Response to Bryan Reynolds's "Book Review Ethics"

Rebecca Nesvet
University of Gloucestershire

Nesvet, Rebecca. "Response to Bryan Reynolds's "Book Review Ethics". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 17.1-7<URL:>.

  1. In "Book Review Ethics: A Transversal Perspective Inspired by the Case of Rebecca Nesvet", Bryan Reynolds erroneously claims that my "main criticism" of his Becoming Criminal is of his "suggestion that history is mediated" (paragraph 4) [1]. I accept that the historical record is mediated - though it is not completely, invariably, unintelligible - and that human perspective can be wildly subjective in spite of human pursuit of objective truth. At the same time, I question Reynolds's use of these facts, in both Becoming Criminal and "Ethics", as excuses alternately to jump to speculative conclusions based on superficial readings and illogical precepts, and to disown those same conclusions. Here, I hope to clarify several points of my review which Reynolds has either "grossly misrepresented" ("Ethics", par. 1) or misread. I intend also to defend my objections to his particularly untenable argument that, in the study of early modern history, "consistency of representation" should be understood as relatively "strong evidence." In Becoming Criminal and in "Ethics", Reynolds sometimes affirms and, at other times, rejects that method - along with all other known ways of seeking to determine facts of the past. Lastly, I will question the validity of his expectation of greater respect for personal 'authority' than for rational argument.

  2. Reynolds contends that I find the mediated nature of "history" "dangerous because… she interprets historical fact as absolute reality" ("Ethics", par. 4). That is right: historical fact - what has happened, not what we suspect or can know has happened - is reality, or was. An event either has occurred or it hasn't. While conceding that "events occur," Reynolds asserts that "the more time, space, and diverse representations of events separate us from them, the more difficult it is to discern absolutely what actually occurred" ("Ethics", par. 4). This is not always true. I expect many of us are more certain that John Fenton assassinated Buckingham in 1628 than we are that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy in 1963. I am fairly certain that the lower depths of the Atlantic Ocean, very far from the city where I live, contain H.M.S. Titanic, or most parts of it, but the contents of a minivan intriguingly marked "NO TOOLS LEFT IN VAN" and usually parked a short distance down the road from my house are unknown to me.

  3. Reynolds affirms my point, made in my review, "that a number of writers agree that something exists does not mean that it does, or ever did", calling this a "crucial point" he himself "make[s] throughout the book… even though" he "acknowledge[s] 'consistency of representation' as a strong form of evidence" ("Ethics" par. 4). In other words, consensus does not constitute "evidence" that "something exists", but "consistency of representation" is evidence. Therefore, we:

    (a) cannot know objectively what has happened in the past; excepting:
    (b) if and when those commentators whose assertions survive today have all corroborated the same theory; in which case:
    (c) there is "strong… evidence" that they are correct.
    This theory contradicts itself: (a) asserts the diametrical opposite of (b). In Becoming Criminal, Reynolds escapes from this paradoxical position by declaring that the assertions of the consensus are just as likely to be accurate as any other viewpoint, deserving serious consideration because all other methods are as likely to be useless. In consequence, he claims to "remain non-committal about the facts, to which we can never have unmediated access" ("Ethics" par. 6). Built on speculation, this approach is grounded in despair. If it is good practice to "remain non-committal about the facts" because finding any kind of truth is hopeless, what purpose is there in writing non-fiction books at all?

  4. As for Reynolds's assertion about my reading of Becoming Criminal, page 124, I took the notion that a "criminal culture" existed in early modern England to be Reynolds's main argument. He presents this as the book's hypothesis, beginning with the first chapter's first words:
    Beginning in sixteenth-century England, a distinct criminal culture of rogues, vagabonds, gypsies, beggars, cony-catchers, cutpurses, and prostitutes emerged and flourished. This community was self-defined by the criminal conduct and dissident thought promoted by its members, and officially defined against the dominant preconceptions of English cultural normality. In this book I argue that this amalgamated criminal culture… was united by its own aesthetic, ideology, language, and lifestyle. [2]
    Here, Reynolds writes not that a 'criminal culture' possibly emerged and flourished, but that it positively did, though he qualifies these assertions by claiming "all our means of exploring criminal culture are highly mediated," and therefore of uncertain validity (124). He then negates his proclaimed uncertainty by periodically making statements worded as to make the existence of criminal culture seem a fact. With reference to Nietzschean 'immoralism', he writes:
    Criminal culture was an immoralist culture with a motley population of wrongdoers and anti-Christians who unabashedly reaped the benefits of official culture's Christian benevolence and morality. (Becoming Criminal,153)

    "Criminal culture", Reynolds claims, "was." Not, it "might have been" but it "was."

  5. Reynolds incorrectly paraphrases me when he claims I "suggest...that the [1566] statute may in fact refer to "crypto-Catholics" instead of cutpurses" ("Ethics" par 9), As most readers should be able to tell, I did not suggest that the subjects targeted by the act are Catholics and not cutpurses. I questioned whether the wording of the statute may have been chosen to demonise cutpurses (its target) by parallelling them with the clergy of the outlawed church. I do not know that the authorities who worded the statute in fact meant to liken cutpurses to Catholics. However, the possibility that the idea of 1560s criminals as a 'fraternity' dedicated to a 'mystery' may have been 'mediated' by anti-Catholic agendas deserves further enquiry. Indeed, Reynolds concedes that this hypothesis "is a distinct possibility", which he avoided considering in order to "focus on what appears to be the clearly stated purposes of the statute" (par 9). Many texts of this era, from political allegory-infused romances and plays to the King James Bible, have been thought to incorporate agendas beyond their stated or surface purposes. Despite this, Reynolds chooses to take the surface statements and apparent 'purposes' of the 1566 statute at face value, without investigating less literal readings which he himself admits might be valid.

  6. In his claim that "Nesvet never provides evidence to refute any of my working conclusions about the existence of a criminal culture in early modern England" ("Ethics" par. 7), Reynolds is absolutely correct. As in the case of the cutpurses statute, I do not claim to know that his theory is wrong. I merely remain unconvinced that it is probably correct. Although he has made as many statements disowning "consistency of representation" as "a strong form of evidence" as defending it, I find his sometime use and promotion of this idea extremely problematic. Foucault warned that although all human attempts at understanding are mediated, not all explanations of all phenomena are equally tenable. "There are a certain number of things that one can say with some certainty about a concentration camp" of the Nazi Holocaust "to the effect that it is not an instrument of liberation" (Foucault 245, emphasis mine). [3] What if a scholar were to find that the only extant contemporary representations of a modern campaign of genocide form a consensus declaring it an "instrument of liberation"? Could we call that "strong evidence" - before a commission to try suspected perpetrators and grant reparations? Because situations like this can transpire, and often do, I agree with Reynolds's belief that "practitioners" of methods of enquiry "should be held accountable insofar as the results influence society" ("Ethics" par. 10). Those "practitioners" should include Reynolds.

  7. As Reynolds repeatedly emphasises, the arguments of Becoming Criminal and "Ethics" are predicated upon the contention that the past is unknowable due to biased historians' inability to read it objectively. He accepts the authority of this precept, but should we? It is a long-standing idea, traceable at least to hermeneutics founding father Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960, trans. 1975).[4] Abolishing distinctions between ecclesiastic and secular hermeneutics, Gadamer proposes that "the unique significance of the detail" of history "can be determined only from the whole"-'universal history', which "can never be given to the empirical researcher." Situated inside history, 'the researcher' is unable to interpret it with objectivity (Gadamer 200). Later, Gadamer states:

    In seeking to understand tradition historical consciousness must not rely on the critical method with which it approaches its sources, as if this preserved it from mixing in its own judgements and prejudices… To be situated within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible. (361)
    Richard Wolin notes that Gadamer excludes the "analytical… capacities of Enlightenment" in favour of "the authority of tradition," confident that "what authority states is not irrational and arbitrary, but can be seen, in principle, to be true" (Wolin 103).[5] 'True' because it is respected and not the other way around, this 'authority' is invested in the "the teacher, the superior, [and] the expert," among others (103). As "Ethics" contains much cleverness, but very little engagement with the arguments of my review, Reynolds may need an intellectual culture in which established authority is held to be more persuasive than reason.


[1] Bryan Reynolds, "Book Review Ethics: A Transversal Perspective Inspired by the Case of Rebecca Nesvet". EMLS 10.3 (January, 2005). <URL:>, consulted 2 December 2004.

[2] Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 1. I apologise for the use of the ellipsis. As in my initial review, which was written to a word target of 750, I use it in the interest of brevity, not misrepresentation nor censorship.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth, trans. Sylvère Lotringer (1984; New York: Autonomedia, 1998).

[4] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method: Second Edition, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (1975; London: Sheed and Ward, 1989). Gadamer is not mentioned in Becoming Criminal.

[5] Richard Wolin. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

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