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Material Culture: Introduction.

"MATERIAL CULTURE": the concept is a commonplace in anthropology. Yet its present attraction for literary historians is surely because it retains for them an air of perversity. It sounds like an oxymoron. However much literature departments have changed over the last decades, they emerged out of two very different concepts of "culture": national culture; culture as the "best" artistic production of the past and present (Shakespeare, Beethoven, Picasso). These latter concepts of "culture" seem to rise above--even to be in opposition to--the "merely" material. "Materials" like paper and ink and binding used to be incidental to "Shakespeare," for instance. True, they were minutely and illuminatingly examined by bibliographers at the beginning of the twentieth century, but primarily so that they could find the traces of Shakespeare himself behind the materials that both hide and deform him.

The process of divorcing a supramaterial "culture" from its "mere" material supports begins in the Renaissance. Alberti, for instance, advocated that artists should forego the use of gold leaf in their paintings so as to emphasize their skill rather than the value of the materials they were using. Cultural value here begins to emerge in opposition to economic value (although, paradoxically, the cheapness of the pigments might be more than compensated for economically by the added value of the artist's genius). The attempt to elevate cultural objects above material or economic value finds a curious analogy in the changing meanings of the English words "priceless" and "valueless." Prior to the fifteenth century, "price" (from the Latin pretium) meant not only "price, value, wages," but also "reward" and "honor, praise." But "pris"/"preis" split during the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries into three differentiated words: "price," "praise," "prize." Increasingly, "praise" and "prize" were distinguished from mere "price." Praise is above price; it is "priceless"--a word the OED first records in Shakespeare's work.

Here we confront a paradox. For something to be "priceless," it must be worth more than its financial value. "Valueless" has the same semantic form as "priceless": to be without value, to be without price. But whereas the "priceless" is raised above economic valuation, the "valueless" sinks below it. "Valueless" is also first recorded in Shakespeare in the last decade of the sixteenth century, where its sense, in opposition to "priceless," is "destitute of value, having no value" ("You Haue beguil'd me with a counterfeit / Resembling Maiesty, which being touch'd and tride, / Proues valuelesse," King John [3.1.101]). The "culture" of literary departments will emerge as the culture of a price that has no price, opposed to an economic value that (from the perspective of the "priceless") has no true value. This priceless culture is elevated to a transcendental heaven; the materials of culture will be relegated to a valueless hell.

"Priceless" culture (with its prices nonetheless attached) is related to the Renaissance separation of the liberal from the mechanical arts, which Rayna Kalas illuminatingly explores below. By suppressing the mechanical craft of the application of gold leaf, Alberti attempts to produce the painter as a liberal artist rather than a manual craftsman. But the separation of the liberal from the mechanical was not accomplished at a single theoretical blow. In Venice, for instance, it was only in 1682 that painters established a separate Collegio dei Pittori; prior to that, they were coworkers in the guild of depentori along with "gilders, textile designers and embroiderers, leatherworkers, makers of playing cards, mask makers, sign painters, and illuminators."(1)

It was also in the seventeenth century that the author was increasingly distinguished from the scribe or writer. Value, from the perspective of authorship, could no longer be found in the material surface of parchment or vellum, in the expensive pigments of illuminations, or in the added marginalia that made a book usable; it lay behind the materials in the imagined workings of the author's mind. The book itself was waste matter. One learned now to read through a book, no longer conscious of its material surface. What is the later "page turner" if not an invisible book that turns its own pages? The book becomes the immaterial support above which the mind of the reader communes with the mind of the author. And the author becomes a transcendental value who has no place in the material world. In this new cultural regime, Byron will insist that he never be painted with books or pens around him because inspiration is immaterial.

This symposium attempts to accomplish three purposes: to reemphasize the materiality of Renaissance textual culture ("Material Texts"); to set material texts in the broader context of the production and circulation of material goods ("Clothes, Properties, Textiles"); to reexamine some of the Renaissance concepts that produced or resisted the oxymoronic feel of "material culture."

The first section, "Material Texts," explores some of the material forms that shaped Renaissance culture. Paper was, as several of the discussions below note, expensive, and it was by no means the only, or even the main, textual material. Walls, furniture, plates, cutlery, rings, jewels, buildings themselves (as the "ES"s on top of Hardwick Hall remind us) could be and were written on. Juliet Fleming shows both here and elsewhere that our own sense of "legitimate" and "illegitimate" writing surfaces (walls being usually of the latter kind) was familiar to neither Montaigne nor Luther, who advocated and practiced what we would now call the "illegitimate" form of "graffiti." Moreover, there was a particular value to the erasable qualities of wall writing (that could be whitewashed) and slates (that could be wiped clean), even if whitewashing, as Fleming shows, preserved what was covered over, or writing on slates, as Jessie Owens notes, might be preserved to check later versions on paper.

Owens's piece powerfully reminds us, too, of the resistance of so much Renaissance culture to our notions of the "artistic whole," of which the composer's score later emerged as a privileged example. The Renaissance music that Owens examines was written in separate parts, often on more than one slate. The parts are only added together in performance. The musical piece is thus piecemeal, requiring the work of singers to piece it together. (In the next section, Lena Orlin will note how the process can also work in the other direction: what we would think of as Richard Belassis's single house is disassembled by his will into separate rooms and even parts of rooms that can be bequeathed to different people.) The other papers in this section equally emphasize the material transformations of Renaissance texts. Books are marked up by readers to make them more usable, or, given the scarcity of paper, the margins of a book are used for a recipe or to document family history. "The" text is transformed as it is annotated and emended; as it is printed in large or small format; as it is sold at the sign of Adam and Eve or at the sign of Ben Jonson's head; as it is bound and unbound with other texts; as "guyana" is turned into "Vienna." Visually, as Stephen Orgel shows, a depiction of Athena becomes a woodcut of Alexander; Claudius becomes Julius Caesar's supposed wife, Cossutia, although the woodcut is used again for Claudius himself. No doubt this is partly the material principle of thrift that, as it can transform funeral bakemeats into a wedding banquet, can transform male into female. As Ana Armygram observes, Willem van der Passe does not make a new engraving of the royal family when James dies and Charles becomes king. He simply adds a crown to Charles's head. And since Charles has married, Henrietta Maria is added, a table carpet being transformed into her dress. New children are added in later states of the engraving, but, as others have died, the survivors are redistributed among the previous figures. The previous figures now assume new names and even new genders: Louisa Hollandina becomes Lodovicus.

The second section, "Clothes, Properties, Textiles," moves further away from the narrow definition of "culture" (literature, music, painting, etc.) to the way in which social meaning is materialized in other objects. As Evans-Pritchard wrote in 1940, "material culture may be regarded as part of social relations, for material objects are the chains along which social relations run."(2) The eccentric William Reynolds, a letter of whom Katherine Duncan-Jones edits, maps his relation to England and to his religion through the clothes he wears. Even in his second suit of tawny, signifying "the darkness of my country England," he is still protected from the wiles of foreign Catholicism by his sea-colored stockings, as the English Channel separates him from damnation. If Reynolds is eccentric, Foxe is normative, and Laurie Shannon shows how even those Protestants who want to eschew the gross materiality that they believe characterizes Catholicism can only define their resistance through the clothes they wear or refuse to wear. Similarly, Will Fisher notes how much can depend upon a handkerchief, which may condense the body of its owner as a memorial object, even as it circulates and is potentially "contaminated" by its recipient.

The pieces by Maureen Qulligan and Susan Cerasano are concerned with contradictory aspects of circulation: the gift as "inalienable possession," in the case of Elizabeth's prayer book, given to Katherine Parr so as to knit together a Protestant royal family; the gifts and loans that businessmen and actors like Henslowe and Alleyn, as well as aristocrats, made to the monarchy so as to assert their exogamous absorption into an extended royal "family." Lena Orlin's piece brings together these two contradictory aspects of the circulation of things. In the absence of a son and heir, Richard Bellasis both remembers his family through the dismemberment of his house and dislocates the very meaning of "family" by leaving major legacies to, and sharing financial secrets with, his servant, Margrett Lambert. Linda Levy Peck returns us to the concerns with which this section began: the connection between material and national "culture." William Reynolds used his clothes to map out the relations between England and its spiritual and temporal enemies. But the very textiles of fashionable clothing materialized the dependence of England upon foreign trade. For England to produce an elite that was both "homespun" and fashionable, it needed to develop a native silk trade. Ironically, the development of this trade depended upon the immigration of skilled French workers. The "national" body thus remained dependent upon the "culture" of immigrants.

The final section, "Languages of Materiality," examines some of the Renaissance terms that resist or facilitate the emergent opposition between "culture" and "materiality." Margreta de Grazia argues that in trying to link words referentially to things, the Royal Society erased what was so central to the whole rhetorical tradition: namely, that words were themselves particular kinds of things (oral, aural, visual). "Things" came to include "things to be discussed" only through a weak metaphor; "real" matter became "physical" matter, not "subject matter." In other words, the very notion of materiality is radically reduced. Gary Tomlinson, from a very different perspective, also argues that sound, along with spirit, becomes transcendental only in a post-Cartesian epistemology that erases the imprint of image upon imagination and phantasm upon phantasy that Ficino insisted upon. "Significant" sound comes less and less to include the "noise" of thunder, hummings, buzzings, and twangings--the signifying sounds that Caliban hears. Rayna Kalas looks at how the powerful sense of "framing" as an act of making and structuring (God "frames" the universe) is only belatedly reduced to the "frame" as external/extraneous material, In thinking of the "frame" of language, Lyly points both to the abstract principles that order it and to the material substance that rhetoric deploys. In the Renaissance, the liberal art of rhetoric cannot be detached from the mechanical art of crafting.

Jonathan Goldberg's Writing Matter has been a formative influence upon the study of the materiality of culture. But he reminds us here that the materials of culture are not locked into place once and for all. If objects have provenances and histories, these are made and remade as objects circulate, and as they acquire and lose meaning. This is nowhere more striking than in the props of the professional theaters, which appear and disappear, are given radically different meanings, or are forgotten. To emphasize the materiality of culture is not to give it a fixed grounding.

Indeed, the renewed attention to materiality needs to reexplore the very terms by which we separate the material from the immaterial, subject from object, person from thing. It is this latter relation or opposition between person and thing that Ian Smith and Jim Kearney explore. Smith shows how the concept of "barbarism" (a Greek concept referring to the inarticulate mutterings of "aliens") was mapped onto the unrelated concept of "Barbary" (a geographical location in North Africa). It was in this context that slavery violently rearticulated the speaking subject ("person") in relation to the mute commodity ("thing," "slave"). To be a thing in this new ontology was to be bought and sold. But the violence of this hierarchy depends, Kearney suggests, upon a newly emergent notion of the "thing" as different from, and in opposition to, the "person." Aristocratic possessions (lands, armor, heraldry, and so on) are certainly things but they have the power to transform and elevate a person into a more powerful social being. Similarly, in Catholicism, a saint's bones or a venerated statue are things, but they are anything but mute or "mere" things. If it becomes a form of disempowerment to categorize a person as a thing, the concept of the thing must itself first be disempowered. By contrast, Marcel Mauss suggests that in precapitalist societies, things are often "personified beings that talk and take part in the contract." Such things are not "indifferent"; they have "a name, a personality, a past."(3)

Kearney argues that English Protestants employed two very different concepts to destroy the power of the Catholic "thing": the "idol," which registered the demonic power of the object, even as it invalidated the object; the "trinket," which treated the object as a trivial innovation, which could be discarded with ease. The concepts of the idol and the trinket were later absorbed and displaced by the concept of the "fetish," a concept that, Bill Petz has argued, developed on the boundaries of capitalism.(4) The fetish came to point to demonized forms of materialization.

The fetish as posited by the new language of fetishism was simultaneously all-powerful (an external organ of the body) and trivial (since the emergent regime of the "individual" would deny that the body could have any such external organs). In this emergent regime, dependency upon "mere things" invalidated the individual's supposed autonomy. The theory of the fetish produced by back-formation the subject of modernity: the individual who, detached from the supposed fetishism of things, attempts to rise above material forms. As the subject was dematerialized, so was the "culture" that was supposedly the subject's finest expression. If the individual was imagined as prior to the cultural markings of labor, land, clothes, so the text, for instance, appeared to detach itself from the material supports of papyrus, parchment, rag paper, wood pulp, ink, typeface. The printed book would finally become the material embodiment of the immateriality of culture. Shakespeare is priceless; the material forms that inscribe him are, from this cultural perspective, valueless.

The final section of this symposium thus attempts to show how the oxymoronic quality of "material culture" emerged, while reemphasizing the ways in which Renaissance forms of making continued to register the materials of words, of sounds, of images.


(1.) David Rosand, Painting in Cinquecento Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 11-14.

(2.) E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), 89.

(3.) Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (New York: Norton, 1967), 22, 55.

(4.) See William Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, I," Res 9 (1985): 5-17; "The Problem of the Fetish, II," Res 13 (1987): 23-45; "The Problem of the Fetish, IIIa," Res 16 (1988): 105-23. Kearney suggests that the distinction between idolatry and fetishism is less clear-cut than Pietz argues.

PETER STALLYBRASS is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He has just completed a book with Ann Rosalind Jones entitled Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory.
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Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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