Sunday, October 16, 2011

Follow-up to What Ever Happened to Modernism?, part 1: Shakespeare, Federici, & the devaluation of women

My focus may be shifting somewhat here, but I'm by no means done with literature or blogging about literary matters. Indeed, before moving on, I have some unfinished business to attend to regarding What Ever Happened to Modernism? As long as my essay about that book was, still I had to leave certain topics more or less unaddressed, or less fully explored than I had originally intended. (Isn't it remarkable what we think of as long anymore? As if the essay is anywhere near as long as a full-length essay we'd have read easily prior to the advent of blogs. Fact is, I'm just an amazingly slow writer, so the thing felt interminable. But I digress, even more pointlessly than usual.)

First, having re-read the post a few times, I now wish I had indeed written more about the historical "responses of artists to [the] situation" described by Silvia Federici (for those keeping score at home, I'm referring to the second block quote from Federici in that post, the one that ends with the reference to Rabelais), especially the stuff on Shakespeare I'd ambitiously hoped to include. The title to Federici's Caliban and the Witch, after all, is an explicit reference to The Tempest, a play which is also invoked by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their excellent book, The Many-Headed Hydra, in the opening chapter about the wreck of the Sea-Venture in 1609. They write:
The wreck of the Sea-Venture and the dramas of rebellion that played out among the shipwrecked suggest the major themes of early Atlantic history. These events do not make for a story of English maritime greatness and glory, nor for a tale of the heroic struggle for religious freedom, though sailors and religious radicals both had essential roles. This is, rather, a story about the origins of capitalism and colonization, about world trade and the building of empires. It is also, necessarily, a story about the uprooting and movement of peoples, the making and the transatlantic deployment of "hands". It is a story about exploitation and resistance to exploitation, about how the "sappe of bodies" would be spent. It is a sotry about cooperation among different kinds of people for contrasting purposes of profit and survival. And it is a story about alternative ways of living, and about the official use of violence and terror to deter or destroy them, to overcome popular attachments to "liberty and the fullness of sensuality".

We are by no means the first to find heroic significance in the story of the Sea-Venture. One of the first—and certainly the most influential—was William Shakespeare, who drew upon firsthand accounts of the wreck in 1610-11 as he wrote his play The Tempest. Shakespeare had long studied the accounts of explorers, traders, and colonizers who were aggressively linking the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas through world trade. Moreover, he knew such men personally, and even depended on them for his livelihood. Like many of his patrons and benefactors, such as the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare himself invested in the Virginia Company, the spearhead of English colonization. His play both described and promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class in the settlement and exploitation of the New World.
No doubt I would have skillfully summarized this material and artfully incorporated it into the essay. Anyway, my point here is not to damn Shakespeare by aligning him with the powerful, but to merely remind us that he was a real person with real interests, living in a specific time and place. In any event, while The Tempest may have "promoted the rising interest of England's ruling class", and indeed Shakespeare's own interests as an investor, the figure of Caliban has long served as a symbol for Latin American rebellion and resistance to colonization. Meanwhile, the figure of Caliban's mother, Sycorax, "the witch", has remained invisible, both in the play and to the revolutionary imagination, Federici says. In Caliban and the Witch, then, Federici places her "at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt."

Federici invokes Shakespeare again, in passing, in an extended exploration of the degradation of women that accompanied the transformation of the working class over the course of the 15th to 17th centuries, as part of a process through which women became defined as "non-workers", where any work they did out of the home was now called "housekeeping", and as such devalued, and "[m]arriage was now seen as a woman's true career":
This was for women a historic defeat. With their expulsion from the crafts and the devaluation of reproductive labor poverty became feminized, and to enforce men's "primary appropriation" of women's labor, a new patriarchal order was constructed, reducing women to a double dependence: on employers and on men. The fact that unequal power relations between women and men existed even prior to the advent of capitalism, as did a discriminating sexual division of labor, does not detract from this assessment. For in pre-capitalist Europe women's subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations.
Perhaps you can begin to see why I decided not to include this material. Just too much background to cover in order to get to what is really a supplementary point in the course of a review. (There's nothing stopping me here though!) Federici goes on to discuss changes in the family, which
began to separate from the public sphere and acquire its modern connotations as the main centre for the reproduction of the work-force.

The counterpart of the market, the instrument for the privatization of social relations and, above all, for the propagation of capitalist discipline and patriarchal rule, the family emerges in the period of primitive accumulation also as the most important institution for the appropriation and concealment of women's labor.
With these shifts in society, "the insubordination of women and the methods by which they could be 'tamed' were among the main themes in the literature and social policy of the 'transition'." With respect to social relations, "throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, women lost ground in every area of social life" including "a steady erosion of women's rights". Women were attacked and vilified in the popular and intellectual literature of the period:
Women were accused of being unreasonable, vain, wild, wasteful. Especially blamed was the female tongue, seen as an instrument of insubordination. But the main female villain was the disobedient wife, who, together with the "scold," the "witch," and the "whore" was the favorite target of dramatists, popular writers, and moralists. In this sense, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1593) was the manifesto of the age. The punishment of female insubordination to patriarchal authority was called for and celebrated in countless misogynist plays and tracts. English literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period feasted on such themes. Typical of this genre is John Ford's 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the four female characters. Other classic works concerned with the disciplining of women are John Swetman's (1633) which ends with the didactic assassination, execution and murder of three of the Arraignment of Lewed, Idle, Forward, Inconstant Women (1615); and The Parliament of Women (1646), a satire primarily addressed against middle class women, which portrays them as busy making laws in order to gain supremacy over their husbands. Meanwhile, new laws and new forms of torture were introduced to control women's behavior in and out of the home, confirming that the literary denigration of women expressed a precise political project aiming to strip them of any autonomy and social power. In the Europe of the Age of Reason, the women accused of being scolds were muzzled like dogs and paraded in the streets; prostitutes were whipped, or caged and subjected to fake drownings, while capital punishment was established for women convicted of adultery.
No doubt most of this literary output was dreck; it's Shakespeare we remember. It's interesting, though, that it's his play that is dubbed by Federici a "manifesto for the age". Certainly the title seems capable of naming the age and what happened in it. But my admittedly hazy memory of the play has it as rather more playful and ironic about the "taming" attempted and (in the play) provisionally achieved. Perhaps this is one measure of Shakespeare's comparative "responsibility" as an artist? I'm reminded of a passage from Josipovici's chapter on Shakespeare in On Trust. He writes:
Where Marlowe had embraced the new powers given him by the Elizabethan state by placing on that stage men whose power over both their fellows and the audience depended on their rhetoric, men with whom we feel Marlowe the playwright identifies, Shakespeare, more realistic, more responsible, made his plays out of the recognition of the ambiguous nature of play. Marlowe, like Verdi, exults in the ability of the protagonist, through his voice, his speech, his song, to transcend reality, to give body to our desires, and we love him for it and pay to be thus transported. Shakespeare, like Mozart, never forgets the limits of that power as well as its dangerous ambiguity.
I was reminded of this passage, it's true, but I also had it readily to hand, since I've had it sitting in a draft post for, literally, more than three years, where I'd also stashed this sentence from “What was Chaucer really up to?”, a review by Josipovici of several Chaucer-related books, which is collected in The Mirror of Criticism:
The responsible artist is the one who is aware of the inevitable failure of all language, its narrow ideological base, and who uses his art to bring this out in the open.
The responsible artist. More responsible. I had had some notion, three years ago, of meditating on this idea, exploring its implications in the context of what we mean by the aesthetic, and by political or didactic art. (Perhaps Joanna Russ can help me here. But more on her later.) I didn't get far with it at all. Since that time, I've written a fair amount about the need to situate an artist within his or her political time and place, including the review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? itself ("Literature is not Innocent", I also blogged). But the question of what it means for the artist to be responsible, which may not resemble calls for what the artist should do, has eluded me. Perhaps, though I remain uncomfortable claiming that artists should be expected to do any given thing, it feels accurate to say that a responsible artist manages to avoid merely transmitting (or endorsing) the dominant ideologies of his or her situation, though it seems unavoidable that those will be reflected in the work, in some way. This ambivalence, however slight, perhaps, allows the work to become available to readers or viewers from outside that situation. Shakespeare's Caliban is able to find his audience. Which is probably a good place to end this post. Further examination of the responsibility of the artist will have to wait for another post. As will further follow-ups to the Josipovici review (which follow-ups should actually be more clearly literary in nature than this one ended up being).

1 comment:

David K Wayne said...

I look forward to your follow-up on this, and glad the blog's still going. When it comes to Shakespeare (or many other pre-modern dramatists) is the artistic responsibility ultimately his? The earliest performances were relatively 'loose', subject to improvisation and adjusted depending on audience reactions/expectations. We've had so many versions of his plays that it's difficult to situate what Shakespeare's attitudes actually were in relation to his time. The language is so rich and ambiguous that you can 'enter' a character in so many ways.

'Problem' figures like Caliban, Katherine, Othello or Shylock can vary a lot in what they 'mean' to an audience (and probably did in their first performances too, being the days before target marketing and the many 'unresolved' social divisions of early Empire). They still make a big deal about 'switches' of gender and race for certain roles*, and of course women didn't act on stage back then - which could have added layers of meaning between writer, character, actors and audience. A bunch of white men of similar status playing everything could have added a certain amount of subversion to the social relations played out on stage.

(The first two 'grown-up' plays I saw on stage were Arturo Ui - played by a woman during the Thatcher era, and Trevor Griffith's 'Comedians' - where the all-male 'types' were turned into women, with only a few slight adjustments. I've found it tricky to process those plays as their original 'male' versions ever since).