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Recent research has shown how Francis Bacon drew on Renaissance practices of reading and writing to propose a new method for understanding nature. Yet Bacon was well aware that such techniques were vulnerable to error, miscommunication, and failure. Instances of misinterpretation in his utopian fantasy New Atlantis reveal that his dream of a legible world accounts for the possibility of misreading. Bacon's characters and his audience are invited to interpret the text's symbols, but they are denied the basis for adequate interpretation. The paradoxes that arise from this strange position affirm the utility of Bacon's method and expose some of its limits.
As the Reformation and Counter-Reformation swept Europe in the sixteenth century, penance (or its rejection) became a cornerstone of individual and confessional identities. Extending a post-Tridentine view of sacramental penance as consolation, Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata suggests that penance offers a means to recover and even to benefit from the experience of error—and to incorporate romance error into epic action and ethics. Through extensive intertextual dialogue, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene engages this view to explore the fears produced in some lay people by the English Reformers' rejection of penance. Book 2 interrogates the possibilities for epic heroism in a fictional environment lacking any visible means to recover from error and therefore profoundly skeptical of experience and the errors to which it might lead. Spenser's virtuoso act of cultural translation reforms Tasso's penance-based ethics, exposes the shortcomings of one approach to reformation, and affirms the educational value of human error.
Is a humanist intellectual with a popular audience more likely to be a credentialed expert or an autodidact at odds with the established norms of scholarship? Is such an intellectual, to use Marjorie Garber's terms, a professional or an amateur? his essay considers these questions in the light of the institutionalization of a humanist curriculum in late colonial Britain and its overseas empire in order to examine the controversial figure of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a Bengali intellectual whose popular and provocative appeal derives from his position as an amateur and an autodidact. Such an intellectual identity is at odds with colonial education's ideological enterprise: to create a certain kind of professional subject. Though Chaudhuri is popularly perceived to be an Anglophile, his amateur identity not only provides the secret of his appeal but also departs from the institutionalization of humanist education that characterized the British Empire.
Although many believe that “mass higher education” increased opportunity and egalitarianism in postwar American society, the reality has been quite different. While a greater proportion of students are enrolled in higher-educational institutions now than at any other point in history, economic inequality is at an all-time high. Postwar American campus novels largely misunderstand this historical development. While the genre represents the university as an institution that combats social inequality by expanding enrollment, these novels simultaneously obscure the social inequality that the university cannot combat and instead helps to legitimate. The symbolic work of American campus novels has thus been to imagine a system that stages social conflicts between the deserving and the elite when in fact the postwar meritocracy has made the two categories functionally indistinguishable.
By examining twenty-first-century negative political advertisements alongside Shakespearean fools and Erasmian folly, we can read attack ads not as barren clichés but as parables about the slippages—between subject and object, villain and hero, insider and outsider—that make possible more-generous appraisals of folly and that offer glimpses of a humanist program based on folly's benevolence. When we read such ads as Erasmian gestures—more than that, when we recognize our entanglements in the foolish maneuverings of our political leaders—we confront the possibility that giving in to the incongruities of folly is more productive than insisting on a knowing, superior sufficiency. To recognize the incapacitating, unconventional properties of folly is to affirm what is alluring, even precious, about rhetorical philosophies that favor not orderly, intelligible communities but profoundly, dramatically—laughably—indistinct ones.
Kenneth Goldsmith, a sculptor turned writer who now refers to himself as a “word processor,” makes mundane yet strangely enthralling poetry out of transcribed speech. Rather than stake claims to originality and value, Goldsmith extols “uncreativity” and “being boring” as new benchmarks of literary achievement. So far, critics have abjured these claims in favor of close readings of the texts. This essay aims to take the critical conversation in a new direction by arguing that what deserves critical examination is Goldsmith's attempt to conceptualize and practice poetry as information management. Information culture provides Goldsmith with a new understanding of language, a new view of the literary, and a new take on authorship, and the methods of text production that result from these resources travesty literary culture as we know it, which is exactly the point. Goldsmith's indifference to literary culture yields a method for generating texts that is as instructive as it is shocking because it requires us to face the strange prospect of a literature that chooses information culture over literary culture as its ground.
Reframing Postcolonial and Global Studies in the Longer Durée
What would it mean for literary and cultural scholars to incorporate the new historical scholarship on early world systems and states? In particular, what might we who study literature in the context of empire, capitalism, modernity, and globalization since 1500 make of the most recent historical and archival work on non-European parts of the world before 1500?
As I sit down to write these words in late October 2014, my Latin American news digest has just informed me that archaeologists in Peru have confirmed that toolmaking human beings lived in settlements 14,700 feet above sea level in the Andes over twelve thousand years ago, a thousand years earlier than anyone was known to have lived at such altitudes (Ritter). The goalposts marking the longue durée in the Americas have been receding continuously in recent years. Until the 1990s, received wisdom had it that human beings arrived in the Americas no earlier than thirteen or fourteen thousand years ago, across the Bering Strait land bridge, which disappeared underwater a couple of thousand years later. But in the late twentieth century archaeologists began finding human remains over fourteen thousand years old, like those in the 14,800-year-old settlement at Monte Verde, far south on the coast of what is now Chile. There had to have been migrations well before the fourteen-thousand-year mark. Since the discovery in Chile, human remains more than twenty and even thirty thousand years old have repeatedly been found. Aggressively defended by archaeologists, the accepted story held up longer than it should have, but accumulating evidence has finally dislodged it. How and when the Americas were populated by human beings remains a terrain of lively controversy.
In July 1099, after three years of levantine military adventure during which new latin christian colonies were fashioned at edessa and Antioch, the transnational forces from Europe later known as the First Crusade finally captured their principal target: Jerusalem. Three eyewitness chronicles attest to the bloodbath that followed. Fulcher of Chartres, chaplain to one of the foremost Crusade leaders, estimated that “ten thousand were beheaded” at the Temple of Solomon alone (Chronicle 77). The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum (The Deeds of the Franks) averred, “No-one has ever seen or heard of such a slaughter of pagans” (92). Raymond d'Aguiliers, chaplain to another Crusade leader, was effusive:
Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet lay in the houses and streets, and indeed there was a running to and fro of men and knights over the corpses…. [T]hese are few and petty details…. Shall we relate what took place there? If we told you, you would not believe us. So it is sufficient to relate that in the Temple of Solomon and the portico crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses. In my opinion, this was poetic justice…. Jerusalem was now littered with bodies. (Historia 127-28)
Only in the last decade has the field of medieval french literature recognized the need for a critical gaze that looks outside France and beyond the persistent Eurocentric accounts of medieval French literary history. These accounts long viewed medieval French literary production primarily in relation to the Latin, Celtic, and Provençal traditions. My research over the last twenty years has called for a revisionist history of literature and of empires and has highlighted the fact that throughout the Middle Ages France entertained “inter-imperial” literary relations—not only with European traditions but also with extra-European cultures, specifically with the Islamicate world.
Civilization is unthinkable without writing. This statement is a commonplace, and like all commonplaces its reiteration merits critical reflection, especially when we ponder why stakes become so high whenever writing is concerned. The shared modern Chinese and Japanese kanji rendering of the word for “civilization,” for instance, means “enlightening through writing/text” ( [wenming in Mandarin]), which puts emphasis literally on the value of writing. For centuries, writing has been invoked as a positive index to the hierarchy of human societies and their intellectual attributes, whereby orality is relegated to primitive and pretechnological cultures. The presumed dichotomy of writing and orality often relies on a flawed, representational view of writing that is phonocentric to the core, à la Derrida, and remains almost always blind to the presence of script or medium—including that of alphabetical writing—which requires a different kind of analytical approach.
This essay aims to contribute to current studies of language and empire by considering arabic and persian in the ninth and tenth centuries. Following the lead of Edward Said on colonial empires and translation, I focus on the political aspects of language and translation in “premodern” trans-Asian societies, which have not received the nuanced attention they deserve. Accentuating the act of adopting and supporting a language as political, I argue that the wax and wane of imperial languages were predicated on two usually simultaneous dynamics: intra-imperial interests and, to use Laura Doyle's term, inter-imperial competition. Imperial patronage aimed, on the one hand, to consolidate power, exercise control, stabilize administration, and order lived reality for imperial subjects and, on the other hand, to create a discourse to fashion and project an image of rule capable of competing with rival claims in Afro-Eurasia. On both fronts, the promotion of one vernacular as “high language” entailed resisting another one in an already filled political, sociocultural, and linguistic space. The new language thus proceeded in an intrusive and even disruptive way since it involved a construction of new meanings to conform to alternative sociopolitical and cultural norms and priorities and to tame the multiplicity of language. Yet, such a political engagement or competition with existing language(s) and discourse(s) also led to new forms of hybridity of language and discourse, as was the case for Persian when the Samanids (819-999) adopted the script of the Arabic language and much of its vocabulary and idioms to express their thoughts.
This essay focuses on two tenth-century bronze objects, a basin and a bowl, inscribed with an epigraphic band that can be read as the repetition of the Arabic word for sovereignty, al-mulk. These objects were probably made in the area that now comprises Iran and Central Asia, an artistic, intellectual, and commercial center of the Islamic lands in the ninth and tenth centuries. Bronzes like these, luxury commodities that would have appeared gold when new, are rarely found outside Iran and Central Asia (Allan; Baer). Yet those I discuss here were discovered far from their likely region of origin—indeed, at opposite ends of the Islamic territories of Eurasia. The large bronze basin was discovered in Inner Mongolia, while the small bronze bowl was unearthed in Córdoba, in southern Spain. These inscribed objects hint at a transhemispheric cultural-political history that has implications for reigning narratives of modernity, including for those that relate to medieval studies.
In what has often been read as a comic display of frivolity, the protagonist of christopher marlowe's doctor faustus (c. 1589-92) produces a dish of grapes to satisfy the craving of a pregnant duchess. The duchess, a German, had implied that such a delicacy would be available to her in the summertime but was quite out of reach in the current month, January—“the dead time of the winter” (4.2.11). Whereas modern-day global capitalism makes fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round in northern supermarkets, the gratification of a wintertime desire for them in the late sixteenth century required magic or stagecraft. Asked how he managed to procure the grapes out of season, Faustus explains, “[T]he year is divided into two circles over the whole world, that when it is here winter with us, in the contrary circle it is summer with them, as in India, Saba, and farther countries in the East; and by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had brought them hither, as ye see” (4.2.22-27). Thus, instead of simply conjuring the grapes out of thin air, Faustus employs a spirit courier who swiftly retrieves the grapes and transports them across the globe, from the warm climates of the Eastern Hemisphere to the German court of Vanholt. If Faustus's spirit transgresses the laws of nature, it also relies on a kind of scientific knowledge and technology to ascertain where grapes naturally grow in January. Additionally, the seizure of the grapes from “India, Saba, and farther countries in the East” implies a right of access that is attained (or circumvented) by Faustus's magic. In short, the magic for which Faustus has sold his soul to the devil is, in this instance, that of effortless global commerce—or, rather, the ability to attain a foreign commodity while bypassing the means of production and contingencies of exchange.
How might early modern studies participate in the larger conversations and transformations of postcolonial studies while attending to the specificities of the age? How might we develop and mobilize period-specific understandings of a moment when states aspire to both empire and nation? My inquiry is motivated not only by the questions posed by the cluster of essays to which it belongs but also by the generalized, and often historically imprecise, move to transnationalism as a catchall for work that complicates our traditional nation-based categories. As I will suggest here, despite the strategic advantages of transnationalism for forging trans-historical connections, for developing a critical pedagogy, and for interrogating our own academy, the approach threatens to occlude the intertwined histories of nation and empire, even as it fails to capture the liminal, transitional qualities of the early modern. Instead, I propose a focus on imperium, to highlight the mimetic rivalries occurring among emergent empires at the very time they solidify sovereignty. Imperium studies challenges the self-sufficient histories of nation and empire by arguing for their imbrication and competition: only a plural history of the intersections among them can provide the full picture. Moreover, imperium studies explicitly engages with the multiple early modern temporalities, as well as allegiances—to an imperial future, certainly, but also to a classical past that remained central as exemplar and motivator and to the imperfect, incomplete work of nation making.