April 06, 2012

Marjorie Garber's plenary at SAA 2012, an instance of repressive desublimation

Today at the Plenary Presentation of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, Majorie Garber read a paper titled "Occupy Shakespeare". The word occupy is obviously lifted from the name of the anti-capitalist movement Occupy Wall Street and its comrade groupings around the globe. In those groups, to occupy means to critique capitalism and to become a presence, inspired by that critique, that opposes capitalism. However, Garber's paper was not a critique of capitalism. It was a discussion of the history of Shakespeare Studies in the humanities. Both Shakespeare Studies and the humanities could have easily led Garber to a critique of capitalism, but her talk was empty of any of that radical content. She did cheaply throw in a line from Love's Labour's Lost, "Let us devise some entertainment for them in their tents", but Garber's talk stayed far away from the message of the Occupy tents.

Garber used the word occupy merely to adorn her talk. Out of context, but in fashion, it performed not much more work in her paper than to be a cool graphic on her powerpoint presentation. In this talk, for which Garber was most certainly paid and which was, as plenary, intended to draw punters to the meeting, the word occupy became a commodity, empty of radical meaning but filled with contemporary catchiness. This talk is another instance of a growing list of opportunistic uses of the word occupy. Garber joins the culture industry in its project of making the word cliche.  It is an instance of repressive desublimation, whereby radical imagery is used as a commodity for non-radical purposes and, ultimately, rendered unuseable for social change. As such, Garber's talk works in favour of capitalism. This is most certainly not the sort of event that shoud be headlining a Shakespeare conference. Shakespeare, who according to Karl Marx knew the evils of the money economy better than the theorising petty bourgeois, deserves better.  

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I partly agree with you Christian, in terms of the opportunism of the use of the word; but I don’t think she was ever pretending to do a Marxist or political critique, was she? Remember that the theme of the panel was on the state of the humanities in relation to Shakespeare, not a reading of Shakespeare. One of her points was precisely that you make: that “occupy” won some prize for Word of the Year, and she was responding to the current cultural value of that word, which has itself been co-opted, misused and misrepresented. The vast majority of people “like” (in the Facebook sense) or culturally dabble in the Occupy movement rather than engaging in direct action; and in that sense, I felt there were some very important things said in her paper about our involvement with Shakespeare, the idea that Shakespeare is increasingly ‘liked’, ‘friended’, ‘trended’ etc. rather than engaged with. It might not have been the paper you wanted from the title, in that sense, but as a state-of-the-field paper, there was a lot of stuff to think about if we’re going to confront what the 21st century digital, passive engagement age is doing to Shakespeare.

    09 Apr 2012, 22:00

  2. Though I’ll reiterate – I don’t disagree with your reading as applied to the political manifestation of Occupy, or the problems of the dispersal and opportunism of the use of that word. I just think she was trying to do something different; and of course the title arguably reads as a manifesto to ‘occupy’ (read: retake, re-engage with) Shakespeare in the close engagement sense that you so rightly advocate.

    09 Apr 2012, 22:03

  3. christian smith

    Thanks for your comments Pete. I am not complaining that she did not perform a critique of capitalism, but that she used the title from a movement that critiques capitalism and then did not critique capitalism. Capitalism was not the topic of the the panel. She should have chosen another title. But she didn’t because she shamelessly chooses titles to serve as branding for her talk. The title reeks of economic opportunism – the economy of her speaking fees. A similar move was the title of her keynote at Prague, “Czech Mates”, which adorned her paper that compared Shakespeare with Kafka. That title, along with being racist, was also opportunist in that it spruced up a weak, school-girl, compare and contrast essay, delivered steps from Kafka’s birthplace, about how Shakespeare and Kafka were similar.

    Sublimation, the act of repressing and displacing a potentially dangerous impulse and then expressing it in a safer context, carries with it the initial passionate impulse. The healthy human opposes class oppression and acts in a revolutionary manner that overthrows the oppressor. However, since that can be dangerous, even fatal, he represses his direct action and displaces it into a symbolic indirect action, which is pregnant with the energy of the initial impulse. Living in tents on Wall Street is just that sort of behaviour. Labeling it “Occupy” is a brilliant move, combining as it does the notions of “whose streets, our streets!” with the sense of a guerillia takeover. The word took on a power that could be used to invigorate the same symbolic revolutionary action around the globe. When Garber uses the word to adorn a talk that is not about the the content of the initial revolutionary impulse, she robs the word of its energy and in that manner serves the repressive forces.

    10 Apr 2012, 10:00

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