Reification and Utopia in As You Like It: Desire and Textuality in the Green World
Power and the Green World
As You Like It, written and performed sometime between 1598 and 1600, pre-dates the plays discussed hitherto and in some ways seems to come from a different world. And yet this genial comedy can be linked with King Lear, and to a lesser extent the other Jacobean tragedies: although this 'most Mozartian' of Shakespeare's plays has long been celebrated for its geniality, a number of critics have also noted—and been puzzled by—the uncannily large number of parallels in structure and themes with what is otherwise its generic opposite, King Lear.1 The resemblance is based on the depiction by both plays of the division of families and the disruption of the polity as a reified power establishes itself at the expense of the customary bonds of traditional culture. Refugees from the disrupted world react through communal solidarity to create a social space as an alternative to that of reified power; in this Utopian space eros functions, however, not as a metonymy-metaphor for reification (as in the earlier plays discussed), but as a social force creative of community (albeit one with disruptive tendencies uneasily contained through the problematic solutions of patriarchal marriage). And as the play develops, this space is itself put under interrogation and suspicion, in an open-ended dialogue with the representations of the real which flit in and out of the text of the play in counterpoint to its Utopian projections....
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The Textuality of the Green World
. . . French post-structuralism . . . modelled itself on language as a self-constituting system in-forming human consciousness, but in some sense itself an alien entity at the heart of a (hence paradoxically divided) selfhood. Whereas Lukács had posited a non-reified society as the historical telos to which post-capitalist society would give birth, we have seen how Althusser, within a milieu greatly influenced by French structuralism, felt that social structures would always contain an unavoidable residuum of reification—just as human thought will always be limited by the enabling structures of language—or as power is an inescapable enabling condition for all possible societies for Foucault. And Adorno, with his own focus on the 'objectivity' of intersubjective cultural artefacts, similarly resisted what he saw as a Romantic dream of unmediated access to the natural in Lukács's vision of a fully postreified world.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare seems to situate himself among those sceptical of the possibility of a complete overcoming of reification, at least of those linguistic and cultural structures which in-form all possible human creations. Shakespeare's critique of the pastoral22 seems to be based in his keen sense of the profligacy of signifiers and their uneasy relation to a realm of signifieds. The Romantic-Lukácsian position—here implicitly identified as a logocentrism—seems to be...
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Desire in Utopia
In the plays examined earlier, the dynamics of instrumentalized or reified power worked to deprive experience of the customary social bonds which libido could permeate to create the pleasures of community—or more chillingly, as we saw in the tragedies, desire was refunctioned into structures of actedout sado-masochism and domination-submission homologous to reified power itself. In Shakespeare, then, the emergence of desire as one of the chief problematics of utopia forms an intertextual dialectic of the Utopian with reification. But desire has its own vectors, independent of that dialectic as well: and discourses of love and desire were of course central to court and related upper-class society. What gets explored in Arden, as in so much of the lyric poetry of Elizabethan culture, are love, sex, and desire, mainly as represented by any number of the literary encodings of these dangerous impulses—literary representations which must have been quasi-ideological codes pre-structuring the experience of love for much of the court, the fashionable world, and who knows how deeply into other of the day's complex social strata. Certainly the play links style in love with social station—a good deal of the comedy depends on incongruities of rustic peasants acting out courtly love codes, codes which in turn had been represented as the discourse of idealized shepherds. Here, however, I want to focus on how desire itself emerges as a permeating theme within...
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The Utopian impulses of As You Like It are not of course confined to this play alone within Shakespeare's works; they are a component of all the green-world comedies (parallels with Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream come immediately to mind); they often, as we saw with Othello and Lear, come briefly into view in the tragedies; and they constitute an in-forming dynamic within all the late tragicomedies.
Shakespeare's category of the Utopian possesses that rare quality of self-relexivity, of an understanding of some of its own limits and weaknesses, that makes it particularly congenial in our own post-illusion, Postmodernist era. It also represents, as I suggested earlier, a way beyond those outworn antinomies of recent Shakespearean criticism, subversion and containment: the Utopian is in effect always already both contained and subversive: relegated to the afterlife, the ideal, to myth, art, folklore, entertainment, and holiday for the most part (it is of course one of the prime contents of the carnivalesque), the Utopian seems to coexist with rather than directly challenge the lacks and frustrations the desire for which had helped create it; and yet by giving expression to what has been repressed, the Utopian creates a space for, and sometimes gives a name to, the ideologically unthinkable, transmitting it as a counter-memory within the reproductions of the social life of the...
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