Greenblatt on human agency and New Historicism 10.21.2008, 5:06 PM
posted by kirsten reach
Image via Queen's University.
Here is a little bit about the MIT communications forum on October 14, with respondent David Thorburn, moderator Diana Henderson, and lecturer Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt is the Cogen University Professor of Humanities at Harvard. He co-founded the literary journal Representations and wrote the book Will in the World; he edits Norton Anthology of Literature and the Norton Shakespeare.
David Thorburn began the lecture by asking Greenblatt about an historical moment: his time as an undergrad- and graduate student at Yale on the cusp of New Criticism. Greenblatt listed his teachers, among them Harold Bloom, Jeffrey Hartman, and Robert Penn Warren. While New Criticism was the principle game in town, there was "something else stirring" in continuity with it. While defining New Criticism for his audience, Greenblatt referenced the W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley line, "Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work." A poem was to be examined like a beautifully wrought object, or a verbal icon. Greenblatt recounted the feeling of empowerment New Criticism initially gave him: freeing him from a certain kind of "time-wasting and sociology," and liberation from "a certain cult and taste." You had to know how to "get your hands dirty, and learn what internal structures were." And though he broke away from this school of thought, he said he is grateful to have experience with it.
Thorburn added that Greenblatt has the power of reading closely, even if he doesn't read closely in the same way his mentors did; he still reads with "the rigor and excitement of the old New Critics." Henderson added that this historical moment is an excellent time for criticism, since "attention to detail and method is very important with a glut of information."
As for the "something else stirring," Greenblatt said his thinking was affected by a "huge dose of Cambridge," which was "curiously, not part of the New Criticism at Yale." There he played a game where texts were passed around on scraps of paper and everyone in the room was supposed to guess when each text was written. It "seemed unbelievably stupid at the time," but Greenblatt concluded that it was important to understand how a text fit into a specific historical and sociological moment. After a "mega-dose" of this, he came to understand the importance of thinking inside a text, rather than removing the text from its context (as in New Criticism).
Henderson concurred that delving together into the historical moment fosters a generosity of relationship between students and professors, a dialogue and openness "that allows you to not take umbrage," and allows for "a kind of listening to student voices" instead of professors serving as "a kind of acolyte" and the students just taking notes.
Henderson said to Greenblatt, "Yours was a friendlier face of incorporating American and English thought at a moment of real culture wars." [She was referring to the difference between New Historicism (a term Greenblatt himself coined for examining a text within the framework of history, culture, and sociology) and Cultural Materialism, a term for a branch of literary criticism stemming from Marxism that looks at a text not as an object, but as a process that is both politicized and historigraphical.]
Greenblatt defined a pivotal moment in his intellectual life: he read Althusser in the '70s, especially the union of theory and practice, which opened his mind to how one could think differently of culture and society. This was a "brilliant continuation of hermeutic thought and New Criticism," which worked to align what he thought he'd learned with what was (then) going on in France.
Thorburn quoted Greenblatt back to himself, saying, "This is what was going on when I found my voice." Thorburn asked Greenblatt to expand upon this statement.
Greenblatt said that it was clear in his writing, in his style, that he was not an apprentice any longer. "Things holding you [down] disappear: you're not worrying what your advisor thinks." Instead Greenblatt began to wonder, How could I think out of the model of an individual life?
He wrote a book about Sir Walter Raleigh, which he explained was about this. Raleigh was a soldier, explorer, scoundrel, courier, an interesting poet. He was not simply defined by his work as a fiction writer or a critic or a professor. Greenblatt pondered Raleigh and himself, what their identities were, what their subjectivities were. He asked, "What would it mean not to think so conventionally about a life? What would it mean for me to have a voice?" He felt "liberation to think in a life, passionately, his life and my life... not to throw one away and not think about the other one, but not to be stuck in the biographical model of an individual life."
Henderson added that the great question, then, was how to use history to tell a story. At the moment that New Historicism emerged, it put the individual back into the system (as opposed to high theory and Cultural Materialism). It was about America in individual lives.
Greenblatt agreed, "It was a great moment, an unbelievable moment... the question was how to sound like who you are."
Henderson said, "And that's where history comes into play: in who YOU are. It is a unit of rhetoric, organizing history, you sort of grab something that for you resonates and tells a vivid story... of course, [grabbing one story and not another] immediately begs the question, why not this one instead?"
Greenblatt proceeded with a vivid story of his own: when he finished his Raleigh book, he sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press. There a woman named Agnes Latham, who had worked all her life studying Raleigh (the culmination of which was a single article). She read his work and suggested that after 20-25 years perhaps Greenblatt would know enough about Raleigh to write about Raleigh. "That vision of how to do this work, to know absolutely every detail about someone's life... seemed to me a form of intellectual deadening." He remembered a professor who wrote on Hardy, who was afraid of publishing in case he discovered something else about Hardy. As a scholar, Greenblatt advised, decide when you have to cut yourself off; later you may know more but won't end up saying much more. You have to know when to stop. He said he had to learn for himself and his students to be responsible, but not to be so obsessive or so frightened. You must shape around the idea that you have a story to tell, for yourself and your readers.
Thornburn reiterated that there are a few key terms in New Historicism that are problematic and central in Greenblatt's work: human agency and self-fashioning. He asked Greenblatt to elaborate on these.
Human agency and self-fashioning are terms "like fate and free will: the more general they are, the gassier they are." Greenblatt responded with an anecdote from a trip to Israel: he traveled to give a lecture, and on Friday night, someone invited him to have dinner at their house in the old city. After dinner, they sat on the roof under the stars and sang the Hebrew prayers traditionally sung after meals. Greenblatt doesn't think of himself as having much of a spiritual life - his exact term for his perception of Jewish tradition was "total flapdoodle" - but he had a powerful semitic reaction to this. He said being Jewish in this scenario was about non-agency; it was uncontrollable, like getting an erection at the beach. There was something about "the words that you sing as a child, that you don't believe in... I was already way post-belief, but still affected." And yes, agency became a part of it - he felt the urge to ask, "Christ, what's that about, and what am I going to do about it?" He said, "I didn't know what to do with it; I was amazed by it." All Saturday afternoon, with sounds of helicopters overhead, he thought about how to parse his experience. He chose not to ignore it, and met a friend at the PLO to talk it through; in this moment he chose agency over the alternative. He spent a lot of time trying to think who he was, what historical situation he was in, and why these things made him want to meet at the PLO instead of going elsewhere, instead of being swung around on a string, "and that's what I've been interested in all my life."
Thorburn added here that one of Greenblatt's strengths is "this dividedness in him."
Henderson expanded upon Greenblatt's example, pointing out that we must identify local choices, the effect of those choices and what difference they make, and finally, "how do we tell our own story and the history of the world in a way we think matters." We must consider the value of our storytelling, and "our obligation to whatever It out there is." Henderson said it seemed to her that only half of it is agency.
She then brought up the subject of this lecture, the place of the book today, and posited, "Can we consider the place of the book today?" Greenblatt interjected, who are we to consider the place of the book today? Henderson said considering the students in front of her, "And as scholars, what are we asking of our young now? We've gone to another extreme because we're trying to get things out NOW? In another system that doesn't want to publish your book." This sense of immediacy seemed out of place to Henderson in the current publishing world.
Greenblatt continued to say that last year Harvard passed a vote that faculty would be required if they wrote an article to allow access to a digital version for Harvard, so that all their scholarly work would be universally accessible digitally. "As a general principle, the idea that the work that we do should have value digitally and have universal access," is what Greenblatt said he had been calling for for years. In an article for the MLA, he said we must transform our understanding of what it means to appear on the web and how we can use that. We must make more broadly accessible our work. We must feel that work is significant; though the web must take into consideration the feeling of community that is subscription-based. You feel you are part of a community when you subscribe to a scholarly journal. But ultimately your work can reach a larger scholarly audience with the internet.
A grad student with blonde dreadlocks asked a question about Jane Newman, pastoral conventions, and bringing history back as an objective field. Greenblatt replied, "I don't carry a card in my wallet that says Official New Historicist. On the whole... making old and new historicism live again... it does very good archival work, sociological work, has very little relation to [objectivity.]"
The example he put forth is whether Shakespeare was Catholic. "I just think the work is not pious... I think it's actually quite secular." It is "manifest in a lifelong grappling with Christianity and Catholicism." In Greenblatt's opinion, Shakespeare had an interesting engagement with religion, but there is inadequate evidence to support either theory. One can examine Shakespeare's father's will, his mother's relationship to the Arden family in Birmingham, and the people who educated Shakespeare. "Can I prove anything? No. But I thought it was interesting to tease out [these elements.]" Another example: Was Donne tormented all his life? Greenblatt says he thinks Donne is definitely interested in "damaged institutional goods," and he drew upon the aesthetics all his life because he probably had personal relations to them, but we don't know whether he actually had personal relations to them or not.
A man in the audience inquired about the state of culture. Greenblatt responded, What if, for example, Nomads or exchange or exile were actually the "normal state" of culture, rather than that of settled cultures? What follows from that? What if we think about cultures in movement? Greenblatt wanted to try to think about a new set of terms - e.g. culture is essentially about movement. Or, Greenblatt insisted, this could go in a second direction: the weakening of the boundaries between art-making and criticism. In one's pedagogical practice, this means getting more interested in relation to the makers. Academics are in the habit, Greenblatt said, to refuse absolutely everything the makers say - not only what they're up to, but their relation to art-making (this stubbornness is consistent with Greenblatt's assertion that professors' work is driven by students even though one doesn't admit it). With new technology, it's possible to make things in interesting ways - certainly visual things - that couldn't have been made five years ago, certainly not 20 years ago.
For example, Greenblatt said, look what Shakespeare did with his citations: he was famous as a thief. "What happens when he steals from other people, what does he do with the materials? What happens if you don't imagine that the fate of all these objects was to fall into Shakespeare and end there? They don't end there." Henderson agreed. They have metamorphic effects. Greenblatt is interested in experimenting with that idea intellectually, aesthetically, and in following moving cultures from place to place.
Henderson added that the materials do not end with Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is being performed and reimagined all of the time. Performing Shakespeare made people in the humanities aware again that they need to talk to the makers.
An older man on the stairs asked for Greenblatt's take on Israel.
Greenblatt responded to an issue that is specific to Harvard. In his opinion, John Pullman said things that were extremely foolish to say. Therefore Greenblatt thought that though many people didn't want him to, he should come as a poet to Harvard and people should give him a hard time. Rescinding the invitation seemed foolish, but protest seemed appropriate (and wouldn't require the university to support the West Bank Settlements).
A man in the audience asked if there are moments in scholarship that are like the security gates at airports, that you can go in but can't go back out. He gave the Greeks vs. the Romans as an example.
Greenblatt said he would love to say that groups in conflict will just work things out, but that this is untrue. Catholics and Protestants, for example, are two factions that couldn't "settle it." Epicurianism, which is Greek organization, survives because a Roman poet wrote a fantastic poem that survived, and in the Middle Ages, was found. "My sense is that there's no getting back to the thing itself. But to give up the dream completely - that all we have is what the clerks have given us - is a depressing historical position. All my life... gives me the illusion that I'm finally getting it."
Greenblatt launched into a description of Richard Madox's diary. His recounting of the book went something like this: Madox wanted to go on "an insane voyage to the new world." But he quickly realized "he hated every sucker on the ship." Madox was a very finely educated, rather sophisticated guy, and he was stuck on board with "a bunch of horrible yahoos." So in his diary, he gave them Latin and Greek names, and invented his own code to complain about them freely. Madox died off the coast of Brazil, and the others brought his diary back because they didn't know what was in it. When Greenblatt read this book, he felt he was finally reading "a voice that hadn't been mediated in fifty thousand ways." It wasn't the product of German Romanticism.
A woman asked Greenblatt to reflect upon Amitad Ghosh's In An Antique Land. Greenblatt replied that the book is an important touchstone, it articulates problems, but literal travel isn't recorded in a book. Even the digital world of literature doesn't solve this problem. Literal travel is a crucial element, he continued - who are the customs agents, what do you have to pay, what do you have to conceal? There is a huge amount of material of this kind. And that literal travel becomes the metaphorical. (He is now in his classes at Harvard incorporating a simulation of that sort of travel with digital resources. One such course is "Travel and Transformation in the Early 17th Century.") In a play like King Lear, Greenblatt said, you have "a crazy pastiche of things": Isaiah plus Sir Philip Sydney mixed up with Machiavelli. Each carries with a it a set of implications through its (physical) travels.
A woman in the audience asked for Greenblatt's take on the "what if," or the imagination, and also to discuss the relationship between hypothetical and historical in his work.
Greenblatt employed the example of Natalie Zemon Davis's Fiction in the Archives, which allowed for people to think about why people were writing the things they were writing instead of concentrating on the truth contained therein. Greenblatt argued that there is an extent of imagination and making up already implicit in the materials that we use. We are saturated with "crazy conjectures" of people who left traces of themselves. It is even more difficult to work with fictional materials, which are full of imaginary conjectures. You must account for the fact that you are deploying imagination yourself as you study it.
"On the other hand," Greenblatt said, "You can't just make it all up." For example, one could use the discourse, "I never thought of anything I wrote as 'fiction,' " but I am interested in effect and affects that are reachable through the imagination to get them in play. "You cough when the story is over if you're not using the imagination." In Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun, though, there is a difference in the game being played. There is a tiny hook of documentary evidence to begin delving into the story. As a reader, perhaps it's best to assume Shakespeare made up from stuff he could draw on from his life, not one character he is trying to portray from his life. This is better described as something else, like literary biography.
Henderson concluded, "Doesn't it just come back to, What did Shakespeare say, anyway?"
Greenblatt laughed, "He's a wonderful broken field runner; you can't catch him that way anyway."
Thorburn handed Greenblatt a copy of a book he published 25 years ago. Greenblatt read aloud the introduction, a story of a man on an airplane who asked Greenblatt to read the words, 'I want to die, I want to die.' The point of this fragment is that Greenblatt chooses the moments in his life when he recites someone else's words. (Ironically, Thorburn had chosen this moment for him.)
Greenblatt ended the talk by saying, If you could record every movement of every atom as the world was constructed, it would become clear there was no free will, but it would also be clear that "one atom swerved." That swerve was ridiculed for decades - it was written in 1417 by Lucretius. Now it is "the only thing in contemporary physics that seems kind of hip." In other words, generations of theologians ridiculed the thing that saved agency.
Posted by kirsten reach on October 21, 2008 5:06 PM
Sonja on October 22, 2008 4:47 AM:
I cannot thank you enough for posting the content of this event!
JoseAngel on October 29, 2008 7:00 AM:
Thanks for taking the trouble to give us an excellent account. I'm linking this.
(btw... "written in 1417 by Lucretius"? huh?)
whitney on November 7, 2008 8:00 PM:
Thanks for posting -- it was a decent forum!
By the way, who are you and why haven't we met?
-the grad student with blonde dreadlocks
gary Frost on December 19, 2008 7:54 AM:
The blog format is not a deliberate or optimized forum. The default that seems to give it meaning is itself only the time based stream of news without sufficient editorial oversight. Blogs can go on forever. It is not just that they are never finished, Wiki's turn this unbook quality into virtue, but that they wander aimless when they could be mapping terrain. Blogs overarch audience with a presumption of presence, but with a segregation of role. The commentators are each one present to the forum. What occurred at the MIT forum?