Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare

Jonathan Gil Harris' Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare is an exercise in the burgeoning field of thing studies, the quasi-literary exploration of material things and their roles in shaping human experience. The title is misleading, not only because Harris draws from diverse literary sources (up to and including the 20th century), but because at the outset he disavows the reductive practice of historicizing things, or considering them as products of a singular time and place:

We might call this the national sovereignty model of temporality. Although it licenses trade between different moments (allowing, say, the "modern" to import elements from the "early modern" and to export others to the "postmodern"), it grants each moment a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state's: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution. As a result, any historical phenomenon tends to be regarded as a citizen solely of one moment-state, And from the vantage point of the present, the past becomes a foreign country, or several foreign countries.

On the contrary, Harris argues, material things contain traces of multiple times that coexist. Matter, he says, is typically "palimpsested," a word derived from the monastic practice of re-using parchment, which would allow the past to peek through to the present.

Harris describes three types of palimpsests: Supersessions, in which the present seeks to overwrite or appropriate the past; explosions, in which the past "fracture[s]" the present; and conjunctions, in which the two are combined in a more mutual and cooperative sense. He accompanies each of these with an example from Shakespeare and an example from another writer, some more successfully than others. The most interesting of these is, for me, his analysis of John Stow's description of Jewish characters on London's Ludgate. The Ludgate, named for London's mythical founder King Lud, is emblematic of the city's history and heritage. Having been repaired with stones appropriated from the houses of the city's nearby Jewish minority, whose past "explodes" into the present, fracturing the gate's symbolism and creating a paradoxical cultural hybridism.

I find it harder to buy Harris' attempt to connect the olfactory experience of gunpowder squibs used in Macbeth to the Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic agents attempted to assassinate King James I in the Houses of Parliament. The house of cards--the smell of gunpowder is palimpsested not only by the suggestion of the devil and Judgment Day but the now-absent smell of Catholic incense--just seems too flimsy.

The last chapter, which deals with the conjunction of the human body in Helene Cixous and Margaret Cavendish, I must admit I did not understand. This is partly because Harris' crit-speak goes into overdrive (there's a lot about "rhizomes" and "texxts") but I hope also because I'm not familiar with either writer.

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