Tropicalismo Fifty Years Later

Christopher Dunn
Tropicália is the name of a cultural moment in late 1960s Brazil that was manifest in nearly all realms of artistic production, especially in popular music, but also the visual arts, theater, film and literature. more

Precariousness and Aesthetics

Benjamin Bateman, Elizabeth Adan
This Colloquy assembles an interdisciplinary group of voices that consider the relationships between aesthetics and precariousness. more

Shakespeare and Cervantes: Then and Now

Roland Greene
An early modern transatlantic world in which information moved slowly could hardly have noticed the date, but 401 years later it registers for us: on April 23, 1616 in the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, about eleven natural days apart, something ended. And perhaps something else began. more


The five words Roland Greene explores in his monograph of that name would seem, at first glance, unremarkable. As he observes, “invention,” “language,” “resistance,” “blood,” and “world” “do not carry obvious ideological marks but instead seem natural, neutral, and quotidian” in the writings of the period.[1] And yet, in his analysis, these “working terms” (14), these “powerful carriers of often ambiguous and contradictory meanings” (7), bear on their shoulders the weight of shifting “worldviews” (14). To theorize and to demonstrate how these five words participate in – and capture – such herculean labors of world-making, Greene matches each one to a different conceit. The figure of the palimpsest, for example, helps him explain the semantic movements of “invention” across time in European language traditions. Greene enlists the pendent, “like keys on a ring or pearls on a string” (53), to perform comparable explanatory work for the meaning of “language”; the cartone for “resistance”; the envelope for “blood”; and, the engine for “world.” Of this other set of five words, Greene writes, “Not by accident, the conceits are drawn from objects that are either aesthetic while observing a public aspect or useful but with a certain beauty” (11). Importantly, “the material culture to which these objects belong” little interests Greene (11). Instead, he says, “Their import here is that they encourage us to imagine the relations among semantic elements in three dimensions and in time: old and new, side by side, one over the other, and so on” (11).


There is an elegance, even a poetic rhythm, to the way Greene describes these five conceits, and, as should now be evident, the methodological decision to pair five words with five conceits appeals to me maybe more than any of the five words. But I am hesitant to let go of material culture, which is the quotidian realm where objects likely accrue figurative energy. For this reason and in the experimental (and additive) spirit of the project of Five Words, I sketch a sixth possible case in which the word and the conceit are inseparable, in which the word (I think) inspires a conceit in early modern English discourse that has quickly become an abiding interest in scholarship on that discourse. This sixth case is plant grafting. To be sure, it is not novel to explore, in 2018, the material practice and figure of grafting in early modern English studies. What I hope proves new is the way that I am framing their relation.


Scholars of (or around) my generation who contribute to the new critical plant studies cannot do without Rebecca Bushnell’s Green Desire, published 15 years ago now, which traced knowledge about grafting procedures in early modern England to classical antecedents and especially to European books of secrets. Conceits in such books – my favorite of which is Giambattista Della Porta’s wild claim that, through grafting, “every Tree may be mutually incorporated into each other”[2]  – “celebrate[],” in Bushnell’s formulation, “the infinite variety of nature and human taste for change.”[3] Since the release of Green Desire, scholars have elaborated its findings in a range of texts, and, dare I say it, we have tended to do so as if following a pattern: typically, we write essays that devote significant space to re-describing for our audience how to graft (the gardener inserts a scion into a cut made into a stock tree in the hope that the conjunction will spur more or better-tasting fruit) before we stitch that technical discussion to an analysis of figures of grafting in a play or poem. I suggest that we adhere to such a pattern, however consciously, not only because our scholarship is materialist in nature (and so we spotlight the hands-in-the-dirt, DIY-aspects of grafting), but also because grafting is imagined as a genuinely marvelous process in early modern English gardening discourse (and so solicits our curiosity, as it once did, I suppose, for the early modern writers of this discourse). Grafting’s capacity for generating wonder[4] may well also be why it proves a powerfully rich hinge word – a word that indeed names the process by which a botanical hinge or joint is fashioned in an orchard or garden – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a historical period during which there was renewed debate about the relation between art and nature[5] and which witnessed the movement into Europe, from the East and the West, of an unprecedented number of new plant specimens.[6]


There are at least three contexts, broadly inspired by Green Desire, in which scholars of early modern English letters have studied grafting. Leah Knight, Jessica Rosenberg, Miriam Jacobson, and I have all explored examples in the first context. In it, conceptual and material links between the gardener’s and the poet’s art become apparent, especially in moments in Shakespeare, Sidney, Marvell, and Wroth where characters meaningfully engraft – in that word’s sense as a form of writing – initials, names, and poems onto tree bark to memorialize a love.[7] Additionally, there is a relationship between such writing and the rhetorical figure of the parenthesis, which, as Jenny C. Mann has shown, George Puttenham links explicitly to grafting in The Art of English Poesy. There, this figure is a sign of surplus: it is an “vnnecessary parcell of speach” that has been “peece[d] or graffe[d] in the middest of your tale” and that can be extracted, effortlessly, “without any detriment to the rest.” And yet, as Mann also details, in Sidney’s hands in The New Arcadia, such “textual grafting” nevertheless proves the “primary” “compositional logic” in which romance episodes are inserted, parenthetically, into one another in a way “that reverse[s] the hierarchies of cause and effect, main plot and intervening episode, and what might also be termed classical source and Renaissance imitation.”[8] Claire Duncan, Erin Ellerbeck, Jennifer Munroe, and Miranda Wilson have explored a second scholarly context for grafting, which concerns the relation between it and human reproductive sexuality.[9] In Ellerbeck’s reading, John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi articulates grafting as “a model for successful, symbiotic, heterosexual relationships.”[10] And yet as Rebecca Bushnell has shown,[11] grafting can also serve as a sign of adultery, which the cuckold’s horns, grafted onto the unwitting husband’s head, vividly emblematize. And yet as Ellerbeck and I have argued, about adoption and queer erotics in Shakespeare,[12] grafting could also be mobilized to do an end-run around the imperatives of heterosexual reproduction. Finally, Jean E. Feerick and Miranda Wilson have explored a third context for grafting, which, according to early modern botanical prescriptions, should mix the wild and the gentle. By such logic, grafting can be employed as shorthand for the “civilizing process” (that’s Wilson’s formulation)[13] and the “mechanisms of conquest and expansion” (that’s Feerick’s).[14] The admixture of sap (or blood) that such grafting makes possible can have a positive valence in these accounts of genealogy, race, and social rank in early modernity, but it need not always do so.


As this overview of the three contexts suggests, scholars of early modern England would seem to have already detected in “grafting” – as both material practice and figure – a “working term,” in the vein of Greene’s five words and conceits. It carries “ambiguous and contradictory meanings” about work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race. I used to think that the logic by which grafting – as both practice and figure – vectored meaning in any one scholarly context was simply dualistic. This may indeed be so, but only very locally, where one scion joins with one different stock. As the philosopher of plants Michael Marder has recently observed, the logic of grafting animal, human, or plant tissue is, in fact, not “a closed either / or totality, but … [instead] a potential infinity of and, and, and …”[15] It is combinatory; its promise is the fantasy of infinite variety. It is the “and so on” that concludes Greene’s own description of how he imagines his project on five words – and their accompanying conceits – to work. As exemplified by the papers gathered in this Colloquy, Greene’s project in critical semantics might extend, perhaps without limit.


[1] Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 5. Further citations will be noted parenthetically.

[2] Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magick (London, 1658), 63.

[3] Rebecca Bushnell, Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 143.

[4] On wonder in grafting, especially in the classical tradition, see Robert Palter, The Duchess of Malfi’s Apricots and Other Literary Fruit (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 643-49.

[5] On gardening’s place in this debate in English poetry, see Bushnell, Green Desire, 91-92.

[6] Such is a premise of scholarship on plants in the history of science: see, for example, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 108, 136, 147, and Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan, ed. Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2.

[7] Vin Nardizzi and Miriam Jacobson, “The Secrets of Grafting in Wroth’s Urania,” in

 Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche

(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 175-94; Leah Knight, Reading Green in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 81-108; and Jessica Rosenberg, “The Point of the Couplet: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie,” ELH 83.1 (2016): 1-41.

[8] Jenny C. Mann, Outlaw Rhetoric: Figuring Vernacular Eloquence in Shakespeare’s England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 97, 93, 102. See also her essay “Nevertheless,” which appeared in Avidly: The Los Angeles Review of Books on 8 February 2017 (

[9] Claire Duncan, “‘Nature’s Bastards’: Grafted Generation in Early Modern England,” Renaissance and Reformation 38.2 (2015): 121-48; Jennifer Munroe, “It’s All about the Gillyvors: Engendering Art and Nature in The Winter’s Tale,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 139-54; Erin Ellerbeck, “‘A Bett’ring of Nature’: Grafting and Embryonic Development in The Duchess of Malfi,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, ed. Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 85-99; and Miranda Wilson, “Bastard Grafts, Crafted Fruits: Shakespeare’s Planted Families,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, 103-17.

[10] Ellerbeck, “‘A Bett’ring of Nature,’” 87.

[11] Bushnell, Green Desire, 148.

[12] Vin Nardizzi, “Shakespeare’s Penknife: Grafting and Seedless Generation in the Procreations Sonnets,” Renaissance and Reformation 32.1 (2009): 83-106, and Erin Ellerbeck, “Adoption and the Language of Horticulture in All’s Well That Ends Well,” Studies in English Literature 51.2 (2011): 305-26.

[13] Wilson, “Bastard Grafts, Crafted Fruit,” 109.

[14] Jean E. Feerick, “The Imperial Graft: Horticulture, Hybridity, and the Art of Mingling Races in Henry V and Cymbeline,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 214.

[15] Michael Marder, Grafts: Writing on Plants (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2016), 15.


Critical semantics shows us “literary history, refracted” (13).  It allows us to “tell a story about a vanished world” and “see the century in five words” (176, 2).  It charts how “luminous usages” have dramatic effects on a word’s semantic history (4).   Greene’s Five Words is replete with gestures towards visual experience, but its role is most explicit in his account of “envelopes,” words that speak to “things people saw with their own eyes, and yet necessarily saw through the eyes of allegory” (111).  When we see one of these envelopes in action, however, the basic stuff of vision escapes sustained attention.  Blood, Greene’s example of an envelope, comes to be seen “as simply itself” in early modern writing (109).  It appears as “a substance, a liquid that has a reality apart from the allegories of religion, history, and medicine” - but what features obtain in that reality apart from allegory (109)? 


Aristotelian scholastics, like Francisco Suarez and Eustachio of St. Paul, maintained that all substances were colored and the existence of that color was not predicated on eyes or minds.  Scholastics, then, might take Greene’s mention of blood’s substance to necessarily imply its redness, but how is it that we can call blood red?  It appears blue beneath flesh.  When it reflects light it seems partly white.  Poets in antiquity were prone to calling its appearance purple.  If blood is red in itself, what is red in itself?  Greene approaches the problem of color’s inconstancy when he cites Morocco’s aim to “prove whose blood is reddest” in The Merchant of Venice (2.1.6-7).  This is taken as an instance where notions of blood are simultaneously “heavy with accumulated meanings and light of real significance” (129).  Color is also evidently meaningful here, but it is not immediately clear how or why.  Color’s meaning hinges on the object to which it attaches, but the object to which it attaches is only ever available, as it were, in color.  Color’s ubiquity invites a certain kind of initial complacency, but as soon as we look closely at it we find, as Sir Thomas Browne did, that what is “most manifest to the senses” is inordinately “obscure to the understanding” (230).


When Galileo challenges the classical and scholastic idea of the world’s inherently colorful nature, telling us that color is naught but an “empty name” for something that “inhere[s] only in the sensitive body,” our common sense notion of visual experience is upended (185).  Color is not, then, a feature of our world, but rather a feature of us.  Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, Grimaldi, and others would worry over what color was with greater nuance over the early modern period, but Newton’s impact is perhaps the most famous.  Building off earlier theories, he renders the quality of color a quantitative matter.  To return to Greene’s example, blood at the beginning of the early modern period is red and merely appears redly by the period’s end.  Entire worldviews are at stake in this distinction.  Deciding on how color has purchase on reality means deciding whether phenomenal experience or scientific abstraction accurately conveys truth.  Despite or perhaps because of the metaphysical problems of color, early modern writing traffics constantly in it across various discursive spheres.     


Setting aside the problems of defining particular colors encountered by early modern lexicographers,[1] color in generic terms could be reliably used as a metonym for the contingency of this temporal plane.  Aemilia Lanyer, for instance, tells us that “gaudy colors soon are spent and gone” (188).  It might equally serve to highlight judgement’s vulnerability to sense experience.  Sor Juana, for example, warns against the “false syllogisms of tint and hue” [falsos silogismos de colores] (59/47).  Yet color can just as easily be metaphorically deployed to convey a particular kind of insight.  “By portraying myself for others,” Montaigne says, “I have portrayed my own self within me in clearer colours than I possessed at first” [Me peignant pour autruy, je me suis peint en moy de couleurs plus nettes que n’estoyent les miennes premieres.] (323/665)  Color helps describe internal and external states alike, but it is not clear that it means anything in itself.  It is instrumentalized to point to the truth of certain things and falsity of others.


Color, in early modern rhetorical terms, meant figurative language.  The colors of rhetoric communicate something more than propositional content.  They show that language can be used non-literally, can speak outside the bounds of truth and falsity.  In Puttenham’s account, poetry’s colorful rhetoric “inueigleth the iudjement” in a way that ordinary speech does not (8).  Actions, no less than words, are called colored when they trouble judgement.  Calvin tells us that the custom of confession ceased because “a certain woman faining that she came to confession, was found so to have colored under that pretence the unhonest companie that she used with a certain Deacon” (fol. 140v).  Color indexes a gap between what seems and what is.  Color’s absence is then noted to close this gap.  The Princess, in Tyler’s translation of Calahorra’s The Mirrour of Princely Deeds, is “not able to colour her affections” (70).  Internal states are made external affairs through the language of color.  Using color in these ways emphasizes that judgment is predicated on sense experience, but we also see that truth sometimes exceeds sense experience or is perverted by it.  


The Blason des Couleurs, a fifteenth-century book frequently translated and published in new editions across the sixteenth century, does not tarry with color as such, but rather tries to fix the significance of particular colors by tying each of them to human qualities (e.g. Violet means loyalty (90)).  It tries to establish an effective semiotics of color and render color experience less contingent upon perceptual experience.  Color could, for the author of the Blason, be coded such that it signified something other than itself.[2]  Rabelais refers to the Blason’s practice of defining color’s meaning the very “practice of tyrants” [l’usance des tyrans] (234/117)  What color means, he tells us, is a result of natural law and does not need scholarly argument.  Merely look around the world, he says, and you will see that black just means mourning (238/123).  Discussions of color again lead to divisive ends.  Whether the features of the world are inherently meaningful or whether that meaning is composed by us is yet another question posed by color. 


Color lead to abstract problems, but it also had practical consequences on early modern life.  Sumptuary laws fixed certain colors to certain social statuses and thus rendered status a perceptual matter.  One could see a courtier chromatically.  Novel hues like indigo from India or cochineal red from Peru meant profit for merchants, exoticism for consumers, and exploitation for the people whose lands were colonized.  Global trade endeavors show that color is in and of itself valuable, but that that value is culturally relative.  At the English Factory in Edo, Japan, Richard Wickham discovers that his clientele crave only what he calls the “saddest cullors” (172).  Over and above what color means is color’s ability to transmit some inchoate feeling or affect that is not necessarily explainable.  Just as defining color in literal terms is a difficult if not impossible project, so too is explaining why it is that color moves us in the ways it does.


This emotive dimension of color is most explicit when the color of skin is at issue.  Lazarillo de Tormes tells us that upon first meeting Zaide, a black man [un hombre moreno] who becomes his stepfather, he was afraid of him because of his color and bad disposition [el color y mal gesto que tenía] (6/113).  Complexion and attitude have equal purchase on judgment.  Zaide’s own son becomes afraid of him when he recognizes that his mother and brother are white (6/113).  The cause of this fear is left unarticulated, thus an emotional reaction to color difference is somehow intended to be intuitively clear to the reader.  The cause of skin color wavers across early modern thought - from conceptions informed by the Bible to one’s informed by climate and geography - but these causal accounts never quite explain why recognizing color difference should have affective force.  When Pierre-Esprit Radisson finds himself captive and naked before a group of Iroquois people, he does not speak their language and assumes that their “laughing and howling” must be related to the color of his skin which “was soe whit in respect of theirs” (118).  Skin color not only causes an affective reaction, but affective reactions are registered in skin color.  Whether one blushed spontaneously or applied blush cosmetically factored into discussions of feminine vice and virtue.  Humoralism looked under the skin by attributing values to the different colors of bile.  Mere color never seems to be taken as simply a quality of things or matter of perception.  Melancholy etymologically means simply black (melas) bile (khole), but more readily stands for a certain kind of sadness. 


The semantics of color change depending on an array of contextual factors.  Its meaning varies as much as our visual experience of it varies.  It can speak to permanence as much as impermanence.  It can highlight authenticity and duplicity at once.  The only consistent feature of color’s usage is that it often goes unnoticed.  It is a feature of writing and the world that is perhaps too ubiquitous.  Color is, as I have outlined above, remarkably well-suited to the work of critical semantics, but it also pushes at its limits.  It continually draws attention to what Greene calls “the physical reality we see with unlettered eyes” (112).  Critical semantics, as Greene notes, is motivated in part by a desire to avoid limiting empirical horizons to literary ones.  Color stubbornly keeps these empirical horizons in mind, but it also asks us to broaden the scope of literary scholarship.   The “unlettered” experiences of oral cultures and blind people as well as the “unlettered” work of textiles and fine art, to note just a few examples, play important roles in grasping how early modern color functioned.  Critical semantics helps us notice and remark upon color’s rather unwieldy discursive role, but my hope is that attending to this semantic integer necessarily pushes us beyond both semantic and historical concerns.  The complexities of color may come to the fore in the early modern period, but they are not limited to it.  Getting a handle on color’s role in early modern writing through critical semantics is, I think, a necessary initial step towards understanding how this seemingly trivial, arguably secondary, and often banal feature of visual experience can play such an integral, subtle, and recalcitrant role in contemporary life.


Works Cited


Anonymous. La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, y de Sus Fortunas y Adversidades.  Edited by Aldo Ruffinatto. Madrid: Castalia, 2001.

Anonymous. Lazarillo de Tormes.  Edited and translated by Ilan Stavans. New York: Norton, 2015.

Browne, Sir Thomas.  Pseudodoxia Epidemica.  In The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne.  Edited by Norman J. Endicott.  New York: Norton, 1972.

Calvin, John. The Institution of Christian Religion. London: Reinolde Wolfe and Richarde Harison, 1561.

De Calahorra, Diego Ortũnez. The mirrour of princely deedes.  Translated by Margaret Tyler.  London: Thomas East, 1578.

De La Cruz, Sor Juana Inés.  “Soneto 145.” In Antología de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Edited by María Luisa Pérez Walker.  Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1993.

---. “Sonnet 145.” In Selected Works.  Translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Norton, 2015.

De Montaigne, Michel.  “On Giving the Lie.”  The Complete Essays.  Translated by M. A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 1993.

---. “Du démentir.” In Les Essais.  Book 2.  Edited by Pierre Villey.  St-Germain: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

Farrington, Anthony, ed.  The English Factory In Japan, 1613-1623. Volume 1. London: British Library, 1991.

Galilei, Galileo. The Essential Galileo. Edited and translated by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008.

Greene, Roland.  Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Labé, Louise. Complete Poetry and Prose: A Bilingual Edition. Edited and translated by Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch.  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Lanyer, Aemilia.  The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeroum.  Edited by Susanne Woods.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rabelais, François. Gargantua.  Edited by Pierre Michel.  Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

---.  Gargantua and Pantagruel.  Translated by M. A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 2006.

Radisson, Pierre-Esprit.  The Collected Writings, Volume 1: The Voyages. Edited by Germaine Warkentin.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

Scaliger, Julius Caesar.  Exercitationes exotericae de subtilitate. Paris, 1557.

Sicille.  Le Blason des Couleurs en Armes, Livrees et Devises.  Edited by Hippolyte Cocheris.  Paris: Auguste Aubry, 1860.




[1] Early modern dictionaries deploy various strategies in order to define colors.  For instance, “Bleu” in Hollyband’s A Dictionary of French and English (1593) is defined as “skie colour.”  Timothy Bright’s Charactery: A Short, Swift, and Secret Writing By Character (1588) tends to define particular colors as simply “colour.” There are also numerous examples of colors being defined in ways that defy our expectations.  “Pink,” for instance,” is “a kind of yellow used in painting” in Phillips’ A New World of English Words (1658).  I have relied on the University of Toronto’s Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) for these definitions.  This tool is available at .

[2] The literary consequences of the Blason can be seen in Louise Labé’s mention of “pages and servants decked out in uniforms with colors representing [their master’s] long-suffering devotion, perseverance, and hope” [pages et laquai habillez de quelque livree representant quelque travail, fermeté, et esperance] (234/117).  Rather than using colors to signify traits, traits could, following the Blason, signify colors.