The Transitional Renaissance

Monday, November 5, 2018


In the Autumn 2018 Critical Inquiry, Richard Halpern writes about “Collateral Damage and Tragic Form,” arguing that tragedy always makes some figures peripheral to the main tragedy even though they too experience devastating loss and even death.  In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Cassandra is such a peripheral figure.  She is, in Halpern’s terms, collateral damage, not important in the same way that the tragic forms of the time allowed Agamemnon to be central, to be the subject of tragedy.  Writing partly in an historical vein, Halpern argues that the tragic figures of modernity are ironically classical tragedy’s collateral victims.  In the democratizing move that has made Willy Lohman a tragic protagonist, the average man or average woman leaves the peripheral position and becomes the subject of tragedy.  But, Halpern implicitly asks, is there ever an end to collateral damage?  Are there not always those whose deaths are made peripheral, unimportant, unmarked?  The endpoint of the essay is a consideration of drone warfare and the appropriate framing of its tragic dimensions.  Are the technician-warriors who can’t quite see their human targets players in a tragedy? Often they come to recoil from their task and suffer mental and emotional collapse.  And what of the bystanders or family members or friends who happen to be on the ground when a target is “taken out”?  What role does tragedy assign to them?  Are they merely the newest form of collateral damage, their shredded bodies largely invisible to those who order the drones to do their work?   

I begin by calling attention to this essay before moving back to Halpern’s 1991 book, The Politics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital, because across the gap of twenty-seven years, certain things remain central to Halpern’s critical practice: attention to literary form, a commitment to the historical imbrication of those forms, a curiosity about how and why things change, and an invariant focus on the complex ways that literature and other cultural forms have political effects. I would also argue that the concept of collateral damage has always been one of Halpern’s preoccupations, if only implicitly. What, after all, did the transition to capitalism do but create new forms of collateral damage?  What lives were made not to matter in that epochal transformation?

I first read The Politics of Primitive Accumulation at the height of the New Historical moment, and it was something different in an increasingly monochromatic field. Focusing on economic life rather than the politics of the absolutist state, replacing anecdotes and random connections with the idea of an historical conjuncture, Halpern brought into view in a new way what was at stake in the development of literary forms and styles of the post-medieval period.  Briefly put, Halpern’s argument is that what we call Renaissance or early modern literature could more usefully be called literature of the transition, referring of course to Marx’s assumption that between the feudal mode of production and the capitalist mode of production, a complicated transition occurred.  Halpern is clear, as are most contemporary Marxist critics, that the idea of a “transition” is loosely developed in Marx and does not correspond to a set time span.  Instead, it is best understood as a panoply of processes occurring across political, economic, and cultural domains, but not in a teleological progression.  One of these processes is that of primitive accumulation, both the accumulation of men and of capital.  We are most familiar with the latter.  The rise of joint stock companies that were designed to share risk and accumulate capital, the huge profits made from long-distance trade by those joint stock companies, new book keeping and insurance practices, the extraction of wealth from overseas colonies—these developments and more generated the wealth that eventually gave rise to a mode of production most would agree was capitalist in nature, with England leading the way within Europe.

Halpern’s book is mostly, however, concerned with primitive accumulation of men by which he means several things. Like most critics who talk about the transition, Halpern acknowledges the violent means (enclosures and escalating rents, for example) by which peasants were driven from their customary position as tenants who worked small patches of land and turned into vagrants and some, eventually, into wage laborers.  This process, occurring over several centuries, in time created the economically precarious work force necessary for industrial production. Also important was the creation of a class of persons who were turned into proto-bourgeoisie, that is, who were disciplined to observe the bell and the clock, who conformed to social norms while priding themselves on negligible distinctions of verbal and sartorial style that assured their individuality. Halpern argues that the humanist schoolroom, with its emphasis on rhetorical training and the appreciation of style over content, was a crucial engine for producing such subjects and for sorting those who supposedly had the capacity for self-discipline and diligent application from those who did not.  Those weeded out, and more importantly, those who could never be imagined suited for such schooling, represent the collateral damage of the Tudor educational system, a system that produced class distinctions as surely as it produced speakers of Ciceronian Latin.  

After his bracing discussion of Tudor educational practices and their role in the process of primitive accumulation, Halpern then looks at four writers (Skelton, More, Spenser, and Shakespeare) whose works can be understood, formally, as part of a transitional aesthetic, as bearing the marks of being written during and as part of the transitional process.  What that means differs from author to author. For Spenser it means, in “The Shepherds Calendar,” the radical juxtaposition of the communal knowledge provided by a traditional form like pastoral to the ostentatiously scientific and learned glosses of the marginal matter.  The old and the new collide at the level of style and implicitly reveal the shifting tectonics of a world order. An historical struggle is given literary form, not through the agonistic clash of characters, but through the incommensurability of different rhetorical modes. In Utopia, Halpern argues, the impulse to envision a utopian future beyond the corruption and the injustice of Henrician England is stymied.  The two-part text uses the supposedly utopian society as a strenuous and damning critique of aristocratic greed and unfettered and destructive desire as described in Hythloday’s diatribes in Part I. Part II, however, is confounded by Utopia’s essential drabness from embodying a truly attractive and livable society in which pleasure can be given scope. Litotes, the double negative, becomes the rhetorical trope through which More can articulate what is to be avoided, but not what is to be embraced--beyond the dutiful restraint of desire.  Only the occasional wittiness of the text, Halpern argues, gestures toward a realm of freedom not dominated by fear of excess. What “is” determines every detail of Utopia’s conception, tying the future to the past it is designed to escape. Put another way, the work plays a part in an epochal transformation not by foreseeing a different future but by attacking the dominant premises of its present.

So why does all this matter?  For me it matters primarily for three reasons.  The first is the book’s attention to the collateral damage done by the transition to capitalism.  It is easy to forget what the process of primitive accumulation meant for a whole class of persons, including those enslaved to work in the copper mines and the sugar plantations of the New World, as well as those loosed to a precarious existence on the highways of England. “The Renaissance” as a term projects exuberance.  It’s about rebirth and renewal, at least for some. The transition to capitalism is a more sober concept, reminding us of the precarity capitalism brought in its train.  It is a lie perpetuated into the present that people with the right stuff, with a supposed capacity for self-discipline and entrepreneurship, deserve to hoard the world’s wealth, and everyone else deserves to live a life of extreme privation and vulnerability.  By turning attention to the processes of primitive accumulation, Halpern argues against such a view by making visible the structures of exploitation and stratification that were generated by the emergence of capitalism and that continue into the present in ever-changing but persistent forms. It is a timely angle of vision to be reminded of in Trump’s America.

Second, the book shows the active role that literature and cultural productions more generally play in societal transformation, particularly in anticipating on the cultural level what would only later be realized on the economic or political level.  One of the advances of Althusserian Marxism was to demonstrate that ideological change can occur before the full development of changes in the economic mode of production.  That is, the cultural realm can be oddly prescient.  It does not follow economic change slavishly, like a dog walker yanked along by a rambunctious puppy, as an older base-superstructure model might suggest.  Repeatedly, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation shows the variable but important role that culture plays in paving the way for a capitalist regime, as in the operations of the Tudor schoolroom and its deployment of rhetorical training, or, conversely, in simply outlining the chasm between what has been and what may be through the juxtaposition of incommensurable styles, as in The Shepherds’ Calendar. Sometimes, Halpern argues, as in King Lear, tragedy perversely analyzes what is about to be lost before a future it cannot or will not delineate.  In a provocative reading of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Halpern suggests that the play maps the transition to capitalism backwards, as characters, including Edmund, attempt to refeudalize Britain in the face of Lear’s cataclysmic destruction of absolutist kingship. The play’s role in the transition to capitalism is to crystalize and make visible past and passing social forms at the moment of their dissolution.  There is, then, nothing homogenous about how literature plays a role in the transition, but play a role it does.

Finally, Halpern offers a bracing case that the economy matters in thinking about the social and political work that culture does. The Politics of Primitive Accumulation does not depend on  old-style economic determinism, but it does argue that the processes that define primitive accumulation eventually led to wholescale economic changes with which the literary was entwined as surely as it was entwined with the new configurations of race and gender that emerged in the transition to capitalism. The history of that transition, Halpern argues, cannot yet be fully written, but his book contributes to that unfinished task.  After twenty seven years The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation can still provoke awareness of the devastating damage produced by the emergence of an economic system that in our own moment has become entirely divorced from any notion of the common good, a future presciently anticipated, as Halpern shows, in the cultural productions of early modern England. The book prompts me to think more acutely in my own work, and in the questions I pose my students, about literature’s role, sometimes critical and sometimes complicit, in the regime of capital and its endless production of collateral damage.