Assistant Professor of English, UC Santa Barbara
James Kearney is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001 and taught at Yale University from 2002 to 2006. His research interests include early modern drama, poetry, and prose; Reformation and Counter-Reformation thought; colonial discourse and postcolonial theory; and the history of the book. He has published articles on Shakespeare and Spenser and is currently completing a book project entitled The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England, an exploration of the central role that the material book played in the cultural imagination of Reformation England. The manuscript investigates early modern controversies concerning materiality from the relic and the sacrament to the trinket and the fetish in order to trace a partial history of the book within the crisis of representation brought about by the Reformation. Professor Kearney is affiliated with the Early Modern Center, the Renaissance Studies Program, and the Transcriptions Project at UCSB.
Research Sample: From “The Book and the Fetish: The Materiality of Prospero’s Text.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.3 Fall (2002).
At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that, in order to understand the significance of the absence of Prospero’s books from the text of The Tempest, it would be useful to examine the central role that conceptions of literacy and materiality play in the European understanding of the barbarous other. As the embodiment of European letters, Prospero’s books function to mark Prospero’s superiority to the “primitive” Caliban. At the same time, they are potentially the marker of a false materialism–a materialism that must be repudiated or abjured if the European Prospero is to take his proper place in the emergent order of a reformed imperialism. Using anecdotes describing the awe that natives held for books and book culture, Europeans granted themselves a “literal advantage” in their own emergent understanding of the book as a text with only a contingent relation to any material form. If the audience never sees Prospero’s all-important book, if The Tempest stages the book as a Real Absence around which all else revolves, it is so that its powers may become transcendentally unlocated. The power of the book is everywhere and nowhere.
But the fetishism of this dematerialized text is articulated in the same language that the concept of the fetish attempts to demonize: the language of the power of things (books, amulets, trinkets) to charm. The fetish that Europeans decried as an object that enslaves the superstitious and unenlightened takes up its own disembodied position at the center of European dominion. Prospero’s book is a fetish that charms but whose power is the more invulnerable in that we do not seem able to see it or touch it. But when the book goes, so does Prospero. The cloak and the staff are the visible supplements that constitute Prospero’s power, both within the fiction of the play, and on the material stage of the Renaissance theater. But in the end, it is the destruction of the Absent Presence–Prospero’s book–that will unname Prospero. In the triumphalist reading of the play, Prospero abjures his barbarous magic so that he can take his proper place in the new world of enlightened Europe, but on the stage the audience sees a character systematically divesting himself of the personae–the masks and prostheses–through which his person is constituted. Relinquishing the magic of things, abandoning the wonder and immanence that characterize the fictional island and the material stage, Prospero begins to undo himself; as he says, “Every third thought shall be my grave” (5.1.311). In the “unaccommodated” wizard, the “bare, forked” thing that Prospero becomes in the epilogue, the audience watches a peddler come to sell his spent wares, a penitent come to beg its indulgence. As Prospero leaves his part behind him, an actor walks toward the audience, an actor haunted by the material props that called him into existence, by the book that provided all his charms.