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This review appeared in Volume 3 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Disorderly Semiotics

by Lisa J. Schnell

Vagrant Writing: Social and Semiotic Disorders in the English Renaissance. By Barry Taylor, Toronto, Buffalo: The University of Toronto Press, 1391. viii + 246. Includes index. (ISBN 0-8020-5885-X)

The title of Barry Taylor's book seems to promise a look at the intersection of historical conditions and textual representations concerning some of Renaissance culture's most marginalized figures. And indeed, the introductory chapter does recount several fascinating examples of the general perception among the middle class and aristocracy of the social and semiotic disorders perpetrated by sixteenth-century vagabonds. Thomas Harman's translation of what he calls the "canting speech" of the vagrant in his 1566 Caveat for Common Cursitors is a particularly fine indication, as Taylor says, of the perceived challenge the vagrant posed to "the conceptual order of the sign" (11):

The upright cove canteth to the rogue: The upright man speaketh to the rogue.
UPRIGHT MAN. Bene lightmans to thy quarroms! In what libken hast thou libbed in this darkmans, whether in a libbege or in the strummel?
Good-morrow to thy body! In what house hast thou lain in all night, whether in a bed or in the straw?
ROGUE. I couched a hogshead in a skipper this darkmans. I laid me down to sleep in a barn this night. (quoted by Taylor 11)

Particularly in the case of the notorious species of sixteenth-century vagabond, the coney-catcher, this linguistic disruption also signals a disturbance in established social relations. Thus Harman proposes in his pamphlet that all vagrants

will carry a certificate or passport about them from some Justice of the Peace, with his hand and seal unto the same, how he hath been whipped and punished for a vagabond according to the laws of this realm, and that he must return to T -- , where he was born or last dwelt, by a certain day limited in the same, which shall be a good long day. And all this feigned, because without fear they would wickedly wander, and will renew the same where or when it pleaseth them; for they have of their affinity that can write and read. (quoted by Taylor 9-10)

As Taylor explains, "the certificate or passport is a piece of writing which stands in for the 'natural' relation between subject and place of birth which the vagrant has broken, an artificial means of resealing the relation of person to origin" (10).The semiotic thus operates as social disorder because, as the quotation above implies, the social order is understood as conceptual order of legitimate signs.

Taylor's semiotic reading of sixteenth-century vagabonds and the pamphlets written about them is fascinating. And yet, it is not long until we discover that it is not at all with masterless men that the book is concerned. In an early note Taylor suspends his interest in actual vagrants:

The question of the factual status of the vagabond pamphlets, and so of the vagrancy 'problem' itself, is not pertinent to my own discussion, which concerns the imaginative power of the vagrant within a certain predominating ideological and signifying framework. The vagrant is both real and imaginary. For the historical evidence, see Beier (1985). (215, n.2)

Taylor clarifies this distinction in his opening discussion of the period's antitheatrical tracts with their stinging invectives against both the itinerant actor and the theatre's representation of the arbitrariness of social order. Taylor suggests that "within the terms of the Commonwealth imaginary (discursive environment) it is not possible to disentangle the semiotic force of social disorder from the social force of a disorderly semiotics" (14). He explains:

It is at this chiasmic intersection that Vagrant Writing pitches its enquiry. In doing so, its aim is not to celebrate a putative oppositional politics of the signifier, with the vagrant, the cony-catcher, the gipsy, the harlot and the itinerant actor as its transgressive activists. The demonising of transgressive individuals within the discourses of Commonwealth is precisely a strategy of displacement which seeks to contain an anxiety -- at once volubly expressed and forcefully disavowed -- that the sources of disorder are to be located systemically, in an internal dislocation and divagation of order and authority themselves. In short, what the ideologists of Commonwealth confront is not such a transgressive mobilisation of the signifier as a structurally motivated crisis of the sign in toto: a release of the energies of differentiation and dissemination which threatens to expose as imaginary both the immutable Signified of the Word, order of Commonwealth which it underwrites. (14)

It is thus in the "imaginary" power of the vagrant that Taylor is interested, the imaginary as it is manifested in a crisis within the ideologically-driven signifying practices of the Renaissance. Taylor's project is to describe and analyze the functioning of the ideology of order in Renaissance texts, texts that are trying to cope with the unsettling possibility that the forces of semiotic disorder inhabit the sites of social order as well Masterless texts, not masterless men, are the subject of this book.

Taylor's argument is based on what he understands as the sixteenth century's negotiation within conceptual economies made up of binary, but hierarchically organized, terms. He begins with the example of the economy of the Royal Household under Edward IV and the two departments into which it was divided: the office of the Domus Regie Magnificencie, charged with displaying the magnificence of the Royal Household; and the discreet Domus Regie Providencie, the financial brains behind the former whose main task it was to ensure that all that ceremony was prudently managed. As Taylor explains, the economy represented by Edward's medieval household is composed of "two terms hierarchically disposed: an immaterial term prior to and determining a sensible" (42). It is the connection of this significant Household economy to a larger hierarchy that forms Taylor's thesis. As he explains, the relationship between human affairs and unseen authority that we detect in the above example finds its source in the ideological activity of the medieval Church, which attempted to establish the nature of the relationship between worldly affairs and Divine authority. And this binary structure is theorized semiologically: the theory of the sign is grounded in a binary structure which is strictly homologous to the structure of oppositions which govern cosmological speculation" (42-3). Thus we have a network of related binary structures: the medieval household economy of Edward IV, Taylor explains, "aligns the central institutions of the emerging English state with a dominant economy of cosmological relations and its attendant economy of the sign" (43). In the Edward IV's England, then semiotic order -- the proper functioning of the Royal Household -- indicates social order; and the association of Household, State and Church is underwritten by the unseen authority of the divine Word. The 'natural truth' of the social order imitates metaphysical Truth, setting up a hierarchy -- a privileging of the signified over the signifier -- that Taylor claims legitimizes the secular authority of the Court during the sixteenth century. The hierarchy of truth also posits a social order -- the harmonious association of the Court and society -- that Taylor refers to throughout the book as the Elizabethan ideology of Commonwealth.

This analysis of the Royal Household opens the book's lengthy second chapter, "Narcissus and the Usurer," a profoundly suggestive section that sets the terms of the rest of the book. The chapter begins with the analysis of the Royal Household and its two ideal economies to which I have already referred. Taylor then moves his argument into a proactive reading of intermediate terms that disrupt the association of the two ideal economies, images of singularity-signifiers detached from the 'natural' order -- that preoccupy the sixteenth-century mind with their threat to the precarious system of worldly and other-worldly co-dependency. All of the "agents and agencies of singularity" (76) that Taylor discusses -- the middleman, the itinerant labourer, the gypsy, the prostitute, the female play-goer, and the attendant narcissistic culture of sumptuous attire, cross-dressing, cosmetics, mirrors -- violated the economy of Commonwealth's hierarchy of truth. Taylor puts a semiotic spin on the diseconomy by describing it as an ~'expenditure of the signifier which is not founded in the signified" (65).

A particularly potent example from the 1547 Homily on Apparel comes in the form of a diatribe against the woman who uses cosmetics:

What do these women, but go about to reform that which God hath made? not knowing that all things natural are the works of God, and things disguised and unnatural be the works of the devil: and as though a wise and Christian husband should delight to see his wife in such painted and flourished visages, which common harlots most do use, to train therewith their lovers to naughtiness... She doth but waste superfluously her husband's stock by such sumptuousness, and sometimes she is the cause of much bribery, extortion and deceit in her husband's dealings, that she may be the more gorgeously set out to the sight of the vain world. to please the Devil's eyes, and not God's..(quoted by Taylor 67)

The homilist's use of the word "naughtiness" is particularly significant. For within the semiotics of Elizabethan England, Taylor reminds us, the issue of disruptive singularity also comes cloaked in the vocabulary of temporality: the agent of singularity is not 'useful' in terms of the hierarchy set by the Commonwealth; it is, therefore, idle, or naught-y. In a world where the threat of local famine and starvation are never far away from social consciousness, the Renaissance mind is obsessed with issues of idleness and usefulness, issues that Taylor claims arise directly out of an abstract ideological structure in which idleness signifies randomness, and usefulness providential propriety.

Into this semiotic world steps the image of the usurer, a signifier according to Taylor, that "involves a particularly dense thematic concentration, a strikingly comprehensive articulation of discursive levels" (76). Taylor's primary text for decoding these discursive levels is Sir Thomas Wilson's A Discourse Upon Usury (1572);

The Romaynes never began to decay till usurie lorded amongst them, for then private gain thrust oute common profite, luste was holden for lawe, ydleness more used than labour, ryott in steede of diett, vice better regarded than virtue, no charity at all, no love between man and man, but everie man for hymself, and the whorlepole of ryote overflowed in all thynges and in all places. (quoted by Taylor 77)

As Taylor explains, money, in the terms set by the Commonwealth, is "the mere mark or registration of 'just proportion': the crime of usury is to endow this pure representation of objective value with the properties of object-hood, including value" (80). The signifier becomes the signified; what is signified is a social text in which metaphysical fixity -- the Word -- is replaced by historical contingency -- the word:

Usury's estrangement of the monetary semiotic epitomises the rearticulation of ontological and social relations, the disruption of established categories of individual and collective being, which results from the emergence of a new economic (dis)order of inflationary cycles, credit transactions and commodity production within a world market. It is that historical process which poses a fundamental challenge to the ideology of Commonwealth, by recreating the world in a form which is uncontainable within its conceptual topography. (84)

This is a compelling reading of an extraordinarily complex moment in the social and economic history of England, and yet there is a kind of smoothness to the argument that is somehow suspicious. Taylor argues for a disruption in sixteenth-century socio-political orthodoxy that comes about through a Humanist-hermeneutic understanding of the world: the word is contextualized, open to historical contingency, mobile. And yet, Taylor's argument is curiously without its own mobility. Not venturing past a rather rudimentary economic summary of the century, Taylor's argument instead keeps circling back on its own binary tenets. He seems reluctant to investigate in any detail the enormously complex historical contingencies that exist behind his own argument. The theory appears to be all, and Taylor's historical investigation goes only as far as it needs to in order to facilitate the theory.

The problem is signalled in the following example from Taylor's own summary of his project at the end of the book's first chapter:

In each of (the texts to be discussed) a challenge is presented to the prevailing ideology's elevation of metaphysical being over secular becoming in each case an attempt is made to neutralize that challenge by rethinking or rewriting the relationship between the metaphysical and the secular. thereby renegotiating the legimation of secular authority while appearing to leave its metaphysical anchorage unshaken. (40. emphasis mine)

I would like to address the passive constructions I've emphasized in the above passage. Throughout Vagrant Writing Taylor is chiefly interested in the production of discourse; in particular, he is concerned with a process of "semiotic dislocation and estrangement" (22) that is active in texts despite a writer's "subordination of his discourse to the uses of the Commonwealth" (22). Taylor's identifies the process as history, ;~the medium within which all signs and meanings -- not just those of the double-talker-are characterized by metamorphic volatility which will not be contained by the transcendental fixities of the Commonwealth paradigm" (22). History is, to Taylor, a purely discursive process in which text speaks to text. Yet the passive constructions I have emphasized in the above quotation reveal the often uneasy relationship in the book between history and discourse, for they obscure and defer the identity of the subject of "challenge" and "attempt". The subject, finally, is "language," but the passives allow Taylor to dodge the issues of who is producing that language and under what conditions, of who is receiving the encoded challenge and how.

There are simply too many invisible -- indeed, ignored -- agents in this understanding of history. Historical contingency as it exists in the form of specific agents and their specifically vexed relationships to their material concerns of social milieu is all but erased in the shadow of a constitutive theory of signification where "metamorphic volatility" is a see-saw contest between the abstract ideological terms of a secular system and those of a metaphysical.

The final four chapters of the book, each dealing with the writings of a single author -- George Gascoigne, George Puttenham, Baldasare Castiglione, and Ben Jonson respectively -- all demonstrate the limits of Taylor's discursive paradigm for the Renaissance. The same binary struggle is rehearsed over and over again in Taylor's analysis of the texts he has chosen. By the time we get to chapter four, the book has become almost maddeningly repetitive. Taylor signals this himself in the oft-repeated phrases "I have already shown," "as I discussed earlier," "as we have already seen," etc. -- tedious reminders in the midst of Taylor's otherwise tortuous syntax that we have covered this ground already, that what is being executed is really just a theme and variations. But it is not simply a problem of tedium.

Like the opening chapters of Vagrant Writing, the book's final four chapters on specific authors contain many insightful reading of their texts within the semiotic paradigm he has set. But, like the book as a whole, all four chapters demonstrate a conspicuous, even a wilful, dismissal of the material conditions of sixteenth-century society. For instance, and as I have already implied, Taylor's treatment of the issue of idleness and usefulness sidesteps some of the very substantial material reasons for this sixteenth-century preoccupation in the interests of theoretical abstraction. In the case of the book's final four chapters, the material dimension that is most obviously missing is the historical situation of the author. Here, for instance, is Taylor on Jonson:

The peculiarity and difficulty of Cynthia's Revels is that it relocates the self-enclosed form and transcendentalist ideology of the masque within the open and empiricising form of the Jonsonian comedy. The comedy's commitment to education and the reformation of manners encloses the masque and its denial of the problems of courtly instruction. The play's hybrid structure reinstates the question of the dissemination of courtliness by exposing the closed circuits of the masque to the heterogenous audience of the public theatre, and by testing the education claims of the public play against the theory of the incommunicability of truth built into the masque. (185)

Despite the difficulty of Taylor's prose, what is initiated here is a suggestive reading of Cynthia's Revels, a play written toward the end of Elizabeth's reign. Yet the play is the subject of every active verb in the passage; Ben Jonson is completely absent from the discussion, erased and replaced by language. There is no sense at all in the chapter of the historical contingency of Jonson's stage career, of his own extremely vexed position visa-vis the Court. The rhetoric of Cynthia's Revels appears to be motivated only by abstract theoretical concerns; the specific situation of the author is not discussed at all.

In part because it is presented as the culmination of the book, the Jonson chapter highlights most clearly the limits of Taylor's approach to the sixteenth century. I use as my example Taylor's exegesis of the play's frame, the myth of Echo and Narcissus. In the play, Narcissus's self-love is presented as a perversion of the truth: "But self-love never yet could look on truth/ But with bleared beams" (quoted by Taylor 186). Echo, thus, as Taylor explains, "represents the possibility of a re-engagement with truth through the restoration of a heterosexual mutuality which stands for all forms of 'natural' relationship" (186). He quotes from the following speech of Echo's:

Oh, hadst thou known the worth of heaven's rich gift, Thou wouldst have turned it to a truer use.
And not, with starved and covetous ignorance. Pined in continual eyeing that bright gem,
The glance whereof to others had been more Than to thy famished mind the wide world's store:
'So wretched is it to be merely rich.' (quoted by Taylor 186-7)

Taylor's eye picks up the economic metaphors: use, covetousness -- the terms of his discussion of usury. And he says of the speech, "This is entirely characteristic of the discourse of Commonwealth and stewardship which opposes economic 'singularity'... (T)he proper destiny of wealth is not self-enrichment but its circulation through the social body" (187). In his single minded desire to fit the text into his master theory of the Renaissance -- "this is entirely characteristic" -- Taylor has completely ignored the most obviously and problematically 'singular' agent of the late 1590's, the Queen herself: Elizabeth had resolutely shunned the 'natural' relationship that would have produced an heir. And while I am not suggesting that the text is a straightforward allegory of the anxiety that surrounded Elizabeth's lack of progeny, neither is the text as "entirely characteristic" of the discursive paradigm that Taylor insists upon throughout the book.

The problem of the historical insufficiency of Vagrant Writing is also evident, in more than one way, in Taylor's discussion of gender in the book.

The more recent pieces, however..., move explicitly toward questions of gender and genre as well as of property, and the entanglements of rhetorical questions with questions of ideological framing and political consequence. A common focus of these studies is the link between the categories of rhetoric and discourse and questions of gender and ideology, the importance of rhetoric not just as a system of tropes but as a motivated discourse.

The above is not an early review of Vagrant Writing, it is Patricia Parker speaking on page one of her"Retrospective Introduction" about her own book, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property, a book that was published by Methuen in 1987. Parker's book addresses in eloquent detail, and with considerable acumen, many of the issues that Taylor claims reside at the centre of his own book. Literary Fat Ladies, not a minor event in Renaissance scholarship does not find itself mentioned anywhere in Vagrant Writing, not even in Taylor's nine-page bibliography. Ironically perhaps, though it is a sad irony, the last chapter of Literary Fat Ladies is entitled "Coming Second: Woman's Place"; it is a fate neatly perpetrated by Taylor. At least Parker is in good company in second place: with the exceptions of Lisa Jardine's Still Harping on Daughters (1983) and a single article by Mary Beth Rose on The Roaring Girl (1984), the growing body of feminist criticism of the Renaissance is absent from Taylor's bibliography.

As I indicated, however, insufficiency has more than one face in the context of Taylor's discussion of gender. Like the analyses of the individual authors' relationships to their texts, Taylor's own analysis of gender within the paradigm he sets up is curiously empty of any sense of historical materiality. The results in this case, however, can be chilling. Take, for instance, his analysis of the virulently misogynist homily on apparel (above). The misogyny of the sixteenth-century text is fuelled, one would believe, only by the homilist's political orthodoxy, his dread of singularity: woman is a trope, a metonymy for the larger issues of ideology. For Taylor, the topological reading functions as an enabling fiction that sustains his argument. It seems not to have occurred to him that there is a gruesome materiality behind his theory, real agents committing real acts of violence. It seems to me too easy -- and too dangerous -- to simply transform misogyny into a trope in any period, particularly a period in which a woman occupied the throne.

For if gender is a trope in the sixteenth century, it is chiefly because it is the issue of governance for the century. For Taylor to consider the rhetorical issue of "the negatively marked feminine" (71) -- to. in fact, announce its instalment "at the centre of this book's concerns" -- and not deal at length -- and not only in the Jonson chapter -- with the specific implications of this for Elizabeth and the contested legitimacy of her rule is to ignore not only Parker's marvellous (and marvellously readable) book, but an enormous part, to use Taylor's own term, of the sixteenth-century imaginary. The paradigmatic reading of the dichotomous Royal Household under Edward IV, for instance that begins the second chapter and sets the terms for the entire book (he reminds us of it, in fact, in the midst of the Jonson chapter (1791), simply cannot be translated so easily to Elizabeth's sixteenth century. Surely one of the primary dichotomies -- if not the primary dichotomy -- characterizing Elizabethan Court society is that of the inner and outer, where the inner is the Queen's Privy Chamber, in which politics are sexualized and privatized, and the outer is the masculine world of appearances and action, the Court. Elizabeth's hermaphroditic Body Politic straddles both, complicating Taylor's thesis immensely, not to mention the literary careers of people like Gascoigne, Puttenham, and Jonson.

My point, I should state clearly before I am misunderstood is not that Taylor is wrong. In fact, I find the book extraordinarily persuasive at time, particularly in the early chapters. Taylor's semiotic reading of the texts he chooses are often compelling ones, capable of making us rethink the place some of these texts have occupied in the Renaissance canon. The problem resides in Taylor's claim to be doing history. The semiotic readings of the texts he chooses are often compelling ones, capable of making us rethink the place some of these texts have occupied in the Renaissance canon. The problem resides in Taylor's claim to be doing history. The semiotics Taylor practises -- and indeed, this is a problem with a great deal of work that goes under the heading of new historicism, of cultural materialism -- is aimed at the discovery of a single cultural code, a set of opposition, through which specific texts, and then an entire historical process, can be read. But is this myopic process of deciphering and reinscription really history? Does an understanding of history that replaces human agency with oppositional pairs leave room for the notion of change, or reform? Let me also clarify that Taylor's is not a problem that is somehow endemic to the attempt to merge post-structuralism with historical analysis Joan Scott's Gender and the Politics of History (1988), for instance, is a brilliant example of the powerful analytic perspective that poststructural theory can offer historians. Here is Scott on oppositional terms and the production of meaning:

Although some oppositional pairs seem to recur predictably in certain cultures, their specific meanings are conveyed through new combinations of contrasts and opposition. Contests about meaning involve the introduction of new opposition, the reversal of hierarchies, the attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability. This kind of analysis, theorized by Jacques Derrida as "deconstruction", makes it possible to study systematically (though never definitely or totally) the conflictual processes that produce meanings. For the historian this adds an important new dimension to the exegetical project. (7. emphasis mine)

Scott then goes on to analyze the very real material situation of women in history using, as one part of her analytical apparatus, the poststructural dimension she explains above. (Scott's book, of course, does not appear in Taylor's bibliography.) My main criticism of Vagrant Writing is pointed out very concisely by Joan Scott's parenthetical qualification, above. Taylor's book is simply too reductive in the way it understands the process of history, is too definitive about reading the sixteenth century through a pair of oppositional terms, to become the "classic piece of scholarly analysis" that its blurb-writer predicts. Nonetheless, it remains a powerfully suggestive book and for that reason will no doubt contribute in significant ways to the growing body of historical criticism on the English Renaissance.


Parker, Patricia (1987) Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property. London and New York: Methuen.

Scott, Joan Wallach (1988) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lisa J. Schnell, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at McMaster University graduated with the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1990. She is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the various relationships between English women writers and public forms of knowledge in the seventeenth century. Her article, "Parenthetical Disturbances: Aphra Behn and the Rhetoric of Relativity" appears in the Spring/Summer 1992 volume of Semiotic Inquiry.

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