The Full Wiki

New Historicism: Wikis

Advertisements
  
  

Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.

Encyclopedia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

New Historicism is a school of literary theory, grounded in critical theory, that developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s.[1]

New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature, which documents the new discipline of the history of ideas. Michel Foucault based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand the episteme of a particular time. New Historicism is claimed to be a more neutral approach to historical events, and to be sensitive towards different cultures.

H. Aram Veeser, introducing an anthology of essays, The New Historicism (1989), noted some key assumptions that continually reappear in New Historicist discourse; they were:

  • that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices;
  • that every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes;
  • that literary and non-literary "texts" circulate inseparably;
  • that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths, nor expresses inalterable human nature;
  • that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.[2]

Contents

The study

"Sub-literary" texts and uninspired non-literary texts all came to be read as documents of historical discourse, side-by-side with the "great works of literature". A typical focus of New Historicist critics, led by Stephen Orgel, has been on understanding Shakespeare less as an autonomous great author in the modern sense than as a clue to the conjunction of the world of Renaissance theatre—a collaborative and largely anonymous free-for-all—and the complex social politics of the time.[3] In this sense, Shakespeare's plays are seen as inseparable from the context in which he wrote. See contextualism, thick description. Influential historians behind the eruption of the New Historicism are Fernand Braudel and the Annales school.[4]

In this shift of focus, a comparison can be made with the best discussions of works of decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms, comparable to the literary New Criticism, under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations—"the limits of the possible" in economic historian Fernand Braudel's famous phrase. An outstanding pioneer example of such a contextualized study was Peter Thornton's monograph Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978).

Pre-history

In its historicism and in its political interpretations, New Historicism is indebted to Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its cruder forms) tends to see literature as part of a 'superstructure' in which the economic 'base' (i.e. material relations of production) manifests itself, New Historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society. This view derives primarily from Michel Foucault and his work in critical theory.

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no 'fixed' literary value above and beyond the way specific societies read them in specific situations, New Historicism also owes something to postmodernism. However, New Historicists tend to exhibit less skepticism than postmodernists and to show more willingness to perform the 'traditional' tasks of literary criticism: i.e. explaining the text in its context, and asking how the text enforces the cultural practices that it depends on for its own production and dissemination.

New Historicism shares many of the same theories as with what is often called Cultural materialism, but cultural materialist critics are even more likely to put emphasis on the present implications of their study and to position themselves in disagreement to current power structures, working to give power to traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the distinction between "high" and "low" culture and often focus predominantly on the productions of "popular culture." (Newton 1988). [7] New Historicists analyze text with an eye to history. With this in mind, New Historicism is not “new”. Many of the critiques that existed between the 1920s and the 1950s also focused on literature's historical content. These critics based their assumptions of literature on the connection between texts and their historical contexts (Murfin & Supriya 1998).

New historicism also has something in common with the historical criticism of Hippolyte Taine, who argued that a literary work is less the product of its author's imaginations than the social circumstances of its creation, the three main aspects of which Taine called race, milieu, and moment. It is also a response to an earlier historicism, practiced by early 20th century critics such as John Livingston Lowes, which sought to de-mythologize the creative process by reexamining the lives and times of canonical writers. But New Historicism differs from both of these trends in its emphasis on ideology: the political disposition, unknown to an author himself, that governs his work.

Foucauldian basis

New Historicism frequently addresses the critical theory based idea that the lowest common denominator for all human actions is power, so the New Historicist seeks to find examples of power and how it is dispersed within the text. Power is a means through which the marginalized are controlled, and the thing that the marginalized (or, other) seek to gain. This relates back to the idea that because literature is written by those who have the most power, there must be details in it that show the views of the common people. New Historicists seek to find "sites of struggle" to identify just who is the group or entity with the most power.

Foucault's conception of power is neither reductive nor synonymous with domination. Rather he understands power (in modern times at least) as continually articulated on knowledge and knowledge on power. Nevertheless, his work in the 1970s on prisons may have been influential on the New Historicists. In these studies Foucault examined shifts in the mechanisms of power in these institutional settings. His discussions of techniques included the panopticon, a theoretical prison system developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and particularly useful for New Historicism.

Bentham stated that the perfect prison/surveillance system would be a cylindrical shaped room that held prison cells on the outside walls. In the middle of this spherical room would be a large guard tower with a light that would shine in all the cells. The prisoners thus would never know for certain whether they were being watched, so they would effectively police themselves, and be as actors on a stage, giving the appearance of submission, even when they are probably not being watched.

Foucault included the panopticon in his discussions on the technologies of power in part to illustrate the idea of lateral surveillance, or self-policing, that occurs when those who are subject to these techniques of power believe they are being watched. His purpose was to show that these techniques of power go beyond mere force and could prompt different regimes of self-discipline among those subject to the exercise of these visibility techniques. This often meant that, in effect, prisoners would often fall into line whether or not there was an actual need to do so.

Although the influence of such philosophers as French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser and Marxists Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton were essential in shaping the theory of New Historicism, the work of Foucault also appears influential. Although some critics believe that these former philosophers have made more of an impact on New Historicism as a whole, there is a popularly held recognition that Foucault’s ideas have passed through the New Historicist formation in history as a succession of épistémes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within a culture (Myers 1989). It is indeed evident that the categories of history used by New Historicists have been standardised academically. Although the movement is publicly disapproving of the periodisation of academic history, the uses to which New Historicists put the Foucauldian notion of the épistéme amount to very little more than the same practice under a new and improved label (Myers 1989).

Insofar as Greenblatt has been explicit in expressing a theoretical orientation, he has identified the ethnography and theoretical anthropology of Clifford Geertz as highly influential.

Criticism

New historicism has suffered from criticism, most particularly from the clashing views of those considered to be postmodernists. New Historicism denies the claim that society has entered a "post-modern" or "post-historical" phase and allegedly ignited the 'culture wars' of the 1980s (Seaton, 2000). The main points of this argument are that new historicism, unlike post-modernism, acknowledges that almost all historic views, accounts, and facts they use contain biases which derive from the position of that view. As Carl Rapp states: "[the new historicists] often appear to be saying, 'We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own'"[5].

Camile Paglia likewise cites "the New Historicism coming out of Berkeley" as an "issue where the PC academy thinks it's going to reform the old bad path, I have been there before they have been, and I'm there to punish and expose and to say what they are doing...a piece of crap."[6]

Some complaints (including those of Harold Bloom) sometimes made about New Historicism are that it seems to reduce literature to a footnote of history. It has also been said that it does not pay attention to the details involved with analyzing literature. (See School of Resentment) New Historicism simply states historical issues that literature may make connections without explaining why it has done this, lacking in-depth knowledge of literature and its structures.

References

  1. ^ David Mikics, ed. A New Handbook of Literary Terms, 2007, s.v. "New historicism".
  2. ^ Veeser, ed. The New Historicism, (Routledge, Chapman and Hall) 1989, "Introduction", p. xi. Nineteen essays by contributors.
  3. ^ An "ancestor" of the New Historicism noted in Mikics is C.L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), which set the comedies against a contemporary cultural background of popular traditions like the "lord of misrule", where authority was inverted, transgressed and burlesqued.
  4. ^ A connection made by Mikics, op. cit.
  5. ^ http://www-english.tamu.edu/pers/fac/myers/historicism.html Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006
  6. ^ http://www.reason.com/news/show/29737.html Interview with Reason Magazine

Further reading

  • The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 2004, 4th edn, Oxford University Press,South Melbourne.
  • Dixon, C. 2005, Important people in New Historicism, viewed 26 April 2006, [1]
  • Felluga, D. 2003, General introduction to New Historicism, viewed 28 April 2006, [2]
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translation of Surveiller et Punir. Vintage, 1979.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U Chicago P, 1980.
  • Hedges, W. 2000, New Historicism explained, viewed 20 March 2006 [3]
  • Murfin, R. & Ray, S 1998, The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, St Martins.
  • Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, [4]
  • Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare. Routledge, 2002.
  • Rice, P. & Waugh, P. 1989, Modern literary theory: a reader, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Melbourne.
  • Seaton, J. 1999, "The metaphysics of postmodernism", review of Carl Rapp, Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism (1998), in Humanitas 12.1 (1999), viewed 29 April 2006, [5]
  • Veeser, H. Aram (Ed.). The New Historicism. Routledge, 1989.

External links

Advertisements

Advertisements






Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address
Message