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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

How to Open an Academic Essay, Part VI: The Balinese Cockfight

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/23/05 at 09:14 PM

[Episodes I, II, II/II, III, IV and V have been catalogued for your convenience.  Now I present the promised installment on The Balinese Cockfight.]

The origins of the cockfight in literary studies are shrouded in mystery.  No mention of the cockfight appears in Stephen Greenblatt’s formulaic introduction to “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance” (Genre 15: 1-2).  (Of that other New Historical tic, the one not involving dead chickens, i.e. the chiasmus, the same cannot be said.) The first appearance of the cockfight as “meta-social commentary” occurs in Houston Baker’s “To Move without Moving: An Analaysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood Episode.” Baker quotes the following passage from Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”:

Like any art form--for that, finally, is what we are dealing with--the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have been...raised...to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived. 

Why Geertz felt the need to travel to Bali to discover the inherent meta-social commentary of a cockfight is curious.  A famous American orator and former cockfight referee once said that “as long as the Almighty permits intelligent men, created in His image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it is not for me to deprive the chicken of the same privilege.” Ol’ Honest Abe nailed this whole metaphorical meta-social meta-commentary meta-long before Geertz wrote one word about cockfights.  Since Mr. Lincoln lacks the scholarly credentials of a Clifford Geertz, Baker quotes Geertz instead.  However, he doesn’t attempt to out-cockfight-cite the locus primus of the cockfight-cite.  We’re looking for someone who opens an essay with the cockfight-cite and unsurpisingly, that someone is Stephen Greenblatt.  In 1994.  From “The Eating of the Soul":

I have seen Balinese cockfights, and I can assure you that a resemblance to Shakespeare’s work of art is not immediately apparent.  No doubt the losing cock, bleeding in the dirt, feels the tragedy of the occasion...but the structure and duration of the cockfight, not to mention the expressive limitations of the cocks themselves, preclude the dignity and weight of tragedy.

Opening an essay with two colliding anecdotes draws attention to the structural similarities between, in this case, cockfighting and Shakespearean tragedy.  The effect of Geertz’s original juxtaposition of cockfighting and Macbeth, according to Greenblatt, is such that

Balinese cockfighting and the Shakespearean spectacle of treachery and damnation--apparently so distant from one another in their symbolic stakes and their cultural position--are made to touch and resonate.  The immediate result for the anthropologist is an air of dignity conferred upon Balinese cockfighting; that, and a kind of hermeneutical license linked to this dignity: cockfighting is a complex, symbolically charged text that can be profitably read by a gifted interpreter.

Greenblatt’s emphasis on the word “text” reveals the rhetoric for what it is: rhetoric.  Reduce the world to “text” and any “mundane narrative” can be juxtaposed, for effect, with a “literary narrative” counterpart.  Sonja Laden rightly argues in “Recuperating the Archive: Anecdotal Evidence and Questions of ‘Historical Realism’" that Greenblatt & Co. are “‘poetic’ New Historicists,” that is, they’ve more in common--minus the radical Marxist and feminist politics--with the literary journalism of John McPhee than conventional academic criticism.  Opening an essay with an irrelevent but structurally homologous anecdote thus transforms the lowly academic critic into an artist


Radical Marxist politics?

By Jonathan on 06/24/05 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, as opposed to the mildly Marxist reformers who would’ve preferred a dictatorship of the proletariat but can deal with the excesses of capitalism…

...oh, and when was the last time you heard an avowed Marxist not describe whatever he or she was describing as radical?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/24/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe Greenblatt--or perhaps any New Historicist--as a radical Marxist. Doesn’t he even write somewhere about being confronted by students in the 70s about being a Menshevik or a Bolshevik and deciding that he was the former?

In fact, in today’s radically politicized academy, any literary scholar who expresses interest in the intellectual traditions of the left is likely to be blacklisted.

By Jonathan on 06/24/05 at 03:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m writing about this for the Theory’s Empire event, so I don’t want to say too much now, but the prominent early and middle criticism of New Historicism in general, and Greenblatt in particular, was that it was little more than veiled Marxism.  (See, for example, Edward Pechter’s “The New Historicism and Its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama.") This happened with such regularity that in her account of the politics of New Historicism, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese felt necessary the following footnote: “It should be clear from my discussion that I do not think that Jameson’s work can be completely subsumed under the rubric of new historicism, if only because of his proclaimed and serious philosophical concerns.” (And yes, I’m quoting the footnote because I’m saving the body’s argument for later.)

Another example?  In Frank Lentricchia’s essay on Foucault and New Historicism, he says “Old historicists are politically incorrect--issues of ideology and class consciousness rarely touch their literary work.  Greenblatt more or less tells us that they needed to open their Marx.  New historicists not only have reopened their Marx; they have embraced Foucault...” I could continue, but I think this’ll suffice.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/24/05 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read Fox-Genovese’s piece, but Jameson has certainly distinguished himself from New Historicism in several places, the chapter in PM being probably the most prominent.

I also don’t think of Foucault as Marxist, unless it’s being used as a generalized term (of opprobrium) applied to any work dealing with ideology and class issues.

By Jonathan on 06/24/05 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My sense was that use of the term “Marxist” in literature departments had become so loose that it referred merely to any concern about class issues from a left perspective.

By on 06/24/05 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your sense is correct without literature departments.

By Jonathan on 06/24/05 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While it may be true that the New Historicism evolved out of a disenchantment with Marxism as a tool for literary analysis, many subsequent critics concerned with class have preferred to describe what they do as “the New Economic Criticism” or “economic anthropology” (or simply “Marxism,” as Jonathan rightly points out). My own feeling is that this is, indeed, a distinction with a difference, complicated by the fact that Marxist approaches to literature are by no means homogenous (just as not /all/ that goes by the name of New Historicism is concerned with “the forms of power and the power of forms"). Thus, although I am duly wary of the fact that Scott is holding onto his ammo, but I’d like to declare an early allegiance to Jonathan.

By on 06/24/05 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt and Jonathan, while I appreciate your point--New Historicism isn’t identical or reducible to Marxism--that wasn’t the point of my snide remark nor will it be the point of my contribution.  I’ve presented a few of the myriad examples I’ve collected in which New Historicism is criticized as warmed-over, de-radicalized Marxism.  (And as you’d expect, when one person calls another “less radical than thou,” the other always responds in kind.) On this point, my claim isn’t that these criticisms are correct, only that they exist and, as I’ll demonstrate later, there’re sound reasons they exist (foremost among them the rhetoric of early proponents of New Historicism).  To turn this around, Jameson may’ve distanced himself from New Historicism, but the fact that he felt the need to do so speaks to the legitimacy of the claims I’ll later proffer.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/24/05 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Point taken: I don’t think anyone believes that Marxism and NH are identical, least of all you. But I would make the stronger claim that they are in fact largely unrelated critical modes. I take it, then, that we agree?

By on 06/24/05 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should say methodologically unrelated (mostly, to my mind), not unrelated in terms of the history of intradisciplinary rivalries to which you rightly draw our attention. Btw, I don’t mean to presume that you, too, would draw such a distinction, but that’s where I was coming from. Perhaps you would agree that the history of these rivalries does not reflect the actual content of these opposed methodologies.

By on 06/24/05 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I strain to make sense of the phrase “the actual content of these opposed methodologies.” What I take it to mean--and correct me if I’m off-base--is that the work produced by new historicists and Marxists differs in important respects, i.e. attention to class, class-consciousness, ideological analysis, etc.  If that’s what you mean, I’d have to say that while the methodologies differ, the product’s often the same.  (Thus the early inclusion--his protestations notwithstanding--of Jameson among the new historicists.) Which is only to say that they’re often (not always) different routes to the same destination.  For example, guess whether this is a review of a new historicist or a Marxist critic’s latest work:

“In X change comes very centrally from struggle, largely between classes and over control of representation: ‘In the model of culture I am proposing, culture appears as a struggle among various political factions to possess its most valued signs and symbols’ (23).  The middle class, for example, comes to power when it wins ‘the intellectual war to determine the definition of culture itself’ (162).  The effects of representation, of course, are not neatly defined by class interests, but are more complex and less predictable than this would suggest: and yet middle-class ideology in this book...”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/25/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry for the strain (you’re right; the phrase is nonsensical, so you strain in vain). What I meant was just that the methodologies are incompatible, both for the reasons you cite and becuase:

1) New Historicists are generally more concerned to map texts onto specific historical events than to examine some alleged “deep structure” of a given society; and,

2) Even when NHism considers class, it does not generally consider the conditions of exchange that govern literary works; also,

3) New Historicism would view itself (and whether this is true or not I will leave to you) as less deterministic

Other differences as well, but could you agree that these are important ones? I guess not? I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by your closet Marxism and looking forward to your signed confession. Or would you see yourself as part of a small and struggling band of non-Marxist New Historicists? Come on now...You don’t get to dominate the academy AND be marginalized, you know. That’s an old trick…

By on 06/25/05 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS—Question: Am I allowed to win this argument by asserting an identity between old and New Historicism, and by mocking as disengenuous the professed New Historicist concern for literary form? If so, I hereby declare victory. Otherwise, Scott, I’ll sit here and sulk.

By on 06/25/05 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think anyone can “win” this debate, b/c it’s framed in vague terms, and there’s a different agenda behind the too-general question “Is New Historicism Marxist?”

One would consider Greenblatt a “horse’s mouth” here, and in his intro to the collection _Learning to Curse_, he criticizes his PhD mentors’ aversion to Marxism on page 2 and 3, then says his thought was shaped by “Raymond Williams and by Michel Foucault” at Berkeley in the 1970s.

But the above is redundant, really, since Scott’s already done this work.  If Scott’s claiming that NH is strongly influenced by Marxism, and can be labeled “Marxist,” then he seems right to me.  But the way I’ve just phrased this is sort of weird, isn’t it?  What do we even mean by “Marx” or “Marxism”?  I’m no expert, but my impression is that many NH critics probably haven’t read _Capital_ back-to-back and generally prefer the “earlier” Marx, the more philosphical, less “hard-economic” Marx of the early 1840s.  Maybe one way of saying this is that they prefer a “soft Marxism,” that emphasizes class, ideology, and power in general terms, to a more doctrinaire, social-scientific “hard Marxism.”

When we think of it in this way, though, the nuanced distinctions we might want to draw when treating the question “Is this-or-that theoretical paradigm Marxist?” sort of melt.  Greenblatt himself admits that one should not “exaggerate [NH’s] coherence” and says he is not “overly sympathetic to calls for its systemization.” The soft Marxism is supposed to be vague, even enablingly so.  NH, in a way, is supposed to be sort of free-floating and without methodological rigidity.

All of this is to say that Marx has suffered the same fate, as it were, in NH as in other approaches--e.g., world-system theory in sociology, or in (!) Foucauldian theories of power.  In Discipline and Punish, for example, Foucault alternates between a theory of control that largely eliminates distinctions between social classes and the ascription of group agency to the bourgeoisie, and a more conventionally Marxist account of delinquency and its profitable manipulation by the dominant class (the “Illegalities and Delinquency” chapter).  Foucault showed this same sort of vagueness in his interviews, where he’d insist he wasn’t a member of the PCF (French Comm. Party) but also say something like “one wonders what difference there can be between being an historian and being a Marxist.”

So, Foucault, like Greenblatt, like NH in general, was a “soft Marxist.” I guess my point here is that there are few Marxists who hold to the whole kit-and-caboodle, and that in the meantime there’s been such a huge diaspora of Marxist theory that it’s hard to bring real content to the question “Is such-and-such a theoretical paradigm Marxist?”

We can only say, really, that some theories are sympathetic to Marx, and some aren’t.  And here’s where Scott’s real agenda comes in, as Jonathan has hinted.  Scott’s real goal in ascribing “radical Marxism” to Greenblatt seems to be “NH emphasizes class and power too much at the expense of the text, and I don’t like it.”

My own view, if anyone’s interested:  I’m sympathetic to Marx myself, and to “Marx-inspired” approaches, as long as they do justice to their object of study, i.e. the literary work...but I totally agree with Scott that NH critics often seem more interested in their own political values than the textual evidence.

By on 06/26/05 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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