Jonthan Gil Harris on Early Modern Studies and Time

From Prof. Harris’s essay “Untimely Meditations”:

Once upon a time, Time was all the rage in Shakespeare scholarship. Though Time’s longue durée lasted from approximately 1960 to 1980, its high-water mark was arguably 1964. In that year, Shakespeare Quarterly published no fewer than three essays on Shakespearean Time, including studies of Time in Romeo and Juliet and the Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as an article on “The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.” Also in that year, Inga-Stina Ewbank published her well-known essay on The Winter’s Tale, fittingly entitled “The Triumph of Time.” In the world of Shakespeare criticism, at least, Time had triumphed indeed.

But what — or whose — was this triumphant Time? In her essay, Ewbank argues that The Winter’s Tale probes “what time means and does to man.” Ewbank’s syntax, in making “time” a singular active subject and “man” its passive object, reveals much about her conception of Time, to which she attributes supreme agency “both as Revealer and as Destroyer” (85). There is something tellingly fetishistic about this formulation and its capitalized proper nouns. By endowing Time with anthropomorphic qualities that, in the course of its unilinear march into the future, have utter dominion over “man,” Ewbank hints at even as she elides how we make Time do things — how, in the words of Michel Serres, we are equally “exchangers and brewers of time.” Time “means” and “does” things to us; but for this to be so, we also have to culturally produce (or “brew”) Time as meaningful and active. As a result, Time is always a political animal, even though its politics are (as in Ewbank’s case) disavowed.

The tendency to locate Time entirely outside the sphere of politics may begin to explain its virtual disappearance, during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, from the lexicons of North American new historicist and British cultural materialist criticism. The distinctive topographical metaphors of this criticism — witness its fondness for “sites” or “locations” of diverse cultural practices — worked in any case to privilege space over time. Because both new historicism and cultural materialism sought to trump the universal with the local, Time also became something of an irrelevance if not an embarrassment, a throwback to an age of criticism invested in Ewbank’s every-“man” rather than the cultural and the contingent. Time, in a paradoxical reversal, had become timeless, and so we no longer had time for it.

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