Letters Archive
Spring 1995, Vol. 3, No. 2
  • Visual Representation and Material Culture in the Early Modern Period
  • Gender and Theoretical Thinking
  • The South as an American Problem
  • 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.

    LETTERS: 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.

    LETTERS: So this distinction still produces some tension between members in the group?

    ENGEL: In general, we do not argue this categorical distinction.

    TRAUB: We are basically inclusive in order to create more opportunities for discussion.

    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.

    LETTERS: 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 Group.

    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 organization.

    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.
    Mine is an interdisciplinary kind of work insofar as I am looking at various kinds of texts from stage plays to anatomy books, to travel narratives, to various kinds of visual representations, and even an opera. Opera, in fact, is where I find my own training to be most lacking. Obviously, I can read the libretto in poetic or narrative terms. What to do with the music, how to hear it, however, is completely foreign to me and a real challenge.
    The fact that my work is in terdisciplinary in the ways that we have been describing is how it fits into the group. The way that it may not fit very comfortably is that it is motivated by a very political agenda: I am trying to reclaim a category of experience for women's erotic pleasure in a period that has historically denied it to them; and, at the same time, to meditate theoretically the difficulties of this reclamation.
    At any rate, I am not sure that everyone in the group feels particularly comfortable with lesbian history or queer theory; but I am interested in exposing people to that kind of scholarship as well as in getting their reactions as to how it should be done.

    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.
    That project got me interested in my current work on the places where words and images merge, mesh, and interact. I am thinking particularly about the word for death in Latin, mors. This word, so to speak, becomes a character in renaissance plays, and in certain treatises it was a homonym for the word for African Moors, the alien culture that was knocking at the gates of Europe and to some extent already very much inside it. In some almanacs and on a few maps, I have even found places where the iconography for Moors is confused with that of Death. That led me to start looking at the figure of the Moor and how it functioned in heraldry. For instance, it is interesting to note how a Moor's head, the decapitated head of a Moor, would be used to stand for somebody whose name was Morrison, Moor's son, but who had nothing to do with being a Moor or even with killing them in the Crusades. So I am trying to trace and track different ways that words and images were wittingly and wittily confused or punned. Contrary to what I originally thought, there are many, many places where this occurs.

    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.
    In fact, in relation to this question, I have a question of my own that I would like to put to you, the literary scholars. When did the term "early modern" enter your field, and was its entry facili tated by the familiarity with the term "postmodern" that many of you were using to define the ter mination of the modern period?

    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.

    WILLIAM E. ENGEL is an as sistant professor in the Department of English. He is the author of Mapping Morality: The Persistence of Memory and Melancholy in Early Modern England (Amherst: UMASS Press, 1995), and is currently finishing a book length study of Renaissance depictions of the tacit, the silent, and the unvoiced, Toward A Poetic History of Wind. In addition to coordinating the Early Modern Studies Group, he teaches courses on the discourses of knowledge in the Renaissance and on Shakespeare.

    VALERIE TRAUB is an associate professor in the Department of English. She is the author of Desire and Anxiety: Circulahons of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1992). She is completing a book on discourses of female erotic pleasure in early modern England, from which she has published several articles on representations of lesbians." She teaches courses on Shakespeare, Renaissance eroticism, and feminist theory.

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