Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Reading Class through Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Reading Class through Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton

Article excerpt

Reading Class through Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton

By Christopher Warley

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014

Christopher Warley's Reading Class claims a dual mission; first, it seeks to rehabilitate "class" as a category of literary criticism. For decades, Warley argues, critics have rendered class invisible through a focus on other categories ("sodomy", "domesticity", "refashioning," etc.). This much is probably obvious to most readers whether or not they think of it as a problem. More intriguingly, Warley suggests that, even while displacing class, such critics have continued to rely on an "essentialized" understanding of it, as is evident in their scattered casual references to "middle class" authors or the like. Warley proposes to bring class back to the forefront of criticism in a more useful way by de-reifying it. Second (but not secondarily) Warley affirms the centrality of "literature" to his book.

How do I love this project? Let me count the ways. First of all, Warley's emphasis on class--and his astute observation that even critics who ostensibly ignore it have continued to rely upon it--is timely and salient. Second, Warley's answer to the question "why write literary criticism?"--namely, to explore class--is provocative and refreshing. I also appreciate Warley's clear writing, his wide range of reference, and his provision of a definite case; he takes the risk of identifying the sort of reading from which he wishes to differentiate his own and offers a distinct alternative. Because of his strong argumentative line, Warley has produced an important book, one well worth thinking about whatever your theoretical or critical investments. Furthermore, since Warley focuses on texts that many early modern professors are likely to be teaching, his book offers an excellent resource for the classroom. I enjoyed reading it.

This does not mean that I agree with Warley's approach or with the book's fundamental premise ("if you don't read literature, you can't read class"), but class is such an important topic that I am thrilled to see it extensively and prominently addressed (27). So: why, then, do I disagree? First, "history" is not a threat to literature in the way this book proposes. With his twin concerns--for class and the literary--Warley seeks to shift away, he emphasizes, from habits of criticism that rely on identity politics, especially from readings that ostensibly relegate literature to the status of mere historical document, an excuse to discuss social identities or other "political" concerns while nullifying the specifically literary aspects of texts. This charge has cropped up a lot recently under various banners ("surface reading," "new aestheticism," "new formalism" and so on). The ongoing importance of "close reading" to our field, however, suggests that the marginalization of "aesthetics" by "history" is overstated. More important, though, the presumption that "literature" is primarily under threat from critics seems to me to be a serious misrecognition--and a worrisome displacement--of the actual threats faced by English departments--a point to which I will return.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of what forces most threaten the "literary" these days, my other important disagreement with Warley stems from his ultimately deconstructive perspective. For Warley, as we and our cultural treasures hurtle through time, there is no making them, or us--or class--stay put. He calls this perspective "dialectical," but his refusal to situate class historically actually positions him closer to what Fredric Jameson calls the "more absolute skepticism of deconstruction" in The Hegel Variations. Any dialectical approach, to be sure, has to emphasize process, but, when we are dealing with class exploitation and other oppressions, we must also look below capitalism's relentless pace of technological and productive innovation ("all that is solid melts into air") to reveal the enduring unequal social relations that underwrite it. …

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