Selective Quotation

Alan Sinfield

     When Professor W. R. Elton wrote to me in November 1999 as editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook, saying that volume 1 contained critiques of my positions by Graham Bradshaw and Richard Levin, I was of course intrigued. "In order to be fair," Elton wrote, "we feel you may wish to respond." Levin kindly sent me a copy of his article; I got Elton to send me a copy of Bradshaw's.

     However, when I submitted my response, it was rejected. Fairness no longer seemed in order: "it is not exactly what would fit into our volume," I was told. I protested: If you have some suggestions for changes I'll be happy to consider them, but you can't not publish a commissioned reply because it doesn't fit with what you generally do. That, after all, is what one might expect, since you presumably thought highly of the articles that are complained of. However, neither this nor a follow-up letter gained a reply. Here is what I had written.


     1. I am grateful to Professor Elton for the invitation to respond to articles by Graham Bradshaw and Richard Levin in SIY 1 (1999). My intention here is not to defend cultural materialism against the hostile tendencies in those articles, since in large part the hostility reflects a genuine difference of political and theoretical approach. We haven't persuaded each other during twenty years or so, and are hardly likely to now. However, an invitation to "respond, succinctly" does sensitise you to your own writings, your own positions. "Oh dear! Did I say that? It sounds really stupid." So you check back to the context, and the import is quite different.

     2. I don't think of myself as a guarded kind of writer; I like to chance new (to me) ideas and phraseology; to be polemical. I risk jokes and try to avoid mystification. So I would expect that genuine unfortunate formulations could be found, by those so inclined, scattered through my work. Why, then, the selective quotation by scholars such as Levin and Bradshaw (and others), whose commitment to liberal and humanistic values would normally lead them to respect the contextual specificity of a text? A pattern emerges: 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.


     3. In his article "State of Play" Graham Bradshaw says the more aggressive cultural materialists such as myself "see the teaching of Shakespeare as an 'instrument of domination' in an ongoing cultural conspiracy."1 It is true that I write about cultural dominance, using the phrase in quotation marks, and that I distrust the use of Shakespeare in educational systems. (It's not just my idea; I quote George Lamming and James Baldwin.) I don't think I say or imply that there is a conspiracy but, more importantly, Bradshaw fails to notice the immediately ensuing sentences, where I register the other side of the debate: "the process is not ineluctable: power still cannot control contradiction--Lamming and Baldwin got to write their critiques. For some individuals from subordinated groups, Shakespeare and other European authors have represented not just cultural privilege but an illuminating slant upon their own situation."2 I then cite Maya Angelou and Richard Wright as authors who found that canonical literature spoke to their experience as African Americans. A central concern in cultural materialism is with the terms within which those alternatives--domination and critique--may be played out through Shakespeare and in cultural production more widely. In any particular essay, one side or the other may emerge as more pressing; selective quotation presents one side as if it were the whole argument.

     4. There is a history to this. Bradshaw's version of what I say about Shakespeare as "instrument of domination" is repeated from his book Misrepresentations, published in 1993.3 There he attempts to support it by adducing work by Jonathan Dollimore and myself on Henry V, and by myself on The Merchant of Venice.

     5. However, so far from presenting Shakespeare as "evilly in favor of such exploitation in Henry V," as Bradshaw imagines, Dollimore and I chose to work on this play 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 monarchical ideology is implicated in ideological contradiction and available to dissident reading.4 The Merchant of Venice is also a notoriously difficult case. Bradshaw says I "revive the claim" that it "is 'really' an anti-Semitic play."5 Of course, it hardly needs me to prompt this thought, but in fact I don't propose any "real" meaning for the Merchant. I compare three current ways of thinking about the play, welcoming Ian McDiarmed's interpretation in which some audience members at least might be intrigued at the prospect of Shylock getting his own back.6 The point is that we do diverse things with Shakespeare; he may or may not be an "instrument of domination."

     6. I drew attention to selective quotation by Levin in my book Faultlines, where I had his comment on the Henry V essay printed directly after the paragraphs it purports to represent. Levin declares: "According to Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, the project of Henry V is the 'establishing [of the] ideological unity' of the state and its class system and the 'ideological containment' of threats to it."7 The words quoted by Levin do appear, but in context they read quite differently. "Ideological containment" occurs in a sentence about State policy on Ireland. And "establishing ideological unity" occurs in this sentence: "We have observed that the king finally has difficulty, on the eve of Agincourt, in sustaining the responsibility that seems to belong with the ideological power that he has engrossed to himself: thus the fantasy of establishing ideological unity in the sole figure of the monarch arrives at an impasse that it can handle only with difficulty."8 In brief, ideological unity is a theme of the play, not its "project."

     7. Since then Levin, whom I think of as a friend in the profession, has kindly sent me his essays on politics and Shakespeare. However, in more than one instance I have responded by protesting at the way he presents some of my words. Again, the effect is that complicated positions are rendered in reductive versions, with apparent textual support which in fact depends on selective quotation.

     8. In his article in SIY, "The Old and the New Materialising of Shakespeare," Levin turns to me for the fifth of five "definitions" of materialism: "Their approach is materialist because its purpose is to 'bring down capitalism.'"9 That suggests that I expect cultural commentary to work a vast political change; a silly idea. Again, I did use the phrase "bring down capitalism," but it looks quite different in context: "Teaching Shakespeare's plays and writing books about them is unlikely to bring down capitalism, but it is a point for intervention."10

     9. The wry tone there (it is the last line of the essay) reflects the prevailing uncertainty among leftist intellectuals (and others), about how radical change is to occur when the forces of containment appear so effective; Levin's slant is precisely inappropriate. So far from cultural materialists having a "purpose" of bringing down capitalism, we have been preoccupied with a question about whether capitalism can be significantly influenced at all. In Cultural Politics--Queer Reading I trace this in the work of Marcuse, Barthes, Althusser, Macherey, Williams, Foucault and Hall.11 Hence the importance of the containment/subversion model in new historicism.

     10. Bradshaw in "State of Play" reads this theoretical concern with the scope for dissidence as amounting to a belief on my part that a "dissident perspective" will be "not only always superior but transhistorically, transculturally true" (7). That is not so. I engaged with dissidence because it struck me as the key political and theoretical challenge. From this misconception Bradshaw draws the allegation that I fail to consider my own values as "culturally and historically specific" (7). In fact I have written in a number of places, analytically and autobiographically, about the historical construction of, and divergent strands within, the British New Left--the cultural formation within which my work is framed.12 Bradshaw appears not to be acquainted with this work. Indeed, in an essay purportedly about "where we are now" (3), he makes no reference to the amplified reissues of Radical Tragedy (1989) and Political Shakespeare (1994).13

     11. One of these assessments of the scope for leftist politics occurs in my article, "Sexuality and Subcultures in the Wake of Welfare Capitalism."14 What makes Levin's attribution to me of naive notions about bringing down capitalism the more surprising is that he has read this article. In an internet publication he quotes me as having said we live in an unjust social order (I hadn't realised that was going to be contentious). But "we must always ask," Levin says, "compared to what actual or possible social order? Marxist critics typically avoid this crucial question, and Sinfield is very atypical (and courageous) in admitting, in another article published in the same year, that he cannot think of a better alternative."15 Surely this reads as if I have come to think of the present capitalist regime as the best that can be envisaged. However, when you look at what I actually wrote, it doesn't suggest that at all. My thought is that it is the failure of Keynesian welfare-capitalism that has thrown leftists into confusion, not the collapse of the Soviet Bloc: "Since I am arguing that the failure of welfare-capitalism is a disaster that we can hardly bear, collectively, to contemplate, I will hardly be expected to come up with a comprehensive new answer. Until someone does, I think lesbian and gay activists, including intellectuals, have a special responsibility to our immediate constituencies."16 True, I admit to not having a plan for stopping global capitalism in its tracks. But that doesn't mean I "cannot think of a better alternative." Actually I propose, particularly for intellectuals with affiliations to a subordinated constituency, a strategy of committed subcultural work.

     12. For Levin, asking new questions about gender and sexuality is also dangerous enough to inspire misleading quotation. In "The Old and the New Materialising" he lists me among commentators who have invoked the "Galenic" idea of gender described by Thomas Laqueur. This "was not the dominant model", Levin counters, citing Janet Adelman (I haven't checked this quote). His note then lists me among those who "accept this model uncritically."17 However, in the place cited by Levin my claim is notably more cautious: I refer to "a major strand in early modern gender theory."18 I wouldn't call that an "uncritical acceptance" of the idea as "dominant."

     13. One more. In an essay of 1997 Levin disputes with critics who declare that this or that idea was "unthinkable" in early modern England. He writes: "Alan Sinfield says that in this period homosexual relations 'were rarely apprehended as sodomy--precisely because that was so unthinkable.'" This seems to give Levin an easy point: "But the laws against sodomy (under which people were apprehended and convicted) prove it was thinkable, and so does the well-known passage in Leviticus 20:13."19 Well, yes, it does. I must be a fool to have said otherwise. However, the remark appears rather different in context: "Except when their perpetrators seemed to disturb the social order, these were rarely apprehended as sodomy--precisely because that was so unthinkable."20 Once more, the quotation is more complex when restored to its context.


     14. I conclude that Bradshaw and Levin have many shrewd points to make about cultural materialism (though not, I think, as shrewd as have been made by some commentators more inward with the subject).21 They quote selectively because they have agendas of their own (reasonably enough, of course) and hardly see the relevance of details of phrasing which are significant to me.

     15. For Bradshaw the crucial issue is that cultural materialists "are not paying tribute to the play's exploratory and analytical intelligence."22 Any failure to congratulate Shakespeare at frequent intervals on the fulness of his humanity amounts to declaring him evil. As I have said, I was excited by a performance in which Ian McDiarmed played Shylock; it enabled me to close my book with a positive flourish--The Merchant of Venice as dissident text, Shylock as thwarted revolutionary. "As in [Allan] Bloom's reading, he was an outsider who despised the thought of appeasing his persecutors, and the other characters were appropriately horrid to him," I wrote. "I thought: Right on, Shylock, now's your chance, don't take any notice of their tricks, stick on in there and get your pound of flesh. . . ."23 However, Bradshaw presents this as if I were attacking Shakespeare with "vehemence" for having endorsed "hateful" characters, and accuses me of an "altogether unquestioning assumption that the anti-Semitic Shakespeare couldn't possibly have intended to show his Christians in an ironic or critical light."24

     16. Actually I don't express any view on that. What I think is that Shakespeare may have intended an anti-Semitic play, but more probably he was concentrating on the story and the action, and didn't reckon it necessary to embrace a correct political line. Bradshaw says repeatedly that cultural materialists "tell us what the play is 'really' saying, or what the dramatist 'really' thinks."25 In fact this is not so, not the issue between us. Cultural materialists generally regard texts as available for diverse political projects; the disagreement is about whether this scope should be traced to Shakespeare's genius or to the conditions of cultural production in his time and ours.

     17. Levin I see rather differently, as taking up the generally discarded mantle of the Cold Warrior. He knows the score all too well, and just can't resist pouncing on any phrase that might betray an undercover Stalinist allegiance. It doesn't matter whether we talk about "establishing ideological unity" or "the fantasy of establishing ideological unity": all that kind of stuff is suspect. "The dominant model" or "a major strand", it's all the same; "purpose . . . to bring down capitalism" or "unlikely to bring down capitalism." I keep pointing out that actually we are all just ordinary European leftist intellectuals, trying to sort things out in a complicated world. But he's not going to be tricked by these Commies.

     18. Beyond all that, there are the intellectual conventions of literary criticism, which customarily accepts commentary that clips out the bits that make for one's case and ignores the rest. This has been aggravated lately by technological innovation: cut and paste, or perhaps just the felt-tip highlighting pen. If Shakespeare has to put up with it, why should lesser mortals complain?



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1 Graham Bradshaw, "State of Play," SIY 1 (1999), 3-25, 3.

2 Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: California University Press and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 261.

3 Graham Bradshaw, Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 10. In "State of Play" (7) Bradshaw complains that I was reluctant to write about his book in an article in the TLS in April 1994 ("Untune that String: Shakespeare and the Scope for Dissidence," Times Literary Supplement, April 22, 1994, 4-5). In fact I was asked to write about cultural materialism and to discuss the book in the process; I reckon about a third of the 2,800 words are directly about Misrepresentations. An essay by Brian Vickers preceded mine, so I daresay the editor thought s/he had balanced the ticket. Bradshaw also complains that I bracket him with Vickers ("State of Play," 7). This is not so: the sentence he quotes, about "political reactionaries," is applied by me only to Vickers.

4 Bradshaw, Misrepresentations, 103; Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "History and Ideology: the Instance of Henry V," in John Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares (London: Methuen, 1985). Reprinted with new sections on masculinity and miscegenation in Sinfield, Faultlines.

5 Bradshaw, Misrepresentations, 12.

6 Sinfield, Faultlines, 299-302.

7 Richard Levin, "The Poetics and Politics of Bardicide," PMLA 105 (1990), 491-504.

8 Sinfield, Faultlines, 125-6.

9 Richard Levin, "The Old and the New Materialising of Shakespeare," SIY 1 (1999), 87-107, 91.

10 Alan Sinfield, "Give an Account of Shakespeare and Education . . . ," in Dollimore and Sinfield, Political Shakespeare, 154.

11 Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics--Queer Reading (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, and London: Routledge, 1994), 22- 30.

12 In particular see Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (1989), new ed. (London: Athlone, 1997).

13 See also Sinfield, "How to Read The Merchant of Venice without being Heterosexist," in Terence Hawkes, ed., Alternative Shakespeares 2 (London: Routledge, 1996); and Sinfield, "Poetaster, the Author, and the Perils of Cultural Production," Renaissance Drama, n.s. 27 (1996), 3-18.

14 Alan Sinfield, "Sexuality and Subcultures in the Wake of Welfare Capitalism," Radical Philosophy, 66 (Spring 1994), 40-3; reworked in Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain, xix-xxii.

15 Richard Levin, "Marxist Criticism And/Or/Versus a Clearer Sense of Justice," Renaissance Forum 1:2 (September 1996).

16 Sinfield, "Sexuality and Subcultures in the Wake of Welfare Capitalism," 43.

17 Levin, "The Old and the New Materialising," 96, 103 (note 21).

18 Sinfield, Faultlines, 134.

19 Richard Levin, "(Re)Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts," NLH 28 (1997), 525-37, 525-6.

20 Sinfield, Cultural Politics--Queer Reading, 19.

21 See, for instance, John Brannigan, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

22 Bradshaw, Misrepresentations, 104.

23 Sinfield, Faultlines, 301.

24 Bradshaw, Misrepresentations, 15.

25 Bradshaw, Misrepresentations, 15.



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Content copyright © 2001 Alan Sinfield.