Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Who Owns Shakespeare?
Prelude: Before getting down to business, I would like to thank John Holbo and his fellow Valvists (Valvologists? Valvolytes? Valvoholics?) for inviting me here for a run of guesting.
As some of you may know, I am an independent scholar. For the past three decades or so I have been working out how to use the newer psychologies - the cognitive sciences, neurosciences, primate ethology - in framing the study of culture, with literature being my main but not my only focus. I got interested in these psychologies as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins back in the middle and late 60s. I was there when the French landed, though I didn’t attend any of the sessions of the 1966 Structuralist symposium. I saw de Man in the halls, took a course with Hillis Miller, and took several courses and independent studies with Richard Macksey. But Chomsky and Piaget - and later Eric Lenneberg, Sydney Lamb, Karl Pribram, and ultimately David Hays - interested me more than Derrida or Lacan. So that’s what I studied.
One of my first articles was published in the Centennial Issue of MLN, dated October 1976. The issue was edited by Richard Macksey and reflected his sense of the lay of the critical land. Northrup Fry had the lead essay, with a reply by Samuel Weber. Other contributors include Edward Said, Walter Benn Michaels, Eugenio Donato, and Stanley Fish. I was thus in august company, and honored for it. But that elevation is not why I mention the issue.
I mention it because my essay, on Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, was unlike any of the others. And yet Macksey thought it appropriate to a survey of the contemporary critical scene. Whatever it was that was going on back then, it had not ossified into what is now sometimes known as Theory. It was flexible enough to include hard-core cognitive science, which is what my essay was.
Obviously, my work did not catch on, nor, as far as I know, was there anything like it in literary circles at the time. The winds of critical interest and desire blew in different directions. It was to be two decades before literary critics would decided to give cognitive science a spin, and the cognitive science they’ve been spinning is, for better or worse, rather different than what I was doing back then.
My objective in these guest posts is not so much to make a direct case for what I did back then, or even for what I am doing now. That work must make its own case. Rather, I’m more interested in exploring how that work - then and now - fits in, where it lies in the disciplinary topography. To that end I have more or less planned out two commentaries that take observations by Northrup Frye, Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, and Stanley Fish as starting points.
Before I get around to either of those, however, I want to contemplate a question that ran up and bit me in the face a couple of weeks ago:
Who Owns Shakespeare?
The question arose in my mind as a consequence of a discussion over at Bérubé’s joint. It was in the wake of revelations about Scooter Libby’s literary background. Bérubé began his post like this:
Apparently there is some dispute, in the comments to Wednesday’s post, about the origin of the phrase, Exit, raped by a bear. Brian Cook mentioned it (or did he cite it? I can never keep that distinction straight), provoking Njorl to ask whether exit was a noun or a verb.
He then goes on to provide a parody of a passage from The Winter’s Tale and opens her up for discussion. Things move along and, in comment #15, Bérubé says this:
And Dr. B., you want right-wing Shakespeare? I got your right-wing Shakespeare right here, courtesy of Ken Adelman.
Yes, that website and that organization are real.
The website is for an organization called Movers & Shakespeares, which presents itself thus:
Movers & Shakespeares presents Fun, Team-Building, Executive Training and Leadership Development based on the insights and wisdom of the Bard… as relevant in today’s world as they were 400 years ago!
If you read around on the site, you’ll see what that means. As far as I can tell, this is as reasonable an approach to team-building, etc. as anything out there. So why’s Bérubé got his back up over this? And he’s not the only one. If you read on a bit you see others who are happy to join in his derision. Why?
I understand, of course, that Bérubé is of the left, while Ken Adelman is of the right. I’m much closer to Bérubé’s politics than to Adelman’s. I understand why Bérubé dislikes Adelman’s politics - and that of Donald Rumseld, who appears in a reddish robe in one of the Movers & Shakespeares pictures. But I don’t understand why Bérubé thinks Movers & Shakespeares to be worthy of ridicule. That’s a different matter.
Do Bérubé and company think that they somehow have a deeper claim on Shakespeare than Ken Adelman and company? If so, I would like to know why? It seems to me that Shakespeare’s texts belong to us all, or to none of us. Being a left-wing academic does not confer privileged access to Shakespeare, nor the right to ridicule political opponents - no matter how venal and reprehensible they may be - for their use and enjoyment of Shakespeare. Indict Rumsfeld for things he has done as Secretary of Defense, but don’t ridicule him for acting a Shakespeare role, as though you have more claim on Shakespeare than he does.
I have no idea whether or not M&S provides high quality services. But I do know that team-building and leadership training are important, if rather difficult in achievement. I do not see, on the face of it, anything wrong with having people act scenes from Shakespeare toward such ends. It doesn’t demean Shakespeare and it may well enrich the people who participate in the programs, if only for a few hours. If, beyond that, it has made them more effective in their work, than that seems all to the good.
I don’t know whether or not this bit of ridicule is just an instance of academic brattiness, or a symptom of an unwillingness to grant full humanity to one’s political opponents, a symptom of essentialist and reductive thinking. If the former, then it’s not worth a third thought. If the latter, then it is a more serious business. Perhaps it’s a symptom of estrangement and impotence in the academy: We can’t affect how the world conduct’s its business, but we can sure ridicule the folks who rule the roost out there.
What do others think?
Although I can’t speak for Berube, I imagine that his (and most other English academics’) scorn for Adelman’s project has less to do with making a political claim to Shakespeare and more to do with making a disciplinary claim. I.e., few would scoff in the same way at the idea of Straussians reading Shakespeare. The real question here is not why English academics object to right-wing political readings of literature, but why they object to its instrumental use - i.e., literature as “motivation” or “therapy.” The answer to this probably lies in literature as a discipline’s rootedness in nineteenth-century Romanticism - i.e., the idea that art is radically non-instrumental, opposed in some way to the values of the bourgeoisie. This kind of opposition can be either right- or left-wing.
Thanks for joining us, Bill. Very glad to have you.
That said, I think you need to lighten up about Berube.
For one thing, something he put in comments - not even in the post itself - doesn’t really need to be a quite ready for prime-time player. (He’s trying to extend a joke Dr. B made. You are allowed to stretch in comments.) Also, I think - even if management and teambuilding is all well and good - it’s also sort of kind of almost automatically mock-worthy. There’s a reason why Dilbert can just be sort of the same joke over and over again. (The pointy-haired boss playing Shakespeare could be an incredibly funny series. The Boss as Hamlet, Dilbert forced to play Polonius. Wally as Claudius. The grouchy secretary as Ophelia.)
Anyway, it’s sort of the same reason why every novel about the academy makes fun of academics. People don’t make fun of academics because they are estanged from intellectualism or jealous of the academy. They make fun of us because we’re kinda funny. The same goes for CEO’s in centurion hats. The contrast between the loftiness of aspiration and what usually gets accomplished is just too good to pass up.
I’m imagining the pointy-haired boss delivering a mighty speech:
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.”
And then his new organizer beeps and he has to get Dilbert to explain to him how to check his email.
Stephen, you’ve got a point. Though I don’t think it’s so much disciplinary—as in English vs. Poli Sci vs. biology—as institutional, academia vs. . . . . well, just what it that other thing? The people who live there often call it “the real world” in opposition to whatever it is academia is.
* * * *
Not just Berube, but Berube & company. Seems to me there was a little in-group circling of the wagons there.
Mockworthy, yes. But by whom and why?
You’re on the mark with your remarks about the academic novel. And those snarky articles about weird MLA papers aren’t by litcritics for litcritics. They’re by outsiders.
Years ago I spent a summer at NASA as part of a group (of academics) they’d put together to give them advice on how to get their computer operation up academic standards. Part of this shindig was a day of team-building exercises. Going into it I was thinking, “good lord, what nonsense.” I was wrong. It was a good day. I’m sure that the man who conducted the exercise was a master of the craft. Changed my notions about such things.
I’ve spent most of my life floating through different institutional spheres—academia, high tech industry, community service non-profits—and these days I’m working on a project that has me talking with all sorts of folks. So I’ve become sensitive to the ways in which different sectors of the work-world are indoctrinated with different mythologies apparently designed to privilege their world above the others.
It’s that “gap” between different institutional sectors that interests me. I’m not sure we can afford to maintain the old mythologies.
And Berube & Co’s mockery seemed to me, well, so naive. But Berube himself can’t be that naive, at least I don’t think so. After all, he did get invited to sit in the President’s Box and a major Penn State game, & that’s an inter-institutional political gig.
And so on.
Fact is, I really know what I REALLY think about that incident. I know my immediate reaction. But that’s different from what I really. I suppose that’s why I brought it up here, to get some help in figuring out what I really think.
Oh, wait, I’ve got it. Wally is the ghost. The organizer beeps. Dilbert wearily helps. Wally comes onstage wearing a sheet. (You can tell it’s him because he’s wearing his glasses and tie on the outside.) Wally: “Hey, they’ve got donuts.” [Stuffs one in the sheet mouth hole.] Dilbert: “You’re getting crumbs on your ectoplasm.” Boss: [looks up from organizer, annoyed] “You don’t have to talk like that when you’re not in character.”
I think Berube is just riffing, in a bloggy way. When I think “corporate management + Shakespeare” I just think of about 7 jokes. It’s almost irresistable. ("Titus Andronicus” done by a bunch of corporate raiders, so that all the dismemberment scenes are about how the parts are worth more than the whole.) It’s actually true what you say, that some of these team-building whatsits are probably very good. Full disclosure: I did a critical thinking seminar for some social services people, and I hope I didn’t do too badly as a consultant - logic my speciality. But I think you get to be master of that craft, if you do, by appreciating precisely how what you are doing could go wrong in so many way, i.e. be funny in so many ways.
Sure he’s riffing.
But as Friar Learned vs. Dilbert Drudge, or is it just Dueling Dilberts?
First time I thought of Shakespeare and corporate management I thought of writing a book and cashing in on the biz-book market, even talked with an entrepreneur I knew as a possible co-author. I mean, if they’re reading biz strategy based on Sun Tzu, why not the Bard?
The late Peter Drucker was a very sharp fellow, BTW.
Read down this line of posts:
You’ll see standard academic style socialization at work, e.g. where one CR says: “From my own perspective, I just can’t imagine what other jobs there are out there that would be in the least fulfilling. During grad school, but greatest fear wasn’t (simply) that I wouldn’t get an academic job but rather (more specifically) that I’d have to get a non-academic job. Which seemed like soul death to me, honestly. It really does."”
Are we talking about something bigger than one joke Berube made that some folks didn’t find funny? If so, what? If not, why is this discussion happening here and not at Berube’s blog?
I don’t really see what this has to do with Shakespeare. I mean, vaguely left-wing cultural studies professor makes fun of right-wing business “leadership training” firm: shock!
And it isn’t even left-wing vs right-wing or academia vs business, necessarily. Making fun of people is just a big part of the culture of Cultural Studies. From my limited observations, I’d guess that you pretty much don’t go into that field unless you’re the kind of person who once went through a stage of ostentatiously liking only the most obscure bands.
But I think the attitudes expressed in that joke are quite wide-spread in the academic world, though expressed in different ways.
When I was on the faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a 2nd tier tech school in Troy, NY, I was puzzled by widespread disdain for the hum-drum of interdisciplinary work. Why did I find that puzzling? Because interdisciplinary work had been considered daring and avant-garde where I did my undergraduate work (Hopkins) and graduate work (SUNY Buffalo). If it was regarded with suspician in those places, it was because it was too daring, too risky, not because it was, well, dull.
And then I realized that THAT was the point. RPI was an engineering school. Working engineers pretty much have to cooperate with engineers from different disciplines because that’s how built. An automobile designed by a team where the electrical guys and the fuel-system guys and the drive-train guys and the body guys never talked with one another, that automobile would not work very well. So RPI faculty marked their difference from work-a-day engineers by making a fetish of disciplinary purity and disdaining interdisciplinary cooperation.
English profs who mock businessmen acting Shakespeare are engaging in a similar kind of turf protection.
And if making fun of folks is part of the culture of Cultural Studies, then maybe cultural studies should get serious about culture.
"And if making fun of folks is part of the culture of Cultural Studies, then maybe cultural studies should get serious about culture.”
No, Bill, I don’t see it. The analogy with the person who boasts about liking obscure bands is exact: not only a mocker but also a mockee. There is no academic discipline more made-fun-of than Cultural Studies. As a former astrophysicist, I can firmly say with the full force of my professional opinion that if they stopped making fun of other people, an imbalance in the universe could occur, possibly causing some kind of vacuum phase transition that might lead to the end of all life. And you have to ask yourself whether that would be worth it.
Or, you know, maybe it is turf protection. But so what?
Well, as someone who operates more or less outside these institutional frameworks, the nature of those frameworks interests me. They seem somehow quaint. Unfortunately, and despite at least three decades of complaints about the constraints of academic disciplines & such, they aren’t going anywhere soon.
In the abstract, “cultural studies” seems like a good idea. I mean, we really do need to study culture, whole, not music here, art there, kinship systems the other place, fast-food emporiums in that corner, and so forth. In practice, there’s a political agenda that has little to do with actually figuring out how culture works. The victims and the exploiters have been pre-identified. It’s just a matter of getting the labels properly attached to the specimens and making the proper acknowledgement & mea culpa that one cannot, of course, escape one’s own position in this universally exploitive system.
Though Berube himself, as far as I can tell, pretty much avoids such indulgences.
You’ve led me to envision Harold Bloom as a management consultant, singing praises of full staff, his reputation based on ground-breaking corporate organizational research:
The Anxiety of Industry
A Map of Mismanagement
The Breaking of the Org Charts
You’ll excuse me while I go wash my hands ...
I found this discussion surprising. Don’t a significant percentage of people, from all walks of life, think team-building exercises worthy of mockery? I’m pretty sure that if I sent mail to my coworkers (none of whom are academics) about Movers & Shakespeares, the response from 95% of them would be mockery.
Do Bérubé and company think that they somehow have a deeper claim on Shakespeare than Ken Adelman and company? If so, I would like to know why? It seems to me that Shakespeare’s texts belong to us all, or to none of us. Being a left-wing academic does not confer privileged access to Shakespeare, nor the right to ridicule political opponents—no matter how venal and reprehensible they may be—for their use and enjoyment of Shakespeare. . . . I don’t know whether or not this bit of ridicule is just an instance of academic brattiness, or a symptom of an unwillingness to grant full humanity to one’s political opponents, a symptom of essentialist and reductive thinking.
Yipes, Bill, it seems to me you’ve worked yourself into some pretty heated rhetoric on this one. First my bemusement at Movers and Shakespeares is possible evidence that I’m making a “deeper” (or, worse, “privileged,” perhaps even exclusive) claim to Shakespeare. Then I’m ridiculing my political opponents. Then I’m an example of academic brattiness; I’ve denied Ken Adelman’s full humanity; I’m even essentialist and reductive. Good grief! I have to wonder what kind of abuse I’d come in for if I’d actually said anything suggesting that the Adelmans were unqualified to present Shakespeare. (As a point of fact, I have no opinion on this and do not intend to develop one.)
It just seemed to me that the idea of using Shakespeare to teach management skills and team-building exercises is worthy of a little idle raillery. (It’s even, possibly, a bit reductive.) That’s all. It wasn’t an attempt to claim ownership of Shakespeare or to suggest that Adelman is somehow less than human. (I believe that if I were to prick him, he would bleed. Just saying.) And I promise you I would indulge in the same kind of idle raillery if a liberal organization were to offer dramatic readings and performances from Jacobean revenge tragedies as part of a diversity training program.
As a fan of berube’s page (does that make me a member of the “& Co.”? Michael I’ve been meaning to discuss a stock split at the next board meeting...) and an engineer in a high-tech sector the idea that I would go spend a day learning how to be a better employee by enjoying the Bard seems on it’s face absurd. Picture everything that is amazing about Shakespeare reduced into tired mid-level management mantras about efficiency and “thinking outside the box.” It sounds awful.
Even the title is kitsch.
"Being a left-wing academic does not confer .... the right to ridicule political opponents”.
I’ve said this before and no one has responded, but I think that flame wars can be a good thing. If I cared about Adelman I would mock him for everything, starting with the fact that his nose in the middle of his face.
Berube can be one snotty motherfucker, though. He mocked me once, if you can believe that.
Among my areas of interest are Chinese literature and Spanish Renaissance literature, both of which were court-based—the great poets of those times often played major political roles.
In those days, you didn’t just have mockery—you actually connived to have your poetic competitors executed. Those were the good old days—anymore, literary people are weenies.
There is an interesting question here about cultural ownership, I think, leaving aside the fascinating issue of whether and how often one may mock consultants. If Shakespeare does “belong to us all,” then he also belongs to the sentimentalists and the middle-brow culture-vultures, as well as to the less exceptionable noble working class cultural consumer whom I trust we would never mock, and strictly on the level of appreciation, who are those of us with academic training to judge the emotional responses others have to texts, or any cultural artifacts, however risible or misinformed those responses may seem?
I mean, that’s one way of looking at it ...
Well, at least this discussion isn’t about copyright protection/extension. Long live the public domain!
Glad to hear it was only idle raillery, Michael. ‘Cause I couldn’t tell; my own interests got in the way. So I fired a few cannon balls into the water to see if any bodies would float to the surface.
But it wasn’t just your comments that set me off. It was the gleeful pile-on.
* * * * * *
On team building, I don’t know what actually happens on one of those Movers & Shakespeares (kitchy? oh my yes, but a little catchy too) team-building gigs. What I’d hope is that the team has fun dressing in funny costumes, twisting their tongues around some strange language, and acting a bit foolish on cue. Some of the team might just bump into a bit of magic. If that happens, then any management twaddle that gets bolted on at the end is OK. The Bard is tough. He can take it.
And management twaddle isn’t the only twaddle there is.
* * * * * * *
You’re right, Miriam, all of them have an equal opportunity affirmative action right to wrap their ideas and sentiments and values in the Bard’s canonical authority. We all do it. That’s what a canon is for, no?
[This is not unrelated to issues about critic, text, and Buffy fans I’ll be raising in my next post.]
* * * * * * *
As for mockworthiness, until a few years ago Elvis impersonators ranked high on my list of mockable phenomena. Then I met one.
A couple years ago I was at my mother’s nursing home on Thanksgiving and they’d hired an Elvis impersonator for entertainment. He had his pompadour, his karaoke rig and Elvis back-up CDs, and his white jumpsuit with the sequins and he was wonderful. He sang well, moved well, and the old folks loved him, especially the ladies when he gave them a “special” look and sang right to them. “It’s now or never . . . “
What matters in performance is whether or not you can channel the spirits and that’s an iffy business at best. Though I am not and never have been a fan, I’m sure Elvis had it, even drugged and bloated in Vegas he probably still had it, sometime. And I suspect most of the Elvis impersonators do a better act as Elvis than they could trying to find their authentic own selves. Creating your own act is tough, while borrowing a proven item is much more reliable. Yet, when someone in a tribal culture does his level best to sing the songs and tell the stories the way the ancestors did, we say he’s being authentic and true to his culture. When someone in our culture does his level best to do Elvis, we look down on it as inauthentic (when we may just mean “proletarian” in a non-revolutionary power-to-the-people way).
Now I’m not saying I’ll never mock an Elvis impersonator, I reserve judgment. I AM saying that there’s nothing intrinsically mockworthy about impersonating The King and even that playing at being Elvis can be a good a worthy thing. If it brings genuine pleasure to the impersonator and to his (or, as is sometimes the case, her) audience, that’s fine.
And so it is with management training.
Ben, your comparison between a tribal singer and an Elvis impersonator is striking. The similarity is all on the level of the emotional investments of the singer and the audience. I suppose an anthropologist might look at these as parallel phenomena: signifying monkeys. Does the fact that most literary critics wouldn’t, make us egregious snobs? Or is there some qualitative distinction we are sniffing out?
If we define “authenticity” as contributing to or expanding meaning, as an attempt to make a cultural tradition meaningful to a new audience, then either — the tribal singer or the Elvis impersonator — could be authentic, and either could be inauthentic.
It is an interesting comparison, possibly quite parallel in some ways. It seems that similarities must exist on multiple levels in addition to the emotional: moral, intellectual, informational, aesthetic, etc....
And it seems to me that something could be considered authentic that, apart from expanding meaning and experience, simply helps to preserve it for various cultural uses and ends.
Economic systems that depend on novelty to make a buck may come to define authenticity as the novel, rather than as say the traditional, unlike I suppose many tribal societies that may not have been so dependent on economic systems of novelty.
And so I suppose what it means to be authentic may depend in a number of ways on what it means to be economically or culturally viable wherever and whenever you live, in whatever culture or subculture, however tribal or not....
Management and Shakespeare - isn’t that a classic example of attempting to “think outside the box”? But wait - can’t Shakespeare be seen as something of a statist, so to speak? And so maybe not so far outside the box in certain ways as might be thought.
Though I certainly talked of authenticity in my post, it’s not a notion I use very much myself. The Elvis impersonator bit was a reversioned passage from an email I sent to an ethnomusicologist buddy (Charlie Keil at http://borntogroove.org/) who was telling me how the false posturing about authenticity put him off from rock and roll.
As for qualitative distinctions, I do think, for example, that the music of Louis Armstrong is qualitatively different from that of his mentor, King Oliver, that Armstrong is more sophisticated. And I think that Dizzy Gillespie is more sophisticated than Armstrong. I argued this sort of thing in section 5 of this piece:
That argument is based on an analysis (possibly mistaken) of how these musicians organize their musical materials. That analysis aside, a jazz musician who is proficient in bebop (Gillespie) can generally also work up a convincing version of swing (Armstrong), but the opposite is not necessarily true. So Gillespie is more sophisticated than Armstrong, but both are pantheon jazzers.
I think that similar considerations apply in literature, though I’ve not attempted to sniff them out.
While “Movers & Shakespeares” might be innocuous enough unto itself, have none of you ever heard of the same Ken Adelman who
* is a member of Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board
* boasted that ‘taking down Hussein’ would be a ‘cakewalk’
* invoked ‘Othello’ to ‘demonstrate’ that we should attack Iraq
* and likens Bush to Henry V at every opportunity?
The point behind Berube’s original comments becomes more barbed when you recognize that Adelman’s an influential insider in Republican circles who applies Shakespeare in support of his hawkish policies—and in fact is training military leaders with supposed lessons from Shakespeare.
It’s less about academics ‘claim’ing Shakespeare for themselves against the ‘use’ and ‘enjoy’ment of non-academics (Adelman’s presenting at the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting next month, after all) than it is about reacting to brazenly manipulative readings by an ideologue masked as a corporate trainer. It’s preposterous to make an anti-elitist claim for ‘own’ing Shakespeare by defending Adelman as some kind of a model for populist interpretation.
I say Shakespeare is more often used for lightweight machiavellian purposes than for benevolent purposes; and that most universities teach Shakespeare as a sort of machiavellian rhetoric: tho most everyone would claim to detest an Iago or Richard III or Macbeth or Antonio, or Claudius these characters are actually envied to some extent. They are role-models for ambitious rich kids and say pre-law studnets: the villains attempt to win by being clever, witty, deceptive (tho as at least a nominal Xtian Shakespeare does show their downfall); they are not driven by reason or cooperation. In the Tempest the evil, scheming Antonio certainly is as amusing and intelligent as his good wizard brother Prospero; in fact more so. And Antonio has some of the best lines in the play mocking the sort of proto-utopian leftist Gonzalo. It’s entertainment for Tory nihilists, of the most part, or their yankee descendents.