Vincent Barletta has made an interesting Arcade post about context in literary criticism. I respond here at New Savanna rather than there because my thoughts exceed any decent length for blog comments. First I offer passages from Barletta’s post, then I discuss an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture.” After that, two early modern texts from English literature (Pantosto and the Winter's Tale) and, at the end, robots in the Japan of Osamu Tezuka.
Let’s start with the opening of Barletta’s post:
Focused as some of us are on medieval and early modern literature, the question of context comes up a great deal. Is our work sufficiently contextualized? Where and how do modern theories of language and meaning (our inevitable toolkit) fit into our work? Are we expected to bracket off ourselves (and our readers) from our work? Is it our goal to speak of, for example, fifteenth-century poetry in terms that only a fifteenth-century reader would understand (e.g., "According to Aquinas. . .")?
As I read those words my nose got chocked up with dust and I felt the chill of vampires rising from the crypts of ancient libraries.
Early in my career I’d heard rumors of scholars who didn’t believe one could properly use theories and concepts of a vintage more recent than the texts to which one applies them. No Freudian, Marxist, or Derridean analysis of Wuthering Heights, the Divine Comedy, or Oedipus the King. Now Barletta’s telling me that they still walk among us.
He goes on in the next paragraph:
These are extreme positions, and we mostly don't expect to write about medieval and early modern works in the same way that medieval and early modern writers did. Our readers, after all, have different expectations and needs. Modern theories and philosophies do have a place in our work, although we often have a very hard time defining for ourselves and our students (not to mention those anonymous readers who assess our work for publication) where the line that divides antiquarian fetishism and anachronism might be.
OK, that’s a little better, gives us a little breathing room.
Let’s consider Steven Greenblatt’s “Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture,” from Learning to Curse (1990). Through a consideration of the case of Martin Guerre Greenblatt argues that psychoanalysis is somewhere between not at all and only problematically applicable to Renaissance (aka early modern) texts because psychoanalytic theory presupposes a coherent self and identity that doesn’t seem to obtain in that era. They didn’t experience or conceptualize themselves in the way that we do now, or that Freud and his patients did not so long ago.
Independently of Greenblatt, of course, we have a bunch of folks who don’t think psychoanalysis applies to any text because psychoanalysis is nonsense. If they’re right then the Greenbelt’s problematic disappears. Psychoanalysis isn’t relevant to early modern texts because it isn’t relevant to human experience. Not any more.
As I have some sympathy with this position I can’t just ignore it, though I’m willing to bracket it. For myself, I think psychoanalysis needs to be reconstructed in contemporary intellectual terms—which is being done—and that the result is going to be a very different theory. Whatever that very different theory is, however, it’s certainly not going to be anything that would have been intelligible anywhere in the world in 1550. If, for example, it’s reconstructed in neural terms, would the caudate nuculeus ring a bell, or the arcuate fasiculus? What about reafferent stimulation or basin of attraction?
Setting that aside, I believe that Greenblatt has a point, and a very important one, about the self and identity. We cannot and should not assume that what appears to be a modern conception of internal coherence and unity is everywhere in place. But it’s not obvious to me that psychoanalysis is so dependent on that assumption that its usefulness fails where the assumption isn’t met. Does the notion of the unconscious depend on that assumption? Or that of repression?
I don’t think so. Which is to say, there’s an argument to be made, and the nature and outcome of that argument is not a priori obvious to me.
Two English Texts
Now for a look as two particular texts, Robert Green’s Pandosto (1592) and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (c. 1611), which I discuss in a longish post on Graham Harman’s recent article on object-oriented ontology in New Literary History (which, incidentally, has a thing or two to say about context). Those two texts interest me because they share pretty much the same story, with crucial differences. I begin my argument simply by summarizing that story and pointing out the differences between the two versions.
That is, I’m using the texts as contexts for one another—obviously a very common critical practice. The question of how these texts are alike and how they’re different has nothing to do with early modern theoretical ideas or ours. It’s a matter of relatively straight-forward description: what happens to whom and when?
It’s the differences that interest me. For example, in Green’s text a queen dies half-way through the story. In Shakespeare’s she goes into hiding, miraculously to reappear at the end. I suggest that that particular difference is internally linked to three or four other crucial differences such that they’re all part of one more comprehensive difference. In effect, Shakespeare couldn’t have made one of those changes without making all of them.
That’s a rather speculative argument and one that, as I present it, is about the requirements of form. I could easily be wrong on that, but, if so, I doubt that my error is a contextual one hanging on the difference between my view of the world and Greene’s or Shakespeare’s. The error would pertain to the working of the mind at a pretty general level.
Assuming that I’m more or less in the right ballpark on that argument, why the changes? On the one hand, that’s certainly an argument about Shakespeare’s individual artistic intentions, and Greene’s. And on that I haven’t got a clue beyond the texts themselves. But that’s not the kind of argument I attempt, not quite. The argument I make has to do with shifting ideas about the family and marriage, that Shakespeare’s version is more consonant with ideas that became dominant only decades after he wrote the play, but that were kicking around in the underbrush during his time.
Now, THAT’s obviously a contextual argument. And that’s why those two texts interest me, because they allow of a certain kind of contextual argument. We know that ideas and practices about the family did change. Why and how? I think that literary texts are part of the how. If so, that’s very important, no? They may even be part of the why. If so, does that make artists into Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators?
All of that, except the foundational comparison between the two texts, is highly speculative. I offer no apology of the speculation. Sometimes speculation is all we can do. I do it in the hope that the speculation will prove attractive enough that others will try to build on it. I hope it is cogent enough so that, if those attempts fail, something useful will have emerged in the process.
Robots in Osamu Tezuka
In Japan Tezuka is known as the god of manga. His work emerged in the years after World War II, was enormously prolific, popular, and influential. He’s best known as the creator of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu in Japanese, the Mighty Atom), but he’s written and drawn many other titles, including an eight-volume life of Buddha and an autobiography. He ran an anime studio as well—there’s reason to think that Disney copped the idea for the Lion King from one of Tezuka’s anime titles.
Now, if we look at the Astro Boy series it becomes apparent that they’re different from Western robot and computer stories. Tezuka isn’t for the most part worried about robots and computers going crazy through being excessively logical or whether they have feelings. He’s worried about how they fit into society, robot society and human society together. A fair number of his stories read as pleas for civil rights for robots.
Thus Astro Boy is not the Monster from the Id of Forbidden Planet, HAL in 2001, Commander Data in Star Trek, or the computers in the Matrix films. Those films owe a debt to a different Japanese source, Ghost in the Shell, but that Japanese film isn’t plagued by the Platonic or Cartesian problematics of the American films, with their revelation of a secret world behind the appearances of ordinary reality. Astro just wants to get along with humans and be treated with respect.
Why’s Tezuka telling those kind of stories? And why did they resonate so deeply in Japan when they started appearing in the early 1950s? I’ve conjectured, again in a longish post, that the stories grown out of Tezuka’s experience during the American occupation, which is when the stories were germinating and they resonated because so many Japanese had similar experiences.
They were often treated badly, as inferiors, by their conquerors—a privilege to which conquerors typically feel entitled. Of course the Japanese didn’t like this—who would?—but it was new experience in their national experience. They’d never before been conquered.
The robots in these stories, who were at the center of them, were treated as inferiors by the humans. These stories about a robot boy and his friends and family thus gave the Japanese a way of working through the role of subaltern. They could identify with this cheerful plucky boy, who manages to overcome all obstacles, and feel better about their place in the world, while conveniently forgetting about their nation’s role in the war that got them into this situation.
Tezuka published Astro Boy stories through the late 1960s and create 52 anima episodes in the 1980s, long after the American occupation had ended. By that time Japan’s national humiliation had receded into the past and few in Tezuka’s audience would have had any direct experience of the occupation. At the same time, manga and anime had come to be a major force in Japanese culture, with the Astro Boy stories central to it. If we want to account for the continuing popularity of these stories we’ll have to offer something other than the experience of the occupation.
But that explanation, whatever it may be, is beyond the scope of my speculations. Why some stories persist beyond the context that gave rise to them, that’s a good question. One we can address by examining Shakespeare as well as, for the moment at least, Osamu Tezuka.