Book Review Ethics: A Transversal Perspective Inspired by the Case of Rebecca Nesvet

Bryan Reynolds
University of California

Reynolds, Bryan. "Book Review Ethics: A Transversal Perspective Inspired by the Case of Rebecca Nesvet". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 16.1-10 <URL:>.

  1. I developed transversal poetics, and continue to do so with a number of collaborators, because of the need for theories, methodologies, and aesthetics that are rigorous, conscientious, and adaptable.[1] Rebecca Nesvet's review of Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England grossly misrepresents transversal poetics and the book's arguments.[2] I will discuss this problem shortly. But first I want to comment on Nesvet's disparaging tone -- evident by her presumptuous references to my "intentions" and "excuses" -- that culminates in her comparison of me with the notorious physicist Alan Sokal.

  2. Sokal submitted an article on the sociopolitical value of "important developments in physical science" to Social Text in bad faith, with the deliberate intention of exposing its meaninglessness should the editors prove gullible enough to publish it, which they did.[3] Regarding me, Nesvet writes:
    After reading Becoming Criminal, my first thought was that Reynolds is a brilliant writer, trying to perpetrate a Sokal-style hoax. I really hope this was indeed his intention, because if we seriously validate, practice, and promote his method of making history, we will find ourselves in a world in which reasoning, truth, and responsible historiography are alien.
    Keeping this comparison in mind, I will now look into Nesvet's misunderstanding of my book because it may provide clues to how she came to this criticism.

  3. To begin with, Nesvet neglects to engage with the many arguments I make throughout Becoming Criminal, including those concerning language difference, social space, transvestism, and antitheatricality; and curiously, of the book's five chapters, she does not touch on the arguments of three at all. So, what did Nesvet set out to review?

  4. Nesvet's main criticism is of my suggestion that history is mediated. She finds this idea dangerous because, as she implies in the passage quoted above, she interprets historical fact as absolute reality. I do not deny that events occur, but rather emphasize that the more time, space, and diverse representations of events separate us from them, the more difficult it is to discern absolutely what actually occurred. I think that such a claim is obvious and not at all threatening; more importantly, with regard to the enterprise of Becoming Criminal, it is a purposeful premise from which to begin investigating the diverse representations of criminal culture in early modern England. It allows me, for instance, to discuss both real and imaginary qualities of criminal culture and the difficulty in distinguishing between them in order to give a sophisticated examination of representations of criminal culture in the period without subscribing wholly to either the view that the rogue literature accurately represents the culture or that the literature is primarily fictitious. My emphasis on the roles of mediation and fetishization shows how important representations of criminal culture were and are because they were so abundant and precisely because we cannot tell for certain what is or is not true.

  5. Nesvet claims, "A preface detailing the teenage Reynolds' personal interaction with Italian-American drug dealers and a lengthy digression on the mafia film genre are intended to substantiate [what she thinks is my] approach." The fact is that my discussion is not limited to my personal interaction with Italian-American drug dealers or mafia films, but rather investigates a variety of representations of the Italian-American mafia. Moreover, I explicitly state my intentions, which are strikingly different from those Nesvet attributes to me:
    I have been discussing the Italian-American mafia to illustrate a similarity between the present investigation of early modern England's criminal culture and that of our hypothesized twenty-fourth century scholar that will become apparent as my analysis progresses. Basically, this similarity relates to the fact that some popular "truths" have a profound impact on people without also having much credibility in terms of an academically approved history or a readily substantiated historical reality. If a society believes in a "truth," such as the Christian concept of God, and its members live in accordance with that "truth," then in many respects one could say that that "truth" might as well be fact. A commonly believed "truth" is often this society's "reality," since, as an everyday operative "truth," it informs the lived experience of the society's members. The "truth" becomes another buttress in the society's ideological infrastructure. When the "truth" in question relates to mysterious subject matter, such as the supernatural force of a god, the metaphysics of being, romantic love, or a (less abstract) secret society like the Italian-American mafia or early modern England's criminal culture, the possibility of its material substantiation is diminished and its potential for conceptual influence is increased. In other words, the more amorphous and intangible the subject matter, the easier it is for people in power, which is to say the "authorities," to exploit their subordinates based on what they do not and cannot know about it. (7)
  6. My study is more about representation and how we as scholars and critics engage with it than about attempting to prove whether the culture represented really existed as such. Given this focus, combined with the lack of hard evidence, I remain non-committal about the facts, to which we can never have unmediated access. As I write in Becoming Criminal:
    I am most concerned with the connections between the conceptual influence, social power, and literary-cultural implications of the criminal culture's presence in the popular imagination. The "history" I pursue is that of the relationships between criminal culture's representation, the processes of identity formation and subjectification with which the populace had to cope, and the general circulation of sociopolitical power that made this period in English history so exceptionally innovative and transformational. (8)
    Nesvet laments my perspective, but goes on to wrongly claim that I assert "facts" that do not "hold water." She then says, "the fact that a number of writers agree that something exists does not mean that it does, or ever did." This is a crucial point that I make throughout the book, particularly with the mafia example in the introduction, even though I acknowledge "consistency of representation" as a strong form of evidence (8).

  7. While critiquing me for basing my "discoveries" on "under-evidenced generalisation and outright misinformation" (Nesvet), Nesvet never provides evidence to refute any of my working conclusions about the existence of a criminal culture in early modern England. After all, as I have stated and emphasize in the passage quoted from Becoming Criminal in the following paragraph, our only access to the history in question is through our readings of artifacts, which are primarily textual and questionable because of the genres of literature through which much of the available information comes to us.

  8. As evidence from Becoming Criminal that refutes most of the criticisms Nesvet posits about my methodology and arguments, consider the following passage from page 124, a passage from which Nesvet decontextualizes and quotes some text, using ellipses:
    To be sure, the malleability of "truths" exploited by the criminals, and possibly by those who wrote about them, illuminates the fact that all historiography is necessarily both actual and imaginary. The literary representation of criminal culture is itself a differential space where the actual and the imaginary simultaneously collide and coalesce. In reading this representation, we must take into consideration, if not allow ourselves to be liberated by, the conceptual space made possible by historiography's actual and imaginary elements, especially because it is often difficult, if not impossible, to discern between the two. On the one hand, the abundance of state documents that support the largely uniform depiction of criminal culture presented by the various forms of its literary representation work to carve out actual space within criminal culture's historiography. On the other hand, all of our means of exploring criminal culture are highly mediated, through time, language, and personal bias (ours and that of the chroniclers). Much of the mediation is also through literary texts of genres (plays, ballads, and popular pamphlets) that are, because of their fictive qualities, of questionable historical reliability. This mediation encourages the production of imaginary components of our own study of criminal culture. Just as its early modern chroniclers were forced, and probably capitalized on the opportunity, to extrapolate at times because of their limited access to this exclusive and clandestine culture, historical difference, that is both sociocultural and spatiotemporal, forces us to extrapolate on the available information. Therefore, this analytical tour of early modern England's criminal culture must be, among other things, a transversal venture into differential conceptual spaces.
    It is clear from this passage that I do not argue that "all early modern criminologists agree that a unified criminal culture exists" (Nesvet) and that I challenge this assumption, even though Nesvet claims that "there is no record" in Becoming Criminal of me doing so. Moreover, contrary to her assertion, I am practicing "responsible historiography" (Nesvet) by acknowledging the contingencies and opportunities involved in interpretation.

  9. Nesvet attempts to discredit my reading of the famous Elizabethan Act of 1566 against "Cutpurses or Pyckpurses" by suggesting that the statute may in fact refer to "crypto-Catholics" instead of cutpurses. This is a distinct possibility, but I chose to focus on what appears to be the clearly stated purposes of the statute. I was encouraged do so through reading the work of many historians, from Frank Aydelotte to Ian Archer,[4] who also concluded that the statute refers to cutpurses. Also, many other documents and almost every writer of rogue literature in the period use one of the words in the phrase noted by Nesvet, "Brotherhed or Fraternitie of an Arte or Mysterie," to refer to gangs of cutpurses, sometimes in the subtitles or titles of their tracts, such as John Awdeley's The Fraternitye of Vacabondes (1561).[5] Here is the edict in question:
    Where a certayne kynde of evill disposed persons commonly called Cutpurses or Pyckpurses, but in deede by the Lawes of this Lande very Fellons and Theeves, doo confeder togethers making among thenselves as it were a Brotherhed or Fraternitie of an Arte or Mysterie, to lyve idellye by the secrete Spoyle of the good and true Subjects of this Realme, and aswell at Sermons and Preachings of the Woorde of God, and in places and tyme of doing service and common Prayer in Churches Chappelles Closettes and Oratories, and not only there but also in the Princes Palace House, yea and presence, and at the Places and Courts of Justice, and at the tymes of Mynystracion of the Lawes in the same, and in Fayres Markettes and other Assemblies of People, yea and at the tyme of doing of Execucion of such as ben attaynted of anye Murder Felonye or other crimynall Cause ordeined chieflye for Terrour and Example of evill doers, do without respect or regarde of anye tyme place or person, or anye feare or dreade of God, or any Lawe or Punyshment, under the cloke of Honestie, by their owtwarde Apparell Countenance and Behaviour subtiltie privilye craftelye and felonyously take the Goodes of dyvers good and honest Subjects from their persons by cutting and pycking their Purses and other felonious Slaightes and Devices, to the utter undoing and impoverishment of many: Bee it therefore enacted by the aucthorite of this present Parliament, &c., &c., to the effect that persons convicted of this crime shall be executed as felons without benefit of clergy. (107)
    How we read this 450 year-old statute is subject to many variables, both historical and contemporary. The same could be said of Nesvet's review, especially if readers now or in the future do not have immediate access to the book itself. Nesvet's review seems -- because it is riddled with "under-evidenced generalisation and outright misinformation" (Nesvet) -- to be of a different book, although it is presented as a representation of Becoming Criminal. Fortunately, in the interest of countering "the dangerously institutionalised devaluation of the pursuit of objective historical facts in the study of English and cultural studies" (Nesvet), if anyone desires direct access to the work that she has misrepresented, Becoming Criminal is available at university libraries,, Barnes & Noble, and countless other venues.

  10. Most scholarship is about the subject matter under investigation and its implications for future research and teaching in related fields. Its publication is dependent on the positive recognition of other scholars who are experts in related fields and have been trained within the academic system and are therefore aware of the codes for academic freedom, honesty, responsibility, and professionalism. All research and teaching methods are ideologically informed and, I believe, their practitioners should be held accountable insofar as the results influence society. It is the responsibility of researchers, teachers, and book reviewers to maintain certain standards, especially with regard to academic integrity. Whether well intended or in bad faith, scholarship that makes truth-claims is always subject to revision insofar as today's truths are often tomorrow's fallacies. As our powers of observation increase, as they did with inventions like the telescope, microscope, and satellite cameras, and as new information is revealed through discoveries of lost texts, fossils, and other artifacts, we are reminded again and again of the Protean nature of "facts." More importantly, we are given the opportunity to embrace ideas positively in the interest of learning, evolution, creativity, and pleasure. Such purpose is primary to Becoming Criminal and to transversal poetics in general.


[1] On transversal poetics, see the following works by Bryan Reynolds: "The Devil's House, 'or worse': Transversal Power and Antitheatrical Discourse in Early Modern England" (Theatre Journal 49.2 [1997]: 143-67); Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), 1-22; and Performing Transversally: Reimagining Shakespeare and the Critical Future (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 1-28.

[2] Rebecca Nesvet, "Review of Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 10.1-5 <URL:>.

[3] Alan Sokal's article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," can be found in Social Text 46-47 (1996): 217-52, and on his website:

[4] Frank R. Aydelotte, Elizabethan Rogues and Vagabonds, Oxford Historical and Literary Studies, I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913) and Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[5] John Awdeley, The Fraternitye of Vacabondes (1561), in A. V. Judges ed., The Elizabethan Underworld. A Collection of Tudor and Early Stuart Tracts and Ballads (London: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1930).

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