The Storm at Sea: Political Aesthetics in the Time of Shakespeare

The Storm at Sea: Political Aesthetics in the Time of Shakespeare

The Storm at Sea: Political Aesthetics in the Time of Shakespeare

The Storm at Sea: Political Aesthetics in the Time of Shakespeare


The Storm at Sea: Political Aesthetics in the Time of Shakespeare counters a tradition of cultural analysis that judges considerations of aesthetic autonomy in the early modern context to be either anachronistic or an index of political disengagement. Pye argues that for a post-theocratic era in which the mise-en-forme of the social domain itself was for the first time at stake, the problem of the aesthetic lay at the very core of the political; it is precisely through its engagement with the question of aesthetic autonomy that early modern works most profoundly explore their relation to matters of law, state, sovereignty, and political subjectivity.

Pye establishes the significance of a "creationist" political aesthetic-at once a discrete historical category and a phenomenon that troubles our familiar forms of historical accounting-and suggests that the fate of such an aesthetic is intimately bound up with the emergence of modern conceptions of the political sphere.

The Storm at Sea moves historically from Leonardo da Vinci to Thomas Hobbes; it focuses on Shakespeare and English drama, with chapters on Hamlet, Othello, A Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, as well as sustained readings of As You Like It, King Lear, Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Engaging political thinkers such as Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Claude Lefort, and Roberto Esposito, The Storm at Sea will be of interest to political theorists as well as to students of literary and visual theory.


At a certain point in its evolution, this book was a project on distraction, perhaps even a history of distraction, beginning from a perception of the persistence and the equivocalness of that psychological category in Shakespeare. Associated with madness—the familiar early modern usage of the term—distraction is also, for Shakespeare, what saves, unbinding the self from solipsistic closure on the one hand and object fixation on the other. the indeterminate character of that state— salvific, but only insofar as it is without object or aim; a betwixt-andbetween moment that is also a habitable condition—lead to the intuition that Shakespeare articulates in such moments the condition of aesthetic subjectivity as such: distraction concerns art in a significant key, and is the index of larger transformations in the era.

Transformation is the right word—I will be describing a genealogy of early modern Political aesthetics here. But the developmental orientation—whatever had offered the promise of something like a history of distraction—also ran up against an obvious dilemma. What does it mean to speak of the aesthetic in advance of the aesthetic, as it were, that is, in advance of its appearance as an articulated philosophical category? the difficulty can be finessed by leaning, for instance, on the distinction between literary and philosophical manifestations, or even by claiming the aesthetic as a universal phenomenon. in fact, the untimely or metaleptic aspect of “the early modern aesthetic”—everything that feels uneasy about such a nomination—is just what makes it compelling especially for Political inquiry, for it relates to what makes the aesthetic not just a historical phenomenon but a category that bears intimately on the problem of history and historicization.

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