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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 251-254
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Shakespeare, the Subject, and Early Modern Culture
The Vanishing: Shakespeare, the Subject, and Early Modern Culture. By Christopher Pye. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. xii + 199 pp.
The central thesis of Christopher Pye's latest book may seem simple: Shakespeare's plays, especially Hamlet, exist in, even as, the interval between medieval forms of political corporatism and the society of exchange that measures our existence still. It is not so different, for example, from the epochal argument of Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory, in which Hamlet stages the passage from Catholic to Protestant rites of mourning. The structure of both arguments harks back to such foundational interventions as Walter Benjamin's baroque literary historiography and Freud's interpretation of dreams. For Benjamin and Freud as later for Greenblatt and Pye, Shakespeare's preeminent mourning play conjours onto the secular stage the ghost of worldviews past, instituting modernity as the subjective gathering place of phantasmal objects forever lost among institutions in ruin.
Isn't this the argument of all literary history? Doesn't every genuine work of art navigate a similar divide, instantiating the passage from a collective to an individual moment, from an archaic economy to a system of exchange, from the anonymity of religious ritual to some more self- conscious form of expression, enunciating the possibility of modernism even in the depths of antiquity or the farthest reaches of the primitive? (Think here of the Homeric exodus from the oikos to the possibility of the political, or the positioning of Athenian tragedy between ritual and democracy.) If Pye's story is like Greenblatt's, and if both stories resonate with the key narratives of the literary as such, Pye's approach, unlike that of his historicist counterpart, strives to disclose literary history as a logic rather than remain captivated by its age-old story of the new. Pye's contribution lies in his willingness to engage with history as a discourse with its own conditions instead of taking it as the unexamined ground or container of the events, movements, and texts in its domain. [End Page 251]
In the first pages of Hamlet in Purgatory Greenblatt confesses the historicist credo: "I believe that nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare." 1 This is the restricted economy of historicism, the fundamentally closed universe of eternal matter that Jacques Lacan attributes to Aristotle: "Nothing is made of nothing. The whole of ancient philosophy is articulated around that point. . . . it remains mired in an image of the world that never permitted even an Aristotle . . . to emerge from the enclosure that the celestial surface presented to his eyes." 2 If we substitute history for celestial surface, we find ourselves in the planetarium of historicism, at once awed and comforted by the overarching effect of totality it hypnotically provides.
Pye's book fractures the crystal dome of literary historicism, using as a wedge Lacan and his most astute political readers, including Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Claude Lefort, and Slavoj Zizek. In his introduction Pye distinguishes between the "multiplicity" of perspectives, sources, and causes celebrated by historicism and, following Laclau and Mouffe, the "hegemonic" character of the social field, "the fact that any cultural phenomenon exists always in relation to a necessarily forced and unstable totalization of the social domain as such" (7). The social, Pye insists, emerges as such in the early modern period, and hence it cannot function as an explanatory ground but poses itself an ongoing problem. Pye defines society in the Marxist sense, as the set of civil relations and associations—fundamentally economic but also educational, confraternal, and cultural— to which modern politics lends an appearance of unity (9). In Laclau's account of hegemony, the war of individual interests coalesces around points of social identification, whether sent from above, in the fictions of unity authored by the state, or from below, in the struggles of individual groups (the poor, religious minorities, immigrant groups, etc.). In the very intensity of their particularism...