As we approach the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, scholars from all over the world convened the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (the SAA). Joint senses of monumentality and anticipation pervaded the meeting, not least because I participated in a seminar entitled “Shakespeare’s Sonnets Now,” which focused on history, temporality, and monument-making in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As good Renaissance scholars, we like to think that we mirror our preceding humanist brethren in feeling intimately connected to the past, even as we are aware of the impossibly long years (400, to be precise) that separate us. Yet, we are told we are now post-human; concerns with machines, the digital, animality, biopolitics, adaptation (both Shakespeare’s adaptations of tragic classical women and Latino adaptations of Shakespeare), disability, ecology and conversion, failure and glitches, pervaded the meeting.
Even setting aside the warm and welcoming social environment of the sessions, there were far too many fascinating discussions for me to summarize adequately. So I’ve selected a few themes that threaded through the meeting; my impressions are certainly that, and I welcome additions/corrections from other attendees.
Recurrence, persistence, futurity. Concerns that were everywhere five, ten, or even thirty years ago are still here; or maybe, they have recurred. For example, plenary sessions on biopolitics revived Foucault; and the human relation to the animal—which I remember having a moment five or six years ago—informed both seminar meetings and plenary sessions. It seems that even as we approach a major anniversary commemorating Shakespeare’s death, we continue to make this bard again, to re-embody and re-imagine what is new about Shakespeare studies. This meeting of the SAA was one of firsts and of looking towards the future, as the presidential address by Rebecca Bushnell emphasized: the first plenary of the meeting featured early-career presenters, who are ABD or within 3 years of receiving their doctorate; the first annual social event for scholars of color sanctioned and encouraged the increasing diversity of the field; the Digital Salon showcased projects that seek to provide digital resources for both the current generation and the next of scholars; and Prof. Bushnell announced that the SAA will now make travel bursaries available to contingent faculty, as well as graduate students. On a structural level, the SAA looks towards the future. However, as several papers pointed out, there is still the question of
Access. As Carla della Gatta outlined in her talk during the NextGenPlen (the wonderful format for early-career scholars that I mentioned above, with a perhaps less-than-wonderful name), Shakespeare has been used as a tool of cultural colonization. But Latino Shakespeares (the term della Gatta uses to signal the myriad ways that Shakespeare has been adapted and adopted by Latino audiences, including through bilingual productions where neither the director nor many of the actors speak Spanish) are increasing in popularity and visibility. Della Gatta links this to the changing populations of the United States, pointing out that by 2050, the US will be the third-largest Hispanic/Latino country in the world. Her final line sticks in my brain: “If we do not talk about Latino Shakespeares, we are not talking about American Shakespeares.” Shakespeare remains a colonizing tool in many cases, but the field seems to be shifting in this specific regard.
History and loss. Memorial, presence, absence, futurity, recurrence, separation, failure: the longing for (lost?) history was present in the emphasis on contextualizing the desires of Shakespeare’s Tragic Women, of the incommensurate audience responses to disability on stage (William West), and of Ellen MacKay’s presentation outlining the continued relevance of Giulio Camillo’s theater of memory to the digital age’s anxiety about preserving, storing, and organizing information.* Indeed, history and its loss could just as easily have been slotted under the recurrence tab; we’re all probably familiar with the Renaissance’s anxiety about the meaning of history. Perhaps I mean to say that history itself is a recurrence; as Shakespeare paraphrases Ecclesiastes, “If there be nothing new, but that which is / hath been before,” reading history is the search to know “Whether we are mended, or whether better they / or whether revolution be the same.”
*This video, without explanation, signals the fascinating blend of digital and material that Prof. MacKay (as well as the other speakers at that session, Christopher Warren and Jentery Sayers) outlined. I won’t attempt to replicate MacKay’s compelling argument in its entirety; I’ll simply say that the video attempts what MacKay phrases as a “virtual archaeology of the sense of memory.”
Digital. I almost left out the digital, simply because it was omnipresent throughout the four days of the conference. (As a side note, the official hashtag was #shakeass2015, which I find absolutely delightful.) Yet it would be a mistake to neglect a thing simply because it is common (an argument that could also be made for vernacular literature, amirite??). At the very beginning of this reflection, I mentioned the shift from human to post-human: the human has (rightly) been revealed as an exclusionary category with the potential to oppress, exploit, and degrade. But what struck me at this meeting was the use of this relatively new understanding, and of new tools—such as digital visualization, joint digital and print editions, and databases making the locations of Early Modern London searchable—to advance traditional humanistic modes of inquiry. Notably, the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project mapping Early Modern social relations (presented by Christopher Warren) uses digitally-modelled networks to produce a very humanist knowledge-object that anti-DHers would still value. In other words, digital projects are not abandoning the past, or distancing history, or making learning into the simplified, shiny, substanceless tidbits that undergraduates can easily consume (a clearly overblown accusation that nevertheless haunts efforts of digital humanities scholars [or perhaps I am simply ventriloquizing my own anxieties]): digital projects work to do what I think humanism and its scholars have always done. They/we strive to advance knowledge, and critical thinking about that knowledge; to incorporate the lessons of the past; to make the present and the future inhabitable.
Thus, I’d like to propose a new category: instead of humanist and post-humanist, let us use the terms “early humanist” and “late humanist” to designate the Renaissance and the 21st century, respectively. Because what I took away from #shakeass2015 is the knowledge that even as the papers presented focused on the posthuman, I found this conference to be one of the most human that I’ve attended, in the best possible senses of that word.