Monthly Archives: July 2008

citizens of the world, unite!

[image from Liz Gasperini, “Normal and Productive Bodies“]

Some time ago I decided that the eighteenth-century standoff between cosmopolitans and nationalists was more than a one-time event.  No, it was a recurring ideological narrative, perhaps a meme, with a distressing tendency to end the same way every time, with the political defeat of the cosmopolitans and reformists.  And globalization or no globalization, it doesn’t seem as if the nation-state is going away any time soon.

So it didn’t surprise me to see Barack Obama, who has been presenting himself as the Candidate of Uplift, drawing on this kind of language (hedged of course with assurances of his patriotism) on his Berlin trip.  Nor did it surprise me that loads of people reacted with outrage.   (what else could they say?)   What I am interested in is whether the usual “Burkean” accusations against Obama of foreignness, effeminacy, and treasonous lack of attachments will work this time.  It’s certainly worked in the past.

[Bonus: for those blessed with a classical education, I’m providing a link to Diogenes the Cynic’s Myspace page.  And those able to take some strong language should tune into his good friend Bill Hicks’ YouTube video on “patriotism,” conveniently embedded on that page.]


UPDATE: Oops, it looks like Obama’s speeches in front of 200, 000 people have been buried underneath the truckload of trash that McCain dumped on his head this past week.  Obama’s response has been to call McCain and his camp “cynical” but not “racist.”

Whew, glad that’s been cleared up.  Karl Rove and his friends might as well give up right now and go home.  And everybody knows how rhetorically effective it is to accuse your opponents of cynicism, at least in a general election.


context is everything . . . .

[image courtesy of Worth1000]

Sometimes an image is just too good to pass by.


Peter Burke, “Context in Context”

[plate printed cloth of George III and family (1784-5) courtesy of the Whitworth Gallery textile collection]

When I found this 2002 essay a while back, I was excited, because I had really liked the lucidity and accessibility of What is Cultural History? (2004).  I also liked the fact that it shared some of the theoretical preoccupations of my Cynicism book.  In Burke’s hands, Raymond Williams, the Warburg school, and de Certeau all hang together.  And of course I’d never seen or heard of this book until my own book had been published.

So Burke’s essay opens strongly when he reminds us of just how indispensable the term “context” has become for scholars working across an impressive number of disciplines.

Context is a term that has come into more and more frequent use in the last thirty or forty years in a number of disciplines–among them, anthropology, archaeology, art history, geography, intellectual history, law, linguistics, literary criticism, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and theology. A trawl through the on-line catalogue of the Cambridge University Library in 1999 produced references to 1,453 books published since 1978 with the word context in the title (and 377 more with contexts in the plural). There have been good reasons for this development. The attempt to place ideas, utterances, texts, and other artifacts “in context” has led to many insights. All the same there is a price to be paid, the neglect of other approaches and also the inflation or dilution of the central concept, which is sometimes used–ironically enough, out of context–as an intellectual slogan or shibboleth.

I won’t repeat the details of Burke’s argument, except to say that he does indeed “re-place context in its contexts–or better, its many contexts,” beginning with a Koselleck-style sketch of its “placements” in a series of linguistic and cultural fields.  But the most intriguing part of the opening was the promise that it would detail the “price to be paid” for using this term, and to discuss at some length the limitations that this term imposes upon our analyses.

Burke’s starting-point is the Ciceronian notion of literary decorum, and the rhetorical accommodation of one’s expression to a particular occasion, meaning the specificities of time, place, and audience.  In the fourth century, however, Burke sees the emergence of a new term, “contextio,” (from L. contexere, to weave)  that describes “the text surrounding a given passage that one wishes to interpret.”  The metaphor of weaving suggests that meaning is to be found not in any isolated element under examination, but in the manner in which it sits in its surroundings, or in its relations with those surroundings, however those are defined.  Note also that this double-move aligns rhetorical production with textual exegesis, thereby providing a double-perspective for understanding language and its uses.  “Context,” the relation of what was said to the social and linguistic situation in which it was said, becomes an indispensable aid to interpretation.

What follows in PB’s argument is at once hugely suggestive as an opening for research and a little disappointing in its follow-through, because the term “context” seems to arise almost without being noticed as part of an increasingly historicist attitude towards language and meaning.  Over time, it also takes on “culturalist” assumptions of the specificities of geo-political space, especially in fields like history, anthropology, geography, and so on.  One of the tacit assumptions informing the use of this term seems to be that particular “contexts”–whether those of period, tradition, or culture–are unique and incommensurable with one another.  This means that contextualizing becomes one of the standard practices of scholarship devoted to deepened knowledge of a particular time and place.  It also means that contexts, tacit or otherwise, allow experts or connoisseurs to distinguish the vases of one dynasty from another, the style of this writer from his subsequent imitator, and so on.  So “context” becomes one more way for scholars and connoisseurs to play the game of “distinction,” in every sense of the term.

And I have to say, now that I have read Burke, that “context” has to be one of the most important and undertheorized conceptual underpinnings for the period-specialist, since contexts become a crucial way to provide specificity and content to the expertise of the period-specialist, who defines his or her expertise solely by reference to a particular (and perhaps too arbitrarily defined) period of time.  It might be worth pointing out, too, that the informal, holistic, yet openended understanding of the literary period specialist often seems less professionalized, less specialized, and closer to the older, “amateur” worlds of connoisseurs, antiquarians, or dilettantes than the stricter, more regulated worlds of professional historians or philosophers.  So one problem that follows from Burke’s essay concerns the formality or informality of such contexts, and how we might understand how they are constructed or recognized in the past or present.

Finally, as suggestive as this essay was, I wished while reading it that Burke had followed up on his initial promise, and spent more time analyzing the limitations or possible dangers of contexts in interpretations. For example, how might it be studied in terms of specific encounters (or collisions) among disciplines?  The circular nature of contexts-as-explanations-seems like another problem well worth exploring concretely, as would be the question of how multiple contexts are supposed to relate to one another (cf. 171-6).  The multidisciplinary aspect of contexts stands as perhaps the most interesting part of this story, because the concept of “context” remains one of the ways that more or less remote disciplines communicate their results to one another, while also acting as part of the self-organization and understanding of those disciplines.  But I am grateful to Burke for opening up this line of inquiry, which I hope others will follow up.


School for Scandal at the Folger

 Joseph Surface attempting to seduce Lady Teazle


          Is it possible that the eighteenth-century stage offered more adventurous female possibilities than our own can imagine?  Or is it that we can’t imagine that they imagined them?


          These questions run through my mind nearly every time I see an eighteenth-century play on stage—or as the public radio commercial for the recent Folger Theater production of R. B. Sheridan’s School for Scandal would have it, a “Restoration comedy.”



          First let me say that there were some very wonderful moments, fine acting, and astute theatrical decisions in this production.  The cast nailed the “screen scene,” in which the hypocritical Joseph Surface hides Lady Teazle behind one panel while her elderly husband peeks out from behind another, only to have Joseph’s rakish brother Charles expose the lady (and her would-be seducer) in this compromising situation.  Kate Eastwood Norris brought exactly the right balance of ambition, provincialism, and good-heartedness to her Lady Teazle.




          Undermining this otherwise successful production was the decision to cast a man in the part of Lady Sneerwell.  Apparently, skilled actresses over 35 are in such demand that none were available. Gender-blindness was not the point, for the production opens with a wigless and topless Sneerwell enjoying a massage from Snake.  Why does the original Gossip Girl, who controls all the reputations in London, become a transvestite male in the Folger production?   




          The most obvious possibility is an attempt to get some mileage out of eliding the eighteenth century with the nineteenth century, setting the play in “the time of Oscar Wilde” when “the veneer of respectability covers the hidden depth of scandal” (Director’s Notes). If you are setting a play in the time of Oscar Wilde, why not turn one of the female characters into a gay man?  Directors often think that Restoration and eighteenth-century plays aren’t funny enough, and add things to make them more contemporary.  Sometimes such ideas work and sometimes they don’t.




          But I have a darker theory.  With Lady Sneerwell, Sheridan recalls the figure of the powerful, sometimes embittered, and always sexually experienced women who appeared regularly in the period’s earlier, less sentimental comedies that Sheridan admired.  They include such memorable characters as Mrs. Loveit from The Man of Mode, the Fidget ladies in The Country Wife, Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, Betty Frisque in The Countrey Wit, Mrs. Turnup in The Morning Ramble, Mrs. Jilt in Epsom Wells, and Angellica Bianca in The Rover.  These women attempt to turn neglect into power and/or pleasure, with varying degrees of success.  Unlike these earlier figures, however, Lady Sneerwell embraces an alternative to sexual maneuvering: gossip.  While The School for Scandal, like The Rover and The Man of Mode, ultimately expels its dangerous amazon, she offers an intriguing alternative to the virginal, rumor-adverse Mariah. (If a director really wanted to challenge the audience, why not Mariah as a gay transvestite man?)  Contemporary readers and directors find these disreputable female characters puzzling because they do not comport with popular images of pre-1900 female gender constructions.  Yet it also seems possible that the Restoration- and eighteenth-century theaters imagined possibilities for women that lie beyond the scope of the contemporary scene.