Duke Professor Doubts Doubt, Suspects Suspicion

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been radio silence here for the last few weeks largely because I’ve been writing a review of Sarah Beckwith’s new book–which has been fun, since it’s a great book, but draining, because it’s not an easy book to read. So you might think me to be tired of the book and out of things to say about it. You would be right on the first count, but on the second you have committed the classic blunder of underestimating the pompous verbosity of the scholar.

Cleverly hidden within Beckwith’s book on Shakespeare and ordinary language philosophy are all the elements of an argument for a hermeneutics of charity over against the suspicious spirit which has prevailed throughout postmodernity. Beckwith’s argument begins in history, though, analyzing the abolition of the sacrament of penance and its effects on language. Protestant theology, she argues, created an inner/outer split in the self which, along with the doctrine of God’s absolute and unilateral grace, operates as “an intrinsic denigration of expressive culture and of the human voice” (33). After the Reformation, according to Beckwith, human language and its ability to promote true community became suspect, because the Reformation opened the possibility that the surface of that language might not express precisely what it seems to.

So far, so good. Beckwith’s targets remain those comfortable punching bags of progressive discourse, Calvin and Luther. But occasionally we get the hint that her target may be bigger. Consider these lines:

When the body stops being granted the capacity to express the mind and the soul, in Shakespeare’s understanding, we don’t so much protect that “inner” space (even if that’s what we think we’re doing): instead we lose touch with it all together. Part of the crisis and difficulty in this understanding is that we lose sense of ourselves and our communities together, in one and the same movement of self-exile from shared words and shared expressions. Once we see those words and expressions not as showing but as hiding us, we lose touch with our only means of self-knowledge and contact with others. . . . It is my belief that much contemporary criticism inhabits this very split, and so the therepeutic and diagnostic power of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is unavailable to it. (9)

Beckwith provides no citations for the criticism she has in mind here, nor does she flesh this argument out. But it’s hard for me not to read this as a poke at the orthodoxies of the school of suspicion. When we assume that we cannot access the truth of what another person (or text) is saying through the straightforward acceptance of their words, we lose all sense of community and ethical relation. True forgiveness becomes impossible, because relations to other minds are impossible. Though Beckwith levels this critique at the Reformers through Shakespeare, the final sentence in the quote above shows her to be engaged in a critique of postmodern skeptical hermeneutics as well. And this is made clear by her theoretical leanings, as well: ordinary language philosophy, she says, “assumes a radical, fundamental harmony of word and world,” radically diverging from other philosophies after the linguistic turn, which assume an absolute and uncrossable distance (7). In the name of ethics and human community, then, Beckwith insists that we must place give language some charity:

Our word is our bond: to speak at all is to commit ourselves in our words. That is why linguistic competence is essentially an ethical matter. (125)

Forgiveness, the source of ethics, is then essentially a matter of interpreting another’s actions (words) charitably. This is the lesson Beckwith believes Shakespeare has to teach us. If we insist on interpreting his words suspiciously, though, we miss out on the good he can do us.

In case you’re not convinced that Beckwith’s one sentence about contemporary criticism means she’s advocating a hermeneutics of charity, I’ll briefly turn your attention to two more pieces of evidence. First, at the end of her meditation on forgiveness in Pericles she cites the father of charitable hermeneutics, Augustine himself, and his idea of “speech as donation” (126). Shakespeare, she argues, conceives of the language of forgiveness as a gift–an object to be received with gratitude rather than suspicion.

My final piece of evidence rests simply in Beckwith’s description of her method. I beg your indulgence as I offer one last quote:

[The book is] an attempt to enact a critical practice that engages with the ethical and aesthetic as much as the historical and political dimensions that have been the preoccupation and the doxa of recent criticism. As such, its vision of language is one dedicated to the common and the shared as prior to any failure in sharing. (11-12)

In short, Beckwith’s scholarship is dedicated to belief before doubt–a practice which would have been incomprehensible to literary critics twenty or thirty years ago. That these words can be written by a professor at Duke, of all places, is evidence how far the suspicious climate of literary studies has changed.


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