Critical assessment of “Circulation of Social Energy” by Stephen Greenblatt

The author of Circulation of Social Energy Stephen Jay Greenblatt is accredited with establishing an approach of literary criticism that took into account primarily, the environment; social, political and economic, of the timeline in which a particular text emerged, this approach was termed as New Historicism. Greenblatt’s contribution towards literary criticism emerged as the dominant mode of Anglo-American literary analysis by the end of the 20th century. He is particularly known for his analysis of Shakespeare’s works and is considered to be among the preeminent scholars of Renaissance literature in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For the milieu in which he himself resided, New Criticism had been the major force in the field of literary analysis, and it was tunnel-visioned on a kind of formal analysis of the texts themselves, striping it away from its historical development or cultural absorption. The influence of cultural studies and expounding of the factors that lead to the emergence of ‘monolithic’ concepts, especially explained in the works of Michel Foucault, led Greenblatt to form a method of studying literature that took into account what was outside of the text in question and point its formation towards certain external factors of culture and history. This is how “cultural poetics” came into being as well. Greenblatt’s theories were put into function in his Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England — in which he famously asserted his desire to “speak with the dead” authors he studied. 

Stephen Greenblatt’s desire to “speak with the dead” reveals the queries that he delves into Circulation of Social Energy. A piece of art, a piece of literature, when produced is revered by the populous, the emotions of an ancient text affect us in the contemporary, the cause behind this connection of reverence and euphoria that it seems to hit a lost nerve is what is at the core of Greenblatt’s concerns. The motive of his for the literary studies is a strive to connect with the voices of literary figures of the past, and to understand how these voices of literary figures have produced effects on their societies as well as the explanation behind some of them continuing to do so even after the death of the author. This leads Greenblatt to form his concept of “social energy”, something that empowers art and that fuel back into the cycle. This cycle of production leaves traces in a text that can be unearthed, these lift the spirits of those who read it and how this mechanism operates is what’s left to be further concluded. This “social energy” operates in a Structuralist sense, outside of the text it produces, it contains within it certain entities of qualitative matter, such as power, charisma, sexual excitement, collective dreams, wonder, desire, anxiety, religious awe and free-floating intensities of experience. Then to take this structure forward Greenblatt asserts its parts’ default inclusion into the circulation of a society unless by deliberation an exclusion of it takes place that would prevent its circulation. He uses the Greek term ‘energia’ thus borrowing meaning from it, for the purpose of expounding on “social energy.” ‘Energia’ was defined in its effects, which it manifested in the capacity of certain verbal, aural, and visual traces to produce forms of physical and mental experiences and Greenblatt puts his conceptual non-empirical explanation into a state of undiscovered but causal essence. A vagueness is thus employed for his admitted inadequacy to delineate “social energy”. It so remains an unquantifiable, unstable, changing and subjective matter of explanation for what it would mean to have “social energy”. Nonetheless he proposes a scientific trait of this entity or structure, that at least some of its effects are associated with repeatable forms of pleasure and interest, having the capacity to arouse disquiet, pain, fear, pity, laughter, tension, relief and wonder etc. Social energy thence is a kind of energy that moves through society powered by the art that produces these emotions, that art can then hold potency of maintaining and feeding back into its enabler and continue the cycle. To hold his theory solid he provides another hypothesis for the effects of “social energy” at work; of it having a minimal predictability that would make simple repetitions of a particular set of effects possible, as well as minimal range: enough to reach out beyond a single creator, consumer or community. He describes certain times in the timeline of generated texts having far greater range and predictability which would induce in men and women of various classes and kinds to experience a complex blend of anxiety and exaltation. Certain aesthetic forms of social energy contain an amount of ‘adaptability’ that makes them continually generating the illusion of life for centuries. These characteristics are what make up ‘social energy’ and provide it its effects that can be observed and evaluated.

The place of the one who brings into existence an ‘art’ is another one of the concerns of Greenblatt, moving away from the ‘monolithic’ ideals, he strives for a New Historical analysis of an artist’s place, which is in an environment of circulating “social energies” which lead him to the end point conclusion of the ‘impossibility’ of a “total artist” residing in a “totalising” society. Resolving his curiosity for the connections made by “the dead”, he now moves to this issue of the possibility of an artist that would be “total”. However, for his analysis, Greenblatt makes certain ontological presuppositions, firstly he doesn’t correlate the symbiosis of the kind of “artist” towards a kind of “art”. He takes in a seemingly humanist ontology for his connections between a production and producer, a created entity and the agency behind it. This presupposition regulates the extension of agent and entity to human production and agency – humanly-produced entity. This further constricts his aforementioned conclusions of “total artist” and the “totalising” society. It constricts them from the sense of his presuppositions via ranging the sphere of existence to “social” and human, which he notes is a sphere of ideological incoherency, and this incoherent sphere contains the “artist” which cannot be “total” given his or her place in the adulterated and non-isolating plane. The produce i.e. the “text” is also assumed of its essence; of an entity that can solely become what it is via a conglomerate of “social energies” within the society. Stephen Greenblatt seems to negotiate a kind of ‘mytheme’, a minimal unit that would ground the effectual-entity of “social energy.” These factors however lead to a notable conflation between various “texts” and an imposition of his theoretical framework over all “texts” given his avoidance to effectively define the triad of “text” “artist” and “society”. For the meaning that would entail a text (based on Greenblatt’s presuppositions), it relies on a dynamic exchange undertaken in its artistic creation, firstly by the free use of already existing objects belonging to the public domain like language which is a collectively agreed-upon collection of meaningful signifiers – this is classified as ‘appropriation’. Moreover, through the process of ‘purchase’ such as in theatre where costumes and the like are bought for a drama set. Lastly, through what he terms ‘symbolic acquisition’, which is the employment of known symbols; familiar institutionalised social practices; or known metaphors – either directly, or indirectly through already established circumlocutory strategies. Pre-existing forms in society are argued for by Stephen Greenblatt, that these forms in situations like in Shakespearean theatre, are in a joint social enterprise and dependent upon the foreknowledge of the audience and the participatory interpretation of the represented reality on stage, this effect is collectively produced. These factors are induced in not just theatre and such drama or play, but art and literature in general as well, there being no totalising society neither a total artist, forces the conclusion of an interchange, be it linguistical, structural and or more importantly cultural. Thus, therein manifests the reality of a system that produces literature collectively via dynamic exchange empowered by ‘social energy’. These processes of dynamic exchange of cultural transactions are how great works of art are empowered through the “social energy” that are encoded in the works.

This exchange as put forward by Stephen Greenblatt is of a considerable fervour for that it holds the explanatory power of the queries he begins Circulation of Social Energy with. He keeps his ontological and even epistemological commitments as the unrevealed foundations of his elaboration on great works such as of Shakespeare. On that token he does not take away, from the texts that enchant a person or society, their aesthetic quality of enchantment but rather inquires into the objective conditions of this enchantment, to discover how the traces of social circulation are effaced. For him it is “social energy” which provides a text with its enchantment, and makes the artist able to manifest the same in his work and that the conditions for this enchantment can be studied objectively. Stephen Greenblatt maintains that a project that intends to fix an authority for a text within the genius of the artist (as he defines it) fails eventually because any “total artist” or “totalising society” if that there may be, cannot escape from ‘shared contingency’. He pulls back from the notions of artistic completeness and focuses on the text as the central object of attention and does so by talking about the collective production of literary pleasure and interest. Greenblatt is thus able to create a system of elucidation that refrains from an overly scientific model of diving into the textuality of a “text” like the aura of criticisms that existed around him. He instead tilts towards a kind of phenomenological sense of literary evaluation, driving from experiences of a text by a populous and the critic alike and thus being witness to the effects of “energies” of the “social” and grounding this structure of inspection into the ontology of naturalism and or humanism, still reverberating the essence of the empirical. 

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