Printer Friendly

Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture.

We are still rewriting the Renaissance, to cite the resonant title phrase of the landmark collection now a decade old. Of the fourteen contributors to Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, over half participated in the previous venture; all three co-editors of Rewriting the Renaissance are included in the present collection, and two of the three co-editors of Subject and Object were contributors to the earlier volume. Against this network of strong ties between the two collections, I will focus on differences that demonstrate the potential for new departures ten years later.

As its title signals, Subject and Object seeks to counter the image of the autonomous individual whose freedom is directly proportional to his or her unencumbered state, by putting this subject back into the context of objects that not only surround but also define and constrain the self. In the words of the introduction, "What we have to gain from interrelating the object and the subject in the Renaissance is a sense of how objects have a hold on subjects as well as subjects on objects" (11). Two of the thematic strands - visual culture and slavery - that follow from the goal of reinstating the object stand out as new conceptual initiatives.

Emphasis on material objects leads almost automatically to consideration of the visual aspect of things, including art objects. Hence the introduction begins with discussion of how still lifes, exemplified by N.L. Peschier's 1661 Vanitas, represent engagement with objects in the double sense that a painting not only portrays a plethora of objects but also itself becomes an object. Even the subject in Peschier has been turned into an object in the form of a terra-cotta bust.

In Rewriting the Renaissance, the art historical component was supplied by the inclusion of two art historians, along with one essay by a literary scholar. In Subject and Object, an expanded visual investigation is conducted entirely by literary critics, as though literary studies has opened up space to elaborate this interdisciplinary dimension from within. Visual material in Subject and Object includes Nancy Vickers's study of book production, Ann Rosalind Jones's work on Velazquez, Margaret Ferguson's use of visual evidence in tracing cultural exchanges between Europe and the New World, and, at least by implication, Peter Stallybrass's examination of the central role of costumes. But perhaps the most striking instance is Stephen Orgel's "Gendering the Crown."

It may seem strange to begin a comment on Orgel by paying tribute to Roy Strong. Yet what is remarkable about Orgel's contribution can be fully measured only by reference to his collaboration with Strong on Inigo Jones, published in 1973. This connection with the tradition of Strong's substantial, still indispensable art scholarship helps us to see the enormous critical distance Orgel's new essay here has traveled from Strong's 1963 Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Orgel's immediate concern is visual interpretation that acknowledges rather than denies lesbian sexuality but his methodological insistence that what we see must be taken seriously as actually there instead of dismissed as historical impossibility has a wider application.

The second innovative element in Subject and Object - slavery and the racial distinctions upon which it is founded - has no equivalent in the earlier Rewriting the Renaissance, which concentrates on gender rather than race. The issue arises here as a logical extension of the relation between subject and object to human power relations in which the slave or colonized other is placed in the position of object - an extension dramatized by the renaming of the early modern period as "Early Colonial" (5). The core of this aspect of the collection is found in the section entitled "Appropriations," comprising three essays by Maureen Quilligan, Margaret Ferguson, and Gary Tomlinson. Ferguson's essay is pivotal in showing how the two thematic strands - visual motifs and ethnic difference - may be combined: color codes that serve to separate the two groups of political subjects and political objects are after all visually constructed.

Finally, I want to note the occurrence of moments of special rhetorical force when the critic stands back and reflects directly on the critical enterprise. The most fully developed instance appears in the opening and closing segments of Gary Tomlinson's essay. But I also marked three other passages, which, though more compressed and elliptical, also concern the critic's implication in the history he or she narrates. The three are Louis Montrose's final three paragraphs, Stephen Orgel's last paragraph, and Margaret Ferguson's remark about "ideologically stormy waters" (249, 258 n.24). It is worth asking to what extent these powerful passages are consistent and compatible with one another. Here, however, I have time only to comment that Montrose's sarcastic invocation of "The Dead White Male Poets' Society" (122) exceeds his entirely justified need to protect his scholarly investment in a complex image of Spenser. The hallmark and strength of Montrose's criticism - his extraordinarily careful, detailed articulation are dropped when it comes to the undefined and therefore cryptic "cultural politics that are currently ascendent" (121). If this means multiculturalism, then surely it is possible to delineate significant distinctions among different versions of multicultural criticism and to imagine that not all versions are hostile to Montrose's Spenserian project.

The Theatrical City, the second collection under review, can also be seen as having a source in Rewriting the Renaissance, which includes two actual historians. Theatrical City pursues the interdisciplinary goal of bringing historians together with literary scholars through the more systematic pairing and alternation of the two. Unlike Subject and Object, Theatrical City originated not in a professional conference but in a course on the relationship between history and literature, and the volume is best approached in the context of this "pedagogical venture" (1).

The overriding central theme of Theatrical City is the management of conflict, especially in connection with the theater's potential capacity to absorb, articulate, or defuse social tension, anxiety, or aggression. The volume's historical time line, with its clear sequence of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline periodization and its terminus in the 1649 execution of Charles I, places the overall narrative emphasis on escalating pressure and increasingly precarious theatrical containment.

Although the introduction situates individual essays in local contexts very well, the absence of a larger critical framework results in a blurring of analytic categories. For example, the appeal to the "viability" of C.L. Barber's "festive comedy" (6, 102 n.3) is not sufficiently differentiated from other critical conceptions of containment: hence the key question of whether Barber's and Louis Montrose's respective readings of A Mid-summer Night's Dream are grounded in different notions of containment remains unasked and the differences unexamined. However, the deliberately neutral, understated presentation can be turned to advantage if the issues are reframed as questions and problems to be explored by students in the classroom - questions and problems that are open-ended precisely because the volume does not supply a ready-made critical slant.

The first two essays on John Stow's Survey of London provide an ideal starting point for student discussion and student research. Stow's conservative nostalgia for the older social order and his inattentiveness to the new institution of commercial theater create a theoretical vacuum that raises in the sharpest possible way questions about how we are to characterize the new order and how we should formulate the theater's role as a medium for representing and responding to change. The two opening essays contain fruitful terminology for asking students to think about the impact of theater in general terms, apart from and prior to specific plays.

Students can next turn to particular test cases to focus intensively on the quite different deployments of the term containment by such essayists as Louis Montrose, David Bevington, and Martin Butler. The challenge lies in considering the interplay of two variables: not only differences among plays but also differences in the critical apparatus and assumptions individual critics bring to bear. As an advanced exercise to illustrate the effect of variations in critical method, students might then be encouraged to assess the implications for the concept of containment of Leah Marcus's refreshingly explicit revision of her approach to Bartholomew Fair by reading her earlier criticism on the play along with her present essay. Finally, since the emphasis of Theatrical City is overwhelmingly on comedy, I would want to ask students how shifting the generic focus to tragedy might affect the overall picture.

PETER ERICKSON Clark Art Institute
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Erickson, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
Words:1389
Previous Article:Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture.
Next Article:The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649.
Topics:


Related Articles
The Italian Renaissance Interior: 1400-1600.
The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance: Proportion Poetical.
German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty.
Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy: 1300-1600.
Worldly Goods: A new History of the Renaissance.
The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649.
Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650.
Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England. (Reviews).
Unearthing the Past: Archeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. (Reviews).
Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy. .

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |