Academic journal article Genders

Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and the "Antitheatrical Prejudice"

Academic journal article Genders

Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and the "Antitheatrical Prejudice"

Article excerpt

[1] In his oft-cited defense of metaphysical poetry T.S. Eliot provocatively comments on what he terms a seventeenth-century "dissociation of sensibility," an aesthetic sea change "from which we have never recovered" (288). For Eliot, the English Restoration saw the emergence of a new aesthetic economy that divorced idea from sensation, observation from experience, and thought from feeling. Although concerned with a slightly later Continental context, Gyorgy Lukacs offers us a useful way to contextualize this artistic fall, drawing out the connections between what he similarly labels a "deterioration" of the aesthetic and the rise of reified culture. Lukacs observes that humanity's desire for unity, harmony, connection to the world and to others becomes ever more acute as their existence is increasingly shaped by atomization, alienation, and (self-) division. "The bleaker and emptier life becomes under capitalism," he writes, "the more intense is the yearning after beauty" ("Ideal," 89). However, in as far as the artistic "harmony" characterizing post-capitalist artistic production involves a flight from the world of the living, modern ideologies of artistic "harmony" tend to be "illusory and superficial" (89). Structured by escapism, modern aesthetic harmony is too often conditioned by withdrawal into an atomized, solipsistic psyche, "craven retreat" into a nostalgic past, or utopian "departure" in the name of some ethereal futurity.

[2] The period of English history Eliot associates with the decomposition of art was a decisive one, witnessing political, philosophical, and social revolutions that set the stage for the rise to the modern state, the enlightenment, and a new commercial consciousness. In seventeenth-century England, the violent shift toward modern conditions of production, labor, and exchange--conjoined with massive territorial expansion--disrupted the rhythmic and spiritual pulse of social life. Urban subjects, in particular, confronting more competitive and estranged conditions of social interaction, exhibited new modes of perception and a radically transformed economy of meaning. In both artistic representations and in everyday life, in high and low culture alike, conventional systems of meaning attached to human beings since antiquity were progressively unmoored by the ongoing progress of the new science, Renaissance humanism, and the Protestant Reformation. Just as humanity's analogical connection to the universe was being severed by the Copernican revolution, in the early modern anatomy theatre the body was redefined as a machine, disconnected from the cosmos, reified as an object of knowledge, and subjected to an increasingly transcendent rationality. The new science's sundering of the body from the world had as its analogue Protestantism's jettisoning of sensual matter from the realization of Spirit. The idea of "art" to which the Restoration gave birth continues to inform our ideologies of the aesthetic.

[3] What neither Eliot or Lukacs are particularly interested in are the gendered aspects of the development of modern aesthetics. What I am specifically interested in here is that period of English history associated with women's debut as public artistic producers and a new kind of aesthetic object. Clearly, a radical transformation of gender took place sometime between the outbreak of civil war in 1642 and the Restoration of the monarchy--a reorganization of gender that resulted in both the strict separation of the spheres of the sexes and in an intense fascination with the sexual "nature" of woman. Specifically, I want to suggest that the increased cultural visibility of women that accompanied this shift--a visibility that is typically equated with progress for women--is in some vital respects, more productively read through the less than enthusiastic narratives of Eliot and Lukacs.

[4] Here, I will look at the remarkable coincidence of a spectacular outburst of popular hostility toward London prostitutes with the radical transformation of the sexual economy of the English theatre in the opening decade of the English Restoration. …

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