Research agenda

I have five years of research time ahead of me. I still cannot believe it, but it is true. The first year is a gift from the Board of my university (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) to help promising young researchers improve their track record in publishing. I am going to use it to finally publish a rigorously rewritten version of my PhD thesis. So expect posts about revenge once more, but also about the Inns of Court, the common law, and the do’s and don’ts of writing a book proposal.

I am now working on an essay on ‘Cognition and Affect’ for the section on Shakespeare criticism in the Cambridge World Shakespeare Encyclopedia, edited by Bruce R. Smith and Katherine Rowe (Cambridge University Press). I really enjoy reading and writing for this essay, not only because it might become part of such a wonderful publication which is also an innovative digital resource, but also because the topic is precisely what my new research project (2011-2015) focuses on.

My project “Moving Scenes: Theatre, Passions and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England” has its own blog where I will post abstracts and conference papers. This is how the ‘About’ page describes the project:

‘Moving Scenes’ examines the role of the theatre in thinking about the transmission of emotion in the context of the emerging public sphere in early modern England. Although Jürgen Habermas situated the origins of the public sphere in the eighteenth century, recent research has traced its roots to the sixteenth and seven teenth centuries. The transition from a feudal to a proto-capitalist society in which persuasion and rhetoric became central tools, contributed to the emergence of an early public sphere. The print controversies of the period are also seen as central in this process, as well as the religious debate caused by the English Reformation (see (Halasz 1997; Zaret 2000; and Staines 2004).

These changes in society evoked pervasive questions about the role of the emotions in this emerging public sphere. The relation­ship between sense experience, emotion and reason constitutes a major ‘faultline’ in early modern English culture (Sinfield 1992; see also Smith 2009). Not only was the stage a key focus for debates about the effects of passion in perception and judge ment, it was also one of the important locations in which this debate was carried out. With spec tators from across the social spectrum, the theatre was one of the major cultural laboratories in early modern English culture.

With its specific focus on the role of the theatre in debates about the place of conveyed emotions in the public sphere, Moving Scenes shows that a study of theatrical representations of the effects of passion can do more than shed light on issues of identity and selfhood. The research project provides insight into the politics of passions in early modern English culture.

“Moving Scenes” is funded by a ‘Veni’-grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Works cited

  • Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Bruce. The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Staines, John. “Compassion in the Public Sphere of Milton and King Charles” in: Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion. Eds. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 89-110.
  • Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

How many books make you a suspect?

negriFrench police researching the case of Julien Coupat – one of the “nine of Tarnac” suspected of sabotaging the overhead lines of the TGV in November 2008 – have sofar been unable to link him to the sabotage. French newspapers now report that police have swooped down on Coupat’s library as their only piece of evidence. The police noted, in bold, that they found five thousand books in the house Coupat lives in. Among them were works on philosophy, history, and literature. They also noted that several of the books were not translations, but editions in the original language. Libération writes:

Dans le dossier d’instruction un long PV revient sur la bibliothèque de la communauté de Tarnac. «Cinq mille ouvrages», écrit en gras le brigadier qui relate les perquisitions du 11 novembre. Des livres conservés dans une pièce de l’appartement du 2, place de l’Eglise, à Tarnac et classés entre «les archives, les pensées philosophiques, les ouvrages littéraires et l’histoire des civilisations».

I haven’t counted our books recently, but I would estimate that we own around 3000. Should we be worried? Perhaps I should, because we own at least one of the 27 books that French police singled out as suspect: Antonio Negri’s Books for Burning. At least I can honestly tell the police it belongs to my partner.

Perhaps the police have adopted president Sarkozy’s attitude to books. He recently complained to have suffered when he was made to read The Princess of Cleves in his youth. The Guardian reports that sales of the book have soared as it has become a symbol of resistance to Sarkozy’s government, especially among French university staff. Similarly, downloads of the leftist cultural critique that Julien Coupat is suspected of having written (and which is actually quite critical of Negri’s work) are soaring. L’insurrection qui vient has been reprinted and is widely available in bookshops.

The cup, the knife, the coat, the remedy

The discussion about Stanley Fish’s column on the uses of the arts and the humanities at the Valve (here and here) reminded me of the Belle van Zuylen lecture that Jeanette Winterson gave in Utrecht, just before Christmas. Her thesis was that art is essential equipment for the task of being human — a “basic kit for life.” The entire text, in English and in Dutch is on the SLAU website.

The person who introduced her spoke about truth and beauty, and despite being a fan of Winterson’s novels, I was a little worried that the evening was going to be a little too Harold-Bloomian. Then Winterson’s sheer enthusiasm and her engaging style grabbed me.

By cutting through the non-speak and the triviality that surrounds us, art’s language finds the truth about ourselves that we whisper in the night, find revealed in dreams, fend off with good works and good intentions. Under the babble is everything we are not saying about the way we live, privately and collectively, and it is not enough to try and say it in conference notes or essays, or even in the best journalism and non-fiction. We still need the numinous, metaphorical, allusive complex language of poetry – the heightened dialogue of the dramatic text, the strange journeys of fiction.

Next to popular culture and capitalism, Winterson targeted literature courses in academia :

Even people who are supposed to be in charge of education worry about whether the canon of Western art will be too racist, too sexist, too offensive, or just too difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly that a teacher’s enthusiasm is vital in order to stimulate students to read more literature outside class, to go out and explore on their own. Winterson’s lecture really infected me with the desire to do so even more.

I do not quite agree, however, with the critique on modern literary theory that seems to underly this statement. I think that literary and cultural theory, too, are part of the toolkit that can make you see differently and make you think around different corners. Like the strange journeys of fiction, theory can take you out of your familiar ways of thinking.

This idea that theory stands in the way of enjoying literature is alive in Dutch academia, too. The worry is that if we include theory into the curriculum, students will not read enough literature. I agree that students could read more, and it sure would be nice if they also read books in their spare time every now and then. But I do not think that introducing students to the basics of literary theory stands in the way of that. I think it would be good if in addition to being able to close read and analyze a literary text, they could view a book from different perspectives and to see how their reading related to bigger ideas. I even think it could make them enjoy reading literature more.

The gender of reading (2)

Time for an update on the gender of reading post. There have been many comments, some of which on other blogs, so I’ll attempt a summary here. In the original post, I jotted down some thoughts on the function of books in paintings or photos, elaborating on the Dutch sociologist Jolande Withuis’s observation that women are more often depicted in the act of reading, whereas men tend to look away from their books.

Debate in the comment section focused on the eroticism of reading, on voyeurism and perspective, taking off from Helmer’s mention of a famous Dutch photo of a naked Phil Bloom reading a newspaper, and Peacay’s link to Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses.

Jean Burgess at the ever-inspiring blog Creativity Machine today wrote a post comparing Peacay and misteraitch’s two versions of Marilyn Monroe reading. Jean wonders whether the second image is perhaps more voyeuristic than the first. Perhaps we should relate the image to what Monroe is reading — are we, as readers of Ulysses‘s final chapter, not also voyeurs?

Jean links to the weblog Purse Lip Square Jaw which cites a wonderful piece by Jeanette Winterson on the Marilyn Monroe photo. It appeared in a special Guardian feature published on the 26th of April: Solitary Pleasures. To mark the announcement of the Orange Prize shortlist, The Guardian asked writers to choose their favourite picture from the recently published English translation of Stefan Bollman’s Frauen die lesen, sind gefährlich, entitled Reading Women. There are contributions by A. S. Byatt, Ali Smith, Marina Warner and many others, engaging with various issues that occupied us here, such as private and public reading, sexuality, and the emancipating force of being absorbed in reading. Deborah Moggach looks at one of the paintings I also discussed, the reading woman by Pieter Janssens Elinga. And A. S. Byatt has the most interesting opening line of them all:

I love books and most of these paintings of women reading don’t love books.

Also, Roy Booth at Early Modern Whale examines which books men and women in paintings are holding, and what it says about them. Roy discusses Italian paintings of women holding Petrarch’s Sonnets, and looks at the function of Seneca in the Holbein family portrait of Sir Thomas More. Now, why didn’t I think of that! I hope readers will comment with more examples of identifiable books in (early modern) paintings, because this is a fascinating topic.

I close with Monica Ali’s analysis of one of the paintings in Reading Women — in which the woman portrayed is an exception to the rule; she is not reading:

Vincent van Gogh
L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux

What I like about this picture is that she is not “lost in the book”. She is thinking her own thoughts, triggered – perhaps – by what she has just read. I imagine she’s read something with which she disagrees and she’s formulating her response internally. The way she’s resting her head on her hand suggests that she’s unsure of her position; it’s being tested. The book engages rather than confirms her intellect. Monica Ali

Cultural phenomenology

From now on, I would have to take time off to find out how to write about magical objects like sweets, wires, bags, screens and cards, about the tender madness of mundane actions like counting, folding and falling over, about the secret life of substances. I was going to have to write amid things, rather than getting on top of them, especially the strangeness of intimate feelings and conditions, like embarrassment and fatigue and envy and itch and shame.

These are the words of Steven Connor. Connor seeks to move away from cultural history’s concerns with representations, discourses, and cultural politics, and to return to embodied experiences of the world. He argues that we have become so absorbed in what representations do to us, that we have neglected to see what we do to representations. Reacting to the prevalence of poststructuralism in cultural-historical criticism, Connor proposes a return to lived experience. He calls this proposed direction Cultural Phenomenology. The author of a cultural history of skin, Connor is interested in cultural histories of things such as shame, or folding, or forgetfulness (see his list of the kinds of things that might interest a cultural phenomenologist). In what is not quite a manifesto, but which does contain a number of cultural-phenomenological maxims, Connor explains his ideas. He writes, for example, that

“Modes of life – collective as well as individual modes – are more important and interesting […] than styles, texts, images, discourses, and other modes of collective representation, which become interesting and significant in the ways in which they are used, to make up the worldhood of our worlds.”

Connor draws on phenomenologists (and explains where he parts ways with them), cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, and his ideas also resemble the study of the everyday, such as De Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. What does he propose?

What do I mean by cultural phenomenology? Here, at least, is what I think it could do. Cultural phenomenology would aim to enlarge, diversify and particularise the study of culture. Instead of readings of abstract structures, functions and dynamics, cultural phenomenology would home in on substances, habits, organs, rituals, obsessions, pathologies, processes and patterns of feeling. Such interests would be at once philosophical and poetic, explanatory and exploratory, analytic and evocative. Above all, whatever interpreting and explication cultural phenomenology managed to pull off would be achieved in the manner in which it got amid a given subject or problem, not by the degree to which it got on top of it.

The essays on his website focus on subjects such as “wires” or “corridors” and explore various ways in which these have been experienced in historical and contemporary culture. I sometimes found myself asking — ‘but to what end?’ — but I think that Steven Connor would say that I am too much caught up in current modes of criticism. He proposes a different mode of writing, in which words such as “discourse”, “boundary”, or “marginality” are banned, because they are too abstract and intimidating. This mode of writing could break out of the narrow bandwidth of critical, analytical academic writing to express admiration, nostalgia, panic, or boredom.

Connors phenomenological turn from representation to notions of experience and embodiment seems to resonate with a trend in cultural historical research. I remember a lecture by the eminent American theoretician Hayden White in Groningen last year, in which he argued for the importance of lived experience. He proposed a mode of historical investigaton that based itself in descriptions of historical experience. A novel in which Virginia Woolf describes a walk through the streets of London can tell us more about early twentieth-century city life than any academic study can, he posited. Also, Connor’s notion of writing from “amid” resembles the Dutch philosopher of history Frank Ankersmit’s notion of “presence” as an alternative to representation.

I am puzzled, however, by the ways in which Connor proposes to write about historical experience from “amid”, rather than from a critical perspective. When Gail Kern Paster, for example, examines the early modern phenomenology of the passions, she explores the ways in which early modern men, women, children, and animals experienced their “being-in-the-world”. She examines early modern humoral tracts, plays, and emblem books to reconstruct this experience, and describes her findings in a clear and analytical way. How would Connor propose to write Paster’s books (or Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, for that matter)? If they were to express wonder, or perhaps boredom, about the ways in which historical subjects experienced their bodies, is this writing from “amid” the subject? Or is it writing from amid the writer’s own experience? And, how do you attain this perspective from “amid” the experience if the experience is in the past, and can only be reconstructed through textual traces?

I may have read too analytically for Connor’s liking, and perhaps my desire for a methodology of cultural phenomenology is hopelessly outdated in his view, but I can say that my experience of his website was one of wonder, amazement and puzzlement, and certainly not one of boredom.

Thinking the Past

In her wonderful introduction to Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden (2001), Catherine Belsey reflects on the methodologies of cultural history. She makes a case for a practice of reading that foregrounds dissent, instead of a method of interpretation that seeks to connect meanings to form an internally consistent totality. Objecting, for example, to a reading of Shakespeare’s comedies that would seek to ‘explain’ a play by relating it to a medical text, she argues that one should not seek to connect two texts if this leads to an effacement of their differences in genre, occasion, and audience. She comments that:

Our world, we allow, is divided, full of debate, culturally diverse and intellectually stratified, but nostalgia still tempts us to imagine a previous culture as a consensual realm, in which the important meanings and values could be taken for granted as shared, despite distinctions of language, class or gender. This seductive account of the past seems to me fundamentally misguided, and nowhere more so than as an interpretation of the early modern period, where virtually every topic was matter for dispute, much of it passionate, some of it violent. [1]

This perhaps sounds like another new-historicist attack on Lovejoy’s and Tillyard’s idea of the Elizabethan World Picture and their all-too monolithic view of Elizabethan culture. But for Belsey, her emphasis on reading difference and dissidence also makes for a crucial difference with new historicist practice itself. One of the three points in which her practice of “reading at the level of the signifier” differs from the new historicism, is its attention to struggle and dissent. Stephen Greenblatt and his colleagues in Belsey’s view see cultural moments as more unified and homogeneous than she does in her reading. Belsey looks to the new historicism’s reliance on anthropological models (such as Clifford Geertz’s “thick description”) as an explanation for this tendency to homogenize the cultural moment of the past. Although one could argue that Greenblatt’s work, after “Invisible Bullets” and the critical discussion it elicited, has a keener eye for the possibilities of dissent, it is this attention to difference, to faultlines within a text as well as dissidence within culture, that I find very attractive in Belsey’s and other cultural materialists’ work. Whenever I hear people speak of “the dominant ideology” in the early modern period, I think of Belsey’s wise words on our perceptions of the past.

Belsey’s introduction also sprang to mind when I came across this snippet of Deleuze in Mark Currie’s Difference. In the quotation, I think Deleuze differentiates between the past and the former present, where the ‘past’ is only those elements of the past that we now focus on in our present, whereas the term ‘former present’ recognizes that the past was once a present in all its complexity:

It is futile to try to reconstitute the past from the presents between which it is trapped, either the present which it was or the one in relation to which it is now past. In effect, we are unable to believe that the past is constituted after it has been present, or because a new present appears. If a new present is required for the past to be constituted as past, then the former present would never pass and the new one would never arrive. No present would ever pass were it not past ‘at the same time’ as it is present; no past would ever be constituted unless it were first constituted ‘at the same time’ as it was present. This is the first paradox: the contemporaneity of the past with the present that is was. [2]

Although Deleuze thinks the past from a completely different angle, he is also concerned in this passage with the complexity of the ‘former present’, and our rendering of it in our concept of the ‘past’. Deleuze takes the argument one step further, however, and argues that we cannot even think the present in all its complexity, but need to think of the present as ‘past’ in order to grasp the concept.

[1] Catherine Belsey, Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 16.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (translated into English by P. Paton in 1994), cited in Mark Curry, Difference (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).

The meme machine

I was having coffee at my parents last week. With the coffee came a cookie, and a paperback. “Have you heard of this?” asked my mother, and put the book on the coffee table. I hadn’t. I examined the blurb, which informed me that the term meme has been around as long as I myself. It was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976. “Memes, like gene, are replicators, competing to find space in our minds and cultures” — I thought of blog memes replicating across cyberspace, and I thought of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Then another part of the back cover caught my eye.

It brings a sort of rigour to
thinking about cultural change
that has hitherto been lacking

A sociobiologist who claims that an evolutionary psychologist finally sets us straight on cultural change? It made my mind boggle. I borrowed the book.

Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine picks up from Dawkins the idea of the meme: everything that is passed from person to person by means of imitation. Tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches — like selfish genes, memes replicate, and they do so when one person imitates another. Memes, then, do not originate from creative minds, but are ideas that replicate by using persons as hosts. We are no more than copying machines in a cultural evolutionary process driven by the memes. The power behind the idea of memes, in Blackmore’s words, is that

to start to think memetically, we have to make a giant flip in our minds […] Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and as working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied. We humans, because of our powers of imitation, have become just the physical ‘hosts’ needed for the memes to get around.

The ‘giant flip’ that Blackmore asks us to make sounds familiar. It sounds rather like the paradigmatic change from humanist notions of individual creation and identity to poststructuralist notions of epistemes and discourses. Perhaps, you might ask, this theory of cultural change combines the ideas of philosophy, paradigm shifts, and discursive dynamics with those of evolutionary thinking? Not quite:

I have explored various approaches to cultural evolution to see whether any use the same ideas as memetics but under another name. The answer, with the limited exceptions that I have discussed, is no. It seems that there is no ready-made science of memetics waiting to be taken over. If we need a science of memetics, as I am convinced we do, then we shall have to build one up from scratch.

Foucault’s name is not in the chapters, index or bibliography. Nor is the anthropologist René Girard, whose central theme is mimetic violence. Nor are many other thinkers from the humanities. A shame, because I would have been interested in a combination of poststructuralist theory with findings from psychology or evolutionary biology.

There are quite a few problems, in my view, in memetic theory. For starters, the straightforward principle of imitation does not take into account the workings of power. Take the example of the recycling of glass bottles. In Blackmore’s view, this kind of behaviour is a meme, since we imitate the behaviour from others. But what about the leaflets the city council sends me once a year to remind me of the do’s and don’t of domestic waste management? What about the way in which you feel good about recycling, because you have internalized discourses of discipline?

Secondly, memetic theory provides the answer to everything, from the gossip of the first human beings to the urbanization process, rather too straightforwardly and without any regard for historical specificity. Why do we have so many cities, for example? Well, because there are more people in the cities, there are more memes as well, and they are picked up more easily. People want to go to art galleries and bookshops because they want to copy memes. In the countryside, however, one meets fewer people, and therefore:

There is a critical imbalance operating here. When city dwellers go to the country they meet few rural dwellers because they are widely spread out, and pick up few rural memes because few exist; but when country folk go to the city they meet lots and lots of city people and lots of new ideas. The consequence is memetic pressure for city dwelling.

Well, that takes care of the process of urbanization in three sentences. And no, don’t write to Blackmore to tell her of the social history of industrialization, because she has already covered the argument of economic forces in one sentence: “but is this really so? Economic necessity is often not a question of food and clothes for the family, but of buying televisions and cars and all the other trappings of a meme-rich life.” I think that the problem of memetic theory lies precisely in the blurb’s rigour it brings to thinking about cultural change.

I googled around a little, and it seems that the meme-meme is copying itself all around the internet. I have been missing a trend, that much is clear. I found some indications of attempts to bridge the gap between memetics and cultural theory. Lionel Boxer came close to fusing Foucault’s episteme, Kuhn’s paradigm and Dawkins’ meme, but his PhD supervisor advised against it. Gary Taylor wrote a book called Cultural Selection (1999), which combines ideas of cultural change from the humanities with memetics, and which I am going to try and find in a library or second hand book shop, since it is apparently out of print. If you know of any more attempts to ‘bridge the gap,’ or even works that provide a Foucauldian reading of the meme episteme, do drop a comment!

Earlier meme books:

  • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)
  • Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996)
  • Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society (1996)
  • Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995)

Friday cat blogging

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?

In an earlier Friday Companion Species post, I wondered what would happen to Donna Haraway’s ideas about relating to the other if they were modelled on cats rather than dogs. I wrote that the constant mutual attention that Haraway proposes from her experience of training dogs, perhaps is simply not in a cat’s nature.

This week, I came across an announcement for a posthumous book by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, published one and a half years after his death, this spring. It is entitled L’Animal que donc je suis. Derrida in the book similarly sees the animal as Other, and Derrida was more of a man for cats than for dogs. The French newspaper Libération writes:

Derrida évoque son «petit chat» un vrai chat, pas une allégorie : «Souvent je me demande, moi, pour voir, qui je suis moment où, surpris nu, en silence, par le regard d’un animal, par exemple les yeux d’un chat, j’ai du mal, oui, du mal à surmonter une gêne. Pourquoi ce mal ? […] Devant le chat qui me regarde nu, aurais-je honte comme une bête qui n’a plus le sens de sa nudité ? Ou au contraire honte comme un homme qui garde le sens de sa nudité ?» On ne peut le demander qu’à l’autre. Mais qui est ici l’autre, pouvant, et me répondre et répondre de moi ? L’animal, altérité absolue.

Derrida writes about his “little cat” as a real cat, not as an allegory. He often asks himself who he is at the moment that he is surprised, naked, in silence, by the eyes of his cat, when he finds it difficult to surmount a certain shame. Is he ashamed like an animal who no longer has a sense of his nudity, or, on the contrary, like a man who maintains that sense of nudity? One cannot ask anyone but the other. But who is the other here, who can respond and take responsibility for me? The animal, the absolute Other.

Unlike Haraway, then, Derrida does not look for a mutual relation with his little cat, but sees it as an Other that cannot be related to. Also unlike Haraway, he thinks it a sheer impossibility to think about the Other without anthropomorphizing the animal. Donald L. Turner writes that in Derrida’s view our language forces us to see the other in terms of our selves:

Derrida questions any claim to transcend a humanistic or anthropocentric frame of mind, arguing that reliance on language “ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground,” re-establishing one “more naively and more strictly than ever” inside the realm one purports to transcend (Margins 135). […] For Derrida, description of an encounter with truly absolute alterity is a practical impossibility, for one cannot describe that which one can by definition have no comprehension — there must be some similarity for a self to recognize an other as existing at all. [1]

[1]Donald L. Turner, “The Animal Other: Civility and Animality in and Beyond Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida” in Disclosure 12.

Update: Fido the Yak today has a link to an introduction on Joint attention, Communication and Mind, and Mixing Memory reports on human infant and chimpanzee altruism.

Shakespeare after 9/11

After yesterday’s Syrian appropriation of Shakespeare, here is news that The Shakespeare Yearbook is going to devote an issue to “Shakespeare after 9/11”, and will sponsor a special session on the subject at this year’s MLA meeting.

In the wake of the New Historicism, much critical work on Shakespeare and his contemporaries has been faulted for its failure to develop and deploy an active sense of historical self-consciousness. Such a failure can be traced to a number of significant tendencies in historicist methodology: the privileging of synchronic analysis over diachronic or recursive) approaches; the conviction that truth emerges as an immanent entity within culture, one that can be teased out by the patient critic; and (more fundamentally) the lack of interest in how meaning functions across time — what is often pejoratively labeled trans-historicist. Not surprisingly, little has been done to think through what it means to read and teach the literary production of Shakespeare and his contemporaries after 9/11.

I am not sure I agree with this characterization of the New Historicism, but I certainly think that Cultural Materialism is ignored in this overview of recent developments in Shakespeare criticism. Critics like Terence Hawkes, Catherine Belsey, or Graham Holderness, to name but a few, certainly explore literary texts in contemporary power relations. The study of appropriations of Shakespeare, as in the new online journal Borrowers and Lenders, similarly considers the ways in which Shakespeare functions in other, and later, cultures. On the differences between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, I can heartily recommend John Brannigan’s New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). But on with the call for papers:

Shakespeare Yearbook hopes to fill this critical gap by seeking out and publishing scholarly essays that take seriously what and how early modern English literature means in a post-9/11 world – a world where strangers can be terrorists, where a heavy coat can be the signifier for a suicide attack or a briefcase can be a dirty bomb, where the workplace, the daily commute, the shopping center, or even the theatre, can be transformed in an instant into a site of mass suffering and death. The journal welcomes scholarship that treats issues of religion, violence, empire, and race in works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, especially in light of post-9/11 readings, stagings, and films of such works.

Friday companion species blogging

“I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation. We are not one, and being depends on getting on together.”

I have been reading Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto (2003). The slim booklet, written in a sometimes wordy but engaging style, explores the ways we relate to “significant others” — to dogs, but also to other creatures we love. Haraway is definitely not the kind of person to address her pet as if it were a child, or to anthropomorphise the dog into a furry human. She finds the idea of unconditional love of dogs for their owners “pernicious.” Instead, relating to significant others should happen on the basis of the acknowledgement of the other’s difference, a mutual constant alertness to the other’s identity, and a respect for that otherness. Drawing on her experience in agility courses, she writes that:

The task is to become coherent enough in an incoherent world to engage in a joint dance of being that breeds respect and response in the flesh, in the run, on the course. And then to remember how to live like that at every scale, with all the partners.

I kept wondering how this kind of ethical relation, this being together while respecting each other’s otherness, would work if the companion species in question is not a dog, but a cat. For cats, as fellow cat owners will be aware, are far less obedient than dogs. My cat will sometimes retrieve her toy mouse or play silly games that we’ve worked out together — but only when she’s in the mood for it. The “joint dance of respect” with my cat is much more quirky than the amazing choreography of a dog and its handler doing the weave poles. The constant mutual attention that Haraway has achieved with her dogs through training is simply not in a cat’s nature (or should I say — as Haraway does after Bruno Latour — natureculture? For animals not only have a biological, but a cultural history as well, she argues).

Perhaps the cat, as a companion species, is even more “significantly other” than a dog? If the dance with the dog is to serve as a model for interrelating “at every scale, with all the partners,” what happens when the partner is significantly other than an attentive dog? Can the dog-woman relation serve as a model when the other might at times simply be more interested in grooming her coat?

Online reviews: