Afterthoughts: Week 9

First off, I enjoyed that opening exercise much more than anyone should; my appetite for that kind of noticing/scrupling is basically bottomless, for better or worse, and I appreciate everyone’s gameness. Eli did us a great service with that passage of Elbow, the Duke, and Pompey, and we saw so many things: the running sentences (though with their feints at suspension—Pompey in particular is a complicated speaker); the various discourses implicated (law, religion, medicine); the parataxis (what of all the ands in a play of substitution?); the negative constructions, in relation to problems of consent and refusal throughout; the basically plain style; the hectic figuration, such a feature of this play (and Maddy’s interesting suggestion that, even if the various nonce-figures do not gather into a conceit, there might nonetheless be some significant order, a local figure-plot); and the habit of personification, which seemed to be constant, and also quite interesting in a play that broods over the problem of punishing the sinner or the sin. Also all the r’s!

With luck, next time we’ll light on a passage of verse—I do want to keep prosody alive with us (though the exercises would suggest that it is not only alive but well).

The rest of the class was challenging in two basic ways, I thought; first, the challenge of the conceptual category of discourse, especially Foucault’s version; and second, the play’s handling of coercion, consent, and rape. Discourse first, though they’re not really separable. Jeewon took us right into the argument between Isabella and Angelo, and it was amazing to watch how forensic discourse moves through the exchange—first, an impediment for Isabella, who uses languages of love (both Christian and erotic) against Angelo’s rigorism, then as a refuge when he turns against her. If a discourse is a linguistic regime for the production of truth, of agreement, then Shakespeare’s anatomy of how it is upheld and how it is violated, how it serves villain and victim (as Berger would put it), is exacting.

That phrase “we speak not what we mean,” to which Jeewon pointed us in particular, keeps coming back to me as an expression, or is it symptom, of that moment of being caught between discourses—in a space where language may, at any moment, give way to force; and where the threat of Isabella’s eviction into madness (or at least someone who can never be believed) is already present.

Perhaps one could say, following remarks by Eli and others, that one of the marks of the later Shakespeare is his versatility in juxtaposing different discourses. The Foucauldian account emphasizes the situation of being inside a discourse, and the kind of power exercised over a speaker who is enabled to say certain things and not others—discourse being productive but also (often impalpably) constraining. The situation of a Shakespeare play is increasingly, as his career proceeds, one of the intersection or competition of discourses, which generates considerable confusion (comic and not) but also an openness that is perhaps critical in itself, or at least creates opportunities for critical inquiry (in a Frankfurt sense of that word, as well as more generally literary-critical). Which is to say: one of the things we may value in Shakespeare is his extraordinary capacity for discursive detachment and investment at once; perhaps in something of the perspectival way implied by Burke’s definition of irony as a dramatisistic figure (remember that?). What—we talked a bit about that—might this have to do with his powers of figuration? When are figures subordinated to discourse, constitutive of it; when to they challenge discursive order? Is that a difference between metonymy and metaphor?

Whitney brought us to Isabella’s testimony in that strange scene of the Duke’s return; I thought the question of whether Isabella’s dialogue was hysterical (was that Mary N’s observation?) was especially powerful. The gendered category of hysteria: is it a symptom of exclusion, extra-discursive and hence powerless? Or is it a discourse itself, with formal features (like word repetition) that are familiar, conventional, available to writers who would represent such female outrage and helplessness? Or perhaps it is both—or rather, a convention that is not a discourse; it has rules, but no power to produce truth or agreement? We might, by the way, keep the category of hysteria in mind as we get to Lear—he suffers from it, or says he does.

So much more! But it’s certainly worth making note of Sarah’s description of the discourse around rape and harassment in the undergraduate community—the language of consent and saying no that you reproduce, and sign, when you enter a party at an eating club. The whole question of discourse and consent is such a deep one, and the extent to which discursive participation preempts consent—aren’t you already inside, already implicated? If you are talking this way, haven’t you already agreed to so many things? The difficulty of interrupting a discourse to institute a choice—surely that is one of Shakespeare’s interests. The no that is inside a discourse and the no that is outside it. (And the yes too, for that matter.) All of this bears heavily on Isabella’s silence at the end of the play. And, maybe a little more optimistically, on other moments of refusal—especially Barnadine’s refusal to die, to join in the juridical/theological discourse that would reconcile him to his end. (From which Claudio, too, dissents, though with somewhat less existential clarity or conviction.) Does the play offer any hope that Isabella would find such a voice for herself, somewhere in Act VI? At least the resource seems to be somewhere in the play.

Wonderful exercises. Mary P’s raised questions about discourse and words, vs discourse and syntax. It seemed possible to switch from religion to law with some slight adjustments of diction (and there were some words clearly held in common, like “faults”). Other discourses might require very different sentence structures. Jeewon asked a challenging question: if discursive translation is possible, are the discourses really separate at all? Shouldn’t it be the definition of a discourse that its truths can only be produced from inside? Which might incline us to say that both parts of Mary’s exercise are operating within a joint legal-religious discourse which perhaps only pretends to distinction. I loved the general problem of a translation test for the independence of discourses—whether that independence admits of degrees or not.

I thought it was very interesting that several people observed the blurring of this exercise into others, the exercise in figuration and in character in particular. Perhaps that teaches us something about the difficulty of discourse as an analytic category generally—it is easy to displace onto other categories, by definition difficult to bring into analytic consciousness. The full implication of a discourse (say, literary criticism!) is very challenging to measure and to compass. Will’s question about what such analysis gets us is also a durably important one. Adorno might speak of the endless work of an ideological alertness, not transcendental, but immanent to the culture—you cannot stand outside discourse per se, but you can at least recognize the differences among discourses and their seams. (“Discourse” is not his word, but Foucault owes a lot to Adorno, and Althusser.) Alex reminded us too of Nietzschean impulse—toward freedom itself, a disdain of the limits of culture which might have aristocratic inflections (as it does for him) or proletarian, utopian etc. Raymond Geuss’s The Idea of a Critical Theory has been a useful treatment of these general questions for me—skeptical, at the end of the day, but mostly clear and generous in its framing.

Well—it remains perhaps just to appreciate Eli’s Elbow, and his sense of this disruptive undoing of the legal discourse, even as we wonder what it comes to; Scott’s syntactically virtuoso discourse of rumor; Jackie’s neat transposition of Claudio into the Duke’s idiom (with a couple of specially expert pentameters); and Whitney’s ingenious mix (!) of Lucio and the Duke.


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