Here At Rethink, It’s Time To Put Forward a Conspiracy Theory and Demand Blind Obedience: On Steven Greenblatt’s "Writing as Performance"

The remarks below depend on this article – take especial note of the anecdote regarding President Clinton

This is purely a suspicion, but I can’t help but think that Professor Greenblatt is up to something. It looks like he means “performance” in a subversive way, not just an innocent “know your audience” routine.

The case I’m going to outline has no real strength to it. All I can say is that Professor Greenblatt’s talk is suggestive. Take the first example he gives of his own writing: he seems to want to praise a book on the aesthetics of sports while taking into account criticisms of that book. The criticisms are that it fails to take into account the abuses inherent in merely having sports, and that it fails to see why people are really into sports.

So the Professor gives us a story where being able to describe sports well in terms of aesthetics might have been wonderful at one point in his life. Except that to describe sports in such a way would have served as a reflection of the worst fears of his parents’ generation – that of not being accepted at all as an American, maybe not even as human – and also as catering to an institution whose biases perhaps went deeper than anyone could have seen.

The theme of aesthetics being subordinate to considerations of power and morality is evident upon closer inspection all throughout Greenblatt’s essay. He hides this theme, though: he always seems to place aesthetics as the key to what he does only, and presents it as innocent in a way. But it is not an innocence that he allows to judge simply. He does not proclaim a utopian ideal and demand we all fall in line. Rather, he merely presents some considerations writers and readers might want to take seriously when thinking about how art discusses matters of power and morals.

The anecdote with Bill Clinton is telling. Clinton can recite Macbeth and even give an interpretation of it that sends serious thinkers back to the books: for Clinton, the problem with Macbeth is that he loves an “ethically inadequate object.”

Greenblatt unpackages the psychology of the President beautifully: he notes lines Clinton misses, lines about “vaulting ambition” “overleaping itself.” He also takes care to say that Clinton’s comment comes from later thought, thought like Kant’s and Rawls’ – Shakespeare doesn’t even have “ethically adequate objects” for ambition, let alone inadequate ones. Even defending the state doesn’t seem to be something defensible in and of itself.

Greenblatt’s point is simple: the President, in misreading the play, doesn’t see the parallel between himself and Macbeth. The issue isn’t what is ethical or what isn’t, the issue is ambition itself. That alone presents problems which become nightmares for the rest of us.

The talk goes on to skewer German academics for even bringing up the topic of aesthetics. Greenblatt says his opening is “cautious.” It’s only cautious to a pedant who can’t see what might be happening by an American going to Germany and then using an anecdote where the English-speaking world dismissed a concept central to much German philosophizing to open his talk. If you think I’m making too much of the irony, I would say pay attention to how Greenblatt thinks Shakespeare couldn’t have even conceived of aesthetics in the modern way – the word didn’t exist until much later.

Finally, Greenblatt’s sleight of hand – if that indeed is what is happening here – shows up powerfully in his example where he discusses a definition of beauty given by Alberti. The definition, Greenblatt says, has a peculiar quality:

The cunning of this definition is its programmatic refusal of specificity. It is not this or that particular feature that makes something beautiful; rather it is an interrelation of all the parts in a whole. The key qualities are harmony, inherence, economy, and completeness. There is nothing superfluous and nothing wanting. As in Alberti’s fa çade for S. Maria No vella in Florence, which dates from the 1450s, the pleasure derives from the sense of symmetry, balance, and the elegant ratio of the constitutive elements.

The “refusal of specificity” is the key. The talk ends with the Professor discussing The Merchant of Venice in terms so generic that he could be talking about Muslims in the West today or Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages.

So what are the hidden themes of the talk? What’s being said about art and how it comments on society, or should comment on society?

1. For writers: Your work should not focus on the individual solely, but on the wider picture. This comes from the baseball anecdote, where a child can see Ted Williams as godlike, and maybe rightly so. But such a seeing is ultimately very childish if one doesn’t see the darker realities all around. Aesthetics can distract generally from more immediate concerns.

2. For readers: Reading what comes later into the past can be a clever way of reading your own biases into the past. If there is an ethically adequate object, can it be loved too much? Might Macbeth’s tyranny be justifiable in some circumstances?

3. For everyone: The achievement of the artist – what makes him different – is probably that he appreciates difference. In doing this, new singularities that are wholes in themselves are created. (This is my attempt to make sense of the passage on “aesthetic autonomy” and on Alberti’s definition of beauty, and how Shakespeare wouldn’t understand the former and broke with the latter).

I could be nuts, and there’s definitely a lot in my account of Greenblatt’s essay I’m skipping over, but I’m kinda happy with this conspiracy theory.

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