Caution and Excitement in Early Modern Studies

Prasanta Chakravarty

Who would have thought that Stanley Fish’s most prescient pronouncement about discourses of theory would emerge not in a fat tome but in the form of an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In July 2005, Fish had proposed rather accurately that following the death of Jacques Derrida, religion would be “where the action is”. Fish’s speculations were based on his observations of how certain variants of poststructuralism and new historicism were working rearward against disenchantment and the critical secularisation thesis. But more prophetically, he foresaw how religion was supplanting “the triumvirate of race, gender and class”. All kinds of sceptics seemed to him to be on one side — and a resurgent fideism on the other.

The map of early modern western cultural criticism is indeed being recast. The struggle between the historicising and textual scholars of early modernity that marked much of the later decades of the twentieth century is getting reshaped again. Some of the developments are very exciting and innovative.  Even as we are living through these stages, it would not be a bad idea to take stock of the theoretical predicament. A stock-taking is also necessary in order to assess what it means if we indeed depose/supplant (or radically modify) certain motifs, themes and framings so that we may think afresh. Most importantly, a survey of the current engagements with the early modern world gives us some vital clues about our own times.

Much of what is new in early modern English studies actually overlaps. So, it is not wise to generalise too quickly about their discursive frameworks in isolation.  For instance, post-phenomenology and affect often work in tandem with animal theory or ecocriticism. Likewise, new ways of looking into subject formation relates to radical communicative theories.  Then there are breakthroughs in genre theory, aesthetics and poetics: no doubt the return of philology (in considering early modern texts, editorial practices, translation and new media) remains an important mode of scholarship. The spectacular rise and consolidation of a whole field called the ‘history of the book’ shows how resilient and robust philology (with able assistance from New Historicism) has been in the bastions of early modern establishment. But it is also being confronted.

The Transcendental Turn

Let me continue with religion, however. Because since, paradoxically, framing a text or a problem through religion also challenges philology and the agonistic world of studia humanitatis along with Enlightenment projects like Marxism, race theory and other historicist ventures, it is important to understand its underpinnings.  When one questions the secularisation of our worldview (with Gadamer or Charles Taylor), or addresses ethics (with Levinas and Eagleton), considers poetics (with Hawkes and Schwartz) or theologises politics (Zizek, Agamben or Kantorowicz) — one brings in certain concerns that would fundamentally unsettle Edward Said’s powerful distinction between secular and religious criticism. When he made that distinction, Said was not only questioning the dangers of getting into fideism, but was making a crucial methodological point: that secular philology is rigorous, diligent, open and invested in its subject matter the way religious criticism is not. Religious criticism seeks premature closure, supplication and always operates contingently and schematically. If we note carefully, we see that all the above thinkers are contravening this very claim of Said, putting his neat binary to test. They are saying in their collective weight: look, do not convert the struggle against what the Enlightenment designates as ‘fanaticism’ into a project of moralisation. Secular criticism can never understand possibilities of radical communitas, sublimity, trauma, radical risk, quiescent anarchism, spirits, fortuitousness and so on — numinous ruptures all. This is because secular criticism condemns fanaticism in the name of practical-ethical consequences, not in the name of any definitive falsity of its contents. They are saying that scholarship is not about mastering this techne or that archive. It is not about turning oneself into Chaucer’s gaunt clerk — like a Friar in the Lent. It is rather about generosity and relatedness to life. To learn to think beyond texts and evidences if you are to appreciate the texture of the early modern sensibility. Most of all — to abandon scepticism (also known as criticality).

One of the better secular humanist responses to this challenge is that humanism has always considered the irrational element without assuring its retrieval and recovery; that the secular world itself is a product of the religious cosmos: saecula and salvation go hand in hand. The sacred and the profane are experienced in historical time with neither side getting any logical priority. Humanists would put the issue differently: that since it was impossible to think outside of religion in early modernity, the philologists concentrated on recovering the pagan, secular and ancient texts. Such scholars gave attention to the specificities of the ancient world. In a beautiful passage, William N. West has recently summed up the humanist response thus:

Divinitio is something like the philologist’s last resort, a best guess at a reading of a text in the absence of decisive evidence. It is also, despite its name and because it proceeds ‘not by the authority of antiquity but by conjecture’, something like the mixed art of philology at its purest…where certain knowledge cannot proceed, the philologist makes a choice based on whatever signs he can. But unlike the revelatory promise that marks the advent of the religious, these signs originate within the horizons of the text. Philological divinitio relies on human intuition rather than on divine intervention…”.

The secular endeavour then comes to the aid of the sacred in order to restore the text. Religion stands beside the recorded and interpretative texts and not beyond them. Humanism, in spite of its many debts to the religious, does not venture into the revelatory and the incommunicative.  It continues to tread scholarship with the likes of Said and Gentile.

What philological humanism resists is the acknowledgement of the tremendous power and force created — often deeply conceptual — when historicism and the theological temperament come together. Consequently it does not confront religious fundamentalism or theological radicalism.  Since they pay lip service to divinitio proper, the motivations behind evangelism and forms of radical heresy — so central to understanding the early modern world — completely evade them or are at best filtered through the safe and detached world of textual parsing. There have been some fine studies of core and canonical Renaissance texts (even if we leave aside pamphlets, broadsides, history and modes of prophecy) taking head-on the questions of the revelatory, the intangible or the divinely authoritarian. The historically positioned studies are also deeply invested in the close study of the texts themselves and other cultural artefacts, but not ever in a disinterested manner. Cynthia Marshall, David Norbrook, Ken Jackson, Julia Lupton, Sarah Beckwith — to name a few, have come out of the humanist shell and have confronted the religious questions squarely. With religion, other intangibles have again become part of scholarship: imagination, sublimity, or wrath, for example.

For the theoretical world, this creates a curious problem. On the one hand, it seems vitally important to confront religion afresh in order to have a surer handle on the period, while on the other if religion assumes a certain genetic persistence, a name for totalising the early modern world, it becomes a high-fidelity replicator unto itself. In other words, its historicising and analytical potential gets engulfed by its own fervour.  It will then tend to replace the very historicity that it espouses — contra textual criticism. The core question is whether as interpreters we can and ought to transcend modern forms of scepticism and evade the anthropologist’s gaze while getting into things theological? As long as we remain professional and detached even as we cultivate a faux theological sensibility, intangibles like love or religion are perhaps better left alone. On the other hand, if we are able to traverse the ground of realising the temperament of the evangelical, the fanatic, the communal or the radical heretic in actuality even as we delve into the early modern cosmos, we run the risk/potential of turning our institutions into seminaries or secret societies, into hotbeds of non-secular experiments; our research projects into single-minded programmes of conversion, fanatical and/or radical. Perhaps that risk is worth taking, without compromising on scholarly rigour. But let there be no mistake: the price has to be paid too — the price of principled partisanship.

Mind, Matter, Metaphors

In some ways a very contrary spirit suffuses the conceptual world of the early modern, one that is actually bridging the two-culture debate: the challenge of cognitive and functionalist science on the claims of social constructivism. Steven Pinker says that culture is a part of human phenotype — a distinct design that permits us to survive and perpetuate our lineages. Are we returning to behaviourism or social Darwinism? Not really. Far more sophisticated variations are making the rounds.

One argument is that in order to do good cultural studies one must consider the aggregate creativity of minds that gives rise to the cultural contexts. Only by understanding such detailed patterning can one more minutely observe trade histories, rise and fall of literacy, economic changes and art production and circulation. The smarter cognitive theorists are trying to combine the realist (say Marxist) and the relativist (say postmodernist) positions: reality exists but humans can access it contingently because experience is mediated through bodies, brains, minds. An aggregate of minds means society or culture. The important change from old-school behaviourism or pure memetic studies (which believes cultural broadcast expresses genetic transmission) is an acknowledegment that forms emerge from the subject’s material situatedness. But only if such situatedness is mediated through a dynamic semantic system, which germinates from within the human conceptual apparatus.  This approach in early modern scholarship has been christened the dual-inheritance theory.

A typical manoeuvre to enact such cognitive patterns in literary criticism is to choose a conceptual metaphor from a text and instead of going into a formalistic, new-critical exposition of that metaphor, to find the motives of the ‘embodied mind’ in forming the metaphoricity of that textual utterance. Such cognitive metaphors then become image schemas. For example, suppose you zero in on the metaphor — “Love is Money” from The Merchant of Venice and then instead of the typical new historicist move of perorating on the semantics of usury, contractual bonds, credit system or accounting practices, you simply concentrate on the elisions of ‘love’ and ‘flesh’ in that metaphor and work on these two different aspects of human experience — modes of affection and financial obligations. By doing this, you avoid the projection of such metaphors into the cultural field and yet keep clear of philological preoccupations and hermeneutic questions of intentionality. Instead, what you bring together is a curious coupling of semantic frameworks and cognitive science terminologies in deciphering the text. I am using the word text (or author) in the singular because there is often an inherent Kantian-individualist bias in these critical moves. The critics working in these areas like to believe that characterological  and textual unity was as important to early modern writers as they ought to be to us — and that this should inform our textual theory. Here is Gabriel Egan, a familiar voice in Shakespearean scholarship, taking on New Historicism:

“It is true that we do not possess a manuscript recipe for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only three copies of it that differ markedly. But we are entitled to treat these at three approximations of one thing, the Platonic Ideal of Hamlet as it existed (in material form, as configurations of neurons) in the mind of Shakespeare. If, over time, Shakespeare changed his mind about Hamlet, it is still conceptually Hamlet even if a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T1 is quite different from a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T2.”

The philologist will have to decide what to make of such a claim. While it gives intentionality, a key philological concern, a positive tack (though coming from genetics rather than hermeneutics), the approach squarely seems to challenge some key motives behind the whole enterprise of book history and archiving as it has developed — another major preoccupation with the philologist. The historicist — realist or radical — on the other hand has much to worry about with this new phenomenon.

The Mood: Anti Historicist

At one level, this new-found interest in matter (sometimes drawing justification from the likes of Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus) is hardly new. The scientific and sensory empiricism of Gassendi, Bacon, Hartlib and later Hobbes had strongly contested varieties of Platonic idealism and Puritanical forms of Christianity. Mandeville, Ricardo and Adam Smith gradually gave the same tendency a more rational economic dimension. Darwin and Gregor Mendel gave the impulse an evolutionary imprint. These are the most powerful scientific essentialists in the rational sense. Matter is a given to them, timeless and ever present in order to help maximise our inherent economic and biological hierarchies.

It is in this context that radical historicists and cultural materialists brought a gauchiste historicism into the picture and politicised the field. Matter meant paying attention to class, gender, race, colonialism and sexuality. They were/are interested in social relations. The spectacular rise of sociology as discipline that took on diachronic philological-historical concerns reflected a shift in studying early modern materialism: the works of Keith Wrightson or David Underdown, for instance, opened before us the world of sociological stratification and power struggles in the English society. Important and powerful historians of the Catholic world like Eamon Duffy or John Bossy had to tackle this left liberal historicism. But even they were not arguing for any surpassing transcendence; they were historicising the domain too in their own way, looking closely at the lay popular culture. The inheritors of Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill took many hues, but the debates were richly contextual, analysing textual claims minutely. Never in a speculative vacuum. Forces of disorder always vied with disciplining possibilities — even in the most inward genres like the psalm or meditative poetry. One glance at the works of some of the most defining non-ideological early modern scholarship in late twentieth century authenticates to this rumbunctious rough and tumble, the attention paid to the difficult give and take between the public and the private realms: reflected, say, in the oeuvre of Nigel Smith or Catherine Belsey or Peter Lake. Postcolonial studies too had an oblique impact on this area—for instance, one was forced to acknowledge that John Milton and Andrew Marvell had little positive to say about the Irish struggle and viewpoints during the English Civil War. Republicanism did have a strong imperialistic side to it.

Mainstream liberals finished that job. That mood has now given way to the more ameliorating travel technologies and experiences — say, in the contemporary works of Allison Games. This agonistic reaching-out gesture is a top-down and faux cosmopolitan globalising venture — something that reminds us of the old commonwealth in new disguise. To merely highlight maritime and navigational advances and leave it all hanging is to suppress the blood and grime of the early modern world, its conflicts and contestations.

The fact of the matter is that the benefits of cultural or left-wing radicalism in early modern studies were derived not from materialism, but rather from historicism. Idealist history could also locate its objects of study within their contingent circumstances, as could materialist history. But such idealism was not festishising matter for its own sake or championing evolutionary psychology. It had an old-world political agenda. What has altered right now in discussions on cognition, matter or objects is the philosophic underpinning of what constitutes matter.  Matter is dehistoricised in most accounts now. And therefore, formulations on matter now seem closer to disinterested rationalism and finally suspiciously chummy with newer modes of capitalism. No wonder there is next to nothing from the new materialists on early modern underground prose, sermons, pamphleteering, news-books — the whole public sphere, so to say. It is simply impossible to get into the civic and underground world of urban polemics and itinerant preaching without getting into the ‘old’ cultural questions of class, gender, colonialism and sexuality.

Some variations of cognitive studies of early modernity do wish to reconceive the study of the mind within a relational, dynamic nature of culture but that is mostly an afterthought. It does not really work. Even the most powerful of the philosophical new (speculative) materialists — like Quentin Meillassoux, who has truly and successfully taken on an earlier generation of French theorists — have not been able to historicise his project or rather does not wish to do so. He argues instead for the timelessness of materiality. And it is here that the most regressive potential of the new conceptual moves lies: transcendental piety and matter/mind are being essentialised and ossified in new forms. They are apparently the perfect antagonists — spirit and matter — but scholars in both areas are getting into speculative tropisms in their own ways. The antagonists seem to have a strange affinity as only antagonists can have.

So also with theorists of object like Michel Serres or Levi Bryant. Objects are made incandescent. They are often aestheticised beautifully. But what next? Disinterested scholarship? To highlight the subject/object division afresh? It is a sort of revenge on half a century of realism and relativism in the world of ideas. True, sometimes such materialists make the radical Spinozian/Bergsonian move, a position that might sit well with heresy studies, for instance, if historicised properly. But if scholars carry on arguing for heterogeneous temporalities within material objects and use Bergson and Nietzsche for actually driving home a Kantian cosmopolitan mobile network in the early modern context, it loses zing. Such framing does serious disservice to the spirit and politics of the robust and hedonistic Nietzschean imagination.

The resurgent schools of thought — theological transcendental, cognitive metaphorical or object-oriented rematerialisms – are significant new developments in the conceptual world of early modernity. They have to be noted. With due caution. In other words, in our romance with faith and matter or any such ‘hot topic’ — let us not, ever, abandon the excitement and rigour of the sceptical spirit.


Select Bibliography:

Fish, Stanley, ‘One University, Under God?’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July, 2005

Jackson, Ken and Arthur F. Marotti, ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies’, Criticism 46 (2004), 167-190.

Lupton, Julia R. ‘The Religious Turn (to Theory) in Shakespeare Studies’, English Language Notes 44:1 (2006), 145-149.

West, William N., ‘Humanism and the Resistance to Theology’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Victoria Kahn, ‘Early Modern Secularism: Introduction’, Representations, Special Issue, Winter 2009.

Pinker, Steven, The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Lakoff, George and Marc Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Jowett, John, Shakespeare and Text (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Reynolds, Bryan and William West (eds), Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern Stage (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Carroll, Joseph, ‘Evolution and Literary Theory’, Human Nature 6 (1995), 119.

Hawkes, David, ‘Against Materialism in Literary Theory’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Smith, Nigel, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Games, Allison, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Expansion 1560-1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Meillassoux , Quentin, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008).

Prasanta Chakravarty is the author of Like Parchment in the Fire: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). He teaches early modern literature and culture at the University of Delhi.

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