Critical Subjects

Douglas Bruster
The University of Texas at Austin

Bruster, Douglas. "Critical Subjects." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 9 (January, 2002): 2.1-14 <URL:>.

  1. Our mutual topic, and my remarks here, spring from the fact that, during the last two decades, literary criticism concerned with early modern England has focused on the intensively personal nature of many early modern texts. Such phenomena as the self, selfhood, subjectivity, consciousness, and identity have been increasingly important to critics interested in English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries---in part because they have allowed critics to make connections between literary texts and issues in the culture that surrounds these texts, and in part because the familiarity of these phenomena has appealed to readers in the late twentieth century.

  2. Self, selfhood, subjectivity, consciousness, identity: while we clearly need to distinguish these terms and the historical phenomena they represent, the fact that each has experienced renewed critical emphasis, and is often discussed in relation to one or more of the others, asks us here to ask what they might have in common, especially as it pertains to our research.

  3. In this essay, I have arranged some thoughts about the topic in the form of three observations, and three desiderata. My primary assumption is that those who write on early modern literature and culture can benefit from a greater awareness of the ways in which our analytical habits have been structured by critical traditions, and continue to be shaped by our disciplines. I have expanded on this position in a conclusion to this essay.


  4. (I) We are interested in the past primarily to the extent that it most resembles ourselves, or a version of ourselves in which we have come to (or would like to) believe. Between this interest and our critical writing, however, things can take an ironic turn: pressures of scholarly objectivity and the genre of historicist criticism often lead us to claim that this era, its people, and their texts are radically different from us (as well as from earlier periods).

  5. (II) We are constitutionally reluctant (where we are not unable) to recognize real difference; we are able, and more likely, to recognize similarity with captivating nuances. Because we often use the past to provide what we lack, these nuances tend to be supplemental in nature. Hence critical writing can have more in common with costume drama than we feel comfortable admitting.

  6. (III) This axis of similarity has professional implications. The critical focus on issues of early modern selfhood, subjectivity, and identity is uncannily connected to our professional stature and identity. Many who expand on these issues themselves acquire status in the field: to write about early modern subjectivity can mean claiming professional status as a subject; writing about notorious selves can mean gaining, for one's self, notoriety in the field. One could say that critics tend to benefit from the "aura" of this topic.


  7. (A) We need to learn, develop proficiency in, and deploy the language of these early modern writers and readers, becoming less like tourists and more like resident aliens in their era. By "language" here I mean not just vocabulary (although this is important, and entails scrutiny of the structure of words and their typical interrelations with other terms), but the habits of thought and style connected with thinking and writing about selfhood, subjectivity, and identity in early modern England. The "time machine" of historicism should be less about bringing a Hamlet, Mary Sidney, or John Fletcher forward in time, to serve as a role for our self-fulfillment, and more about taking us back to the early modern era, with all the responsibilities which that journey would entail: learning the various languages, customs, and habits of thought of the time and place.

  8. (B) Part of this proficiency in the "language" of the self, subjectivity, and identity requires a better understanding of the role of textual form in shaping the construction and reception of these topics. This means that we need to read widely in a broader range of texts--including religious works (the Psalms, catechisms, hymns, prayer books, et al.), "popular" literature, legal records, manuscript sources, graffiti, and graphic representations--learning whether, and how, the conventions accruing to representational forms affected these texts' presentation of selfhood, subjectivity, and identity. Too often our claims about history and culture seem actually to be claims about genre and form.

  9. ( C) We need to pay greater attention to the continuities of the self, subjectivity, and identity between what we call the medieval era and the early modern period. No one who reads Dante, Chaucer, Margery Kempe, Boccaccio, or the Pearl Poet, for instance, can comfortably generalize about epistemic disruptions relating to these phenomena. To make more persuasive claims about history and culture, we need to know more about them. This includes an awareness of the possibility that, in terms of selfhood, subjectivity, and identity, an early modern person could have more in common with someone from the medieval era than is commonly acknowledged.


  10. In closing, I would like to address what seems to me one of the more significant hurdles between us and greater knowledge of these subjects. The problem is one of methodology, of how we go about our research. Too often, in studies of a historicist or cultural orientation, we let a limited number of books prompt, shape, and conclude our investigations. That is, we acquire, through our backgrounds as students and teachers, knowledge of a relatively small number of texts. To our credit, we usually read and teach these texts more than once before fashioning a historical or cultural claim based on material we find in them. But, once this claim is hammered out, we use the materials that triggered the claim to demonstrate its truth.

  11. I realize that not everyone will agree with this broad characterization of our research habits, for it is somewhat unflattering. The process I have described is analogous, in form, to begging the question in an argument. Instead of beginning with a topic or subject, and asking ourselves how best to investigate it, we start with the books and authors we know, and use them to shape a story about history and/or culture. For instance, we ask ourselves "How do Shakespeare's sonnets relate to the invention of poetic subjectivity in the English Renaissance?," and turn, for our answer, to these poems we know so well. That is, instead of establishing our topics--subjectivity, identity, et al.--and proceeding to determine the best way to investigate them, we start with interesting books (often, parts of books) and fashion questions that these books seem to answer.

  12. What I am suggesting is that we need to change our approach. To date, most criticism on the questions of subjectivity, selfhood, and identity, has involved a relatively small number of books and authors. Ideally, future studies of these subjects would be written by scholars acquainted with such areas as psychology, philosophy, and the history of religion, as well as with history generally and literary history. Such scholars would define their terms carefully, ask basic questions about the subjects at hand, and tender hypotheses before turning to the widest possible range of texts, from a broad expanse of history, to help verify these hypotheses.

  13. Finally, we would be well served by trying to falsify or disconfirm our propositions through tests and counterinstances. "What would it take for my proposition to be false?" is one of the questions that we need to ask while conducting research. Another useful question is "What texts or circumstances might count against my proposition?" Thus, if we claim that a certain phenomenon first occurs at a particular time, we need to examine carefully texts written before that time, and to account for any material that may call the proposition at hand into question.

  14. It could be the case that, in asking these kinds of questions, we would find (for instance) that Shakespeare's sonnets indeed have a special relation to the representation of subjectivity in literature. However, until our research processes begin to aspire to more objectivity, the narratives of subjectivity, selfhood, and identity we produce will risk having more in common with the literary texts they examine than we realize.

2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(PD 23 January 2002)