The Archimedes Palimpsest, now in the
Walter Arts Museum of Baltimore, is a vellum manuscript complete with stains,
tears, which has a forged twentieth-century Byzantine images overlying
thirteenth-century Greek Orthodox liturgies by the monastic scribe Ioannes
Myronas, which partially obscures a fifth-century Greek copy of the philosopher
Archimedes. This unique document, which layers centuries of use and reuse,
writings, erasures, and rewritings, becomes the paragon of the untimely matter
of Jonathan Gil Harris’s erudite and engaging work.
Drawing on numerous theories and scholars,
Harris challenges the fetishizing of the object apparent in end-of-the-century
New Historicist studies: “For a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespearean
scholars, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing” (1).
Harris, while decidedly invested in material culture and cultural materialism,
makes a call for polychronization of the object, studying the time of the thing
and its agency as well as broadening the definitions of material culture and
temporality. Material culture should include some immaterial culture, such as
smells and touch, as well as the blurring boundaries between object and subject,
such as the actor’s physical body.
Most early modern material culture, Harris
asserts, is like the Archimides Palimpsest and can be explored in its three
distinct transtemporal organizations of time: supersession, explosion, and
conjunction. The book is divided into three main sections based on this
partitioning of temporal negotiations. Simply expressed, the initial chapters
on supersession create the thesis, explosion the antithesis, and conjunction
the synthesis of untimely matter.
Supersession works like Myronas’
palimpsesting an ancient manuscript, “preserving, negating, and transcending”
the older materials (15). In the two chapters on supersession, Harris employs
Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung, “capture, cancellation, and
transcendence,” to consider east-west palimpsests which attempt to transcend
the past and the Oriental by insisting on the future and Occidental (35). Harris
ultimately demonstrates that these palimpsested texts create temporal hybrids but
not definite moments of supersession.
Harris uses George Herbert’s The Temple,
especially the difficult “The Church Militant,” as poetry that attempts to
supercede Judaism and the insistence on the material while realizing that
Calvinistic eschatology, with its focus on the spiritual, cannot yet transcend
the material world.
Continuing his discussion of supersession,
Harris deftly creates a chapter that considers the polychronic
intertheatricality of Shakespeare’s appropriations of Oriental characters in
the Second Henriad. In this reading, the versatility of the Lord
Chamberlain’s Men and the actors’ physical bodies supercede the Marlovian
bombast of Tamburlaine and the histrionics of Corpus Christi tyrants in order
to ascend to a more self-conscious acting style. Although Harris’s argument here
is especially compelling, his suggestion that this newer acting style could
have “political applicability” outside of Henry V’s reign is underdeveloped.
In the second section Harris focuses on
explosion, which, like Archimedes’ principles that haunt the Christian text of
Myronas, alters and interrupts the new material as the old material still
asserts its force and agency. In The Survey of London, the spectres of
London’s Judaic past still haunt John Stow’s chorography. Stow (mis)translates
a Hebraic marker into Latin and then the vernacular, positing the movements of
religious and cultural supersession within England, but Stow also describes the
converted sites of Old Jewry and old Catholic monuments while refusing to
record the names of the superceding Protestant works. For Stow, London’s material past is culturally and temporally heterogenous.
In another explosive moment, Harris traces
the olfactory connotations of gunpowder on and off the early modern stage. This
chapter is definitely the closest Harris comes to the older New Historicist
approach as the staged matter challenges the powers of state and church. The
squibs used for the staged storm scenes in Macbeth are conflated with
the audiences’ recent memories of the Gunpowder Plot and King James’ nimble nose
as well as a nostalgia for Catholic “Harrowing of Hell” style plays and the
lack of “smells and bells” in the Anglican church. The stage subverts the
inodorous Anglican Church by recreating the scents associated with Catholicism
and rebellion. The argument is convincing because of Harris’s expansive
theoretical background and his close attention to the personal connection to (im)material
In the final section, Harris contemplates
conjunction, the synthesis of his theory of untimely matter. Conjunction is
the conversation created between the two times and the different materials of
texts, such as finding the commonalities between Christian and Greek
philosophic thought that could link the texts of the Archimedes’ Palimpsest. Conjunction,
however, does not cancel or transcend the untimely matter but allows a blurring
of subject and object.
Harris creates a queer dialogue between
Margaret Cavendish, the seventeenth-century Royalist writer, with Helene
Cixous, the twentieth-century Algerian-French feminist. Both writers find an
affinity between themselves and Cleopatra, herself a much discussed and debated
polychronic body. Furthermore, both women experience matter through tactility
and the sensuousness of “other-love”, unifying, pluralizing, and destabilizing
the boundaries between subject and object, the lover and beloved.
Finally, Harris compares the crumpled handkerchiefs
of two diverse texts: Othello and Michel Serres’s philosophy of
intersecting points of time. In Othello, the handkerchief is always in
the wrong hands at the wrong time, has several conflicting narratives about its
origins and powers, and becomes a subject with its own agency. Returning to the
themes covered in earlier chapters through the handkerchief’s description as
“fetish” or “trifle” creates another system of familiar binaries. The
handkerchief becomes an untimely palimpsest of too many temporalities, crumpling
under its myriad significations.
Harris nimbly weaves together more canonical
theories with queer theory, “thing theory,” and anthropological and scientific
models of thought to create an encyclopedic critique of early modern untimely
matter. The theory never overwhelms the evidence as Harris’s nuanced attention
to the trifles and atoms of material culture balances the heady critical
apparatus. Using canonical texts in such new and engaging ways, Harris
demonstrates that matter is not inert and stable, but fluid, dynamic, and
untimely. This work makes a strong call for now to be the time of reconsidering
other moments of transtemporality in the early modern period.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.