Nayar, Pramod K.
"Review of Ellen Spolsky, Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge
in Early Modern Europe." Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September,
2004) 6.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revspol.htm>.
Ellen Spolsky, working with cognitive science, philosophies of knowledge
and iconology, suggests that skepticism and knowledge were two important axes
along which writers-artists as diverse as Caravaggio and Philip Sidney arranged
In her introductory chapter Spolsky outlines the forms of skepticism (Pyrrhonic
and academic/intellectual), and her basic approach - to see how art forms
such as Caravaggio's realism, the tragedy, and the pastoral actually contain
within them important comments on circulating ideas of knowledge. Her basic
argument occurs in chapter 7: "the particular dilemma of the early modern
skeptic, then, is to be caught between the need for and the recognition of
the power of evidence from all the senses, just at the time when the movement
toward religious reform was … declaring them illegitimate, banning and widely
destroying them" (137).
Reading Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Spolsky argues that Coriolanus's
refusal to "exhibit" his wounds is rooted in prevalent systems of
cultural knowledge. Drawing on the figure of Doubting Thomas in Shakespeare's
own time, she shows Coriolanus to be a "failed saviour". Reading
Othello, Spolsky argues that the woman's body becomes the source of
knowledge. Iago, notes Spolsky, generates visual imaginings for Othello. Spolsky
concludes: "Othello is the victim of his own powerful ability to go beyond
simple misinterpretation of visual interpretation" (68).
Spolsky argues that Renaissance erotic pastoral (she takes Tasso, the minor
playwright Lewis Machin, and Longus' Daphnis and Chloe as examples)
was actually an attempt to negotiate the tension between country and city.
Spolsky's virtuoso reading demonstrates how the country was seen as the site
of knowledge - primarily sexual - different in quality from the city's book-learning.
Pastoral art promises rare knowledge and this accounts for its popularity
in the early modern period: "the pastoral genre argues that baring nature
to vision, although it allows sin, can also teach, and not just about sex"
(129). Spolsky looks at numerous visual representations of the Susanna tale,
and notes the significance of Daniel's role in constructing a whole epistemological
model. Pastoral conventions contribute significantly to the way in which Susanna's
body (and that of the old voyeuristic elders and the youthful Daniel) becomes
a space of knowledge organization. Moving on to Dutch landscape art, Spolsky
draws a link between pastoralism, seventeenth-century iconoclasm and skepticism.
She suggests that each of these relies on the viewer's ability to make analogies
through her/his body.
According to Spolsky, in the Arcadia Philip Sidney was attempting
the movement from unknowing to knowing. Sidney, writing when Catholic-Protestant
tensions ran high, offers a 'Protestant utopia' (172), where the sensual and
the erotic image could be used to teach moral behaviour. This argument is
extended to what Spolsky calls "Protestant tragicomedy": Sidney
and other pastoral artists of his time were unable to resolve the paradox
that while images can teach, they cannot always control what they teach.
Spolsky's is a valuable addition to cultural studies of the early modern
period. Her attention to textual evidence, larger "processes" of
historical change, and the resolute interdisciplinarity make this a fascinating
read. Textual readings of Othello or the comic pastoral, for instance,
demonstrate how early modern epistemology informed - and was in turn informed
by - by theological debates, considerations of public good, monarchic and
aristocratic needs and prejudices. Spolsky's work explores the discursive
limits of early modern epistemology and skepticism while locating them in
the historical conditions that constructed these limits.
This historical consciousness makes it puzzling as to why there are, at
least in my reading, three significant omissions in Spolsky. First, there
is almost no discussion of the arrival of printing and its impact on theories
of knowledge in early modern Europe (Elizabeth Eisenstein and Nigel Wheale's
work are crucial here). Spolsky refers to the private "readings"
of Sidney and the massive public spectacles of London shows, but ignores,
for instance, the large increase in printed material available for consumption,
or the changes in literacy patterns. Secondly, in a book on "embodied"
knowledge there is no mention of the increased medicalization of the body
and the emergent notion of the body-politic in early modern Europe (Jonathan
Gil Harris' work is exemplary in its reading of this aspect of early modern
"body politics"). Thirdly, the rise of political arithmetic in the
early modern period marked a significant move in the way the counted/counting
body was viewed. These are useful additional contexts for Spolsky's
otherwise remarkable readings.
In any case, Satisfying Skepticism, with its engaging readings of
theological tracts, literary texts and visual art signifies a large step forward
in our understanding of the early modern period.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.
Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
Wheale, Nigel. Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain,
1590-1660. London: Routledge, 1999.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses
of Social Pathology in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
---------------------------. Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and
Disease in Shakespeare's England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.