Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Reality of Academic Culture

The Reality of Academic Culture

It is not just the Shake-Speare authorship question that does not get honest consideration in scholarly circles. It may be prevalent throughout Academia. When I first entered a doctoral program I had this innocent view that Scholars were interested in discovering the truth about various questions of their specialty. What I observed led to a very rude awakening that academia is as political as any other competitive endeavor of human society. There were world-renowned professors openly doubting the honesty in the research of other world-renowned professors; ties to the commercial world that allowed for keeping research data ‘private’ and inaccessible to other researchers and then publishing while not disclosing these commercial and financial ties; clearly false research or of obvious poor quality; intimidation of one sort or another. Not to say that this negative political behavior dominates the positive and honest research, but it’s all mixed in. Now, here is what a Professor Emeritus in Technology and Public Policy has recently said:

“If you are immersed in a profession and a culture and all of your colleagues think certain ways about certain things, then you're not very likely to challenge that… The exact same phenomenon happens with geneticists and people who do biotech science. They read the same journals. They get reviewed for promotion…  You have to parrot the same views that your older superiors believe or otherwise they're going to think you're crazy and not doing good work and won't promote you.”

And this was in regards to a field of ‘hard science’ which uses acute measuring instruments and advanced statistical analysis. Then there’s the ‘Peer Review’ system to ensure the research is of high quality. So how would a non-science discipline like Literature or ‘Shakespeare Studies’ compare in its rigorous scholarly research?

Keep this in mind as you read the following from the Award Winning reviewer William S. Niederkorn who recently reviewed Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s new book Shakespeare’s Freedom.

Here are some excerpts with Prof. Greenblatt’s words in the quotation marks:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the idolatrous cult of Shakespeare was born, grew up, and thrived, it was common to hear over-the-top praise of the Bard. Shakespeare was called divine, immortal, the greatest genius ever, and the like. Stratford-on-Avon became a destination for pilgrims, and the Shakespeare tomb and birthplace there became shrines. Recognizing the absurdity of such “bardolatry,” scholars have since adopted a more restrained tone. Nonetheless, worshipful enthusiasm for Shakespeare has never appreciably diminished, and even in the top rank of Shakespeare professors today, it persists.

Shakespeare has an “aura of divinity,” and though “he was, after all, a mortal,” Greenblatt is “struck rather by the apparently unbounded power and visionary scope of his achievement.”

It is true that Shakespeare is enormously important and that the work is at the bedrock of English literature and has had far-reaching influence, but Greenblatt crosses the line between critical appreciation and ardent fervor: “The only power that does not seem limited in Shakespeare’s work is the artist’s own. In the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained.”

Greenblatt is one of the best known Shakespeare professors in the world, with 40-plus years’ teaching and endowed chairs galore, including two since 1997 at Harvard. He has published extensively on the English Renaissance and particularly on Shakespeare, with his 2004 “Will in the World,” an imaginative reverie on Shakespeare’s life, making the New York Times best-seller lists.

In Shakespeare’s Freedom, his writing flows mellifluously from assertion to assertion, exuding authority and sophistication.

Given his religious focus and reverential inclination, Greenblatt’s essays can seem like sermons. Mediating between the secular deity and the lecture audience, which, analogously, is like a congregation, Greenblatt sounds at times like a quasi-religious cult leader. His lack of concern with giving readers the means to judge his reasoning reinforces the illusion.

Greenblatt here seems to be performing a “quasi-priesthood” function Péter Dávidházi describes in The Romantic Cult of Shakespeare: “interpreting Shakespeare apologetically to make his supposed message morally acceptable and to acquire a fully legitimized place among the established institutions of society.”

Greenblatt has performed a similar but adversarial function, wielding religious invective against scholars who doubt the Stratfordian tradition. When I criticized his book Will in the World in the New York Times in 2005, saying the suppositions of anti-Stratfordian scholars were at least as valid as Greenblatt’s fantasies about Shakespeare, he wrote a letter to the editor, which was published, equating doubts about the authorship to “claims that the Holocaust did not occur.”

[note the typical ad hominum or red herring argument we see in the authorship question and in many other fields.  ]

In Shakespeare’s Freedom, Greenblatt is careful to avoid authorship issues and the sticky problems that he and a considerable majority of Shakespeare professors refuse to face as they ridicule the subject and preclude it from academic study. But there are clues in the book that Greenblatt may have some sense of the problem.

At one point, he notes: “Many of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights—Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Dekker, among others—spent time in prison as a direct or indirect consequence of their writing.” Shakespeare, however, “managed to avoid this fate throughout his life.”

Three essays later, he reaches what might have been an interesting continuation: Not one Shakespeare play “condemns as necessarily unethical the use of violence to topple the established order. Unlike the most conservative voices in his time, Shakespeare did not position himself squarely against the bloody unthroning even of anointed monarchs. Violence, as he well understood, was one of the principal mechanisms of regime change.”

It is a vexing question for Stratfordians how Shakespeare escaped the fate of his fellow playwrights, given the political views Greenblatt notes. And one historical point he does not mention: Shakespeare’s Richard II, according to Queen Elizabeth’s own testimony, was “played 40 times in open streets and houses” as propaganda for the Essex rebellion.

In the book’s last essay, “Shakespearean Autonomy,” Greenblatt quotes “Sonnet 111,” including the line, “Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,” and says: “‘Shakespeare’ became in the playwright’s own lifetime what we would call a brand name—it could be invoked in advertisements to get the crowds to part with their money, and it was sufficiently marketable to be assigned fraudulently to plays he had certainly not written—but this success was, or so he writes, like having his name receive a brand.”

No other playwrights of the time are known to have pitied themselves for their names’ receiving a brand on account of their being successful. Quite the opposite in the case of Ben Jonson, who was so proud of his success that he himself prepared the first folio of his plays for publication.

A little farther along, Greenblatt writes: “This exposure to the masses was, Shakespeare understood, diametrically opposed to the privacy that had been the traditional privilege, or at least the fantasy, of the aristocracy.” Aristocrats who supported play companies were vulnerable to embarrassment, he explains, because they “were themselves drawn (or compelled) to acts of theatrical self-display.” Actors could bask in the warmth of applause but “a true aristocrat would despise such public exposure.”

Clearly aristocrats worried about their names receiving a brand. But why would an actor? Unless Shakespeare was—? No, Greenblatt won’t consider that possibility.

[note: Bacon, though not an aristocrat, had the privileged access of one, being advisor to both Queen Elizabeth and King James, and his dislike of “plaudits” for ‘magistrates” is recorded here elsewhere.]

Niederkorn continues [emphasis mine]:

The type of scholarship that seems the most commendable is thorough in exploring a subject, leaving no stone unturned to discover all and to get as near the truth as possible. The scholar presents information as clearly and completely as she can and, when conclusions are drawn, goes over any possible arguments that can be raised against them.

Practitioners of another type of scholarship skim the surface of selected data, and with a degree of mastery of the art of writing, which they may regard as a performance, mask their assertions, which may be superficial, distorted, insinuating, or even reckless. Such craftsmanship can easily be employed to create propaganda.

Niederkorn concludes with:

It’s bad enough that Greenblatt’s brand of scholarship has become so pervasive. What’s worse is that for more than a generation, Shakespeare students have been taught to emulate it.

As of yet, there STILL has been no ‘commendable’ research by the orthodox Shakespearean community of scholars on the authorship question. There would be much to be gained EVEN IF such a group research project concluded that William of Stratford was the likely candidate. This is because much research done outside of academia has discovered so much beyond anything discovered within academic circles. The discipline could benefit, just as the astronomical discipline has benefitted, by the inclusion of research by non-mainstream or ‘amateur’ researchers, many of whom have spent a good part of their lives in this investigation (which the orthodox establishment has not done).

Niederkorn’s full review:

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