Respondent: Bruce R. Smtih, USC (author of Phenomenal Shakespeare, The Key of Green, and much more.)
Michael Witmore, presiding
Phenomenology and Law
This short talk uses Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a case study in how law might offer a field for phenomenological speculation. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan is a sensible crime; not because it’s practical or judicious (it’s neither), but because it’s born of the senses and experienced as
sensation. This is not to say that Macbeth does not think himself into the criminal event, but that the thinking he does he does with his body. In contrast to the largely dualistic legal–theology of crime dominant in the Renaissance, Macbeth presents criminal thoughts not as ontologically distinct products of the intellect or soul, but as secretions of the senses; properties of active receptive bodies moving through a world of things. To this extent, I will suggest, Macbeth functions as a specifically theatrical iteration of a long tradition of phenomenological insight stretching from Aristotle to Maurice Merleau–Ponty to Graham Harman.
Phenomenology and Images
James A. Knapp, Loyola University Chicago
Images are peculiar things. They can be material or immaterial, sensible or ideational, “real” or imagined. Shakespeare both recognized and elaborated on the implications of the peculiarity of images, exploiting their dramatic potential. As Theseus muses in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the image governs commerce between apprehension and comprehension:
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (5.1.18-22)
Theseus offers this explanation in order to dismiss “strong imagination” in favor of “cool reason,” the former marking the condition of the Athenian lovers’ sudden and collective change of heart after one night in the forest. Yet in Hippolyta’s response Shakespeare complicates Theseus’s attempt to rationalize vision:
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable. (5.1.23-27)
The lovers’ story that Theseus takes to be “more strange than true,” becomes in Hippolyta’s description “strange and admirable,” inexplicable but wondrous. In Theseus’s example, bear and bush are both things and images (albeit simple ones) that produce (and are produced by) different cognitive responses: one runs from a bear (knowing it to be dangerous) but not a bush (even if its outline resembles a bear’s). Theseus reveals that the conditions for (mis)perception are a product of both the sensible visual field (an ostensibly material bush perceived “in the night”) and the observer’s mind (when “imagining some fear” the bush is seen as a bear). All of Theseus’s terms are available to his conscious reason. Hippolyta’s objection that something more is at play than “fancy’s images,” draws attention to the play’s investment in a deeper phenomenology of images than Theseus’s reason can comprehend, one marked by a process of transfiguration, through which sense and understanding “grow to something of great constancy.”
In this presentation I will suggest that modern phenomenology provides a useful lens through which to view the complex relationship between apprehension and comprehension that Shakespeare attributes to the experience with an image.
In particular, I will explore how a reading of Shakespeare’s images can benefit from two insights from phenomenology: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s articulation of the intertwining of the visible and the invisible as the chiasm of the perceptual body, and Jean Luc Marion’s discussion of the “crossing of the visible” in relation to his idea of “saturated experience.” Rather than offering a sustained reading of any one play, I will concentrate on some specific scenes in which Shakespeare’s characters are called upon to respond to images. Examples will include Othello’s reaction to Iago’s image of Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief, Claudio’s reaction to the image of Margaret and Borachio in Much Ado, and Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy.
Phenomenology and Ethics
University of California, Santa Barbara
The scene in King Lear in which a dispossessed Lear meets an abject Tom o’ Bedlam has long been considered central to the play’s reflections on deprivation and need, empathy and human fellow-feeling. It is much less frequently noted that the scene has all the markings of a recognition scene from the romance tradition. Trained to read such scenes, Shakespeare’s audience might expect Tom o’Bedlam’s unveiling; they might expect Lear to recognize Edgar not as abject and other but as the same, a figure of the same aristocratic class who, like Lear, has fallen. In a characteristic gesture, however, Shakespeare introduces the generic conventions of romance only to thwart the audience’s expectations.
In the larger project from which I draw this short paper, I pursue the device of recognition in a phenomenological context in order to think through the ways in which King Lear stages ethical encounters. Phenomenology famously struggles with the problem of the phenomenon of the other person. In this presentation, I turn to Emmanuel Levinas’s radical reframing of this problem in order to attempt to make sense of the encounter between Lear and Poor Tom, the stranger who is all too familiar in his abjection. In my reading of the play generally, Shakespeare plays with the audience’s expectations with regard to recognition in Lear and thereby tweaks the epistemological structure of recognition as a coming to knowledge, as a movement from the unknown to the known. By deferring and denying the advent of knowledge that generic cues promise, Shakespeare draws the audience’s attention to the ways in which his characters apprehend the unknown, and, in particular, the other person, the stranger. In Lear, I suggest, Shakespeare seems interested in deferring or denying recognition in order to create dramatically tense and highly fraught ethical encounters. In the scene between Lear and Poor Tom, he does so, I argue, in order to stage the possibility – or impossibility – of an ethical relation with the stranger.
Phenomenology and God
Wayne State University
Bruce Smith locates his wonderfully lucid and engaging book on Shakespeare and phenomenology (Phenomenal Shakespeare) within the current “affective turn” of critical thought, a turn that is, he suggests, a “counterturn” responding to the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s and 1970s (7). One hesitates to add yet another twist to this dizzying array of turns, but if one is trying to sketch in full the relationship between Shakespeare and phenomenology it is necessary to point out that somewhere in between the so-called linguistic turn and the affective turn early modern literature/Shakespeare studies experienced a “religious turn” (Jackson & Marotti, 2004) that was determined in large part by the “theological turn” in phenomenology (Janicaud, 1991, trans. 2000). That is, if we are to determine a relationship between Shakespeare studies and phenomenology we might begin with the fact that both have tried – unsuccessfully – to rid themselves of God and religion.
Or, to put this another way: Whatever one’s engagement with religion or theology it is risky to leap too quickly over these “in between” turns because they so strikingly illuminate the other two (linguistic and affective) turns cited by Smith. Briefly, the theological turn in phenomenology rather strikingly revealed the fact that the so-called linguistic turn’s primary interests were in gesturing towards what eludes philosophy as “other” — rather than language as such; and, correspondingly, the affective turn can only be understood in the broader context of materialist thought which has sought to purge any hint of an investment in otherness (including, especially, that associated with religion and theology). That is, the affective turn is not so much a pragmatic “counterturn” in response to the lofty “high theory” of the linguistic turn but a powerfully persuasive part of a longstanding (since Parmenides) struggle between those who are moved by a sense of an other than or beyond Being and those determined to squash such non-sense because of the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction (A cannot be B and not B; or Being cannot be Being and non-Being/Other). We should be clear, if not polite: What motivates the affective turn is a desire for a univocal ontology that eliminates even modest flirtations with alterity or otherness because such flirtations hint at transcendence and idealist philosophy – the targets of (historical) materialism, the still dominant mode of academic discourse. Can phenomenology be yoked to this turn? That is, should we consider, too, that phenomenology and Shakespeare – despite the best efforts of many — still allow for rather continuous turns around God and religion? Can phenomenology’s struggle with religion and theology illuminate Shakespeare and, alternately, can Shakespeare’s vexed religious gestures illuminate phenomenology?
Phenomenology and Things
Julia Reinhard Lupton
The University of California, Irvine
In this presentation, I will attend to the role of objects in a brief scene from Romeo and Juliet (transition between Act I, scenes iv and v). The actors, who are also stage hands, establish the setting of the drama through their interactions with each other and the world of things on the physical plateau of the stage, which, as a space of presentation and representation, is also a virtual space where imagined vistas are made to appear in collaboration with the audience.
I would like to bring to bear on these objects the theory of affordances, first developed in environmental psychology and since migrating into design research, especially usability studies, human-computer interaction, and product design. It is my contention that design theory more generally has something to tell us about the way in which people and things interact in the environment constituted by the Renaissance stage and in the lived worlds imagined on that stage. Shakespeare studies, I am suggesting, can build on its own substantial history with objects, as conducted in traditional theater history, semiotic studies, and new materialist approaches, through an engagement with design discourse, which brings to the table a phenomenological concern with the life of objects in daily use while inviting comparison with the contemporary life of things.
My goal here is stay close the ground; I will not aim at the dramatic center of Romeo and Juliet, but rather at its supporting margins, and I will avoid sublimating the things of the play into signs or emblems of deeper thematic purposes in order to account for the peculiar phenomenology of things. Things disappear: they disappear into the routines of use in daily life, except under circumstances of failure, want, or breakage, or in moments of special appreciation and acknowledgement, which include both curation and celebration. Things also disappear in academic analysis, insofar as they too quickly turn into symbols or symptoms, semiotic messages divested of their lived properties. By taking things as objects of analysis, we tend to make their normative modes of being withdraw from attention. I would like to grasp here the special ways that things disappear and reappear in daily life, in order to short-circuit the way that things disappear in academic discourse.
By keeping my focus narrow, however, I do not relinquish all ambitions to illumine the larger economies of plot and character in the play, or at least the conditions of those economies. Hospitality is a key term in connecting the things of the play to its dramatic interests in a single network of action, activity, and concern. Hospitality opens the household to strangers, often in a seasonal setting (Christmas, Passover, Lammastide) or a life-cycle event (christening, circumcision, birthday, wedding, funeral) that exists in response to ecological and biological rhythms. Hospitality is a design for living, a set of protocols that manages persons, things, and spaces in a social and natural world striated by existential vulnerabilities that follow from our affiliations with other people, including neighbors, strangers and the enmities they might bring into the oikos, as well as our links to creaturely life and our own physical needs for food, shelter and clothing. Hospitality manages these multiple vulnerabilities through a signifying arsenal that cultivates linguistic and musical performances alongside a diverse object world composed of special foods, fibers, and tools. We might consider such items as actants, or better celebrants, co-contributors to the festivities in the social scene set by hospitality.
The customary scripts of hospitality, moreover, contain ample opportunities for drama, in the form of conflict and rivalry, the hiding and disclosure of identity, and the contingencies of love. Hospitality subsists as an interface between theater (the technics of performance) and drama (the staging of significant human action), as well as between household economies and the public spheres of the Renaissance. Although my emphasis in this essay is on the life of objects, the framework of hospitality always beckons with its promise of a deeper mise en scene of Shakespeare’s dramatic concerns.
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