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Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Critical Presentism

Phillip Barrish, University of Texas at Austin

Excerpts from Liberal Identity, Literary Pedagogy, and Classic American Realism (forthcoming from Rutgers University Press)

"If there is a politics of literary culture, or a sense of public stakes in literary representation, then what political consequences follow, if any do, from various ways of taking a work's specific time and place into account when we read it?"
—James Chandler
  1. Developing an iconoclastic methodology that I call "critical presentism," this book uses close analysis of works by such classic American realists as Wharton, Twain, James, and Chopin to "read" contemporary liberal identity in contexts that range from an affirmative action court case to the liberal arts classroom. The book's aims are two-fold: to provide new critical insights and pedagogical approaches to specific realist works, but also to develop fresh interpretative and political leverage over present-day liberalism. I seek to investigate liberal identity primarily as it overlaps with currently-lived modes of American exceptionalism and whiteness.

  2. American exceptionalism refers most broadly to the belief that American culture, politics, and selves have always been qualitatively different from those of European countries, and as such exceptionalism has been a central theme for analysts of America at least since Toqueville.1 The phrase American exceptionalism can also refer more narrowly, however, to a characteristic national sense of "specialness," a specialness taken to imply both unique privileges and unique responsibilities. The faith in and desire for American specialness goes back to the Puritans' vision of founding "a city upon a hill," a community elevated by God with the mission of modeling Christian charity and virtue to the rest of the world. As many observers have noted, national assumptions about America's and Americans' exceptional qualities and status have proven remarkably adaptive over the centuries, appearing in multiple contexts and in various incarnations.2

  3. I am especially interested in how American exceptionalism intersects with a defining facet of white liberal identity today: the desire to believe that, although there may still be room for significant improvement, American race relations have made immeasurable progress over the last fifty years. But why turn, with this sort of contemporary question, to literature of a hundred years ago? After all, the canonical era of American literary realism, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was an historical period widely characterized by the open and violent assertion of white supremacy and of Jim Crow segregation. Today, in contrast, not only has legal segregation been ended for almost fifty years, but for almost twenty years we have been living in what Robert Charles Smith has dubbed the "post-Civil Rights era," in which racial issues and questions seem both more multi-dimensional and more subtle than those posed by segregation's stark binaries. Race-related conflicts of today, moreover, tend to be fought on different terrains than those of a century ago, and they draw on legal, cultural, and intellectual tools that were then unavailable (including, for instance, science's undercutting of "race" itself). How, then, might works from the period of classic American realism nonetheless give us a better grasp on specific psychological, socio-institutional, and representational dynamics informing contemporary white liberalism? Why bring such anachronistic matters to the literature of Wharton, Twain, James and Chopin?

  4. One obvious and powerful answer is that of the cultural historian. No matter the changes involved, America's cultural past has helped to create America's present. Demonstrating that whiteness even has a history, for example, works to undo its unceasing efforts to attain the status of timeless norm. Historicist scholars working in literary studies and other disciplines (especially in history itself) have begun to render visible American whiteness's often hidden past. They have uncovered, for instance, the mechanisms by which various immigrant groups initially counting as non-white (such as the Irish and Eastern-European Jews) have achieved white identities and the economic, social, and political benefits that whiteness brings with it (Ignatiev; Jacobson; Brodkin). Providing this sort of genealogy for American whiteness crucially resituates our understanding of and possible approaches to it in the present.

  5. But when historicist literary study does contribute to our understanding of present-day versions of American whiteness or American exceptionalism, it does so through the mediation of an historical argument. Even when purposefully intending to shift how we see some aspect of today's cultural or political scene, historicist literary scholarship proceeds, first and foremost, by locating a work or body of literature in its "own" cultural moment (the moment of its production and primary reception) (Chandler). In contrast, I intend in this book to juxtapose "present" concerns and "past" literature without paying much attention to the historical specificity of the past literature.

  6. Within literary studies, the term "presentism" or "presentist" is widely used to attack scholarship or criticism that appears not to respect what T.S. Eliot called the "pastness of the past." Employed as a term of opprobrium, "presentist" refers to criticism perceived as blithely and un-selfconsciously projecting a critic's own political or social concerns onto literature of another era. The impulse towards "critical presentism" that motivates my study, however, seeks new ways of reading literature of the past not only in but with the social present—and of doing so self-consciously and also (as I hope to demonstrate) productively.3

  7. Intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra defines what he calls presentism—but what I would call blithe or uncritical presentism—as "the dream of total liberation from the 'burden' of history" (Lacapra 39). Although LaCapra is not speaking here either of America or of whiteness, his definition of (uncritical) presentism identifies what may be the most central, indeed "exceptional," ideological trait that whiteness and America share. America was imagined from the start of British colonization as a "new world," where one might escape the crushing, confining weight both of Europe's and of one's own personal history. As for whiteness, it can be called an anti-historical mode of identity, insofar as it strives always to forget its own status as anchored in society and history—its status as historically and socially constructed, marked, bounded.

  8. It is in part because, historically, white American identity has been so resolutely anti-historical that I believe critical presentism can make an important contribution. If, as Philip Fisher has recently argued, what makes the United States most distinctive is its "culture of creative destruction," in which "the only constant is change" and the past is continually "discarded" to clear space for the "next-on," then, I would maintain, it can only be salutary to find new angles of vision on how the past can and does unpredictably, even uncannily, stay present. Each of the literary texts focused on in the following chapters is classically American in thematizing the desire for a "new world," one which will leave the past unambiguously behind. For example, Edith Wharton's 1911 short story "Autre Temps. . ." tells of the divorcée Mrs. Lidcote's wish to find a "new dispensation" in a "new" New York, one whose elite society has jettisoned its former horror of divorced women. Twain's Huck Finn is driven by the desire to escape the entrapment of a pre-determined status and identity—as a minor child subject to adults' manipulative designs, as a slave—and it ends with a fantasy of "the territory," a place apart from the constraints and hypocrisies of fixed "sivilization." Yet, in these and the other texts my book discusses, the past recalcitrantly persists, and it persists in potent, wrenching, surprising, and sometimes deadly ways. In none of these works, despite an overwhelming desire that it be otherwise, is the past ever smoothly assimilated into, let alone erased by, the present or the "new." Indeed, in each text the willful imagination that the past be past renders it more difficult to recognize how and where it remains undigested and unchanged.

  9. Drawn from the heyday of America's literature of manners, the canonical realist works on which I focus are densely complex. Yet they are also handily compressed, compressed enough to fit into our very hands. Henry James has commented that "really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so" (James, Roderick Hudson xli). Literary works by such artists as James and Wharton are famous for how they artistically encircle, circumscribe, the densely overcrossing lines and cracks of multi-dimensional social and emotional "relations," while still preserving those relations' ramifying complexity.

  10. By practicing a species of what Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have called "wrenching . . . recontextualization," we can heuristically use the complicated "geometry" of the circles drawn by such literary artists as James and Wharton to help us reframe and thus re-read aspects of our own social present that are otherwise hard to bring into focus (including the often counter-intuitive "geometry" of our social present's relationship with the past). Indeed we might think of the dense textual circles that this classic realist literature provides not merely as frames but as refractive lenses—lenses bulging (like those of the classic bookworm's glasses) with the thickness both of what James called "the art of fiction" and "the air of reality." These literarily "thick" lenses can, as it were, break up the light differently, revealing different angles, surfaces, and contiguities of our social present than are usually apparent.

  11. Henry James's 1877 novel The American, for example, portrays its allegorically named New World protagonist, Christopher Newman, as "a good fellow wronged"—wronged by ethnic and national others' humiliating refusal to appreciate his fine qualities and intentions. James's complex elaboration and critical investigation of Newman's inner feelings and public posture as "after all and above all . . . a good fellow wronged" helps to shed light on contemporary white American exceptionalism, and the "good fellow wronged" is a figure to which several of my chapters return (303).

  12. It is not merely coincidental that the thick literary lenses which I select to help us re-see, and thereby re-articulate, present-day dynamics of white liberal exceptionalism all derive from the turn of the twentieth century. For one thing, in addition to the compact yet especially rich field of social relations and emotions portrayed by authors such as Wharton and James, certain rough but striking socio-historical parallels between their time and our own add extra resonance and suggestiveness to juxtapositions of materials from the two periods. Despite the obvious differences between the two periods, their rough parallels include, for example, the end of Reconstruction with its great strides and even greater promises and, almost exactly a hundred years later, the effective end of the Civil Rights era, with its great strides and even greater promises. So too, at the turn of the twentieth century the mass immigration of what were regarded as racial and ethnic "others" from eastern and southern Europe challenged and complicated the overlapping identity categories of "white" and of "American," as is also happening today in America with its unprecedentedly high levels of Latin American and Asian immigration.

  13. Even more than for any suggestive historical parallels between "their" moment and ours, however, I have selected the particular literary works focused on in this study because they are among the works that I have found myself most drawn to reading, re-reading, and teaching over the last ten years. As will become clearer in individual chapters, questions of pedagogy provide an important motive and background for "critical presentism" as an approach and for its use in the current project. A critically presentist approach can, I believe, help empower students and teachers to view the hard and intricate work of analyzing literature as offering, among its other rewards, the possibility of a surprisingly proximate social and political payoff. The same attentive, complex, and creative readings of literary texts that we develop in our classrooms may, at least in some cases, be self-consciously turned or "troped" to help shed new light on even the most resistantly complicated facets of the world surrounding (and permeating) our classrooms.

  14. One of the more radical implications of New Critical pedagogy, especially as such pedagogy evolved during the period of the G.I. Bill, was to democratize the study of literary aesthetics. New Critical formalism implied that one could perform valid aesthetic analysis by focusing ever more closely on a literary work in itself, whether sitting in a classroom with other students or at the kitchen table. As I conceive it, "critical presentism" aspires to the same democratizing impulse, although directed not toward aesthetic evaluation but toward what has become the defining problematic of literary studies since the 1970s—that is, the relationship between literature and power. In this book, I wish through demonstration to remind students and teachers that reading literature closely, even literature from a different time period, can sometimes refine our understanding of how representational, socio-institutional, and psychological modalities of power operate today without our first needing to elaborate historical genealogies.

    From Chapter One: What Edith Wharton Teaches about Higher Education and the Defense of Affirmative Action

  15. In what follows, I will be juxtaposing Edith Wharton's 1911 short story "Autre Temps. . ." with key documents from Hopwood v. Texas, a Fifth Circuit case which in 1996 rendered illegal all state-sponsored affirmative action programs in Texas higher education.4 The Hopwood case constituted the first successful attack on a university's practice of affirmative action sponsored by the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., and it has set many patterns later followed by similar such cases in Michigan, Georgia, Oregon, and elsewhere. I will argue here that, despite glaring disjunctions, Wharton's "Autre Temps. . ." can serve as a penetrating examination, albeit avant le mot, of some of the Hopwood trial's most central and difficult aspects. Above all, "Autre Temps. . ." helps us better understand The University of Texas's failure to mount a sufficiently strong legal argument in favor of continuing its own affirmative action programs, despite the largely sincere efforts that The University and its attorneys did indeed make.

  16. David Simpson has recently complained that "an ethos of presence and presentism" robs our students of "a sense of the past as past," and that it thus can "rob them of the experience of challenge and difference that the university ought . . . to provide" (14, 7). My contention throughout will be that, when performed with critical awareness, presentist reading and teaching of literature can indeed provoke challenging encounters with difference, both external and internal.

    Political Metaphor

  17. . . . I would appeal further to the distinguished, if still sometimes controversial, theatrical tradition in which directors devise purposefully anachronistic stagings of plays to comment politically on the directors' own times and places. Defending this presentist practice, Jonathan Miller (himself responsible for several such productions in theater and opera) asserts that every dramatic work "must necessarily undergo change with the passage of time, and that this change is best inflicted upon the work deliberately rather than, as it were, by default" (27). The plays of Shakespeare, in particular, have been staged so as to produce what John Elsom calls "political metaphor." For instance, "at a time when the rigours of Stalinist censorship could be felt through Eastern Europe, Shakespearean productions became a way of commenting on political events without running the risk of banning or imprisonment" (Elsom 2).5 The possibility for political metaphor has motivated directors even in contexts not heavily burdened by state censorship. Discussing his staging of Henry IV and Henry V in 1988, British director Michael Bogdanov observed, "When Prince John of Lancaster meets the Archbishop on neutral ground, and tricks the rebels into laying down their arms, I think of Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik" (Elsom 17).

  18. "Political metaphor" is what I wish to undertake as well, although not in Bogdanov's sense of locating one-to-one correspondences between given actors or events. Bogdanov conceives the political metaphors that directing Shakespeare makes available to him as based on parallels or analogies:

    I look for the ways in which the political circumstances were handled then, and find inspirational parallels in what is happening now. We governed disgustingly in the fourteenth century, and we are still governing disgustingly today. (17)

    When "political metaphor" is understood as Bogdanov seems to have done, that is as a way to underline parallels between two sets of "political circumstances," the metaphor presumes a certain transparency, an easy readability, for both sets of circumstances. Even before juxtaposing them, the director can already see—he already knows—the underlying essence of each political moment. This prior grasp of each political moment's central truth "inspir[es]" the parallels or analogies that the director's staging will subsequently work to emphasize.

  19. Presuming that we already grasp in full each side of the comparison, metaphor as analogy can obscure crucial differences. Moreover, finding analogies between instances of racial and gender discrimination can be particularly hazardous. In order for them to be rendered parallel, each side of the race/gender analogy tends to be reductively simplified.6 Wharton's "Autre Temps. . ." explores the effects of discrimination based on gender, marital status, and sexual behavior, all within an elite upper-class context, while, by contrast, Hopwood v. Texas's central focus is racial discrimination at a large state university. Despite the hazards of reductiveness and oversimplification, my juxtaposition of "Autre Temps. . ." and Hopwood does rely to some extent on teasing out parallels between the 1911 short story and the 1996 court case. The possibilities of metaphor as analogy are not what I primarily seek to emphasize, however. My overriding aim is to develop a model of political metaphor as catachresis.

  20. A species of metaphor, catachresis is a "strained," "abused," or "perverted" use of language that names what otherwise has no name (a table leg, a head of cabbage, the teeth of a comb) (Murfin 41). I hope to show that "Autre Temps. . ." and Hopwood v. Texas each help to give visible figuration to a core of meaning internal to the other one—or, rather, to a core of non-meaning—that might not be recognizable without the presentist juxtaposition. For both "Autre Temps. . ." and Hopwood v. Texas, this core of non-meaning, moreover, turns out to be what allows for an unspeakable experience of enjoyment—of jouissance—that each text adumbrates. In both cases, this secret jouissance shadows socially liberal practices: respectively, "changes and . . . readjustments" in social attitudes towards divorce in the early twentieth century and official antiracism at The University of Texas during the 1990s (Wharton 252).

Works Cited

Adams, David Keith, and Cornelis A. van Minnen. Reflections on American Exceptionalism. Staffordshire, England: Ryburn Pub. Keele University Press, 1994.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

---. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X." PMLA 110.3 (1995): 343-49.

Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Chandler, James K. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Series Q. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Elsom, John. Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary? London and New York: Routledge in association with the International Association of Theatre Critics, 1989.

Fisher, Philip. Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Grillo, Trina and Stephanie Wildman. "Obscuring the Importance of Race: The Implications of Making Comparisons between Racism and Sexism (or Other Isms)." Critical Race Feminism: A Reader. Ed. Adrienne Katherine Wing. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 44-50.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

James, Henry. The American: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Sources, Criticism. 1877. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

---. Roderick Hudson. 1908. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

LaCapra, Dominick. Soundings in Critical Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Loehlin, James. "'Top of the World, Ma': Richard III and Cinematic Convention." Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Miller, Jonathan. The Afterlife of Plays. Distinguished Graduate Research Lecture. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press, 1992.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

---. Nature's Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Murfin, Ross and Supriyia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Schafer, Byron E., ed. Is America Different: A New Look at American Exceptionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Simpson, Michael. "The Case for `Antiquarian History'." SubStance 28.1 (1999): 5-15.

Smith, Robert Charles. Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era: Now You See It, Now You Don't. Suny Series in Afro-American Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Wharton, Edith. Roman Fever and Other Stories. Ed. Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.


1 For recent treatments see Schafer, Adams and van Minnen, and Lipset.

2 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness; Miller, Nature's Nation; Bercovitch, Puritan Origins of the American Self; Bercovitch, American Jeremiad.

3 See Dinshaw, especially Introduction, and Chapters One and Two.

4 The key decision in the Hopwood case was actually issued by a panel of three judges assigned to consider the Hopwood plaintiffs' appeal of an earlier District Court ruling in the case. The judge in the District Court case, Sam Sparks, had found unconstitutional the specific affirmative action mechanisms in place when Karen Hopwood et al had applied to UT's Law School, but he had awarded no damages to the plaintiffs. Moreover, following the Supreme Court's 1978 opinion in Bakke vs. University of California, Judge Sparks's ruling would still have allowed for a system that treated race as one (but never the sole deciding) factor in admissions. The Fifth Circuit's three-judge panel went much further, declaring that race could not play any sort of role in admissions decisions by the Law School. (In doing so, the panel controversially--and some argued illegally—set Bakke aside.) Although there was room for ambiguity about whether the panel's decree against giving race any consideration whatsoever applied to anything besides UT Law School admissions, Texas's attorney general at the time, Dan Morales, issued a binding interpretation that read the ruling as broadly as possible. All of Texas's public universities, Morales said, would have to cease any consideration of race not only in admissions but in financial aid and hiring. Four months after the three-judge panel's decision, the Supreme Court declined to become involved in the case. As of this writing (February 2001), The University's most recent appeal, partly concerning the damages and costs awarded to the Hopwood plaintiffs but also asking for an en banc hearing on the case's constitutional issues by the Fifth Circuit's full panel of 15 judges, has been denied.

5 In addition to the symposia of theater people transcribed in Elsom's text, see the influential work by Kott to which they were responding. A prominent recent example of pointed anachronism in the staging of Shakespeare is Richard Loncraine's 1995 film of Richard III, which resets the play into a fascist-dominated England of the 1930s and also resonates with the Thatcher era. For an illuminatingly close analysis of this movie, see Loehlin.

6 See Grillo and Wildman. For a critique of how nineteenth- and early-twentieth century white women used race-based slavery as, in effect, a political metaphor for their own oppression, see Sánchez-Eppler.

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Published @ RC

February 2002