Butler, Foucault, and Caravaggio

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Mon Feb 22 19:26:47 PST 1999

Catherine Driscoll wrote:

> Chuck Grimes writes:
> >It
> >isn't a matter of declines or hierarchies, but constriction and
> >reduction of the means of expression.
> Which is a hierarchical system of judgement.

I'm quite willing to go with the assumption that there is no progress in "art" (19th c. profound or pseudo-profound definition of "art,"), but here Chuck by invoking "means of expression" recalls an earlier and preferable sense of "art" as craft, technique, etc. And it seems fairly obvious that there has been a profound expansion of "means of expression" in the last 5 centuries. Shakesepeare may be a "greater artist" (whatever that means) than Austen, Pound, or Hughie Ledbetter, but if so it's not because of any more extensive or powerful "means of expression."

I refer to a recent discussion on this list of the history of "identity." It is at least arguable that that modern conception only becomes fully and richly imaginable in the later 17th century with Milton's epics. And the sense of isolation as it is dramatized in the work of Ledbetter presupposes that development of the (surreal) concept of the abstract individual, a development not yet complete in Shakespeare. (Probably several *Britannica* size works could be filled with books and essays arguing whether Shakespeare bewailed or celebrated the breaking of hierarchy, but in either case it was only in such breading away from pre-established and given (visible) hierachies (social relations of a certain sort) that Shakespeare and earlier tragedians could imagine isolation. There is nothing before Ledbetter (Leadbelly) that captures (or has the means of expression to capture) what it feels like to be totallly (and deliberately) isolated in a world in which there are no other (visible or nameable) relations than those established by an act of will among "autonomous" individuals.

All in all this matter of ranking poets, musicians, painters is a mug's game. Fun to play (I've just been playing it) but pretty empty. But I can't resist adding: even within the narrow limits of what you might call "western classical bourgeois literature" (which includes earlier literature redefined within bourgeois culture), the period from (roughly) 1870 to 1950 was in every way richer than the Renaissance.


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