modern studies) have a Shakespeare? Classicists, for example, have Virgil, but they also have Homer (since classics departments typically teach both Greek and Latin, even if their faculty members specialize in one or the other). And then there's Ovid, Horace .... you get my point.

P.S. I'm also curious about your reference to Robertson. The way I see it, we are still stuck in the post-Robertson backlash away from religious studies and towards secularism. (I'm speaking quite generally, of course, and only about medieval literary scholars.) Maybe I'm wrong. But in my experience, whenever I have followed one of Robertson's footnotes to a primary source, I often end up with a dusty product of early-20th-century German philology that appears not to have been touched in at least a decade (unless the reference was to a major work of Augustine). (I'm not complaining, of course ... just surprised at your reference.)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Adam, I like how you phrased a link to this discussion on Twitter: "Is Shakespeare making us miserable?" It's that *question* that's important, because it leads to the discussion we're now having ... and that I'd like to have in Kalamazoo as well.

I am going to append below some comments I just posted at Google+ in response to Holly Crocker's careful prodding.

Opposition [between EM and medieval studies] is not my point, and I can see that in trying to phrase the abstract in a way that gives maximum traction to my argument I'm playing EM and medieval off each other too much. In my fumbling way what I am trying to articulate is the pressure that Shakespeare exerts upon two recent books that I've enjoyed (Shakesqueer & Ecocritical Shakespeare), books that in their different ways embrace the coherence that working under the aegis of the Bard provides, yet restlessly bump against the limitations that comes from such circumscription (and Madhavi Menon does a good job of theorizing that constraint and its subversion in her volume). Anyway, intensely powerful authorial gravity and the traditions/horizons/potential fixities and attendant anxiety such a pull can bring are fairly alien to me as a medievalist. What I would like to explore is what the absence of such a irresistible figure (whose magnetism is both good and bad: community and contraction at once) means for teaching the Middle Ages through its literature. That is not to say that the Middle Ages has no canon; we just don't have a looming canonical father figure. And a freedom for diversity in text that I'm not sure EM studies in English departments quite possess. Such an absence must mean something?

As to Robertson: it is always such a problem to invoke him, and maybe I shouldn't have, but what I was trying to indicate is that _perhaps_ medieval studies has a silent and lingering kind of subterranean canon in that our preferred determinants for meaning tend to be theological ones. Not always, of course: there are plenty of secular minded critics who find their nonliterary anchors in more historical, less transcendent sources. But there is still a privileging of theology that occurs, I think, especially in discussions of medieval race, but also animal studies, and maybe other places as well. I personally find it very difficult to propound a secular or otherwise non-Christian Middle Ages without getting instant theological push back.

I also want to emphasize that this is an abstract for an infant project. It is not the precis of an essay I have researched -- so I appreciate the feedback, especially as I try to figure what contours the more fully realized version will assume.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that this comment may come off as uncivil, since I am dealing with the flip side of this issue, in some ways, in my own fledgling academic life. So with that caveat: it seems perverse to me to describe the writing of a book on some topic "in Shakespeare" as a cynical ploy when so much of my own experience has been about trying to write a dissertation that is simply about a group of Shakespeare plays, all of which happen to share a feature, and constantly being asked 1) why it isn't a dissertation on Feature X in Renaissance literature; or 2) why it isn't a dissertation on Feature X "in Shakespeare." The answer to the first question--which I can't give because it's too "naive"--is that I want to write about Shakespeare, because in all my reading life, nothing has ever spoken to me like Shakespeare does. So will I, to avoid having this problem, go over to the dark side and write an "in Shakespeare" dissertation? Only time will tell.

It seems to me that the problem is that the critical landscape is so dominated by the literature-as-cultural-studies mindset that it feels like one *has* to write a book about some underexplored aspect of how the Early Moderns thought about politics or history or space or objects or food or perception or death, or else risk not being taken seriously. From where I stand, the problem isn't Shakespeare's gravitational pull, which deforms otherwise decent books on some sociopolitical phenomenon; it's that we have to write "Topic X in Renaissance Literature" books in the first place, and Shakespeare simply happens to be one of the few authors one can get away with writing a single-author project about.

I'm not claiming "Topic X" books shouldn't exist, obviously. But if we shoo people away from just writing books on Shakespeare (or Marlowe, or Jonson, or anyone else), where the author comes first, then can we really be surprised or confused when we wind up with a lot of "in Shakespeare" books? To me, it's a symptom, not the disease.

Anonymous said...

(Also, I do recognize that that isn't what the heart of your post is about, I promise! But I think the question of "why so much Shakespeare?" isn't really the right question, because Shakespeare seems to me, in many ways, to be a leftover, or at least one of very few authors big and robust enough to survive certain academic pressures.)

Steve Mentz said...

I missed this thread, here & on G+, b/c Irene turned my lights out, but I do look forward, Jeffrey, to smuggling you into the Shakespeare Association meeting next spring. I tend to think the question of audience might control some of these choices, though not only in the narrow Shakespeare-for-Shakespeareans sense. For example, I choose to write about Lear & As You Like It in my essay in Eco Shax in part b/c I imagine, or perhaps fondly hope, that the essay might be legible outside of literary studies. I wrote the earliest version of it as a talk at the Yale School of Forestry & Enviro Studies, and then did a second seminar there last winter. Those folks aren't Shakespeareans by any means, but they know the plays, mostly, and can engage with them in a way that they might not with, say, 16c theologies of shipwreck or piscatorial poetry in the 17c. That seems like a good thing to me.

Anonymous said...

Offhand, I can't think of many medieval studies books with overinflated titles to compare to, say, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, but there must be some.

This immediately made me think of Colin Morris's The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, and then remember that apparently every period of study has a book called this. Medieval authors who completely dominate and over-shadow their periods, though, have an obvious top for the leader-board: Bede. Without preserved peer...