William Shakespeare

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Word Itself against the Word: Close Reading After Voloshinov

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Word Itself against the Word": Close Reading After Voloshinov

James R. Siemon, Boston University

Every element of form is the product of social interaction.

—V. N. Voloshinov, "Discourse in Life and Discourse in Poetry"

The practice of close reading deserves reconsideration outside the confines of its appropriation by New Criticism and the political agendas to which its foremost American practitioners directed it.1 Provisionally dislodged from its New Critical appropriation and considered according to certain underdeveloped implications of Bakhtinian sociolinguistics, the activity of close reading may yet prove useful to various forms of social analysis while, simultaneously and paradoxically, suggesting a possible alternative to current interpretive modes. Specifically, close reading that investigates the formal elements of texts in the light of socially and historically conjoined "utterances" deserves consideration as a means of pursuing the volatile issue of social-evaluative orientation as defined by the Bakhtin circle.2 Furthermore, a critical practice that would conjoin substantial portions of text with its own critical countertext in a dense encounter modeled on close reading but extending its purview to the noncanonical might offer an alternative to practices that, despite their avowal of "thick description" in principle, often approximate the familiar literary-historical model of critics such as E. M. W. Tillyard in the deployment of minimally contextualized citation and paraphrase. As a practical instance, in the argument that follows I offer a necessarily limited engagement with a nexus of utterances constituted by four textual loci: the famous report of Queen Elizabeth s conversation with William Lambarde in 1601, Shakespeare's Richard II, John Hayward's History of Henry IV, and documents concerning the abortive uprising of the Earl of Essex.

To assume the Bakhtin circle's model of utterance as the basis for analysis is in part to consider certain pragmatic dimensions of any communication, but such considerations are, finally, only components of a more fundamental inquiry into what V. N. Voloshinov calls "evaluative orientation." "No utterance can be put together without value judgment," Voloshinov writes. "Every utterance is above all an evaluative orientation. Therefore, each element in a living utterance not only has a meaning but also a value." In fact, "referential meaning is molded by evaluation; it is evaluation, after all, which determines that a particular referential meaning may enter the purview of speakers."3 This primacy of valuation in determining referential meaning may be seen as at once Marxist and Nietzschean in grounding such evaluation on conflict, on a "constant struggle of accents in each semantic sector of existence."4 Thus, a fundamental constituent of any signifying practice is the product of neither a unitary and stable social "context," since contexts of each utterance "are in a state of constant tension or incessant interaction and conflict," nor of the solitary creative consciousness, as it sometimes appears near to becoming, despite reservations about "completely free combination," in Bakhtin's own more lyrical, phenomenological moments.5 Voloshinov, even in claiming that evaluative orientation "will be the determinative factor in the choice and deployment of the basic elements that bear the meaning of the utterance," insists that the grounds of such choice, like those of all experience, lie wholly on "social territory."6

Despite its crucial importance to any signifying practice, the "evaluative orientation" of the utterance is "least amenable to reification," a volatile "multiaccentuality" which ought to be "closely associated with the problem of multiplicity of meanings."7 For the Bakhtin circle, such volatile phenomena are the very life of everyday discourse. Concrete discourse, as Bakhtin puts it, is populated with devices and deviations resembling those in the most complex verbal art: "We very...

(The entire section is 13,284 words.)