Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2009. 278pp.  ISBN 978 0 8122 4118 1.

Colleen E. Kennedy
The Ohio State University

Colleen E. Kennedy. “Review of Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare.." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 10.1-12 <URL:>

  1. The Archimedes Palimpsest, now in the Walter Arts Museum of Baltimore, is a vellum manuscript complete with stains, tears, which has a forged twentieth-century Byzantine images overlying thirteenth-century Greek Orthodox liturgies by the monastic scribe Ioannes Myronas, which partially obscures a fifth-century Greek copy of the philosopher Archimedes. This unique document, which layers centuries of use and reuse, writings, erasures, and rewritings, becomes the paragon of the untimely matter of Jonathan Gil Harris’s erudite and engaging work.

  2. Drawing on numerous theories and scholars, Harris challenges the fetishizing of the object apparent in end-of-the-century New Historicist studies: “For a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespearean scholars, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing” (1). Harris, while decidedly invested in material culture and cultural materialism, makes a call for polychronization of the object, studying the time of the thing and its agency as well as broadening the definitions of material culture and temporality. Material culture should include some immaterial culture, such as smells and touch, as well as the blurring boundaries between object and subject, such as the actor’s physical body.

  3. Most early modern material culture, Harris asserts, is like the Archimides Palimpsest and can be explored in its three distinct transtemporal organizations of time: supersession, explosion, and conjunction. The book is divided into three main sections based on this partitioning of temporal negotiations. Simply expressed, the initial chapters on supersession create the thesis, explosion the antithesis, and conjunction the synthesis of untimely matter.

  4.  Supersession works like Myronas’ palimpsesting an ancient manuscript, “preserving, negating, and transcending” the older materials (15). In the two chapters on supersession, Harris employs Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung, “capture, cancellation, and transcendence,” to consider east-west palimpsests which attempt to transcend the past and the Oriental by insisting on the future and Occidental (35). Harris ultimately demonstrates that these palimpsested texts create temporal hybrids but not definite moments of supersession.

  5. Harris uses George Herbert’s The Temple, especially the difficult “The Church Militant,” as poetry that attempts to supercede Judaism and the insistence on the material while realizing that Calvinistic eschatology, with its focus on the spiritual, cannot yet transcend the material world.

  6. Continuing his discussion of supersession, Harris deftly creates a chapter that considers the polychronic intertheatricality of Shakespeare’s appropriations of Oriental characters in the Second Henriad. In this reading, the versatility of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the actors’ physical bodies supercede the Marlovian bombast of Tamburlaine and the histrionics of Corpus Christi tyrants in order to ascend to a more self-conscious acting style. Although Harris’s argument here is especially compelling, his suggestion that this newer acting style could have “political applicability” outside of Henry V’s reign is underdeveloped.

  7. In the second section Harris focuses on explosion, which, like Archimedes’ principles that haunt the Christian text of Myronas, alters and interrupts the new material as the old material still asserts its force and agency. In The Survey of London, the spectres of London’s Judaic past still haunt John Stow’s chorography. Stow (mis)translates a Hebraic marker into Latin and then the vernacular, positing the movements of religious and cultural supersession within England, but Stow also describes the converted sites of Old Jewry and old Catholic monuments while refusing to record the names of the superceding Protestant works. For Stow, London’s material past is culturally and temporally heterogenous.

  8. In another explosive moment, Harris traces the olfactory connotations of gunpowder on and off the early modern stage. This chapter is definitely the closest Harris comes to the older New Historicist approach as the staged matter challenges the powers of state and church. The squibs used for the staged storm scenes in Macbeth are conflated with the audiences’ recent memories of the Gunpowder Plot and King James’ nimble nose as well as a nostalgia for Catholic “Harrowing of Hell” style plays and the lack of “smells and bells” in the Anglican church. The stage subverts the inodorous Anglican Church by recreating the scents associated with Catholicism and rebellion. The argument is convincing because of Harris’s expansive theoretical background and his close attention to the personal connection to (im)material culture.

  9. In the final section, Harris contemplates conjunction, the synthesis of his theory of untimely matter.  Conjunction is the conversation created between the two times and the different materials of texts, such as finding the commonalities between Christian and Greek philosophic thought that could link the texts of the Archimedes’ Palimpsest. Conjunction, however, does not cancel or transcend the untimely matter but allows a blurring of subject and object.

  10. Harris creates a queer dialogue between Margaret Cavendish, the seventeenth-century Royalist writer, with Helene Cixous, the twentieth-century Algerian-French feminist. Both writers find an affinity between themselves and Cleopatra, herself a much discussed and debated polychronic body. Furthermore, both women experience matter through tactility and the sensuousness of “other-love”, unifying, pluralizing, and destabilizing the boundaries between subject and object, the lover and beloved.

  11. Finally, Harris compares the crumpled handkerchiefs of two diverse texts: Othello and Michel Serres’s philosophy of intersecting points of time. In Othello, the handkerchief is always in the wrong hands at the wrong time, has several conflicting narratives about its origins and powers, and becomes a subject with its own agency. Returning to the themes covered in earlier chapters through the handkerchief’s description as “fetish” or “trifle” creates another system of familiar binaries. The handkerchief becomes an untimely palimpsest of too many temporalities, crumpling under its myriad significations.

  12. Harris nimbly weaves together more canonical theories with queer theory, “thing theory,” and anthropological and scientific models of thought to create an encyclopedic critique of early modern untimely matter. The theory never overwhelms the evidence as Harris’s nuanced attention to the trifles and atoms of material culture balances the heady critical apparatus. Using canonical texts in such new and engaging ways, Harris demonstrates that matter is not inert and stable, but fluid, dynamic, and untimely. This work makes a strong call for now to be the time of reconsidering other moments of transtemporality in the early modern period.



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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).