Christopher Pye. The Vanishing: Shakespeare, the Subject, and Early Modern Culture. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2000. 199 pp. ISBN 0 8223 2547 0.
Thomas Page Anderson
Vanderbilt University

Anderson, Thomas Page. "Review of Christopher Pye, The Vanishing." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 9.1-6 <URL:

  1. Christopher Pye has consistently challenged materialist and historicist approaches to early modern culture. His first book, The Regal Phantasm (1990), explores how Renaissance subjectivity is tied to a notion of theatrical rapture that exceeds the referential logic of representation, becoming "actively formative" (9) as it exposes the vexed relationship between mimesis and history. In The Vanishing (2000), Pye extends this line of inquiry, making his most forceful argument to date for the notion of an early modern subject intimately tied to the period's articulation of sexuality and history. The Vanishing assumes that the matter of history is not the positivist foundation but the "phantasmatic condition and the limit of historicist inquiry" (16).

  2. The book's third chapter - the first of which not to have been previously published - is its centrepiece. In it, the author juxtaposes representations of the scene of the Annunciation - what Pye describes as the "ur-instance of subjective interpellation in Western culture" (14) - with key moments in King Lear in which subjectivity is visibly constituted around the vanishing point of its own appearance. Pye examines various Renaissance pictorial representations of Mary being called into her sacred narrative. He claims that the annunciatory images operate paradoxically according to an iconoclastic logic particular to the "form and temporality of the emerging subject" (68). The sacred images of Mary with her angelic interlocutor "'announce' the subject as a subject necessarily in advance of itself" (68). This paradox accounts for Mary's "breached yet intact condition" (69) in representations of the Annunciation suggesting depth while at the same time insisting that truth exists at the surface of the sacred image. The author claims that the religious scene of Annunciation is transformed into a scene of exorcism in Lear. This reversal announces itself formally, as "the visual representation of a moment of verbal solicitation" (87) depicted in the pictorial accounts of the Annunciation is turned into a "literary representation of a perspectival effect" (87). The Dover Cliff scene most vividly represents this transformation. In the scene, fantasy emerges as the "necessary demonic beyond the perspectival subject" (103). The cliff scene reveals the "modern subject" (104) as a temporal/historical being who is "inseparable from the break through which it simultaneously becomes groundless and phantasmatic" (104).

  3. Chapters one, two and five are linked by their interest in commodification, exchange, fantasy, and subject formation. Chapter one looks at the early modern theatre's relationship to a new, expanding system of economic and social exchange. Pye challenges the tendency in new historicist criticism to unmoor economic discourse from the particularities of the market in an effort to describe an "entire social field" (19). Looking at Henry VI, Part I, Pye argues that the early modern subject is "coterminous" with the unstable discovery of the "economic function itself" (20) embodied in the "demonic return" (14) of the dead on stage. The danger that many economic-centered, materialist accounts of early modern culture attempt to manage is the prospect that exchange or circulation exceeds "any recognizable economy of self-interest" (32). According to Pye, evidence of excess appears in the fascination that the demonic inspires in audiences of the early modern stage.

  4. Turning to witchcraft as an embodiment of the "enforced exclusion that constitutes and ceaselessly de-realizes society" (49), the author links the vanishing of social formation to the sexual contours of subjectivity in chapter two, arguing that the early modern subject is no less a social construct than it is a "function of the insistent failure of society to constitute itself" (49). The strength of this chapter is Pye's reading of the self-portrait in Michelangelo's Last Judgment. As the material remainder of the passage into history, the demonic subject anamorphically figured in the work speaks to the vexed relations among subjectivity, materiality and history.

  5. Chapter five, the shortest of the book, reads like an interesting coda to the complex analysis of the formation of the Renaissance subject. By looking at the early modern wonder cabinet, the chapter shifts focus from the subject to the phenomenological status of the object. For Pye, the partial objects of the wonder cabinet are evidence of the desire for "a supplement to knowledge" (133) even as there was a growing preoccupation with the brute thing-ness of objects during the period. Turning the "closet scene" in Hamlet into a wonder cabinet, the author speculates on the extent to which the object as such - Polonius's corpse - in its singularity, "is a function of the limitless desire for something more" (133). Pye's deft incorporation of various theoretical models is most evident in this chapter, as he links Marx's notion of the residuum or the congealed masses in modern accounts of exchange value to the excess of matter against which a "pre-empirical subject" (16) defines her existence. In Pye's psycho-historical account of the subject and society, this excess is the "pure abstraction of the body politic" (145) and is "a thing, of sorts" (145), a phantasmata that "precipitates from and enables historical society and historical subjectivity" (150).

  6. Pye's central concern throughout this provocative book is that those critics who argue for a socially determined subject must also be as scrupulous in interrogating the existence of society as a social category - "as a given" (7) - as they are in questioning the existence of the subject as a given. While Pye finds common ground with critics who claim that psychoanalytic criticism is a product of the Renaissance, he is interested in the methodology precisely because psychoanalysis encounters its limits in early modernity. This encounter, or more accurately this missed encounter, between the Renaissance and psychoanalysis makes the method "more capable of adumbrating the horizons of a distinctly modern episteme from within" (12). Pye argues that where some practitioners of new historicism are intent on exposing the material and cultural causes of subjectivity, a psychoanalytic approach to early modern texts assumes that these texts stage such "an origin" (11) and stage it "explicitly as a foundational fiction" (11). With Pye's cogent account of subjectivity in texts from authors ranging from Shakespeare to Vesalius and from Michelangelo to Jan Van Eyck and Fra Angelico, the author makes a strong case for an early modern subject-in-process, which comes into view, like psychoanalysis itself in the period, only at "the limit-points of symbolization" (13).

Work Cited


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

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).