Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare has been sitting on my bookshelves since about 2006, when David Coady, then visiting New York for a study leave, left it behind in my care as he returned to Tasmania (I lie; David’s wife, Diana, included it in a package I was supposed to either mail them or bring with me on my next trip to Australia, and I never did so; so the book is mine now; forgive me, David and Diana). But all that is prelude.

For today, I began reading this purported biography of the Bard, one that aims to make his art comprehensible. (My reading, began, quite naturally, as it does for many New Yorkers, on the subway; in this case, on the Q train, as I headed to Manhattan for some rather mundane chores). As I began, I was struck by the following passage (in reference to Shakespeare’s reworking of sixteenth century morality plays):

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached to not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello.

This is a fine point, nicely put.

First, I like the thought of “the spectacle of human destiny” being “attached” to people; almost as if human beings carried around a stage, a tapestry, of human affairs, fortunes and misfortunes with them, one revelatory of particulars and generalities, capable of telling stories and histories. And each human being, therefore, able to provide a particular perspective on the “spectacle.”

Second, Greenblatt makes us aware of the balancing act that Shakespeare is able to pull off: his characters are realized, indeed, with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”, and yet, are able to convey the generality of the human spectacle. Indeed, Shakespeare is able to draw an exquisite contrast between the “intensely individuated” character and its ability to make us sense and comprehend broader, universal “truths” about us. As the contrast grows between the highly specific, idiosyncratic, unique character, and its simultaneous familiarity, we are entranced by the artist’s genius. He has managed to introduce us to novelty and particularity, to the familiar and the unfamiliar, all at once. And perhaps more to the point, he makes us aware each person is an “eye on the world” one capable of making us see.

Of Prescriptions and Suggestions

I’m a Crossfitter (if you don’t know what that means, Google can help); like most Crossfitters, I do my workouts at a box. And I happen to think my box, Crossfit South Brooklyn, is the raddest, baddest, box on the planet. Reason #53 for why they are so good is that on the home blog, our coaches (the raddest, baddest see where this is going?) frequently post links that make me think a bit more about food, fitness, and sometimes the state of the planet.

Recently, we were presented with two links, each containing articles on the need to ‘scale back’ ego when confronted with the Rx for a workout i.e., the prescribed weight/reps scheme (Do x reps with y weight, for instance). The reasons for such self-effacement in the face of the specifications of a workout are very good, of course: know your limits, don’t injure yourself, get a good workout at a weight or distance or reps scheme that works for you and gets you the intended training effect and so on.

But it seems to me that this sort of reassurance is not going to be very effective when we take a look at the language involved in this affair.

RxD, remember, means “as prescribed.” That is, this is a prescription. This is not a suggestion (no matter how many times we are told by Crossfit coaches that this is “just a suggestion”). This is what we are prescribed. And when we do not do what is prescribed, we fail to abide by it. A prescription carries a normative weight with it: do this, this way. It doesn’t say: do this in some way you’d like. It is hard not to think that in not following the Rx, that one has, in some way or the other, fallen short. And that is precisely why in the context of Crossfit, to do a workout RxD turns into an aspirational ideal; the day you do it is the day you did the “real workout”, the “workout as it was meant to be”; it is not just the day you got to follow someone’s “mere suggestion.”

Crossfitters’ responses to RxD weights and rep schemes reflect their understanding of this notion of prescription. That is why people ask at their box “Who did this RxD?” And that is why people respond, in an admiring tone of voice, “X was the only one who did that WOD RxD“.

When we do not follow a recommendation or suggestion, we are easily and plausibly viewed as exerting a very good choice; when we do not follow a prescription, we can still have very good reasons for doing so (as in when I do not follow certain social or religious prescriptions) but my actions take on a different hue.

So, I think if the Crossfit ‘community’, such as it is, wants to get people to chill out about the Rx for WODs, it might be worth thinking about using language that discards some of the normativity of the Rx, and moves to something that captures a bit more of the intended “do the right thing for yourself within this framework (that of the WOD at hand)” flavor.

Blast From the Past: Asian Dub Foundation Live

A fine example of a dynamic live performance: the Asian Dub Foundation perform ‘Free Satpal Ram’. Deeder looks very young in this, almost child-like, and almost out of place on stage. But the sound is tight and the energy levels are kept high (as ADB always managed).

This video of ADB at London in 2000 captures an even better live performance (because one gets to see how ADB were capable of getting an audience really jacked up; their mosh pits should have been fun), but the sound quality is not so crash hot.

I think what both live performances capture well is the right mix of carefully, just-barely contained, energy of the music and the performer that always threatens to spin out of control. The sense of exhilaration we feel on watching this, is I suspect, grounded in some fear as well: we are fascinated by the possibility of the loss of control and descent into frenzy on stage, and thus, amazed and entranced by the live performer’s mastery in keeping his art and power channeled appropriately.

Nietzsche and Philosophy Discussion

Next week, on Tuesday, November 22nd, I will be conducting a discussion with the Brooklyn College Philosophy Department’s Philosophy Society titled “Without Cruelty There Is No Festival: Nietzsche and Philosophy”. This is the description I sent to our society co-ordinator Justin Steinberg (an amazing Spinoza scholar):

Rarely can there have been a philosopher as readable, controversial, infuriating (and possibly misunderstood) as Nietzsche. He earned little fame in his lifetime, spent the last years of his life insane, but ensured, through his devastating critiques of science, religion, morality and philosophy, a well-deserved and lasting fame as the father of post-modernism, the archest critic of the modern philosophical tradition, and possibly the most radical theorist of all time. His central doctrines of perspectivism, the death of God, the will to power, the OverMan, and the eternal recurrence, still repay close and careful study to unpack their metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications. In this discussion, I will attempt to introduce these doctrines and emphasize the continued relevance of studying Nietzsche.

The motivation for this discussion is to get students interested in a seminar on Nietzsche that I will be teaching in Spring 2012. Last spring, I had conducted a similar discussion on Freud in preparation for this semester’s Philosophy of Psychology class, and while I’m not sure that that discussion helped drum up vital registration for the class to run, it certainly helped me think a bit more about what I wanted to teach in the class, and how to approach its material. I’m hoping something similar will happen with this discussion on Nietzsche.

More fundamentally, I’d like more of our students here to be exposed to a unique philosophical style, and to a writer that sought to obliterate the distinction between form and content. There are many more reasons to study Nietzsche of course; one of them being, quite simply, that he is a very entertaining, thought-provoking read. If I can get any of my discussants next week to go out and start reading Nietzsche, I will consider myself successful.

In a future post, I will try and describe my experiences here at Brooklyn College, leading a faculty study group on Nietzsche.

David Coady on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents

David Coady of the University of Tasmania recently helped launch my latest book, _A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents_, at a party in Melbourne, Australia. At the launch, he made a few opening remarks, which can be read here.

Welcome to EverythingUnder

This is the first post on my new blog. So, hello world. I’ve been blogging for a while now on cricket (yes, cricket, the game, not crickets). Here, I intend to blog on things other than cricket. What that might be will become progressively clearer once I commit myself to actual writing, as opposed to thinking about writing. But I expect there will be posts on books, movies, philosophy, teaching philosophy, the body beautiful and its not-so-beautiful demands, technology, sports; in short, the things that take up most of my time and hence demand attention and occasionally, opinions. I will be setting up the blog over the next couple of weeks, making it useful for myself and for my readers (hope springs eternal); the idea is to find a balance between pimping and Sparta.

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