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Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life.

Thinking with Shakespeare: Essays on Politics and Life

By Julia Lupton

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011

Julia Lupton cites Jan Kott as an intellectual compatriot early on in her marvelous new volume, Thinking with Shakespeare. The affiliation is to the point; no one currently at work in the field has given us so palpable a sense of Shakespeare's immediacy and pertinence and so keen a sense of the ethical necessity of acknowledging his currency as a thinker. Lupton accomplishes that challenging translatio by means of her usual mix of intellectual capaciousness and methodological tact. She has the range of reference you'd expect from someone who has become one of our significant public intellectuals. ("Our" meaning literary studies generally--the book's epilogue is, among other things, a thoughtful case for reviving the potential of literary criticism tout court.) And much of the thrill of the project lies in its sheer ranginess--we move from polis to pantry, from seventeenth century exegetical debates to cyberculture and the "proximetics" of current anthropological analysis. But tact as well. How do we acknowledge the inescapability of Shakespeare's contemporaneity, as a methodological matter if nothing else, even while avoiding the impulse to enlist Shakespeare to our own ends, to instrumentalize him? This is what Lupton means by thinking with Shakespeare, having him accompany us, or accompanying him, in the project of thought and judgment, discovering his proximity precisely at those points where the works are most alien even to themselves. Insofar as that form of difficult companionateness is the version of community Lupton advocates, the book's ethical stakes are evident at every turn, in the mode of its engagement with its material and its commitment to a voice that transforms cutting edge philosophical debate into something urgently felt and available.

The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, All's Well that Ends Well, Timon of Athens, Winter's Tale, Tempest: democracy, consent and hospitality, biopower and political theology, economies from the ancient gift to post-Fordism, ecology and curatorial desire, legal theory (Roman and liberal), John Locke and Paulo Virno, St. Paul and Gervase Markham. The intellectual landscape here is astonishingly rich--a varied bestiary--and the connections she draws she draws with rigor and astonishing invention. But there is a core concern--a recuperation of the fully communitarian potential of civic humanism--and a presiding spirit: Hannah Arendt. The Arendt here is the advocate of a classical discourse of citizenship based on virtue, rather than law, operating within a political space which is definitionally multiple. But a modified Arendt as well, insofar as Lupton imagines the possibility of a polis neither constituted as against domestic oikos, nor as subsumed within the systematizing and omnivorous oikos of consumer capitalism--society as "megahousehold"--but one in which oikos--every creaturely undertaking -can assume its full world-creating potential, not a biopolitics but a bio politikos.

The critical term for exploring such a political possibility, and the term that prompts the most sustained analytical attention in the book, is consent. Which also means the liberal tradition, particularly Locke, has a significant role in the project. The recovery of such a tradition will seem controversial for some readers. But the polis Lupton is imagining is one dictated by a virtue not reducible to determined norms, and the Locke she engages is not one explained by possessive individualism. The democratic socius Lupton describes entails a condition in which all "are equal to each other, and unequal to themselves." What version of consent could operate within such a polis? Is it possible to conceive something like a non-instrumental consent? The possibility is there in Shakespeare, Lupton suggests, especially viewed through those versions of consent at the margins of the Lockean project and entailing a logic and a temporality distinct from the logic and time of contract: the model of "ecological affordances," for instance, Lupton sees at work in The Taming of the Shrew, the existential dimension of medical consent adumbrated in All's Well That Ends Well, the promise of political universalism harbored in Caliban's imagined legal minority.

In all these instances, an exorbitancy of the subject in relation to itself reflects the overdetermined character of the polis as such--the fact of its being incapable of assuming a totalized or unified form. That definitional excess at the core of the polis is also at the core of the surprising conjunction between liberal thought and political theology Lupton has pursued in recent years, an effort to tease out the difficult intersection between deliberation and revelation. Religion (as distinct from theology) amounts, for Lupton, to the "constitutive incompletion of collective life" (127), a political remainder she associates, not with the absorptive demands of biopower, but a creatural vitalism that haunts and animates the social domain as a system, and which can be traced across the Shakespearean oeuvre, from the performative surplus of Kate's "wifeliness" in Taming of the Shrew to the ambient, authorless voices that course through Caliban's island.

The book begins with Kate and a call for us to reimagine the familiar debate around her "taming" not in terms of her reduction to the status of animal but precisely by expanding what we mean by the creatural--what becomes of that category, and what becomes of the taming motif, when we allow the possibility that even the "lord of creatures" remains within its ranks? The chapter finds Lupton moving from Aristotelian virtues to Giorgio Agamben's "forms of life" to Don Norman and James Gibson on ecological "affordance" theory. Ultimately, Lupton argues, the sheer and somewhat illegible virtuosity with which Kate takes up her domestic performance at the close should be read in relation to the political promise of hospitality, an important category for Lupton insofar as it implies a mode of non-productive work--a virtue without view to an end--which might be conceived as a model for theater itself.

"The Hamlet Elections" concerns itself with political theology more in its Schmittian than its biopolitical dimensions. The play's ambivalence toward sovereignty is evident in its addressing the constitutive force of the traumatic breach which precedes and constitutes the possibility of the figure of the sovereign, a relation to revelation Carl Schmitt at once brings to view and skirts. That ambivalence is realized ultimately in the play's translation of Hamlet himself from prince to princeps or "First Citizen," and a reorientation of the play's political axis from the vertical dimension of sovereign force to the lateral dimension of the reciprocal bonds of friendship, with Horatio assuming the crucial, promissory role at play's end. The critical term for such an analysis is "election" itself, which pivots from its theological acceptation in the ghost's solicitation to its potentially democratic meaning in Hamlet's own elective voice at the close, even while implying a residual harboring of the uncanny, asymmetrical force of revelation at the heart of that new dispensation.

Chapter 3 on All's Well That Ends Well, one of the most fully realized, addresses consent head-on. Like Hamlet, the play takes place at the historical switch point between theological and proto-liberal trends, a transition figured now in Helena's medicinal ministrations to the king: "Gone the Royal Touch. On the horizon, the Office of Public Health." At the level of the plot, however, that historical moment is most fully and complexly embodied in the play's "mixed marriage," its attempts to negotiate between aristocratic nobility and bourgeois virtue, between descent and consent. It is precisely the strain of that negotiation, the fact, for instance, that the "bed-trick" that seals the marital bond can't be accounted for either as coercion or magical cure, that brings to view the existential dimension that lines modern consent. In the gap it opens between consent and contract, the play compels us to recognize the extent to which consent always operates as an event rather than a fully conscious accord, by virtue of an anticipatory and retroactive logic that the instrumental claims of contract merely seal over.

Can radical misanthropy unearth the seeds of universalism? "Job of Athens, Timon of Uz" traces Timon and his biblical forbear to their abject residence at the "deserted margin between politics and life," finding there, again, the traumatic presence of the creatural as both condition and remainder of social existence. In this case, that (for Lupton) religious margin has a strongly economic inflection. In his deployment of the gift as aggressive depense, Timon "aspires to a kind of economic martyrdom, crashing through the credit economy in order to discover a standard other than gold" (146).

Part of the intellectual pleasure of a project that invests itself in the telling margins of the signifying order is the fluidity with which it moves between apparent social antimonies. In Chapter 5 we travel from Timon to Hermione, from sheer, world-destroying misanthropy to pure hospitality, and discover a secret correspondence. The Winter's Tale chapter begins with the generic and historical distinction between entertainment and culture. The ambiguity of that juncture at Shakespeare's moment and within the historically equivocal space of the court is evident in how quickly hospitable intimacy veers into a paranoiac policing of life in the play's opening scene. But that threshold also harbors the promise of another politeia and a subjective self-authoring foreclosed both by the stark organizing divide of privacy and state and by the intimate encroachments of biopower. That promise is figured in Hermione's return, and especially in her status as living statue, a "thinglike" form whose "assertive dormancy" is to be distinguished by virtue of its miraculously poised conjunction of reserve and publicity from the bare life on which sovereignty feeds.

In its call for "recalibrating Prospero's absolutism from the perspective of Lockean liberalism," "The Minority of Caliban" comes closest to a mode of emancipatory revisionism. The chapter aims in part to bring to view those liberatory dimension of Lockean liberalism that often go unremarked--his insistence on the alienability of paternal authority and on the fact that political personhood is constructed not born. But the aim is also to draw out the unimagined political capacities of Locke's categories. Lupton is knowing about the risks entailed in making claims for the promise of conscientious wardship in the context of a play where minority can be hard to separate from colonial infantalization. But Lupton's hope is to find in minority's citizenship-in-abeyance a model for the peculiar temporality and potentia of a community not governed by the coercive trajectories of instrumental or programmatic political reason. In other words, what if minority were writ large, assuming the form of the island itself, alive with its incorporative but authorless voices? Can we imagine a politeia of universal wardship, which is to say, a polis of affordances rather than norms?

The book's final full chapter continues the question of universalism, now by way of the figure of St. Paul. Lupton is interested in complicating the divide between the Christian and the Jewish Paul, the supercessionist and the typological, the Paul of Galatians and the Paul of Romans. Such a focus is not just a matter of being faithful to Paul's "passionate sense of temporal urgency and historical debt" (233); the reconciliation of the two Pauls is also a matter of realizing the radical potential for a kind of contingent universalism implied in Shylock's, "shall we not bleed?" In terms of contemporary theory, that divide can be mapped onto the distinction between Agamben's Jewish messianic Paul, with its suspension of time from within time and context, and Alain Badiou's radically antinomian Paul, the Paul of the ceaselessly headlong event of revelation. To find the common ground between such readings, Lupton argues, is to be faithful to the political promise of the embedded messianism she sees at the close of Hamlet, as well as to Othello's mixed lineage, his "representing the multicolored promise of the conversion of the nations while also remaining deeply grounded in the Hebrew tradition" (244).

Part of Thinking with Shakespeare's disarming intelligence consists in the way it signals its own awareness of the quixotic character of a project that seeks out the commonality between, say, John Locke and Alain Badiou. Particularly given its own capaciousness, it can feel narrow and, well, academic, to place much pressure on the inevitable tensions in the undertaking. Still, the book is a call to engagement, and I'll offer some thoughts these provocative chapters provoked--i.e., my two bits. One way of describing the political aims of the project is as an attempt to reconcile liberal thought with a politics oriented around the radical openness of the social field, its "constitutive incompletion." That fact of incompletion or overdetermination assumes the form of a kind of asymmetry that registers at every level of the social domain, including the subjective--thus Lupton's inspired enlistment of the Greek concept of the daemon, that element of the subject that simultaneously is and is beyond the subject. What cannot by definition be engaged eye to eye, the daemon is the very mark of the political subject's constitution within the unbounded mediations of collective existence.

The difficulty, then, is how to reconcile that originative asymmetry with anything like the forms of reciprocity or mutuality central to a liberal conception of the socius. The tension is in the largest view a question of where we locate the question of the political. Lupton describes Caliban's ravishing account of coming to within the island's ambient sounds. Insofar as it evokes a sensorium and a voice in excess of any subject, the scene does indeed suggest the supervenient dimensions of the social, of affordances beyond our claims upon them. But it's important to notice that it's also a scene of inscription where freedom and captivation mingle indissociably, of dreaming into wakefulness and waking to sleep again. That inscriptive, or reinscriptive, dimension--something Shakespeare evokes repeatedly in his threshold scenes--arises because the social field isn't a mutual space, a world, or even a collectivity, it's an infinitude in relation to which any claim to descriptive exteriority becomes the measure of a renewed absorption. Which is to say the question of force--the political dimension--will come to the fore precisely at the point where we attempt to describe the social as a space of nurturance, accord or affordance expanded to the status of a world.

This is as an unsurprising observation, and merely foregrounds a tension close to the surface of the book's argument--one of its enlarging antimonies. But the implications of social overdetermination bear as well on a matter that runs deeper in current Renaissance studies--the question of the status of political theology. If religion is bound up for Lupton with the incompletion of the social, that's because political theology comes to bear at the constitutive limits of reason as a procedure of normative generality. But if that's the case, religion necessarily manifests itself minimalistically, as sheer finitude, precisely what can't be narrativized. The issue crystallizes around Lupton's account of the creatural, which is at times designated as a mediated category, but at other times takes on a significantly more substantified form--a matter of "animal vitality," of "embodiment," of natality and "bare beginningness" (155).

This is an ambiguity Lupton shares with others--Eric Santner, Slavoj Zizek, perhaps Agamben. But it's also a distinctly Shakespearean concern, given his acuteness about the lure and seduction of the phenomenal--think of Lear's seizing on disguised Edgar as the bare, forked "thing itself," a gesture that is simply the reverse face of Lear's narcissistic captivation by rituals of state, and no less an enactment of the claims of sovereign force. Or, to stay closer to Lupton's focus in the book, think of Hermione's statuesque return. The tentativeness of that moment is in Lupton's subtle account bound up with Hermione's reserve, what resists Leontes's depletionary reduction of all to bare life. But Hermione's virtue is nevertheless for Lupton a matter of her "thinglike" condition, a dormancy that refers back to an anterior creatureliness--the "tree in the bedroom, the animal in the kitchen" (179). And yet Paulina, who says to Leontes, "do not shun her," also says "forbear" at the point where the king prematurely reaches to touch his returned wife; might that admonishment be less a reflection of a creaturely dormancy or vitality intrinsic to the figure than a recognition of the necessity of leaving open as the very condition of any rapport the painful, ravishing space in which the play holds us suspended at this moment between subject and object, play and life, life and death? To train our focus on that caesura--to resist the impulse to fill the interval of Hermione's being and the inexplicable space of her disappearance in the play by reference to creaturely dormancy or coma--is to take up the difficult relation between political theology and political aesthetics.
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Author:Pye, Christopher
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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