Monday, 14 October 2013

Not all my readers are thinkers

A local hack writes that the Shakespeare classes taught at 'a local university' are 'third-rate' and wouldn't even pass O-level in the 1960s. I think he means me, because I moved from pointing out that he's a poor excuse for a journalist to detailing the class on Jonson and Shakespeare I'd just given, in which I discussed the multiple versions of Shakespeare each 'age' arrives at: the timeless Bard, the businessman, the uncouth provincial (he slipped out of performance for a surprisingly long time), the family man, the homosexual, the imperialist and the anti-imperialist. Standard stuff at this level, these days. 

Sadly, the columnist failed to provide his readers with any of these details, or explain how and why this would have been inadequate to pass an exam for 15/16 year old kids in the 1960s. I can't dig out 60s exam papers, but I'm fairly certain that any kid pulling out this level of cultural and historical detail would actually have done rather well, despite the reactionary and uninteresting nature of the O-level syllabus.

As luck would have it, I don't need to smear and guess: the distinguished Alan Sinfield did a rather splendid analysis of 1980s O and A-level Shakespeare questions, which you can read here.

I will point out in the question papers the two fundamental mystifications of bourgeois ideology. All the questions specified were set in 1983.
They aren't exactly inspiring: sexist, uncritical and dull. Most of them go along the lines of 'Why was Shakespeare so great?', which gets us precisely nowhere intellectually, is a-historical and promotes a very conservative model of literary history.
The main move is the projection of local conditions on to the eternal. As Rachel Sharp puts it, 'The power relations which are peculiar to market society are seen as how things have always been and ought to be. They acquire a timelessness which is powerfully legitimised by a theory of human nature ... Political struggles to alter present-day social arrangements are seen as futile for "things are as they are" because of man's basic attributes and nothing could ever be very different. This move is built in to the structure of the whole exercise, through the notion that Shakespeare is the great National Poet who speaks universal truths and whose plays are the ultimate instance of Literature. It is made also through the ways the questions invite the candidates to handle the plays. Almost invariably it is assumed that the plays reveal universal 'human' values and qualities and that they are self-contained and coherent entities; and the activity of criticism in producing these assumptions is effaced.
The effect of the model still extant in the 1980s is to rope Shakespeare off as a museum piece, or as a defender of the status quo - not one his contemporaries would have recognised, given his idenitifiable responses to the political, cultural and economic shifts of his milieu.

The appeal to absolute values and qualities is ubiquitous: 'At the centre of King Lear lies the question, "What is a man?" Discuss' (Oxford and Cambridge, A level); 'Beginning with a consideration of the following passage, discuss Shakespeare's presentation of Goodness in Macbeth' (Welsh, A level). Women, of course, are a special category within the universal (there are fewer questions about female than male characters): "The Winter's Tale is much more concerned with the qualities of womanhood, its virtue, its insight, and its endurance. Discuss' (Southern, A level). If women seem not to be
manifesting the expected qualities then that is a matter for comment: "'The men in Twelfth Night are ridiculous in what they say and do: it is the women who are full of common sense". Show how far you agree. ..' (Welsh, O level). The alleged coherence and self-containedness of the text re-enacts at the level of the particular reading the coherence and self-containedness claimed by ideology. 
In the examination questions almost no reference is made to the diverse forms which the play has taken-- and may take --to scholarly discussions about provenance, to the conditions under which it has been transmitted, to the different forms it takes today, from school editions to stage, film and TV productions. Even the occasional question about staging is liable to involve the assumption that there is a true reading behind the diverse possibilities: 'How, as a young actor, would you try to cope with the difficulties of playing the part of John of Gaunt' (Southern, O level- bad luck if you're an actress). The text is there; the most common form of question at O level begins 'Give an account of ...' and 'precise reference' is repeatedly demanded. That the text is to be regarded as coherent, either in terms of action or of dramatic effect, is frequently insisted upon. "'While we may hope for a happy ending to King Lear, Shakespeare's conclusion is entirely fitting. Discuss." (Associated, O level); 'Write about the dramatic effectiveness of the last act of Twelfth Night, and show how the ending is connected to earlier episodes of the play' (London, O level). Everything comes out the way it always had to, every incident is justified by its 'effectiveness' (one of the commonest terms on the papers).
Perhaps my hack correspondent is right: a student taking Sinfield's view would have failed: not through stupidity, but because she would have challenged the use of Shakespeare as a weapon in the hegemonic struggle against cultural authority. Or as Sinfield and Anderson have it:
As Perry Anderson showed, this Leavisite strategy demands (whilst lamenting the absence of) one crucial precondition: a shared, stable system of beliefs and values'; what actually happens is that candidates are required to take up a certain system of values --those we have been identifying--in order satisfactorily to answer the question.
The exam question is the culmination of a system of oppressive power in which the successful student shouldn't think, but regurgitate a set of learned answers to authority. Agree and pass, disagree and fail. Any student who obeys is trained to obey the powers that be in non-literary matters too: on the street, in the voting booth and anywhere else independent thought it frowned upon. The exam system proves to be a fundamental point of contradiction: while individual literary judgement is condemned to failure, the questions promote an anti-social individualism of savagery:

The second fundamental mystification of bourgeois ideology is the construction of individual subjectivity as a given which is undetermined and unconstituted and hence a ground of meaning and coherence: 'In effect the individual is understood in terms of a pre-social essence, nature, or identity and on that basis s/he is invested with a quasi-spiritual autonomy. The individual becomes the origin and focus of meaning -an individuated essence which precedes and --in idealist philosophy --transcends history and society.' Eternal values can no longer be ratified securely by religion, but now they are grounded in their perception through authentic subjectivity. This relationship is figured precisely in the question: 'There are moments in King Lear when the insights of individual characters seem to provide a key to the play's deepest themes and preoccupations. Consider this claim in relation to one of the following "insights"' (Oxford and Cambridge, A level). The individual and the universal are constituted in a mutually supportive polarity. 
The examination papers construct Shakespeare and the candidate in terms of individuated subjectivity through their stress upon Shakespeare's free-standing genius, their emphasis on characterisation, and their demand for the candidate's personal response.

What kind of person does this doctrine produce?

We may envisage, then, the intellectual cast of the successfully socialised GCE candidate. She or he will be respectful of Shakespeare and high culture and accustomed to being appreciative of the cultural production which is offered through established institutions. '~he or he will be trained at giving opinions -within certain prescribed limits; at collecting evidence -though without questioning its status or the construction of the problem; at saying what is going on --though not whether that is what ought to happen; at seeing effectiveness, coherence, purposes fulfilled -but not conflict. And because the purposeful individual is perceived as the autonomous origin and ground of meaning and event, success in these exercises will be accepted as just reason for certain economic and social privileges. 
It all seems perfectly adapted for the fastest-growing class fraction, the new petty bourgeoisie working in finance, advertising, the civil service, teaching, the health service, the social services and clerical occupations. The new petty bourgeoisie (unlike the old, of artisans and small shopkeepers) is constituted not by family but through education: 'The various petty bourgeois agents each possess, in relation to those subordinate to them, a fragment of the fantastic secret of knowledge that legitimises the delegated authority that they exercise. Hence the belief in the 'neutrality of culture', and in the educational apparatus as a corridor of circulation by the promotion and accession of the "best" to the bourgeois state, or in any case to a higher state in the specific hierarchy of mental labour." The combination of cultural deference and cautious questioning promoted around Shakespeare in GCE seems designed to construct a petty bourgeoisie which will strive within limits allocated to it without seeking to disturb the system-"it does not want to break the ladder by which it imagines it can climb" (Poulantzas, p. 293).
In short, exactly the kind of selfish, individualist, obedient, Philistine reactionary the Express and Star admires and courts. If I produce Shakespeare-loving rebels, I'm on the side of the angels.


Sarah Williams said...

Go Vole! What a fascinating paper, nothing much has changed in 30 years, has it?

Oldgirlatuni said...

I couldn't agree more. Having taken O' level and A' level English in the 1980s, it was made very clear to us that Shakespeare was to be "learned", and that there were 'correct' ways of responding to the text. Individual thought was frowned up.

It's no wonder that so many of my contemporaries found Shakespeare to be dull. Mindyou, with some rare exceptions, English teachers of the 1980s also 'killed' Dickens, Austen, Hardy et al for those of us who had the task of reading them and of learning the standard responses to the text.

Damn shame. I was lucky - I had a teacher who ignited my love of the Victorian novel, without which I probably wouldn't be writing the thesis that I am.