I recently finished reading Daniel O’Quinn’s Staging Governance: Theatrical Imperialism in London, 1770-1800, the last of the three books I’m reviewing for a journal. In sum, it’s an interesting book that definitely adds to our current understanding of the effects of colonialism on London society in the late eighteenth century. As with the other two books, however, I’ll save the usual review stuff for that essay.

What I’d like to write about here is how reading this book has helped me think a bit about my approach to teaching. As I read the introduction to O’Quinn’s book, I was struck by a phrase he uses in the following sentence:

Charting and adjudicating the limits of social interaction, the theatre, perhaps more than any other form of cultural production, offers a glimpse of how change swept through a culture in the midst of fundamental social transformation both at home and abroad. (12)

First, I want to say that I totally agree with the general sentiment of first part of this statement: due to its reconstruction of social life for the stage, the theater is indeed uniquely able to comment on socio-political change and transformation in any historical period. The whole point of the theater is, in a way, to offer such mapping and judgment. Martin Esslin’s An Anatomy of Drama makes this argument succinctly and convincingly. (I teach Esslin’s book from time to time — it’s profound and accessible at the same time, if that’s possible.)

But I am also struck by the fact that “charting and adjudicating the limit of social interaction” is what literature more generally does in a given culture. Here’s how I would rephrase O’Quinn’s construction:

artistic texts (literary and non-literary, canonical and non-canonical, written and visual) chart and adjudicate the contours of cultural and political debate.

In many ways this is a great summary phrase for how new historicist and cultural studies scholars view literary texts. So, due to my training in those perspectives, I’ve long thought about texts in this way, but reading O’Quinn’s book has crystallized these particular words — chart and adjudicate — for me, helping me focus my preexisting ideas and think about them more productively.

Literary texts chart contemporary debates by delineating the sides of a particular debate and showing us where the points of agreement and disagreement lie. They also show us the limits of debate — what can be imagined and what cannot; what can be published and what cannot; what can be written and what cannot; etc.

(more…)