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REVIEWS Francis Barker. The Culture of Violence: Essays on Tragedy and Hi.storx . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1993. Pp. xi + 258. $45.00 (cloth); $17.95 (paperbound). The Culture of Violence is a lengthy jeremiad against theater, theory, and culture; it is written with a dense style and a vituperative energy that reminds one, on the one hand, of the bookish abstractions of much recent literary theory and, on the other, of the crushing verbal torrents of Renaissance antitheatrical polemicists. Barker seems intent on trashing the icon that Shakespeare has become and, if that were not sufficiently large a task, aiming as well to bring down most of the structure of post-Enlightenment humanist, liberal, and conservative theory. Two of the five essays which comprise his book are devoted to Shakespearean tragedy, one to Milton and Hobbes, and two to the shortcomings of postmodernist literary theory. Together these form, in Barker's view, "an interpretation of tragedy and of theory." The aim finally is to "reject the filled time of positivism and historicism" and to substitute for it a "dialectic of theory and history." The Culture of Violence, therefore, is not simply a book about Shakespeare: rather it is an effort to read Shakespeare, the Shakespearean industry, and some of the root terms for much modern thought. The subject is vast, and Barker's skepticism is uncompromising, especially so when he blames "new historical" and anthropological critics for their inadequate theorizings about the nature and form of cultural "power." In Barker's view, both Shakespearean drama and contemporary criticism, are "documents of violence." So frequent nowadays is disparagement of writers on ethical grounds that one sometimes feels as if a generation of scholars is attempting—perhaps in desperation—to convince themselves and their students that literature has a more than parenthetic relationship with real life. Barker is a tendentious writer, and in The Culture of Violence he probes texts for hidden political agenda. Discussing King Lear, for example, and the King's ill-fated disbursement of his realm. Barker turns his attention to the map: "The map, and the land it obliquely represents, are caught up in a process of the dynastic transmission of territory. . . ." Why "obliquely"? Why not just "represents"? Any map stands in for absent terrain; any map, therefore, "obliquely represents" reality. There is no reason to distinguish Lear's map in this way, except that Barker wishes slyly to shift the terms of his analysis to politics. Deep down, here and everywhere, that is his project: by "obliquely " 1 think he means "underhanded." Barker's readings of Shakespearean tragedy are always this industriously negative (it takes, as he admits elsewhere, "a lot of excavation" to discover the meanings he finds in Shakespeare's texts). He has a 527 528Comparative Drama shrewd mind and an engaging combativeness as he moves, in his words, "backwards and forwards between the problems of the historical interpretation of early modern culture, and the contemporary theoretical implications of those problems under conditions of modernity and postmodernity ." But Barker sorely tries a reader's patience by writing prose that is at best dense and at worst opaque. In describing postmodernism, for example, Barker builds metaphoric abstractions so extreme that they are all but inarticulate: "Postmodernism, like all historicisms, has a single face but wears two masks. One appears to stare into a future before whose advent it cannot but be at once curiously passive and egregiously triumphalist. Seeking the neutralisation of enemies, it bridges the abyss of the unknowability of times to come by a wishful quelling of conflict in quasi-philosophical proclamations of flat emptiness , underpinned by boastful—doubtless fearsome, but also somewhat anxious and defensive—threats and reminders of economic power and military supremacy." Such language seems to me selfishly prolix. It is not an attempt to inform or to express, merely a silly exercise in unrestrained verbalism. And there are times when Barker's prose is not just dense but impenetrable . Even after several careful readings, I could not understand the following sentence: "If the problematicity of remembering and telling remains in, and is renewed by, Hamlet's injunction that Horatio survive and narrate the full story, it should also...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 527-533
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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