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Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare.

Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, by Jonathan Gil Harris. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 278. Cloth $59.95.

Jonathan Gil Harris has given us an important, carefully constructed, unusually ambitious book. In Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, his third and best book to date, Harris analyzes cultural materials and cultural understandings of matter itself as Latourian actor-networks bearing traces of other times (past, but also fantasized futures), traces that impact their present. Instead of approaching objects as interpretive ends in themselves or as static mirrors offering perspective on a single time with peculiar, distinct "cultural, social, or economic" contexts (2), as most current historicist research into objects does, he reads the overt and palimpsested histories objects bear with them into the period of investigation. In this way Harris takes account where account has not always been taken of how "the same" artifacts and technologies persist and change their meanings over time. He investigates the role of things, sense perceptions, and even acting styles in invoking and mobilizing the alterity of other times, sometimes to triumph over them and sometimes to proffer other ways of being. In his view, past, present, and future continuously interact and rewrite one another in materialized cultural forms.

In opposition to a view of history as passing in a linear, one-way sequence of absolutely differentiated moments and periods, Harris sees each age as "multitemporal," that is, employing and responding to multiple models of time (3-4). Harris is interested in three: supersessionary, "according to which the present or future differs and distances itself from the past"; explosive, in which the past ruptures elements of the status quo, revealing them as inadequate, incomplete, or not fully true; and conjunctive, in which elements of different times or ages may be held in proximity, mutually enlightening and embracing each other's difference (4).

In order to illustrate the ability of the past to resurge explosively, for example, Harris asks what is betokened by the theatrical use of gunpowder as part of a lightning effect in Macbeth, and traces a series of olfactory meanings in response, from the still-topical redolence of the Gunpowder Plot, to more commonplace odorous evocations of theatrical devilry. These close associations between sin and foul smells, and between virtue and olfactory discernment, Harris argues, took special force from Protestant abolition of incense in church (125-39). In a world of nominal Protestant ascendency over Catholicism, foul scents might spur longing for remembered sweet smokes, evoking loss and unease (139).

Harris is aware of the speculative and "necessarily incomplete" nature such investigations into the most ephemeral of phenomenal experience must possess (138). One of the strengths of this book is its structure, whose ultimate focus is on the planks of its methodological argument and its taxonomies of temporality rather than on extended readings of proof texts. A reader can disagree with one of Harris's readings or the lengths to which he takes a line of argument, but the examples here, while carefully chosen both for content and for methodological breadth and often possessing enormous interest, function more as emblems of the temporalities Harris describes and as illustrations of the analytics he advocates than as the true goals of his inquiry.

The book is divided into three sections, one for each model of temporality. Each section begins with a chapter pairing an early modern account of matter and history with one or more congenial modern philosophical accounts of time and historicity (George Herbert with Georg Hegel, John Stow with Walter Benjamin, and Margaret Cavendish with Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, and Helene Cixous). Harris marks differences as well as resonances within these pairings: thus Hegelian Aufhebung (here translated as "supersession") is used as a reference point for Herbert's Protestant narrative of Christian supersession of Judaism and of Western belief in its own supersession of the Orient, in order to note the attractions, features, and persistence of supersessionary models. Dialogue and resonance between modern philosophy and early modern poetry, chorography, and other genres underscore Harris's central contention that from our vantage point, intellectual currents need not move in one direction only and that seeming gulfs between historical periods may be breached in moments of sympathy as well as when past or future seem to collapse beneath or else overwhelm the values of the present.

The second chapter of each section explores how Shakespeare and the King's Men--whose interest in the polychronicity of matter, Harris asserts, was "particularly pronounced"--worked with each temporality in writing and stagecraft (20). These chapters are nicely attuned not only to the ways in which Shakespeare's language represents matter, time, and history, but to the many non-linguistic ways in which performance might activate, defuse, or make concurrent pastness and futurity, obsolescence and inevitability, and how it might reframe collective hopes or memories. Engagement with the aforementioned caustic smells of the stage and with the company's ability to hype its own virtuosity in selectively employing the acting styles of the competing Admiral's Men in order, partly, to supersede them, makes for exciting reading, most of all in Harris's suggestion of numerous new avenues for further work.

Other pleasures emerge as Harris expounds on his directive that we attend to the multivocal and multiform temporalities inhering in the cultural forms and material objects we study. Harris is particularly gifted at revealing the dependence of English self-understandings on nationally and religiously heterogeneous components. Whether watching antiquarian John Stow pause over a Hebrew inscription in a repurposed stone in Ludgate wall, an inscription recasting London's supposedly originary civic structures themselves as culturally hybrid and polychronic, or noting the King's Men's interest in using the histrionics associated with other companies' Eastern despot characters to stage their own theatrical pre-eminence, Harris deftly illustrates how the cultural materials of English identity were both constructed of and discomfited by narratives of others' pasts and futures. Similarly, Harris's application of current theoretical work (by Serres, Latour, and others) is enriched by reconsiderations of less trendy figures. His provocative revisionist reading of Cixous, whom Harris positions as a theorist of tactile, metonymic, and conjunctive difference, pairs well with his judicious take on Cavendish's equally permissive metempsychotic metaphysics: for me, this chapter was one of the high points of an appealing, smart, and useful book. Untimely Matter in the Age of Shakespeare offers us productive, well thought out, and generous methodological suggestions and intriguing new directions for literary and material history.

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Author:Bovilsky, Lara
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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