«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
Round begins by establishing these two terms—nature and custom—as opposites that “designated the dialectical space within which the emerging nation-state of Britain negotiated its self-representation” and “set the parameters of conversations about everything from church doctrine to village order” (1). This is well enough, since it gives us a clear sense of what is at stake in his book, though I would take issue with his establishing such a fixed opposition between these terms; indeed, in a phrase that he takes from Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood (which Helgerson, in turn, took from Samuel Daniel’s 1603 Defense of Ryme)—“custom that is before all law, nature that is above all art” (1-2, citing Helgerson 11, citing Daniel 37)—we can see that these terms can equally well serve as analogues, though Round cites this passage in support of their opposition. However, having set the debate in terms of nature and custom, the two terms quickly disappear, only to be replaced by “culture.” Initially, Round’s use of culture is very precise, being grounded in Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of a “cultural field” as “a discursive space where objects and discourses marked as ‘culture’ are produced by social systems” (6, citing Bourdieu The Field of Cultural Production 162-163).
Because culture always aims to refer to a coherent totality, yet continually gets applied to smaller and smaller particularities, it becomes easy for us to lose track of what particular totality or sub-totality it is referring to in a given moment unless it is coupled to some word that modifies and delimits it—Puritan culture, or English culture, say. In linking culture to this or that word, though, we elevate it to the status of a coherent totality, thereby assuming the very identities that we are seeking to analyze precisely because they were in such flux during this period of migration, expansion, and contact with new peoples. In other words, once we have named this or that culture as a culture, we have assumed that there is a shared identity there without necessarily having specified the particular characteristics or processes of that identity.
Nobody in the early modern world identifies his or herself as belonging to a “culture” the way we do today. The problem is not simply one of anachronism; it lies in the importance of making a distinction between process and result. In his brief essay, “Culture,” composed for Frank Lentricchia’s Critical Terms for Literary Study, Stephen Greenblatt notes that early modern authors like Shakespeare would hardly have used the word “culture” in the sense we do today, although they might have made use of its cognate “cultivation” in much the same sense as we would, as an “internalization and practice of a code of manners” (227). This fits well with Greenblatt’s definition of “culture” as an “ensemble of beliefs and practices [that] function as a pervasive mechanism of control” and thereby serve both to “constrain” human actions and to enable a certain “mobility” within them because it emphasizes the processual nature of human identities rather than suggesting that they are a fixed and final result of a process that has run its course (225). However, Greenblatt’s etymological sleight-of-hand obscures the fact that we tend to identify culture precisely as a result—and, what’s more, as a given— such that we lose sight of the process by which collective identities are articulated and simply accede to received (and often implicit) notions of what constitutes this or that culture.
A major part of the problem with culture is that it is a word that has lost touch with its own history. The earlier meaning of culture as “[t]he action or practice of tilling the soil” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, definition 2.a) is almost totally divorced from its modern sense as outlined by Greenblatt above, despite his attempts to recuperate some continuity between the two through his reference to cultivation. Thus we find Round making his references to “cultural fields” and “cultural landscapes” without any hesitation about the radically different connotations these phrases would have had for the early modern people who are the subject of his study. In pointing this out, I do not seek to blame Round or Greenblatt. Very intelligent people have written very intelligently about culture; and yet, these same people fall prey to the pitfalls of culture, allowing its capacity to name “the most complex whole” to reduce that complexity to naught or next to naught (Greenblatt 225). The primary problem with culture, as I see it, is that it is often used to name both a process and its outcome at the same time: culture, in other words, is the product of culture. This referential circularity invites the reification of culture that is rife in contemporary literary scholarship.
If we pause for a moment, however, and consider why it is that we try to make use of the word culture in the first place, it becomes clear why we continue to do so despite its shortcomings. As Greenblatt suggests, it offers us a way to start thinking about the processes that govern the organization and development of human societies. To put it in somewhat less abstract and somewhat more restricted terms, we might say that we study “culture” in order to better understand what it is that binds us together in communities.
In turning to custom as an alternative for culture as a central term for understanding collective identities in colonial North America, however, we can avoid some of these difficulties while gaining certain advantages, not least of which is the fact that it is a term that was then in frequent use precisely to consider these very problems.
Custom, of course, is not without its own vagaries and limitations as an analytic term.
Foremost among these is that, in its singular form, it can refer both to a particular custom (say, the raising of a maypole on Mayday) and to a more generalized notion of custom as a body of tradition. And yet, viewed from another angle, this is one of its virtues since it allows us to work our way back and forth between these more concrete and more abstract meanings as we seek to understand the place of a given custom within a collection of social practices particular to a given group of people. As Montaigne and Bacon will show us, while custom has the capacity to dull our intellect and reduce us to machines, if we can return to our senses then we can still gain an understanding of how it works to produce (and potentially undermine) collective identities and social order.
“COUTUME HEBETE NOS SENS” In the very first of his essays, Montaigne sets the stage for his investigation into human customs, stating that “l’homme [est] un subject merveilleusement vain, divers, et ondoyant” and that “[i]l est malaisé d’y fonder jugement constant et uniforme” (1.1.9).6 This statement fits well with our received notion of Montaigne as the forerunner of modern pluralism, a notion that encourages us to take at face value Montaigne’s claim that “[l]a diversité des façons d’une nation à autre ne me touche que par le plaisir de la “Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him” (1.1.5). This and all subsequent translations of Montaigne are from Donald Frame’s translation.
varieté” (3.9.985).7 And yet, in his most extended meditation on the subject of human customs, “De la coustume et de changer aisément une loy receüe” [Of Custom and the Difficulty of Changing a Received Law], Montaigne evinces a much more pessimistic take on human diversity, arguing that “l’usage nous desrobbe le vray visage des choses” (1.23.116), that every custom is grounded in a “desgoust[ante … nouvelleté” (1.23.119), and that, because of the strife produced by these novel customs, kings and governments would best “faire vouloir aux loix ce qu’elles peuvent” (1.23.122).8 Still, it is not without reason that this thoroughly pessimistic Montaigne, who seems willing to see laws twisted in the hands of kings and magistrates, jars against our sense of Montaigne as a champion of honest dealing. It is difficult to believe that this is the same Montaigne who says that “[e]n vérité le mentir est un maudit vice [car n]ous ne sommes hommes, et ne nous tenons les uns aux autres que par la parole” (1.9.36).9 However, what emerges from a careful rereading of Montaigne’s writings on custom is an image of the author as a much more complex figure than either of these reified positions suggests, one who not only grudgingly accepts the need to make personal accommodations to custom in the name of social order, but actively engages in a practice of reading—and writing—that he hopes will further that good by serving as a model of how to engage creatively with custom in order to better society.
“The diversity in fashions from one nation to another affects me only with the pleasure of variety” (3.9.916).
“usage robs us of the true appearance of things” (1.23.101); “disgust[ing] innovation” (1.23.104); “make the laws will what they can do” (1.23.108); I am hardly the first to have noticed this mix of liberal social critique and conservative politics in Montaigne’s work on custom. Ullrich Langer (“Justice Légale” 223), Papa Gueye (39), and Dean Frye (21-22) all make reference to it in their work.
“In truth lying is an accursed vice. We are men, and hold together, only by our word” (1.9.28).
The initial strategy in Montaigne’s critique is to use figures of blankness, purity, and naturalness as a ground from which to launch his assault on European society at large. A justification for this strategy can be found in Montaigne’s essay “Des Menteurs” [Of Liars], where he argues that his faulty memory does not necessarily mean that he has faulty judgment “car il se voit par experience plustost au rebours, que les memoires excellentes se joignent volontiers aux jugements debiles” (1.9.34).10 For Montaigne a blank memory is precisely what makes it difficult for one to fall into lying, or to rely excessively on the authority of written texts, practices which could actually dull one’s sense of judgment. Similarly, writing, like a good memory, can lead one to lie; thus he notes that “[i]l est bien aisé à verifier que les grands autheurs, escrivant des causes, ne se servent pas seulement de celles qu’ils estiment estre vraies, mais de celles encores qu’ils ne croient pas, pourveu qu’elles ayent quelque invention et beauté” (3.6.898-9).11 In other words, blankness, not text, ensures for Montaigne that one can speak—and judge— the truth.
And custom, for its part, operates very much like writing, gradually accreting in a haphazard fashion until it overwhelms our senses and our judgment. The very organization—or lack thereof—of Montaigne’s chapter “Des coustumes” echoes the haphazardness suggested by his statement, in another essay on custom, that “[j]e veux icy entasser aucunes façons … que j’ay en memoire, les unes de mesme les nostres, les autres “the opposite is seen by experience: that excellent memories are prone to be joined to feeble judgments” (1.9.25).
“It is quite easy to verify that great authorities, writing of causes, do not only make use of those they esteem true, but those that they do not believe, provided they have a certain inventiveness or beauty.” differentes” (1.49.297).12 In “Des coustumes,” Montaigne does precisely this, providing, at one point, two full pages of undigested and decontextualized customs—Ullrich Langer calls them “simultaneous” and “vertiginous,” suggesting the image of “examples in a void” (“Montaigne’s Customs” 82, 93)—distinguishable only by the bald, anaphoric “où” [“where”] that precedes each of them (1.23.112-114). At first the effect is jarring, but ultimately it is numbing: we can become accustomed, Montaigne suggests, to this variety of customs, but “l’accoustumance hebete nos sens” (1.23.109).13 Thus, the sounding of “une fort grosse cloche … aux premiers jours me semblant insupportable, en peu de temps m’apprivoise, de maniere que je l’oy sans offense et souvent sans m’en esveiller” (1.23.110): the price of becoming accustomed to something is that we become deaf and blind to the existence of custom itself.14 The ramifications of this numbing quality of custom, according to Montaigne, are twofold and contradictory: first, it causes us to view our own customs as natural, and all others as strange, fixing people “sur le train auquel ils sont nais” (1.49.296); second, it produces a taste for novelty in us, making us “capable de changer l’opinion et d’advis tous les mois, s’il plait à la coustume” (1.49.296).15 This paradoxical capacity of custom to both encourage and discourage change could perhaps be seen as a rational process in “I want to pile up here some … fashions that I have in my memory, some like ours, others different” (1.49.262).
“habit stupefies our senses” (1.23.94) The ringing of “a very big bell … seems unendurable at first, but in a short time it has me tamed, so that I hear it without disturbance and often without awaking” (1.23.94).
“the ways to which they were born” (1.49.261); “capable of changing opinion and ideas every month, if custom pleases” (1.49.262) which there is room for minor changes in custom, but not for more significant changes.