April 25, 2012

Introducing my thesis

I've been relatively quiet on the thesis front lately, but I've decided to break my silence and share the first draft of my introduction. Apologies for the inflated rhetoric. It's impossible not to be polemical when you're writing about a polemicist. With any luck, I'll be ready to post my conclusion later next week.
This study of Milton's 1671 poems is an attempt to take seriously the activity of Milton’s “fit” reader. Over the course of the following chapters, it will become clear that, within Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes, such activity is as much a strategy within a culture of domination as it is constitutive of Christian virtue. Although Milton’s remarks and appeals to the reader might suggest a “real” audience, the fit reader is a textual production through and through. Between approaches that emphasize the book as a determinate object of material history, on the one hand, and those that reduce reading to the operation of free, interpretive agency, I focus on reading as a materially dependent practice that is ideologically situated. Such an approach, I argue, is necessary to appreciate the production of Milton’s post-Restoration reader. This also means, however, that although interpretation, as a socially symbolic act, is finally answerable to history, the reading of literature must be treated as a specific kind of practice that cannot be simply reduced to the reader’s time, place, or interpretive community. In their reading, writes Fredric Jameson, works of literature produce “that very situation to which [they are] also, at one and the same time, a reaction” (46). Just as the 1671 poems work to produce specific kinds of readers, they also work to construct the enemies of such activity, which always appear for Milton as interpretive foils.

The politics of interpretation in Restoration England were, of course, a result of a larger social transformation that, for Reformers like Milton, remained unfinished. Chapter 1 sketches the dominant trends of early modern Protestant interpretation and thus locates Milton’s hermeneutic method in its historical and ideological moment. In this context, the poet-theologian figures as a harsh critic of extra-biblical authority and a vigorous advocate of further Reformation in England. Under this banner, Milton engages the limits of Protestant hermeneutics in order undercut the prohibition of divorce. In the tracts of his early career, Milton appeals to an audience for whom the bible is a “self-interpreting” text and builds his argument for divorce upon the “key of charity” and the “analogy of faith.”  Over the course of his argument, Milton suggests that an unhappy marriage diverts one’s labor from his vocation and prevents the leisure time necessary for one’s public work to be productive. Productive labor is defined less in terms of material wealth than it is by bringing a “helpful hand to this slow-moving reformation which we labor under” (963). In this way, Milton’s early published writing advocates for the labor of authorship and the labor of reading. While the activity of reading in this period is still associated with leisured classes, Areopagitica demonstrates how books are not only “published labors” but are also “as vigorously productive as those fabulous dragon’s teeth, and, being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed me” (930). This chapter argues that the privilege of both authorial and interpretive labor must be thought alongside the material labor of textual production: the operations of the print shop and the circulation of the market.
The Licensing Order of 1643 signaled the revival of pre-publication censorship in England’s book trade. The ethical vision of this tract locates a free market system of exchange as the expression of the nation’s will towards Reformation, a sign of trust in its collective ability to “search after truth.” Freedom from external constraint here entails an opposition to licensing’s monopoly over the book trade. In treating the published book as the author’s property, Milton’s discussion prefigures the formal of material labor in the production process and follows what some critics have identified as “possessive individualism,” the objectification and instrumentalization of social relations. Where Areopagitica can be compared with Milton’s first post-Restoration tract, Of True Religion (1673), as establishing a more inclusive theory of toleration, I read this discourse on liberty as a depiction of an emerging capitalist appetite for socialized labor.

This optimistic image of a reading republic is effectively smashed in Milton’s 1671 publication, Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes. Chapter 2 and 3 both show how Milton’s understanding of reading works within defined limits. In Paradise Regain’d the act of reading is productive and mobile, while in Samson Agonistes reading operates as a process of negation and iconoclasm. In both poems, the formal characteristics of the printed book are highlighted, first, as the contradictory ground of interpretive labor and, second, as a strategy of opposition to the spectacular representations of the Restoration. In my second chapter I look at the social and political context of the London book-trade following the Restoration. Key to this setting is what I call the “ideology of completion,” a strategy by which England’s restored government convinced its citizens of the necessity of monarchic rule and a centralized state church. Milton’s 1671 publication occurs in this context as a material disruption of fixed (or restored) categories. Arguing that Paradise Regain’d works to construct a mobile reader who appreciates the contingency of the material text, this chapter explores how the Son upsets the conditions of identity by dismantling the hermeneutical binaries—means/ends, internal/external, contemplative/active, private/public—through which Satan interprets God’s kingdom. Although both the Son and his adversary draw on verses from scripture in their debate, Satan is revealed to rely on extra-textual modes of domination, while the Son embodies an immanent relation to God’s Word. This Protestant approach to scripture is also reflected in Mary, whose memory practices are picked up by the Son, and later in the volume by Samson.

Parallel to the Son’s mode of reading, or “revolving,” I position the material format of the 1671 edition against the arguments of those like Walter Ong, who understand the advent of print merely as the further reification of the written word. Print, argues Ong, “is comfortable only with finality” (132). Rather, drawing on the material features of Milton’s text, I argue that the apparently “fixed” limits of print are mobilized and effectively opened through a process of reading and re-reading encouraged by the 1671 Omissa. We thus begin to see how Milton’s strategy of biblical reading, as developed in Chapter 1, informs the political, oppositional stance of the 1671 poems. The Omissa represents a crucial component of this study, not simply because it marks the material format of the text as irregular, but also because, along with Milton’s protagonists, it opposes the ideology of completion that conditions textual interpretation.

While Chapter 2 shows how the labor of reading is assumed and transformed through the Son’s posture of interpretation in Paradise Regain’d, my final chapter considers how Samson Agonistes puts this mode of reading into crisis. By focusing on the collapse of labor into idolatry, I argue that Milton’s tragic poem is positioned against those who would valorize human industry without thinking through its political and theological consequences. Israel’s captivity means that there is no “outside” of idolatry for Samson or his audience, except through what Walter Benjamin calls “divine violence.” Such violence operates outside of the visibility that constrains Samson and corrupts his people. Again, I try to demonstrate how Milton’s publication relies on its formal features to produce a particular kind of reading subject. Alongside Samson’s toppling of the Philistine temple, Milton positions his dramatic poem against popular entertainment: against the spectacle of theatrical production, and against pre-given modes of representation. The Omissa again functions as a built-in mode of resistance to an ideology of completion, but here assists in turning the poet’s audience from spectators to readers. With Samson Agonistes, in other words, Milton preserves the possibility of an audience by forcing his readers to pass through the violence of Samson’s destruction, marking a transition from theatrical spectacle to textual space. This chapter concludes with return to the problem of the vocation for early modern Protestants and its articulation through Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic. With the help of Giorgio Agamben, I suggest that Milton’s 1671 poems together establish a radical critique of identity politics, instead putting forward a notion of collectivity that is open to the future in the figure of the “remnant.”

Rather than the possessive individualist established in readings by Marshall Grossman, Christopher Kendrick, and John Guillory, we witness a poet whose post-Restoration publications find him still in search of a social potential that is not pre-determined by the formal or real subsumption implicit to capitalist modes of exchange. Neither do we see an affirmation of “free” textual or interpretive space in Milton’s late poems, but are engaged in a mode of reading that undertakes a formal opposition to the state. Recognizing the strategic positioning of Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes is crucial to its politics, which, I argue, have been misinterpreted and underemphasized by critics that avoid the question of ideology and neglect the material contingency of text for early modern readers.

In Milton’s development of the “fit” reader, I locate the potential of a non-identical collective, the subject of recent discussions by Giorgio Agamben (The Time That Remains) and Alain Badiou (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism). Paul represents for both critics a figure that demonstrated the ability to think the social or “universal” without recourse to some prior condition of belonging, whether a people, a city, an empire, a territory, or a class. Rather than objective victory, it is “subjective victory,” writes Badiou, “that produces hope” (95). A subject is born out of her commitment to what Badiou calls, a “truth event,” while the domain of ethics is determined by a subject’s fidelity or faithfulness to such an event. According to Badiou, this is what the Resurrection of Christ means to St Paul. If Milton can be said to oppose a certain “identitarian” logic, it is only because he opposes its use in government surveillance and repression. This to say, the definition of reading that these chapters articulate is strategic. For the philosopher Alain Badiou, the “identity” refers to a static condition of belonging, while the “subjectivity” entails a responsive and excessive kind of agency. In this study, Milton’s “fit” reader corresponds to the latter category. Against laws that divide, enumerate, and name, fit readers work within defined limits to produce a space of grace, which occurs without a condition of debt or duty. In his reading of Roman 6:14 (“for you are not under law, but under grace”) Badiou understands a restructuring of the subject according to a logic of becoming: “For the ‘not being under the law’ negatively indicates the path of the flesh as suspension of the subject’s destiny, while ‘being under grace’ indicates the path of the spirit as fidelity to the event” (63). Here a potential dissolution of various identities is indicated first by a negative declaration; the “but,” on the other hand, “indicates the task, the faithful labor in which the subjects of the process opened up by the event (whose name is ‘grace’) are the coworkers” (64). As Terry Eagleton has recently suggested, Badiou’s work “grasp[s] the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are” (119). Perhaps, then, Milton’s late poems can, in fact, be understood as signaling a turn to faith. We should, however, be careful not to dismiss such faith as a departure from politics. As the young Milton once wrote, "if other things as great in the church and in the rule of life both economical and political not be looked into and reformed, we have looked so long upon the blaze that Zwinglius and Calvin hath beaconed up to us that we are stark blind."

Works Cited

Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. trans Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Hampton: Yale University Press, 2009).

T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (New York: The Noonday Press, 1961).

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1983).

John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. eds. William Kerrigan, et al. (New York: The Modern Library, 2007).

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (London: Routledge, 2002).

April 24, 2012

"The problem of community"

Indeed, we have omitted something from our evocation of the kinship between Marxism and religion which must be rectified at this point: it is the way in which all the issues that turn around church organization and the community of the faithful constitute a point-by-point anticipation of all the most vital problems of political organization in our own time: problems of the party, of class solidarity, of the soviets, of communes, of democratic centralism, of council communism, of small group politics, of the relations of intellectuals to the people, of discipline, of bureaucracy – all these crucial issues which are still so very much with us are those most centrally at stake in the great debates of Reformation and of the English cultural revolution. The problem of community – bound for us, for better or worse, to its concrete expression in the institution of the political party – was for them linked to its concrete or allegorical expression in the notion of a church or congregation or community of the faithful; and the excitement and actuality of the English cultural revolution as it unfolds from 1642 to 1660 is surely at one with this burning preoccupation with the nature of collective life.
Fredric Jameson, from "Religion and Ideology: A Political Reading of Paradise Lost." Delivered at the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature July, 1980.

April 5, 2012

Easter tunes

I couldn't resist posting some of the highlights from my special Easter-themed radio show, which aired yesterday afternoon. If you've ever tuned in you won't be surprised that I've interpreted the Easter theme somewhat loosely, but, rest assured, there is some kind of logic at work here.

I started by pairing two songs about kingship. Together, I think, they produced an interesting tension. The first was a relatively straightforward folk-song from the Constantines' album 2009 album, Kensington Heights, called "New King." It's about the birth of a child (Webb wrote it about his friends having a kid), but the messianic tone of this song is pretty hard to miss.

Along with this, I played a track called "King Eternal" from TV on the Radio's debut album, Desperate Youth and Bloodthirsty Babes. Where the first track is about the promise of new beginnings, TVOTR's track is decidedly dark and apocalyptic.

Next up, the title track from Patti Smith's 1978 album Easter was too obvious to pass up. I was aware that it existed, but, before yesterday's show, I hadn't listened to it all the way through. It's a pretty stunning song, and I was quite impressed with the spoken word portion at the end.

After Smith's plodding Easter anthem, the tone picked up with an epic jam from 1989. From The Stone Roses' self-titled masterpiece, here's a track called "I am the Resurrection."

The last two highlights are more recent. The first, is from Blackout Beach, one of many projects for the brilliant Carey Mercer (best known for his work with Frog Eyes and Swan Lake). Released last year, his album's title (F*ck Death) might be a bit of a problem for some listeners, but I think it's a rather appropriate sentiment for Easter, and John Donne would probably agree.

Unfortunately I can't find a video for the last song I played. It was a discovered in the CJSR music library with the help of our trusty volunteer coordinator, and once I had the disc in my hands, I felt as though I'd been given a gift from above: something so strange, it would work perfectly with my show. Easterween is a concept record about Easter that was just released a few weeks ago. The project is a collaboration between two seasoned musicians, John Southworth and Andrew Downing. "Easterween," the album closer, is a hilarious mix of klezmer-folk and metaphsyical hoo-ha, making it perhaps the most fitting end to my show that I could have asked for.

If I actually had any listeners yesterday afternoon, I'm guessing they were pretty confused.

April 1, 2012

"A Hymn to God the Father"

Back in January, I joined a choir, mostly made up of alumni from a Lutheran college. I've been enjoying it for the most part, though I still cringe through some of our material. We had our final performance last night. Each one of our songs was introduced by a different member of the choir. While one might expect such introductions to give some background to our repertoire, they all tended to focus on aspects of personal salvation. Rather than providing the audience with insight into our selections, each introductory description drew on themes of atonement (as penal substitution), sinful depravity, and God's infallible Word. It all put me in a bad mood.

It was my job to give the introduction to John Ness Beck's "A Hymn to God the Father." I'm not really a fan of the arrangement, but, as it uses John Donne's original text, I couldn't resist the opportunity to expound on the work of one of my favorite poets. To my mind, Donne's hymn actually resists the triumphant narrative of individual salvation that came to define the evening's program.
WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
    Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
    And do run still, though still I do deplore?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
    Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
    A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
    My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
    Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
        And having done that, Thou hast done ;
                    I fear no more.
Written during a time of serious illness in the winter of 1623, this text is at once a work of praise and confession. According to the early biographer Thomas Watton, Donne "caused it to be set to a most grave and solemn tune and to be often sung to the organ by the choristers at St. Paul's church in his own hearing, especially at the evening service."

In the hymn, the speaker is driven to confession by his fear of an outstanding sin. You'll notice that at the end of each stanza, Donne puns on his name repeatedly, suggesting that God's work of forgiveness is not yet finished because of his impulse to sin. By punning on his name Donne joins together his identity with the worst kind of spiritual anxiety. Sin initially assumes a kind of infinity (it defines past, present, and future, overflowing God's sacrificial act); in this way, becomes an idol. As the poem continues, such fear is revealed as a mark of pride, for in despairing over his outstanding sins, the speaker forgets the infinite mercy of God and remains focused on himself.

Each stanza ends by suspending God's forgiveness and with it, the poet's identity remains undone and unsettled. In the final stanza, this cycle is subverted. Both tropes--the closure of self marked by pride and the opening of self marked by fear--are subtly transformed by the Son's radiance. When the speaker finally orients himself to the Son's sacrifice, he forgets his own sinfulness and accepts his identity as remembered by God.

Like most church liturgies, Donne's hymn moves from confession to praise. What makes it so compelling, however, is how successfully (and affectively) it demonstrates the danger of confession: a necessary posture for the believer, but one that remains precarious because of the prominence it can give to the individual subject. Rather than receiving easy absolution, Donne's speaker passes through his sinfulness, moving from its logical end in despair and isolation to grace.