Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet (continued)

Bruce R. Smith
Georgetown University

Smith, Bruce R. "Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet
" Conclusion. Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1 (May, 2001): 5.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/logomarg/conclus.htm>.

Way out

1. What happens when we superimpose the three frames, the physical, the dramaturgical, and the physiological? What do we see? More to the point, what do we hear? Not, I think, the instance of logocentricism that Derrida needs for his project in deconstruction. "Hearing green" is, to some degree, always an effect of hearing speech, regardless of how dispassionately the listener attempts to isolate semantic meaning. The green effect is heightened in theatrical performance, which brackets off dramatic speech from ordinary speech and calls attention to its soundedness. The sensation would have been all the greater in a culture like Shakespeare’s, a culture that prized the arts of rhetoric and made training in those arts part of every schoolboy’s program of study (see Baldwin and Trousdale). The fundamental principle of deconstruction is différence, the making of all meanings through the binary marking of difference. In sounded speech, however, binary differences are not all there is to hear. The logical mind may be bracketing off certain sounds as phonemes and distinguishing them one from another, but all the while the ears are hearing the range of sounds in between. Garrett Stewart has coined the term "phonotext" to refer to the way voiced phonemes "blur" at the edges: "it is in the nature of phonemes to surrender all real discreteness to the rippling flow of speech. It is also in the nature of phonemes in a given speech act to blur at their borders, creating there the possibility of more paradigmatic choices than can simultaneously be made" (26). The result is what Stewart calls "transegmental drift" or "transegmental slippage." Stephen Booth hears that slippage as a distinguishing characteristic of poetry. In a given word Booth hears the possibilities of other words that are almost present in the sounds of that word (68-78). What Stewart and Booth describe is, in effect, an acoustic ghost or echo that attends each word in a script and undoes the seeming fixity of sounded words. Judged by the standards of Stewart and Booth, the main character in Hamlet may not be Hamlet at all but the Ghost. Tradition ascribes that role to the actor William Shakespeare. The psychoacoustics of listening to speech thus corroborates the suppositions of Galenic medicine. To some degree, all listening is an exercise in "hearing green." The continuous stream of sound broadcast by actors’ voices englobes auditors and actors alike in a soundworld that engages, not just the mind, but the entire body. Where deconstruction sees subject/object, I propose that we attempt to hear subject/subject.

2. My strategy in this essay exemplifies a methodology that I have come to call "historical phenomenology." It attempts to reconstruct bodily experience in the past on historically informed terms. Its insistence on historical difference and cultural relativity distinguishes it from phenomenology as practiced by Merleau-Ponty and his followers in the 1950s. In several respects, historical phenomenology differs from the dominant critical methodologies of the moment: new historicism and deconstruction. Both of these dominant methodologies are are concerned primarily with nouns, with naming things and classifying them--or, in the case of deconstruction, with declassifying them. To name something is to turn it into an object, to position the analyst here and it over there so that it can be seen, known, mastered. Lyotard has argued that that such a position can never really be achieved, even when the objects being studied are historically removed from the investigator. According to Lyotard, all objects of historical inquiry are never really objects. The analyst is connected with what she analyzes along a continuum of time: the past is both "now" and "no longer" as the future is both "now" and "not yet" (Lyotard 111-132).

3. It is not just time that complicates the relationship between the historian and his supposed object of study but the shared fact of a human body. The syntactical unit that best captures the situation of the knowing subject, Michel Serres claims in The Troubadour of Knowledge, is not nouns, not adjectives, not even verbs, but prepositions:

before and after construct their viscous fluidity; with and without, the hesitating divisions; over and under, the false and true subject; for and against, the violent passions; behind and before, the cowardly hypocrisies and courageous loyalties; in and outside of, the corporeal and theoretical . . . .

and so on with between and beyond, from and via and toward (Serres 1997: 146). What Serres describes here is a relational way of knowing. With respect to the past, such a way of knowing recognizes the embodiedness of historical subjects and attends to the materiality of the evidence they have left behind at the same time that it acknowledges the embodiedness of the investigator in the face of that evidence.

4. Such a methodology attempts to undo Descartes’ separation of thinking subject and thought-about object. With respect to sound, Decartes and his successors seek to know the sounded message apart from the body of the speaking knower and the listening knower. We might think of the Cartesian model in terms of prepositions: the knower is positioned "opposite" or "against" the thing known. By contrast, the preposition that best describes Hamlet in the theater is "among." According to Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self, it is altogether appropriate that we should adopt such a methodology when talking about artefacts like Hamlet. It is in the half century after Hamlet that Taylor locates a major shift in the localization of knowledge of the self. In the universe assumed by "the Elizabethan world picture" the knower and what he knows exist as objects within the same all-encompassing order. In the universe set in place by Descartes, the knower exists apart from what he knows, as subject to object (Taylor 199-207). Vision, as Plato argues in several places, may be "the sharpest of our bodily senses" (Phaedrus 250d, emphasis added, in Cooper 528) because it supposedly gives readiest access to immaterial ideas through the comparatively pure medium of fire/light (Timaeus 45), but hearing depends on a thoroughly material medium, air, in which speaker and listener are both immersed. Sir Francis Bacon describes the situation exactly in Silva Silvarum:

The Species of Visibles seeme to be Emissions of Beames from the Obiect seene; Almost like Odours; saue that they are more Incorporeall: But the Species of Audibles seeme to Participate more with Locall Motion, like Percussions or Impressions made vpon the Aire. So that whereas all Bodies doe seeme to worke in two manners; Either by the Communication of their Natures; Or by the Impressions and Signatures of their Motions; The Diffusion of Species Visible seemeth to participate more of the former Operation; and the Species Audible of the latter (Bacon no. 268).

It is ultimately the materiality of air that calls into question the distinction between subject and object that is essential to Cartesian philosophy, even in its latter-day forms of deconstruction and new historicism.

5. If Hamlet occupies a position of logomarginality, then what of Shakespeare’s other protagonists? Only Richard III (with 32 per cent of the lines of the script in which he figures) and Iago (with 34 per cent) come close to claiming Hamlet’s position of seeming verbal authority at 38 per cent. In dramaturgical terms, other protagonists in Shakespeare’s scripts are even more dependent on other speakers to feed them character. They have a voice only in relation to all the other voices in the play. In physical terms, all of Shakespeare’s speakers in scripts written for the outdoor public playhouses occupy the same marginal space that Hamlet does, as sound-producers whose voices are amplified and distorted in ways characteristic of open cylinders. Furthermore, each of them contributes to a repertory of non-verbal sound effects that, alongside words, constitute the fictional and experiential world of each script. Finally, in physiological terms, all of Shakespeare’s protagonists are imagined to be producing sounds that listeners will hear with their whole bodies, as sensations transported by spiritus to the heart, where those sensations can be acted upon viscerally as passions or subjected to the censure of reason. The testimony of Michael Drayton, Paul Hentzner, and other witnesses to plays in performance suggests that passion figured largely in audience responses.

6. On the subject of Hamlet scholars may write essays, precisely isolating each grapheme at the stroke of a key, but in the heat of performance audiences tend to respond, not with words but with applause and shouts. They return Hamlet to the sea of noise from which he emerged.

Works Cited

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

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).