Alan Sinfield

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Cultural Materialism^ Othello, aed the Politics of
Plausibility
Alan Sinfield

Alan Sinfield's Faultlines (1992) is one of the best examples of Cultural Materialism at work. This chapter on Shakespeare's Othello is an especially forceful rendering of the Cultural Materialist argument that texts are not simple registers of social power. Rather, they must necessarily harbor dissident, fractious energies that undermine the sense of cohesive certainty that ruling elites seek to impose on a culture.

'Tis apt and of great credit

Cassio, in Shakespeare's Othello, is discovered in a drunken brawl. He laments: "Reputation, reputation, I ha' lost my reputation!" (2.3.254). Iago replies, "You have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser" (2.3.261-3), but this assertion is absurd (though attractive), since reputation is by definition a social construct, concerned entirely with one's standing in the eyes of others. In fact, language and reality are always interactive, dependent upon social recognition; reputation is only a specially explicit instance. Meaning, communication, language work only because they are shared. If you invent your own language, no one else will understand you; if you persist, you will be thought mad. Iago is telling Cassio to disregard the social basis of language, to make up his own meanings for words; it is the more perverse because Iago is the great manipulator of the prevailing stories of his society. Stephen Greenblatt has remarked how Othello's identity depends upon a constant performance of his "story";2 when in difficulty, his immediate move is to rehearse his nobility and service to the state. Actually, all the characters in Othello are telling stories, and to convince others even more than themselves. At the start, Iago and Roderigo are concocting a story - a sexist and racist story about how Desdemona is in "the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (1.1.126). Brabantio believes this story and repeats it to the Senate, but Othello contests it with his "tale": I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver, Of my whole course of love. (1.3.90-1)

744

Political Criticism

The tale is - that Othello told a story. Brabantio "Still question'd me the story of my life" (1.3.129), and this story attracted Desdemona. She asked to hear it through, observing, if I had a friend that lov'd her,

I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her.
(1.3.163-5)
So the action advances through a contest of stories, and the conditions of plausibility are therefore crucial - they determine which stories will be believed. Brabantio's case is that Othello must have enchanted Desdemona - anything else is implausible:

She is abus'd, stol'n from me and corrupted, By spells and medicines, bought of mountebanks, For nature so preposterously to err, (Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,) Sans witchcraft could not.

(1.3.60-4)
To Brabantio, for Desdemona to love Othello would be preposterous, an error of nature. To make this case, he depends on the plausibility, to the Senate, of the notion that Blacks are inferior outsiders. This, evidently, is a good move. Even characters who want to support Othello's story accept that he is superficially inappropriate as a husband for Desdemona. She says as much herself when she declares, "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" (1.3.252): this means, he may look like a black man but really he is very nice. And the Duke finally tells Brabantio: "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (1.3.290) - meaning, Othello doesn't have many of those unpleasant characteristics that we all know belong to Blacks, he is really quite like a white man.

With the conditions of plausibility so stacked against him, two main strategies are available to Othello, and he uses both. One is to appear very calm and responsible - as the Venetians imagine themselves to be. But also, and shrewdly, he uses the racist idea of himself as exotic: he says he has...
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