- Unquiet Slumbers
If we take presentism to mean “a bias towards present or present-day attitudes . . . in the interpretation of history” (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary; another dictionary calls it an “uncritical . . . tendency”), then we seem forced to understand this “bias” as a kind of intellectual sin: and perhaps, in a historical field like ours, the original one. The phrase we’re gathered to discuss concedes this, I think, since the syntactical form it borrows—“strategic BLANK-ism”—does something like cop to doing a bad thing while asking for leave because that thing is done strategically. My title comes from that model of looping, recursive historicism called Wuthering Heights (1847), which I will discuss later. First, I want to dwell briefly on the itinerary of the syntactic structure I just named “strategic___-ism”—from Gayatri Spivak to Caroline Levine to us, here, now—to focus less on the goodness or badness of the last part, presentism, and more on the first, strategy.
In a 1993 interview that partially touched on her coinage “strategic essentialism,” Spivak noted that she no longer used the phrase. Pressed by well-meaning interviewers, Spivak explained that the term, after its enormously wide uptake in the American academy, “became the union ticket for essentialism,” an excuse for right-minded people to subscribe to the bad ideas—nationalism, gender ideology—congregating under that name. “As to what is meant by strategy,” she continued, “no one wondered about that” (Danius and Jonsson 35). We should follow Spivak, probably, in remaining suspicious of methodologies that crystallize so easily into portable maxims, and her question continues to resonate for us today: what is meant by strategy? Caroline Levine’s 2006 article “Strategic Formalism,” later reworked in her Lowell-Prize-winning 2015 book Forms, is experiencing a similarly vibrant citational life, and has [End Page 113] more to say about formalism than the other half of what the essay’s subtitle calls a “new method in cultural studies.” Three years before the interview I just mentioned—the first time she renounced strategic essentialism—Spivak warned against the temptation to allow strategy to “freez[e]” (4) and acquire a “fetish-character” (3). It is often the case, Spivak explains, that “strategies are taught as if they were theories, good for all cases.” But a “strategy suits a situation; a strategy is not a theory” (4).1 I want to pause briefly on the danger Spivak notes of transforming temporary operational procedures into the static templates for thought she names “theory,” and that Levine calls “method.” Spivak’s distinction between tactical tool and hypostasized “masterword” (3) evokes the Marxian notion of strategy as an action directed toward a goal in a particular situation, one whose “goodness” or “badness” can only ever be judged by the extent to which it helps realize an end whose justness has been agreed upon in advance.2 As Vladimir Lenin says in one of his letters on strategy: “Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action” (n.p.).
This sense of strategy-as-weapon puts it nearer to the art of war than the disinterested pursuit of truth: it is the means by which an enemy is defeated, a tool in a just struggle. And it’s in this spirit that Louis Althusser, in a set of half-sane, constantly revised lectures he began developing in 1962 and delivered for the first time in 1971, undertook to read the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, recovering this infamous amoralist as a figure for the left. Through Machiavelli’s political realism, Althusser justified his own sense that action must always be fitted to a conjuncture, “an aleatory, singular case” where “all the existing concrete circumstances” are arranged in a particular way (18). Onto the typescripts that became Machiavelli and Us (1999), Althusser added by hand the word “singular,” which he also underlined, and, in blue and black ballpoint pen, wrote in the word “case” four times over two pages; he was emphasizing obsessively the fact that method must always arise from, and seek to change, a unique concrete scenario (105n). The point is that there can be no such thing as strategic...