"Talking about Pennies" and the Dialectical Challange:
A Response to Alan Sinfield's "Selective Quotation"

David Siar

 

     1. Alan Sinfield argues that "a pattern emerges" in Graham Bradshaw's and Richard Levin's criticism of his work: "a reductive version of cultural materialism is manufactured, supported by selective quotation, and then censured as insufficiently complex. It is as if any attempt to bring Shakespeare into contact with a wider political reality is so threatening that it must be positioned instantly as both crass and malign" (¶4). Although I consider myself a historical, rather than a cultural, materialist,1 a Marxist by any name smells as bad to Bradshaw and Levin; therefore, I'll happily make common cause with Sinfield and expand upon several points that he has made about the tactics of these two critics.

     2. I'll begin with Bradshaw. According to Sinfield (and I agree), Bradshaw's "crucial issue is that cultural materialists 'are not paying tribute to the plays' exploratory and analytical intelligence.' Any failure to congratulate Shakespeare at frequent intervals on the fullness of his humanity amounts to declaring him evil" (¶17). Sinfield is quoting from a chapter in Misrepresentations, where Bradshaw offers an extended analysis of Henry V, as well as a critique of Sinfield's treatment of the play in his and Jonathan Dollimore's 1985 essay, "History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V." Bradshaw finds Dollimore and Sinfield's analysis flawed for any number of reasons, but he is particularly troubled by their refusal to give Shakespeare his due. In fact, they don't give credit to Shakespeare at all, according to Bradshaw, except to imply that he's insidiously "pro-Henry" and thus "evilly in favor of . . . exploitation" (103). Bradshaw, however, argues that the play (and therefore Shakespeare) "is demonstrably more genuinely 'interrogative,' more 'radical' and, above all, far more intelligent" than its materialist critics would allow. By paying close attention to the "structural dynamics" (46) of the play, Bradshaw maintains, the viewer/reader is presented with "challenging ironies and perspectival clashes" that should dispel the "simplistic" notion that Shakespeare is either pro- or anti-Henry. In pointing out Shakespeare's dramatic "rhymes" -- the intricate parallels and contrasts by means of which the playwright "integrate[s] and musicalize[s] his poetic-dramatic material" (63-4), Bradshaw argues that the play is a "highly organized matrix of potential meanings" (31) that -- far from "press[ing] us toward one single, inclusive judgment" (47) -- present us with a "historiographical challenge," that is, a "challenge to think about history" (45).

     3. Sinfield's rebuttal to this criticism is that Bradshaw must have dreamed up a different essay than the one that he and Dollimore wrote: "Dollimore and I chose to work on this play," Sinfield writes, "precisely because it seemed to offer an awkward test for the case we wanted to explore, namely that even a text that "has been widely regarded as a celebration of monarchial ideology is implicated in ideological contradiction and available to dissident reading" (¶5) This reply would hardly satisfy Bradshaw, however, since he objects as much to the practice of "dissident reading" as he does to short-changing or politically pigeon-holing Shakespeare. As members of the "unthinking left" (Misrepresentations 103), who believe that the "marginal perception of political, class, and sexual issues is always superior" (111), Dollimore and Sinfield are hardly fit to accept Shakespeare's historiographical challenge, in Bradshaw's opinion, since they have already made up their minds that all hitherto existing history is the history of the exploiters and the exploited, the evil and the good. The main thrust of Bradshaw's argument in his chapter on Henry, then, is to show how the play, in its "irreducible complexity," refuses to be bound by such crass and malign materialist binaries.

     4. To give Bradshaw his due, I will readily grant that he is a very good reader of Henry's "dramatic rhymes" and "perspectival clashes." In fact, some of the points he makes about the play are so right that they sound Left(ist). For example, he notes in one place that

Bardolph is executed for petty looting, while the final scene shows Henry looting on a truly regal scale as he steals a "Pax" of great price, insisting on every article of the forcefully imposed peace. Ransacking the princess and stealing the kiss is part of that price. (41)

And in his appraisal of the Chorus, he writes:

[E]ach act begins with the Chorus's "official," take-me-to-your-leader way of doing history, but as soon as the Chorus leaves the stage, there is an eruption of subversive, complicating energy.

     If the Chorus's view of history were to prevail, the audience might respond like that monolithic audience of which historicists dream . . . . But what happens whenever the Chorus vacates the stage is more in keeping with the effect Brecht sought when he urged his company to "divide their audience" by "addressing themselves" to its divided and competing interests. We see what the Chorus would prefer to edit, reshape of suppress, although this is not to say, nor should the Brechtian analogy suggest, that the Chorus is always reassuringly wrong. To think so is like supposing that the soliloquizing kings must be hypocrites if their way of seeing things is not the only way of seeing things: it defeats the challenge to think, and to think about history. (45)

I find nothing to complain about here. Indeed, I'm just sorry that I didn't come up with the phrase "take-me-to-your-leader way of doing history," since it describes so well the Chorus's boorishly patriotic point of view. And I agree that it would be wrong to think that "soliloquizing kings must be hypocrites," since one of the main functions of the dominant ideology, as the Marxist Shakespeare critic Paul Siegel pointed out years ago, has typically been to rationalize the ruling class's position to itself "as well as to other classes" (16). I also have no objection to the proposition that the author of Henry V wanted us to "think about history." Bradshaw sees "dramatic rhymes" in Henry because Shakespeare put them there, and I assume for a reason.

     5. However, for all of the useful observations that he makes about this history play, and for all his complaints that materialists have dismally failed to take up Shakespeare's "historiographical challenge," Bradshaw himself, quite ironically, has almost nothing to say about history -- whether of the Lancastrian, Elizabethan, or Elizabethan II variety. In fact Bradshaw's "historiographical challenge," one soon discovers, is not so much a challenge to think about history as it is a demand that we view history as a Shakespeare play, filled with irreducibly complex perspectival clashes, with each perspective having its own well-balanced blend of good and bad points. "Spectators" might identify with one perspective or another, depending on where they are located in the "audience" (in the "balcony," say, or in the "pit") but far be it from Bradshaw to decide which position has more merit. To do so would evidently run the risk of being "reductive."

     6. In a fine new book on the English Revolution entitled, Ehud's Dagger, James Holstun takes issue with a number of "revisionist" historians who, like Bradshaw, have made it their mission to right the wrongs committed by "reductive" materialists. One of these historians, Holstun writes, concludes an article entitled "Proceeding Moderately" by saying, "In scholarship, as in everything else, if we look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves." To this "nostrum," Holstun responds:

But in scholarship, as in everything else, if we look after the pennies, we spend lots of time counting pennies, talking about pennies, fashioning a penny-based theory of society and history . . . but without discovering where the pennies came from (from the Bank of England? from someone else's labor? from heaven?), leaving ourselves with a shimmering coppery drift of unrelated facts that mound up into an all-purpose but paralyzingly a priori conclusion: "Things were very, very complex." (12)

Like many of the current crop of revisionist historians, Bradshaw is ultimately a penny counter who, after adding up all of the clashing perspectives in Henry, becomes paralyzed by the complexity of it all (though he appears to delight in this condition). The result is that it's quite enough for him to note that "[w]hether Henry was right or wrong to go to war with France is a question that depends not only on whether the 'title' was 'just' but on whether one is taking . . . a 'king's-eye view' or, say, the view of the French king, or of a dead conscript's widow, or of Shakespeare's Michael Williams, or of Archbishop Chicheley" (47). Of course, one might think that living in the latter part of the bloodiest century in human history would help a critic form an opinion about the rightness or wrongness of starting a war; however, once Bradshaw has viewed the play as Shakespeare intended him to view it -- "perspectively" -- he's ready to clock out and go home. And if Dollimore and Sinfield work overtime and show a bit more initiative by trying to relate a play's ideological conflicts (a more complex term, by the way, than "clashing perspectives"2) to certain historical contradictions, the two critics are dismissed as "reductive." But they are reductive not so much because they have discerned a certain "homology" between the text and history, but because they haven't balanced the good points and the bad points; they haven't bought into the idea that all that one is permitted to say about King Henry is that he's an imperialist and the perfect king and a burdened leader and a war monger and a brother to the rank and file, etc. And they haven't performed this balancing act in just the way that Bradshaw would like them to because they know that in class-divided societies -- such as the one in which the historical King Henry lived, and the one in which Shakespeare wrote, and the one in which we presently bounce around on boom-bust cycles -- the social structures are "loaded," as are the ideological dice with which the ruling classes play. They also know that this "loadedness" is the result of exploitation and the ruling classes' structurally produced and ideologically naturalized compulsion to extract from the "lower orders" the surpluses that keep them on top. Thus, while the first scene of the Henry V may very well be "busily working to promote -- not resolve -- uncertainty about Henry's motives for going to war with France" (49), as Bradshaw claims with a triumphant sneer at Shakespeare's doltish materialist "misrepresenters," those same misrepresenters know, if they've read their Perry Anderson, that, since war was "the most rational and rapid single mode of expansion of surplus extraction available for any given ruling class under feudalism," it was therefore "not the 'sport' of princes, it was their fate; beyond the finite diversity of individual inclinations and characters, it beckoned them inexorably as a social necessity of their estate" (31-32). This kind of knowledge makes it very difficult to play the balancing game for long with a text like Henry V. Once something as heavy as the exigencies of the feudal ruling class's exploitative function have been placed on the critic's scale, Henry's "individual inclinations," as interesting as they may be, seem positively weightless. This is not to say that Henry had to make war on France (it was Marx who said , after all, that "men make their own history"), only that he had to be a feudal king, the job description for which included a non-negotiable clause stating: "Monarchs and other members of the aristocracy must extract surpluses from the lower orders and/or inter-feudal rivals, and by any means necessary."

     7. Bradshaw, however, isn't at all interested in coming to grips with the major theoretical concepts that inform materialist practice, despite the fact that he's written a whole book on materialist criticism. All that he can manage to say about exploitation, for example, is that materialists have demonized "essentialist humanists" by claiming that they are "part of a social order that exploits people" (12). Since, in Bradshaw's view, this is an obviously silly idea, and since it is equally silly "to believe that the 'marginal' perception of political, class, and sexual issues is always superior," there is no point in saying anything further about materialist concepts. Out, damned exploitation! Out, ideology! Bradshaw cries. And out they go, replaced by the bloodless formalism of musical analogies:

. . . Beethoven's Diabelli Variations . . . provides a more helpful musical analogy for the way in which Shakespeare's dramatic rhymes and variational development combine the urge to vary with a no less powerful urge to integrate, and so carry the work forward to a profoundly integrated conclusion that nonetheless seems "unresolved." (Misrepresentations 76)

There's more of this sort of thing in Bradshaw's book, but one really ought to be resting on a chaise-longue with a snifter of cognac in Walter Pater's drawing room to appreciate it.

~~~~~

     8. Unlike Bradshaw, Richard Levin has examined some of materialism's major concepts; however, those concepts seem to have come to him by way of a bad translation of a hack writer of the Second International. When Levin says, for example, that "Marxists . . . claim to have found the one real cause of all human behavior, which they locate . . . in class conflicts rooted in the material socio-economic "base" that ultimately shape all activity in the "superstructure" ("Negative Evidence" 404-05), one needn't bother to root through the works of any actually existing Marxists for a source. That's because none of them ever made such a statement. (And I'm very glad that no one did since writing materialist criticism is a complicated enough affair without having to agonize about whether or not cooking sunny-side-up eggs is "bourgeois.") Such confabulations, however, are part and parcel of Levin's plan to reduce materialist criticism to a mechanical toy with two badly functioning parts. And the moral vision of the "childish" ("Capitalism" 41) "owners" of this toy is just as mechanical. For Marxists, Levin writes, "every . . . issue must be viewed as a struggle between two -- and only two -- sides, one totally good and the other totally evil, and . . . all these struggles must turn out to be the same" ("Capitalism" 41). For Levin (as for Bradshaw), such thinking "erases all complexities, nuances, and uncertainties" (41). And of course he's correct -- it does; however, the thinking he's described isn't Marxist thinking. Sinfield is right to complain about such tactics, since one of their main objectives is to turn materialists into latter-day left-wing versions of Shakespeare's "take-me-to-your-leader" Chorus.

     9. But while materialist theory is neither an all-encompassing determinism (i.e., "economism") nor a "Manicheism," as Levin seems to think, it very definitely has a few things to say about "causality" and the "morality" of class struggle. I'll start with the issue of causality by recalling a statement made about it by one well known (historical) materialist. In his letter to Joseph Bloch, written in 1890, Frederick Engels said the following:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. (qtd. in Williams 79)

Even the most skeptical anti-Marxist would have to agree, I think, that Engels' phrase "the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life" is quantitatively and qualitatively different from Levin's suggestion that "Marxists . . . claim to have found the one real cause of all human behavior, which they locate . . . in class conflicts rooted in the material socio-economic "base" that ultimately shape all activity in the "superstructure." Levin is clearly in league with the "twisters" about whom Engels once complained. As Terry Eagleton has noted, "[t]here is a difference between a theory from which everything else can be supposedly deduced, as in the more megalomaniac forms of high rationalism, and a narrative which . . . provid[es] the matrix within which many, but not all, of our other practices take shape" (Illusions 111). Marxism is the latter kind of "narrative."

      10. And yet, if class struggle is not quite the cause of "all human behavior," it remains for (classically oriented) materialists the central dynamic of historical development, and that's because exploitation has been a structural feature of most past societies. Levin doesn't deny the existence of class struggle. Indeed, he notes in one article that "in capitalist societies there are always conflicts between labor and capital" ("Capitalism" 42) -- and I assume he would agree that there have "always" been class conflicts in other, earlier modes of production. However, he also argues that "[t]he evidence shows that there's no fundamental social conflict; there are instead many kinds of social conflicts that may be interrelated in many ways but aren't reducible to any one kind" (42; Levin's emphasis). To suggest, as Levin does with the term "reducible," that materialists simply collapse all forms of social conflict into class struggle is a gross distortion of good materialist practice (though certain "Neanderthal Marxists," to borrow a phrase from Eagleton, have sometimes operated this way [Illusions 60]). A first-rate Marxist historian such as Theodore Allen can acknowledge that "[m]ale supremacy, gender oppression, is the oldest, most pervasive, and most fundamental form of social oppression, being built as it is into the family form by the principles of patriarchy" ("Interview"), while at the same time demonstrating how that oppression has functioned historically as a social control mechanism serving the interests of ruling-class men. In his monumental two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race, Allen has made a similar argument about racism in the U.S., tracing its roots to institutionalized white-skin privileges which have divided the (black and white) working classes to the benefit of their exploiters. Allen, in his painstaking, detailed, dialectical analysis of archival evidence, is never satisfied with merely "talking about pennies." Levin, in contrast, can't get beyond the pennies because simple appearances are enough for him. He doesn't seem to consider that the social dominance of one particular gender, racial, religious, or ethnic group determines how jobs and political power get distributed. My question to Levin is, where's the evidence that "economics" isn't "fundamental" to conflicts that "appear" to be "fundamentally" about something else? Thus, I would ask him to take the dialectical challenge and grapple (dialectically) with the interrelatedness of conflicts, since he agrees that they can be interrelated. Only then will we be able to argue about what's fundamental and what isn't. And of course this dialectical challenge would apply to Shakespeare's plays, as well, since they certainly contain "interrelated" conflicts.3

     11. Levin's other charge -- that materialism is "Manichean" (i.e., that it views every issue as "a struggle between two -- and only two -- sides, one totally good and the other totally evil") -- is another distortion. Far from viewing history in absolute moral terms, materialists have traditionally represented it as an ambivalent dialectical "spiral," with each advance, as Alex Callinicos has written, "contain[ing] within itself an element of regress." Callinicos reminds us that

[n]owhere is this conception of history more forcefully expressed than in those famous pages in the Communist Manifesto where Marx both condemns the capitalist mode of production as yet another form of class exploitation and praises the bourgeoisie for the "most revolutionary part it plays," "constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society." (152)

And Eagleton has this to say about "totally evil" capitalism:

Marx's praise for capitalism is surely well justified. Capitalism, as he never tires of arguing, is the most dynamic, revolutionary, transgressive social system known to history, one which melts away barriers, deconstructs oppositions, pitches diverse life-forms promiscuously together and unleashes an infinity of desire. Typified by surplus and excess, constantly overriding the measure, it is a mode of production which breeds a hitherto undreamt-of wealth of human energies, bringing the individual to a peak of subtle complexity. As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil. As the first truly global mode of production, it uproots all parochial obstacles to human communication and lays down the conditions for international community. Its political ideals -- freedom, justice, self-determination, equality of opportunity -- outshine, in principle at least, almost all previous ideologies in the depth of their humanism and the universality of their scope.

     All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost. This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few. Capitalism is most certainly a progressive system, and is just as certainly nothing of the kind. And it is Marxism which is reproached . . . for its monistic, reductive, and unilinear vision! (Illusions 61)

If this (typical materialist) view of history is "Manichean," then I'm one of the 358 billionaires in the world "who, according to recent U.N. estimates, command assets equivalent to 2.3 billion of the world's poorest population" (Harvey xv). But then Levin isn't as concerned with getting materialism right as he is with turning it into what Engels called "a simple equation of the first degree" (qtd. in Williams 80), which goes as follows:

Totally good classes + totally evil classes ÷ by class struggle = all human behavior.

     12. Like Sinfield, I'm not very optimistic that my little intervention here will change the minds of Levin and Bradshaw, neither of whom, after all, believe that exploitation in the materialist sense even exists.4 But because these critics and many, many more like them insist on publishing their crass and malign versions of materialist theory and practice, those of us who remain committed to the creation of a more just and equitable society (not to mention a more just and equitable criticism) have a moral obligation to right the (Left) record.

 

 

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Notes

1 As is well known, the term "cultural materialism" comes from Raymond Williams, who, in Marxism and Literature, describes it as

a theory of the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism. Its details belong to the argument as a whole, but I must say, at this point, that it is, in my view, a Marxist theory, and indeed that in its specific fields it is, in spite of and even because of the relative unfamiliarity of some of its elements, part of what I at least see as the central thinking of Marxism. (5-6)

Like a number of other writers who sought to break with what they perceived to be a deadening or misguided Marxist orthodoxy, Williams announces that what might appear to be new or revisionist in his work is in fact consistent with "the central thinking of Marxism." Williams is referring to his belief that the whole social process, and cultural production in particular, is material, a point that he feels was lost somewhere "in the transition from Marx to Marxism" (77).

Because Williams was anxious to "dump" the "base-superstructure" concept and replace it with the Gramscian notion of "hegemony," he was taken to task by Terry Eagleton a number of years ago ("Base and Superstructure in Raymond Williams"); however, to my knowledge, Sinfield, Jonathan Dollimore, Graham Holderness, and other cultural materialists have never made a point of contesting traditional Marxian notions of determination. In any event, the similarities and differences between historical materialist and cultural materialist theory and practice is a more complicated topic than I can take up in a footnote; hence, I will simply register here that, on the whole, I have found cultural materialist work to be a stimulating and productive intervention in literary studies and compatible with my own readings of Shakespeare and other early modern writers.

2 Bradshaw's "perpectivism" is ultimately "individualist," and therefore ignores the larger, ideological (and thus class) implications of conflict within the play. For a discussion of the relation between ideological conflict and social/historical contradictions, see Dollimore and Sinfield, "History and Ideology" 214.

3 As Bertell Ollman notes:

few would deny that everything in the world is changing and interacting at some pace and in one way or another, that history and systemic connections belong to the real world. The difficulty has always been how to think adequately about them, how not to distort them and how to give them the attention and weight that they deserve. Dialectics is an attempt to resolve this difficulty by expanding our notion of anything to include, as aspects of what it is, both the process by which it has become that and the broader interactive context in which it is found. Only then does the study of anything involve one immediately with the study of its history and encompassing system. (11)

4 In a footnote to his article on the Yale teaching assistant strike, Levin states that he doesn't believe the Marxist theory of surplus labor ("Capitalist" 46, f.n. 2), which explains how capitalist profits are appropriated from the unpaid wages of workers. He also says that he doesn't "know of any reputable economist who does." I suspect, however, that the "reputable" economists he has in mind aren't materialists.

 

 

Works Cited

Allen, Theodore W. "An Interview with Theodore W. Allen." Gregory Meyerson and Jonathan Scott. Cultural Logic, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1998. <http://eserver.org/clogic/1-2/allen%20interview.html>

-----. The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols.: I -- Racial Oppression and Social Control (320 pp.) and II -- The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (400 pp.) New York: Verso, 1994-97. Allen's summary of this work is available on the Internet in Cultural Logic, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1998. <http://eserver.org/clogic/1-2/allen.html>

Anderson, Perry. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso, 1986.

Bradshaw, Graham. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1993.

Callinicos, Alex. Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield. "History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V." In Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. London and New York: Methuen, 1985. 206-27.

Eagleton, Terry. "Base and Superstructure in Raymond Williams." Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Terry Eagleton. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989. 165-75.

-----. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.

Engels, "Letter to Joseph Bloch." In Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Harvey, David. Introduction. The Limits to Capital. London and New York: Verso, 1999.

Holstun, James. Ehud's Dagger. London and New York: Verso, 2000.

Levin, Richard. "Capitalism and the Marxist Imaginary at Yale (and Elsewhere)." Journal X, 3.1. Autumn 1998. 39-49.

-----. "Negative Evidence." Studies in Philology. 1995. 92:383-410.

Ollman, Bertell. Dialectical Investigations. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Siegel, Paul. Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach. Cranbury, NJ: Associated UPs, 1986.

 

 

 

Form copyright © 2001 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2001 David Siar.