Art, Reason, and Cultural Legitimation1



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Leroy F. Searle

English & Comparative Literature

University of Washington

Seattle, WA 98195-4330




Art, Reason, and Cultural Legitimation1

The events of the last half-century are not only sufficient to destroy any complacency about the future, they are profoundly resistant to any convincing theoretical simplification. The century just concluded is by any measure the most extraordinary in terms of technical achievements, but it is also the bloodiest and most violent period in recorded history. Events that a generation ago seemed to be historical singularities, markers of an epoch in our ethical being in revulsion against genocide, not only have not stopped but have been manifest on every continent, from Bosnia and Serbia, to Laos and Cambodia, Rwanda and Burundi, and so on, seemingly without end, but also without any compelling explanation and certainly without any intellectually sovereign point of view from which to negotiate horrific differences at every level. The so-called end of the cold war, moreover, has not been accompanied by a lessening of tensions or hostilities, which continue as actions of opposition driven by seemingly incommensurable ideas.

These are actions that cannot be explained as if they were merely emotional or psychological: they are argued for, defended, often elaborately theorized, and for a time long enough to authorize a disaster, they are persuasive. Furthermore, it is not clear what it would mean to call such volatile oppositions “political,” since in many instances, what is missing is a sense of legitimacy that enables institutions to function politically, with the support of an identifiable constituency or polis. Instead, arguments are directed to an already convinced faction or group—one might use the common metaphor of “preaching to the choir” were it not for fact that it is not at all about devotion or piety, but power—justifying extreme actions in the absence of broad-based consensus or ground of popular support. It is against this practical background that ours has become, with deep irony, a time of theory, not with any sense of philosophical solidity through which theories have claimed to serve an explanatory function, but rather as a poorly disciplined dialectical exercise of speculation, a seeking to justify courses of action that are driven primarily by an already present (but not necessarily well examined) sense of moral and practical priorities. This applies, with different consequences, both to affairs of state and the state of intellectual exchange in the academy.

In the United States, for example, the vaguely political tone of much discourse in the humanities derives largely from a commitment to such ideas as equality, social justice, the sanctity of individual, ethnic, or sexual identity—at the very same time when an elected government claiming only the slenderest thread of technical legitimacy appears bent on following the example set during the administration of Ronald Reagan of dismantling the very governmental infrastructure that might serve to protect such interests. On every side, theory comes into play less in the spirit of inquiry than of combat, with the effect that theoretical arguments become rhetorical in a distinctly pejorative sense, in the making of arguments that may forego even the pretense of answering complaints against them by simply shifting the ground so as to prevent beliefs held dogmatically from being called into question. The same pattern is evident, with much worse consequences, in the arena of local and international policy, where the focus appears to be how to make a case for war. It is not my purpose to blame theory for these tragedies, but rather to call attention to the practical consequences of hierarchical generalizations which offer simple rules of conduct that lead to and appear to legitimize atrocities, usually in the name of some fundamental principle or article of belief. From the arena of academic discourse to urban battlefields throughout the world, dogmatism and fundamentalism are in the ascendancy, at least for the moment, wherever we find an appeal to some absolute or universal principle that shapes and conditions an entire frame of reference while it is held to be exempt from questioning.

It would be comforting to say that fundamentalism, whatever its focus, is just bad theory, if it were possible for us to say with conviction that we know how to tell the difference between bad theory and good. The altogether obvious point is that what may appear to one group as lunatic ravings is, to the purported lunatics, the truth, already embedded in a view of the world and a set of cultural practices that, invisible in itself, provides the ground for arguments that do, in fact, guide action. In desperate conflicts where just being a Jew or Muslim, a Tutsi or Hutu, or a member of this or that identity group, is cause enough to be killed, it is not that such actions are senseless or without reason: they are intentional; they are the following out of theories; they are the embodiment or outgrowth of some privileged forms of argument. But just so, they present a deeper problem in showing that any fundamental belief in “reason” as a presumably universal faculty is subject to the same stricture, as people from every corner of the world proceed to conclusions that may strike the outsider as monstrous or stupid, while they are accepted and endorsed by the people involved as not only reasonable, but just, compelling, and perhaps even necessary. While it would be unduly cynical to say that the principle of “reason” may be merely that which conforms to already established beliefs, the activity of giving reasons for what one does in the name of a collectivity does follow this pattern, all too commonly along a pathway to death.

I realize that characterizing this as at once a problem of theory and a matter of fundamentalism may itself exemplify, without clarifying, my point. The distinguishing characteristic of fundamentalism is, as I see it, a demand, even a need, for certainty, coupled with a willingness to act on what one believes without tolerance for criticism, usually in the sincere conviction that the truth, having been reached or revealed, does not require it–or more often, will not even tolerate it. In this sense, the faith of the evangelical Christian or the radical Islamist appears to either (and both) as undeniable and necessary, and any criticism is immediately characterized as the pernicious work of the devil or the detestable act of an infidel. But this is also the characteristic of “rational” belief as well, with the salient difference that in the latter case, critical questioning is not automatically identified as it is in virtually all religious traditions, with blasphemy, impiety, or infidelity. The problem of rational belief is subtler by degree, in that the prevailing practice of criticism itself may not even allow us to formulate radical questions by ruling them out of bounds in advance as “irrational” and indeed, treats reason itself as the absolute or fundamental principle that is not to be questioned. While we may choose to be more amused than alarmed at the so-called academic “culture wars,” they are comic only in that they do not usually lead to bloodshed. But in all seriousness, they demonstrate the naiveté of thinking that anyone can make a direct appeal to “reason” as we have conventionally defined it precisely because the battles are being fought out between different and sometimes incommensurable worldviews, with no clearly agreed-upon space or terms for translation. In this sense, the academic culture wars are on the same continuum with frustrated politicians in Washington, D. C., turning “democracy” and “freedom” into cheap slogans for justifying violent aggression against apparent enemies, militant settlers appropriating someone else’s land as their own divine inheritance, or suicide bombers shouting ‘God is Great!’ before murdering scores of innocents. The common thread is a rage against complexity, when one intuits that one’s profession, culture, identity, perhaps even one’s very existence may be under immediate threat—with the concomitant feeling that the source of the threat, being incomprehensible, must be evil.

If this is a crisis (and I think it is), I believe there are good reasons to treat it as not directly a crisis of culture, nor of theory, nor even of reason, but of reasoning itself. We cannot ignore it because it is manifest directly in political form—or rather, war as the collapse of political form—but neither can we end it by taking direct political action. The reason is quite simple: political action as inherently civil always presupposes some standard of legitimacy that cannot be imposed by force, but must be elicited and ratified by free assent. As we now know from repeated and deadly experience, faith in some exemplified political process (whether it takes the form of voting, legislation, adjudication under law, democratic consensus, or submission to some sanctioned authority) is neither universal nor Platonic, in the sense that it only needs to be elicited dialectically to be accepted.2 On the contrary, it is something that has to be meticulously, painstakingly built, inculcated, and nurtured across the multiplicity of institutions and conventions that make up a functioning society. The perception of a world shrinking by way of electronic technology or the growth of international business serves primarily, in this context, to underscore the enormous danger of multiplicity, in which the inculcated sense of “justice” in one society may indeed have no translation whatsoever into with what another society takes to be just.

We have so far burdened ourselves with innumerable clichés about the value of multicultural diversity and the virtue of tolerance, without really taking the measure of how it is that this virtue ever came to be regarded as such or what network of dependencies may be necessary to its acceptance. In a post-colonial world, the agonized liberal conscience is better prepared to see (and passionately oppose) the arrogance and stupidity of the colonial overlords, than to recognize the arrogance and stupidity of subaltern peoples coming into possession of their own freedom and sovereignty. Thus, we may simply presume upon what we take to be rational discourse, calling on others, in the words of Isaiah, “to sit down and reason together,” as if we all followed the same rule of reason when it is obvious that we do not.

In the privileged West, a faith in reason has been, at least since Duns Scotus, as firm, if not more firm, than faith in God; and it has been a primary source of the vast project of modernism since the Renaissance. What Jean François Lyotard in his discussions of the post-modern has characterized as “meta-narratives”3 that have given shape to history and meaning to communal life, have been constructions of reason, narrowly considered, as the faculty of calculating desire: by two canonical principles, the law of contradiction and the rule of the excluded middle, we form our arguments so as to formally compel conclusions as objective and necessary—thereby leaving out of the equation any consideration of the purpose or telos of the argument itself. If we identify that element as ideological and set ourselves the task of providing a critique of it, the principal result, tirelessly reiterated through twenty-five years of clever deconstruction, is the recognition that we have in our hands only the first beads in an infinite necklace.

Scotus understood this problem from the start as a metaphysical puzzle: if the only modes of being we allow are matter and form, the only mode of existence proves to be the existence of a thing, thereby leaving us in the orbit of a vicious paradox that cannot identify any mode of being for such diverse ideas as laws of nature and mathematical principles, or virtues such as love, devotion, or faithfulness. The eventual triumph of nominalism over scholastic realism appears, in this light, to have almost happened by default: having no solution for the metaphysical puzzle of the formally abstract universal, it was far easier to treat such things as arbitrary conveniences, mere names, well in advance of Saussure’s simple minded notion of the arbitrary sign.

A faith in reasoning likewise defaults into a faith in objectivity by bracketing out the very element of choice or election that guides us, or following Charles Sanders Peirce, abducts us concerning where and how to deploy our attention.4 Ironically, the Catholic Church, in condemning Copernicus and Galileo and burning Giordano Bruno at the stake did more than it reckoned in strengthening a faith in reason by making it evident that the explicit claims of spirituality or moral probity by themselves can be profoundly fraudulent and self-contradictory, concerned more with holding power than with promoting virtue.

The modernist meta-narrative of rational progress, however, has gambled everything on a utopian future, in a vision of a resolutely secular modern world in which ancient mystification would be replaced by enlightenment and superstition would give way to science—and all the savage, heathen tribes meanwhile would be summarily ‘civilized’ out of existence, usually by the tactics of “shock and awe” to which conquerors have always aspired. This irony inherent in the modernist vision, moreover, is not something we latter day modernists are the first to have seen, as Montaigne points out with a certain exuberance in discoursing upon barbarism in his essay “On Cannibals”:

I find that there is noth­ing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own coun­try. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and rea­son, than the example and idea of the opinions and cus­toms of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.5

The vexation of the modernist project in the West may be, from this perspective, no more than the radical expansion of contact with other countries and customs, wherein it appears that there are many more kinds of barbarians than even Montaigne could have imagined. But irony will only go so far: the constant temptation to have an end to argument, to come to a conclusion traps even Montaigne into a praise for his cannibal as compared with the civilized European that loses its balance over such questions as whether, having killed a man, it is better to eat him or not.

The essential problem is that what guides our thoughts is all too often independent of them, anterior to them, carrying us along a course of reasoning that becomes all the more myopic the longer it is continued. When Lyotard, for example, fixes his attention on the meta-narratives as guides for knowledge, he may very well miss the importance of the primary narrative, the concrete, detailed story, and not its theoretical skeleton, rattling its bones in deadly imitation of what got it started. The role we accord to knowledge notoriously plays down wisdom because our faith in the reasoning that produces knowledge so often seems to us decisive, and itself independent of (if not alien to) our moral sense.

Thus in this era of the postmodern, instead of taking the point to be that our meta-narratives are our theories, plain and simple, and they are what has collapsed, we have indulged ourselves, no doubt thinking hard in the proliferation of theories that hold sway not by giving exacting or perspicuous explanations but more simply, by tapping into what is already believed, and kept in relentless circulation as a set of quotable phrases, dialectical commonplaces, and simplified analytical strategies, but for all that, getting nowhere. Deconstruction, launched from a serious insight into the metaphysical quandary of representation, now may appear primarily as a set of tricks to teach to sophomores still excited by local rebellion; while critical discourse about power in the social field comes to resemble a video game in which the objective is to find and obliterate The Oppressor.

I will come directly to my major claim in this paper: we find ourselves in trouble over reasoning primarily because we have defined it so narrowly and dogmatically that it compromises its own proper ground. In focusing on strictly mathematical criterion of truth, or a narrowly empirical conception of knowledge, we thereby compromise a broader criterion of legitimacy by stripping away the multiplicity of factors that enter into complex judgments. Bearing this in mind, it is just as silly to argue that all scientific statements are socially conditioned or determined as it is to deny that social considerations have anything whatever to do with science. In any particular case, the broader question of legitimacy is the result of a complex negotiation that usually starts as an educative process. Someone who is innocent of advanced mathematics is simply in no position to judge contemporary work in physics, or, for that matter, to really understand it, just as someone who has only heard some rumor about a work of art is not in a very good position to express any opinion about it that commands our respect. Neither case consigns the non-specialist to ignorance, but only to an essential modesty about how far one’s understanding may extend. In speaking earlier of the “proper ground” of reasoning, I take it, following the pragmatic maxim of Peirce, to be a precise imagining of the consequences that may follow from conscious decisions.6 Reasoning, in this sense, is broader than inference, but it has the same characteristic of allowing us to proceed from what we do know to something which we do not, something that can only be formulated or discovered by careful and meticulous attention to details. In this view, there is no virtue in supposing the imaginative to be the counter-factual or the false, just as there is no point is supposing that reasoning grounded on imagining is either opposed to, or can proceed very far without a reliance on a fairly exacting, even technical sense of logic.

For something more than two millennia, reason and reasoning have been generally articulated by opposing them to art, to imagination, to emotion, to religion and politics, under the understandable but mistaken belief that the process of our thinking can be “purified” of the very elements that enable it in the first place. We could, of course, go back to Plato’s notorious gesture of exiling the poets, but more to the immediate purpose is the doctrine cum dogma since the 17 century that truth must be resolutely stripped of metaphor.th If we did that, such expressions as A=B would drop away in the wash, inasmuch as the idea that one thing can be substituted for another depends first of all upon the perception that the two items equated are, after all, similar in some respect. All metaphor starts in the same place, along with all attributive predications: when we say that something is something else (my shoes are black, the cat is tame, the horse is lame) we are operating in the arena of relations that gain their specificity by refinement, not by ceasing to be inherently relational. To put the matter simply, if we were deprived of metaphor we would be deprived of thought.

If we begin from the admission that all thinking, all reasoning, is fundamentally imaginative, meaning nothing more by that, for the moment, than that we must picture or represent to ourselves, to our own minds, the substance of what we are thinking about, then reasoning is absolutely dependent on representation, carried out essentially as experiments with diagrams, explorations aided by pictures, inquiries given shape by representations that are chosen (not given) for their perspicuity relative to the subject of our thoughts.7

My second claim is therefore that when we consider artifacts and objects that are set aside as paradigmatically imaginative—poems and stories, pictures, music, performances—it has been our collective custom to treat them as objects about which to reason (when we do not puritanically condemn them as debased and corrupting), thereby occluding the recognition that imaginative works are already primary forms of reasoning themselves. In cases where the semantic register is relatively accessible (words and words applied to pictures), we may find ourselves abducted (not necessarily in a good sense) by our antecedent sense of how words are ordinarily used; but in the harder cases (of dance, sculpture, music) where there is no immediate semantic register upon which to rely (Eb does not mean “Earth”, pace Mahler), we are less likely to see the reasoning, the examination or inquiry, because it requires time and training to perceive the integuments of relation by which, say, a dance or a musical composition is held together.

If we furthermore take the concept of truth to be a specialization of the broader concept of legitimacy (for to say of a statement that it is true is to vouch for its legitimacy), then our attention to a work of art, contrary to the massive weight of the tradition that has demeaned it, exiled it, or put it aside as for one’s idle time or entertainment, is as important as anything we can do as human beings. Taking a work of art as an inquiry and an argument, moreover, does NOT mean taking out the commonplaces from our handy theoretical tool bag and disassembling it or working up a “reading” of it, informed by this or that current ideological fashion. Less abrasively, one might simply say that one cannot say anything interesting about a novel without really reading it, or about a piece of music without hearing and studying it, on the assumption that what has been made was made for a reason that we might not be shrewd enough to guess. From the start, we should accede to the primary intentionality (not the same as “meaning”) of the work as a made thing. (I will take a polemical short-cut here to say that most of what elicits our attention as “art” on this simple criterion fails miserably to hold it.) Those works that do hold our attention, which cannot be exhausted by a single reading or hearing or viewing, do not require definitions or categorial hedges: they simply require our thoughtfulness, our curiosity, our own fund of experience, and above all, our patience.

The theoretical impetus in such cases is all the more problematic since the very richness of a metaphor (does, for example, Robert Burns’s “My Love is like a red, red rose / That’s lately sprung in June” mean that my Love has thorns, is seasonally afflicted by aphids, is vegetative and requires much maintenance?) seems to demand some generalization that will curtail such thematic excesses, but to theorize prematurely can only block a recognition of the fact in virtually any poem, any deliberately made literary work, the scope or application of one figure is constrained by another, as in this case, the second line of Burns’s poem: “My Love is like a melody / That’s sweetly played in tune.”8 The poem itself dynamically limits (without eliminating) apparently vagrant implications—even though, in this case, it is entirely apposite and to the point to recognize that love does have “thorns”—by setting semantic and structural attributes within a rich, functional matrix for contemplation. The typical pattern, however, explored very ably by Sandor Goodhart, appears to be that literary critics and theorists systematically reduce the actual details of a text to a much simpler myth, story, or source—and treat the text as identical in meaning to the very source that the literary author meticulously transforms and criticizes in his or her work.9 When Chaucer is read almost as if he were one of the Patristic fathers, or Shakespeare is treated as if Macbeth or King Lear could be reduced to stories in Hollingshead’s Chronicles, we may suppose these are the pre-theoretical naïve errors of the past—only to miss the close similarity between such simplistic misreading and rhetorically sophisticated theoretical criticism, where a primary text is simply buried by the intention to develop a ”reading” that expropriates the text as an illustration of a principle already decided upon in advance. By urging that we hold back upon the invocation of the meta-narrative so as to see artistic works as primary forms of reasoning, we may enable and invite a different kind of theorizing in which the very point at issue is legitimation, not truth or knowledge understood in an entirely conventional way, starting with a sense of legitimacy in the activity of reading itself.

I will illustrate this point briefly by reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a text that has been for decades a target for criticism explicitly committed to principles of social justice, finding Shakespeare’s play (and particularly his protagonist, Prospero) to be the very embodiment of imperialist arrogance, colonialist abuse, brutal dispossession, and racial demonizing of the natives, as represented by Caliban. The overarching point of such criticism, to give it its due, is that the founding of colonies, like reports of miracles, covers up untold misery, and that the sense of justice grounded in a perceived sense of unfairness seems, if not Platonic, then surely universal in some sense. As Caliban complains, before the coming of Prospero, he had the whole of the island, without constraint, but since (and notably, following his attempted rape of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda) Caliban has been confined and punished, dispossessed of the land that formerly was his. In many respects, this situation (in one of the relatively few plays of Shakespeare with an entirely original plot) encapsulates the political pages of any major newspaper, in any region of the globe, for the last half-century or more.

For the sake of convenience, we may start with a broadly representative case, a reading of The Tempest deployed by Ronald Takaki to shape the entire argument of his textbook, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, that consists almost entirely of virtuous commonplaces in the long and hard fought effort to secure fair and equitable treatment of minorities in American culture. I note at the outset, moreover, that the very principles Takaki invokes are themselves the result of decades, if not centuries, of cultural, philosophical, and critical negotiation toward the objective of creating a just and decent society in which, as Martin Luther King put it, children “will not be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character”10—an objective, significantly, shaped by a literary heritage of narratives showing in concrete and material detail the shape and tone of racial and ethnic injustice. The polemical moment of his argument is a sense of outrage, rightly and widely shared, that the principles of equality, having an essential role in conceptualizing the specific legitimacy of a culturally democratic country, are so openly and insidiously violated in practice. Takaki takes advantage of an already well-developed body of responses to Shakespeare’s play to make it into a kind of declarative and insidious testament to colonialist racism against indigenous peoples and cultures. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, as Deborah Willis has remarked, published criticism of The Tempest covered the extremes of Geoffrey Bullough’s view in 1975 that the play “is not about colonialism” to the opposite position, “from considering colonialism to be a non-issue to considering it to be the only issue.”11 But both extremes are easily shown to depend not just upon different ideological orientations, but plain and simple misreading of what the text actually says.

At either extreme, the tendency to treat the literary text as an object about which to argue instead of as itself already a primary form of argument leads readers to substitute for what the text says some analogue, partial source, or item of common knowledge that is both simpler and less subtle. Thus, Takaki draws upon widely circulated commonplaces, such as taking Shakespeare’s allusion to the “vexed Bermooths” to mean that the play is set in Bermuda, and therefore the New World; or rearranging Caliban’s name as an anagram for cannibal, or appropriating a possible allusion in the name of his god Setebos to a Patagonian mythic figure, to conclude that Caliban is an American Indian.12 By such means, The Tempest itself is made into a meta-narrative of dispossession and racial injustice, where any oppressed or disadvantaged people are Calibans, while the early English colonists are taken to be like Prospero in viewing “native people as savages.” Thus, according to Takaki, Thomas Jefferson, “like Prospero before him,” sees “the triumph over the continent and the Indians as the movement from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization’” (50); and is identified with all slaveholders whose four million black slaves, “like Caliban,” “served the Prosperos of the master class.” (110)

While there have been more or less hagiological denunciations of such interpretations as a violation of Shakespeare, the great English Bard, along with further justifications, together foregrounding the perhaps inevitable presence of disparate contemporary ideological positions,13 the play is incomparable more substantive, coherent, and subtle than such warring readings recognize. At the simplest level, inattentive readers may place the action of the play in Bermuda only by failing to notice that the allusion comes when Prospero asks Ariel, his magic making spirit, how he has disposed the King’s ship and the rest of the royal fleet:

Safely in harbor

Is the King’s ship, in the deep nook where once

Thou call’dst me up at midnight to fetch dew

From the still-vexed Bermoothes, there she’s hid;

The mariners all under hatches stowed . . .

. . . ; and for the rest o’ th’ fleet,

Which I dispersed, they all have met again,

And are upon the Mediterranean flote

Bound sadly home for Naples,

Supposing that they saw the King’s ship wracked

And his great person perish.

It could not be more clear that Prospero’s island is in the Mediterranean, just as it is obvious in the structure of the action that Prospero, formerly Duke of Milan was usurped by Alonso, the King of Naples, who has come to marry off his daughter, Claribel, to the King of Tunis. A moment with a map, even one as inaccurate as Shakespeare and his contemporaries might have used, makes clear that the political ambitions of Alonso, the King of Naples, not Prospero, are the very stuff of empire building, seeking by treachery and alliance to wield dominating influence not just in Milan, the northern-most city of Italy and Naples, its greatest western seaport, but on the African coast at Tunis as well. The obvious geographical and political background of the play, that is to say, is absolutely European, and looking soberly upon its long and deadly imperialist history, encapsulates the enormous risk of a far-flung empire being built by conspiracy, force, including the callous will to offer his own daughter almost as a pawn to a marriage she does not want.14 But what are the stakes, and what are the implications? First of all, should he succeed, Alonso would have in place an empire greater than Rome (which is, spatially, exactly in the middle of the triangle connecting Milan, Tunis, and Naples) and more profitable by far than Carthage, since it would not only contain Rome but would control access to Europe through Alps and to the East by control of the shipping channel between southern Italy and the closest place on the African coast, Tunis.

It is striking that this entirely obvious feature of the setting of the play and the framing of its action has hardly entered critical discussion of the play at all, but even more striking is the handling of Caliban. He has, indeed, been racially demonized, treated as a dark skinned, sub-human monster, costumed and so presented by directors quite consistently since the 19 century on, but it does not happen in Shakespeare’s text.th Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, is a “blue-eyed hag,” a malevolent witch (as Prospero is presented as a virtuous magician) marooned but allowed to live only because she was with child. The all but universal treatment of Caliban as less than human derives from a plain and simple misreading of these lines by Prospero, meant to chasten Ariel, who is reluctant to help Prospero carry out his plot of self-discovery:

. . . Then was this island

(Save for the son that she did litter here,

a freckled whelp, hag-born) not honored

with a human shape. (I, ii, 281-84)

That is, the island was not honored with a human shape, except for Caliban, freckled as would be any blue-eyed, fair-skinned person abandoned on a southern Mediterranean island: he may smell bad, but he is just as European as the Italians who encounter him. To put the case succinctly, Caliban is not, in this play, judged by the color of his skin, but precisely and exactingly by the content of his character: it is he, after all, who attempts to rape Miranda, using the language in which he learned to curse to lament that had Prospero not prevented him, for he would have “peopled else / This isle with Calibans.” (I,ii, 350-51). For Prospero, moreover, the main concern is not with recovering the kingdom he lost, by his own admission not just to treachery but through administrative inattention: he is more concerned to secure a husband for his daughter, and thereby a future for his family. It would be, one might venture, a most peculiar father who would chose her would-be rapist for that role, even though it is striking by the end of the play, with the failure of the multiple insane plots for power by men who, dreaming of being home in Naples or Milan, are actually marooned on a desert island with no hope whatsoever of getting off, that Caliban is the only one who clearly understands what a fool he had been to pick for his masters a drunkard and a buffoon, and may be the only one who has really been changed by the events of the play.15

Having gone only this far toward a reading of The Tempest, I believe it is sufficient to explore the claim that this play, considered as a paradigm of humane reasoning, goes to the very heart of the question of cultural legitimation, by presenting in an essentially diagrammatic form a matrix of relations that does not reduce the complexity of social reality and allows us to return, again and again, to its structure and its exact language to think our way through fundamental political dilemmas without confusion—and without ignoring essential elements that pertain to our own human make-up. The fact that this claim may seem counterintuitive derives only from the habit of supposing that literary texts are an expression of some simple theory, or a reflection of some ideological commitment, instead of looking patiently at the evidence that they are inductive and abductive experiments, which think in and through the precisely embodied figures that constitute them.

What is most important in this claim is that a text is a carefully constructed matrix of relations that is emphatically not dogmatic. From the perspective of a conventional view of reasoning, this quality appears (and has been so treated) as an objectionable ambiguity, preventing one from affirming a univocal “meaning” for a text, but that is its exact and exacting virtue—and does not in any way mean that where reading is concerned any reading is as good as any other. A play like The Tempest, for example, is a thought experiment, in which attention the entire matrix of the play—its characters, setting, structure, syntax, and chains of consequential events—enable one to think through a finite case to consider what happens IF. . .? Viewed in this imaginative and essentially hypothetical mode, all the questions that the text may raise have sufficient materials to answer, not categorically but pragmatically. For example, when Shakespeare places the royal party on a desert island, and then proceeds to show first, the diverse plots to seize power, in almost all cases by murderous means, starting from Prospero’s brother, Antonio, persuading Sebastian that they should murder his brother, Alonso, King of Naples, going on to the plot among fools, with Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, the circumstances in the first instance (murdering a king to seize his throne, though it is a thousand leagues away and for all they know, unreachable) make the conspiracy literally an action by madmen who in the most immediate way do not know where they are and have not given a thought to how they might (and might have to) live there. In the second instance, the parallel between the cases of the court party and Caliban and the fools, reinforces the point that such undertakings, Machiavelli notwithstanding, are self-defeating in both the short and the long run—even though Prospero understand with exactitude that his real danger comes from Caliban, whom Prospero acknowledges as his own as both an indication of his intimate knowledge of Caliban, and as a metaphorical juxtaposition that identifies Caliban’s qualities with Prospero himself, and more to the point, with everyone who may just want to eat his dinner and enjoy his woman. The point is made all the more solid, moreover, when Prospero, himself having been usurped in Milan, treats Ferdinand (whom we soon understand to be the groom most desired for Miranda) as a violent usurper of his island kingdom.

The critical fixation on ambiguity and mulitiplicity of meaning in artistic works as either a scandal, a defect, some kind of intellectual misfortune, stems from a model of reasoning that is anything but imaginative: it is, in the strictest sense, dogmatic, even fundamentalist, not by insisting upon decision criteria, but by not recognizing the multiplicity of factors that come into play in even the most ordinary practical events. In our impatience to assert some fundamental principle of right or wrong, we are more likely to create injury and confusion than to reach any stable sense that justice has been done. The great irony is that all justice is, in a very basic way, poetic—meaning by that not that it is unreal or false or unobtainable, but exactly the opposite. It is that our sense of justice is inculcated as part of education, and is profoundly and deeply shaped by the poems that we privilege, the texts we most revere.16 Whenever we are tempted to suppose that there are universal human rights, or inviolable principles of policy, it should be our first tactic to consider the stories used to illustrate them, that show us concretely, why it is wrong to allow gratuitous suffering, why it is impermissible and damaging to our own nature as persons to use superficial appearances as a basis for treating another group badly, and so on. Perhaps the most fierce academic irony of our times is that in the interest of such virtues, the main tendency has been to show increasing impatience with the literary, even, as in the cases briefly examined here, to treat the literary as if it were complicit with if not itself the cause of the very evils against which literary texts themselves are the best and perhaps the only arguments.

Correspondingly, when we consider the alarming rise of terror in our own world, I would argue that our greatest risk lies in the dogmatic insistence upon principles whose specific consequences are not concretely imagined. For at least a half-century, we have enacted for ourselves a drama on the world stage, worrying about the hegemonic ambitions or deadly potential of another, opposing group, forgetting all the while that hegemony also means, as Gramsci was among the first to insist,17 gaining assent without coercion. If a political party means to actually gain and hold power, it will never do to neutralize or exterminate all one’s enemies, for the very effort to do so creates an unending spiral of enmity. But this contemporary drama, with its escalating deadliness, is a thoroughly wretched, abysmal play. It is bad art, not even recognizing its own inherent characteristics as such, because the stage on which it is played out does not permit rehearsal, reconsideration, contemplative consideration of consequences. A model of imaginative reasoning, seen not as some piece of magic reminiscent of Prospero, but as honoring the mental space in which we examine, contemplate, and imagine a future, is, and always has been, the primary mechanism for reaching assent without coercion. The immemorial work of poetry is to teach us to think, to teach us to come to agreements without dogmatic exclusion, so as to act as human beings, not as Calibans in an endless succession of costumes. It is time to return to it.





1 Essay for “Differentiation and Integration of Worldviews,” Sixth Annual International Congress in Philosophy and Culture, sponsored by UNESCO and The Russian Institute for Cultural Research, St. Petersburg, Russia. October 28-November 3, 2003.

2 It is worth remembering, in this context, that in the locus classicus of this problem, in Plato’s Republic, the argument of Thrasymachus in Book I is never answered, but only deflected by Socrates’ appealing to the party to agree, among themselves, to be “both pleaders and judges,” requiring consensus not only as to what claims would be presented and how they would be disposed [348b]. From that moment on, though Thrasymachus stays, he contributes nothing substantive to the ensuing discussion, interjecting only once in Book V (450a), and being mentioned as not likely to agree in Book VI (498c). Otherwise, he says nothing, not even when, at the end of the dialogue, as dawn is breaking, Plato has Socrates return to his decisions to exile the poets and expositors of Homer to reiterate them for a new reason: that Homer had never actually held power in any city or state, bearing the unremarked implication that justice is, after all, evidently defined by those in power, as Plato now has this argument entirely in his grasp [599-601].

3 See especially Postmodernism: A Report on Knowledge trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984),

4 See, for example, Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958, rpt. 1960), on nominalism, 1.15-26; on abduction, 2.96-104.

5 From: The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans by Charles Cotton, ed. by W. Carew Hazlitt (New York: A. L. Burt, 1892), p. 210. (Original translation, 1685.)

6 See especially Charles Sanders Peirce, “Issues of Pragmaticism: Six Characters of Critical Common Sensism” in Collected Papers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938-52), 5.438-452. The original form of Peirce’s maxim was this: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” The later formulation cited here is: “The entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all general modes of rational conduct which, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol.”

th The sources for this commonplace are too many to cite, coming into fullest prominence in the late 17 and early 18th centuries, from Bacon and Hobbes, to Locke. For a good general introduction to this topic, see Colin Murray Turbane’s classic study, The Myth of Metaphor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; rpt Univ. of South Carolina, 1970). See also, Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

7 Again, Peirce is particularly useful on this matter. See especially CP 2.530; 3.560.

8 For a fuller analysis, cf. my “Technology and the Perils of Poetry: or, Why Criticism Never Catches Up,” in Institutions and Originality: ICHD 98 (Seattle: Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities), 1998, 47-64.

9 Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). See also, Leroy F. Searle, “The Conscience of the King: Oedipus, Hamlet, and the Problem of Reading,” Comparative Literature 49 (Fall, 1997), 316-343.

10 Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” address, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1968. See http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/speeches/address_at_march_on_washington.pdf .

11 Deborah Willis, “Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” SEL 29, no. 2 (Spring, 1989), 227-289.

12 Elsewhere Takaki uses the same analogy to urge that Caliban could have been African (50), Irish (149); Asian or any person of color (205);

13 See, for example, George Wills’s Will’s “Literary Politics: ‘The Tempest’? It’s ‘really about imperialism. Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Masturbation,” Newsweek, April 22, 1991, p. 72; and Stephen Greenblatt’s reply, “The Best Way to Kill Our Literary Inheritance Is to Turn It into a Decorous Celebration of the New World Order,” Chronicle of Higher Education, v. 37, no. 39, June 12, 1991, pp. B1, 3.

14 See especially the comments on the folly of this later determination by

th One could hardly find, moreover, a better example in which generations of misreading actually creates the evil that such commentators as Takaki decry. If, for example, the early colonists—surely not at all likely, being Puritans, to have had any patience or even tolerance for reading a work of Satan’s playground, the Theater, just as they could hardly have seen a play that was never performed in public in Shakespeare’s lifetime—actually had read the play and thought about it, it might have acted as a brake upon deadly imperial and racist ambitions. But that may only imply that they, no less than Takaki, would misread in exactly the same way, assuming that the relevant principle was already known, though the principles are contrary to each other: the one assuming the native to be a vile heathen, and the other, assuming the dominant “Prosperos” to be oppressive monsters.

15 Consider, by contrast, the sullen silence of the two treacherous brothers, Sebastian and Antonio, who, in thinking so well of themselves as civilized gentlemen, do not even seem to register the fact that both are would traitors and murders. Perhaps the most revealing and tantalizing detail, however, is the fact that when the action of the play concludes, Prospero pulls aside the drape to his cell, revealing Ferdinand and Miranda, not just playing the archetypal political game of chess, but Miranda having caught Ferdinand cheating. He denies it, saying he would not do so “for the world,” to which Miranda replies, “Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, / And I would call it fair play.” While there is no question whatsoever that kingdoms governed by Ferdinand and Miranda would be incomparably less vicious than what the rule of either Sebastian or Antonio would promise, they represent a real world in which anyone assuming they could claim perfect virtue and still govern would suffer exactly the fate of Prospero, who loses his kingdom in part because he quits doing his job. Caliban, on the other hand, recognizing himself to be a “thrice double ass” has only shown that acting mainly for the satisfaction of his appetites, wanting both his dinner and a woman, renders him altogether incompetent to govern.

16 See in this context the claim of Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas (1871) that the greatness of any culture is to found in, and shaped by, its poems. In a less extravagant way, Quentin Anderson makes a similar way in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983, 1991), that the emergence of national consciousness depends on print literacy. See chapter 3, 37-46. In Beyond Belief:Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), V. S. Naipaul makes a possibly even more telling point in lamenting the current condition of Indonesia, from a complementary vantage point: “Sustained great writing, rather than polemic, can only come out of societies that offer true human possibility; and in Indonesia we have, instead, a pastoral people who have lost their history; who have been involved in prodigious, often tragic, events, but are without the means—the education, the language, and above all the freedom—to reflect on them” (71). The reciprocity between great, undogmatic, writing and true human possibility extends, I would argue, much farther than we are presently disposed to acknowledge.

17 See especially, Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, 1991), 330-333; and recent work by Chantel Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, especially Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).



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