Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Bard among the Marxists

By M. L. Raina

Marxist Shakespeares
Edited by Jean Howard& Scot Cutler Shershow
Routledge, London & New York
Pages xii+304. $27.95

“Others abide our question/Thou art free”—Matthew Arnold.

Is he, really? Quite often, the bard has been wheeled around in the shopping trolleys of gossip and rumour-mongers, ideologues and sundry other interpreters, and, in our time, the peddlers of post-modern, post-structuralist, new historicist and feminist merchandise. He has been deglamourised and brought down from his pedestal by critics, stage directors and film makers. We are asked not to look up to him but to see beyond his myth.

As a student I read my Shakespeare in ignorance of Ernest Jones’s Freudian speculations and Laurence Olivier’s guilt-ridden rendering of Hamlet on film. We knew nothing of Sergei Bondarchuk’s film of Hamlet as a critique of the feudal age, nor did have access to John Gielgud, Paul Robeson, Ralph Richardson or Dame Sybil Thorndike renditions.
Suddenly, long after I passed out of university, Arnold Kettle and Deepak Nandy’s 400th anniversary tribute, Shakespeare in a Changing World appeared from Lawrence and Wishart in 1964. It is a measure of the acute historical myopia of the editors that this book does not find mention in the weighty bibliography of the book under discussion. The earlier book opened our eyes to new dimensions in the dramatist. It revealed Karl Marx’s own deep engagement with Shakespeare and his sensitivity to the social and political aspects of the plays. The same year the British National Theatre presented Laurence Olivier acting Othello in West Indian accents. Critics hailed the production as unique and crowds thronged to see the production in London. I and my family queued up a whole night outside Aldwych theatre’s box-office to buy tickets.

With Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary and Peter Brooks’s production of King Lear inspired by it, Marxist readings were combined with the perspective of the Theatre of the Absurd. A new generation of critics such as Kenneth Tynan in Britain, Boris Smirnov in the Soviet Union, C.L Barber in America and Robert Weimann in East Germany read the plays partly as folk theatre and partly as subversive texts indicting Elizabethan power structures. On the stage Edward Bond and Tom Stoppard derived their own political meanings from the plays. Bond’s Lear and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstein are Dead are political adaptations and reinventions of Shakespeare, the latter adding an existential seam to the social meaning.

Though there were many interpretations of the Shakespearean canon and many stage and film adaptations, notably by Kurosawa (Ran, Thrones of Blood) and Roland Polanski (Macbeth), all of these were agreed on one basic point. All believed that Shakespeare was the author of these plays and that he had a singular grasp of human nature and his own society with all their comprehensive reach and depth and, most importantly, that he could render his times with uncanny skill not matched by his contemporaries and since. They believed, as did early Marxist critics, Arnold Kettle, Tony Jackson (Old Friends to Keep) and most recently Victor Kiernan, that ultimately, as Hamlet put it, ‘the play is the thing’.
The very title of the present book, however, indicates a fundamental shift in the reading and production of Shakespeare’s plays. Post-structuralism and deconstruction spawned yet more radical approaches. The text-based approach has now been fragmented into approaches of difference and diversity. Shakespeare himself has ceased to be regarded as the author of his texts. He has been ‘interpellated’ (to use an Althusserianism) into the discourse of his contemporary culture (pace Stephen Greenblatt). Brian Vickers sums up the fragmentation of Shakespearean interpretation in these words: “surely there must be something wrong with the critical method that produces the same reading. It ‘reduces’ or dissolves its subject in the same way in which Dr. Crippen…dissolves his victim’s bodies.”(Appropriating Shakespeare). A pretty horrific way of reacting to the colonization of Shakespeare by literary theory’s latest ram-raiders.

I do not think all the essays in the present book are exercises in dissolution, though quite a few are. There are some new valuable readings of ‘Measure for Measure’ and of the conventions of production, particularly in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. What are of considerable significance in this book are the two readings by Marx and Derrida of ‘Hamlet’. Of these more later.

Before we proceed to look at some of the essays it is worth asking what justification has been offered for the title. The editors lean on Stuart Hall’s well-known argument that since Marxism as a grand narrative no longer suffices as a programme of action, Marxists must come to terms with other critical discourses and try and work through them. “The complex relationship of power …is an easier term that exploitation”, Hall observes and goes on to add, “ these important central questions are what are meant by working within shouting distance of Marxism, working against Marxism, working with it, working to try to develop Marxism”. If we take Hall’s statement as a methodological resource to be used in understanding cultural artifacts such as Shakespeare’s plays, then we must speak of various Marxisms rather than of Marxist Shakespeares. As this book demonstrates, it is the same Shakespeare that the critics address, but different variations on Marxism provide the methodological tools.

The trouble with many essays in this book is their eclecticism, their forced marriage of various discourses other than Marxism that operate on one single historical entity, the Shakespeare play. The fragmentation of these discourses is transferred to Shakespeare himself whose work, in spite of diverse readings we bring to it, remains indivisible.

With these caveats in, it is time now to look at these essays more closely. As I said above, the really enlightening essays are by Peter Stallybrass and Richard Halperin. They are enlightening because they reflect on history through the vision of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Stallybrass throws light on Karl Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ by way of Marx’s invocation of ‘Hamlet’ ( a similar invocation is to be found in Clement Greenberg’s 1970 essay, also in the context of the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’). Stallybrass says, “Marx pursues a double strategy…through the first strategy history is represented as a catastrophic decline from Napolean to Louis Bonaparte…In the second strategy the effect of repetition is to unsettle the status of the origin”. Marx recalls both Hamlet’s advice to Yorrick’s skull and Robin Goodfellow to burrow into bourgeois hypocrisies and to prepare for revolution. Connecting literature with history offers a solid homology between the two without compromising the uniqueness of the Shakespearean text. Neither Marx nor Hamlet has been diminished in this mutual critique. Just as Hamlet’s father unsettles Denmark’s shaky order, Louis Bonaparte’s presence in France threatens the powers that be there. Stallybrass’s perceived connections make many references clear and shore up our faith in the genuine Marxist methodology of connecting the text and the world.

Richard Halpern makes a strategic manoeuvre through ‘Hamlet’ to deconstruct Derrida’s denigration of Marxism. In his controversial Spectres of Marx, Derrida turns largely on Hamlet’s line ‘time is out of joint’ and reads the play as a ghost story in which the self-sufficiency of the present is undone by the spectres of the past. As a lover of of verbal puns and pranks, Derrida celebrates the specters, the ghosts ‘as they survive the collapse of Communism’. But far from endorsing Marxism, Derrida denounces Marx’s own meta-narrative as a ‘totalistic’ programme. Halpern rightly sees the ruse and exposes it. Derrida reduces Marx to a hollow messiah even as harnesses these ‘specttres’ in the service of his anti-Communist ideology.

The other essays are instances of the old New Historicism yet again. They regard Shakespeare not as a representative writer of his age, but as another instance of the discourse energy ‘circulating’ in the period and present in all writers as well as in other social formations. Marxism is not the guiding principle here nor are class interests the motivating energies. But debunking Shakespeare is. Reducing the bard to a mere discourse is. These essays are more Foucaldian than Marxist, and to call them Marxist is to stand Marxism on its head.
The essay on ‘Othello’ shows the method with all its gains and forfeits. The author takes a hard look at Dedemona’s handkerchief and removes the veil of sentiment surrounding this object given as love-token by Othello to his wife. Laborious research by the author reveals the handkerchief to be a product of female labour which did not receive fair compensation from the contemporary patriarchal order.

By transferring a product of female labour to mere domesticity, Shakespeare is accused of participating in the patriarchal discourse. I call this a crude but ingenious way of yoking forcibly together Marxism and feminism with all the privileges reserved for the latter. It tells a lot about feminism’s agenda, but precious little about the play. But then such readings further expose feminism’s narrowness of critical range.

Similarly the essay on ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ uses the idea of the male gaze to supervise the male property, the wife. Here the author celebrates the ways in which the women bring down the male predator in the manner of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The essay on the management of mirth draws upon Bourdieu’s ideas of class and distinction to account for the status of players in the Elizabethan theatre. Ingenious and adroit, these essays yet skirt round the plays.

The essay on the Globe theatre is a text-book account of the theatre house and its hierarchical seating arrangements reflecting the hierarchical order of the contemporary society. The essay on ‘Shakespeare and Film’ reveals the homogenizing trends of the American popular culture which pays lip service to multiculturalism but is moved by the profit motive alone. In other words it shows how Hollywood appropriates the dramatist to its own commercial purposes.

By far the most appealing essay for me is the one on ‘Measure for Measure’. It respects the utopian elements in Marxist thought by recalling Herbert Marcuse’s statement in his Aesthetic Dimension to the effect that art embodies futuristic traits in its critique of the present. It also emphasizes Shakespeare’s prophetic qualities in that it exposes the cant inherent in the contemporary notions of justice. ‘Measure for Measure’ comes clean about its implication in the structure of subjection it depicts, inciting us ‘to be wary of art’s complicity with power’. This statement is understood in relation with Shakespeare’s grasp of the intricacies of domination practiced by the Duke behind the mask of mercy. It is the mask that reveals the reality, a paradox Shakespeare revels in.

Marxism, as Perry Anderson reminds us, is the best method of relating Capitalism to culture in our time and its utopian element is still valid in spite of recent setbacks in Russia and Eastern Europe. Oscar Wilde believes that ‘the map of the world without utopia is not worth looking at’. Marxist theory and practice, despite current failures, keep us orientated towards the future. Perhaps this is why Marx set such great store by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians.

Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness calls forth equal resources of knowledge from his readers and Marx himself was a prodigious reader. So, ironically, are the new historicists (see Stephen Greenblatt’s recent Hamlet in Purgatory). But unfortunately they read beyond Shakespeare into a different territory, the bard being incidental to their extra-literal project. That, as the wheedling, incorrigible but always lovable Falstaff would have said, is a thousand pities!

M. L. Raina

Saturday, December 20, 2008

You Never Know What You’ll Find in a Book



We may never fully understand what prompts people to leave unusual objects inside books. I speak of the slice of fried bacon that the novelist Reynolds Price once found nestled within the pages of a volume in the Duke University library. I speak of the letter that ran: “Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here,” which the playwright Mark O’Donnell found some years ago in a used paperback. I speak of any of those bizarre objects — scissors, a used Q-tip, a bullet, a baby’s tooth, drugs, pornography and 40 $1,000 bills — that have been discovered by the employees of secondhand bookstores, according to The Wall Street Journal and Mystery surrounds these deposits like darkness.

But the motives of some depositors — the novelist David Bowman, for instance — are knowable. “I was cleaning out a drawer and thought, Let’s do something with this,” Bowman said of the day four years ago when he stumbled upon all of the rejection letters from agents and editors about his first novel, “Let the Dog Drive” (1993). “Some of the letters were nasty,” he said in a phone interview. So Bowman scooped them up, tucked them in between the pages of a first edition of the book and sold the noxious bundle to the Strand, New York City’s famous used-book store. “It was very liberating,” Bowman said. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Bowman’s quest for vengeance is on the far end of the book-stuffing spectrum. More commonly, the stuffers are trying to create an aide-mémoire for themselves. “I have filled books with flowers I’ve received, to save the ­flowers in dried form and to remember the happy moment of receiving them,” Anne Rice said in an e-mail message. After Wayne Koestenbaum interviewed Vanessa Redgrave at a hotel bar about her role in the movie “Mrs. Dalloway,” he took Redgrave’s lipsticky napkin and placed it in the paperback copy of the novel he’d brought with him. That Redgrave’s lipstick traces might have besmirched his book seems not to have fazed him. “I might have also taken her swizzle stick,” he confessed.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Interview: Uwem Akpan

The Nigerian writer talks about literature and faith

I’m fascinated with the process of creating a character and the freedom of the creative process. I’m discovering as well, learning myself. Since I only realized I had the gift ten years ago, I felt I needed to develop this. I also like fiction because it is not doctrinaire. It is exploratory and you are invited to come and see, just like Jesus first invited would-be disciples to ‘come and see’. What you do after seeing is left to you.

... ... ... ...

For example, when I read in newspapers that one million Rwandese were killed by their compatriots, it makes no sense to me. I have not seen a million people before. For me to even begin to understand, I may have to see how one person was killed and how much propaganda went into such an act. And if I hear someone sacrificed her life for another person, I try to work out in my mind how this was possible.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Democracy in India

Fifteen Theses

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

If democracy in India has not failed dramatically, this may not mean it has succeeded beyond question. Failures need not be absolute. The absence of one or more disasters in the short history of a democracy might screen from view some subtler and larger failure. Acknowledging the possibility of such a failure would require us to reconsider the very terms in which the public discourse of democracy is conducted.

If democracy is a particular “form of government”, the “form” may be still in good shape and yet all may not be well.

There is a danger in envisaging democracy as a state of affairs that comes to obtain for ever or long. The end of democracy does not necessarily mean, as Plato surmised, its replacement by some other form of government. Democracy may retain its form and yet have been undone. In the age of universal democracy, the real threat to democracies lurks within and in the realm of the universal. Hence the need to interrogate the popular truths of the time.

Democracy may be better thought of as a process without closure, in recognition of the inevitability of difference(s) (Bonnie Honig); as a “project” (Wolin 1996) that commits the citizenry to a democracy to come (Derrida); and as an “event” (Badiou and Ranciere) which can (be made to) recur sporadically and, every time, differently.

There is a link, though little explored, between the political democracy and the society, particularly the family. In a society where tradition remains strong, this link may be defined by a relationship of tension. Owing to the actual inseparability of the political and the social, the modern institution of political democracy and the traditional social institutions may coexist in unmitigated, albeit low-intensity, conflict. For instance, if the structures of the family happen to be authoritarian, these may haunt the political institution of democracy, tainting and even paralyzing it. On the other hand, for the political democracy to succeed it may be indispensable for the society at large to be democratized. Acceptance of democracy in the realm of the political does not necessarily entail its acceptance in the realm of the social. And that has consequences.

Pedagogies and poetics exercise a far greater force in the actual functioning of a democracy than is usually conceded. The pedagogic scenario, for instance, tends to be re-enacted on the stage of political democracy. In these times when the political can no longer be sliced off from the cultural, the “deliberative model” advocated by Habermas needs redefining in terms of the maximum cultural context. A communicative democracy is an affair of more than critical-rational exchange. As Iris Marion Young has suggestively pointed out, it should also include “greeting, rhetoric, and story-telling”. After all, for the demos, the critical rational discourse may not be the sole legitimate discourse. A democratic understanding of the discourse of democracy has to be undertaken as a task.

The aforementioned task, competently undertaken, can additionally help understand the short-circuiting of critical reason through demagoguery in which communication operates at sub-rational frequencies.

When free, hyper-competitive media co-exist with a feeble and atrophying public sphere, there is a risk of democracy being reduced to consumerism. In such a scenario, commodities may mask themselves as news and public issues. Democracy may then have entered the spectacle and gone to sleep. How does one wake it up when a waking might only be part of the dream? How does democracy return from the spectacle?

The essential vital energies of democracy can seek gratification by flowing into the channels of mass (tele-)bhakti culture, sapping democracy and feeding new fascisms.

“Inverted totalitarianism” as “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry” (Wolin 2008) finds convenient instruments in technologies of control, including those of entertainment.

A society needs to reflect, as a society, on the uses it would make of available technologies. A democratic society needs to do this all the more. The emerging information ecologies have the potential to inflict serious harm on the democratic political ecologies. Informationalism is more than an ideology of information. Information pollution can play havoc with democratic political ideologies. The latter may not be equipped to handle the overproduction of information by way of critique.

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) may turn out to be a mere metaphor for the very real Bio-Political Organization (BPO).

Democracy may breed a parallel political economy, not essentially different from a parallel economy and even symbiotically bonded with it. In a world in which the economic comes to occupy all visibility, the withering and demise of the political may go unnoticed. Democracy's shadow political economy may gradually eat up democracy. Wolin's “managed democracy” (2008) would be an inadequate conceptualization of the real thing. One can see and conceptualize the corporatist threat to democracy, but the witch's brew of shadow economy and shadow political economy, whether mixed or unmixed with corporatism, could be utterly invisible and blinding.

A democracy may need crises of the scale of disasters to feed on. Our democracy is hopeless!/Our only hope is democracy! Events such as the Kandhamal violence and the 2008 economic meltdown may simultaneously reveal that something is terribly wrong with our democracy and yet proclaim, with a weird ironic twist, that democracy alone can set things right.

Even democracies do not easily outgrow the urge to deliver shock treatment to people.

As the political events in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai indicate, democracy can become an inexhaustible source of alibis for exploitation by those in power for not acting decisively in people's interest.

The urgency to seek the causes of the concentration camp in the very structures of modern societies remains undiminished (Agamben). The loose usage of the term 'democracy' as a universal slogan requires monitoring and interrogation. Ceaseless endeavour to define 'democracy' with rigour and precision is necessary if democracy is not to slip into the abyss that yawns at the very heart of law.

Woks Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 36.
Badiou, Alain. “The Event in Deleuze.” Trans. Jon Roffe. Parrehesia 2 (2007): 37-44.
Beardsworth, Richard. Introduction. Derrida and the Political. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. xvi.
Benhabib, Seyla. Ed. Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. New Jersey: Princeton, 1996.
Habermas, Jürgen. “Three Normative Models of Democracy.” Behabib 21-30.
Honig, Bonnie. “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home.” Benhabib 257-77.
Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
Wolin, Sheldon S. “Fugitive Democracy.” Benhabib 31-45.
---. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalinarianism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton U P, 2008.
Young, Iris Marion. “Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy.” Benhabib 120-35.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma