Visual Representation and Material Culture in
the Early Modern Period
The Early Modern Studies Group, an interdisciplinary faculty seminar, has been
meeting regularly for several years under the auspices of the Robert Penn Warren
Center for the Humanities. Approximately fifteen faculty members representing
seven academic disciplines are participants in the program. The seminar, coordinated this year by Professor William Engel of the English Department, is
exploring the theme "Visual Representation and Ma terial Culture." Along with Professor Engel, Letters recently conducted an interview with group participants
Professors Valerie Traub (Department of English) and Joyce Chaplin (Department
of History) concerning the nature of this interdisciplinary group and how their
individual work relates to this year's focal topic.
To begin, what is the early modern period? Particularly, how is it
distinct from the Renaissance, and how is this distinction important?
CHAPLIN: As an historian, I guess I should start by setting the historical
parameters. I think the most agreed upon dates would be roughly 1400 to 1800.
However, many people would still want to talk about a smaller interval within
that period. This interval is commonly referred to as the Renaissance, which is
contained somewhere within the early modern period, but describes a particular
high-culture movement and not necessarily a period of overarching history.
TRAUB: Actually, I think literary scholars, particularly feminist literary
critics, have been influenced by historians in this regard because of an essay
that was written by the historian Joan Kelly Gadol, "Did Women Have a
Renaissance?" Simply posing such a question brought into focus some of the
gendered asymmetries in the experience of people in western Europe during the
time we typically call the Renaissance. Many feminist scholars agree with her
general argument that women did not have a Renaissance. During this period,
there was a flowering of the humanities, an invigoration of culture through the
rediscovery of classical texts, and the introduction of a patronage system. All
of these activities contributed to an explosion of high culture—but women, for
the most part, were not included within such activities. In fact, many women, in
terms of legal and political rights, became more subordinated as patriarchal
relations continued to solidify over the course of the 17th century.
ENGEL: In the same way, the term "Renaissance," functioning as an historical
period, tends to exclude all kinds of other groups and ways of thinking that were
vitally present in Europe at that time. For example, it leaves out what was
happening in Moorish culture and in Judaic culture. The idea of the Renaissance,
as we in herited it from the 19th century, presents the illusion of a totalizing
structure and a kind of objective truth about this period—a truth that can be
attained. I think in the 20th century we can use "early modern" as a way to
situate what we are moving toward, not so much as an idea of"progression," but as
a space for "continuation."
CHAPLIN: It is clear, however, that when we speak of the early modern period, we
are talking about a period that is obviously not the Middle Ages, nor is it yet
the modern era like that after the French Revolution. In this way, the term
"early modern" carries an "us/not us" meaning: the people in this era seem like
us, like people who have been shaped by the modern era, yet they are not quite
like us, not yet—hence the designation "early modern."
ENGEL: I think that is exactly right.
TRAUB: And by using a term like "early modern," we recognize that categories like
the "Renaissance" are creations of a much later period that looks back to other
periods, not just retrospectively, but nostalgically. We are trying to call into
question the process by which such categories got constructed in the first place.
CHAPLIN: In fact, it is interesting to note that, far from being an artificially
constructed category, the term "modern" was used during the period we call
"early modern." It was derived from the Latin word hodie, meaning day. Hodiern
meant daily, up to date, the way we live now; it is from hodiern that the English
got the word "modern" by the early 1500s. Although the meaning and use of the
term are more consistent today, earlier it would have been used very loosely as
a way to signify some distance from the medleval social order.
LETTERS: Given everything that has been said, it would seem as though the Early
Modern Studies Group functions within this distinction between "early modern"
and"Renaissance" and falls more to the side of refiguring our understanding of
the early modern period according to the exclusions that you have identified
with the Renaissance.
TRAUB: That is correct. Al though it is important to say that not every member of
the group would be willing to forego the term "Renaissance" or would necessarily
agree with our characterization of how periodization works. But I think that
there are some productive intellectual tensions within the group about the
meanings of these concepts.
So this distinction still produces some tension between members in the
ENGEL: In general, we do not argue this categorical distinction.
TRAUB: We are basically inclusive in order to create more opportunities for
CHAPLIN: I think for a long time there has been a sense that using "early
modern" is the most inclusive strategy. It is enough of a signal to the people
who work on the high Renaissance that it speaks to them somehow. As a result,
this distinction does not so much produce disagreements as it does differences
among the members of the group about which term they are most comfortable with.
More importantly, I think individuals might have their own internal disciplinary
quarrels with these terms as applied to their own work.
This year's focal topic for the Early Modern Studies Group is "Visual
Representation and Material Culture." What in the study of visual representation
and material culture goes to advancing and/or refiguring our understanding
of the early modern period? Particularly, what is the character and importance
of the relationship between visual representation and material culture?
CHAPLIN: When historians talk about the early modern period in relation to
material culture, they have in mind certain economic and social relationships.
According to historians, that is what defines people and their actions in this
era and dertermines how they see things or each other. I would think for people
in the field of literatire there must be an assumption about subjectivity that
would be much more operative category for what you are talking about, which may
speak to this question about seeing and creating visual representation.
ENGEL: In addition to subjectivity's relation to visual representation there is
also the increasingly important idea that the text is a material artifact
produced under certail social and, quite literally, material conditions. We are
not satisfled to read the finished artifact or text simply for content. We are
also very interested in exploring several "marginal" elements: who the audience
was, what the border illustrations are, who had these print blocks, if the print
blocks circulated from one print shop to another, and so on. We would then want
to ask what this tells us about how these images and words got into the minds of
the readership and in turn got translated in the world. In short, what are the
social practices that result from these texts circulating in the ways they did?
So in addition to certain assumptions about subjectivity, I think it is
important that we no longer just take a text at face value.
TRAUB: Part of the impulse for this year's topic came from an interest that Bill
and I share. For a long time, Bill has worked on the borderlines between visual
representation and textual production, because he works on textual emblems that
include both pictures or images and poems or epigrams. In my recent research, I
have begun to work with illustrations in anatomy books and paintings from the
"high arts" tradition. I was feeling a sense of illegitimacy because it seemed as
though I was moving into another disciplinary domain, whether that of science or
fine arts, and wanted to explore what it was that I was doing as a professor of
English making claims about these other kinds of texts, these other kinds of
artifacts. Because of the interdisciplinary character of the relation between
visual representation and material culture, this year's topic seemed like a
convenient way to pull together people who were working in all sorts of
disciplines, including those in the department of Fine Arts and the Blair School
of Music. So, again, we were partly motivated by a desire to be inclusive. At the
same time, this group provides the opportunity for individuals to indulge their
personal interests in an interdisciplinary manner. What I am interested in this
group doing—which may not be the same for other people at all—is to try to
figure out what interdisciplinary work is and which kinds of skills it requires.
I am very well trained in particular modes of reading a text, but I want to
explore how other people from other disciplines both read a text I am very
familiar with, and how they read one from their own discipline.
ENGEL: By highlighting these sorts of concerns, we are able to begin to question
what counts as knowledge in the different disciplines and, more importantly, in
our own discipline. More specifically, we are able to develop more effective
questions as to who defines and describes what is the proper subject or object of
knowledge in any particular discipline represented in the Early Modern Studies
LETTERS: This year s topic, then, is meant to engage the interdisciplinary
character of the group?
TRAUB: Yes, this is because there has been a significant movement in early modern
studies toward cultural studies; and if you are doing cultural studies, there is
a way in which you have to be interdisciplinary. Recently, I have felt the need to
move my work in a much more historical direction. The question, then, becomes
whether I am posing as an historian, or working as a literary scholar with an
interest in history. And if I choose the latter, what is the kind of history that
I construct as a literary scholar? Am I just doing history badly? One of the
most troublesome issues re lated to this has to do with historical terms of
evidence and proof. What I take to be evidence or proof may not be the same as
somebody who has been trained in social history. But this is a problem only
because I would like historians to read my work and say, "Yes, she is right." I
feel that I am doing important work on representations of female/female
relationships; but part of me wishes that the social historians, who have the
professional training, were doing it. I continue to be haunted by a fear that I
have no right to be doing this work and certainly little skill.
CHAPLIN: That is the terrible tension of such work. You want to be validated—
TRAUB: By the other discipline—
CHAPLIN: When you encroach on the other discipline. At the same time, you also
want to be able to tell them something that perhaps they would not have already
known. This is exactly the difficulty of interdisciplinary work: to establish
terms in which you are able to do both tasks.
ENGEL: There is a parallel way in which much of my understanding is shaped by
the discipline that is now called dialectical anthropology, because I concur
with the view developed by J. Fabian in Time and the Other. But I would never be
mistaken for a real anthropologist for one reason: because I am not working with
existing social groups on rites and rituals. However, many of the same principles
that an thropologists have used in examining a social group or collective of men
and women are preclsely what I strive to apply to the Renaissance. I am
especially interested in reconstructing as nearly as I can what I term, building
on the work of Joel Altman, the EliZ abethan "mind at play." That is, how
different aspects of our wit or rhetorical tropes would have been used, thought
about, or expressed. One does not get at that except by looking at the visible,
extant traces of how an community organized itself and reflected on that
CHAPLIN: I wonder, considering the kinds of interdisciplinary work that we
have done, whether we are not actually talking about a fairly small number of
disciplines that we consider appropriate, either the ones that were originally
used to define the Renaissance, like art history, or others, like psychoanalysis
and anthropology, that have been used more recently to define modernity and the
modern age. I am trying to think of a discipline would be so different it would
be the real test as to whether we are doing something new and interesting to the
early modern period. Perhaps it would be archaeology, since this discipline was
not as deeply involved with defining this period. I just wonder if in our attempt
to break outside of disciplinary boundaries we are not going far enough.
LETTERS: Even though you have already begun to speak to thls question, how do
each of you perceive that your work fits into the interdisciplinary work of the
Early Modern Studies Group?
TRAUB: Currently, I am writing a book on the discourses of female erotic pleasure
in the early modern period, primarily focused in England, but also using some
texts from Germany, France, and Italy. I am particularly interested in analyzing
the kinds of discourse that may have either constrained or enabled such pleasure.
For instance, part of the book is about the evolution and con struction of the
definitions of deviant sexuality during the 17th century. In the Renaissance,
there was not a category of the heterosexual or the homosexual. There were other
allied categories: the sodomite or the tribade, but they do not neatly map onto
those categories that are operative to day.
CHAPLIN: I am working on a topic that is both history and history of science,
which is not a discipline that we have represented very well in the group. I am
looking at the very earliest period of British colonization in America and
examining the question of difference, or possible difference, between the
cultures that encountered each other in the new world. I am focusing mostly on
the British in North America and looking at the question of whether the contrast
between a scientific western way of viewing the world was immediately apparent
in comparing the British to the Native Americans, or whether, in fact, this was a
constructed self that the British manufactured over the course of the encounter
in order to differenti ate themselves from the natives for the purpose of
creating an imperial program or ideology. This construction may have also been
used to buttress cultural claims that would have been important more for the old
world itself in terms of elevating the British into a species of scientific
Europeans; so there was cultural manufacturing going on both in the old world
and in the new. Right now, I am looking at the 16th century and the very first
English accounts of what they saw in America and points of similarity or
difference they perceived between their view of the material world and Native
American views of the material world and technology.
ENGEL: I have just finished a book in which I opened up new ways of questioning
what might be meant by early modern consciousness through a study of memory and
nuemonic devices. I tried to get at such a notion of consciousness by looking at
various memory treatises, at plans for developing the mind, and at various ways
that language was being used and literally conflated with images in the mind's
eye or in the theatre of the imagination.
LETTERS: It sounds as though each of your projects raises intriguing questions
about many of the interesting issues involved in the interdisciplinary study of
the early modern period, but how. in the end, do each of you conceive of the
importance of refiguring and furthering our understanding of the early modern
period in these ways?
CHAPLIN: I think there is a long-term quarrel with modernity—about its limits—of
which studies of the early modern pe riod would be a part. This debate is carried
out in terms of defining ourselves as ambivalent toward a modern age and looking
at the early ambivalence that may have been embedded in the concept of the modern
during the very time when people had a conception of themselves as living in a
new and different age.
ENGEL: The term early modern" came into its own about the same time as Stephen Greenblatt's use of the term "new historicism.
TRAUB: Joyce's question is really interesting to me; I think she is right to ask
it. If the postmodern marks the exhaustion of modernity, the early modern marks
the moment when we begin to see the issues of modernity emerging. This is not to
say that there was a full blown Enlightenment subject apparent in the 16th
century—nor; that there was nothing recognizably "modern" in the medieval
subject. Rather, the two periods are similar precisely because of their
transitional status. There is a strange sense of resemblance between the early
modern and the postmodern, especially in certain discursive domains having to do
with subjectivity; for instance, the discourses about sexuality in the early
modern period are similar to certain discourses of sexuality now emerging as
postmodern. In both moments, sexuahty is conceived as something that exceeds the
prevailing categories of identity.
CHAPLIN: But historians would want to maintain that the early modern era had a
historical or contextual integrity of its own. It may seem similar to a post
modern culture, but focusing only on this similarity will distort our
understanding of the past.
TRAUB: Yes, I agree that there are substantial differences, particularly in
terms of economic and political organization. However, if one is thinking locally
rather than globally, one can see that within certain sectors of experience and
representation, there are interesting points of comparison. The point is to ask,
why the resemblance in this domain and not another? Examining such modern
period, we may miss points of intersection suggesting some different and
equally in that the early modern could be an interesting points about this
important source of information historical era. to the postmodern.
ENGEL: We can highlight this with certain features of textual style, primarily
the idea of a text being finished. It was alien to writers like Montaigne and
Burton who spent their whole lives revising and refiguring what it is they said
before. In the same vein, I am always amused when people say, "What W. Montaigne
means in this essay ls X," when my readings of Montaigne try to "point out that
any one text can be, at the same time, a serious excursus, a satire, and a
translation from an early writer. Why is it that we cannot have these many voices
in play at once? My work attempts to show that we can. As a result, some of the
things people, like Lyotard, would identify as ele ments of the postmodern condition we can see at work as a literary practice in what we are now calling the
early modern period.
CHAPLIN: That is a very interesting point. However, historians not only
emphasize the political and economic forms that make each historical period
distinctive, but also the particular mental constructs that ordered cultural and
intellectual life. In this regard, I would probably not go as far to say that
there is something essentially different about the early modern period, something
that makes it unique when compared to other eras, but we should recognize that
something may be lost if we attempt to interpret past eras only in terms of
similarity to ourselves. Here again we come up against the "us/not us" schema
that may conceal as much as it reveals. By using our selves as the measure of the
early modern period, we may be missing some different and equally interesting
points about this historical era.
JOYCE E. CHAPLIN is an associate professor in the Department of History. Her first book, An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), examined the end of the early modern era and the emergcnce of modernity in plantation regions of North America. Her current work looks at English colonization of America at the very start of the early modern period. She teaches courses on the history of early America.
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