Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
Terence Hawkes, in his sprightly piece on Shakespeare (LRB, 22 February), indulges in the post-structuralist’s customary tendency to extend a useful insight to a logical extremism which then disables itself. Most of us can agree with Hawkes’s caution against searching for a fixity of meaning in Shakespeare, for an intentional meaning, an ‘essential Shakespeare’. Equally, most of us can see that plays so mediated by hundreds of readings and interpretations through the centuries have in a sense become ‘unreachable’, as he puts it – or at least harder to reach. It can be valuable to study the history of these readings. But it is more difficult to agree with Hawkes that the meanings of Shakespeare’s plays have not only been produced by Shakespeare, but also by these very readings. These plays, he writes, are ‘constituted not only by an author but also by the interpretative strategies of readers and the material political and social pressures of the historical contexts helping to shape those strategies’. Naturally, if one believes this, then, as Hawkes writes, these readings may well be ‘more interesting and more revealing than they’ – Shakespeare’s plays – ‘could ever be’. After all, why trudge through Shakespeare’s King Lear when you can read G. Wilson Knight’s version, or see Ran, readings now given the same creative function as the text itself? And if this is the case, then of course Shakespeare comes to seem, as Hawkes puts it, ‘a writer of no necessary distinction, a former star, now reduced to the status of a “black hole” ’.
This procedure is now the standard one for those ‘cultural materialists’ of whom Hawkes writes. The text has no original, intentional meaning: it is merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day. It has no meanings of its own, but is merely the sum of the aforesaid pressures, plus all the readings and interpretations it has suffered through the ages. Since most of these pressures, discourses and readings have been sexist, racist and colonialist (things being what they are), then it is no surprise that Shakespeare emerges as all these things too. That this puts each reading on the same level as the next (i.e. Dr Johnson’s version of Lear is as constitutive of Shakespeare’s Lear as Terence Hawkes’s or Frank Kermode’s) seems not to have occurred to these critics. In their world, the music of Richard Strauss has been not simply ‘marked’ by his early complicity with Nazism, and Hitler’s fondness for that music, but actually ‘transformed’ by it: this distinction is borrowed from Malcolm Evans, one of those critics mentioned by Hawkes, who writes in his book Signifying nothing that the text is ‘always irrevocably marked and transformed’ by everything which has been written about it. For the rest of us, there seems a wide gap beween ‘marking’ and ‘transforming’. Observe Thomas Cartelli, for instance, in the recent book Shakespeare Reproduced. The Tempest, he writes, has not simply been ‘used’ as ‘a site’ for various colonialist readings: for him, the play is nothing more than the sum of these disreputable uses. Shakespeare emerges as ‘a formative producer and purveyor of a paternalistic ideology that is basic to the material aims of Western imperialism’.
Am I alone in finding this not only predictable (of course Othello is racist, of course The Merchant of Venice is anti-semitic, of course King Lear is sexist) but sinister, in that it denies Shakespeare the freedom to dissent, to struggle with history? Shakespeare becomes not simply the product of history (which of course he was) but history’s hostage. The text has no power to intervene in history, but is determined by it, becomes coincidental with it. The text becomes a piece of history itself. It is ironic that the cultural materialists, who loudly proclaim their radical dissenting, are the ones least eager to see Shakespeare as a radical or dissenting force in history. For them, Shakespeare is what Nigel Lawson called him in 1983: ‘most certainly a Tory’.
Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990
James Wood (Letters, 22 March) doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says it is ‘standard’ for cultural materialists to regard Shakespeare’s text as ‘merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day’, and Shakespeare as ‘sexist, racist and colonialist’. As Terence Hawkes says, cultural materialism draws upon the work of Raymond Williams, and he certainly did not believe any of that. But Wood cannot read what Hawkes is saying. ‘It sets out to judge the degree to which the drama was or was not complicit with the powers of the state’: that is Hawkes. Notice how carefully it is put – and with good reason, for one of the books Hawkes went out of his way to recommend was the new edition of Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy. And this, as Wood might guess from the title if he can’t manage to read the matter up before firing off his letter, argues that certain of Shakespeare’s plays demystified and hence challenged state power. In the only book on Shakespeare with ‘cultural materialism’ in the title, Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (edited by Dollimore and myself), this is a running question (one chapter is called ‘Reproductions, Interventions’). No one who has studied Shakespeare’s historical situation, or given thought to the complex ways texts work in societies, can imagine that such a question is easily resolved. It is not cultural materialists but Wood who thinks that.
Why is Wood so rashly dismissive? Why does he not want discussion of ‘the degree to which the drama was or was not complicit’? (Why does he instance Thomas Cartelli when Hawkes says clearly that cultural materialism is a British phenomenon? And why does he present as Cartelli’s conclusion a sentence where Cartelli is actually describing the position of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and George Lamming?) Surely because even the posing of questions about the politics of the Shakespeare business is sufficient to send him into a panic reassertion of the ‘freedom’ of Shakespeare. So who, to throw Wood’s clumsy accusations back, is ‘predictable’ and ‘sinister’?
University of Sussex
Vol. 12 No. 10 · 24 May 1990
Alan Sinfield’s angry defence of cultural materialism (Letters, 19 April) gives off the odours and energetic staleness of a dying enterprise – it smells of mortality. He refutes my charge that cultural materialism regards Shakespeare’s text (or anyone else’s) as ‘merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day’ with the lame excuse that it draws upon the work of Raymond Williams – ‘and he certainly did not believe any of that’. To which the only possible reply – one essentialist speaking to another – is that cultural materialism draws upon the work of Shakespeare – and he certainly did not believe any of that.
But cultural materialism does make poor sponges of texts, as a swift characterisation (not a caricature) of its strategies will demonstrate. Crucial here is the notion of discourse. Discourse ‘refers to the field in and through which texts are produced’ (to quote from Barker and Hulme’s essay in Alternative Shakespeare). Discourse, according to the cultural materialists, is a network of meanings, signs, rhetoric; and, like ideology, it works to legitimate the status quo (the discourse of The Tempest, for instance, is seen as ‘English colonialism’). The text – the poor text – lies at ‘the intersection’ of these various discourses, and is in fact ‘the site’ on which these conflicting discourses have it out with each other. The text’s role in this is seen as entirely passive. Or as Alan Sinfield puts it, in a resonant and sinister phrase (from an essay by him in Political Shakespeare): ‘Shakespeare is one of the places where ideology is made.’
Slavishly faithful to the Hegelian–Marxist dialectic, cultural materialists believe that discourse, again like ideology, will inevitably display its own contradictions and negations, even as it tries to efface those contradictions in the process of legitimising itself. Texts will inevitably be ‘marked and fissured by the interplay of the discourses that constitute them’. What is important to note is that these contradictions and negations are seen as betrayals, as little ideological Freudian slips. They occur because and in spite of the dominant ideological project – they cannot be intended by it.
What is objectionable is that texts are conflated with the workings of ideology and discourse. Narrative, like ideology, will attempt to efface its own ideological contradictions; in its attempted effacement it will merely emphasise them. If one takes The Tempest again: Caliban’s coup against Prospero’s rule is seen as precisely one of the contradictions of colonialist discourse. The narrative tries to efface it by making it comic and low-life in mode.
Here is Paul Brown, again from Political Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest is not simply a reflection of colonial practice but an intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse. This intervention takes the form of a powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks at once to harmonise disjunction, to transcend irreconcilable contradictions and to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse. Yet the narrative ultimately fails to deliver that containment and instead may be seen to foreground precisely those problems which it works to efface.’ The argument surely turns on the notion of intentionality: either the disruptions, negations and challenges to authority which mark Shakespeare’s texts, and which constitute his political complexity, are intended and seen as necessary and purposive, or they are seen (as the cultural materialists would have it) as things that happen to the text anyway because of the nature of discourse and the way it works on texts. The difference is crucial: the former reading sees Shakespeare’s plays actively struggling with history; the latter sees them as history’s hostages. It is this imprisonment which licenses critics like Leonard Tennenhouse (another contributor to Political Shakespeare) to write that ‘Shakespeare uses his drama to authorise political authority’. Or Thomas Cartelli to assert that in The Tempest Shakespeare emerges as ‘a formative practitioner and purveyor of a paternalistic ideology that is basic to the material aims of Western imperialism’. Alan Sinfield’s argument that Cartelli is here merely describing the position of the Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is disingenuous: Cartelli’s essay is a straight endorsement of Ngugi’s position. (His argument that Cartelli is American, and that cultural materialism is British, is equally feeble. The book in which Cartelli’s essay appears, Shakespeare Reproduced, is an exercise in British cultural materialism.)
Cultural materialism professes its radicalism with much flag-waving and massing of artillery. It is, in fact, deeply conservative – as theories of determinism tend to be. Cultural materialists are believers in a kind of historical original sin (this is how history is and has always been) and the technicians of a busy and futile scientism: this is how ideology works, this is how texts are made, this is how we are constituted. Its pseudo-scientific language represents merely the fag-end of literary criticism’s long 20th-century struggle to turn itself into a technical discipline, a purifying hygiene. It tends towards predictable, second-rate and sinister – yes, sinister – readings. It allows no room for human itchiness, for the human complexities and struggles which nullify and confound determinism.
Vol. 12 No. 11 · 14 June 1990
James Wood (Letters, 22 March and Letters, 24 May) clearly has a problem, and it does little to assist his crusade to preserve ‘Shakespeare’ from the allegedly perverse activities of ‘cultural materialists’ who deny the text’s ‘original’, ‘intentional’ and by implication authoritative meaning. Alan Sinfield (Letters, 19 April) berates Wood, with some justification, for his combination of ignorance and paranoia, but this has now provoked an even more outrageous response, in which all that does not meet with Wood’s approval is kneaded into an utterly unrecognisable dough before being relegated to the Avernus, as he thinks, of Cultural Materialism. Not for Wood any attempt at serious analysis, since this is what dislodges the text from a pedestal that he has constructed and renders it ‘poor’, but even more, he seems unable to distinguish between a ‘characterisation’ (his term) and an absurdly reductivist caricature of the position(s) to which he takes such exception.
Wood’s problem is that despite a worthy desire to enlist Shakespeare in the campaign for liberal dissent, he assumes that a Shakespearean text is exclusively the product of authorial intention. He carelessly glosses over the verifiable fact that some of the materialisms to which he seems to take exception have found roots in the very Enlightenment rationalism upon which foundation his own mystified humanism rests. Indeed, such is his confidence that he can say without embarrassment that ‘cultural materialism draws upon the work of Shakespeare – and he certainly did not believe any of that.’
Here the caricatured determinism of an equally caricatured intellectual position is replaced by a preferred form of ventriloquism which puts words into the mouth, not of a text, but of an author whose support can be enlisted for ‘human itchiness’ and ‘human complexities’ which make us all unpredictable beings, true heirs of that Thatcherite bureaucratic centralism which vehemently denies the irreducibly social origins of the mystified individual autonomy which it slavishly venerates. Insofar as Wood has imbibed the post-modernism hovering in the metropolitan air, he speaks for the chattering classes whose limited understanding rests upon bluffers’ guides, jacket blurbs and media hype. Any attempt to explain real complexity is, it now seems, a mark of mediocrity, and the result is, it is not surprising to hear, ‘sinister’ readings of Shakespeare. So much for Wood’s much vaunted politics of dissent, which is, in reality, just another version of an authoritarian metaphysics attempting to excuse its own combination of bad faith and ostentatious ignorance.
Terence Hawkes’s review (22 February), which elicited Wood’s misguided response, refers to the empirically verifiable fact that Shakespearean texts are constituted ‘not only by an author but also by the interpretative strategies of readers and the material, political and social pressures of the historical contexts helping to shape those strategies’. What Wood cannot see for the trees is that criticism is a constitutive discourse, not simply a parasitic or a ventriloquistic one, but also that originary moments of artistic creativity are, in fact, readings and mediations of a whole range of social, cultural and literary pressures. This may be as much as his limited understanding can take, but if he really is interested in demonstrating his self-appointed intellectual superiority, then he might entertain the possibility that, pace Hawkes and others (not all of whom are Cultural Materialists in the strict sense of the label), Shakespearean texts are sometimes perceived as critical representations of ideological materials which disclose the conditions of their own historical existence.
For this to happen we do not need to raise the spectre of authorial intention, since Shakespeare, like any other writer, may not have been fully conscious of what his texts were doing, nor is it reasonable for us to expect him to have been. It is a matter of fine critical and historical judgment, governed by a range of carefully formulated academic protocols, which are themselves constantly subject to verification and revaluation, as to what proportion of a Shakespearean text we may ascribe to authorial intention, and the solution lies somewhere other than in making of the author a ventriloquist’s dummy. In accusing Hawkes, and ‘cultural materialists’ (now reduced to a meaningless derogatory slogan), of a rigid determinism, Wood falls into the very trap himself of claiming to be able to predict the responses of some of those whose work he clearly does not understand, but whom he senses present a threat to his own authority.
University of Stirling
James Wood’s tactics in argument (Letters, 22 March) scarcely justify his claim to speak with authority of ‘human complexities and struggles’. I did not say that no cultural materialists have presented Shakespeare as going along with the dominant ideology of his time: of course they have, and so have lots of other people! I said that in cultural materialism it is a question (I repeat the emphasis). So it is not surprising that Wood can quote sentences that seem to support his contention. However, his intellectual tradition appears not to require him to admit contrary evidence, so he carefully avoids acknowledging the extent to which this work tends in other directions, or opens up intricate problems of agency, intervention, subversion. For my own part, I do believe that authors have intentions, dissident intentions often, and that they put them into effect in their writing.
University of Sussex
Vol. 12 No. 12 · 28 June 1990
Terry Hawkes’s enjoyably spirited review of current trends in Shakespeare criticism (LRB, 22 February) rather sidestepped a central question: why is it that Shakespeare’s plays (not Jonson’s, Dekker’s, Greene’s, Massinger’s etc) command the attention of successive generations of interpreters, so that we have an 18th-century Shakespeare who is, so to say, Verdi-without-music, a 19th-century ‘Shakespeare-the-Novelist’, a 20th-century ‘Shakespeare the Poet’ shortly followed by ‘Shakespeare-the-Ideologue-of-Englishness’ (Tillyard), and then … but no need to go on, save perhaps to mention the pre-1989 private performance in Prague, by threatened Charter 77 signatories, of Macbeth. And why Macbeth? Because, they said, it was about a politician who murdered his way to supreme power (BBC 2, 28 May).
The claim, then, that the different meanings allotted to, produced from, this or that play text are the result of different ‘discourses’ can only be contested by refusing to look at the history. But what this fails to explain, and indeed to recognise, is the ‘something’ about these texts which, rather than Jonson’s etc, makes them such a peculiarly fertile site for the production of ‘meanings’. Or more bluntly, what is there in the texts that makes everybody want to get ‘Shakespeare’ on their side; and when that proves difficult, to assault the complacency of those who, to their own satisfaction, claim to have done the job? Why not instead get cracking on Sejanus, All for Love, Venice Preserved, Cato, Irene or the Cenci?
Without wading through the pile of discarded (for some, discredited) explanations (‘he was for all time’, ‘the poet of human nature’, ‘others abide our question, thou art free’, ‘supremely creative genius’), two reasons can be suggested. One is that the written texts are so riven with ideological contradictions – the treatment of kingship being one familiar case, and another, the sympathetic adoption of religious ideas in coolly unreligious plays – that no unifying account can ever be proposed. The other (a pre-condition for the first?) is that ‘Shakespeare’ was a dazzlingly accomplished writer in such a variety of styles that, as a direct result, his texts reveal with impressive clarity a feature more or less discernible in any past writing that continues to attract readers (or theatregoers): his texts energetically resist interpreters in the same degree that they feed a passion for appropriating them. I offer this second reason with due modesty as one way of tackling the ‘value’ question which, so far as I know, the cultural materialist rarely, if ever, discusses.
Open University, Milton Keynes
Vol. 12 No. 13 · 12 July 1990
When reading (if I may venture to use so tempestuous a term) the review by Terence Hawkes and the subsequent letters (Letters, 14 June) from John Drakakis and Alan Sinfield, I found myself speculating when they last read one of Shakespeare’s major plays as they might perhaps listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets: because they find them profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable. Or do they sit listening entranced to Bach’s and Mozart’s ‘texts’ as ‘critical representations of ideological materials which disclose the conditions of their own historical existence’?
Their writing doesn’t convey to me the least impression that they enjoy or are moved or restored by Shakespeare. Or that they believe it is any part of their business as university teachers of literature to help their students enjoy and be moved by Shakespeare and understand how these responses arise out of the text and are controlled by the way the drama and the verse work. And ditto for Bach and Mozart, no doubt. For after all, when all has been said and done about their witting and unwitting ‘dissident intentions’, Shakespeare and Bach and Mozart really are a ‘slavishly over-venerated’ trio of ‘mystified individual autonomies’, aren’t they?
Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990
There is much to agree with in Graham Martin’s thoughtful discussion of the persistence of Shakespeare and the question of value (Letters, 28 June). May I suggest nevertheless a few complicating questions? The reason why people want to get Shakespeare on their side, or else to repudiate him, need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such. He is thus regarded because he is what I call a powerful cultural token: he is already where meaning is produced, and people therefore want to appropriate him – as they do the Pope or Madonna. Getting Sejanus on one’s side seems rather like getting, say, Merlyn Rees – very worthwhile but not too inspiring. Everyone knows that it’s easier to draw a crowd with the Pope or Madonna than with Merlyn Rees. Similarly, publishers like books with Shakespeare in the title (examiners set him, the Arts Council funds him …). However, I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare – there may well be such factors. Nevertheless, I might legitimately regard the cultural token business as equally worth attention: after all, there are lots of people devoting themselves to why Shakespeare is intrinsically special.
The simple diversity of critical opinion seems to ratify Martin’s thought that Shakespearian texts are riven with ideological contradictions and resist a unified account. Martin suggests, tentatively, that this may be related to the way Shakespearian texts are dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, and hence resist interpretation while stimulating appropriation. One problem with this is that it seems dangerously close to being a description of what has been happening rather than an explanation of it. Further, I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but whether that would account for the plays resisting interpretation while stimulating appropriation is another matter; in fact, it is going to be pretty difficult to demonstrate any intrinsic textual characteristics that do that. In any event, I think most cultural materialists now would expect to find ideological contradiction in all texts, or perhaps all texts of any length and ambition. Sejanus, for instance. For contradiction is a characteristic of ideology and hence a condition of cultural production. So we may still not have reached a distinctive marker of Shakespeare’s value. And I will be hovering with my alternative argument that we produce the effect by talking about the plays so much – which is precisely the process through which cultures empower cultural tokens.
I’m surprised, finally, that Graham Martin thinks cultural materialists don’t address value. It seems to me that they say all the time that value is historically, culturally, determined. This does not, of course, mean that there are no values, only that they cannot be expected to work outside their customary context. And in fact we know that by very many people Shakespeare is not valued, even within our own culture. Further, cultural materialists have been criticised for being unusually straightforward about their values, instead of deploying the traditional critical strategy of mystifying them as natural or human or Shakespeare’s. Above all, the historical contingency of values seems demonstrated by Martin’s thought that the prominence of Shakespeare derives from the way he resists interpretation while stimulating appropriation. This strikes me as not what would have appealed to the Verdi-without-music people, or even the Charter 77 people: but it is exactly the kind of value you would expect to find proposed by people like us at the present time and place.
University of Sussex
Vol. 12 No. 15 · 16 August 1990
John Drakakis’s hysterical onslaught (Letters, 14 June) is like Karl Kraus’s definition of psychoanalysis: the illness for which it proposes itself the remedy. It is one of those letters much more revealing about its own strategies than about those it attacks. It is, above all, an instructive display of how the academy protects itself. Note, for instance, the easy opposition which Drakakis establishes: cultural materialism, because it fails to talk about the text as having any meanings of its own, is fluid, radical, anti-authoritarian; an attack on that – and mine in particular – is an attempt to fix these fluidities. I am an heir of ‘Thatcherite bureaucratic centralism’; I am spouting an ‘authoritarian metaphysics’; cultural materialism is a ‘threat’ to my ‘own authority’.
One glance at Drakakis’s letter will show who is interested in authority – indeed, his letter affords a look at how criticism, at the end of the century, must defend its pseudorigour by claiming for itself an academic authority outside of which no one is allowed to have opinions. If one criticises cultural materialism, that is because one is ‘ignorant’ or possessed of ‘limited understanding’. ‘Insofar as Wood has imbibed the Post-Modernism hovering in the metropolitan air, he speaks for the chattering classes whose limited understanding rests upon bluffer’s guides, jacket blurbs and media hype.’ (The idea of the media hyping cultural materialism is comical.) This is revealing. I left undergraduate university life two years ago, and can still claim, surely, to have the hot blood of the academy in my veins. All that Drakakis knows about me is that I live in London; perhaps he has seen my name under some book reviews. But this sparse information is enough for him to place me in the ‘metropolis’ as a representative of the ‘chattering classes’. A little later, he closes the circuit: not only is Wood outside the university, but only the university knows how to judge texts. Cultural materialism is controlled by ‘fine critical and historical judgment, governed by a range of carefully formulated academic protocols’.
The most revealing phrase of all is Drakakis’s annoyance at my ‘self-appointed intellectual superiority’. All I have done is send a couple of letters to a literary journal. But of course, this makes perfect sense: it is because I am self-appointed, not university-appointed, that he is so irritated.
Drakakis calls my description of cultural materialism a caricature, but I ask him if anything is more caricatured than the paragraph from Paul Brown’s essay on The Tempest that I quoted? Why is the attempt to move the text away from ideological determinants towards the author seen as a conservative move? Why do these critics insist on seeing the author as some kind of unproblematic monad, so that to move the text towards this author is nothing more than ‘ventriloquism’? Why can’t an author be a complex thing, both determined by history and controlling it, both intentional and unconscious, the originator of language and the possession of language’s semantic multiplicity?
Cultural materialist may believe that they espouse a fluid and radical metaphysics, but all the evidence (those ‘verifiable facts’ so beloved of Drakakis) points the other way. Jonathan Dollimore, who is praised by Alan Sinfield for his ‘radical’ politics, shows how cultural materialism actually ties down polyphonic narrative. In his chapter in Radical Tragedy on King Lear, Dollimore establishes ‘a dominant ideology’ that runs through both the text and the history which permeates the text. Edgar’s bastard rebellion is simply representative of ‘the emergent ideology’ which, according to Marxist theory, gets eventually swallowed by the dominant ideology: ‘At strategic points in the play we see how the minor characters have also internalised the dominant ideology … Edgar embodies the process whereby, because of the contradictory conditions of its inception, a revolutionary (emergent) insight is folded back into a dominant ideology.’
There is an irony here: literary criticism (in the shape of cultural materialism) is at its most ‘rigorous’ ever. Cultural materialism, with its talk of strategies and sites, and its scaffolding of dominant and emergent ideologies, must seem like the last hope. And yet the language of this criticism is more metaphorical, more approximate, more gestural, than any critical language before it. This criticism is less precise than Hazlitt, for goodness sake! Literature challenges the thoughtful critic, the intelligent critic, to formulate a language of originality adequate to the text under discussion – this, you could say, is the critic’s version of the writer’s ‘anxiety of influence’. But cultural materialism substitutes a jargon of useless metaphorical approximation for real originality of response. And Shakespeare will go on eluding these predictable practitioners.
Vol. 12 No. 16 · 30 August 1990
Boris Ford hits the nail on the head when he claims that Terence Hawkes’, John Drakakis’ and Alan Sinfield’s writing ‘doesn’t convey … the least impression that they enjoy or are moved or restored by Shakespeare’ (Letters, 12 July). Although the dominant literary theoretical clique has loudly declared the ‘death of the author’, if they took the time to investigate the matter a bit more closely (and if they weren’t so taken with their own greatness) they would find that authors are very much alive and that they have things to say that indicate what a sad state literary studies are in. The late Raymond Carver, when asked in an interview if he knew anything about de-constructionists, responded (and his response applies just as well to cultural materialists and new historicists):
Enough. Enough to know that they’re crazy. They’re a very strange bunch. They really don’t have that much to do with literature, do they? They don’t even like literature very much. I don’t think they do anyway. They see it as a series of texts and textual problems, writers as signifiers and such like … Their way of thinking is arcane. Sometimes it’s downright creepy.
Carver is not the only writer to have made such a point (Toni Morrison, Carlos Fuentes, Walker Percy, among others, have said similar things). And it strikes me that something must be seriously wrong with literary criticism and theory if the people who do it convey a sense that literature itself means nothing to them or that it means something to them only insofar as it will help them to publish books, get tenure and become famous.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Boris Ford’s jeremiad against the level of aesthetic appreciation revealed by the agents of ‘Bardbiz’ reads oddly in the light of the original inflammatory piece by Terence Hawkes. You don’t have to agree with its provocative and preposterous thesis that the game is up for the likes of Shakespeareans like Boris Ford to acknowledge (with gratitude) the grace, wit and invention that makes the piece such a pleasure to read.
University of New Brunswick
Vol. 12 No. 17 · 13 September 1990
I was dismayed to have brought to my notice, under the headline ‘Loony Lefties Set to Kill Everyone’ in the current issue of Viz (No 43, August 1990), a description of myself as ‘Malcolm Evans, an odourous [sic], flea-ridden, communist subversive drug addict’ who, in collaboration with a bunch of ‘festering, filth-ridden, greasy cohorts’, is master-minding ‘a sinister plot to assassinate hundreds of top politicians, show-business celebrities and members of the Royal Family’.
As a publicity-shy academic who has done nothing to encourage this sort of attention, I can only conclude that it has something to do with the long-running ‘Bardbiz’ controversy in your journal. I do not normally reply to comments on my work in the press, but feel the time has now come to take issue with James Wood, who presented me, in his first letter (Letters, 22 March), as being somehow responsible for Terence Hawkes’s iconoclastic views on Shakespeare (I also taught my grandmother to suck eggs), and who identified me with a critical tendency known as ‘cultural materialism’, which he described, in his second letter (Letters, 24 May), as producing ‘predictable, second-rate and sinister – yes, sinister – readings’ of the great works. This, I fear, may have been subsequently misconstrued in some quarters as proof of a darker wish on my part to assassinate the Prime Minister, royalty etc. I note the fondness for the word ‘sinister’ shared by Wood and the Viz journalist and take this opportunity to set the record straight.
A curious quirk in the dominant construction of Englishness is that while we are expected to be reticent about matters like take-home pay and religious or sexual preferences, an up-front positive declaration on the question of value in Shakespeare is considered de rigueur. Who could forget Kenneth Baker’s opening piece of belletrist kitsch on BBC 2’s The Late Show, when he confronted Hawkes’s sceptical view of the Bard in modern British culture and education with a vision of his (Shakespeare’s, not Hawkes’s) work as a sublime mountain range, the valleys in cloud and the peaks twinkling in the sunlight? We all know this gesture. It is as if, to prove their cultural underwear is clean, these people have to produce it from their trouser pockets and proffer the gusset for inspection.
Walter Benjamin recognised that ‘there has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.’ After decades of fanzine-type Shakespeare criticism devoted to the ‘culture’, we now have a generation of critics who are prepared to take the institutional ‘barbarism’ into account and to leave the much-hyped and hallowed personal, imaginative response in the closet. To avoid the fate of becoming the Shakespearean fundamentalist’s Salman Rushdie, however, I am quite happy to admit that, in the privacy of my home or on long walks in the country, I commune with Shakespeare and let his beauty and truth wash over me. Hardly a morning passes when I don’t wake up with that marvellous line from King Lear playing in my mind, wondering if I am going hence yet or still coming hither, or whether this may indeed be that precise split-second of ripeness. I also imagine that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing for Viz or doing what Terence Hawkes does, and I can pay him (Shakespeare, not Hawkes) no higher compliment than that.
I admit these things with a certain reluctance as I feel they are irrelevant to recent work by myself, or by anyone else, on Shakespeare’s plays as cultural artefacts and the Bard himself as an ideological symbol. I also had to learn, at someone else’s expense, how to emote and respond to the complexities of the Shakespearean text in this way, in spite of Boris Ford’s belief, expressed in another ‘Bardbiz’ letter (12 July), that we should experience Shakespeare as we might ‘perhaps listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets’, because we find them ‘profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable’. Where I come from, people were so poor that anyone who spotted an unaccompanied cello sonata would have killed and eaten it. Everything we knew about culture we had to glean from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and the background chapters in the Pelican History of English Literature. The real barbarism of the Shakespeare industry has resided in this type of casual high-cultural bullying, with which we all risk becoming complicit when we make concessions to its distinctively ‘personal’ and ‘flexible’ aesthetic idiom.
With the third instalment of what is becoming his epistolary novel, James Wood – now in the role of Joe Public, the punter’s friend – is himself beginning to feel bullied. Alan Sin-field and John Drakakis have already made it perfectly clear that he knows very little about his pet hate, cultural materialism. I will not attempt to make the situation worse as I owe Wood a favour. Some months ago (under the name ‘Douglas Graham’) he gave my book on Shakespeare, Signifying nothing, a good review in the Guardian. How this squares with his current crusade, I am not in a position to judge. My guess is that the ‘alternative’ Shakespeare criticism has reached its moment of ripeness and that a new breed of opportunists is emerging, ready to build their reputations on the corpses of the Eighties radicals who took on the great dinosaurs of the past (Tillyard, Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson and so on). It may be that Wood met some of these newcomers when he was an undergraduate. Or perhaps ‘James Wood’, like Douglas Graham, is a front for someone else. I smell the hand of Cambridge University, the National Theatre and possibly the Freemasons in all this. As the man on Police 5 used to say, keep ’em peeled.
Vol. 12 No. 19 · 11 October 1990
James Wood’s claim that he still has in his veins ‘the hot blood of the academy’ some two years after graduating (Letters, 16 August) is a testimony to something more disturbing than his confused hot-headedness, and confirmation, should those who have followed the Bardbiz debate require it, of a hysteria that is uniquely, if not predictably his own. The occasion of the initial dogmatic parading of his ignorance was Terence Hawkes’s generous, witty and entertaining review of a number of books on Shakespeare that, coursing blood notwithstanding, Wood appears not to have bothered to read. The occasion of Alan Sinfield’s response (Letters, 19 April), and of my own (14 June), was Wood’s caricature of a range of radical critical positions all of which he labelled, with Neanderthal simplicity, ‘cultural materialism’. Now I have no desire to castigate Wood for his ignorance – though I am saddened by it – so long as he keeps it to himself. What is unacceptable and embarrassing is his public posturing as a mandarin of High Culture capable of conjuring up ‘opinions’ out of thin air. I can quite understand Boris Ford’s worry that Terence Hawkes, Alan Sinfield and I may not read ‘one of Shakespeare’s major plays’ as we might ‘listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets’ (Letters, 2 August), although I think he is in great danger of configuring Art as an alternative to the National Health Service, in the hope, I presume, that the quasi-religious triumvirate (Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart) is an adequate compensation for the practical deficiencies of the latter. Such a view has an engaging anti-intellectual eccentricity to recommend it, but, on closer inspection, becomes offensive in its obfuscating naivety.
The nub of James Wood’s argument, as it has now emerged, is an objection to ‘style’. He castigated Thomas Cartelli; he then turned his attention to Barker and Hulme, and then to Jonathan Dollimore, before finally returning to a passage he quoted (Letters, 24 May) from Paul Brown’s essay on The Tempest. As it happens, Brown’s comment, even out of context, makes perfect sense to anyone not suffering from a surfeit of hot blood, but, of course, that is really not Wood’s point at all. He is more interested in mystery than sense, so that his only substantive riposte to what he takes to be an objectionable method is to confirm his ‘amateur’ status, a position that goes hand in hand with his insistence on the autonomy of the writer. But then he asks: ‘Why can’t an author be a complex thing’ – a locution he has obviously, or perhaps ‘unconsciously’, borrowed from Yeats – ‘both determined by history and controlling it, both intentional and unconscious, the originator of language and the possession of language’s semantic multiplicity?’ This is the language and the ‘thought’ of a paid-up, card-carrying member of the chattering classes, who seems to think that an author is whatever you think ‘it’ (to use Wood’s derivative terminology) is. Clearly the complexity of the position that Hawkes, Sinfield and I have laboured to place before Wood has escaped his notice. He wants to accept and resist what I suspect he believes is a mechanical ‘determinism’ because such manoeuvres appear to be fashionable but he also wants to hang onto authorial autonomy, since a challenge to this is a challenge to ‘freedom’. In fact, his argument boils down to a kind of fudged relativism which, in the final analysis, defies any form of rational analysis.
‘Literature,’ he tells us, ‘challenges the thoughtful critic.’ Perhaps, but I have two simple questions: does Literature define itself, or is this category of language constructed? And if so by whom, and for what purposes? To borrow Boris Ford’s suggestion that Art is somehow ‘spiritually restoring’, I think I would like to know how to recognise the restorative and whether or not I am getting a pure distillation (assuming for a moment that there is such a thing) or something that has passed through other agencies. Of course, it is of the nature of language that it is always already in existence, so the notion of a literary text as an unmediated object is itself a nonsense.
The second question concerns Wood’s implied suggestion that Criticism is a slave to the literary text, and has no freedom to question it. What is wrong with the questioning of texts? Wood’s apparent response to such a question seems to be that Literature is ‘original’ and that criticism should simply imitate that originality in its response. One cannot but admire the novel precision of such a suggestion; it is so original that any thinking person would be embarrassed to lay claim to it. Can this really be the effect of a university education? What Wood seems unable or unwilling to grasp is that it is precisely because of the affective power of literature that materialists, of whatever persuasion, treat this category of language – rightly, in my view – with caution. Certainly it remains to be argued that a text is consciously or unconsciously subversive, and whether Wood likes it or not, there are ways in which such issues can be decided, however provisionally. Moreover, the good critic is something more than a mere purveyor of cliché’d opinions which s/he seeks to make her/his own by spurious claims to originality; also, reading is not a passive, submissive (stereotypically feminised) activity, but rather offers opportunities to resist even when what one is resisting is the language attributed to an ‘authority’ such as Shakespeare.
Finally, such criticism requires some degree of knowledge, especially when it comes to dealing with the literature of the past, and it so happens that one of the institutions where that knowledge might be found is the University, an institution which bears little resemblance to that of James Wood’s peculiar imagination. Perhaps it is the gap between reality and Wood’s reading of it that occasions his angst. Of course, since we live in a democracy of sorts, he is free to exercise a Thatcherite Philistinism in seeking to marginalise intellectual activity, but in order to do so successfully he is going to have either to proscribe certain forms of investigation which he regards as uncomfortable – as evidenced in the fanaticism of his earlier contributions to the debate, from which he is now desperate to withdraw – or seek to refute them through the mobilisation of superior intellectual arguments. The question of ‘authority’, academic or otherwise, does not enter into the matter, since only those possessed of Wood’s dogmatic zeal will want to insist, either positively or negatively, upon its constraints. Only then will the kind of criticism which he claims to represent be taken seriously. In the meantime we must be grateful to James Wood for having aired his ‘opinions’ so fully. Let us hope that he is not rendered completely ineducable by the persistent rushes of hot blood to those parts of his anatomy which in the rest of us are reserved for thought.
University of Stirling
An omission in the published version of my last letter, and Malcolm Evans’s suggestion (Letters, 13 September) that I may be spectral rather than palpable (and a front for Cambridge University and the National Theatre to boot), will allow me, I hope, a last word on Bardbiz and cultural materialism. What was omitted from my last letter was the (obvious) point that literary criticism was born into intellectual status early in this century hating its own inexactitude, its dependence on the slippery polyphony and polysemy of narrative and language. Criticism needed to assert its difference from literature. Hence the attempt, every twenty years or so, to create a rigorous, self-contained ‘science’, a series of purifications: I.A. Richards with his grand, pseudo-scientific theories, the New Criticism with its rigid lexicon, the anthropological, sociological and philosophical languages of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction. My point was that this constant striving for precision is not bad, so much as inevitable and doomed. It is a condition of literary criticism, and one about which it should be aware, even humble.
In this context, cultural materialism makes sense: a criticism without this self-conscious humility, refusing to be aware of its literariness or of the metaphorical approximateness of its language (what does it mean to call Edgar’s bastard rebellion an ‘emergent’ insight ‘folded back into a dominant ideology’?). Above all, cultural materialism, though it espouses a radical metaphysics, works to tie down, to fix, the complexities of literature and language in the glue of its own pseudo-precise simplicities.
The more intelligent practitioners (and Hawkes is one of them) don’t do this, but that is because these critics are more intelligent than the methodology they apply. Malcolm Evans is another such critic, and (to answer his question) I reviewed his book favourably because I thought it managed to outwit much of the glumness of cultural materialism.
I am not an ‘opportunist’, nor a copywriter for Viz, nor a front for Cambridge University. I do not think that Malcolm Evans is a threat to society. My dislike of cultural materialism arose out of work I did at Cambridge on The Tempest. I found that contemporary criticism of the play was dominated by ‘left pessimistic’ readings of that play, and that Althusserian Marxism and its materialist off-shoots were licensing such readings: namely, that the play is fatally complicit with the discourse of its age and that it will work to recuperate moments of vision and radical insight (like Gonzalo’s ‘commonwealth’ speech in Act Two); and more, that these moments are things that happen to texts anyway, because of the way discourse works. These moments cannot be purposive, but can be turned to liberating effect only by those radical critics who are willing to brush texts against the dominant ideological grain. A characteristically hubristic reading: the poor text can do so little on its own! It needs the critic! Cultural materialism makes texts curiously powerless, and so denies the ‘Utopian’ heritage of materialist thinkers like Benjamin and Bloch, thinkers who were wise enough to see that there are moments of release, of insight, of radical breakthrough, which are beyond the grip of ideological categorisation – beyond the grip even of the critic.
Vol. 12 No. 24 · 20 December 1990
I have spent most of my adult life struggling to understand the plays of Shakespeare, but even the most difficult Shakespearian language is easier to grasp than anything in the Bardbiz debate: cultural materialism, mystified individual autonomy, authoritarian metaphysics, cultural tokens, post-structuralism, unproblematic monads, semantic multiplicity, flexible aesthetic idioms, mechanical determinism, the literary text as an unmediated object, reading as a passive, submissive (stereotypically feminised) activity, radical metaphysics, pseudo-precise simplicities, left pessimism, metaphorical approximateness … Perhaps the Bardbiz debaters should be encouraged to spend as much of their time as possible on the bitter criticism of one another’s letters. That way the rest of us can be sure they won’t be writing on Shakespeare’s texts, thus diminishing the possibility that their gobbledygook will eventually filter through to the footnotes, confusing and depressing future generations of students, directors and actors.
Royal Shakespeare Company,
Vol. 13 No. 3 · 7 February 1991
John Caird expresses his frank irritation with what Post-Structuralism is doing with Shakespeare (Letters, 20 December 1990). His frustration seems to be based on a number of misconceptions about what Post-Structuralism is, and what it is setting out to do. These misconceptions can very easily be cleared up.
First, the question of meaning. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr Caird says he has spent many years trying to fathom the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. It is entirely understandable that he should assume that we, too, are concerned with Shakespeare’s meaning. However, this is not the case. We believe, with Professor Hawkes, that Shakespeare’s plays don’t, in any essential or objective sense, mean anything at all; it is we, his readers, producers and audiences who do the meaning. Far from introducing unnecessary complexities, this actually makes life a great deal easier for the student: once you have liberated yourself from the burden of trying to work out how Shakespeare saw the world, you can do whatever you like with the plays. If you want them to express a patriarchal misogyny, that’s perfectly acceptable; if you want them to do the opposite and articulate a materialist deconstruction of masculine ideology, that’s even better. All that’s necessary, really, is that you show how the plays confront the question of power: do they collude with it, or do they resist it? Surely that ’s not too difficult to grasp?
Second, the question of Post-Structuralism’s style. Although, as I have said, Post-Structuralism is not inherently complex, it is true that our ‘house style ’, if I may put it that way, makes it seem more difficult than it really is. Again, it is quite understandable that Mr Caird should object to this, particularly since he himself is a member of a profession that is concerned with the problem of communicating with large and heterogeneous audiences. However, I am sure that Mr Caird will feel less hostile towards our project if I explain the reasons for our style. As any sociologist will tell you, where there are no intrinsically difficult concepts involved, the use of highly-specialised, quasi-technical, virtually impenetrable language has a twofold purpose: first, it serves to identify and bond together members of a self-defining social group; and second, it serves to exclude outsiders, who are naturally baffled and irritated by what they perceive simply as pretentious jargon. It may, additionally, serve to conceal a real poverty of thought, though this obviously doesn’t apply to Post-Structuralism.
Why should we wish to exclude outsiders? Well, unlike Mr Caird, we are not concerned with communicating with a wider audience. We see the world in terms of true and false discourses, and, like Mrs Thatcher, we believe that if you are not for us, you are against us. We are concerned, not to break down barriers and reach out to the general playgoing public, but to maintain a sense of crisis within academia. I know this may sound a bit odd to Mr Caird. But if you think about it, there wouldn’t be much point in heroically ‘throwing yourselves across the barbed wire separating genres and modes’ and ‘spiking the Gatling guns of criticism’ (to quote Professor Hawkes) if, all the time, the enemy was quite happy to reach an accommodation with you. No, if you want to be seen as courageous, heroic and daring (Mr Caird will notice that when Professor Hawkes is reviewing, he subtly uses terms like these for the Post-Structuralist books, while dismissing all the rest as feeble, woolly and outdated) – to repeat, if you want to be an intellectual hero, you ’ve got to have an enemy to attack.
One of our biggest problems – and this is something I’m quite willing to admit – is that there haven’t really been any suitably dogmatic or authoritarian figures in the critical establishment in the last thirty or so years for us to go for. It was all right for people like Barthes writing in France in the Sixties: they had a monolithic literary establishment to attack. But in England and America most of the big, influential guns have been disappointingly open-minded. In fact, as Mr Caird will know, one of the key notes of Shakespeare criticism in the Sixties and Seventies was ‘ambivalence’, and you can hardly mount a daring attack against ambivalence. That’s why we were so delighted when James Wood began this correspondence by questioning Professor Hawkes’s critical premises. It may have seemed to Mr Caird from the tone of our letters that we were angry with James Wood for challenging our methods. Actually, it’s just what we were hoping for. Mr Caird will recall my own letter, nearly a year ago now, accusing Mr Wood of being an ignorant ponce. Of course I don’t really think James Wood is a ponce. This was merely a gambit, one of the games we play in Post-Structuralism. Its purpose was to create a symbolic enemy (what we call the ‘other’) in order to justify our own militancy. The next move in the game was made by John Drakakis and Alan Sinfield. As Mr Caird will no doubt remember, they took up and developed my theme, representing James Wood as an intolerant, ineducable bigot with just enough sly plausibility to be able to exercise a pernicious influence on those readers of LRB who are incapable of thinking for themselves. James Wood then responded in the way we hoped he would. The result was that we now had the enemy we needed. In this way we were able neatly to prove the need for unrelenting critical vigilance against the insidiously corrupting forces of bourgeois liberalism.
I hope this clears up some of Mr Caird ’s problems.
Vol. 13 No. 5 · 7 March 1991
What was Anthony Pratt’s bland and confused mockery for (Letters, 7 February)? He says I have been looking for an enemy, as if it was wrong of me to write objecting to, and attempting to correct, James Wood’s unprovoked misrepresentations of cultural materialists. I had thought that just the kind of thing the letters page of an intellectual paper is for. And why do the same misconceptions keep churning on through, month after month? For instance, why does Pratt elide cultural materialism and post-structuralism?
Professor Graham Martin asked (Letters, 28 June 1990): ‘Why is it that Shakespeare’s plays (not Jonson’s, Dekker’s, Greene’s, Massinger’s etc) command the attention of successive generations of interpreters?’ He agreed that the different interpretations drawn from Shakespeare through the centuries, from 18th-century ‘Verdi-without-music’ through to Charter 77 signatories, ‘are the result of different “discourses” ’ –accepting, I believe, that all these interpretations cannot be attributed to Shakespeare’s intention. But he argued that we still need to explain ‘the “something” about those texts which, rather than Jonson’s etc, makes them such a peculiarly fertile site for the production of “meanings”. Or more bluntly, what is there in the texts that makes everybody want to get “Shakespeare” on their side?’ Martin proposed two answers: ‘that the written texts are so riven with ideological contradictions … that no unifying account can ever be proposed,’ and ‘that “Shakespeare” was a dazzlingly accomplished writer in such a variety of styles’ that ‘his texts energetically resist interpreters in the same degree that they feed a passion for appropriating them.’ This, Martin concluded, might he a way of ‘tackling the “value” question which, so far as I know, the cultural materialist rarely, if ever, discusses’.
There is much to agree with in Graham Martin’s thoughtful discussion of the persistence of Shakespeare and the question of value. May I suggest nevertheless a few complicating questions? The reason why people want to get Shakespeare on their side, or else to repudiate him, need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such. He is thus regarded because he is what I call a powerful cultural token: he is already where meaning is produced, and people therefore want to appropriate him – as they do the Pope or Madonna. Getting Sejanus on one’s side seems rather like getting, say, Merlyn Rees – very worthwhile but not likely to move people strongly. Everyone knows that it’s easier to draw a crowd with the Pope or Madonna than with Merlyn Rees. Similarly, publishers like books with Shakespeare in the title (examiners set him, the Arts Council funds him). Once such a cultural token is up and running, it gains a momentum which is sustained by multifarious cultural activity. I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare, but given that there are innumerable people devoted to explaining why Shakespeare is so special, it seems odd that materialists are denounced for not joining in. That is one consequence of his being a cultural token – he is anxiously policed.
The simple diversity of critical opinion seems to ratify Martin’s thought that Shakespearean texts are riven with ideological contradictions and resist a unified account. One problem with this is that it seems dangerously close to being a description of what has been happening rather than an explanation of it. Further, I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but whether that would account for the plays resisting interpretation while stimulating appropriation is another matter: in fact, it is going to be pretty difficult to demonstrate any intrinsic textual characteristics that do that. In any event, I think most cultural materialists now would expect to find ideological contradiction in all texts, or perhaps all texts of any length and ambition. Sejanus, for instance. For contradiction is a characteristic of ideology and hence a condition of cultural production. So we may still not have reached a distinctive marker of Shakespeare’s value.
I’m surprised, finally, that Graham Martin thinks cultural materialists don’t address value. It seems to me that they say all the time that value is, at once, crucial and historically, culturally specific. This does not, of course, mean that there are no values: only that they cannot be expected to find adherence beyond their customary context. (Our recent history seems in permanent crisis because of refusal to confront the fact of cultural difference.) And of course we know that by very many people Shakespeare is not valued, even within our own culture. Indeed, cultural materialists have been criticised for being unusually straightforward about their values, instead of deploying the traditional critical strategy of mystifying them as natural or human or Shakespeare’s. Above all, the historical contingency of values seems demonstrated by Martin’s thought that the prominence of Shakespeare derives from the way he resists interpretation while stimulating appropriation. This strikes me as not what would have appealed to the Verdi-without-music people, or even the Charter 77 people: but it is exactly the kind of value you would expect to find proposed by people like us at the present time and place.
University of Sussex
Vol. 13 No. 7 · 4 April 1991
Alan Sinfield (Letters, 7 March) insists that value is always culturally specific, related to a particular context. This implies an extreme degree of ethical relativism; we, here and now, may find torture, for instance, repugnant to our idea of how human beings ought to be treated, whilst recognising that in other times and places other ideas and practices have been, and are, common. On Sinfield’s formulation we have no right to make a ‘universalist’ condemnation of torture, in whatever situation it occurs. It seems to contradict the Marxist belief expressed in his Shakespeare criticism that the struggle against oppression is a constant in history, irrespective of different societies and cultures.
Vol. 13 No. 8 · 25 April 1991
Rarely has cultural materialism revealed itself as nakedly as in Alan Sinfield’s last letter (Letters, 7 March). He was answering Graham Martin’s question about Shakespeare’s longevity. Given this longevity, must we not ascribe some sort of value to Shakespeare’s texts? ‘I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare,’ Sinfield concedes with touching magnanimity. For the cultural materialist, however, things are never so politically innocent. So Sinfield greedily borrows Martin’s unfortunate phrase about people ‘wanting to get Shakespeare on their side’. Sinfield’s argument is drearily familiar, but articulated with a new shamelessness. We read Shakespeare, we go to the theatre, we write letters about him, not really because we love him, but because we want to ‘appropriate him’. He is useful, culturally and politically. This ‘need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such’. Shakespeare is a powerful ‘cultural token’. The more powerful this token, the more useful it is culturally and politically, and the more strenuously we will work to keep it in place (what Sinfield calls ‘multifarious cultural activity’). Connoisseurs of cultural materialism will note that this argument is indistinguishable from the standard Marxist/materialist line on ideology: Shakespeare, like ‘truth’ or the BBC, is part of a complex ideological apparatus, whose real workings are always being obscured by people like Boris Ford or the writer of this letter.
It is the rhetoric of cultural materialism that is so offensive. It is a rhetoric horribly afraid of admitting that texts have a literary and formal distinctiveness – texts are forms of words – which make them unique, different from each other. It is a rhetoric afraid of pleasure, of literary joy. Listen to Sinfield’s grudging concessions: ‘I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare …’; ‘I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but …’ It is a rhetoric, necessarily so, of arrogant rectitude. The materialist, like the psychoanalyst, understands our fumblings, understands ideology, understands our ‘resistance’ to accepting the deviousness of its workings. The materialist must uncover, must denature or demystify such resistance. ‘People want to appropriate him,’ writes Sinfield, but Sinfield, snug in his knowing study at Sussex, is above all this. At no moment does Sinfield suggest that our desire to perpetuate Shakespeare might be anything other than a kind of greedy acquisitiveness for political or cultural leverage.
The idea that Shakespeare offers joy, pleasure, challenge, and has done for centuries – laughable! The idea that one can believe in such emotions while acknowledging their historical contingency – this is not discussed. Every time I read or hear the lines ‘If this be magic let it be an art/Lawful as eating,’ these lines in which magic is domesticated and law is made to mean liberation, I want to laugh and cry out with simple pleasure. I am not suggesting that such apprehension is criticism, nor that we should go back to A.E. Housman and his bristling hairs as a register of value. But we need to realise that there is always an element of mystery in assigning value to one text over another. This mystery is a literary mystery, to do with certain words in a certain form and order. This is what is ‘intrinsic’ – Sejanus does not have these lines.
Is it not fairer to people to assume that they have responded with similar joy to such words than to suspect them of responding because they want to get a cultural token on their side? ‘Criticism must talk the language of artists,’ Benjamin wrote in One Way Street. Great works should humble criticism: how can one unique form of words be explained, valued, assessed, by another? Thus Garcia Marquez’s notion of the ideal critic is a woman he met who had copied out the whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude. A true criticism is aware of its own necessary tentativeness in the face of mystery and blinding beauty, of why some beauty dazzles while some merely glows, aware of its own near-redundancy. Cultural materialism is afraid of what it cannot explain. Because it has its roots in a pseudo-scientific Marxist language, because of its part in criticism’s 20th-century struggle to become ‘objective’, materialism has no humility. May it learn some soon.
Vol. 13 No. 10 · 23 May 1991
Having spent a little time in Sinfield’s ‘knowing study at Sussex’ this year while on an MA course in Renaissance literature, I must take issue with some of your Bardbiz correspondents – James Wood (Letters, 25 April) is one – who impute joylessness and arrogance to cultural materialists. I am a woolly liberal and a poet, and cannot always agree with my tutors on writing, cultural production, individualism and some other topics. But I have not met ‘arrogant rectitude’: rather, a delight in debate, a welcome for essays which dissent from the views expressed in their public works (has Wood read carefully Sinfield’s writings enthusing over Macbeth, interpreting Sidney?), a questioning of visiting speakers who take up an ideologically pure stance from a materialist point of view, and an encouragement of the belief that to attempt to explain is not to dehumanise. I recognise some of Wood’s worries about the value placed on poetry, and have been quarrelling amicably with Sinfield over this since October. But criticism is not the same ball game as writing: Wood implies it should be. The questions he says are not discussed are discussed.
What is literary debate about? Everyone coming to the same conclusions on questions whose importance has been settled beforehand? Or openness to the possibility of new questions becoming relevant; and free debate on old questions still found important by Marxists and others alike? It was Alan Sinfield who said, in our second seminar of the autumn: ‘We don’t have to agree – we really don’t.’
Vol. 13 No. 11 · 13 June 1991
Permit me to offer a somewhat belated invitation to James Wood, Boris Ford, Bernard Bergonzi, and others of your correspondents over the past eighteen months or so, to visit South Africa. Your offices, I should explain to them, are one mighty distance from this, the southernmost tip of the dark African continent, and it takes a while for the LRB to appear in libraries here. They should travel from north to south, as Edward Said in other contexts puts it, for several reasons.
First, Bernard Bergonzi will be able to assess at first hand how well his opposition (Letters, 4 April) to the argument that ‘value is, at once, crucial and historically, culturally specific’ (Alan Sinfield, Letters, 7 March) travels, and James Wood can see what happens to ‘the human complexities and struggles which nullify and confound determinism’ (Letters, 24 May 1990) in the Shakespeare text down south, in a place not nearly, yet, emerged from the apartheid thicket.
During the long rule of, among much worse, militant anti-English Afrikaner nationalism, Shakespeare, referred to as the ‘jewel of the language’, ‘embedded in the very system of education itself’, was never removed from a central role in South African apartheid education. Why? The excision or avoidance of the politics in the texts, as well as avoidance of the politics involved in reading the Shakespeare text, which Wood and others by implication encourage, has always characterised the work of establishment South African Shakespeareans. Here, the privileging of authorial intention and of the authority of the text, while obscuring its historical context, is itself a strategy that parallels and complements the educative aims of apartheid. Designed to produce submissive and unquestioning subjects, this education suppressed as much as possible any awareness of the individual as more than merely a private, discrete and morally independent entity. Social and political ignorance, callousness and irresponsibility were in this way worked for. Instead of studying the complexities in and suggested by the texts, as well as the complexities in their use of it as South Africans, generations of docile teachers and students were encouraged to study Shakespeare’s greatness in ways Malcolm Evans, another of your correspondents, captures beautifully.
It is, furthermore, worth quoting here Malcolm Evans’s mention of Benjamin’s remark that ‘there has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism’ (Letters, 13 September 1990). Like the rest of his letter, this travels much better than Wood and Co’s offerings. Apartheid education has always compelled use of the Shakespeare text for the majority of children in this country who are second-language speakers of English at school. Inadequate resources and the large numbers of children in classrooms make the choice of the Shakespeare text particularly disabling – far from facilitating English acquisition, it becomes an important tool in a system designed to produce ‘second-class’ citizens. Haughty dismissals of the cultural specificity of value ring very hollow out here.
Still, as they approach this erstwhile colony, now in such flux, such visitors need have little fear. They can find the essentialist Shakespeare in whom they so fervently believe within the practices of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa as well as within much of the South African Shakespeare establishment. These together remain largely in control of what is done with the text, in education and in performance. Here, they will find what erstwhile patronising travellers from the metropolis always found – amongst the natives, a small band of envious and adoring colonials. In the last decade of the 20th century, they may more properly be thought of as rebarbative, if dangerous mimics. Mostly of English extraction, definitely all white, they proclaim proudly, mainly to one another, that ‘Shakespeare’ is their ‘birthright’ and that the bard is ‘not for an age but for all time’. No sinister readings of the texts for them – instead, all profoundly moving, all spiritually restoring, all strangely enjoyable and all, most especially, without history. This may reassure some of your correspondents, but they should note in what climate and place their beliefs have flourished so rampantly for the last forty years and more.
The fact that establishment South African Shakespeare criticism agrees totally with my invitees is exactly the point. And this kind of value, invested in the text and brought to this country by scores of visitors over the decades, has earned for that text – like Mrs Thatcher’s unseemly haste to get here and garner salutes, including an honorary doctorate from the Rand Afrikaans University – massive suspicion and dislike.
Whether or not the Shakespeare text will survive in the, as yet fictive, alternative South Africa is not certain. But one thing is. The work of scholars such as Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Terence Hawkes, John Drakakis and many others sharing, or sympathetic to, their positions makes possible readings of the text and uses of it which may one day undo the devastating damage wrought by those ideological practices advocated or implied by my proposed group of explorers.
University of the Witwatersrand,
I expect Shakespeare will survive the work of Dollimore, Sinfield and their group: but I wonder if cultural materialism will? One can easily discredit a perfectly good theory by making excessive claims for it – or even by implying such claims when making particular judgments. Cultural materialism seems to me a very good theory: but if it is to be the basis for a complete reductive theory of literary value it is surely a little o’erparted. It isn’t remotely plausible, for example, that James Wood (and I) get a keen pleasure from Shakespeare’s verse because we enjoy appropriating an existing cultural token. Pleasure in having power or being in the fashion is a different kind of pleasure from pleasure in reading verse; and one’s theory needs to explain this difference.
What I understand by cultural materialism is – to put it cautiously – the claim that there are certain parameters of cultural phenomena – including under that heading both works of art like Hamlet, and arguments over their value, like this one – which are ultimately determined by the struggle over the control of the means of production. To that limited extent both literary works and arguments about them are ways of working through that struggle, in a more or less disguised form. I am sure that this theory is both non-trivial and true; and to determine its limits – i.e. to determine what those parameters are – is a valuable exercise, though I cannot believe it will affect the outcome of the class struggle in any way.
What surely would be crazy is to claim that all the parameters of a work of art – its formal structure, its detailed content, its complex relationships to the detailed and unsystematisable contingencies of cultural history, or to the accidents of individual psychology in authors and readers, or to the foundations of universal human desires – are determined by the class struggle, or reducible to it; or that only those parameters that are so reducible are worth making value-judgments about; or that any value-judgments that appear superficially not to be about the class-struggle are actually a disguised form of intervention on the conservative side. One can see a good materialist basis for explaining many phenomena rele-vant to Shakespeare – the rise of the drama, the source of his political attitudes, even some aspects of his handling of language. But materialism won’t go far to explain his dramatic effectiveness, or the force of his poetry, which is what most of us read the plays or go to them for; it would be silly to expect it to, and unbelievably crass to refuse to talk about dramatic effectiveness or poetic intensity just because your materialist theory hasn’t got categories to put them in.
The problem at the moment is that the advocates of literary cultural materialism (as opposed to the longer-established anthropological cultural materialism which I personally prefer) have never produced a formal statement of what their theory is, what claims it makes, and what claims it does not make. In these circumstances, the theory is worthless – except as providing a platform on which to stand, while sneering at other critics. Even the sometimes excellent detailed critical work produced by cultural materialists is damaged by refusing to articulate the theoretical limits on the claims being made, or the relation which these claims might have to, say, the claims of psychoanalytic, or formalist or other literary theories. In the book, Political Shakespeare, Sinfield and Dollimore define cultural materialism exclusively in terms of its methods (p. vii). There is no statement whatever of the theoretical claims which might justify the methods; and, incredibly, no feeling of any need for one.
‘Unfair to Shakespeare’ is what many of your correspondents have been saying. ‘Unfair to theory’ is what I say. But English literary critics have always been that. It is like seeing the Leavises come again.
Vol. 13 No. 13 · 11 July 1991
Leonard Jackson has a point (Letters, 13 June): cultural materialism is not fully theorised on page vii of Political Shakespeare. But there is a great deal more on it elsewhere, partly by contributors to Political Shakespeare, not least Raymond Williams (who I believe was developing the term at about the same time as the anthropologist Marvin Harris). The aspect raised by Jackson, the scope of such theory, has in fact been a central preoccupation – to the point where cultural materialism could be characterised as an attempt to reason a way out of a base/superstructure model. On the issue of pleasure in the verse, and necessarily briefly, it is perhaps not a matter of that pleasure being caused by material conditions, but of whether it can be innocent of them. That is the harder question – and whether any of us can be. So we may be enjoying the verse in Othello and getting some racism at the same time (Martin Orkin’s work indicates partly how this might be: see his letter of 13 June).
I say ‘may be’. The ‘Bardbiz’ correspondence was set off by Terry Hawkes saying that cultural materialists raise such questions. It is this that has provoked a stream of misrepresentation and abuse, which I have tried to meet thoughtfully and for the most part genially; not dogmatically. Now Claude Rawson (LRB, 22 February 1990) says I am ‘coercive’ and a ‘menace’ to intellectual seriousness because I have insinuated that he holds a brief for the New Right. I do not accept that my letter can be reasonably construed as making that insinuation, and deny that I customarily make such insinuations. I have never thought of Professor Rawson as of the New Right, but as a scholar and critic of distinction with whom serious debate is normally possible. If he is now losing his bearings that is a pity. I believe my version of what has been happening in English studies is better than his, and regret that he has chosen not to consider it.
University of Sussex
Leonard Jackson says that cultural materialism ‘won’t go far to explain’ Shakespeare’s ‘dramatic effectiveness or the force of his poetry’. But then, neither does any other theory, apart from repeating that it is effective and powerful because it is effective and powerful. The whole parade of analyses of technique, theme and structure is nothing more than this tautology. Materialism offers up another possibility: the concept of the socially-constructed reader. Phrases like ‘dramatic effectiveness’ are then no longer seen as immutable and mystical.
In looking at the effectiveness of Shakespeare, in my own case, I would start looking into how I was initiated into Shakespeare at home, how quotations were used in a proverbial way to reflect on daily incidents, how careful preparation was made before a visit to the theatre, how, as a consequence, Shakespeare at school was ‘easy’. I could reflect on all the subtle ways achievement at school was linked with notions of greatness in British culture, politics and militarism. I could consider how a hierarchy of poetic effectiveness was taught to me very early on – metaphorical language is top of the pops – or how I was constantly told that humanistic drama is greater than, say, symbolic or folk drama. At the end of an autobiography of the socially-constructed reader of Shakespeare, I figure that I would be much nearer to understanding why I thought Shakespeare was ‘effective’. And I would be cautious about making statements about who else this effectiveness applied to, unless they shared aspects of my biography.
Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991
I have only recently caught up with the Bardbiz controversy in your columns since I teach English Literature in a context that is not only geographically removed but obviously peripheral to Shakespeare, Mozart and Bach, and to Culture itself – as it emerges in the shrill onslaught against cultural materialism. It is significant that this tired tirade rehearses the cultural chauvinism which was an integral part of the export of Shakespeare to colonised societies. For some two hundred years, Boris Ford might like to know, Indians have read (and have been made to read) Shakespeare (and Ford’s own Guides to Literature). The dominant message of colonial education was that if they did not find Shakespeare’s plays ‘profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable’, they did not possess the attributes of what James Wood, in one of his letters, calls ‘the thoughtful critic, the enjoyable critic’. Further, such appreciation was a measure of intelligence and sensitivity per se. Precisely the same regimentation of response is now evident in many of the letters under the guise of a return to the text.
Wood pleads that the author should be viewed as ‘a complex thing’. Indeed he or she should, and so should millions of readers – which means acknowledging precisely those tensions, ambiguities, conflicts, histories and debates that cultural materialism has focused on. My students have been enabled, by much of this criticism, to move away from parroting tired praises of Shakespeare’s ‘complexity’ to asserting their own varying responses to him. To locate the ways in which Shakespeare was used within colonial education, and how his plays interacted with cultural practices of his own time, effects a huge liberation for most of them. They can now be the complex, intelligent, sensitive readers Wood wants – to agree or disagree, be moved or angry, restored or bored by Shakespeare.
Wood complains that to emphasise the conditions of production or reception of a text is to negate the latter and to reduce its author to ‘history’s hostage’. Contradictorily, he berates precisely those critics, like Paul Brown, who show how Shakespeare’s plays intervened in history. Wood says that cultural materialists, being ‘slavishly faithful to the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic’, believe that such textual intervention in history happens in spite of the authorial intentionality. It is sad that such a passionate advocate of the ‘complexity’ of authors and texts should reduce this dialectic, and the long history of Marxist debates on human agency and the intersection between the individual and the social, to a crude determinism. If indeed Marxists and cultural materialists (and feminists, one might add) believed that all ideology works simply to legitimise the status quo, as Wood says they do, they would not waste their time theorising dissent, or thinking about how to change that status quo.
Far from neglecting the original meaning of the plays in favour of their subsequent histories, cultural materialists constantly try to work out the connections as well as the disjunctures between the two, as does Thomas Cartelli, whose arguments are misrepresented in the debate. Cartelli discusses Ngugi or Lamming’s readings of The Tempest in the context of his suggestion that a text is ‘a responsible party to its successive readings and rewritings’. He therefore argues that the seeds of imperialist readings of The Tempest are there in the original text. In my book Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, I have suggested that by the same logic, the play must also question colonialist practices since it also has a long history of radical, anti-colonialist appropriations. Paying attention to history, then, is not to downgrade the plays but often to find that what in them is worth salvaging is different from what we were previously told.
Jawaharlal Nehru University,
Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991
Alan Sinfield is ‘genial’ enough (Letters, 11 July) but not always accurate. Terence Hawkes did not inaugurate the Bardbiz tiff by suggesting that cultural materialism ‘raises’ those questions which this correspondence has subsequently debated. On the contrary, Hawkes launched the boat with his amicable paraphrasing of Gary Taylor – to the effect that Shakespeare is ‘a black hole’ into which we pour our meanings. Given that this hole simply reflects back to us the meanings we pour into it, it is impossible to say if it is any good or not. To some readers, this sounded like the heavy dropping rather than the raising of questions.
In my first letter, I pointed out that this notion of the vacant or spongy, ever-absorbent text is logically impossible. If Shakespeare is a black hole, then so are Dickens and Eliot, and so on. But if each simply gives back to us what we put into it, then nothing distinguishes them from each other any longer, and clearly, something does. Moreover, if Shakespeare is a black hole, then at the very least we need some explanation, other than a generalised theory about the text and reader-responses, of this quality of black holeness. I further pointed out that this airy surrender commits the critic to placing every reading of Shakespeare on an equivalent footing. If Hitler, like Terence Hawkes, is simply getting back the meanings he puts into the black hole, then so be it. Sceptics will note, however, that no cultural materialist essay begins without its bitter refutation of Tillyard or G. Wilson Knight on Shakespeare. Though a number of correspondents have written to defend cultural materialism, no one has tackled Hawkes’s bold ‘question-raising’.
I also suggested that Hawkes’s paraphrase seemed to typify a larger hiatus in cultural materialist thinking, one that hovers around questions of agency (a writer’s, a text’s) and intention (ditto). One feels, reading some of the available essays, that the text in cultural materialism truly is a black hole, pressed on, determined by, battered by warring ideologies – the space or site on which various ideologies of the day have it out with each other. People have written to say that cultural materialism precisely raises such questions. Certainly, it gestures towards the raising of such questions, but what finally seems to interest these critics, what really energises them, is the complex mechanics of legitimation and political containment. Sure, texts are contradictory (just as ideologies are): but in the end, we know who wins, we know who’s tops. As Leonard Tennen-house puts it in an essay in Political Shakespeare, ‘the introduction of disorder into the play ultimately authorises political authority.’ This is the wiry paradox that really delights cultural materialists. This leads to some fruitful ‘question-raising’ – or as Tennenhouse flatly puts it, ‘Shakespeare uses his drama to authorise political authority.’
So Ania Loomba’s sketch (Letters, 15 August) of the ‘humanists’ as little more than cultural colonialists and the cultural materialists as radical dissenters is not just offensive, but wayward and myopic. Cultural materialists seem to believe that dissent is not willed but somehow produced by ideology’s tendency to contradict itself. This is precisely the position of Paul Brown and Thomas Cartelli on The Tempest. The more that one reads such critics, the more one realises that they do not believe in radical texts. They believe in radical readers – here is the fundamental split between ‘humanists’ and materialists. Such readers, it is supposed, must brush the inherently conservative, or ever-absorbent text, against its grain, searching for marginalised or repressed moments of dissent. These moments are like symptoms; they appear without regard to a writer’s intention or will. The humanist is interested in good intentions, the materialist in bad symptoms. But the humanist is the real radical.