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.

One could argue, to use an overly simplistic example, that Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina maps contemporaneous debates about the nature of women’s sexual desire. One of the key scenes in this story calls into question whether the heroine freely engages in sexual intercourse with the man she is attracted to or whether he forces her into it. We can understand what this text is saying about female sexuality in general and Fantomina’s situation in particular through the actions, descriptions, and dialogue of three of its characters: Fantomina, Beauplasir, and Fantomina’s mother. One could read the first two as perhaps competing visions of liberated female sexual desire. In this reading, Fantomina might represent arguments for female equality with men and the assertion that women should be able to express their sexual desires just as forthrightly as men do. Beauplasir might represent the typical libertine’s support for such female empowerment, as long as it doesn’t inhibit their own sexual expression and dalliances. Fantomina’s mother might embody the rules of patriarchal order, though it’s of course interesting and important that these rules are embodied in a female character.

But Fantomina also illustrates the limits of debates on female empowerment in early eighteenth-century society. There are actions that Haywood simply cannot imagine Fantomina doing and things she cannot imagine her saying. Or, maybe, it’s that Haywood cannot publish her text if Fantomina does or says certain things. Only by looking at the cultural context can we even begin to decide which we think it is: does Haywood image a more liberated female character than her contemporaries or does she accept her society’s limitations on what a woman write? Is she pushing the boundaries of social interaction by imagining a sexually liberated female character? Or is she restricting such liberation?

I think my classes have more or less talked about literature in this way, but I want to place this idea at the center of my teaching on a more explicit level when I return to the classroom in March. In order to understand how texts chart the parameters of and adjudicate or make value judgments about the individual points in these debates, I think we have to foreground two kinds of analysis: textual analysis and cultural analysis. We have to understand what’s going on in the text and what’s going on in the cultural context in order to see how and what the text is saying, what debates it is tracing, and how it evaluates the various sides and points in the debate at hand.

To go back to my (rather reductive) use of Fantomina, a class on this text would be interested in closely reading the text to explicate each character’s position on female sexuality, if that is the chosen topic of discussion. But we would also have to look at the cultural context — as expressed in other literary, historical, political, artistic, and performed texts from the period — so that we can see how these characters represent but also alter specific arguments circulating during the early eighteenth century. This latter discussion of text alter arguments is also an important step in understanding their cultural significance, of course.

I hope that seeing literature in this way will give me greater clarity in what I’m trying to get across to my students. I especially want to improve the way I talk about historical and cultural context with my students — I want to move beyond dates and names to emphasize arguments and issues more effectively.

I’ve already been thinking along these lines for a while now, especially in response to assigning a commonplace book this past summer in my Women & Literature class. Now I want to continue to think a bit more about other practical ways, assignments, etc. to get this point across.

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