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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Uses of Intellectual History

Debora Shuger's Political Theologies in Shakespeare's England is an interesting little (140 pp., noted out of gratitude and appreciation) book, and there are many aspects of it that I liked. I'll list a few of these at the end in typical blog-bullet format, but I wanted first to address at more length the methodology of the book, which is intellectual history of a particular kind.

As Simplicius detailed, Shuger writes in her introduction that "the book does not present a reading of Measure for Measure in the ordinary sense ... but rather uses the play ... as a basis for rethinking English politics and political thought circa 1600" (1). This is an intriguing idea for a book; what would it mean to use a play as the basis for a discussion of political thought? Such a program might make for a provocative reversal of the normal trajectory of literary historicism, which typically moves from historical texts to a new reading of a literary text. Shuger's alternative might provide a nice change of pace from the usual production of literary critics attempting to discover yet another "reading" of a Shakespeare play. In the end, though, I'm not sure how successful this trajectory is in Political Theologies. Shuger uses the play as a jumping-off point for thinking about political thought in the period, but most of the time, it seems like the book could have been written without considering Measure for Measure very much at all; not that it doesn't illuminate the play (it does), but rather that it's not clear why the play needed to be the starting point for the historical investigation.

The exception, I think, is in the last chapter, in her insightful discussion of "What to do about Barnadine?" This section illuminates both the play and political history for me, precisely by putting the two together: "what to do about the presence of goats in the godly sheepfold. In Tudor-Stuart England this was a profoundly important and profoundly divisive issue, at the core of Puritan-Anglican debates over the nature of Christian community" (117). This debate (for instance, over whether to refuse communion to the ungodly, or instead to admit all into the national church since we mortals are unable to discern reprobates from elect) was, as Shuger quotes Peter Lake, "arguably the crucial divide in English Protestant opinion during the period" (122-3). (I would add that this divide is to some extent imported from the Low Countries, where it was a major part of the Remonstrant/ Counter-Remonstrant crisis of the early seventeenth century, which finds its way into England through the Synod of Dort and the rise of Arminianism.) In this section, Shuger's program of intellectual history via literary criticism works exemplarily.

On the larger level, however, I don't think the intellectual history succeeds as well as it does in this particular section. Shuger's goal, as was also the case (if I recall correctly) in Habits of Thought: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture, is to investigate what is "obvious" about the play. She deliberately ignores "the silences and opacities of Measure for Measure" because "one learns ... by moving from the known to the unknown" (such words take on unfortunate new meanings in the wake of Don Rumsfeld's tangled discussions of "known knowns" and "known unknowns"). She therefore "confine[s] [her] attention to what the play makes clear, explicit, and overt, since only what is itself evident can serve as evidence of something else" (6). Left out, then, are: Isabella's famously silent non-response to the Duke's marriage proposal; the Duke's motives for ceding power; indeed, all the "dark corners" of the play that Lucio brings to the fore. When Shuger writes that "to use the silences and opacities of as a starting point for an inquiry into this political landscape would ... be a fool's task" because "an argument cannot illuminate one obscurity by means of another" (6), she is really rejecting most literary criticism for the past quarter-century, both of the deconstructive post-structuralist type (aporia and all) and of the symptomatic-reading type associated with, say, Fredric Jameson. To me, at least, this seems a radical impoverishment of the possibilities of reading.

Now it is, I think, a perfectly reasonable and important project to illuminate what is "obvious" about a culture, but to explain a culture's orthodoxy, to describe its "common-sense" opinions, one needs also to be aware of everything that may be so obvious that it remains unstated and of everything that may be sayable only in hints and contradictions and allusive silences. And such a project is only one way of proceeding: while Shuger attempts to reject the alternative - working symptomatically from obscurities, silences, gaps - in quasi-syllogistic fashion, I'm not convinced. Furthermore, if one ignores what a literary text does not say, what it makes clear that it cannot or will not say, and yet uses this literary text as the basis for an investigation into the political thought of a culture, doesn't it stand to reason that one will be unable to see all the elements of that culture that did not accept or agree with the obvious or orthodox?

It's not that Shuger neglects "debate" or "controversy": she lays out clearly the differences between "Anglicans" (not my favorite word for the pre-Restoration period) and "puritans" over a variety of doctrinal and disciplinary matters. The problem, as I see it, instead involves three closely inter-related issues:
  1. she tends to present these differences as debates between two "sides" or "parties," creating a neat "debate" where for most English people religion was more of a blurry spectrum, not a clear binary that followed the forms of intellectual debate;
  2. her methodology leads her generally to present these differences as intellectual or philosophical or theological differences, but these debates were (to my mind, following recent work by Peter Lake, Anthony Milton, Judith Maltby, Alexandra Walsham, and others) at least as much about religious practice;
  3. her approach to intellectual history is to read texts as texts, separated from the institutional and lived settings in which they were enunciated (discourse in the original Foucauldian sense; or perhaps better, rhetoric, in which all texts need to be read as involving an author/speaker, a text, and an audience in a particular setting for a particular purpose).
In one of my favorite works on seventeenth-century political theory, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution: An Introduction to English Political Thought, 1603-1642, Glenn Burgess raises similar objections to the way intellectual history sometimes proceeds, in the absence of contextualization of languages in institutions, professions, and rhetorical situations:
if we simply bring together pieces of political theory understood out of context it is quite easy to pit them against one another and produce a "debate" or disagreement that never took place. In fact, claims and principles addressed to different audiences might be rather like ships that pass in the night, and their supposed conflict a fiction. Such differing claims were the product of different languages being used for different purposes. There were, in other words, accepted conventions in Jacobean England governing the use of available political languages. (118)
I think the same critique could be fairly leveled against Shuger, and it accounts for the aspects of the book that I found most frustrating: texts from Plato's Laws to Bucer's De regno Christi to Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity to St German's Doctor and Student to Hake's Epieikeia are placed side-by-side as if they were "speaking" to each other, when in fact the rhetorical purposes, situations, speakers, and audiences relating to these texts varied widely. (And drama, of course, has its own accepted conventions [of genre, of performance] that make it indeed possible to learn from the silences and gaps in a particular play by reading it against these conventions.)

As a result both of the emphasis on the self-evident features of texts and of the book's somewhat deracinated view of textuality, the argument generally takes texts entirely on their own terms, with the result that it usually provides explications of texts rather than investigations of their uses and functions in early modern culture. So while "debate" is presented, the rather messy religious situation in the early seventeenth century seems to be tidied up into a battle between two orthodoxies, each of which can be understood by reading its representative theology and legal/political philosophy: Anglicanism and puritanism (the "ism" itself misrepresents the religious situation but I think accurately represents Shuger's approach). One wonders, for instance, how the different views on the nature of Christian community, on goats and sheep, played out in local parish churches; how the Jacobean emphasis on the king as a mixta persona incorporating both secular and spiritual authority played differently when spoken in the pulpit, in parliament, in the courts, and in the privy council; how puritan ideas of sexual regulation actually worked or didn't work "on the ground" (after all, William Gouge altered the text of his Of Domesticall Duties after his women parishioners objected to his over-stress on wives' submission to their husbands).

Ok, I'm now feeling like this post probably over-represents my critique of the book; there was a lot that I enjoyed about it. It does illuminate the relationships between sexual regulation, differing views of Protestantism and religious community, law and equity, and Measure for Measure. And it lends further depth to the somewhat well-worn idea that Measure for Measure represents a very Jacobean position on religion--for instance, by explicating James's understanding of the role of the king as mixta persona and how this position exemplifies his via media: "a king is not mere laicus, as both the Papists and Anabaptists would have him, to the which error also the Puritans incline over far" (qtd on 110).

Other things I liked and/or found provocative about this book:
  • "the play wrestles with a law that seems basically fruitloops .... Is it simply that Puritans were (at least regarding sex) fruitloops?" (9)--how often do you see this kind of diction in a scholarly monograph? I love it;
  • the exposition of the divergence of Plato (in the Laws) and Aristotle (in the Politics) on the question of whether "legal substance" (Plato) or "constitutional form" (Aristotle) is the higher priority in ordering the polis: contrary to Plato, Aristotle "analyzes the state in wholy secular terms" and focuses "on power rather than goodness [ie, form over substance]; seems largely untroubled by individualism, diversity, and pleasure; displays almost no interest in regulating sexual conduct" (18). True? I'm no classicist, so I don't know. Clear, interesting, and persuasive? yes;
  • how well it reveals the strangeness and counter-intuitive nature of the solution the Duke provides to Angelo's misrule, a solution based neither in the puritan/organicist/theocratic state nor in "the traditional, and largely implicit, understanding of the state as a more limited entity, responsible for keeping the peace and punishing acts injurious to others" (33). Instead, the Duke remains a sacral king dedicated to saving his subjects' souls. The play does not reject puritanism on account of its incorporation of the sacred into the state, but rather on account of its misincorporation of the sacred into the state. The contrast between Angelo and the Duke thus "belongs to the imagined politics of high Christian royalism; it is not, that is, a contrast between two different ideological camps (as, for example, absolutists and republicans) but between images of good and bad power internal to a single political vision" (68-9). While Promos and Cassandra "throughout insists upon the distinction between penitential and penal ordering, between a justice oriented towards the salus animae and one oriented towards the bonum commune" (104) - that is, it adheres to "the traditional, and largely implicit, understanding of the state as a more limited entity" - Measure never makes this distinction, even when rejecting Angelo's understanding of political theology in favor of the Duke's;
  • the closing meditation on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as an example of the Duke's political theology in action: "The crossover of penitential modes into temporal governance that the Duke makes happen definnes a model of Christian polity going back to the patristic era. Augustine's letters spell out the political claims at which the Duke's conduct hints: that the state and its rulers have a responsibility for the eternal welfare of their subjects; that they are to seek the salus animae as well as, and sometimes at the expense of, the bonum commune [exemplified by the Duke's pardoning of Barnadine -H.]; that the specifically Christian character of the state manifests itself, above all, in its administration of justice: in pardoning, reconciling, and redeeming transgressors rather than punishing them" (137). The Duke's strange and risky penitential justice (which pardons a confessed murderer), Shuger writes, is at work in the South African TRC: "I do not know whether we should permit it. My point is simply that Measure for Measure's version of Christian morality has in fact been imposed on a political process - that it could work" (140).

 Scribble some marginalia

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