Pragmatism, Race, and the Collective Subject in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Sometimes it happens that you unexpectedly discover something in the world that resonates strongly with you, in an immediate and therefore also somehow in an intimate way; something that speaks to you but also feels totally new to you, and that’s part of the difficulty. How can something be both new and familiar at the same time? It might be a place you visit, or a person you meet, or an idea you encounter, or even a whole tradition of writing about ideas and experience. Whatever it is, it illuminates something inside you that you couldn’t see, but now you know it was always there. It’s a part of you, and yet it manifestly isn’t you because it’s out there, in the world, and in some basic sense it has nothing at all to do with you, even though it has everything to do with you. There are different words to describe this experience, which can be terrifying, estranging, and painful but also exciting and renewing. This discovery discloses things to you and propels a new (and newly self-aware) direction for your experience, purposes, and actions.

With Jane Degenhardt I have recently been collaborating on a book about the topic of “world” in Shakespeare’s plays and in Shakespeare’s period, and the project has been animated by a cascade of experiences like the one I describe above, as it grows to include many different artists and writers and many different kinds of problems, including at times strongly divergent ideas between Jane and me about how to define a “world” in the first place. How inclusive or exclusive should a notion of “world” be? For it seems that one can argue strongly that the notion of “world” is inclusive by its very definition, or that it is equally and obviously an exclusionary idea. To conclude (as Jane and I often do) that a “world” is finally always both things at once is not really saying all that much, since the art lies in describing the balance between inclusion and exclusion with reference to any given situation.

Jane and I had not begun the project with Shakespeare, as it happens, but with a contemporary essayist. Like many people we had both read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and paused over its title phrase, which we knew had passed to Coates from Richard Wright, and to Wright from W. E. B. Du Bois, who opens The Souls of Black Folk by famously invoking “the Veil” and a particular kind of question:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I had returned to Du Bois, whom I had first read in college and in graduate school, not only because of Coates’s book, but (more unexpectedly, for me) through a working group at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers on American pragmatism, where I had been exploring the problem of “experience,” specifically in the work of William James and John Dewey. I was a pragmatist, I had discovered, in ways that went beyond intellectual pursuit or research program; I learned that Du Bois had been a pragmatist, too, and that his interest in pragmatic ideas had generated his own work on the problem of race as determinative of a particular history and of a particular experience of being in the world with others.

As Du Bois himself put it in his Autobiography (1968), at Harvard he “became a devoted follower of [William] James at the time he was developing his pragmatic philosophy…it was James with his pragmatism and Albert Bushnell Hart with his research method, that tuned me back from the lovely but sterile land of philosophic speculation, to the social sciences as the field for gathering and interpreting that body of fact which would apply to my program for the Negro…I conceived of applying philosophy to an historical interpretation of race relations.” Since for me this encounter between pragmatism and Du Bois unfolded during our current political and social situation, in which racialized violence and racialized rhetoric has become such a persistent, explicit, and ugly fact, I felt that as a pragmatist, as a citizen, and as a person, I needed to engage far more explicitly with the historical determination of race as an idea, as a practice, and especially as a particular way of thinking about the larger problem of experience.

All of our most important discoveries and life experiences have an accidental quality to them, which means that one can’t always find a clear logic or offer a clear account for why one looks up to find oneself where one is, despite one’s clear understanding—a word I use with all its due weight, complexity, and mystery—that the itinerary one has followed has somehow been the right one. I take this form of experience-that-leads-to-understanding, indeed, to be at the core of the pragmatist project. In a series of lectures that James delivered at the end of 1906 and the beginning of 1907 (at Oxford, but precisely when Du Bois was studying with James at Harvard) he explains that for the pragmatist, “concepts…are things to come back into experience with, things to make us look for differences.” We measure our concepts by experience, and we use concepts to make sense of that experience in turn.

The result is a philosophy that approaches metaphysical questions from the bottom up, through facts, circumstances, sensations, and the values they underwrite. The pragmatist never takes truth for granted; he or she asks howthese truths are achieved, what forces sustain them, to what degree or extent they can be said to be true, or for how long. James invokes Locke, who points out that personal identity is nothing more, and nothing less, than a collection of radically discontinuous experiences that have been recomposed as a continuous thing related to a single perceiving subject. We take this stream of mental and physical experience to be “real” because it is consistent and “fits” together into an identity that serves us well, and often betterthan identities that are foisted upon us from others. The unity that we call our “self,” as provisional and contingent as it may be, has been proven true by the events of our own experience; it allows us to recognize ourselves as ourselves, to hold values and pursue purposes, from the most lofty to the most mundane. James quotes Kierkegaard: “we live forwards, but we understand backwards.”

Now it also happens that I am a Shakespearean by trade, and in order to further my collaborative book on “worlds” with Jane, I had enrolled in a seminar on race and gender in early modern studies at the Folger Shakespeare Library that was directed by Kimberly Coles and Ayanna Thompson. And as I sat in seminar, it occurred to me that James’s account of the “making” of truth and of identity as a pragmatic unity was a good model for how the process of “personation” happens on stage. “Personation” occurs when an actor gradually takes the form of a character who is disclosed to us through events, however partial or complex this “unity” of identity may be. I knew that drama had provided James with an important model for his pragmatic philosophy—he invoked it often. And so, as I contemplated the inter-connected problems of “world,” “experience,” “race,” and “art” in relation to the work of Shakespeare, Du Bois, and Coates, I sketched three premises:

    1. The “between” of “between the world and me”—the “between” world of the veil, or of double-consciousness, of the self-awareness of race and of the oppressive, ever-present brutality of both individual and institutionalized racism—this “between” is nothing less than the concept of experienceitself. “Experience” constitutes the medium of encounter between self and world, or between any entity, human or inhuman, and the forces that constitute the world or “environment,” as Dewey calls it, that surrounds it.
    2. The concept of “experience” is inseparable from the concept of art in general. “Art” operates as a mode of creation and intervention in the world that results in formalized objects in which an experience of the world is reified, made durable and plastic, given new direction and purpose. Through art, worlds are made in which the experience of the world is captured, invented, circulated, and made available to reflection and experience by the self and by others.
    3. If we accept that experience is not a transcendental category but an historical one (even if some experiences would seem to be so common as to be transhistorical), then we can look to the history of art for the history of experience, including the history of specific experiences such as the self-awareness of racism, the interlocking cultural logics that join the very experience of “self” to a race-concept. In this history of art-as-experience, Shakespeare has had a special place, and more and more within the history of art-as-the-experience-of-race-and-racism. As my colleagues in the Folger seminar have eloquently attested with their own scholarship, we can find in Shakespeare’s work clues to our own world’s experience of race, and specifically a pragmatic concept of race that congeals around the body and in this way transforms the most impersonal processes into the most intimate tissue of our lives.

In her essay for this issue, Jane has touched on these problems in relation to Othello, but we can also turn for some valuable insights to The Comedy of Errors, a play that has been the subject of some of the best recent discussions of race in the early modern period. In light of my readings of Du Bois and Coates, I began to follow a new thread of argument: that in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, race makes itself visible as a particular kind of experience—namely, the experience of self-alienation, forced by a confrontation between the way the self perceives itself and the way others perceive it. Errors is an “existential” play, in other words, one in which the “I” becomes aware of an experience in which “I am I, but I am being reacted to by others as though I am something else—something that I do not experience myself to be.” As Antipholus of Syracuse puts it:

Am I in earth, in heaven or in hell?

Sleeping or waking? Mad or well advised?

Known unto these, and to myself disguised? (2.2.215-17)

The “global” force of the play has created excruciating moments of tension between multiple worlds of experience, and this tension has traveled inside the person to become its constitutive feature: a self born of the awareness of a loss of self, of being the Other of the Other.

Contemplating Antipholus, I was also reminded of a paper by Ian Smith that I heard at the Shakespeare Association of America in the spring of 2018. Smith’s paper was on the problem of “whiteness” in Shakespeare and, specifically, on the ways that whiteness disappears into unremarkable invisibility or “withdraws from the scene of race,” as Smith put it. The task for Shakespeareans, Smith urged us, was to bring whiteness back into visibility, to make it remarkableonce again. As Smith concluded: “We must be prepared to say, collaboratively and responsibly, following Frantz Fanon: “Hey look! A white man.” I came to wonder whether Antipholus was experiencing something like this re-mark. Whatever his features or complexion (how “white” is Antipholus?), he is coming to realize that he, too, is a racialized subject and that somehow he is the problem.

As I thought further about the play, I realized that Errors approached the problem of identity by dramatizing two different habits: self-narration, and the verification of experience. Characters are constantly telling stories, looking backward, accumulating events and arranging them in sequences that are sprawling and wildly unlikely and yet somehow also true—these self-accounts are the truest thing in the play. At the same time, however much characters recount their personal experience, their accounts are worth nothing until they have been verified by others. Only then can self-experience cohere into a stable “truth” of person, place, time, action, and relation.

What truths about experience does the play show us? The “self,” as Shakespeare calls it, may find itself subject to the worst circumstances. It may be exposed to arbitrary capital punishment only because of where it lives. It may be threatened with sudden imprisonment by an accosting street officer simply because of the way it looks. It may be displaced by war to wander against its will from one continent to another, a refugee separated from its family and home to the point of madness. It may find that its most familiar, intimate markings—its shades, shapes, and features—sponsor violent blows from others but also their unnatural, exaggerated affections: in a word, their fetishism. And yet in spite of all this, the self can always know itself; it can always recognize, even in moments of radical estrangement from its own experience, that the only possible grounds for its own persistence lies in this experience: in its temperament, its memory and history, in its perception of the world, in the values it holds, and in the accounts it gives of itself.

Musing on the phrase of Coates’s title, Between the World and Me, Jane had begun to place the emphasis on “between:” self and world are founded on alienation and distance, she argued, for the world was an exclusionary formation that concealed its own exclusionary violence behind the very notion of totality that seemed to define it—this totality was illusory, a fantasy of inclusive belonging that always ruptures or tears apart. Coates, Wright, and Du Bois would surely agree, I thought, and yet it also seemed to me, as I weighed the term “world,” that both Du Bois and Coates were using it in a very Shakespearean way. To explain why this is so, one needs to consider the range of meanings for the term “world” in Shakespeare’s work. One of the most prominent is something like a “community of others:” something we might call “society” or “the general public,” to which things are announced or displayed.

I think we can also call it a collective subject: the world takes note of things, has opinions, and passes judgment. “World” names a kind of collective knowledge, collective will, and collective speech. This enormous collective subject is whole—it is “the world”—but it is also strangely indefinite, perhaps because we never know exactly who or what could be a member of it. This indefinite quality seems important to me: it is a form of unity based not in a concept of completeness (and hence on also on alienation or exclusion, or totality, homogeneity, and identity) but rather in a concept of coherence. Coherence is in essence a pragmatic concept founded not on the faculty of reason but on the practical faculty of judgment. Coherence appears and disappears, modulates and changes according to context and to the flux of its constituent parts. Coherence thus also includes a differential element that always remains open to what it does not know, to what is other to it, to what is still to come.

As every memoir-writer or essayist or playwright or friend or lover knows perfectly well, the “self” is itself alwaysalso a world unto itself, even if it stands apart and feels separate. There is never a “world,” in other words, but always a plurality of worlds, existing at different scalesand in some kind of relation to one another—one is never not in a world and never not in relation to other worlds that are equally, albeit provisionally, coherent. If the “world” has the obligation to recognize this coherence, and thus also this openness, about itself—and if the “world” has the obligation to multiply as many accounts of experience as it can, as I believe it does—then the question that remains, it seems to me, is not whether or how the world is exclusionary. The question is rather how large, how extensive, and how various this collective world has been and might become. And if this world is also a collective subject, as Shakespeare believed it to be, then there is a further question as to what actions this world-as-subject might undertake.  Because if such a “world” is real and not just fantasied, then it actuallydoeshave the power to transform itself: to change the intimate world in which each of us find ourselves, and to reinvent the collective world in which each of us finds ourselves together.

Henry Turner is Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His most recent book is The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516-1651 from Chicago University Press.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

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