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Taking Stock

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 3-8 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0012

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What is a “development”? A question posed to contributors by the editors of this anniversary issue is: “what do you see as the most exciting (or least productive) development in the field” of Renaissance drama? Though there have certainly been “developments” over the last decades, they don’t represent growth or progress, one meaning of the word, as in “child development” or “economic development.” I see the three most important “developments” in the field over the last forty years as, first, the preoccupation with difference; second, the turn/ return to history in what has been labeled the “New Historicism”; and third, the so-called new textual or bibliographic studies, work on the history of the book and print culture. The problem, of course, with a word like “development” is the difficulty of escaping its sense of evolution, of “fuller expansion,” or the bringing out of latent capabilities, of advancement through progressive stages, of bringing into fuller view.

All three of these developments have been productive and limiting at the same time. The study of difference has been an enormously galvanizing force in the field of early modern drama and in literary and cultural studies more generally, but it has also encouraged identity politics and a certain critical naïveté. “Difference”—whether sexual difference, different sexualities, racial difference, ethnic difference, or some other difference—is not an adequate mode or concept for literary criticism and theory or, for that matter, political action. Work that seeks to be radical and progressive is often in fact repetitive, coercive, even reactionary, endlessly recycling what might be termed, after Stephen Heath, the “difference fix” and calling upon “the same rhetorical and thematic constructions . . . that very work claims to oppose.”1 Our preoccupation with difference has become a subjection to a new mode of conformity that must be understood in relation to the capitalist system, the production of commodity “Others,” each with its own identity, persecutions and subjections, rights claims, and so on that ideology critique continues busily to expose and articulate.2 With regard to gender, for example, the recuperation of new and different voices and histories has lost traction in the U.S. academy where, in Jonathan Goldberg’s arresting articulation in his excellent study of early modern English women’s writing, Desiring Women Writing, “finding lost women for other women is no longer enough.”3 Despite Goldberg’s admonition, the retrieval of and study of women writers continues unabated, but the study of gender as practiced by numerous critics in the 1980s and into the 1990s has changed markedly as interest in other categories of difference has supplanted gender in the practice of ideological critique. In the U.S. academy, gender studies have lost cultural prestige to the study of race, of queer sexualities, of nationalism and postcolonialism. Gender as a category of analysis has been “mainstreamed.” It is deployed by a range of critics, male and female alike, along a multiplicity of axes and emplotments of difference. “Difference” itself has become overdetermined in both the psychoanalytic and mathematical senses: there are multiple forms of difference, not only sexual difference, and the number of differences now seems to outnumber similarities or universals. And while recognizing the importance of a critical practice that exposes constraints, exclusions, and repressions, we have come to recognize that they are not effective everywhere, all the time, but rent by sites of resistance, failures, moments of excess or lack that can also be productive and circumvent or disable subjection and domination.4 Difference remains a productive site of critical practice, but it is always plural—differences.

Similarly, while the New Historicism initially sent the field in productive new directions, many of those have issued in an impasse. Many commentators have traced New Historicism’s own history—at once a reaction against the formalism of New Criticism and an older brand of historical criticism exemplified by E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. Inflected by what can be loosely termed “poststructuralism,” New Historicist critics opposed the reductive view of literature, or in our case, drama, as “a mere reflection of something extrinsic to itself” and of the critical act as “explaining (not reading) texts in terms of...

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