Richard Burt. Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares: Kiddie Culture, Queer Theory, and Loser Criticism. New York: St Martin's P, 1998. xvii+318pp. ISBN 0 312 21363 8.
Indira Ghose
Free University of Berlin

Ghose, Indira. "Review of Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 11.1-7 <URL:

  1. How does the signifier "Shakespeare" function within American popular culture? Richard Burt counts the ways. As a symbol of a patriarchal social order, it works paradoxically to legitimize gayness in Hollywood films--as well as its opposite. As an icon of bisexuality, Shakespeare is invoked in films like In and Out precisely to deconstruct the opposition between gayness and queerness. As shorthand for all the values of Western culture, Shakespeare is appropriated by Hollywood action movies, Americanized and pressed into the service of American cultural imperialism. In the porn industry, Shakespeare was first deployed in an alibi function (to help Hugh Hefner's Playboy productions go mainstream). Now Shakespeare often enables porn stars to increase their market shares by adding a new commodity to their repertoire. And teen films such as Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet play through an attempt to straddle both worlds, elite and youth culture. Shakespeare has always served as self-legitimation for American culture--and as a symptom of the sense of inferiority by which it has always been haunted.

  2. For Burt sees the ubiquitous deployment of Shakespeare in popular culture--and he unearths more traces of Shakespearean citations between The Muppet Show and hard core porn than most academics could dream of--as a sign of a deep ambivalence towards European culture. Even action movies like Last Action Hero, which might mock the wimpy heroes of Shakespearean plays, nevertheless reveal a postcolonial anxiety about America's cultural status as parasitic. In fact, as Burt shows, Shakespeare citations often enable a self-reflexive critique of the constraints of the industry within the mass culture genre itself.

  3. But that is only part of the two-pronged argument of this highly sophisticated, yet compellingly entertaining book: the other half consists of academia bashing. Burt excoriates precisely those critics who celebrate mass culture as transgressive - by revealing the fantasies underlying their work. For the dream of the critic of being able to cross over into trash culture and adopt all possible positions is nothing but the fantasy of mastery. As Burt convincingly argues, cultural critics' fascination with popular culture is only another form of slumming. What is at stake is the infinite vanity of the cultural critic who sees him or herself as both inside and outside mass culture. However, as Burt puts it bluntly, "any attempt to redeem trivial, 'lite' popular culture by reading it in terms of serious 'heavy' politics will fail" (201). Further, in the case of a youth culture that always outstrips him/her, the critic is inevitably doomed to belatedness.

  4. With breathtaking honesty, Burt tells us, in effect, that trash is trash and academia a world apart. After delving into the depths of mass culture himself, he concedes that there is nothing necessarily liberatory about popular culture. In fact, neither the porn industry nor youth subcultures (to take two examples) give a damn about what academics gush about. The myths about how subversive popular culture is reveal more about the investments of the cultural critic than about mass culture itself.

  5. As an alternative stance, Burt offers us what he terms "loser culture." The academic as loser would embrace his or her obsolescence and reject the virtuoso position of the cultural critic. The loser is positively valorised in Generation X youth culture as both stupid and street-smart. Loserdom would be a melancholic response to the American cultural categorical imperative to "have a nice day" (215).

  6. While Burt's radical critique of the academic unconscious is well-argued, the alternative he offers (albeit tentatively) remains the least convincing part of this brilliant book. The loser is simply the double of the academic virtuoso. The figure of the loser, too, is rooted in American mythology (even as it rejects American ideology) -- a descendent, as it were, of the lone ranger (riding off into the sunset). As a matter of fact, the loser bears a striking affinity to the dandy, another narcissistic symbol of fin-de-siecle malaise. At a time when slumming as a form of cultural mastery was a fantasy (and practice) indulged in by intellectuals of many kinds, the dandy celebrated the seamy sides of life from a different, anti-utilitarian stance altogether--as an escape from ennui. But the borderline between the rational intellectual and the dandy keeps collapsing (as in the figure of the dandy/detective Sherlock Holmes): both stances are grounded in a sense of superiority.

  7. While the concept of the academic as loser fails to quite convince, Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares remains a dazzling tour de force: one of the most original works to have appeared recently, be it in the field of Shakespeare studies or popular culture.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).