Robert Appelbaum. Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England.
Robert Appelbaum's investigation of seventeenth-century utopianism aims at nothing less than a "new" New Historicism, and to a considerable extent, it succeeds in achieving this ambitious goal. New Historicism has not dealt often or kindly with utopian texts, and when it has, its Foucauldian assumptions tend to turn even the most innocent projects into dystopic sites of disciplinary power. Appelbaum avoids this propensity by substituting the New Historicists' all-too-familiar subversion and containment model with one that accounts for "what Habermas calls 'the highly ambivalent content of cultural and social modernity,'" its "inevitable fusion of 'emancipatory-reconciling' and 'repressive-alienating' drives" (10). Gone, too, is much of the jargon of earlier New Historicism, as well as its highly tendentious manipulation of anecdote. Although Appelbaum, too, constructs his study around a central anecdotal example, he uses the seminal instance of James' coronation as a remarkably insightful key to the millennial expectations thereby set in motion. His subtle tracing of the complex permutations of the resulting utopian impulse also avoids the need to define a coherent generic tradition governing its texts, although at times this more fragmented method rules out close literary and cultural cross-comparisons.
Appelbaum's general avoidance of generic "kinds" can also be traced to a residual penchant for New Historicist tropes. Although he often uses them skillfully--as in his artful opening and closing comments on the original and revised Tempest--at worst, these tropes either fail to add anything new or actually detract from his insights. Excellent as it is, his first chapter on James I and the "Look of Power" borrows sophisticated terminology from important utopian theorists like Louis Marin without fully demonstrating their usefulness. By chapter 4, his fixation on the "gaze" includes the postmodernist Marxian vocabulary of Laclau and Mouffe ("hegemony," "space of indeterminacy," "discursive presence") without serving any discernible purpose. This strangely unsatisfying approach to the strikingly "clear and plain language, eschewing legal jargon and courtly elegance" of the Leveller and Digger pamphleteers (141-43) is especially unfortunate because the chapter otherwise represents Appelbaum at his best. Its concluding section on Gerrard Winstanely produces a brilliant analysis of the paradoxes surrounding not just this quixotic revolutionary but the overall project of seventeenth-century utopianism. The next and final chapter builds on this analysis by exploring the inevitable internalization and "aesthetization" of utopian politics as the "experience of defeat" sets in after the Restoration. Pondering whether the newly autonomous utopian imagination exists "apart from political action, or against" it (198), Appelbaum somewhat conventionally opts in favor of the latter: the world-controlling "look of power" exercised by James I and thereafter appropriated by competing social refashioners ends during his grandson's reign. Yet this conclusion does not fully convince, since it clearly overlooks utopianism's outward expansion into the new world(s) controlled by Defoe's Crusoe and his manifold bourgeois counterparts.
As these examples suggest, Appelbaum is not only at his best in discussing the radical utopians but devotes a somewhat disproportionate space to their writings. "Establishment" progressives like Bacon and Milton duly appear, but then disappear without anything really new or significant being said about their projects. Neither Milton's Areopagitica nor his divorce tracts are considered in any detail (the latter not at all), though they are just as relevant if not as glamorously rebellious as the Leveller and Digger pamphlets. The same might be said of Appelbaum's treatment of the work of an even more central utopian reformer, since he unfairly represents both Bacon's Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis as failures. Yet these fissures and/or errors are not fatal given the obvious fact that no writer can possibly do justice to the entire range of utopian literature produced during this fertile period. Somewhat more troubling here is the typical absence of what only chapters 4 and 5 fully supply: concrete analyses of the ideological causes (theological, philosophical, social) behind the quite different "look of power" in different utopias. Although his attention to the utopian impulse follows an alternate path, borrowing some of the anatomical apparatus employed in J.C. Davis' Utopia and the Ideal Society might have proved a useful corrective to the perils implicit in Appelbaum's postmodernist terminology. Yet these cavils aside, the strengths of Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England far outweigh their weaknesses. Appelbaum has produced a gracefully written, well-conceived, and highly perceptive entry into seventeenth-century scholarship that bodes extremely well for future efforts in kind.
CATHERINE GIMELLI MARTIN
The University of Memphis
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|Author:||Martin, Catherine Gimelli|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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