Book Review Ethics: A Transversal Perspective
Inspired by the Case of Rebecca Nesvet
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: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-3/reyntran.html>.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and countless other venues.
 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 : 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.
 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: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revnesb.html>.
 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: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/#papers.
 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).
 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).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).