By Invitation

“Introduction” to Shazaya wa Ramad, Nazik al-Malaʾika (1947)

In poetry, as in life, Bernard Shaw’s expression—“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules”—still holds true, and for good reason. Poetry is born from life’s events, and life’s events do not follow any specific rule of organization, nor are life’s objects and feelings arranged according to any particular color scheme. Still, this view does not contradict the tendency to divide poetry into schools and sects such as “Classical,” “Romantic,” “Realist,” “Symbolist,” “Surrealist,” etc., which is common among many literary critics. These divisions do not, after all, represent rules; they are only judgments.

Many might agree with my opinion that Arabic poetry has yet to stand on its own two feet, after a long slumber in which bygone centuries continued to weigh heavily upon it. For the most part, we are still prisoners, held captive by the rules our forebears established in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. We are still gasping for air in our poems, shackling our emotions in the chains of old meters and creaking, dead expressions. No sooner do some of us try to disobey than we are met with the resistance of a thousand jealous protectors of our language, a thousand guardians of the poetic traditions invented by one ancient man who understood what suited his time and whose invention we have since solidified and adopted as custom. It is as though language cannot be safe unless it is frozen in the state in which it existed a thousand years ago, as though poetry cannot be poetry if its metrical feet diverge from the system created by al-Khalil.[1]

Some might ask: what’s wrong with al-Khalil’s method? What’s wrong with the language our ancestors have used for centuries? The response to these questions is beyond the scope of a short introduction to a poetry collection such as this. What’s wrong with al-Khalil’s method, you ask? Hasn’t it grown rusty from the palpations of so many pens and lips over the years? Haven’t our ears grown so accustomed to it, our lips so constantly repeated it, and our pens so thoroughly gnawed at it that they’ve finally spit it out in the end? For centuries, we’ve been describing our emotions using the same style, and now that style no longer has any taste or color. Life has changed; images, colors, and feelings have been turned on their heads, and despite this fact our poetry is still variations on qifa nabki and banat suʿad.[2] If the meters remain, and the rhymes remain, won’t the general idea be the same as well?

Some might ask: what is language? Why is it necessary to give it new horizons? They forget that if language doesn’t keep pace with life, it dies. The reality is that the Arabic language does not yet possess the life-giving strength required to confront the cyclones of fear and fire that fill our souls today. It was once an inspiring language: laughing, weeping, blowing like a storm, moving our hearts. Then generations of specialists embalmed and petrified its expressions, turning them into readymade facsimiles which they distributed to writers and poets without realizing that one poet can do for language what a thousand grammarians and linguists together could never do. The poet, with his sharpened sensibilities and careful linguistic ear, can stretch words to accommodate new and unheard-of meanings. Driven by his artistic sensibility, he might tear up a given rule, not to do harm to language, but to urge it forward. The poet or man of letters, then, is the one in whose hands language develops. As for the grammarian and the linguist, they have nothing to do with it. The grammarian and the linguist have one important duty: to notice things, and to extract general rules from the writers and poets with the sharpest sensibilities.

The man of letters whose sensibilities we will agree to call “sharp,” however, must have a deep cultural education whose roots extend to the innermost core of his native literature, ancient and modern alike, and to some familiarity with the literature of at least one foreign country as well. This education should instill in him such a strong linguistic sensibility that everything he creates will be beautiful and exalted. Whenever he tears up a rule, adds new color to a word, or creates a new expression, we feel it is the best possible innovation, and we begin to treat it as a new “golden rule.”

But the sharp litterateur’s occupation will not be limited to breaking a rule here and adding new meaning there. He will have a more specific responsibility than this—one which the nature of living human languages will impose upon him. He will have to insert a key change into the literary dictionary of his era. He will have to disregard many of the words used in past centuries and create in their place new words that have never been used before,[3] because words grow old in the same way that everything touched by the fingers of use in this ever-changing life grows old. As the years pass, words can take on hardness through repetition and gradually lose their many-branching meanings. They come to have single, fixed meanings that paralyze the writer’s feelings and inhibit his freedom of expression.

There is another important justification for this attempt to distance ourselves from frequently used words and expressions: the human ear is bored by familiar images and repeated sounds. Such repetition can strip words of their vitality and their multiple meanings. For example, we Arab poets now naturally avoid words such as “amber,” “camphor,” “benzoil branch,” “crescent moon,” “lovelocks,” “oud,” “narcissus,” “pearls.” These are words that, in previous eras, seemed refined and poetic. Perhaps at the time they were only used by the most innovative poets.

Throughout my study of contemporary literatures, however, I’ve noticed the following curious thing: that we, in this era, have forgotten the specialized lexical meaning of the word badr (full moon), almost disregarding it completely. In its place, we use the word qamar (moon), and very few contemporary poets use the word badr except in rare instances. I confess that I myself sometimes go to great pains not to use badr, and there is a psychological explanation for this: my peers and I doubtless remember dozens of tone-deaf, distasteful verses left to us by the poets of a bygone era who used the word badr so much they stripped it of its beauty, extinguishing its flame and leaving behind little more than their own shadows.

Perhaps this is what psychologists call “association” (and perhaps they have a different explanation for it),[4] and it has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. The important thing is that words rust and erode; they need to be replaced from time to time. And we have seen that this process of exchanging and replacing is the work of the writer, who carries it out while he is “half-conscious,” because complete consciousness rarely ever yields anything of value.


Let’s return to meter for a moment.

In this collection of poetry, there is a simple kind of “departure” from the customary rules in poems such as “The Woman who Gathers Shadows,” “Let’s Be Friends,” “Elegy for an Unimportant Day,” “Song of the Chasm,” and others. I should say here that I do not count myself among the poets with “sharp sensibilities” about whom I spoke earlier. I simply feel that this new style of ordering al-Khalil’s metrical feet can free the poet’s wings from a thousand restraints. In what follows, I will try to lay out the particularities of this style and why it is preferable to al-Khalil’s style. The following lines belong to the meter that al-Khalil called al-mutaqarib, “the tripping,” which contains only one foot, faʿulun, repeated four times in each hemistich (eight times in each complete line):

            يداك للمس النجوم

            ونسج الغيوم

يداك لجمع الظلال

وتشييد يوتوبيا في الرمال

Your hands touch the stars

weave the mists

Your hands gather dark

build utopia here in the sands.[5]

Now, if I had used the style of al-Khalil, could I have expressed my ideas with such brevity and facility? Certainly not. I would have been forced to complete each line with a second hemistich, thereby fabricating meanings different from and extraneous to what I originally intended, simply to fill up space. Perhaps the first line would have gone like this:

يداك للمس النجوم الوضاء               ونسج الغمائم ملء السماء

Your hands touch the stars shining bright

and weave fabric from clouds in the sky

The two-hemistich line does criminal injustice to the original image. Observe how we added the adjective “bright” (al-wadaʾ) to “stars” without any reason dictated by the meaning, but simply to fill out the first hemistich with its requisite four feet. See also how we replaced the expressive word “mists” (ghuyum) with the heavy synonym “clouds” (ghamaʾim) even though it doesn’t actually mean the same thing. Then there is this needless expression “in the sky” (malʾ al-samaʾ), which we have patched onto the image simply for the meter’s sake. Where our original intent was to create a gentle pause in the line’s music, with this expression we have actually given it crutches!

This is what happens when we work with the mutaqarib meter. If we choose the tawil (“long”) meter, however, the travesty becomes even worse. This meter elongates the crutches and widens the patches, such that the general idea of the line shrivels up and withers away:

يداك للمس النَّجْمِ أو نسج غيمة                      يسيِّرها الإعصار في كل مشرق

Your hands caress a star or weave a cloud,

blown round by tempests every day at dawn.[6]

The reader must notice the stupidity of the expression and the hardening of the image, as well as its distance from our first set of lines:

Your two hands touch the stars

and weave the mist

Your two hands gather dark

build utopia here in the sands.

We must also remember that this new style is not a departure from al-Khalil’s way, but rather a modification of his method, necessitated by the way ideas and styles have developed throughout the ages that separate us from al-Khalil. Al-Khalil made the pattern of the kamill or “perfect” meter run like this:

كفاي ترتعشان أين سكينتي؟             شفتاي تصطخبان أين هدوئي

(متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن)              (متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن)

My hands are trembling, where is my stillness?

My lips are clamoring, where is my silence?

(Mutafaʿilun mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun

Mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun, mutafaʿilun)

The meter is focused on the foot mutafaʿilun, which Arab poets are used to repeating three times in every hemistich. All we will do now is play with the number of feet and their arrangement in each line, such that the poem will sometimes follow the meter and sometimes not. Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem “Walls and Shadows:”

وهناك في الأعماق شيء جامد

حجزت بلادته المساء عن النهار

شيء رهيب بارد

خلف الستار

يدعى جدار

أواه لو هدم الجدار

Something solid lurks there in the deep

and its apathy hides day from night

something frightening and cold

cloaked in veils

called a wall

how I wish it would fall

If we metered these lines, they would run as follows:

متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن

متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن

متفاعلن متفاعلن



متفاعلن متفاعلن

Some/thing /so//lid lurks/ there// in/ the/ deep//               (3 rough anapests)

and/ its/ a//pa/thy /hides// day/ from/ night//                                              (3)

some/thing/ fright//ning/ and/ cold//                                                          (2)

cloaked/ in/ veils//                                                                                      (1)

called/ a/ wall//                                                                                           (1)

how/ I/ wish// it/ would/ fall//                                                                      (2)


The significance of this new model is that it liberates the poet from the tyranny of the two-hemistich line which, with its six fixed feet, forces the poet to cap off his words when the sixth foot arrives, even if the idea he wants to convey could be expressed in four. The new style, by contrast, allows him to stop wherever he wishes.


We must also speak about rhyme, this stone which clogs up every line of poetry composed in traditional prosody. It has been said that Arabic is a broad, rich language, and that this justifies its having been the only language that adopted mono-rhyme as a custom in its poetry. It is easy to forget, however, that no language, no matter how broad or rich, can create an “epic” that rhymes on a single letter, no matter which letter it is. Those who extol the richness of Arabic do not realize that this is one of the reasons why there are no epics in Arabic literature, unlike in the literatures of its neighbors, the Persians and Greeks.

This is not the place to discuss the heavy losses that mono-rhyme has inflicted on Arabic poetry throughout the many eras of the past. What I do want to stress, however, is that this form of rhyme gives the poem a monotonous quality that bores the listener and makes him feel that the poet has overworked his lines in his desperate hunt for rhymes. Mono-rhyme has most certainly strangled many poets’ sensibilities and buried innumerable ideas (maʿani) alive in their hearts. This is because in true poetry, “musicality is special, and Arabic poetry is almost all musical.”[7] Poetry can only be born from the first burst of feeling in the poet’s heart, and this burst is likely to dry up at the first impediment to cross its path, like a dream from which a sleeper quickly wakes. Mono-rhyme has always been this impediment. No sooner has the poet felt the poetic trance-state descend upon him, grabbed his pen, and begun writing some lines, than the fruits of his labor begin to calcify with stilted rhymes. He must divide his mind between the diametrically opposed tasks of expressing his feeling and thinking about rhyme. Soon the trance-state has left him, and its spontaneity is gone. The poet is merely sorting words into lines and arranging rhymes without feeling. This is why, in our ancient literature, we rarely find poems with a single, unifying meaning, or poems dominated by a single expressive atmosphere from beginning to end. The poet is forced to fabricate rhyme, and I know many poets who choose a rhyme first and then write lines in conformity with it—proof that rhyme, this jealous goddess, exercises a tyrannical rule over our work.

Fortunately, our contemporary poets have lessened the power of rhyme and departed from it by using the quatrain and other forms. Such forms of versification have even become widely accepted, for the most part. There is no longer any objection to the rhymes in this poetry collection, for example, though I admit that I have sometimes played with my rhymes more than others. In the poem “Nails,” for example, the rhyme scheme is: ABA BCB CDC DED EFE… etc. In the poem “Ashes,” I have used the quatrain form, making the rhyme scheme ABBA. In “Strangers,” I have used the “stanza” form,[8] so the rhyme in every stanza is as follows: AABBAB. As for the poem “Cholera,” the stanzas in it are slightly longer than custom dictates, and they rhyme as follows: ABBCCBDBEEEE. Elsewhere, I have liberated several poems from rhyme completely, as in “The Train Passed By,” “The End of the Stairs,” “Fairy Tales,” “Walls and Shadows,” and others. In these last poems, I have left the rhymes to repeat as the context dictates, rather than making them conform to a set pattern. Perhaps this is the last step separating this kind of verse from “Blank Verse.”[9] As for the poem “The Angry Wound,” I should point out that its novel way of arranging rhymes is based on the style of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe in his innovative poem “Ulalume.”


I have said that the Arabic language does not yet have the power to give new life, because its writers and its poets have only recently learned how to make the best use of the powers hidden behind words (alfaz). Throughout the many centuries of the “dark,” stagnant period, words were only used to denote their most common meanings (maʿani). This may explain the Arab masses’ strong tendency to reject those poetic schools that rely on the revivifying strength of words—such as Symbolism and Surrealism—believing that these schools overload language with symbols, ineffable emotions, detours of the subconscious, and dreams with hidden meanings. Such things can only be expressed in a language that has reached the pinnacle of its development.

The reality is that the Arab reader flees from Symbolist poetry because when the language is faced with the prospect of expressing such obscure feelings, it resists at first, and it is not strange that it should hesitate. But to explain this situation by saying that the “Arab mind,” in its very nature, flees from symbols and finds no beauty in the tortuous corridors that wind behind the senses, or in hidden worlds that are difficult to apprehend—this is something that I personally do not believe. For the human soul in general is not clear; it is always wrapped in a thousand veils. And it often happens that the self expresses itself in indirect, tortuous ways governed by thousands of half-effaced memories that have lurked in the depths of the rational mind, hidden for years and years. The soul might speak in hundreds of fleeting images that the conscious, rational mind dismisses, but that the hidden mind seizes upon and stows away like buried treasure, along with millions of other passing images it has locked up in hidden rooms. Then, when it senses a lapse in the conscious mind, it releases this treasure in a stream of formless, indistinct images.

These strange feelings are not peculiar to any one person more than another; it is only the ability to express them that differs. A regular person sees them in his dreams. An artist, however, expresses them in both his art and his dreams. It is not strange, for example, to wake up in the middle of the night having dreamed of running barefoot through an old tunnel that was part of a house you used to live in and that we haven’t seen in person for eighteen years. Yet despite not having seen the house in all this time, in the dream you notice the same minute, trivial, half-effaced details that you saw in bygone years—like that crooked old nail in the wall, with the same pale old thread still dangling from it. And there, a few meters up, the water pipe you used to climb as a child. As I said, we do not find these things strange in a dream, so why can’t we accept when a poet describes them in a poem? The true poet is one who observes himself attentively, as though he were monitoring a surging, limitless, bottomless sea. He cannot flee from such faint, faded images, because they follow him always and everywhere, and he must describe them in his poetry. Obscurity is essential to the life of the human soul; we cannot avoid confronting it if we want an art that describes and touches the soul in all its particularity.

And yet obscurity is not an end in itself, but rather one of many forms that life can take. For this reason, it is rare to find a poet who writes exclusively complex, ambiguous verse. As for those who intentionally aim for complexity in their poetry, Aldous Huxley requested forgiveness for them when he said that contemporary writers and artists flee into obscurity in fear of the obviousness that is the fundamental characteristic of popular literature.[10]

In explaining Surrealist and Symbolist forms of expression in this way, I do not aim to say that a portion of the poems in this collection belongs to this or that school. Rather, I want to clear space for the kinds of poems that deal with the states of the hidden self at times, and with the subconscious at others. These are states of mind into which Arabic poetry has ventured only very rarely in its long history, choosing instead to focus on the external behaviors of mankind.

In my poem “The Thread That was Tied to the Cypress Tree,” for example, I tried to paint a poetic image of the feelings and thoughts passing through the mind of a young man who has just heard news of his lover’s death. You will notice that the love story in this poem is secondary to the thread tied to the tree and the afflicted young man’s distraction, in the state of internal chaos that has befallen him. The conflict of the poem is built around the state of mind that descends on a person who hears devastating, tragic, and unexpected news. He is deeply distracted, as though he hasn’t heard the news at all. He looks around, and his eyes fixate on the first trivial thing they see. He is submerged in thinking about it. The trivial thing in this poem is the thread tied to the cypress tree next to the door. The devastated mind is occupied with thinking about this thread, and it continues to be occupied until his conscious mind reawakens and brings home the gravity of the tragedy that has befallen him.

The reader will also not find anything provocative in the poem “The Train Passed By” if he expects to find in it a description of a train or a journey by train. My main intention in writing this poem was to express the vague feelings of a person traveling in the third-class car of a train at night. There is the state of utter exhaustion in which a person finds himself in that situation, mixed with a kind of languor and slackening. There is the monotonous sound of the train wheels that never changes, and the color of the dust that covers everything, suitcases, faces, and clothing. There is the sight of the other travelers, strangers whom the train car has gathered into rows. And the train whistles from time to time, causing strange feelings in the soul. And yet despite all of this, silence fills the train car, as most of the passengers in it sleep sitting up in their seats. And from time to time, a strange and unknown traveler suddenly yawns or asks coldly and distractedly, “What time is it?” or “When do we arrive?” or “Where are we?” or something similar. If the reader of “The Train Passed By” feels something of this environment, that is enough for me.

In the poem “The Viper,” by contrast, I tried to express the occasional, vague feeling that one is being chased by a great, unfathomable power. This power is often an agglomeration of sad memories or regrets, or something we hate about ourselves, or a frightening image we have seen and cannot forget, or the soul with all of its desires and weaknesses and uncertainties, or anything else, depending on the reader. This doesn’t mean that I am describing my own personal “vipers” in the poem; this is a secondary concern. The important thing, rather, is the idea that this viper continually chases after us, and that it is futile to flee, such that we are driven into a “Labyrinth” of thought,[11] that maze which a person enters and finds he cannot leave, so complex are its paths and so numerous its doors, until he begins to use the method of autosuggestion, as I wrote in the poem:

            إنه لن يجيء

            لن يجيء وإن عبر المستحيل

            أبدا لن يجيء

No, it will not come.

It will not come, even if it crosses the impossible

it will never come.

The final result is that the “viper” does indeed come in the end, and we quickly scream out, “It has come!”

In the poem “Fairy Tales,” meanwhile, the reader will find what I feel—and what many other people probably also feel—whenever silence fills a place. When this happens, we begin to hear with the ear of the spirit, and the objects lying motionless around us tell a thousand stories. The fence speaks and revives all of its pale, dead memories, and “stories written on pages torn to shreds by ruin” tell moving tales of times long gone and forgotten. “Dust” and “chairs in ancient rooms” tell of a generation of people who lived among them for a day then moved on into distant, unknown horizons. And so on, such that a sensitive person cannot see anything around him without hearing its murmured, whispered speech.


I believe that Arabic poetry today is at the brink of a decisive, powerful development that will leave nothing of the old styles in its wake. The rules of all of the old meters, rhymes, and schools will be shaken to their core, and language will expand to include new horizons with fuller powers of expression. Poems will delve quickly and directly into the interior of the soul, whereas before they tended to revolve around it at a distance. I say this after having carefully studied the trajectory of our contemporary poetry, and I say it because it is the logical result of our willingness to read European literatures and study the latest theories of philosophy, art, and psychology. The reality of the situation is that those who want to unite modern culture with the traditions of ancient poetry are like those who try to live a contemporary life while wearing the clothing of the first century of Islam. We are facing a choice: either we learn these new theories, allow ourselves to be influenced by them, and implement them for ourselves, or we don’t learn them at all.

We would do well to remember that developments in the arts and humanities across history have almost always grown out of contact between two or more nations. The sensibilities of a specific nation can die out and lie dormant for many centuries as a result of specific circumstances. Subsequently, a vigorous and energetic time comes to wake that nation from its sleep, and it begins to move, bustle, and stir restlessly, staring at the world around it and starting to incorporate the cultures that have come into contact with it. It begins to benefit from the experiences of a nearby nation that remained productive and continued to add new, illuminating chapters to the book of human thought. No sooner has a half century passed than the dormant nation has ended its period of assimilation and begun to pick up where the productive nation left off. It begins to augment the products of its neighbors. This is the way development has always worked in the history of nations, such that no school of thought, invention, or theory pioneered by one nation has not benefitted from the experiences of others.

The last thing I want to say in this introduction is that I deeply and fervently believe in the future of Arabic poetry. I believe that it is pushing forward—with all the strength, inspiration, and possibility embedded in our poets’ hearts—to occupy a prominent place in world literature.

A thousand greetings to the poets of tomorrow.


Translation by Emily Drumsta


[Diacritics available upon request. Editor]

[1] Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi (718-786 CE), an early Arabic lexicographer and philologist who is credited with standardizing Arabic prosody or ʿarud. [Translator’s note]

[2] These are the opening words of two pre-Islamic “hanging odes” or muʿallaqat by Imruʾ al-Qays and Kaʿb ibn Zuhayr, respectively. The odes are some of the most revered poems in the Arabic literary tradition. [Tr.]

[3] The word al-Malaʾika uses for “words” here is alfaz, which can also mean “expressions” or “turns of phrase.” The term (most often paired with maʿna, “mental content,” in Alexander Key’s rendering) is notoriously difficult to translate and has a long history in the Arabic science of rhetoric (ʿilm al-balagha). See Lara Harb, “Form, Content, and the Inimitability of the Qurʾan in ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani’s works,” Middle Eastern Literatures 18, no. 3 (2015): 301-21 and Alexander Key, Language Between God and the Poets: Maʿna in the Eleventh Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), especially Chapter 3. The phrase I have translated as “adding new meaning” is idafat maʿna. [Tr.]

[4] The word “Association” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[5] The lines in Arabic contain a single foot—faʿulun, the base foot of the mutaqarib meter—repeated an irregular number of times in each line: line 1=three feet, line 2=two feet, line 3=three feet, line 4=four feet. I have tried to replicate the foot meter with rough anapests in English. The Arabic lines rhyme AABB. [Tr.]

[6] The tawil or “long” meter is one of the most highly regarded and widely used in classical Arabic poetry (particularly in the pre-Islamic “hanging odes” or muʿallaqat). Unlike the mutaqarib, the tawil meter combines two feet in its pattern as follows: faʿulun mafaʿilun faʿulun mafaʿilun (caesura) faʿulun mafaʿilun faʿulun mafaʿilun. To replicate the social function and centrality of the tawil meter in English, I have used a rough iambic pentameter. [Tr.]

[7] The quote is unattributed in the original. [Tr.]

[8] “Stanza” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[9] “Blank Verse” is written out in Latin characters in the original. [Tr.]

[10] A reference to Aldous Huxley’s essay, “Sincerity in Art,” from the volume On Art and Artists (1960) [Tr.]

[11] Written out in Latin characters in the original [Tr.]


The Medieval Beginnings of Italian Poetry Today

In the fall of 2001, when I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford, I took part in a seminar taught by Sepp [Gumbrecht] and Brigitte Cazelles, entitled “The Medieval Beginnings of Western Poetry.” It was, without a doubt, an event-inducing seminar. At that point, I still thought, ridiculously, that I might want to be a modernist (though it was also around this time that Robert [Harrison] had begun to ask me if I was sure that I didn’t want to work on Dante). This seminar, with its gorgeous intellectual pairing of Sepp and Brigitte, convinced me that medieval studies was in fact the most dynamic, most vital area of study. I remember vividly how exciting it was when I first heard Sepp talk through his notion of an oscillation between presence effects and meaning effects in the early lyric poems we were considering. I remember studying rhyme with a close attention I had never before brought to bear upon a text. That sensation of a discovery, of an event happening just now, right here in the room where we are all seated together, around a suitable table, of course, is one of Sepp’s great gifts.

I think all of us here will agree that there is no adequate way to thank Sepp for his generosity with gifts of this magnitude, so what I’d like to offer now is a small tracing of some ways in which his thought on presence, atmosphere, and mood is reverberating in Italian medieval studies of late. It almost goes without saying that Italian medieval studies has until very recently generally not engaged with notions of presence, atmosphere, and mood. While Occitan scholars like Marisa [Galvez], for instance, are accustomed to working with notions of music, song, orality, and thus thinking necessarily about textual forms as physical realities that envelop bodies, Italian medievalists often claim to work with texts that have always been silent. In a series of interventions over the first decade of the 21st century, Maria Sofia Lannutti has presented a long-overdue critique of the so-called “divorce hypothesis,” according to which the Italian lyric tradition of the 13th century developed in a distinct way compared to other vernacular literatures by virtue of a “divorce” between music and text. It is, she suggests very convincingly, an idea with strongly nationalist 19th-century origins. But somehow, it gained immense traction as it was subsequently taken up by prominent 20th-century Italian literary critics.[1] Thus scholars have long felt free to treat early Italian lyric as silent-reading texts. Only very recently have scholars begun to consider these texts as in any way related to music, oral culture or performance.  There is a massive amount of work still to be done.

One new direction this work has recently been taking in the UK and in Italy is in attention to laude, an early form of paraliturgical religious poetry, set to music and composed in the vernacular. The laude developed in mid-13th-century Tuscany and Umbria out of the praise psalms used in the Morning Office. Considerations of the sung laude force attention to vernacular poetry that is embedded in and indeed arises from devotional practice or performance. The laude cannot be divorced from their lived contexts. But in addition to being an intriguing subject of study in themselves, I wonder if it’s possible for the study of laude to point the way to rethinking our approaches to other early Italian vernacular poetry?

Of course, for Italians, the poet who most divides is Dante. And indeed, there are (at least) two Dantes. There is the popular Dante, who is always performed. From the earliest days of the poem’s existence, there is a folk tradition of non-academics who can recite entire cantos of the Comedy. You can, to this day, find barbers who will recite all of Inferno 26 for you. And the professional Dante scholars squirm slightly. Or think of Roberto Benigni’s performances of Dante, in piazze and on television. 10 million people tuned in to listen to his recitation of Paradiso 33. And most Dante scholars, of course, turned up their noses. Dante scholars aren’t particularly interested, usually, in that fact that there is something about hearing Dante performed that affects even those who don’t understand all the words.

And yet it was perhaps the most famous Dante scholar, Gianfranco Contini, who wrote of Dante’s memorabilità. Why is the poetry particularly memorable? Why did Primo Levi have it so ready to his ear and to his lips, even in Auschwitz?[2] How might the sort of critical tuning to prosody, to the textual dimension of the form of the poem that so particularly touches us, as from the inside, that Sepp proposes, help us to bridge the popular Dante and the scholarly one?

Contini speaks about Dante’s use of ‘figure ritmiche.’ Or, as Ryan Pepin calls it in as yet unpublished work, ‘rhythmic conditions.’ And here, in invoking the ongoing work of very new Dante scholars, I propose a turn to the future, visible perhaps in the newest generation of scholars of medieval poetry. Pepin suggests that taken as a claim about a technique of formulaic diction, Contini comes very close to the assertion that Dante is an oral poet—that is, a poet for whom rhythm and memory or memorability are a compositional site. And this would change utterly how we speak about Dante, and bring to view in the poem a process of rhythmical transformation as the condition of its ‘thought.’ The difficulty of this mode of thinking is that, Pepin claims, “a poetry for which memory is the force of composition affects the grammar of criticism.... Speculation on the poet’s mind with a view to how he intends, or is motivated to re-use, shapes of language, continues because poetry that is spontaneous and unreflective is difficult to write criticism about.” This is pretty radical stuff. And I’m not sure that I have fully come around to a notion of Dante who is spontaneous and unreflective. But Pepin (with Contini) is right that in our practice as Dante scholars, we must also take into consideration rhythm, memory, and memorability, as not simply by-products, or sound-effects, but as constitutive of the poem and how it interacts with us.

It becomes a question of crediting rhythmical units, and the moods they embody, with compositional force, triggering recalls from one site in the text to another, and from one site in the text to certain extra-textual sites in the real world. Why should Dante’s vision of God “sempre dintorno al punto che mi vinse,” reverberate so audibly with “ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse;” the infernal encapsulation of succumbing to lust? The sensation evoked is surrender, recalled here through the very rhythm of the line that draws a certain sensibility with it from its infernal precedent, a sensuality that lingers as a condition of love, both divine and fallen.

Helena Phillips-Robins, in an article published in 2017 and in a forthcoming book, has been examining how Dante, like Boccaccio, sets frameworks of atmosphere for reception and recitation.[3] Dante sometimes does it rather more surreptitiously. But she has argued, for instance, that when Dante embeds bits of Psalms within his poem, these embeddings correspond with liturgical practice of the time that would prompt certain forms of engagement. There are a number of moments in the poem, she suggests, when Dante might expect us to stop reading and to sing a complete psalm. The liturgical fragments embedded in the poem evoke atmospheres of reception that connect to spaces, to music, and to practices outside the text. Through her work on 13th-century Tuscan ordinals, Phillips-Robins has discovered that for a Florentine, the psalm that Dante refers to at the opening of Purgatorio would be the one sung during the Easter procession from the cathedral to the baptistry. So while Dante scholars have long belaboured the meaning of the reference to the psalm as having to do with the allegory of the poem, Phillips-Robins’s work shows how the text evokes lived practice and precise physical spaces and places, like the baptistry of San Giovanni, and the sound and feel of walking that specific distance while singing Psalm 113.

As Sepp notes, this sort of work is always vulnerable to criticisms of the speculative or the subjective. Whether we think about rhythmic evocation of mood as a mode of composition or whether we consider readers of the Comedy as, necessarily, singers, we have in either case strayed far from the safety of silent reading. To conclude, while it’s obvious that I and others who have had the privilege to work directly with Sepp would naturally be attuned to questions of presence and atmosphere, what I find particularly exciting is the way that the next generation, the generation of young scholars that I have the privilege to work with now, is so engaged with these riskful ways of working, seeking out ways of investigating sound or precise details and condition. It is precisely these sorts of risks that can reclaim the vitality of medieval literary studies today and in the future.



[1] See, for example Maria Sofia Lannutti, "Intertestualità, imitazione metrica e melodia nella lirica romanza delle Origini," Medioevo romanzo 32, no. 1 (2008): 3-28.

[2] See Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 2005) pp. 98-103.

[3] Helena Phillips-Robins, “‘Cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce’: Singing and Community in the Commedia,” Italian Studies 71 (2016): 4-20.

What is Semantic Criticism? A Taxonomy Past and Present

The present moment sees a momentum around the project of semantic criticism. As a durable model for literary studies that has refrained from the hegemonic gestures of labels but at the same time has never entirely gone out of fashion, semantic criticism is not so much a coherent program as a set of practices that must be reinvented by every generation. Moreover, it lacks a commonly acknowledged genealogical story: in fact, its history as a method is often seen only through a few models whose relation to recent criticism may be imagined or aspirational more than anything else. In my view, a productive turn toward semantics in criticism depends on our knowing its past and distinguishing among the models provided by Raymond Williams, William Empson, C. S. Lewis, Theodor Adorno, Reinhart Koselleck, Martin Jay, and others. It's not recognized enough that these available models are not only very different from each other but make imperfect guides for future work; they speak to the eras and assumptions for which they were conceived, but the present requires, and we ought to demand, a semantic criticism of our time. In the brief remarks that follow, without the scope to produce a genealogy, I set out a provisional taxonomy with some questions about the method and a conversation with some of the essays in this Colloquy.

As Anston Bosman presciently observed during the session at the 2018 MLA Convention for which this essay originated, this is the age of keywords. Every year brings several new books on keywords: keywords for cultural studies, media and writing studies, Latinx and Asian-American studies, sound, children's literature, and disability studies. There are period-based conferences and projects (nineteenth-century keywords and so on) and at least one international research project on early modern keywords. Among all this exertion, it's seldom recognized that semantic criticism can be more than the study of keywords or how some of the most intriguing models fashion a broader field. There are at least three strands to this work.

One model other than keywords involves what might be called axial reading, or the kind of criticism that ranges deeply or widely in search of semantic information. Reading along what we might call the vertical axis has sometimes been associated with an inimitable, highly personal criticism: thus a deep dive into single words considered more or less in isolation is the project of Empson's idiosyncratic chapters in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), where he grants words such as honest, man, and dog a great deal of autonomy from their historical contexts and from each other. Empson seeks after "feelings" and "statements" in words as well as the factors that condition them, for instance as "moods" color feelings and "implications" affect statements. Instead of what we now consider a historical context, Empson appeals to something more subjective and inchoate: "a poet no doubt is not building an intellectual system; if you like the phrase, he feels the thoughts which are in the air . . . [;] or he is recording a time when his mind was trying out an application of the thoughts, not proving a doctrine about them" (6-7). Few critics would write like this now, because of not what seems an unashamed impressionism but the serious purpose it masks, a single-minded attention to words as compacting meanings on meanings on a vertical axis, as corpses are found one over another in a single grave. Many critics today might find such a project impressively thorough but somehow incomplete; we draw the boundaries of our work differently now. Still, for the sake of a taxonomy, these are bravura demonstrations of close reading by a founding figure of the New Criticism, with words rather than poems as the objects of analysis.

A corresponding instance of reading along the horizontal axis occurs in several projects in the digital humanities that permit browsing of corpora, literary and otherwise and produce line-charts to show usage and sometimes go under the name of culturomics, after a paper in Science that coined the term; most of these projects are founded on the Google Ngram Viewer introduced in 2010, which enables searches of words and phrases in the vast Google Books collection of texts in several languages. The historian Benjamin Schmidt's Bookworm is a prominent example of a platform built on such a viewer to search not only books but newspapers and television scripts. Both the deep and wide varieties of axial reading are necessarily incomplete because of their compromises over representativeness—in the case of Empsonian deep reading, where the reach of the corpus is entirely contingent on one reader's knowledge—and over import, in the case of quantitative surveys that often cannot discern one usage from another, those written and read in obscurity versus those, like the usages of a Shakespeare, that may alter the course of a word's semantic purchase.

A second strand of semantic criticism is at once empirical and philological. The critic notices a semantic feature in the weave of a text and pulls at a loose thread: as C.S. Lewis explains the process in Studies in Words (1960), "the smallest semantic discomfort rouses his suspicions. He notes the key word and watches for its recurrence in other texts. Often they will explain the whole puzzle" (5). At length a structure of meanings becomes legible, and the method the critic applies to elucidating that structure is based in philology. Lewis writes that "the philologist's dream is to diagrammatise all the meanings of a word so as to have a perfect semantic tree of it; every twig traced to its branch, every branch traced back to the trunk" (9). This impulse toward schemes of relation and ramification seems different from the motives of what I was calling axial reading: to mention just one feature, philological reading places a premium on the kind of contextual conditions that maintain every meaning in its place in relation to others, the shape of the tree so to speak. Lewis calls this "the insulating power of the context," and like other philologically inclined critics he is concerned with registering that power as much as with observing any strictly semantic force that inheres in the words themselves. Where Lewis confronts Empson, the differences have to do with what he perceives as Empson's inattention to the ramifications of the word wit even in a single poem, Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. Empson having brilliantly elucidated a dominant, vivid sense of the word in action—wit as the "power to make ingenious (and critical) jokes" (85)—Lewis argues that he has not noticed other senses (for example, wit as ingenium) that are rooted in the history of the language and have their own roles to play in the poem (93). The philological critic inevitably sees axial readings, whether vertical and deep or horizontal and wide, as two-dimensional and therefore, despite their strengths as virtuosic and comprehensive respectively, as fatally incomplete. Among the philological critics I'm drawn especially to Leo Spitzer's Essays in Historical Semantics (1948) and his book on stimmung as examples of empirical observation that conclude in searching contextualization.

The third strand of semantic criticism, of course, is the most famous as well as the one that many readers believe to be the only extant method, as though the axial and philological readings were merely versions of it. This is what I call historicist reading, demonstrated in Raymond Williams' Keywords of 1976, which was first conceived as part of his book Culture and Society, but also seen in different versions in Martin Jay's Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time (1998), Reinhart Koselleck's essays in Begriffsgeschichte (collected in English as The Practice of Conceptual History, 2002), and a few other practices. This kind of reading is concerned with words or concepts that embody historical periods or encode historical change. Keywords—the words or concepts themselves—tend to be self-evidently important in a cultural sense: as Williams puts it, they are, like culture (his original keyword), class, art, industry, and democracy, both "significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation [and] significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought" (15). While few of us could write definitions as rich as those in Williams' book, many readers can bring to these words an idea of their semantic history and contours; we have generally heard them treated as representative in settings other than semantic criticism, and one can imagine treating them as items in an exam for a course on certain periods (industry for the nineteenth century, democracy for the twentieth). Moreover, keywords tend to manifest a sense of mutual relation even before we have fully investigated them. When Williams narrates how his book came about, he observes of culture, class, art, industry, and democracy that "I could feel these five words as a kind of structure. The relations between them became more complex the more I considered them" (13). If the other strands of semantic criticism run the risks of producing analysis that is unrepresentative, indiscriminate, and overly schematic, then historicist reading of the keywords sort faces a danger that is hardly ever acknowledged by the promoters of keywords: that of tautology, or granting substance to a semantic feature or narrative that is implicit in the current usages of the word, in effect staging the analysis as an elaboration of the word itself and telling us what we already know. While Williams generally avoids tautology through feats of interpretive acumen, some of the recent work that derives from his method doesn't fare so well.

What in my work I have called critical semantics stands apart from these three strands of analysis, although it should preserve elements of all of them: the social and cultural significance found in historicist reading, the attention to context indispensable to philological reading, the access to information available through the databases central to horizontal reading, and finally the scope for critical risk-taking that validates vertical reading. This last element, which cannot be supplied by method but must be contributed by each particular critic, drew me toward the adjective "critical" in giving a name to critical semantics. I wanted to name the method I was demonstrating but resist the promotional attitude that appears in names such as the New Philology and the New Formalism.

The most salient difference between critical semantics and what precedes it is in the nature of the objects themselves: I make a distinction between keywords and working words, or the everyday terms that populated my book and that appear here and there throughout semantic criticism. Working words are the ones that people live and think with, as opposed to those that self-consciously represent the age; working words are so multivalent that we don't necessarily see the shape in their semantics, nor do they always seem to tell a common story. They may be rooted in mutually exclusive disciplines, as blood in the sixteenth century belongs to the disappearing context of chivalry, the emerging context of race theory, and two versions of physiology, one obsolescent and one quickened by new discoveries such as circulation. Moreover, where working words are concerned the databases supply us with too many examples. One compares a working word such as Empson's honest or Lewis's simple or my language to a keyword such as nature or human and despairs that an intelligible story may ever be found. (I like Empson's remark about Wordsworth: "there are of course 'key' words like Nature and Imagination, and these may in reality be very puzzling, but he seems to be making a sturdy effort to expound them in discursive language. The apparently flat little word sense has I think a more curious part to play" [289].) Working words are often "flat" or overloaded, unobtrusive or noisy. And they are everywhere.

After the words themselves are identified, critical semantics depends for its unfolding on what I call, following Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1945), a representative anecdote that offers the broad outline of a word's changes. As Burke envisions it, the "calculus" that produces an anecdote "must be supple and complex enough to be representative of the subject-matter it is designed to calculate. It must have scope. Yet it must also possess simplicity, in that it is broadly a reduction of the subject-matter" (60). A semantic anecdote should persuade readers that the critic's account is worth entertaining at least provisionally, while in the self-conscious, provisional quality of its framing it exposes the reading at hand to critique as potentially inadequate in any number of ways. In any case, the anecdote puts the critic's version of the word as a dynamic event into play in a way that some other methods (such as the stratified, dictionary-style definitions sometimes found in keyword projects) often do not. Calling attention to itself as a narrative, the anecdote invites disagreement and courts risk.

And finally, the third element of critical semantics is the provision of a conceit to explain how the senses of a word relate to one another: I choose to envision words according to the physical properties of objects that were invented or widely known contemporaneously with the words themselves, such as in the sixteenth century, the envelope for blood, the palimpsest for invention, and the engine for world. I am not much interested in the material things as such, but only in how they permit us to imagine semantic change as experienced and felt. Once we have understood tongue and language as (what I call) pendents to each other, like keys on a ring or pearls on a string, the idea goes, we might be able to apply that kind of relation to other terms of the period such as troth and truth. If it is assumed that the haptic nature of the conceits carries an explanatory power, this is perhaps an expedient concession to the multifarious character of working words, a way of explaining them in light of the everyday that honors their homeliness and ubiquity.

Considering how prevalent keyword criticism remains, it will seem funny for me to say that I believe it to be a relic of another era. Its survival, I think, rests on an unreflective reduction of semantic criticism to this approach. Of course there is a place for keywords in the genre of reference, where a concise account of conventional views can get a beginner ready to think more boldly (or discreetly refresh the knowledge of a non-beginner). But in criticism, I'm convinced that an attention to working words reflects the tone of the present, when digital databases that show a wide range of usages have the potential to call into doubt the significance and inevitability of any keyword. Some of the most suggestive criticism now, such as Philip Lorenz's book on sovereignty, obliterates the distinction between keywords and working words, these alternative objects, by treating even the most durable keywords as deserving an anecdote that can be modified, augmented, and challenged in usages. Perhaps most urgent to the present is the imperative for the critic to find a voice in which to tell a semantic story that is authoritative but open to change. My experiment in critical semantics is in considerable measure an attempt to summon such a voice for our moment—the age of the Google Ngram Viewer and Wikipedia, in which the critic and her or his readers face the challenge of having access to more information than Empson or Lewis ever imagined.

Five Words is only an experiment, however, and it raises several issues it raises without quite answering them. The papers first presented at the 2018 MLA Convention and now gathered in this Colloquy remind us that there are still other questions, practices, and challenges that go well past what I conceived in that book. Let me conclude by addressing each of the papers briefly in turn.

I admire Debapriya Sarkar's crisp account of how utopian was "an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea." The most insightful gesture of her argument is to suggest how the notion of hypothesis and the hypothetical shadows the semantics of utopian in the period, such that "utopian embodies a hypothetical ontology, a concept of nonexistence." Hypothetical thinking needs a body in which to be represented, Debapriya tells us, and as "utopian" becomes that body, it also becomes ordinary, unspecialized, and finally the everyday word we all recognize. The important questions at the end of Debapriya's paper—e.g. how do words become ordinary?—are already answered in outline, though naturally not in detail, in her paper, which tells a compact story of how a word changes from its inception within the sixteenth century through its emergence in the modern lexicon.

Vin Nardizzi makes a good case for grafting as a semantic node where writing, sexuality, and acculturation come together; he raises the inevitable question as to what conceit would permit us to envision the relation among these fields and their semantic evocation of "work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race." To me his analysis implies that graft may be both the word and the conceit that organizes its meanings—an intriguing example of a semantic event that does what Della Porta says about trees, "every [meaning] mutually incorporated into each other."

Crystal Bartolovich reminds us that words are made not only of meanings but of the standpoints from which they are spoken—she calls them "accents," and gives us the anecdote from a volume of 1660 in which three figures—a wealthy landowner, a country man, and the King—trade perspectives on the word common. In five usages over about 120 words, the word is heard to advance the material interests of the two principal antagonists, the wealthy man and the commoner, until the King steps in to "restore" the word, and the place it names, to what it was before enclosure. Anecdotes like this one are not unusual in the period, of course; there's a memorable one in Deloney's Thomas of Reading (in which King Henry I grants three wishes to the clothiers of England) and other middle-class and craft fictions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But before Crystal offered this example I hadn't developed in my own work an account of how semantics can be the explicit vehicle for the confrontation of class positions, and how the narrative itself can foreground the word—here, common—as the staging-ground of the conflict and its resolution. She is right to draw our renewed attention to words as inflected by the accents of class, gender, region, and other positions in early modern society.

Finally, John Casey explains how the term color, often seemingly empty of meaning in itself, is thoroughly instrumentalized to capture the intersection of internal (that is, mental and experiential) states and external reality; early modern observers see the world as colored, think of their own thoughts in terms of color, and treat the interpretation of the former by the latter as involving a language of color, as in figures of speech that are "colors" of rhetoric. As a working word, then, is color perhaps "too ubiquitous," as John wonders? His implied answer to his own question is that the challenges of understanding a word that can name subjects, objects, and the ground between them are necessary and even urgent to the development of a critical semantics. The very notion of an explanatory conceit in Five Words could be taken to assume that the word in question should be as graspable as an object; what if instead the word defines boundaries, is both everywhere and fugitive at the same time? Further, John argues that that development must involve "push[ing] beyond both semantic and historical concerns," which might mean considering the visual and material arts as well as other fields that were outside my conception of critical semantics. This important paper reminds me that what started as a renovative experiment for literary studies might well end up bringing a semantically aware dimension to other disciplines, not only intellectual history as in the work of Quentin Skinner or Martin Jay but art history, music, or history of science.

My current project, a conceptual study of the Baroque in Europe and the colonial world, begins with a problem for critical semantics: in the seventeenth century, there is no general term for the kind of art that breaks surfaces, courts asymmetry and incommensurability, and exposes its own workings in a gesture of self-contradiction. The term Baroque comes into usage only later. In the seventeenth century, then, what do practitioners and observers call the Baroque? I see this opening question as an occasion not only to apply critical semantics to a perennial subject of literary history but to complicate the movement of Five Words by starting from a semantic absence, finding some of the many words that name the Baroque and envisioning the relation among them. I expect to share some of my discoveries in this Colloquy.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Words from Abroad. " In Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 1:185-99.

Empson, William. The Structure of Complex Words. London: Chatto and Windus, 1951.

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

Jay, Martin. Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

—. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Lorenz, Philip. The Tears of Sovereignty: Perspectives of Power in Renaissance Drama. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, et al. "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books." Science 16 December 2010: 1199644.

Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word "Stimmung." Ed. Anna Granville Hatcher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.

—. Essays in Historical Semantics. New York: Russell and Russell, 1948.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


In this essay, which had its origins in a roundtable at MLA on Roland Greene’s Five Words, I took my task to be fourfold: to consider definitions of the “common” faithful to its history but also useful to confronting impending ecological catastrophe today; to indicate the relation of such a (dialectical) practice of “critical semantics” to Greene’s; to trace the role of geese in the past and ongoing struggle for a truly common world, in which the thriving of nonhuman as well as human creatures matters; to signal that a practice of the common committed to such mutual thriving demands a total transformation of the structurally unequal and unsustainably growth-oriented capitalist way of life that is currently destabilizing the planet for humans and nonhumans alike.


“Stubborn and imperishable, words precede everything”: with this remarkable sentence, Roland Greene opens Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. It is hard to imagine a more unfashionable pronouncement in the academic milieu of the 21st century, awash in the so-called New Materialism with its demand to take account of things beyond human “meanings, habits or projects” (Bennett 4). [1] Greene’s semantic focus declares “Aroint ye!” to the materialists, though he never alludes to them directly. Against the tide of the turn to things, he adamantly insists on the distinctiveness of (human) words—indeed, claims that words “precede everything” and that they have an “imperishable” liveliness of their own. Since, there were, of course, many, many “things” that we humans now conjure up in words (stones, árboles, paanee . . . ) long before there were humans or (their) words—and, too, not only words but whole human (and, possibly, non-human) languages are vanishing from the earth, leaving not a wrack behind, at an astonishing pace in our time of massive cultural and biological extinctions—we would do best not to take Greene’s assertions as linguistic facts, but rather—contextually—as a dialectical retort to thing theory, hardly surprising from a literary scholar, anxious to give the power of words their due. Attentive to this context, I, like Greene, will engage in what he calls a “critical semantics” here, but I will confront human meanings and purposes with challenges to them posed by the Capitalocene.[2] This means that I will not only supplement Greene’s method with materialism, but also trace a longer historical trajectory than Five Words takes up explicitly.[3] More specifically, I will approach the concept of the “common” through one of its concrete historical forms—common land—and, further, consider geese in their creaturely amplitude, beyond figuration, as unsettling dominant human assumptions about what “common” might mean. Common, I will argue, is a site of struggle for planetary conditions of existence conducive to mutual thriving, human and nonhuman.

To follow this thread, I will, as Greene does, begin with an evocative quotation—in this case, a verse that constellates geese, humans and common land:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose.

Widely quoted in the burgeoning literature on the “common” today, this verse is variously described as originating in England anywhere from the 13th to the 19th centuries.[4] No one cites a definite source for it earlier than the 19th century, however, by which time the English agricultural commons, at least, had already been absorbed decisively by advancing capitalist forces of enclosure (privatization).[5] This is a particularly significant moment for the verse to emerge, the context saturating it with a sense that struggles over the “common” more generally persist, even after particular struggles over common land have been lost.

A history of struggle is thus implicit in the 19th century form of the common verse, which would be inflected in its originary moment of circulation by disputes over common rights that were still part of living memory.[6] Struggle is more explicit in the verse’s 17th century precursors, when disputes over common land were very much alive. Before the common verse lines find their way into print (and now the internet) as a rhyme, they had a much longer print history in prose to which no attention has yet been given. The earliest appearance I have traced so far contrasts a greater and lesser theft involving a goose rather awkwardly, but it is notable in its attempt to distinguish “unworthy” lawyers from “the law,” which the rhyme pointedly asserts is unfair in its entirety. Among Nicholas Breton’s “characters” (1616), we find a description of the “unworthy lawyer” as best viewed not as “the fox that stole the goose, but the great fox that stole the farm from the gander” (13-14). By mid-century, a more accomplished tale starts to appear in which the lineaments of the verse as we know it today are evident, not least because the “common” becomes a prominent part of the story:

About this time [1608] a commotion was stirred up by some Commoners against ingrossing their ground; when the King [James I] chanced to be invited in his hunting journey, to dine with Sir Thomas I of Berkshire, and turning short at the corner of a common, happened near to a Country-man, sitting by the heels in the stocks, who cried “Hosanna to his Majesty, which invited him to ask the reason of his restraint; Sir Thomas said, “It was for stealing a goose from the common.” The fellow replied, “I beseech your Majesty be judge, who is the greater thief, I for stealing geese from the common, or his worship for robbing the common from the geese? “By my soul, Sir,” (said the King to Sir Thomas) “I’ll not dine today on your dishes, till you restore the common for the poor to feed their flocks.” Which was forthwith granted to them, and the witty fellow set free, and care soon taken to quiet commotions (Sanderson 312).

After the Restoration, this 1650s version of the story collected by William Sanderson would be recycled several times nearly word for word, with the notable exception that the frame tale about “commotions”—specifically struggles over common land—would be struck off, presumably as too inflammatory when the memory of the civil wars was still raw.

Strikingly, these early versions of the goose commons thematic are decidedly elite. The seventeenth century circulators of the anecdote were all Royalists defending James I in particular and the monarchy in general from disparagement in other historical accounts.[7] Furthermore, they all attempt what we might call a rhetorical enclosure of “commotions” over commons (landed and more general), in order to defend social hierarchy and buttress real fencing of private property on the ground—the opposite gesture to the one that current users assume the common verse supports, putting these two versions in considerable tension. The prose anecdote is also in tension with material processes of enclosure at work in the world in which it circulated, explicitly referenced in Sanderson’s mention of “commotions,” which were often brutally suppressed rather than amicably negotiated; its rhetoric works hard to manage this history.

How so? As reported speech, the anecdote gives the impression of having been recorded as it happens by a silent witness who neutrally mediates the presentation of a supposed actual event involving three other persons, two identified, or at least hinted at, and all carefully localized not only in Berkshire—one of the sites of the Midlands Revolts (1607), to which the incident appears to allude obliquely—but also on common land.[8] The supposed neutrality of the narrator is a pose, of course; the tale, to be sure, demonstrates the “wit” of the “Country Man” but it does so principally so that “the King” can demonstrate his magnanimity. Unlike the rhyme now circulating, the prose tale identifies the King (rather than “the law”) as structuring all social relations and presents this power as benign. To do so, the anecdote first represents the King’s speech in indirect discourse, while the hailing “Hosanna”—“Save now!” (OED)—of the anonymous “Country man”—and the landlord are represented in direct discourse.[9] “Sir Thomas” then speaks for the man in “restraint” who has, presumptuously, addressed the King directly, refusing hierarchical mediation; that is, when the local authority figure attempts to restrain the speech of a subordinate along with his “heels,” the “witty fellow” eludes the restraint by making an appeal to an even higher authority. Thus it is that the speech dynamic is dramatically reversed in the tale’s denouement that silences Sir Thomas as the King and the “witty fellow” engage in a first person exchange that appears to amicably resolve a dispute over the head of the presumptive local authority. Furthermore, the entire transaction is thematized in terms of hunger and its satisfaction, over which the King emerges as protector; he refuses to eat himself until the “flocks” and “the poor” (on “Sir Thomas’s estates, at least) are more favorably situated in the food chain. Through this struggle and resolution in speech, broader struggles are invoked and ideologically (though, of course, not materially) settled. The tale has a strong scent of jestbook about it, the comic mode permitting a triumph to the anonymous peasant, despite his challenge to authority.[10] It also belongs to a long tradition of direct appeals to the Crown by local subjects aggrieved by abuses of local authority. Such ideological sites attempt to secure the King symbolically as sovereign of everyone and everything: not just the nobles and gentry, but peasants, commons and “flocks” too. The “multi-accentuality” (multiple voices) of the prose version of the goose thematic thus intimates a social dynamic that contrasts significantly from that of the rhyme.[11]

In the charged milieu of the mid to late seventeenth century, Royalists conjure up such “evidence” of Crown benevolence in an attempt to restore order and smooth over contradictions—not least that hunting parks, including royal ones, were notorious sites of dispossession—and that the Crown was conspicuously ambivalent about enclosure. Anti-vagrancy legislation blamed displaced victims and decried “depopulation,” thus supporting enclosers with one hand while critiquing them with the other.[12] Most important, the goose tale simplifies a violent history, condensing systemic forces favoring enclosure into one rapacious landlord on whom Royal disapprobation can exercise itself locally and rhetorically while keeping Crown authority—and the ongoing process of enclosure—intact materially. At the same time, the tale reduces the ominous specter of collective resistance to an individual act of theft, one that was itself ambivalent, since goose purloining was very likely to be a crime against the poor, whether from “above” by the greedy landlord who encloses their habitat, or from “below” by a fellow commoner. Without attention to this history, we lose a sense of the magnitude of the struggle necessary to make the common prevail—not only in the sign but also in the world—as well as access to useful knowledge of tactics deployed in the past to keep true commonality at bay.

At the same time, it is also crucial to underscore that these tactics, such as attempted rhetorical enclosure, do not guarantee success. The goose tale, whatever its origins, depends upon the trace of what it would suppress—a linguistic echo of insurgents assaulting real social hierarchies and the property relations that secure them. Fredric Jameson usefully describes such contradictory representation as the “dialectic of utopia and ideology.” This dialectic suggests that rhetorical moves to enclose what “common” could mean—as a concept and as a way of life—include challenges whose force enclosure seeks to weaken. Two residual insurgencies imminent to it render the prose tale especially apt for translation into the verse form (or to serve as a symptom of such translation, if the verse already existed in oral tradition). When the “witty fellow” is depicted as augmenting Sir Thomas’s mention of one stolen “goose” to plural “geese” (“I for stealing geese from the common, or his worship for robbing the common from the geese”), he not only (re)asserts collectivity, but also gestures toward potential collective struggles of oppressed humans alongside oppressed non-humans, both of whom have been excluded from the common, opening the way for a vision of a common that can neither be owned nor be human alone. A critical semantics of the common, through a careful accounting of the historical complexities of pasts and present conditions of existence in their totality, as inhabited by humans and nonhumans alike, must be attentive to challenges to these conditions that bring pasts alive to new insurgencies, as I attempt here, until the yet unimaginable true common—a site of planetary thriving for all—is achieved. This does not mean the task is easy.

Expanding serious attention to the non-human as we consider the common unsettles human assumptions, Right and Left alike. When we release “geese” from containment within human meanings and purposes, we must recognize—even though the goose verse when it circulates on the Left today does not foreground this—that geese were not set by humans on the common to enjoy long protected lives in splendid geese-ness.[13] A pre-modern commons was not a bird sanctuary. Recipes for goose pie, roasts and other dishes abound in pre-modern cookery books, as does evidence that goose feathers found their way not only into pre-modern pillows but, importantly, served as quills for writing; numerous tomes also recommend “goose greace” for myriad human uses, culinary, medicinal, agricultural and artisanal.[14] Pre-moderns, in other words, raised geese for their meat, fat and feathers, the latter sometimes removed by thrifty housewives and husbandmen while the geese were still alive to get multiple pluckings from each bird—a practice that animal activists (rightly) decry when it happens today (as it still does).[15] Some early husbandry manuals suggest twice a year plucking, and note matter-of-factly: “Some use to clippe them, but then theyr feathers neuer growe so well: but yf you pull them, you shall haue them to come very fayre agayne” (Heresbach 164v). Heresbach not only favors live plucking, but also describes premodern practices of forced feeding that almost make modern practices sound benign. There were (what would now be counted) horrors in pre-modern husbandry as well as in modern factory farms, where not only live plucking, but force feeding for foie gras persists.[16] On the other hand, the important role of geese in “mixed husbandry” seems clear: they have been (and are) used for garden weeding and meadow maintenance, for example.[17] The point here is that the complexity of the issues involved cannot be skirted over by deployment of the rhyme with its vaguely early modern allusiveness as if this were an argument for a “return” to pre-modern practices (even if that were possible), or as if a human-nonhuman common could be easily achieved in any century.[18]

If pre-modern human treatment of geese cannot in itself serve as a guide for us today, goose resistance to capitalist industrial agriculture proves more promisingly instructive. Chickens now account for 93% of the total poultry eaten by humans worldwide; geese less than 3%. It was not always so. Before the demise of the commons, and the rise of capitalist industrial agriculture, the husbandry of chicken and geese was far less lopsided, which might sound great for geese, but since factory farms in which chickens are now incarcerated, as well as the factory farms needed to grow their feed, demand massive amounts of land and other resources, it actually is not: geese habitat—and that of many other creatures besides—is negatively impacted by chicken farming. Capitalist factory farms are an unmitigated disaster for ecology in general. The mixed farming in which geese husbandry thrived is far more ecologically sound. Early 20th-century commentary on the decline in goose husbandry directly connected it with the reduction of availability of common land, which made goose husbandry possible: “at one time nearly every village had its own common, where the villagers were allowed to run their stock, and where large flocks of geese could be reared at a very small cost. The enclosure of the common lands, however, meant that cottagers [the poorest residents of an estate] were no longer able to keep a few geese” (E.T. Brown 61). Farmers attempting to rear geese in straited space, he continues, learned that the “birds thrive badly under such conditions” and “quickly foul the ground.” To put this more pointedly: geese have proved much more difficult than chickens to discipline to mass industrial farming. They demand a lot of space, they prefer access to open water, and they can fly away if provoked.[19]

Their recalcitrance has even been given a number by the quantifiers of modernity: 9 square feet. It designates the absolute minimum space reckoned necessary for the successful raising of a single goose today for human uses.[20] Contrast this figure with the half a foot that experts recommend for raising commercial broiler chickens (it’s even less for layers).[21] The 8-and-a-half-foot discrepancy between goose and chicken spatial demands go some way to explaining why chicken nuggets rather than goose nuggets found their way into fast food cartons in the latter half of the 20th century.[22] Global chicken consumption numbers are staggering—and growing—with numerous ecological costs, as well as considerable cruelty to chickens in factory farms.[23] Scaling up goose production to current chicken levels would thus be well nigh impossible, which might encourage us to thoughtfully reconsider the levels of human meat consumption and pay heed to the kind of agriculture to which goose resistance points us.

Everything that makes geese unattractive for industrial farming, makes them highly suited to the “mixed” farming advocated by many food activists today as a corrective to the ecological trauma inflicted on animals and the planet by capitalist factory agriculture.[24] The relatively few geese that are raised for market today still typically come from small farms that practice pre-industrial husbandry. Geese, being grazers, require little commercial feed or keeper attention, and they were (and are) hearty. They could be let loose on virtually any patch of meadow near water, and, if satisfied with the conditions, would remain there, and return to farmer-provided accommodations at night, to be protected from inclement weather and predation. Because of these mingled attributes of independence, tractability and usefulness to human purposes, geese became intimately associated in pre-industrial conditions with historical “common” land. So one important way that geese are indeed an attractive figure for—and active advocate of—the “common” in a sense that includes non-humans as actors and interested parties, is their firm and ongoing resistance to capitalist industrial farming.

There is a second way that geese have rebelled against their exclusion from the common. At the same time as the numbers of domesticated geese have declined relative to chicken, wild geese, after a period of decline, have massively increased in many areas, adapting themselves well to human land use, often very much against human purposes.[25] Today, wild flocks sweep grandly en masse onto grain fields, golf courses, sports fields, parks and lawns, often to the dismay of human owners and caretakers.[26] Meanwhile, in the air, they pose a serious threat to human aviation. Thus, in a recent rant in the Daily Mail, Robert Hardman describes 21st-century wild geese as “the most loathsome bird in Britain” and ventures the opinion that if “geese were human, they would be lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbors out of town and notching up ASBOs [anti-social behavior ordnance violations] around the clock.” Geese have thus gone from welcome residents of “common” land to despised “common” lumpenfowl in less than 300 years.[27] But if we flip the perspective, it is easy to see that the opposite is more true: expanding human encroachment on common land, water and airspace has been “driving their [non human] neighbors out of town” at a frenetic pace for centuries. Geese are fighting back.

It is intriguing to consider this resistance as we read an article in the May 2017 issue of the financial analysis magazine, Wilmott: “The Goose Steals Back the Common.” This arresting title turns out to be ironic, since the article pooh-poohs the recent “upsurge in populism,” to which the author consigns all threats to “free trade,” whether Occupy Wall Street or Trump’s election, to reassure intended readers. Its remarkable last line declares: “Don’t expect more common to be fenced in the next five years, but also don’t expect to see the goose owning the common either.” Translation: “we might have to be discreet for a while, but the worst (for us) won’t happen.” This attitude is not in itself surprising in a finance trade publication, but it still raises the question of why a reference to the “common” verse finds its way into this venue at all. Its presence suggests that as elites continue to enclose the world materially, their intellectuals feel compelled to manage the concept of the “common” rhetorically against both the figurative and actual geese decried in one swoop by Hardman’s telling equation of “pest” geese with human welfare recipients. Insurgent demands for “Commons not Capitalism” at Occupy and other protests insist on an alternative world to the one structured to serve the interests of Wilmott readers, a world in which geese, figurative and concrete, successfully rebel against their exclusion. Apparently, elites and their organic intellectuals have noticed, and feel the need to respond. As we have seen, elite attempts to manage insurgency by giving their own spin to the “common” is not new. Tracing out such histories matters, so that we might be better armed to counter these tactics.

A “critical semantics” of “common” attentive to this history differs from Greene’s apt nuancing of early modern linguistic change, then, because it begins from an explicit consideration not only of geese in their concrete, non-figurative historicity but also of the conditions that underwrite now the ways of life open to geese and humans alike. I have proposed here that humans might have something to learn from geese—especially from their resistance to capitalist industrial agriculture, and their refusal to acquiesce to human attempts to exclude them from land, water and air; in addition, marginalized humans in particular might learn something about how social hierarchies work semantically and structurally when they are equated with despised—but rebellious—geese, and better struggle against their true enemy: the capitalist conditions of existence that de-privilege them, and geese, alike.

Geese of the world unite!
















Image credit: © Trustees of the British Museum

I am grateful to Anston Bosman for inviting me to join the MLA session from where this paper originated.

Works Cited

Beier, A.L. “A New Serfdom,” in A.L. Beier and Paul Ocobock, eds. Cast Out. Athens: Ohio UP, 2008.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Boyle, James. “The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain.” Law and Contemporary Problems 66.1/2 (2003): 33-74.

Breton, Nicholas. Figure of Foure, Second Part. London, 1636.

---------------------. The Good and the Badde. London, 1616.

Brown, Aaron. “The Goose Steals Back the Common.” Wilmott, vol. 2017, iss. 89 (2017): 16-19.

Brown, E.T. Ducks, Geese and Turkeys, 2nd edition. London: Arthur Pearson Ltd., 1920.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Fox, Anthony D. and Jesper Madson. “Threatened Species to Super-Abundance: The Unexpected International Implications of Successful Goose Conservation.” Ambio  46. supp. 2 (2017): S179-S187.

Fudge, Erica. Brutal Reasoning. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

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

Guha, Ranajit. A Rule of Property for Bengal. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Hardman, Robert. “The Most Loathsome Bird in Britain.” Daily Mail, June 4, 2008.

Harvey, David. New Imperialism. Oxford UP, 2005 (revised edition).

Heresbach, Conrad. Foure Bookes of Husbandry. Trans. Barnabe Googe. London, 1577.

Jameson, Fredric. Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lappe, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet, Anniversary Edition. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

Linebaugh, Peter. Magna Carta Manifesto. Berkeley: U of California P, 2008.

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. Many Headed Hydra. London: Verso, 2000.

Manning, Roger. Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England1509-1640. Oxford UP, 1988.

Martin, John. Feudalism to Capitalism. Humanities Press, 1983.

Mascall, Leonard. Husbandlye Ordering and Governmente of Poultrie. London, 1581.

Moore, Jason. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso, 2015.

Motett, A. and G. Tempio. “Global Poultry Production: Current State and Future Outlook and Challenges,” World’s Poultry Science Journal 73.2 (2017): 245-256.

Neeson, J. M. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge UP, 1993.

Patel, Raj and Jason Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Oakland: U of California P, 2017.

Pollan, Michael. Ominvore’s Dilemma. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Sanderson, William. Compleat History of the Lives of Mary Queen of Scotland and James . . . the First. London: 1656.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

----------------. The Ethics of What We Eat. Rodale, 2006.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Reading with Stuart Hall in ‘Pure’ Literary Terms.” An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012.

Thirsk, Joan. Agrarian History of England and Wales, vol. 4. Cambridge UP, 1967.

Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matekjka and I.R. Titunik. New York: Seminar Press, 1973.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords (revised edition). New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Woodbridge, Linda. “Jestbooks, the Literature of Roguery, and the Vagrant Poor in Renaissance England.” English Literary Renaissance 33.2 (2003): 201-10.


[1] For an overview of New Materialisms, see Coole and Frost. My approach engages what is now often dismissed as “old” materialism—especially in its recognition of Capitalism as a totalizing systematic force—with more sympathy than the “new” (especially Latour-inflected) materialism typically does, for reasons that I gesture toward in this short essay, and discuss in more detail elsewhere. This recognition of capitalism’s systemic role is the main distinction between Marxist and Latourian responses to ecological threat today, and is the main site on which debates between the two needs to be situated, in my view. Minimally, the Latourians need to indicate how a “Parliament of Things”—even if it were convened—can have any significant purchase while capitalism persists: why would Purdue agree to negotiate with other parties on the fate of chickens (and the rest of the planet) in the Capitalocene, for example? And, more important, how could such negotiations be anything but rigged from the start in favor of capitalism? I very much welcome the attention to the non-human that newer approaches have foregrounded (although they are not as novel as their practitioners sometimes claim). Their failure to recognize how capitalism works, however, renders their approaches useful but partial, as dialectics puts it. To best inform struggle toward a just, equitable and ecologically thriving world, we need a theory that can properly identify—and know the strength of—the major impediment to it—capitalism—as I have consistently argued. For my other work see:

[2] I choose “Capitalocene” over the more familiar “Anthropocene” to signal the central role of Capitalism in producing the current ecological crisis, and to focus attention on the specific enemy to be faced in our struggles for just and sustainable planetary relations, a collective way of life that is truly common—that is, a site of mutual thriving—for humans and non-humans alike. On “Capitalocene,” see Moore.

[3]I should add, though, that one of the most compelling aspects of Five Words is its refusal to junk epochal (“age”) narratives of “shift,” which Greene seeks to complexify with his case studies, not undermine. Like Capitalism, the Anthropocene is epochal, which those who are attempting to confront its dangers while maintaining a non-ruptural temporality need to address.

[4]See for example: Activist discussions of the “common” that deploy the rhyme principally as an affective incitement to various current political projects understandably have better things to do than trace the history of the rhyme’s emergence, so this essay implies no criticism of them. When attributions are given, Boyle (who offers the most substantive bibliographical information, tracing the rhyme to an early 19th century number of The Tickler) is typically cited. As an example of a doubtful attribution, the link above to “On the Commons” website is typical, albeit somewhat more egregiously misleading than most because it erroneously declares that Boyle claims the verse to be a “17th century folk poem,” which he quite clearly does not. No one has traced the 17th century versions of the goose-common theme that I focus on here. I will discuss later versions in a companion piece to this one.

[5]The late eighteenth century rounds of “parliamentary enclosure” through which “common land” (in legal terms, land on which multiple users had specific rights, such as grazing or gathering)—which had been eroded piecemeal for centuries—was largely eradicated in England by formal privatization in a process that has been chronicled by Neeson. For earlier periods, see Thirsk. Guha describes how a related process unfolded (with different effects) in colonial India. Indeed, colonization is often described as an arm of the “enclosure” and “improvement” movements in the colonizing countries. See, for example, Linebaugh and Rediker. David Harvey has influentially extended this historical process, which Marxists call “primitive accumulation,” into the present in his discussion of “new enclosures.”

[6] To render the struggle explicit, current circulations, including scholarly ones, such as Boyle, often append additional verses, including the pointed claim that “And geese will still a common lack/Till they go and steal it back.” These verses, however, are not in the Tickler, and their origin is still obscure.

[7] These include Thomas Forde and Edward Leigh, a Puritan, who, in the complicated politics of the time, was at first on the side of Parliament, but was purged by Pride when he balked at the execution of the Charles I, and thereafter changed his loyalties to the Royalists. Samuelson, Forde and Leigh all have entries in the ODNB.

[8] On the Midland’s Revolt, see Manning as well as Martin.

[9]For a theoretical discussion of the “struggle in the sign” that emerges in such representations, see Voloshinov, and its later sensitive uses by Williams, Hall and Spivak.

[10] On jestbooks and poverty, see Woodbridge.

[11] Whether the prose anecdote is a response to an oral (or lost print) version of the rhyme now circulating (I have not found evidence of the existence of any such rhyme before the nineteenth century) or a response to a prose version circulating in oral culture (more likely, in my view), or simply an elite invention to deal with the “commotions,” the anecdote is revealing evidence of struggle over the “common” worth taking account as such struggles continue today.

[12] For an overview, see Beier.

[13] In Early Modern Studies, Erica Fudge has been particularly influential concerning the importance of paying attention to literary nonhuman animals in their concrete substantiality in the world beyond the page, without reducing animals to figures or symbols of human traits, emotions or practices. Sometimes, of course, a goose is a figure, and I follow the trail of figuration here, but Fudge’s point is well taken, and I’ve also tried hard to attend to geese, as geese. In an essay on the geese he keeps himself (not for any commercial uses), Paul Thoreux makes the helpful point that anthropomorphizing nonhumans (he points to E.B. White in particular) gets in the way of understanding them because it “produce[s] a deficiency of observation”; the wager of this essay is that to understand what a common world might mean, humans must be more thoughtful, careful and fair in observing and weighing the relations of non-humans to each other and ourselves, as well as of humans to each other—a difficult task.

[14] Breton sums: “Foure things good in a goose: her quils for pens, her feathers for pillowes, her flesh for the dish, and her grease for the ache” (Figure of Foure, Second Part, B[1]v).

[15] and



[18] Some commentaries on early modern commoning can make it seem rosier than it indeed was in practice, and as if ancient legal structures are more protective of a desirable community than they indeed are; such nostalgia, while seeming to affirm the “common” actually impedes the struggle for a truly common society, which has certainly never existed so far as the historical record guides us. For an example of such (well meaning) nostalgia, see Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto.

[19] The manager of the largest geese farm in Britain confessed to Farmer’s Weekly that when geese are taken to range they “become a bit rebellious and can take off,” and so he underscores the importance of “imprinting [to humans as] an essential part of the management” if they are not to be lost.



[22] On the many costs of “cheap” chicken, see the Introduction to Patel and Moore.

[23]See Mottet and Tempio; the “Poultry Site” posts large numbers of statistics for investors: e.g.

[24]Given that industrial meat farming is ecologically devastating and involves—even when supposedly “organic”—considerable cruelties for animals, Michael Pollan suggests that the only case for ethical eating of domesticated animals (in terms of a the well being of the animals and planetary sustainability) is to restrict meat production to small, mixed agriculture. This would require, of course, considerable less human meat eating overall. He also considers well-regulated and ethically practiced hunting to be acceptable. I’m a vegetarian on ecological and planetary social justice (i.e. “common”) grounds, and am convinced that eradicating meat eating by humans would go a long way to improving human devastation of the planet, but Pollan, Haraway, Lymbery and many others have made strong cases for ethical meat eating as part of a regenerative, earth-respectful and creature-caring food system. The contrasting case has been offered, in different ways, by Foer, Lappe and Singer. Whatever one’s position on eating non-human animals, though, it is clear that current levels of meat eating are ecologically unsustainable and harmful to animals (and humans) because the farming practices necessary to produce so much meat (and the feed for the animals) is massively out of whack with available land, water, energy on a shared planet. See:


[25] For Britain and the rest of Europe, see Fox and Madsen; for North America:

[26] and also

[27] The welcome can be overstated, of course. Even in earlier periods, geese could pose significant threats to agricultural crops. Though he praises geese as very profitable for the husbandman in his book on poultry, Mascall also warns that they can cause serious devastation to gardens and fields, which must be protected from them


My focus on “utopian” as a case study for the scope of critical semantics might at first seem surprising, since the project Roland Greene outlines in Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes rejects “canonical” terms to focus on “words of an everyday character” (14, 13).[1] These words, Greene demonstrates, “are not the most ordinary,” but despite primarily being “important within local fields of knowledge such as rhetoric or political theory, [they] tend to appear in general discourse as though they were ordinary, their capaciousness taken for granted” (13, 14). As we may recognize, the word “utopian” fits in only awkwardly within this framework. Along with its famous lexical neighbor, “utopia”, it has certainly not escaped the attention of readers, both early modern and modern. Yet, this “not the most ordinary” of words does seem to be—or at least become—of “everyday character” within the century it was coined; unlike the original examples of Five Words (language, blood, world, invention, and resistance), the term “utopian” originated in the sixteenth century itself. It thus seems primed to mobilize the project of critical semantics in new ways, as it provides us a glimpse of the extravagant capacities of recent words that are (in theory) free from, or at least less burdened by, past linguistic associations.

The term “utopian” originally denoted specific things: as a noun, it referred to inhabitants of Thomas More’s Utopia (“the utopians”), and as an adjective it described the nature of this fictional place (“the utopian commonwealth”). But over the course of the century it became ubiquitous in different forms of writing and came to refer to varied entities—including kinds of people, cognitive formulations, and imaginative states. Its liminal status—simultaneously “everyday” and “canonical”—enables us to test the bounds of which words might escape our purview if we do not focus on their “ordinary” nature despite their canonicity in our critical discourse. In this essay, I explore how “utopian” was an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea. As such, the notion of “change” that lies at the “foreground of [Greene’s] argument” (8) about critical semantics is vital to understanding the capaciousness of “utopian”, making it ideal to think with about how words at the threshold of canonicity and ordinariness can expand the scope of the project.

I’ll begin by focusing on the ways in which “utopian” aligns with the project of critical semantics, which explores “words that early modern people not only thought through but lived with” (5). We see such vibrancy in the usages of “utopian”. Unsurprisingly, it is an adjective that describes particulars of Thomas More’s text. Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation discusses “This boke of ye vtopian commen wealth,” and in the second edition of the translation (1556), the “Printer to the Reader” mentions “The Vtopian Alphabete.”[2] But its usage became much more expansive within a few decades, as writers across varied disciplines applied it in diverse contexts. Robert Burton writes in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that “Vtopian parity is a thing to be wished for rather then effected,” and John Milton declares in his challenge to censorship and licensing, Areopagitica (1644), that “to sequester out of the world into Atlantick and Eutopian polities which never can be drawn into use, will not mend our condition; but to ordain wisely as in this world of evill, in the midd’st whereof God hath plac’t us unavoidably.”[3] These examples signal the word’s migration from its initial reference to a particular place to a general idea—an idea that often carried negative connotations of impracticality and impossibility, whether in an unachievable “Vtopian parity” or as inaccessible “Eutopian polities.” Even when not used negatively, it denoted impractical, idealistic, or unrealistic beliefs about society’s perfectibility. For example, John Donne uses it to describe purity or inexperience (“To Sir Henry Wotton” (1633)):

if men, which in these places live,
Durst look in themselves, and themselves retrieve,
They would like strangers greet themselves, seeing then
Utopian youth grown old Italian (43-46).

And in another instance, Samuel Purchas uses it to describe a general ideal place (Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613)): “no Vtopian State comparable to theirs.”[4] These examples demonstrate how, losing its rootedness in the specific island of Utopia, “utopian” becomes omnipresent as a concept of unreality, impracticality, and even impossibility for a wide range of early modern writers.  

These qualities also hint at the word’s fit with another goal of critical semantics: to consider terms that run across languages, eras, disciplines, and genres. “Utopian” is definitionally transcultural. Derived from the Greek word ou-topos (no-place), but also punning on eu-topos (good place), the nonexistence or the ideality of the word is graspable only in translation. These dual cross-linguistic connotations drive the humor in More’s Utopia on the topic of the perfect island’s unlocatability, as the author’s humanist interlocutors across Europe construct elaborate paratextual materials to bolster the idea that this place actually exists. But the question of existence—or we might say the certainty of its non-existence—was not a laughing matter; it becomes a serious point of distinction for travel-writers who established the realities of their discovered realms by distinguishing them from Utopia’s fictionality and its no-placeness. As Humphrey Gilbert writes in Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia (1576), “YOV might iustly haue charged mee with an vnsetled head if I had at any time taken in hand, to discouer Vtopia, or any countrey fained by imagination: But Cataia is none such, it is a countrey, well knowen to be described and set foorth by all moderne Geographers.[5] Gilbert reverses the central tenet of More’s text, relying on the idea that his readers are universally in agreement about Utopia being a “countrey fained by imagination.”

“Utopian” thus crosses disciplines and genres, like the five words that Greene uses to demonstrate the work of critical semantics. It spills over from fiction to travel-writing to political tracts, and even to proto-scientific ventures. For instance, in England, Samuel Hartlib’s network of reformers relied on utopian models to propose improvements in agriculture, education, and natural philosophy. The Hartlib circle’s ideas reflect the term’s aspirational quality (its ideality, we might say), rather than its impracticality. Here, “utopian” refers to achievable improvements. Contrary to the dismissive tone adopted by travel writers, the word signifies future opportunities for Hartlibian reformers who use it to outline visions or plans of proposed projects in England, Ireland, and even the New World.[6] Perhaps their embrace of the ethos of utopian projects underscores the extreme oscillations between reality and fiction that are latent in the term itself—rather than stress the differences between the two, Hartlibians suggest that the conditions they observe in their extant societies can be molded into the utopian domains that so far only exist in their imaginations. In this formulation, utopian endeavors seem to represent not a difference in kind from actuality but a difference in degree. Reaching the fictional ideal becomes the goal in the actual world, and it is only a matter of time before the two realms converge.

These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century applications of the term already gesture to how “utopian” aligns with perhaps what we might consider the key methodological feature of critical semantics. The project “name[s] words” not only in terms of “semantic integers that one finds in a dictionary” but also through the “concepts that shadow them” (3-4). It looks for “models for semantic change” (8) to track words through “conceits…[that] are native to the long sixteenth century” (10). It can be productive to consider the ambivalent significations of “utopian” under this rubric. I propose the conceptual “shadow” of “utopian” is “hypothetical,” another term with a rich scope in early modern discourse. The word “hypothetical” was associated with conjecture, speculation, even fanciful suppositions, and its usage ranged across disciplines, from astronomy (as we see in the writings of Copernicus) to logic (see, for instance, Abraham Fraunce Lawiers Logike, 1588) to experimental philosophy (see Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665).[7] Long sixteenth-century thinkers commonly understood the term as suppositional, or as “something supposed or assumed to be true without proof or conclusive evidence.”[8] In an era of increasing attention to empiricism and experiment, this tie with supposition could have negative connotations, and a hypothesis could be dismissed as “A groundless or insufficiently grounded supposition”—a dismissal starkly similar to those leveled against utopian endeavors.[9] I wish to suggest that the term “utopian” offers early moderns a hypothetical way of approaching the world: as conjectures, speculations, and suppositions about what could be. In other words, the idea of the “hypothetical” did not only designate for early modern thinkers a method for interpreting the world. It also captured a state of being that was repeatedly ascribed to utopian realms: as-yet-unproved ways of existence that could be dismissed as impractical goals or celebrated as aspirational ideals. Thus, if we fully connect the conceit to our word of choice, we could say that utopian embodies a hypothetical ontology; it emerged as a concept of non-existence. The resonances between the flexible, cross-disciplinary applications of “hypothetical” and “utopian” illuminate why, for early modern thinkers, the latter term could transform from an extra-ordinary word associated with a specific fictional place into an idea or a notion of speculation, conjecture, or idealization. Such varied usages of “utopian” solidify its status as a capacious concept that structured crucial intellectual and philosophical questions of the time on epistemology, truth, and ontology.

As we can observe, “utopian” is a perfect candidate in our search of new transcultural keywords. It is the ambivalence of the term—like that of the original Five Words—that animates its varied applications. The word bolsters the idea that conceits drive the work of critical semantics. It also underscores that if Five Words outlines a “keywords” project, its objects of study are conceptual keywords. But how might such new keywords function not only as mere examples of critical semantics as it exists, but also as intellectual instruments that put pressure on—and can thereby broaden—the project’s central claims and methodology? Greene already embeds such a question in the “Introduction” to Five Words. He concludes this chapter by highlighting the problem of method: “I really do not know that the project of Five Words can be done” (14). This uncertainty about outcome is of course, an invitation, not only to test this “resolutely elemental approach” that operates at the “cellular level” (3) (by thinking through words rather than through historical events, authors, or works), but also to examine the scope of the project itself. In this spirit, I’ll conclude by gesturing to the ways in which “utopian” not only underscores the conceptual (conceit-based, perhaps metaphorical) foundation of critical semantics, but also how it intimates the project’s expandability.

Like the initial Five Words, “utopian” functions as a “vesse[l] of change” (173): even though it emerges from a work of fiction, and even though it sometimes operates as a metonym for fictionality itself, its greater efficacy lies in continually putting pressure on the bounds between reality and fiction. For our purposes, “utopian” highlights that the changes we trace through “shadow” concepts or “conceits,” are latent in keywords themselves. In other words, we must think of “utopian” as a word-concept, rather than treating the two parts of this hyphenated term as separate or suggesting that one precedes the other. I say this because it is utopian’s cross-linguistic playfulness with ideas—and specifically with the duality of no-placeness and ideality—that motivates users to test, expand, even mock the bounds between truth and falsehood. Notions of conjecture, unfeasibility, and ideals undergird the word. It is by applying the central methodological feature of critical semantics that we fully grasp this complexity; its conceptual shadow (of hypothetical) enables us to fully recognize how “utopian” becomes an ordinary word that circulates, and finally comes to stand in for, these underlying notions. This brief exploration also reveals that the term—ubiquitous in twenty-first century discourse as a referent to a generic ideal society or idea, and as a word that has been completely stripped from its particular links to More’s humanist text and context—was shifting gears from the particular to the general almost immediately after its invention. Users in the long sixteenth century were deploying it just as extravagantly and loosely (or generously, we might say) as we do today. Thus, as “utopian”, within a century of its conception, comes to refer to ideas as well as people and places, and as it oscillates between noun and adjective, it raises questions that take us beyond those raised by the original Five Words: How do words become ordinary? How (and how soon) does the shift between particulars and generals occur? How might adjectives, or for that matter other grammatical constructs, reshape a project that originally focused on nouns? What would it mean to expand critical semantics beyond the long sixteenth century (the temporal limitation set in Five Words), given that there might be similarities in early modern and modern evolutions of certain terms? Such questions suggest that it is not only movements across languages, disciplines, and genres, but also change across time that is vital to the project. They also highlight how the processes of transformation, rather than final meanings, are important in understanding these keywords. Ultimately, as we turn to conceits to uncover ideas underlying a word, and as we recognize the ways in which early moderns “lived with” diverse undertones of a word that now seems “canonical” to us, we also discover how transcultural keywords were themselves concepts in potentia.  

I would like to thank Tara Lyons and Vin Nardizzi for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

[1] Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013). All citations to the book are by page number.

[2] Thomas More, A fruteful, and pleasaunt worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called Vtopia. Trans. Ralph Robinson (London, 1551); Thomas More, A frutefull pleasaunt, [and] wittie worke, of the beste state of a publique weale, and of the newe yle, called Vtopia, trans. Ralph Robinson, 2nd ed. (London, 1556).

[3] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford, 1621); John Milton, Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of vnlicens'd printing, to the Parlament of England (London, 1644).

[4] John Donne, Poems (London, 1633); Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrimage; or, Relations of the world and the religions obserued in all ages and places discouered (London, 1613).

[5] Humphrey Gilbert, Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia (London, 1576).

[6] For the classic study on this topic, see Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 1626-1660 2nd ed. (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). I am referring to the ethos and language of texts such as Gabriel Platt’s A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria (1641) and William Petty’s The advice of W.P. to Mr. Samuel Hartlib. For the advancement of some particular parts of learning (1648).  

[7] See for instance, Andreas Osiander’s anonymous Preface to Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). Osiander declares the heliocentric theory to be a hypothesis that was used for calculations, or to “save appearances,” rather than demonstrating actual conditions of the universe. Abraham Fraunce, in The lawiers logike (London, 1588) writes “The woorde, hypotheticall, which is héere commonly vsed, is neither proper nor fit for this purpose. For, in absolute copulatiue and discretiue axiomes, there is no ὑπόθεσις, no condition at all.” In Micrographia (London, 1665), Robert Hooke discusses “The hypothetical height and density of the Air.”

[8] In this section, I draw on the OED definitions of the related terms “hypothesis” and “hypothetical” to trace their varied meanings in the early modern period. See “hypothetical, adj. and n.”. OED Online. June 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 10, 2017) and “hypothesis, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 29, 2018).

[9] See “hypothesis, n.”. OED Online. March 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed May 29, 2018).


At first glance, the five words Roland Greene explores in his monograph seem 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] Yet Greene’s analysis reveals the words as “powerful carriers of often ambiguous and contradictory meanings” (7) and as “working terms” that bear the weight of shifting “worldviews” (14). To demonstrate how his five words enact such herculean labors, Greene matches each to a different conceit. The palimpsest, for example, helps him explain the semantic movements of invention across time. The pendent, “like keys on a ring or pearls on a string” (53), performs comparable work for the meaning of language; cartone for resistance; envelope for blood; and engine for world. This other set of five words is “drawn from objects that are either aesthetic while observing a public aspect or useful but with a certain beauty” (11). Greene abstracts these objects from “the material culture to which [they] belong” so that they can “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). In his contribution to this Colloquy, Greene resists the appeal of the conceits as “material things as such,” but also newly formulates how material culture does interest him. These objects, he concedes, have “physical properties”; their “haptic nature” energizes their “explanatory power.” The conceits thus “permit us to imagine semantic change as experienced and felt.” Reading Greene, I find the phrase “like keys on a ring or pearls on a string” a vivid description of language precisely because I can imagine touching them.

Worthy though the five words are, Greene’s decision to pair them with five conceits appeals to me even more. I am also drawn to his articulation in this Colloquy of how the project of critical semantics might be elaborated: practitioners may “apply that kind of relation”—here the pendant to language—“to other terms of the period such as troth and truth.” But in investigating new words for critical semantics, mustn’t we also propose new conceits? How universally applicable—or translatable—is any one of the five? Could we extend the project without recourse to conceits at all? If we do require new conceits, must the materiality of the objects that inspires them also explain the semantic movement of the working term? In puzzling through such methodological questions, I decided to run an experiment: What, I wondered, if a sixth word were coincident with its own conceit? What word might satisfy so arbitrary, yet so strict a criterion? I propose graft as one such word. This experiment may yield fruit so long as we grant that graft can be both a noun and a verb (as Greene observes of “envelope”). Better still, we need to grant that uses of the noun and verb in early modern letters entail one another. Each graft marks a prior act of grafting. As a trace of this temporal relation, of past human action affecting present (and future) botanical object,[2] my title employs a hybridizing parenthesis.

Having settled on graft, a new question emerged for me: Where to begin, with working term or conceit? I first opted for the former, but quickly found myself tailing the latter. I turned for aid to Rebecca Bushnell’s Green Desire, a book that has profoundly informed my research. In it, Bushnell explores knowledge about grafting procedures in early modern English gardening manuals and agricultural books. She traces the knowledge they made available down to classical antecedents and especially to European books of secrets. Recipes in such books – my favorite of which is Giambattista Della Porta’s, in which “every Tree may be mutually incorporated into each other”[3] through grafting  – “celebrate[],” in Bushnell’s formulation, “the infinite variety of nature and human taste for change.”[4] In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Malcolm articulates a grotesquely negative counterpart to Della Porta’s grafted tree. About himself, he says, “It is myself I mean, in whom I know / All the particulars of vice so grafted / That, when they shall be opened, black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow.”[5] Malcom tells lies here, to test Macduff’s resolve in backing him against Macbeth’s tyranny. A rhetorical question posed by a disguised shepherd in Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia illuminates Malcolm’s true behavior: “What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?”[6] Only temporarily or imaginatively, it seems, does Malcolm: he soon confesses that his budding vices have been a ruse. (Perhaps no man could so graft a tree in early modern England, since graft in this language tradition hasn’t yet acquired its associations with dishonesty [see OED, “graft,” definitions 5 and 9]). On Sidney’s question, I pause to recognize the speed with which I have moved from material culture to figuration and, in the excerpt from The Old Arcadia, maybe back again, or at least somewhere between the two.

Somewhat confounded by Sidney’s question, I consulted studies of graft’s range as figuration in early modern England. Since the release of Green Desire, scholars have elaborated Bushnell’s discussion of plant grafting in at least three literary contexts. Leah Knight, Jessica Rosenberg, Miriam Jacobson, and I have all explored examples in the first context,[7] which concerns the activation of the etymology shared by grafting and writing (graphein). In Shakespeare, Sidney, Marvell, and Wroth, characters use sharp instruments like a penknife (a handy tool in the kits of early modern gardeners) to carve their initials, their names, and even entire poems onto tree bark as a memorial, typically to love. These actions make apparent the conceptual and material links between the gardener’s craft and the poet’s art. Additionally, as Jenny C. Mann has shown, George Puttenham draws on grafting’s relation to writing to describe the rhetorical figure of parenthesis. In The Art of English Poesy, 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 can be extracted, effortlessly, “without any detriment to the rest.” But it can be a necessary surplus: as Mann also details, in Sidney’s hands in The New Arcadia, such “textual grafting” proves the “primary … compositional logic” in which romance episodes are inserted, parenthetically, into one another so as to “reverse the hierarchies of cause and effect, main plot and intervening episode, and what might also be termed classical source and Renaissance imitation.”[8] Plant grafting, too, aims to generate a necessary surplus (of fruit), but process and product do not change places with one another so much grow together, at the material spot on the tree called the graft.

Claire Duncan, Erin Ellerbeck, Jennifer Munroe, and Miranda Wilson have explored a second context that more directly addresses generation and growth in plant grafting. In different ways, each details how it articulates human reproductive sexuality.[9] In Ellerbeck’s analysis, for instance, John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi casts plant grafting as “a model for successful, symbiotic, heterosexual relationships.”[10] And yet, as Rebecca Bushnell has shown,[11] grafting can also be invoked to allege adultery, emblematized by the cuckold’s horns grafted onto the unwitting husband’s head. Nonetheless, as a symbol for illicit or at least non-marital sexuality, grafting is not consistently vilified in the period. On the contrary, as Ellerbeck and I have argued, in discussing adoption and queer erotics respectively,[12] grafting may in fact be mobilized to do an end-run around the imperatives of heterosexual reproduction. Shakespeare’s speaker famously pledges as much in Sonnet 15, when he announces to the beautiful young man that as “Time” “takes from you, I engraft you new” (ll. 13-14). Promising the preservation and regeneration of the man’s youth, the speaker here unites the gardener’s craft with the poet’s art. Might this be an example of dissimulation grafted into a figurative tree, into poetry itself?

As grafting does in Mann’s discussion of the parenthesis, it also proves in this second context to be capable of doing contradictory figurative work. It seems to invite to itself the ascription of contradictory or opposing signification: thought and afterthought, proper marital sexuality and extramarital (if still generative) sexuality. I suspect that this may be the case because the material practice of grafting secures together two different botanical entities – the parent (or stock) plant and the scion. The point of attaching the two is to make a more desired scion grow out of the hardier (and implicitly less valuable) stock plant and so to produce better or more fruit. The description of this material procedure that Polixenes affords in The Winter’s Tale is remarkably accurate: “You see, sweet maid, we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By bud of nobler race” (4.4.92-95). In strictest terms, Polixenes does not misconstrue the material logic of plant grafting, in which the “gentler scion” generates more of itself on “a bark of baser kind.” But because his speech is so suffused with markers of race, human marital sexuality, and social class, he verges on imagining plant grafting as a scandalous admixture of stock tree and scion. Disguised at this play’s sheep-shearing, this Bohemian ruler would permit grafting in his orchard or garden, but, as the scene unfolds, he proves unwilling to allow his heir to “marry” a (presumed) shepherdess.

Such anxiety about social purity, reproduction, and race, which bubbles just under the surface of this passage from The Winter’s Tale, opens onto the third context in which scholars have explored the figurative range of graft. While it is true that a grafted tree will grow fruit of the scion, it is also the case that the sap of both scion and stock join with one another at the spot of the graft. In the terms that Polixenes establishes, the gentle and wild and the base and noble perforce touch and “marry” with one another in this very local place. According to Jean E. Feerick and Miranda Wilson, by such haptic logic, grafting can name in Shakespeare’s plays and poems the “civilizing process” (that’s Wilson’s formulation)[13] and the “mechanisms of conquest and expansion” (that’s Feerick’s).[14] The infusing of the stock’s “wildest” sap with the gentility of the scion can propagate a fantasy of how individuals or human populations may be bettered. Moreover, as Feerick has detailed elsewhere,[15] it matters profoundly in this third context that plant sap is routinely cast in the period as a humoral counterpart of human blood.   

As this overview suggests, there seems sufficient evidence to think of graft as both working term and conceit in the vein of Greene’s Five Words. Scholars of early modern England have detailed a rich range of meaning about work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race that the figure of grafting articulates and that the material practice of grafting energizes. Not coincidentally, my survey has also brought me right to the threshold of blood, which is, of course, one of Greene’s five words. For Greene, “Blood figures in … a conceptual envelope, in which a phenomenon known through direct experience moves within several intersecting planes of received knowledge.” Its “story … in the sixteenth century is about the slow remaking of a received conceptual envelope with religious, chivalric, and cosmological values into a new one with scientific, social, and racial ones” (9, 10). In the early modern English examples adduced here, we too see an emphasis on these latter “values” in graft, but for sap as much as for blood. Graft may also serve as a botanical gloss for the points at which “planes of received knowledge” intersect with one another, since, as working term and conceit, it supervises and imagines precisely such a touch.

To my surprise, Greene employs the language of (plant) grafting on two occasions in his chapter on blood in Five Words. Tellingly, in both instances, the context for its use is writing. In the first instance, Greene dubs the Earl of Surrey’s poem “Love that doeth raine and liue within my thought” an “adaptation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere 140 that is the graft from which English Petrarchism grows” (116). An act of grafting here generates an entire literary tradition: the poet’s art is the gardener’s craft. Such “textual grafting,” as Mann might call it, translates between European vernacular languages. In the second instance, Greene examines how a disguised Portia re-scripts Antonio’s bond to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice’s courtroom. In his analysis, “[s]he grafts Shylock’s literalism onto the question of blood’s nature, rendering Antonio’s ‘Christian blood’ an object – not the carrier of virtue or power, but property – that falls under the legal terms of the bond; the abstractions that envelop blood at many points in the play are dispelled in favor of a starkly materialist position, barely attenuated by the adjective ‘Christian’” (133). Graft is not Portia’s term, but Greene’s way of describing the “materialist” logic by which she corners Shylock. In these instances, Greene asks graft to do explanatory work for envelope.

While intrigued to find graft where it appears in Five Words, I am not surprised to see it travel with the language of writing. What we may presume to be Greene’s intuition that it is an apt figure for the point at which blood and writing intersect is, in fact, borne out in sixteenth-century letters. By way of closing, I offer as one example of this early modern habit of mind the way that Joachim Du Bellay describes how Roman writers imitated the Greeks. The Romans “imitate[ed],” Du Bellay explains, “the best Greek authors, transforming themselves into them, devouring them, and, having properly digested them, converting them into blood and nourishment [sang et nourriture]. Each, according to his own nature and the topic he wished to choose, took as his model the best author, diligently examined all of his rarest and most exquisite virtues, and grafted [grephes] them … and adapted them to their own language.”[16] In a way that I hope Greene would appreciate, our collective project in this Colloquy may well be an exercise in just such an imitative practice of grafting.

[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] Jessica Rosenberg’s forthcoming “Before and After Plants,” postmedieval 9.4 (2018) has inspired my thinking on grafting and touching.

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

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

[5] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3.50-53, in The Norton Shakespeare: Later Plays and Poems, Vol. 3E, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016). All further references to Shakespeare are from this volume.

[6] Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1999), 146.

[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] Jean Feerick, “Botanical Shakespeares: The Racial Logic of Plant Life in Titus Andronicus,” South Central Review 26.1&2 (2009): 82-102.

[16] I quote Du Bellay’s La Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse from Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 64 (in French), 338 (in English). The English translation is Cave’s.



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 Suárez 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 lexicographer, [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 led 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). Not only does skin color cause 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. “Du démentir.” In Les Essais.  Book 2.  Edited by Pierre Villey.  St-Germain: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

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

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.  Chicago: 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).mRather than using colors to signify traits, traits could, following the Blason, signify colors.

We Are Not Communists—We Are "Hermeneutic Communists"


The great American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted almost twenty years ago the “election of ‘strongman’ . . . someone willing to assure [voters] that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”[1] This is Donald Trump. But Rorty predicted a president not only with these characteristics but also one with a plan very similar to Trump’s: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. This outlet, Rorty explained, was going to be a consequence of the Left’s tendency to give “cultural politics preference over real politics.” But what does all this have to do with Marxism in the twenty-first century and, in particular, with our weak—or hermeneutic—version of it?

Rorty’s criticism of the Left, as well as Negri’s and Hardt’s trilogy and the horrifying events of 9/11, were factors that led us to write Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (2011), which the philosopher Eduardo Mendieta compared to a manifesto. Negri’s and Hardt’s texts were full of metaphysical notions (“empire,” “multitude,” “commons”) too abstract to call for practical activism, and this vacuum was exposed, beginning on 9/11. Those terrible acts did not mark a single day “that changed the world” but rather led to the intensification of military and financial policies already underway. This intensification, which we call “framing” in the book, is evident in the military occupation of the Middle East, including drone warfare, and the mass-surveillance systems that Edward Snowden revealed, as well as in certain actions of the Obama administration, which continued or expanded these policies and oversaw the bailout of massive financial institutions and the relentless use of drones against civilian targets. To a certain extent, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embody Rorty’s characterization of “cultural politics” or the “cultural left” that lacked a leftist economic agenda; they ignored the declining economic condition of American workers that was a consequence of the globalization they lauded. With no political voice speaking to or on behalf of the concerns of labor, workers turned against the technocratic policies of the cultural elite and either opted out of politics or followed the demagoguery of right-wing populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and others. While Rorty did not call on the Left to become “Marxist” or “communist” again, we believe this is the only way to respond to the abdication of the left and political and moral bankruptcy of what were once the progressive leftist parties.

Since 2011 we are often asked, “Are you communists?” Our answer is always the same: “No, we are hermeneutic communists.” At that point, people generally look at us with suspicion and confusion—suspicion, because no one is supposed to be communist anymore, and confusion because “hermeneutics” is an alien concept for most. Until now, everyone talked about Soviet, Cuban, or Chinese communism; no one spoke of a hermeneutic communism. The difference does not simply rest in the absence of an anchoring location, because in the book we refer to a particular region (Latin America); it has to do with the nature of hermeneutics, which brings philosophical weakness to communism through interpretation. This is the meaning of the book’s subtitle, From Heidegger to Marx. Today, after metaphysics, we can return to Marx through hermeneutics, a philosophical approach that operates without the assumption of metaphysical truth and without the impositions and violence that accompany such positions. Thus, hermeneutic communism is a “weakening” of the strong structures of metaphysics, modernity, and ideology. The motto of the book, rephrasing Marx’s famous statement from Theses on Feuerbach, is, “The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.”

With the global triumph of capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism lost both its effective power and any ability to justify the metaphysical claims that characterized its original Marxist formulation as the ideal of development, which inevitably draws toward a logic of war. Today, these ideals and logic based on eternal growth are what characterize and guide our framed democracies. The weakened communism we are left with in the twenty-first century does not aspire to construct a perfect state—i.e., it does not envision another Soviet Union—but instead proposes democratic models of social resistance outside the intellectual paradigms that dominated classical Marxism. Marxism has gone through a profound deconstruction that has contributed to dismantling its rigid, violent, and ideological claims in favor of democratic edification. The weakening of its scientific pretexts for unfettered development allows communism to finally unite its constituency.

The supporters of weak communism are the weak, that is, all those who are not framed within “the iron cage of capitalism,” as Max Weber used to say—those at its margins. These are the denizens of the slums and underdeveloped nations who, despite the fact they represent three-quarters of the world’s population, face existential annihilation through economic and military oppression. In response to this situation, social movements in South America in the Nineties began to fight back by electing representatives from their own class (including Morales, Chávez, and others) in order to defend the weak and apply much-needed social reforms. Although these progressive Latin American leaders never called themselves “communists,” much less “hermeneutic communists,” they put in place communist policies that proved much better at defending their economies from crises than the strategies used by any other country in the West. And they supported ethnic pluralities, such as the recognition of indigenous rights, which can be interpreted as a hermeneutic fusion of horizons.

Our endorsement of the Chávez government in Venezuela led some critics to suggest we made an error like that of Bloch, who praised the East German regime in The Principle of Hope. These critics cite the dismantling of Chávez’s reforms as evidence of our wrong-headedness, as if the fact that two political orders were both superseded by reactionary changes meant that the two had any other similarity. This argument, which relies again on assuming the metaphysical truth of progress, does not erase the nature of Chávez’s reforms any more than it can equate two radically different “socialist” governments. However, the economic and social crisis that Venezuela is experiencing under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro certainly raises a question: are we witnessing the dissolution of the Chávez myth or, on the contrary, the continuing terrible power and dominance of capitalist-framed democracies?

Chávez still functions as a myth, symbol, and reference for the global Left not only because of the successful social, economic, and educational policies he implemented but also because he supported other progressive governments in the region. One interesting example is the former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. As soon as Lula designated her as the best candidate to guide the Workers Party and Brazil into the twenty-first century, Chávez supported her. Now that she has been overthrown by a capitalist coup, one must speculate on the level of involvement of those framed democracies. “And such speculation,” as Mark Weisbrot recently suggested, “is not unreasonable in Brazil, where Washington intervened in 2005 in support of a legislative effort aimed at undermining the Workers’ Party government.” Dilma had also railed against US meddling in Petrobras, as revealed in the Snowden files. While we can discuss infinitely whether Chávez is a myth or a model, as we prefer to view his legacy, there is no doubt that the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and in other Latin American countries is caused by foreign intervention via economic sanctions. Independent of the recent economic and political crisis in the region, Chávez's achievements in reducing extreme poverty are unquestionable; this is one of the few subjects on which Chávez’s supporters and critics can agree.

While it might sound paradoxical, although we took Latin American progressive governments as a model for our Western neoliberal democracies, the book was not written for them but rather for us. The hermeneutic communism that we see as still developing in Latin America has not ended with the passing of its charismatic leaders or recent installation of right-wing governments in Argentina and Brazil. Instead, it began there.

What is extraordinary today for us, almost six years after the publication of Hermeneutic Communism, is that the inception of radical democracy and social initiatives has reached Europe. We are not referring to the Indignados or Occupy movements, but rather to those who transformed these movements into political parties, such as Podemos in Spain. Like the late Hugo Chávez, Pablo Iglesias has called for radical social reforms in favor of the weak and has railed against U.S. hegemony, issuing calls for Spain to leave NATO and revoke the agreement that allows the United States to keep military bases in Morón (Seville) and Rota (Cádiz). The rise of Podemos did not occur only because its leaders (Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero, and Íñigo Errejón) traveled to, researched, and admired Latin America and the Bolivarian revolution, but also because the Spanish Socialist Party has lost all credibility. Its recent crisis must be interpreted as the embodiment of what Rory warned against: the cultural left’s practice of giving “cultural politics preference over real politics.” Podemos proves that not all populist parties are the same. We must also not discount the significance of the election of Pope Francis. The election of a Latin American Pope who has begun a progressive reform of the Vatican is symbolic of an epoch where the “weak” might finally begin to take part in the distribution of power.

But how can hermeneutic communism help us when Trump and Farage use right-wing populism to usurp the power and focus of the workers? First of all, it is important to remember the strength of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and interpret it as a sign of a future where the weak finally find representation once more through traditional parties. Our goal today is not to demand that the left stay away from “cultural politics.” It is to invite social movements to create or join political parties that can allow the weak to emerge and to exercise their power by uniting. Unless the voices of the weak resound from the slums of our postcolonial cities and are made to echo in the halls of power through genuine representation, it will be impossible to overcome the deadlock imposed by our neoliberal democracies. Instead of the metaphysical communism of failed and totalitarian states, we need a hermeneutic version, one that does not repeat their errors. The revival and reinvigoration of Marxism and Marxist theory we see in thinkers such as Jodi Dean and Slavoj Žižek, as well as in this Colloquy, is an invitation to reconsider its potentialities.

Gianni Vattimo is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Turin and a former member of the European Parliament. His books include A Farewell to TruthThe Responsibility of the Philosopher; and Of Reality among others.
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor at the University of Barcelona. He is the author of The Remains of BeingThe Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy, and Hermeneutic Communism with G. Vattimo.

[1] R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), 90.