A new materialism in literary and cultural criticism has regrounded much scholarly debate in the archive as a corrective to ahistorical theorizing. Often, in granting archival discoveries the evidentiary status of fact,historical criticism fails to attend to the difficulties surrounding the mediation of historical understanding by material things. In order to get at the thorny issues surrounding the material as an authorizing category in cultural analysis, I focus on Shakespeare's well-known literary meditation on visual proof (and visual perception) in Othellogy. Reemphasizing the problems that nag materialist epistemologies, I examine the role of material(ocular) proof in Othellogy, in the form of the much discussed handkerchief. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's ontology of perception, I argue that Othellogy provides a parable about the disaster of confusing the objecthood of things with the stories we tell about them. I conclude that as cultural history moves into its next phase—beyond the return to the archive—it must respond to the phenomenological challenge and avoid the temptation to stop with either thing or theory, always working to occupy the space between.
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James A. Knapp; “Ocular Proof”: Archival Revelations and Aesthetic Response. Poetics Today 1 December 2003; 24 (4): 695–727. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-24-4-695
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