Emily Vasiliauskas, “Mortal Knowledge: Akrasia in English Renaissance Tragedy,” in Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 221-38
An essay on “a strange passage in the history of evil.”
“Is it possible to perform an action in the full knowledge that it would be wrong to do so? This may seem like a strange question with which to open an essay on the tragedy of early modern England, which produced such exuberant evildoers as Richard iii, Sejanus, and the Cardinal from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Evidently, purposeful criminality was not only a logical possibility, but also a dramatic resource in a period that made ambition and revenge its abiding tragic motives. But the relationship between knowledge and wrongdoing was a serious problem within ancient Greek philosophy, and Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy’s aesthetic norms derives in part from his understanding of the crux. In this essay, I will show how akrasia—‘the state of tending to act against one’s better judgment’—a concept which Aristotle identified as un-tragic and whose very existence Socrates denied, became indispensable to English Renaissance tragedy, a genre designation which I apply to both dramatic and poetic narratives. I will examine the consequences of this transformation for tragedy’s account of the human will, its narrative form, and its purpose within a political community.”
Bethany Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil (University of Virginia Press 2016)
When the American poet Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil in 1951 at the age of forty, she had not planned to stay, but her love affair with the Brazilian aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares and with the country itself set her on another course, and Brazil became her home for nearly two decades. In this groundbreaking new study, Bethany Hicok offers Bishop’s readers the most comprehensive study to date on the transformative impact of Brazil on the poet’s life and art. Based on extensive archival research and travel, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil argues that the whole shape of Bishop’s writing career shifted in response to Brazil, taking on historical, political, linguistic, and cultural dimensions that would have been inconceivable without her immersion in this vibrant South American culture.
Hicok reveals the mid-century Brazil that Bishop encountered–its extremes of wealth and poverty, its spectacular topography, its language, literature, and people–and examines the Brazilian class structures that placed Bishop and Macedo Soares at the center of the country’s political and cultural power brokers. We watch Bishop develop a political poetry of engagement against the backdrop of America’s Cold War policies and Brazil’s political revolutions. Hicok also offers the first comprehensive evaluation of Bishop’s translations of Brazilian writers and their influence on her own work. Drawing on archival sources that include Bishop’s unpublished travel writings and providing provocative new readings of the poetry, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil is a long-overdue exploration of a pivotal phase in this great poet’s life and work.
In most accounts, literature of the nineteenth century compulsively tells the story of the individual and interiority. But amidst the newly dense social landscapes of modernity, with London as the first city of one million inhabitants, this literature also sought to represent those unknown and unmet: strangers. Focusing on the ways that both Victorian literature and modern social thought responded to an emergent “society of strangers,” The Comfort of Strangers argues for a new relation between literary form and the socially dense environments of modernity, insisting upon strangers in these works not as alienating, fearsome others, but a relatively banal yet transformative fact of everyday life, the dark matter of the nineteenth-century social universe.
Taking up “the literature of social density,” Gage McWeeny engages with a range of generically diverse works from the age of Victorian sympathy to illuminate surprising investments in ephemeral relations, anonymity, and social distance. Life amidst strangers on urban streets and markets produced new social experiences, both alluring and fearsome, and McWeeny shows how realist literary form is remade by the relational possibilities offered by the impersonal intimacy of life among those unknown and the power of weak social ties. Reading works by Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, he discovers a species of Victorian sociality not imagined under J.S. Mill’s description in On Liberty of society as a crowd impinging upon the individual. Instead, McWeeny mines nineteenth-century literature’s sociological imagination to reveal a set of works diverted by and into intensities located in strangers and the modern forms of sociality they emblematize.
Treating seriously the preference for the many over the few, the impersonal intimacy of strangers over those who are friends and acquaintances, The Comfort of Strangers shows how literature and sociology together produced modern understandings of the social, opening up canonical works of the nineteenth century to a host of strange, new meanings.
by Christian Thorne
In this wide-ranging, ambitious, and engaging study, Christian Thorne confronts the history and enduring legacy of anti-foundationalist thought.
Anti-foundationalism—the skeptical line of thought that contends our beliefs cannot be authoritatively grounded and that most of what passes for knowledge is a sham—has become one of the dominant positions in contemporary criticism. Thorne argues that despite its ascendance, anti-foundationalism is wrong. In The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment, he uses deft readings of a range of texts to offer new perspectives on the ongoing clash between philosophy and comprehensive doubt.
The problem with anti-foundationalism is not, as is often thought, that it radiates uncertainty or will unglue the university, but instead that it is a system of thought—with set habits that generate unearned certainties. The shelves are full of histories of modern philosophy, but the history of the resistance to philosophical thought remains to be told. At its heart, The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment is a plea not to take doubt at its word—a plea for the return of a vanished philosophical intelligence and for the retirement of an anti-Enlightenment thinking that commits, over and over again, the very crimes that it lays at Enlightenment’s door.
“An important work of criticism that makes crucial points about skepticism (which can be construed as a lack of belief in the possibility of universal rational agreement) and its ties to regressive politics… This is an important discussion of pre-Enlightenment opponents of enlightenment, of those who wanted to stand pat all in the defense of standing pat with the king or tyrant we know (whether devil or not), rather than either following the demands of philosophy or embracing egalitarianism. And it is flat out entertaining, to boot.”—Robert Moore, PopMatters
By Kathryn Kent
Making Girls into Women offers an account of the historical emergence of “the lesbian” by looking at late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women’s writing. Kathryn R. Kent proposes that modern lesbian identity in the United States has its roots not just, or even primarily, in sexology and medical literature, but in white, middle-class women’s culture. Kent demonstrates how, as white women’s culture shifted more and more from the home to the school, workplace, and boarding house, the boundaries between the public and private spheres began to dissolve. She shows how, within such spaces, women’s culture, in attempting to mold girls into proper female citizens, ended up inciting in them other, less normative, desires and identifications, including ones Kent calls “protolesbian” or queer.
Kent not only analyzes how texts represent queer erotics, but also theorizes how texts might produce them in readers. She describes the ways postbellum sentimental literature such as that written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Emma D. Kelley eroticizes, reacts against, and even, in its own efforts to shape girls’ selves, contributes to the production of queer female identifications and identities. Tracing how these identifications are engaged and critiqued in the early twentieth century, she considers works by Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as in the queer subject-forming effects of another modern invention, the Girl Scouts. Making Girls into Women ultimately reveals that modern lesbian identity marks an extension of, rather than a break from, nineteenth-century women’s culture.
By Christopher Pye
In The Vanishing Christopher Pye combines psychoanalytic and cultural theory to advance an innovative interpretation of Renaissance history and subjectivity. Locating the emergence of the modern subject in the era’s transition from feudalism to a modern societal state, Pye supports his argument with interpretations of diverse cultural and literary phenomena, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, witchcraft and demonism, anatomy theaters, and the paintings of Michelangelo.
Pye explores the emergence of the early modern subject in terms of a range of subjectivizing mechanisms tied to the birth of a modern conception of history, one that is structured around a spatial and temporal horizon—a vanishing point. He also discusses the distinctly economic character of early modern subjectivity and how this, too, is implicated in our own modern modes of historical understanding. After explaining how the aims of New Historicist and Foucauldian approaches to the Renaissance are inseparably linked to such a historical conception, Pye demonstrates how the early modern subject can be understood in terms of a Lacanian and Zizekian account of the emerging social sphere. By focusing on the Renaissance as a period of remarkable artistic and cultural production, he is able to illustrate his points with discussions of a number of uniquely fascinating topics—for instance, how demonism was intimately related to a significant shift in law and symbolic order and how there existed at the time a “demonic” preoccupation with certain erotic dimensions of the emergent social subject.
By John Limon
Almost all twentieth-century philosophy stresses the immanence of death in human life-as drive (Freud), as the context of Being (Heidegger), as the essence of our defining ethics (Levinas), or as language (de Man, Blanchot). In Death’s Following, John Limon makes use of literary analysis (of Sebald, Bernhard, and Stoppard), cultural analysis, and autobiography to argue that death is best conceived as always transcendentally beyond ourselves, neither immanent nor imminent.
Adapting Kierkegaard’s variations on the theme of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac while refocusing the emphasis onto Isaac, Limon argues that death should be imagined as if hiding at the end of an inexplicable journey to Moriah. The point is not to evade or ignore death but to conceive it more truly, repulsively, and pervasively in its camouflage: for example, in jokes, in logical puzzles, in bowdlerized folk songs.