Jean E. Howard's Postmodern Marxist Feminism and the Economic Last Instance
- Materialist feminism is . . . [a] situated project of knowing, opposed to the class reductionism and economic determinism of classical Marxism but committed to the materialist position that oppression, whether by gender, race or class, involves more than 'prejudice', but is instantiated in exploitative divisions of labour, in unequal access to cultural resources (money, birth control, technical training, leisure).
-- Jean E. Howard
- For over a decade, the Marxist-feminist critic Jean Howard has been a keen observer of the shifting trends in Shakespeare studies. Her insightful commentary on the work of some of the newer, 'political' critics in this field -- including the new historicists, cultural materialists, and feminists -- has helped to clarify many of the theoretical and practical problems with which these writers have struggled in their efforts to counter the ahistorical formalism of an earlier era. More than a metacritic, however, Howard has also offered her own innovative analyses of the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and, in the process, has enlarged our understanding of the significance of a wide range of early modern 'theatrical practices'.
- These well-deserved compliments paid, I now want to note a serious reservation that I have about Howard's work. Like many critics in recent years, Howard has become receptive to a number of 'postmodern' positions and ideas, so much so, in fact, that she has argued the need for a 'postmodern Marxist feminism' (Howard 1991). As a classical Marxist, 1 I am convinced that the discourses of postmodernism and Marxism are largely incompatible, and in the following essay, I will attempt to illustrate how that incompatibility becomes all too evident in certain contradictions that arise between Howard's theory and practice.
- I will begin by looking at an essay published by Howard in 1986 (written in 1984), entitled 'Scholarship, Theory, and More New Readings: Shakespeare for the 1990s'. In this work, she argues that
- [i]t is simply not possible to talk about Shakespeare and his culture without holding some sort of theory about their relationship; there is no escape into a realm of unmediated truth. The question, therefore, is whether the critic is going to be self-conscious about his or her theoretical position and examine it in the light of competing theories. Without such self-consciousness, the critic inevitably conceals what is polemical or problematic in his or her critical practice and falls back on the defense of common sense: i.e., the position that a particular critical practice depends on assumptions so self-evident that their truth is not in question. (Howard 1986a, 135)
Howard is speaking in general terms here and is not arguing for or defending a particular critical approach. Nevertheless, her implication that there are no disinterested readings enables one to understand why, in this essay, she is so receptive to 'radical sorts of critical work' in the fields of 'historiography, ideology critique, and culture studies' (132).
- The purpose of 'Scholarship, Theory, and More New Readings' is, ostensibly, to convince an exhausted, though still hegemonic, generation of humanists to think twice before condemning the new critical discourses as merely 'faddish'. According to Howard, 'Shakespeareans as a group need to look upon contemporary criticism and theory with less of a jaundiced and a dropping eye than has often been the case in the past' (127), and with this admonishment, she proceeds to argue just how rich and productive a new cycle of 'readings' might be if propelled by Marxism, new historicism, response theory, feminism, and several other theories. This new work, however, would obviously differ in a number of ways from 'traditionalist' criticism. Perhaps most crucially, it would avoid an error common to much thematic criticism of the past, which, Howard states (after citing an argument by Richard Levin), offered up readings that 'proclaimed to reveal the truth of the text, a truth which for centuries ha[d] lain undiscovered and which, having now been unearthed by the alert critic, [was] meant to displace all the other "true readings" previously proposed' (130). Howard agrees with Levin that this critical genre is 'played out'; however, she believes this not because 'the real, unchanging, commonsense meaning of Shakespeare's plays was discovered long ago, as Levin assumes', but because of 'an unwillingness [on the part of many thematic critics] to acknowledge that there can be no such freestanding meaning in the text, a meaning not in some way produced by the historical situation of the reader/interpreter' (130-31).
- In much of the essay, then, Howard focuses on how the new critical discourses address both the problem of the reader's historical situation and the historicity of the Shakespearean text. Although she states that her goal is not to judge the 'competing claims' of various critics that she includes in her survey, there are several important precepts that Howard appears to embrace or at least find worthy of serious consideration: 1) critical self-consciousness is desirable; 2) critics do not have access to 'unmediated truth' (135); 3) the literary is a social construction ('what a culture decides it will be at any given moment' ) rather than an essential thing; 4) literary texts perform a variety of functions: i.e., they may subvert or confirm 'the cultural materials by which they are traversed' (134); and 5) literature helps to construct 'what a culture takes reality to be' (133), rather than simply reflecting some self-evident reality. Many of these notions had become commonplaces of leftist or left-leaning criticism by the time Howard's essay was published; however, it is clear from this early theoretical piece that she is drawn to various poststructuralist and Marxist ideas that had gained currency in the 1970s and early 1980s, and that, in the hands of some critics, would eventually turn into 'post-Marxism'. 2 Howard has not yet taken that path, though in later essays she has attempted to reconcile conflicting tendencies within Marxism, feminism, and poststructuralism (as we shall see below). Now, though, I want to turn to her next foray into theory: her 1986 critique of the new historicism.
* * *
- In 'The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies', Howard continues to think about some of the problems touched on in 'Scholarship, Theory and More New Readings', including the epistemological status of the critic, the function of 'the literary', and the relationship between a text and 'history', Her discussion of these issues, though, is now provoked by the work of a group of scholars who write what is 'loosely called the "new history"' (Howard 1986b, 13). 3 Howard has several objectives in writing this piece. One is to explain what the new historicism is; another is to point out the strengths and weaknesses of various new historical positions and ideas; and a third is to critique the work of two leading new historicists, Louis Montrose and Stephen Greenblatt. For the purposes of this essay, I am less concerned with what Howard thinks the new historicism is than with what she finds valuable and useful in this body of criticism.
- In her view, the new historicists have clearly got certain things right. One is 'the notion that man is a construct, not an essence', an axiom that is commonly accepted these days by materialist critics. She also applauds the new historicists for their view that 'the historical investigator is likewise a product of his history and never able to recognize otherness in its pure form, but always in part through the framework of the present'. She then notes that '[t]his last point leads one to what is perhaps the crux of any "new" historical criticism, and that is to the issue of what one conceives history to be: a realm of retrievable fact or a construct made up of textualized traces assembled in various configurations by the historian/interpreter' (23-4). It is clear from the discussion that follows that she believes the latter:
- It increasingly seems that . . . a new historical criticism has to accept, first, that 'history' is not objective, transparent, unified, or easily knowable and consequently is extremely problematic as a concept for grounding the meaning of a literary text; second, that the very binarism we casually reinforce every time we speak of literature and history, text and context, is unproductive and misleading. Literature is part of history, the literary text as much a context for other aspects of cultural and material life as they are for it. Rather than erasing the problem of textuality, one must enlarge it in order to see that both social and literary texts are opaque, self-divided, and porous, that is, open to the mutual intertextual influences of one another. This move means according literature real power. Rather than passively reflecting external reality, literature is an agent in constructing a culture's sense of reality. (25)
There are a number of influences at work here, including Derrida (there is no 'outside of the text'), Foucault (history is not 'objective'), and Raymond Williams via the new historicists (literature does not passively reflect 'external reality'). Although Howard is offering these observations in order to critique an outmoded, positivist historicism, she makes clear in this essay that traditional Marxists, as well as humanists, have been guilty of producing such work. I will interject here that if some Marxists have treated history as though it were always and everywhere a self-evident thing or a reified force, they did so not only erroneously but undialectically. Yet, as Fredric Jameson reminds us in The Political Unconscious, history finally is not just another text, 'simply one more code among others, with no particularly privileged status' (Jameson 1981, 100). It is rather the 'experience of Necessity, and it is this alone which can forestall its thematization or reification as a mere object of representation or as one master code among many others' (Jameson 1981, 102). Jameson, of course, is making a case for a particular reading of history--one with which Howard is presumably in agreement to a greater or lesser extent, given her praise of Marxism in the new historicism essay (on which more in a moment). But he is also taking a clear stand on an issue that becomes blurred in Howard's treatment of the interplay between literary and social 'texts'. In her attack on a na´ve historicism 'in which literature figures as the parasitic reflector of historical fact', Howard 'imagines a complex textualized universe in which literature participates in historical processes and in the political management of reality' (Howard 1986b, 25). In such a universe, the old hierarchy between history and literature would collapse so that, as Don Wayne, whom Howard paraphrases, has written, 'it becomes nearly impossible to pinpoint an origin or single cause for social change'. To this she adds, 'Many aspects of the social formation, including literary texts, work in a variety of ways and at a variety of speeds to produce the variegated entity we call history' (26).
- Let us assume that all of this is true. Why, then, does Howard--or, for that matter, Stephen Greenblatt--pay so much attention to questions of political power? I suspect that there very well may not be a 'single cause for social change'; however, Howard's preoccupation with power and differential class and gender relations seems to attest to the fact that some aspects of 'the social formation' are more important than others. In an essay criticizing Raymond Williams' attack on the traditional base/superstructure concept, 4 Terry Eagleton (1989) has argued that an egalitarian view of social determinants is not quite the same thing as Engels' belief that base and superstructure have a dialectical relationship. 5 Like Williams, Howard and the new historicists seem obliged to do away with a determining base, thereby raising the question: If everything is 'determinant', can the word logically retain any force? 6
- It is important to note, though, that Howard draws support for her views on the problem of cause and effect from Althusser, whose concept of the 'relative autonomy of the superstructure from the material base' (Howard 1986b, 27) is seen as providing a more sophisticated theoretical model of social change than 'traditional' Marxism. Although Althusser's notion of structural causality has been the source of considerable debate, one could argue that his comments on Engels' statement that the mode of production is determinant 'in the last instance' endorse the idea that the economic 'level' enjoys a certain privilege 'in the long run, the run of History', even though 'History "asserts itself" through the multiform world of the superstructures' (Althusser 1977, 112). 7
- Howard's 'rethinking of the place of literature in history' (Howard 1986b, 27; Howard's emphasis) is also influenced by other Marxist concepts, most particularly the concept of ideology. Like cultural materialist Jonathan Dollimore, she defines ideology in two principal ways: 'first, as the false consciousness foisted on the working classes by a dominant class; second, as any practices by which one imagines one's relations to the actual conditions of one's existence'. 8 Also like Dollimore, Howard states that 'it may be useful to retain both understandings of ideology: to retain the option of seeing some literature as the conscious and direct product of one power group or class's attempts to control another group or class by the misrepresentation of their historical condition; and at the same time to recognize that in most instances power groups or classes are both less self-conscious and less monolithic than such a formulation implies . . .' (28).
- Again I will note Howard's concern here with 'power' (this time displayed by 'groups and classes'). One, of course, need not speak of power when discussing ideology; however, the fact that Howard does underscores my point that while one may theorise about a 'textualized universe' where origins of social change are 'impossible to pinpoint', in practice critics who align themselves with Marxism--as Howard arguably does in this essay--unfailingly pay homage to the determining power of the 'base' (one of whose components is, of course, 'class').
- Howard's main reason for discussing what she calls 'recent developments in Marxist thought', in an essay on the new historicism, is to suggest ways in which the former will benefit the latter. She also correctly notes, though, that work by Greenblatt, Montrose, et al. already draws on a number of Marxist ideas. So what, then, is the problem with the new historicism? Howard's 'main reservation about much of this work', she writes, 'is its failure to reflect on itself':
- Taking the form of the reading, a good deal of this criticism suppresses any discussion of its own methodology and assumptions. It assumes answers to the very questions that should be open to debate: questions such as why a particular context should have privilege over another in discussing a text, whether a work of art merely reflects or in some fundamental sense reworks, remakes, or even produces the ideologies and social texts it supposedly represents, and whether the social contexts used to approach literary texts have themselves more than the status of fictions. (31)
The questions that Howard raises here are good ones; however, I am not sure that the new historicists can provide very satisfying answers to them, in view of some of the assumptions that she attributes to these writers. For example, given a 'theory' 9 which lacks a strong concept of determination, can one ever make a persuasive argument as to 'why a particular context should have privilege over another in discussing a text'? But, then, if social and literary texts really are mutually constitutive (in a non-hierarchical fashion), one should not have to make such an argument. Why not talk about Indians from Virginia--or any number of other subjects--in the same breath as Henry IV? 10 Of course, as Alan Liu (1989) has pointed out, in practice the new historicists always make a 'metaphorical' connection between the texts that they juxtapose--i.e., the texts are shown to be alike in some way, and it is inevitably in what they say about the functioning of 'power'. 11 Thus, if we take for an example the Greenblatt essay, 'Invisible Bullets', to which I just alluded, the real context being 'privileged' there is not that produced by Harriot's Brief and True Report, but the one that 'powers' both Shakespeare's and Harriot's work. That context--which a Marxist such as Jameson would call the absent cause of History (i.e., the history of class struggles)--is never fully theorised in new historicist work, because, of course, these writers do not have a theory of history as such. Greenblatt has in fact stated (in a book published subsequent to Howard's essay) that the new historicism is 'a practice' and not a theory of history or anything else (Greenblatt 1990, 146).
- Howard's question about the (epistemological) 'status' of 'the social contexts used [by new historicists] to approach literary texts' is also a difficult one for these writers in light of their assumptions. If the new historicism is as (philosophically) conventionalist 12 as Howard makes it out (or would like it) to be, its adherents can hardly make any strong claims about the truth of their histories. Although Althusser's ideology/science binary has been attacked by an army of erstwhile Althusserians, 13 the realist position underwriting that binary--a position made possible by the objective fact of the extraction of surplus value within class societies--provides a ground from which one may speak. Where is that ground in new historicist work? The Foucauldian notion of the 'truth function'? 14 The idea that all writing is political? As Hamlet said, 'I'll have grounds more relative than this' (though by 'relative' he meant 'cogent').
- My objection to the new historicism (at least in its classic Greenblattian mode), then, is not so much that its practioners have been 'unreflective' about their assumptions, as that they have bought into poststructuralist and conventionalist attacks on the 'master-narrative' of Marxism and, as a result, have offered up a patchwork 'practice'--albeit a politicised one (but what politics?)--that oscillates 'somewhere between "totalization" [Greenblatt's code word for traditional Marxism] and "difference" (deconstruction at its ahistorical worst)' (Siar 1991, 163). I raise this objection because Howard seems determined in this essay and elsewhere to use new historicist assumptions to 'improve' Marxism, as much as she claims to want to do the converse. A classical Marxist might quote Lear at this point: 'That way madness lies'. But before jumping to conclusions, I want to examine one other theoretical essay by Howard, in which she attempts to define her current position as a 'postmodern' Marxist feminist.
* * *
- In a 1991 paper originally given at a University of Essex symposium on 'Postmodernism, Marxism, History, and the Renaissance', Howard articulates several other questions that, in the view of a number of Marxists, have been raised and left dangling by certain new historicist/postmodernist work:
- If one has no unmediated access to the real, including past reality, what is to keep the past from being other than a fiction woven from the language games of the present? If subjects have no access to true knowledge, why should one ideologically motivated narrative have priority over others? And if subjects cannot stand outside discourse and ideology in the place of scientific reason and objectivity, what is to ground a politics, understood as any attempt to act upon the world to make it 'better'? Is there any unmediated, 'enlightened' position from which to specify that 'better'? (Howard 1991, 106)
In attempting to answer these and other questions, Howard argues that, by 'enlist[ing] the resources of postmodernity', feminism can strengthen 'a politically committed historical practice' (101).
- In Part 1 of the essay, she discusses postmodernism's 'threat to humanist politics and positivist history' (103). For Howard, postmodernism 'specifies a constellation of discourses and practices, unique to the contemporary moment but not defining it totally, which stand in a relation of difference to discourses and practices which may be chronologically deployed alongside them, but which entail different assumptions about epistemology, rationality, the self-subject, and the relationship of popular to elite culture, etc.' (105). Of all its assumptions, though, she writes,
- perhaps most crucial is postmodernity's challenge to the idea of the rational self, fully present to itself and able to make absolute truth claims on the basis of empirical knowledge of the real or to employ master-narratives about the real which aspire to the status of science. Recognising no outside to ideology, no discourse of science which would, for example, allow something like false consciousness to be revealed to the subject from a position of truth, postmodernity admits no means of disentangling knowledge from power or a stable and unified self from the network of contradictory discourses which constitute subjectivity in historical time.(105)
Howard implies that this position is one that she finds congenial, though in Part 2 of the paper she notes that 'first-generation' feminists were frequently 'committed to a humanist conception of the unified self' (111) and their own versions of the 'idea of "true" histories' (108). Yet, '[f]rom its early moments, feminist cultural analysis interrupted the dominant conventions of historical inquiry by calling attention to the fact that most accounts of culture were histories of one gender'. Thus, many earlier feminists understood that '[w]hat can be recognized as true depends, crucially, on the politically determined horizons of legitimacy prevalent at any historical conjuncture' (108). 15
- Howard then argues that 'a second moment of feminist historical work has turned away from ahistorical theory building (the quest, above all, for a single, transhistorical explanation for patriarchy) and away from the valorisation of essential female difference and has devoted itself to elaborating the variety of ways in which gender difference has been culturally and historically transmitted'. This new work has acknowledged that 'even within a single historical period, women are not quite all sisters in any simple sense, but bear the plural marks of difference in their various inscriptions within systems of race, class, ethnicity and sexuality' (109). This acknowledgment is of course crucial for any feminism that would ally itself with Marxism or represent itself as 'materialist', and yet Howard is less concerned in this section with elaborating on what it means to write Marxist-feminist history than she is with creating a rapprochement between feminists and new historicists, who, she argues, are 'linked by their opposition to the "universal, above-ideology" version of Shakespeare and other texts of Elizabethan "golden age" culture' (111). To her credit, Howard takes a tougher stance in this essay on the apolitical quality of much new historicist 'political' criticism (it lacks 'a declared political telos' ); however, she largely remains an apologist for this work, which she views as being innovative and intellectually challenging (an evaluation that echoes her 1986 analysis of the new historicism).
- In Part 3, Howard argues the main point of the paper: 'that while postmodern thought undermines some understandings of politics and history it opens new possibilities as well, possibilities for overcoming the dead ends of essentialist identity politics and scientism, for example, and opens space for a more mobile political practice justified less in terms of absolute truth claims and more in terms of its historically determined efficacy in attaining specific ends' (107). It seems reasonable to ask at this point just what are the 'specific ends' that Howard has in mind. Her answer is clear enough: 'freedom and equality for all' (113). Classical Marxism, of course, contained this same 'emancipatory . . . telos' (112), so how does a "postmodern historical practice" hope to achieve what old-style Marxism (according to Howard) could not? At this point, of course, all of the questions that Howard (playing devil's advocate) earlier claimed were elicited by certain postmodern assumptions now demand answers.
- The answers that she offers are 'provisional' and inspired in part by Donna Haraway's 'idea of "situated knowledges"'. As Howard notes, 'a situated project of knowing means eschewing claims to see everything as if one were located outside of history, as if one were an omniscient, disembodied god. Feminists make feminist knowledge, not all knowledge; and they do so within the determinate ideological parameters of a specific time and place'. Yet Howard insists that 'acknowledgement of the many different positions from which knowledge can be made does not lead to pluralist indifference'. There are certain 'preferred knowledges and practices': 'those which lead to the alleviation of oppression and exploitation' (116).
- A second point that Howard borrows from Haraway is that '[a] situated project of knowing and acting articulates neither the truth of a self nor the truth of everyone; it articulates a discursively generated and historically specific position which cannot be guaranteed by recourse to any transcendental or absolute grounds and which must constantly be refashioned under the pressures of historical contingencies' (117).
- As described so far, the Howard-Haraway programme for 'the alleviation of oppression and exploitation' sounds very much like a Foucauldian 'micropolitics', which similarly rejects 'transcendental guarantees of truth' while advocating 'local' political action. And yet ultimately--and, one could argue, self-contradictorily--Howard appears to realise the limitations of micropolitical positions. Those limitations are made highly visible by Jennifer Wicke, whose analysis of the exploitation of Asian women working in low-paying, health-impairing jobs in electronics plants overseas is praised by Howard for (dare I say it?) the truths it reveals about the functioning of global capitalism. Agreeing with Wicke, Howard states that 'it is . . . important to realise that old modes of oppression and domination still continue, in tandem with the new, in both the first world and the third, though the economic exploitation of a "third world" woman in a Singapore electronics factory may be invisible to Western eyes, feminist though those eyes may be' (119). Precisely. And this is why Wicke (paraphrased here by Howard) 'implies' the following course of action:
- . . . an urgent task for feminism is to forge a new logic of interconnections in a world in which the global reach of late capitalism is accompanied by, in fact depends upon, fragmentation: of subjectivities, knowledges, polities. To the extent that an emphasis in postmodern discourse on micropolitics and local knowledges blocks analysis of macrostructure of exploitation and domination on a global scale, to that extent it becomes complicit with techniques of domination prevalent in late capitalism. An alternative logic of interconnections will provide, by contrast, a knowledge of the links between various modalities of oppression with a culture and between cultures in the global village. That means being attentive to international divisions of labour and to the different positions of masculine and feminine subjects with those divisions at different points in a world economic system. It means being attentive, however, not only to how surplus labour is differentially extracted from subjects stratified by race and gender as well as by class, but also to the role of ideology in constructing exploitative and oppressive social relations in the supposedly 'private' domains of sexuality, domestic life and biological reproduction as well as in the supposedly 'public' domains of work and social reproduction. (120)
I find nothing here with which a classical Marxist might disagree. These words could have been uttered by any number of writers who still cling to the Marxist 'master-narrative' of an ultimately determining economic base. Such a narrative, of course, does not deny the importance of 'local knowledges' and 'local struggle': And yet that narrative argues that one can hardly expect to change the world (guarantee freedom and equality for all) through local interventions alone. Howard acknowledges here that there are things called 'late capitalism' and the 'world economic system'. She also apparently believes that feminists 'need to employ "large narratives"' (a 'master-narrative' by any other word . . . ) in order to understand how these large structures operate (116). Thus, while insisting that the knowledge one produces about these structures and the ideologies that authorise them is 'situated', Howard seems to realise after all that, whatever its utility on local terrain, a late-model postmodernism is perhaps not the best vehicle from which to view oppression in 'the global village'. 16
- With the publication in 1994 of The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, Howard attempts to put into practice many of the ideas with which she had been concerned during the previous decade. In the book's Introduction, subtitled 'A Brief for Political Criticism', she re-emphasizes Harraway's argument that 'we all make knowledge from situated positions', thereby criticizing those who make their 'partial perspectives synonymous with objectivity and truth' (Howard 1994, 20-1). On the same page, however, she implies that critics must strive to produce knowledge that is 'adequa[te] to their object of investigation' (20). 17 The question that arises here, of course, is: What would constitute 'adequacy' if one assumes that objectivity and truth are myths? Like other postmodernists, Howard has no answer to this question, except to offer that '[t]here is no way to get the analysis right "for all time"' (21). And yet she also apparently believes that by employing Marxist-feminist theory one may at least come close to getting the analysis right today, since otherwise there would not be much point to saying anything.
- Thus, Howard pays her respects to certain philosophically conventionalist ideas while subscribing to an all-important Marxist-realist assumption: namely, that changes in early modern England's material base altered the country's ideological superstructure. Evidence of this assumption is contained in the following passage, in which Howard, summarizing some thoughts by Louis Montrose (perhaps the most Marxist of the new historicists), attempts to account for the 'self-reflexivity' of many early modern plays (9):
- . . . [T]he drama's incessant preoccupation with dramatic practices did not so much indicate theatrical narcissism as the widespread emergence of a 'dramatistic sense of life' resulting both from the secularization of Renaissance culture and from the social changes, including heightened social mobility, attendant upon the prolonged and uneven transition from feudalism to capitalism. . . . These changes unsettled identities and social positions, encouraging for better or worse, the sense that in some fundamental way men and women were actors in a self-scripted theater and must forge the identities once taken for granted. (16)
No postmodern waffling here; this is Marxist 'epochal' analysis. 18 The base changes, and, sooner or later, in 'uneven' fashion, so does everything else. Howard is making a grounding argument about a determining economic last instance upon which all subsequent discussion in this book is predicated. Yet epochal analysis can take one only so far. Every text considered by the Marxist critic 'has to be examined in its specificity' (7). One of Howard's main strengths as an historian of early modern social and literary texts, it seems to me, is her acute awareness of the contradictory quality of reality and, therefore, of the need to be as rigorous as possible when analyzing the local ramifications of the large-scale transformations described in the above passage.
- In her Introduction, Howard states that she has three objectives. The first is to 'define the ideological work performed by a [discourse of theatricality] in early modern England'. This discourse, she writes, has a 'complex and sometimes contradictory role in producing and underwriting various modes of social and moral stratification'. Her second objective is 'to comment on the unique role of the public theater in ideological production in Renaissance England'. She wishes 'to investigate which social groups had their interests served through the public theater: to what extent it confirmed traditional distributions of power and to what extent it made space for emergent or marginalized groups'. Finally, she hopes to show 'how particular, historically specific institutions, of which the Renaissance public theater is but one instance, effect social change in ways that may or may not be consistent across the range of their practices and may or may not be perceptible to those within such institutions or to contemporaneous observers of them'. She also notes that '[i]n regard to [the first two] questions, nearly all sweeping generalizations are likely to be vulnerable; nonetheless, I will venture some, while trying to remain alert to the contradictions and complexities that make this topic interesting and important, rather than merely an occasion for a mechanical application of a thesis about the rise of the bourgeoisie or the power of patriarchy' (3).
- Before embarking on a series of fascinating discussions on a wide range of authors and texts, Howard first carves out some positions that she will attempt to support in the body of the book. Some of the most important ones are: 1) that 'the axes of domination and subordination in [Elizabethan/Jacobean] culture were multiple and not necessarily homologous'; 2) that 'the drama enacted ideological contestation as much as it mirrored or reproduced anything that one could call the dominant ideology of single class, class faction, or sex'; and 3) that 'the material practices attendant upon stage production and theatergoing had ideological consequences for the audience that were in some instances at odds with the ideological import of the dramatic fables which that theater disseminated' (6-7). Overarchingly, though, Howard states that she is 'going to argue the materialist case that in order to understand the ideological function of Renaissance theater one must attend--not just to the ideological import of dramatic narratives considered as if they were the equivalent of a printed prose tale--but also to the whole ensemble of practices attendant upon theatrical production at the public theater' (13).
- In the page of acknowledgments that prefaces her Introduction, Howard writes that '[l]ife makes finishing books hard' . . . (viii). Obviously, the tremendous intellectual challenge of producing the sort of materialist history that Howard has just described could not have made finishing The Stage and Social Struggle any easier. Evaluating the success of this project--which, as I mentioned, covers quite a bit of ground--would require a much fuller treatment of it than I can offer here; nevertheless, Howard's discussion of one of Shakespeare's comedies provides a good example of her current postmodern Marxist-feminist practice.
* * *
- Howard's reading of Much Ado About Nothing is contained in a chapter entitled 'Antitheatricality Staged'. This title alludes to writings by a number of antitheatrical pamphleteers whose work was examined by Howard in a previous chapter. In her view, these writers generally believed the theater to be 'a powerful and potentially dangerous force' (42), and 'while there are many variations within antitheatrical polemic, the tracts as a whole show the enormous pressure placed on certain ideological positions by changing social conditions and practices, of which the theater becomes a convenient symbol':
- With varying degrees of passion, these treatises pay homage to a static conception of the social order and an essentialist view of human identity as God-given rather than as forged through participation in social processes. Such views are useful to any social group who feels its privileges (whether old or very newly acquired) threatened by the movements of others. In fact, what seems most troubling about the overt shapeshifting of actors and the elaborate and changing dress of women is that both expose the hollowness of essentialist rhetoric, its antihistorical refusal to acknowledge how changing material conditions in urban London make it possible, and in some cases inevitable, for men and women to assume new social positions and engage in new social practices which make talk of an unchanging social order or a 'true' unchanging identity seem either absurd or willfully repressive. (43-4)
- In focusing on various antitheatrical treatises and relating them to larger (macroeconomic and social) changes in Elizabethan England, Howard has established a 'context' for her subsequent discussion of a number of 'Renaissance plays that involve the representation of dramatic practices' (47); however, in the beginning of 'Antitheatricality Staged', she is quick to note that she did not choose this context because it provides the ultimate explanation of work by Dekker and Shakespeare, the playwrights discussed in this chapter. Rather, the choice appears to be a thematic one in that the plays that she wishes to examine participate in antitheatrical discourse--albeit in complex and, at times, contradictory ways. As was the case in her theoretical writings, Howard is careful to avoid claiming too much determining power for her given 'context', and yet that context is itself quite clearly determined, she suggests in the chapter on the antitheatrical pamphleteers, by changes in the social order. Thus, while Howard continues to promise (in theory) a 'postmodern' reading of determination, she delivers (in practice) an arguably classical Marxist view of the matter.
- Such is the case, I would argue, in her critique of Much Ado, a play which, in Howard's view, 'seems irreproachably conservative in its insistence that the power of theatrical illusion-mongering belongs in the hands of the better sort and that their fictions simply reproduce the truths of nature' (72). The question raised here is: For whom are these ideas 'conservative'? Howard states that the play's 'representations of theatrical practice function with the Elizabethan context to produce and reproduce class and gender difference within a social order dependent on these differences to justify inequalities of power and privilege' (57). She is careful to say that the play both 'produce[d] and reproduce[d] class and gender difference'; however, these differences were already a part of the 'Elizabethan context' before Much Ado came along to do its ideological work. In other words, I am simply making the classical Marxist point--and Howard is too, though evidently in spite of herself--that the 'social text' is prior to and determinant of the literary text, regardless of the ideological permutations engendered within or by the latter. This position in no way bars 'literature' from doing 'work', i.e., acting upon the other superstructures and the base, and there are of course no easy formulas for deciding what exactly that work is or what it accomplishes. As Howard correctly argues, 'the theater's role in culture was more complex than simply affirming masculine and aristocratic power. Neither essentially subversive nor recuperative [as many cultural materialists and new historicists would respectively argue], the institution could and did serve a variety of competing class and gender interests' (12; Howard's emphasis).
This statement is true to some degree of Much Ado; however, as I just noted, Howard views the work as being largely 'recuperative.'
- For Howard, ideology is the crucial concept in her analysis of the politics of Shakespeare's plays. In the instance of Much Ado, she writes, 'the ideological work performed by the discourse of theatricality in the play has to be unearthed through the work of ideology critique, through a strategy of reading aimed at speaking the unspoken of the text and of pressuring its contradictions to reveal its mediations of social struggle' (58). Here again is acknowledgment of the determining power of the base. The play is not so much producing social struggle as mediating a struggle that already exists. Also to be noted is the Machereyan strategy of discussing that struggle as 'the unspoken of the text'. 19 Of course, many materialist critics have produced readings of Shakespeare that attempt to construct various 'unspoken' ideologies. Howard's efforts in this direction, though, seem closest to Dollimore's in his essays on Measure for Measure and Henry V, since, like him, she posits a clear break between what I would call the 'ideology of the text' and Marxist-feminist knowledge of that ideology.
- In Much Ado, the ideology of the text seems to be more or less synonymous with the position articulated by a number of 'traditional' humanist critics. These critics have 'typically made two moves: one involves drawing clear moral distinctions between "good" and "bad" theatrical practices; the other involves reassuring readers that the play offers ways to cope with--to see through--omnipresent theatrical deception' (59). The humanists, we learn, 'insist on Shakespeare's insistence that beneath the world of unstable appearances there is a world of essences to which man has access if he has, paradoxically, either faith or careful noting skills' (60). Howard is dubious about inferring authorial intentions from a dramatic script (9), yet it seems clear enough from her discussion of the 'dominant critical position' (59) that the ideology encoded by Shakespeare's work (7)--to borrow a manner of phrasing to which Howard might not object--and the meaning of the play as it is derived by a critic like John Henze, a 'traditional' humanist, have much in common.
- Like Henze and other humanists, Howard extrapolates a theme for the play. 'At its center', she writes, 'Much Ado seems to dramatize the social consequence of staging lies':
- Don John precipitates the play's crisis by having a servant, Margaret, impersonate her mistress, Hero, in a love encounter observed by Hero's husband-to-be and Don John's brother. These theatrics make Hero appear a whore and lead directly to her denunciation in the church. This deception is clearly coded as evil: it is engineered by a bastard, involves the transgressive act of a servant wearing the clothes of one of higher rank, and leads to the threat of death for several of the play's characters. (58-9)
Yet Don John is not the only 'dramatist' in the play, Howard notes: his brother, Don Pedro, also directs several productions in Much Ado; however, the latter's efforts, which also employ deception, are moralized by traditional critics as 'good' since Don Pedro's match-making goals are laudable. Howard writes that in her reading of the play, she will substitute 'a political and social for a moral analysis of [Much Ado's] theatrical practices', In the process, she will examine 'the role of authority and authoritative discourse in delimiting what can be recognized as true' (60).
- According to Howard, the deceptions of both brothers have 'ideological consequences':
- [Don John's] trick involves a transgression against hierarchy in which, as on the public stage itself, an inferior assumes the borrowed robes of a social superior. This action is not dramatized. Consigned to the realm of the 'unseen', its consequences disappear utterly--like a bad dream--at play's end. By contrast, Don Pedro's two most elaborate deceptions, the playlets put on for Benedick and Beatrice, are dramatized and are presented as part of the prerogatives of Messina's highest-ranking visitor. Ironically, these presentational choices naturalize Don Pedro's practice so that, as in all ideological effects, the arbitrary passes as the inevitable. . . . What results is the production of differences between similar activities in ways that obscure the social differences justified and held in place by moral categories. As in the theatrical tracts, a key question turns out to be: whose fiction-making activities are to be construed as legitimate? (62-3)
Thus, Howard argues, the moral categories established by the play function to reproduce 'existing power relations and social arrangements', a point seldom noted by much 'moral criticism' of Much Ado (63).
- In demonstrating this thesis, Howard offers a compelling interpretation of the social implications of Don Pedro's matchmaking. In her view, he does not so much discover 'Benedick's and Beatrice's pre-existent love' as create it. In doing so, he 'control[s] threats to the social order' by making 'social renegades conform.' At the same time, though, Don Pedro's 'playlets . . . produce gender difference': 'To be a "normal" male is not the same as being a "normal" female', Howard writes. 'In discussing Beatrice before Benedick, Leonato and his friends construct her as a vulnerable pitiful victim. . . . The role mapped for Bendick is to be her rescuer, to become more "manly" by accepting his duty to succor women as well as to fight wars' (65). Howard also points out that Benedick's position as a lover eventually 'comes into conflict with the claims of male friendship, producing disequilibrium in the social order' (when Benedick challenges Claudio at Beatrice's behest); however, '[t]he ending of the play "takes care" of this problem. As is the case with many of Shakespeare's comedies, the ending of Much Ado has a strongly recuperative function as it attempts to smooth over the contradictions or fissures that have opened in the course of the play' (69).
- I have glossed over a number of interesting points Howard makes about Much Ado in my attempt to summarize some of the main ideas of her essay; however, I do want to note one other place in the text where 'history' most palpably intrudes. In her comments on Don Pedro's 'production' of love in Beatrice and Benedick, Howard states that 'by happy sleight of hand, what is their destiny within [a gendered social order] is made to seem their choice. This maneuver affords another instance of inter-class accommodation as the aristocratic ideology of arranged property marriages is made to appear seamlessly compatible with emergent middle-class ideologies of love and individual choice as preconditions for marital union' (71). Although Howard has been arguing that the play 'encodes' and 'recuperates' an aristocratic, patriarchal ideology, at this point she suggests that Much Ado simultaneously carries out a rather different ideological function in that it incorporates 'emergent middle-class ideologies of love and individual choice'. This is a shrewd insight, in my view; however, it is also one that depends for its 'truth effect' on a (historical) 'text' (the rise of the middle classes) that is 'prior to and more privileged than' (47) the literary work that has mobilized the emergent ideology in question. Howard, of course, strenuously argued in the beginning of her essay that there can be no such prior and privileged texts, just as she had argued Tony Bennett's postmodern point that 'no discourse . . . lies outside the domain of the ideological' (49). Neither of these assumptions, it seems to me, is upheld in her discussion of Much Ado. Instead, what we ultimately get in this determinately contextualised analysis of Shakespeare's work is the privileged text of (a particular) history via Howard's knowledge of Marxist-feminist ideological critique.
* * *
- In her essay entitled '(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism', Teresa Ebert argues that '[m]ost postmodern feminists . . . have suppressed "objective reality" in discourse and regimes of signification. Nonetheless, they are feeling (however indirectly) the historical pressures of the return of the suppressed "objective reality"'(Ebert 1995, 113). Such is the case, I would argue, in Howard's work. Despite her efforts to avoid 'the class reductionism and economic determinism of classical Marxism', her practice betrays its reliance on a Marxist-feminist realism that inevitably foregrounds the determining power of the economic base (the 'objective reality' suppressed in Howard's theoretical writings) over the ideological superstructures. Of course, from a classical Marxist position, this 'betrayal' is no bad thing: as Ebert has persuasively argued, '[t]o articulate the relations connecting seemingly disparate events and phenomena is in fact a necessary and unavoidable part of effective knowledge production' (Ebert 1995, 146). Ebert also notes that, while 'the conflicts over ideology, cultural practices and significations are . . . an important part of the social struggle for emancipation[,] the issue is how do we explain the relation of the discursive to the non-discursive, the relation of cultural practices to the "real existing world"--whose objectivity is the fact of the "working day"--in order to transform it?' (Ebert 1995, 146) The answer, I would claim, lies not in a postmodern renunciation of 'epistemology' and 'truth' but, rather, in a renewed commitment to a classical Marxist concept of determination and a concomitant belief (noted above) that, '[a]lthough we can only talk about, or represent, [the world] within some signifying practice or another, what is said within those practices depends for its validity not on the signifying practice alone . . . but on properties and qualities of the things referred to or represented' (Lovell 1980, 82). In other words, it is not a postmodern Marxist feminism but a Marxist-feminist realism by means of which we may labor to make theory adequate to its past and present objects, as well as to 'emergent conditions' (Howard 1994, 21).
- In recent years, critics sympathetic to Marxism have imported tools from other theories, including psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and semiotics, to name a few. Yet the hybrid practices created by such importations, as well as the abandonment by some self-called materialists of concepts formerly thought by many to be key features of Marxist theory, raise the question of exactly how one should define 'Marxism'. In answer to this question, one might argue (as Kathleen McLuskie has about feminism [McLuskie 1985, 88]) that Marxism can only be defined by the multiplicity of critical practices engaged in by those who claim to be Marxists. There is a certain attractiveness to this position, since it suggests that Marxism is not the closed system of thought that its detractors have (quite wrongly, I would argue) accused it of being. Such openness could accommodate certain soft-core left Foucauldians as well as hard-core 'orthodox' Marxists who, having latched onto a particular set of ideas or concepts in the 'canon', have determined that therein is to be found the essence of Marxism. Although I applaud the good-faith efforts of a wide array of cultural critics in recent years to 're-think' Marxism, I would nevertheless maintain, with Terry Eagleton, the rather unfashionable 'essentialist' position that if one is to be true to the classical Marxist tradition, certain beliefs must follow:
- Marxism cannot, by definition, be distinguished by what it shares in common with 'dialectics' as such. It cannot be merely an historicism, or merely a materialism. . . . The specificity of Marxism is in my view at least twofold: it lies, first, in its claim that material production is the ultimately determinant factor of social existence, and, secondly, that the class struggle is the central dynamic of historical development. (Eagleton 1986, 81-2)
- A good example is the work of Tony Bennett, whose Outside Literature (1990) argues the post-Marxist case.
- Howard's list of critics writing new history includes Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Kiernan Ryan, Lisa Jardine, Leah Marcus, Louis Montrose, Jonathan Goldberg, Stephen Orgel, Steven Mullaney, Don E. Wayne, Leonard Tennenhouse, and Arthur Marotti.
- See Eagleton 1989.
- The locus classicus for this view is Engels' letter to Bloch, in which he writes:
- The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure--political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas--also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as nonexistent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. (qtd. in Solomon 1979, 30)
- I am paraphrasing Eagleton, who in his critique of Williams's cultural materialist position asked (rhetorically), 'If everything is "material", can the term logically retain any force? From what does it differentiate itself?' (Eagleton 1989, 169)
- In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson offers a useful summary of 'structural causality'. In his view, where 'traditional' Marxism:
- either conceived, or in the absence of rigorous conceptualization perpetuated the impression, of the 'ultimately determining instance' or mode of production as the narrowly economic--that is, as one level within the social system which, however, 'determines' the others--the Althusserian conception of mode of production identifies this concept with the structure as a whole. For Althusser, then, the more narrowly economic--the forces of production, the labor process, technical development, or relations of production, such as the functional interrelations of social classes--is, however privileged, not identical with the mode of production as a whole, which assigns this narrowly 'economic' level its particular function and efficiency as it does all the other. If therefore one wishes to characterize Althusser's Marxism as a structuralism, one must complete the characterization with the essential proviso that it is a structuralism for which only one structure exists: namely the mode of production itself, or the synchronic system of social relations as a whole. This is the sense in which this 'structure' is an absent cause, since it is nowhere empirically present as an element, it is not a part of the whole or one of its levels, but rather the entire system of relationships among those levels. (Jameson 1981, 35-6)
- See Dollimore 1989, 9-10.
- But see below, where I note that Greenblatt refers to the new historicism as a 'practice'.
- See Greenblatt 1985.
- See Liu 1989, 743.
- By this term, I am referring to the work of writers such as Thomas Kuhn, whose 'flamboyant conventionalism', as Terry Lovell has written, 'declared that all languages of observation and experience are theory-impregnated':
He contended that sense-perception itself depends upon theory, so that the way in which we perceive the world, the sensations and experiences we have, depend upon the theoretical presuppositions we bring to it. It follows that knowledge cannot be validated by an appeal to experience because the very terms of our experience presuppose certain knowledge-claims, and beg the questions which they are supposed to resolve. (Lovell 1980, 15)
Lovell's reply to the Kuhnians is that '[a]lthough we can only talk about, or represent, [the world] within some signifying practice or another, what is said within those practices depends for its validity not on the signifying practice alone [or what Kuhn would refer to as a 'paradigm'] but on properties and qualities of the things referred to or represented' (Lovell 1980, 82).
- The attacks on Althusser's ideology/science binary are legion; however, one of the more thoughtful critiques of this problematic is to be found in Chapter 2 of Lovell 1980.
- As Mark Poster has noted, '[f]rom Foucault's Nietzschean perspective . . . all discourses [including Foucault's own] are merely perspectives, and if one has more value than another that is not because of its intrinsic properties as "truth", or because we call it "science", but because of an extra-epistemological ground, the role the discourse plays in constituting practices' (Poster 1987, 85).
- For an important discussion of the ramifications of these "liberal humanist" views for first-wave feminist criticism of Shakespeare, see McLuskie1985, 88-92.
- To avoid confusion, however, let me stress that I am not for a moment suggesting that one employ postmodern assumptions 'locally' and the base/superstructure model 'globally'; nor am I saying that Howard is advocating such a procedure. I firmly believe that a sophisticated, dialectical, and historically specific use of the base/superstructure model must be employed consistently if one is to explain the kind of 'interconnections' that capitalist structures produce in a postmodern world (if that, in fact, is the world that we inhabit--but see Callinicos  on this question). Howard, on the other hand, seems to believe that one can be 'true' to many postmodern assumptions, employ situated 'large narratives', and yet avoid the red plague of 'foundational metatheory'--her code words, in this instance, for Marxist 'master-narratives'. Obviously, I disagree with Howard on this issue, and I would argue, as I have above, that her approval of Jennifer Wicke's 'programme' demonstrates exactly why postmodern micropolitics and traditional Marxist 'macropolitics' can never be comfortable in bed together.
- Apropos of this point, I will cite Terry Lovell's argument that 'it is absurd to imagine that such well-attested phenomena as social change, conflict, etc. are merely "objects of discourse" and not objects against which the adequacy of discourses is measured. What differentiates [Marxist] realism from this absurdly consistent conventionalism is precisely its insistence that, while concepts draw their meaning from their place within a system of concepts, these concepts can and do refer to real objects in a real world, about which things can be said and known' (Lovell 1980, 37).
- This term has been defined by Raymond Williams as follows:
In what I have called 'epochal' analysis, a cultural process is seized as a cultural system, with determinate dominant features: feudal culture or bourgeois culture or a transition from one to the other. This emphasis on dominant and definitive lineaments and features is important and often, in practice, effective. But it then often happens that its methodology is preserved for the very different function of historical analysis, in which a sense of movement within what is ordinarily abstracted as a system is crucially necessary, especially if it is to connect with the future as well as with the past. In authentic historical analysis it is necessary at every point to recognize the complex interrelations between movements and tendencies both within and beyond a specific and effective dominance. It is necessary to examine how these relate to the whole cultural process rather than only to the selected and abstracted dominant system. (Williams 1977, 121)
- See Macherey 1985, 85-9.
List of Works Cited
Althusser, Louis. 1977. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.
Bennett, Tony. 1990. Outside Literature. London and New York: Routledge.
Callinicos, Alex. 1990. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. New York: St. Martin's.
Dollimore, Jonathan. 1989 edn. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Eagleton, Terry. 1986. Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985. London: Verso.
Eagleton, Terry. 1989. 'Base and Superstructure in Raymond Williams'. In Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives edited by Terry Eagleton. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 165-75.
Ebert, Teresa L. 1995. '(Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism'. Transformation 1: Post-Ality: Marxism and Postmodernism, edited by. Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, Teresa Ebert, and Donald Morton. Washington D. C.: Maisonneuve Press, 113-49.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1985. 'Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V'. In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 18-47.
Greenblatt, Stephen. 1990. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York and London: Routledge.
Howard, Jean E. 1986a. 'Scholarship, Theory, and More New Readings: Shakespeare for the 1990s'. Shakespeare Studies Today: The Horace Howard Furness Memorial Lectures, edited by Georgianna Ziegler. New York: AMS, 127-51.
Howard, Jean E. 1986b. 'The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies'. English Literary Renaissance 16:13-43.
Howard, Jean E. 1991. 'Towards a Postmodern, Politically Committed Historical Practice'. Uses of History: Marxism, Postmodernism, and the Renaissance, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 101-22.
Howard, Jean E. 1994. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. London and New York: Routledge.
Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Liu, Alan. 1989. 'The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism'. English Literary History 56:721-71.
Lovell, Terry. 1980. Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics, Pleasure. London: British Film Institute.
Macherey, Pierre. 1985 edition. A Theory of Literary Production. Trans. Geoffrey Wall. London: Routledge.
McLuskie, Kathleen. 1985. 'The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure'. In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 88-108.
Poster, Mark. 1987 edition. Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information. Cambridge: Polity.
Siar, David. 1991. Review of Greenblatt, Learning to Curse. minnesota review n.s. 37:160-64.
Solomon, Maynard, ed. 1979 edition. Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Contents © Copyright David Siar 1997.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 1997. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 2, Number 2, Autumn 1997.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated
15 December 1997.