Shakespeare in Theory – and Why Computer’s Aren’t As Interesting As They Used to Be


Shakespeare in Theory – and Why Computer’s Aren’t As Interesting As They Used to Be

Shakespeare Wars

or Shakespeare isn’t Anonymous

In light of the fun, interesting, and I think, utterly fictional Anonymous, I thought I would repost this item from my now defunct Future of Information Work blog. Be challenged, but enjoy.

4/7/2008 2:45:59 PM

Shakespeare Wars

I have finally finished Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare Wars. I love Shakespeare, but why include comments on Shakespeare in a blog about the future of work. Of course, as I have often contextualized, play writing, acting, directing, etc. – are forms of work – forms of work I hope will continue into the future and to be appreciated.

But that is not the connection for this entry. Toward the end of the book Rosenbaum talked about the “sea change” in Shakespeare scholarship – moving from what some consider the hyperbole of Theory (as represented by Bloom) and the close reading of scholars like Booth and McDonald. What I saw in this chapter was a connection between the wind theory took out of really understanding and enjoying Shakespeare – and the transformation business has thrust upon the computing industry. Let me elucidate.

In the early days of computing, one took pleasure (the topic of Rosenbaum’s chapter was pleasure) in seeing a computer do something. Programmers, who were the majority of those involved in computer, made the computer do something. They teased activity out of it, much as Shakespearian scholars tease meaning out of his often compact verse.

I love this paragraph in Rosenbaum:

One thing all the diverse theorizing methodologies that took over literary studies like a cult with pretensions to science did was distance, protect one’s self from having to “give in” to pleasure, absorption, immersion, contemplation of the bottomless abyss of the text. Rather the text must be made to “give in” to us, to submit itself to our theoretical constructs, dance (or rather collapse) to our tune. If as the critic Louis Menand once put it, the New Criticism made things cohere too readily, deconstruction made them fall part too perfectly and predictably.

When I read that I saw the computer industry wrapped in the Internet. The bottomlessness of the capability, the possibility, of computing, constrained by business models executable in a networked environment. Every programmer trying to make the next big thing happen on the net – and most of them never feeling, never experiencing, that moment of pleasure when the infinitely malleable device called a computer surprised with its ability to do something we teased from it – something extraordinary – to feel the near visceral excitement of being the first person to make it do something new.

Most people now spend time trying to get the computer to do what others have already done. Even the inventors of new things like Facebook or FourSquare aren’t truly discovering in the way early programmers did. They are all about scale quickly – they bake “ilities” into their business plans. There is little exploration, little risk of reprisal for failure – because failure too is predictable in many ways today – solving the same problems uncovers the same faults.

It has been years since I have talked with a truly innovative programmer trying to figure out how to make a computer do something new. To see his or her own passion – not the passion projected by revenue or a large organization – individual passion for trying to manipulate bits in a way they have never been manipulated before – to make the computer, the experience, bigger than the device, bigger than the memory, bigger than the programmer.

We have given up much of the work to imbue computers with independent reason, to make them autonomous – to make them live outside of our constraints.

When a computer finally gets to the point that it appreciates Shakespeare in its own context, through its own interpretation – I may be impressed again. I may not even understand the interpretation – not because it is gibberish, but because I am not a computer. We need to inspire our programmers again, as new movements in Shakespearian textual exegesis are inspiring a new group of scholars. People are once again permitted to find joy in their Shakespeare – and with cosmology becoming more metaphor than science, I believe cosmologists are also finding joy in teasing the unknown from a universe that just keeps revealing new facts and questions every time we look. And when we look at the body, each new way of driving down into a deeper understanding of its components forces a reevaluation of the macro systems associated with those components. Things we thought we understood no longer hold true.

We have lost that ability in computing. We know and push to the edge of the known, but not beyond. Perhaps the quantum computing researches will save the industry from its myopia (G-d forbid their first assignment isn’t something about matching advertising to eyeballs.)

We are just at the beginning of computing, and already we have forgotten what computers are capable of, and constrain them to what we are capable of imagining in a business context. It’s time we turned our minds loose again to explore the bottomlessness of computing, as Shakespeare scholars seem now unshackled by Theory to explore the bottomlessness of Shakespeare’s language.

2/11/2008 10:44:52 PM

Ron Rosenbaum has created a book I am forcing myself to put down so I can concentrate on it. But through just the first two chapters he brings to life the wonderful exploration of meaning that connecting to literature can bring. He is poetically taken by Peter Brook’s Mid-summer Night’s Dream (some stuff on this production can be found here).

If you want to understand what reading is about, what language should be – what can happen when you find yourself touched in a profound way be words, then read Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars.

One of the best ways to learn, is from a person who understands his or her own learning…

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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