Theory Teacher's Blog

Why There’s No Such Thing as New Historicism

It’s a provocative title, I know. So, let’s cut to the chase.

According to the rather simplistic Cliffs Notes book on New Historicism (an approach to literary study started in the 1980s), its basic argument is that “literary theory should be studied within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic.” Now, most readers of this blog know full well that New Historicism is a much more complicated thing than that, but it’s a good starting point if only because that’s the starting point for most students who encounter it for the first time in introductory textbooks. But it begs four questions. What do practitioners of New Historicism really think they are doing? Is it any different from old historicisms? What criticisms have been made against New Historicism? And finally, how is it similar to or different from something called “Cultural Studies”?

So, first, what does it purport to be? And herein lies the problem. Two of the most celebrated founders of the “New Historicist” approach are Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, so let’s turn to their own introductory book, Practicing New Historicism (published in 2000). On the first page they assert that “above all… it resist[s] systematization.” In other words, they can’t say exactly what New Historicism is, because they define it in terms of its resistance to being defined.

This is a curious beginning. But nevertheless, we can return to the two principles (à la Cliffs Notes) with which we began. Not only does New Historicism unequivocally assert the principle that an artistic work must be read in its historical context; it also says we must reflect on the interpretive lens of the critic-scholar as well. That’s two entirely different sets of historical contexts to be thinking about, and the relationship between the two is certainly not obvious. So, the reason why New Historicism resists its own definition is because of this doubling of its object of critical study…. Hmmm…. Perhaps looking at the old historicism might help us sort this out.

Although New Historicists sometimes take credit for rescuing literary study from the naïve appreciation of authorial genius (a genius that is believed to be universal and therefore to transcend history) and an irrational valuation of literary form over content, in fact historical criticism has been for more than a century the primary activity of literary research as it has been practiced inside the halls of academia. Examples include a few classic works of literary criticism: Perry Miller’s New England Mind (published 1939), F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1941), and E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1949). But what does “historical context” mean for the old historicism? It could mean a number of things because there are actually a variety of old historicisms. It could mean biography to figure out an author’s intention and circumstances. Titles of such books are often “Life and Times of… [insert famous author’s name here].” It could mean intertextuality (how a literary text alludes to other literary texts or repeats specific narrative structures), and often the academic discipline of literary history as it is traditionally defined is basically a study of intertextuality. But the more famous examples mentioned above attempt to figure out the entire culture for which classic literary texts are simply the best and most interesting cultural artifacts. And a lot of old historicism from the 1930s was unabashedly Marxist in its attention to the material conditions of production and the ideological biases of texts.

The old historicism has not gone away, and in fact, many of the top scholars today are actually old-school historicists — for instance, David Norbrook, probably the most respected Renaissance scholar alive today, would never call himself a New Historicist. Likewise, for colonial American literature, the much respected and recently deceased Leo Lemay was in many ways a biographer of colonial American writers. Theirs has always been straight historical work — their primary question being what happened.

So, what is “new” about the New Historicism? What a mediocre textbook might tell you is that New Historicism doesn’t believe that “what happened” can be so easily understood because (1) historians are subjectively selective about the facts they consider, and (2) the archive of information itself is limited by all sorts of factors.  But this actually begs the question of why anyone would engage in historical research at all if you know before you begin that your work is inconclusive and pointless. But like I said, this textbook simplification does not describe what happens in actual practice, since few New Historicists subscribe to such simplistic relativism. In other words, the point here is not that New Historicists doubt their own objectivity. Rather, the point is precisely that New Historicism is not a single method. It includes a range of approaches, borrowing from Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism and deconstruction, feminism, queer theory, ethnic studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, trans-Atlantic and transnational theory, etc., etc., etc.  Depending on which theoretical problem one addresses, the research will be different — different questions raised, different archival data selected, and different conclusions drawn. At its best (as almost any theory textbook will tell you), New Historicism’s most valuable contribution to the field of literary study has been to put previously marginalized and suppressed cultural perspectives in dialogue with the traditionally canonized literary texts. And surprisingly, rather than undermining the traditional canon, canonized texts often appear in New Historicist work all the richer and more complex when analyzed in terms of the historically contingent power disparities of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, globalization, etc. In doing so, New Historicists are borrowing from Marxist analysis of power relations as well as from the methods of deconstructon, feminism, critical race theory, ethnic studies, and transnational critique to “decenter” dominant historical narratives.

In other words, the formula for New Historicism might be “historicism plus theory.”

There are a number of ironies here. First, if New Historicism is basically old historicism plus theory, then it’s really not a theoretical approach at all. This is why it cannot define itself and seems so methodologically impoverished, as I will get to in a minute. This is also the reason why a textbook might question New Historicism’s objectivity, since it seems to have no definite approach or ethical point to it. Second, although one of the distinctive principles of New Historicism is that it doubles its object of study — attending both to the historical context of the work and the historical context of the critic — this is rarely what happens in practice. In practice, most scholars simply skip the hand-wringing self-reflection and go straight for the textual analysis. Third, because New Historicism is basically a method-less method, there is a somewhat insidious and dishonest repression of theory, politics, and ethics by many practitioners of New Historicism. In other words, although New Historicists such as Greenblatt readily admit that it was the above-mentioned theoretical innovations that enabled New Historicism to come into being in the first place, they would rather take as their starting point the historical moment or even the canonical text itself instead of the theoretical issue.

In fact, when New Historicism seemed for a brief moment to dominate literary study in the late 1990s, a few articles and books were published complaining about it — their complaint being that essentially what scholarship in English departments was becoming was a “depoliticized” and “undertheorized” version of Michel Foucault that was both unethical and lazy. (See, for example, [here].) In their book Practicing New Historicism, Greenblatt and Gallagher even admit that this is true. Foucault was rolling over in his grave.

But there are other criticisms as well. One criticism comes from the stodgy old historicists who claim that New Historicism is not rigorous enough — not enough archival data. Historians work hard to amass enough archival data to convincingly argue what actually happened and why. The worst case scenario for New Historicism is a sloppy juxtaposition of just two texts (one famous and one not), and an assertion of either sameness or difference between the two. (Most New Historicism is, of course, much smarter than this. I’m just presenting the rather cartoonish version of New Historicism as it is parodied by old-school historicists.) And New Historicism gets criticized from both sides of the academic aisle (or hall, rather), since from the opposite point of view, the hipster postmodern formalists, poststructuralists, and psychoanalysts all criticize New Historicism for not having a rigorous understanding of poetic form, language, and meaning. So, in other words, continuing the parody, the worst-case New-Historicist scenario is the juxtaposition of two texts (one famous, one not), an assertion of sameness or difference, and a rather literal understanding of both texts that doesn’t recognize either semantic indeterminacy or playful ironies.

So, in conclusion, New Historicism is basically nothing… unless it is supplemented by something else.

How does this compare with another disciplinary approach, Cultural Studies. Many introduction-to-theory textbooks (such as Theory into Practice by Ann B. Dobie) suggest that New Historicism and Cultural Studies are essentially the same — one is the American name for the study of old stuff, the other the British name for the study of new stuff. Indeed, just like New Historicism, Cultural Studies would seem to be a method-less method. As the editors of the groundbreaking collection of essays entitled Cultural Studies argue in their introduction, the field of Cultural Studies seems to be a mish-mash of a variety of theoretical perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches. They even go so far as to argue that Cultural Studies is not even really interdisciplinary (i.e., bringing fields together such as psychology and literature or economics and textual criticism), because it is in fact “anti-disciplinary.” What they mean by this provocative assertion of anti-disciplinarity is that Cultural Studies is in the paradoxical position of critiquing the injustice of power disparities and various forms of oppression from within the very cultural institution that serves the powerful — the so-called ivory tower of academia.

However, although Cultural Studies would appear to be a method-less method just like New Historicism, there is a significant difference. While New Historicists are often embarrassed by the possibility that they might have something political, ethical, or even interesting to say, and while New Historicism as it is practiced today often suppresses the very theoretical innovations upon which it is based, Cultural Studies in contrast usually foregrounds both the conceptual theoretical problems and the political-ethical stakes of its scholarly work.

In conclusion, my opinion and biases are perhaps all to obvious and bluntly stated. I now await the tomatoes that I fear will be thrown at my head.

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December 6, 2010 - Posted by | Theory--capital T

1 Comment »

  1. No rotten tomatoes from here – thanks for this article which ties in with some of my own suspicions.

    Comment by carrikp | January 20, 2011 | Reply


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