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'New Historicism': A Critical Overview

New Historicism: A Critical Overview


The term ‘New Historicism’ was first used by the critic, Stephen Greenblatt in the introduction to a collection of Renaissance essays in Genre with parallel reference to Michel Foucault’s term wirkliche Historie or effective Historian.

These terms refer to a historian who talks about disunity and fragmentation, disruption and reversal, rather than the unity favoured by traditional historians which is often the unity of the historian’s own limited vision or even bias imposed on the past events.

New Historicism as Cultural Poetics

The other term that Greenblatt uses for New Historicism is Cultural Poetics. This term has general and specific meanings. The general meaning can be best described by evoking Frederic Jameson’s claim that historicism refers to “our relationship to the past and our possibility of understanding the latter’s monuments, artifacts and traces”.

A New Relationship to the Literary Past

New Historicism in literary studies promises a new relationship to the literary past and specifically it refers to a particular brand of cultural poetics associated with the works of Greenblatt, Louis A. Montrose, Hayden White, Jonathan Goldberg, Stephen Orgel, Steven Mullaney, Jean Howard, Leonard Tennenhouse, Frank Whigham, Don Wayne and others.

The Cultural Materialists

The same trend of work was carried out by the British critics who called themselves ‘Cultural Materialists’ – a term borrowed from the Marxist critic, Raymond Williams. They are Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Catherine Belsey, Paul Brown, John Drakakis, Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Simon Shepherd, Thomas Healey, Kate McLuskie and others.

These two groups of critics have a lot in common. They came from universities that were not privileged but iconoclastic like California, Columbia, Sussex, Cardiff and Essex. Their Leftist leanings are well-known with their Althusserian emphasis on subversion than containment.

Some of the major differences between NH and CM are:

     NH tend to concentrate on those at the top of the social hierarchy like the Church, monarchy and the upper classes While CM tend to concentrate on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy like the lower classes, women and the other marginalized sections of people.

         NH tends to draw on disciplines of Political Science, Government and Anthropology while CM relies on Economics, sociology and cultural studies. CM is primarily concerned with issues of class, economics and commodification. NH is more specifically concerned with the questions of power and culture.

Emphasis on Local Knowledge

New Historicists have stressed on local knowledge that is historically and culturally specific and the goal of producing a cultural poetics encourages the use of bits and pieces of local knowledge to represent a culture at large. Therefore the rhetorical figure of speech dominating the organic studies of culture is synecdoche.

To understand Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor and the like, one has to know the cultural underpinnings of being blue-blooded, anglicized, Doon-School-St. Stephen’s- Oxbridge educated, pro-market, metro-type, globally inclined type of individuals.

Literature as the best document of the soul of a nation

Therefore through synecdoche a New Historicist can move from a particular cultural event or practice to know about a nation’s way of life – the faith in the view that literature is the best document of the soul of a nation. A major challenge to NH is how to respond to the break-down of the organic model and especially literature’s relation to it.
One such response has been to replace synecdoche with chiasmus as the favourite rhetorical figure of speech for cultural analysis. Chiasmus: A figure of speech indicating the inversion of the second part in a parallel phrase or clause. E.g. She went to London, to New York went he.

Placing Literature In Relation to another Specific Cultural Practice

NH no longer considers culture as a whole. Instead Chiasmus allows the New Historicist to place literature in relation to another specific cultural practice. The result has been the proliferation of such titles as “The Literature of Psychology and the Psychology of Literature”, “The Law of Literature and the Literature of the Law”.

The use of chiasmus has become so widespread that the stress is not the lack of identity between the two disciplines but the stress is supposed to be on the production of difference between the two disciplines. It is in this perspective Louis A. Montrose’s formulation “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history” need to be looked into.

The assertion is that as much as the text is historical, history is also textual. This replacement of the difference by identity leads to another tendency – that of disciplinary imperialism, masquerading as interdisciplinary work. The chiasmatic coupling of two disciplines has only the appearance of interdisciplinarity.

But if the discipline of history can be reduced to textuality then the most perceptive cultural critics turn out to be only readers of texts. Since everything is a text, and literary critics are trained to read texts, some feel quite comfortable moving to texts produced in disciplines outside their field and telling those naïve practioners of those fields how those texts should be read.

Cultural Studies – Common Ground for Historians and Literary Critics

Thus the rise of New Historicism within Literature Departments has been accompanied by the rise of New Cultural History within History Departments, producing the common ground of cultural studies for both Historians and Literary Critics discontent within particular constraints within their respective disciplines.

For example, the older generation of Renaissance Critics like Dover Wilson and Wilson Knight were guided by E.M.W. Tillyard’s enormously influential Elizabethan World Picture which far from being universally accepted, was actually the “ideological legitimation of an existing social order, one rendered the more necessary by the apparent instability of that order.” – that misrecognizes the dominant ideology of the Tudor-Stuart society as a stable, coherent and collective Elizabethan world picture lucidly reproduced in the canonical literary works of the age.

Althusser on Ideology

Althusser claimed that ideology was not a real but an imagined relationship between individuals and the conditions of their existence. The need for ideology is felt not by the masses but by those in power. With the disappearance of ideas came the appearance of practices, rituals,- as ideological apparatus.

In the hands of New Historicists and Cultural Materialists, History becomes not a set of static and easily recoverable and easily interpretable facts and events and people but History as dynamic, fluid, vulnerable, often disjointed process of interpretation which are inevitably coloured by the person who recounts them.

The Past Constantly Interacts With the Contemporary Text

New Historicists include accounts of not only the monarch and the court but also of marginal figures such as poor sheep farmers, witches, alchemists and travellers to the new world. The past is never frozen in a hierarchical, inaccessible, monological distance but it constantly interacts not only with the contemporary text but also with the late 20th century critic who studies it.

The Literary Texts Are Not Viewed As Superior to The Other Texts

Just as the apparent centres of power, the monarch and the court are not privileged over the marginal figures by the New Historicists and the Cultural Materialists, so the literary texts are not viewed as superior to the other texts such as journals, medical treatises, voyager’s diaries, accounts of royal progresses, letters of out-of-favour courtiers begging to be restored to former positions of influence, maps, emblems and portraits. In other words, it is based on the ‘parallel’ reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period. New Historicism practices a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given ‘equal weightage’, as suggested in Louis Montrose’s definition of New Historicism as “a combined interest in the textuality of history, the historicity of texts”.

New Historicism has challenged the long established assumption that Art is an autonomous aesthetic form which transcends society, ideology, and culture that form its matrix. Denying this, NH insists upon a different methodology - as cultural criticism that refuses to see literature and history as two distinct entities, since such differentiation is a product of our own phenomenological cultural conditioning, which can be altered if our perspective is shifted.

The shifting of perspective is illustrated using Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale in order to show how Renaissance notions of ethnicity play a crucial part in the play’s aesthetic. The various Eurocentric views on race and ethnic differentiation present during Shakespeare’s time and traces of their presence in the play, The Winter’s Tale is subject to analysis.

In The Winter’s Tale, the inexplicable jealousy of Leontes, the King of Sicily is analysed from a geo-cultural perspective and a rather convincing explanation is presented: The opening scene of TWT , bring together the royalty from three different regions of Europe- Leontes, the King of Sicily is from the extreme south, in the Mediterranean region; his wife, Hermione is the daughter of the Emperor of Russia in the northeast and Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic is also from the northeast region. This joining of the geographical regions has its counterpoint in the contemporary joining of regions and other forms of cultural discourse.

TWT has been viewed exclusively for its thematic concerns with no attention being paid to the racist and anthropological features that the play implicitly addresses. For instance though it has been remarked that Shakespeare interchanges the country of origin of Leontes, the jealous husband and Polixenes, his putative rival – Sicily and Bohemia respectively, thus radically altering these details as given in Greene’s Pandosto is not explained by critics.

The argument put forward is that the superiority claimed by the Northern Europeans over their Southern counterparts is a significant element of multiculturalism that the play embodies. Viewed from this multicultural context, the play seems to embody a discourse in which the populist nations are challenged, disjunction is harmonized and irreconcilable contradictions are transcended. Still at the play’s end total harmony is not achieved and traces of certain elements which the narrative seems to efface are still disturbingly present.

In making the jealous husband a Sicilian belonging to a Mediterranean type of culture, Shakespeare may have been exercising discretion. His acting company having become the King’s Men after the accession of James I to England’s throne, Shakespeare may have been reluctant to offend the new monarchby showing a northern European consumed by an irrational sexual jealousy. As is well-known TWT was one of the plays presented as part of the festivities devised to celebrate the marriage of the king’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, elector palatine of the Rhine, which took place in 1613. In 1619, Frederick was crowned King of Bohemia, the country ruled by Polixenes in the play.

Anthropologically the Russians like the Czechs and Slovaks belong to the Slavic race and they considered themselves superior to those hailing from the South of Europe like Leontes, the King of Sicilia. A dark complexion often associated with the south, carried connotations of cultural and social inferiority as may be seen in Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing who wryly attributes her failure to find a husband to her complexion.

Beatrice comments, “Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband’” (II. i. 318-320).

Therefore what causes Leontes’ insecurity and sexual jealousy could well be explained as the physical and cultural affinity that Polixenes has with Hermione – both belonging to the slavic race and sharing a sense of racial and cultural superiority.

The affinity between Polixenes and Hermione is more than mere anthropological differences; it is cultural as well. Hermione’s easy familiarity with Polixenes must have been so hateful and galling to Leontes and so she is so grievously misunderstood by him. This springs not from just a perversity of nature but a misinterpretation of the social mores and customs of Northern Europe to which Hermione and Polixenes belong.

The sexual freedom enjoyed by women of the north of Europe was something totally denied to the women of the south. Therefore in contrast to the restrained behaviour of the women of the south, the freedom exercised by northern women was easily misconstrued as licentiousness by the southerners. This cultural difference forms the basis for the intense sense of jealousy coupled with suspicion experienced by Leontes.

Another political interest that TWT displays is that the King having no heir to inherit the kingdom as mentioned in the opening scene. Looked at in the light of the contemporary political scene, this and the play’s ending, of course would have reminded the members of Shakespeare’s audience of what they had themselves not long before experienced: the anxiety of seeing their recent monarch Queen Elizabeth dying without an heir and also the relief they felt at the throne being painlessly filled by James VI of Scotland, coming to England as James I, thus effecting reconciliation between two long- standing antagonists, England and Scotland and uniting them under a single crown. For that audience, - Politics and History had become drama. 

NH/CM as a movement establishes itself upon four main contentions:

 1. Literature is historical, which means that a literary work is not primarily the record of one mind’s attempt to solve certain formal problems and the need to find something to say; on the other hand it is a social and cultural construct shaped by more than one consciousness. The proper way to understand it therefore is through the culture and society that produced it.

  2. Literature, then is not a distinct category of human activity. It must be assimilated to history, which means a particular vision of history.

  3. Like works of literature, man himself is a social construct, the sloppy composition of social and political forces and so there is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history. The Renaissance man belongs inescapably and irretrievably to the Renaissance. There is no continuity between him and those of his kind in the successive ages.

  4. As a consequence, the historian/critic is trapped in his own ‘historicity’. No one can rise above his social formations, his own ideological upbringing, in order to understand the past on its own terms. A modern reader can never experience a text as its contemporaries experienced it. Given this fact the best that a New Historicist approach to literature can hope to accomplish, according to Catherine Belsey is “to use the text as a basis for the reconstruction of an ideology.”

“The historicity of the text and the textuality of history.” - wrto Greenblatt's 'Invisible Bullets'

Point 1: New Historicism places the literary text within the frame of a non-literary text:

In this context, the non-literary text becomes Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588).

Point 2: A historical anecdote is given, relating the text to the time:

Greenblatt elucidates on how Harriott depicts his interactions with and racial superiority over the native Algonquin tribes. Greenblatt starts with a discussion of atheism in the early 17th-century. Referring to Machiavelli's observations that religion was the most effect form of civic discipline at that point in time, that Moses was simply a learned magician, and that, as Christopher Marlowe noted, Harriott could do better than Moses at fooling dupes into buying into the act. [from “Invisible Bullets”]

Point 3: “historicity of texts”: Refers to the “cultural specificity and social embedment of all modes of writing”:

Thomas Harriott's visit to the Virginia colony of the New World and his first contact with the native Algonquin tribes. Through an examination of Harriott's own account of the visit, Greenblatt posits a model through which cultural supremacy is gathered and maintained. [from “Invisible Bullets”]

Point 4: “textuality of history”: Refers to the 'Fiction'ality and 'Constructed'ness of history: 

Here, it refers to how the Indians in Virginia were subjugated by the Europeans not only by military prowess but also by manipulating their superstitions and falsely interpreting the Christian religion as a potent weapon of God to its enemies. When Algonquian Indians were dying of various diseases like small, pox, measles or influenza because of their lack of immunity to the new diseases brought by Europeans they falsely believed that the God of the enemy was persecuting them. They even imagined that Europeans who were yet to arrive were in the air and shooting invisible bullets to kill them. [from “Invisible Bullets”]

Thus New Historicism, proposes that history is always written with the historian’s present context and with its need in mind, and therefore the need to focus our attention on the “location” of the historian in the ‘construction’ of history.


Thanks: To Stephen Greenblatt's texts, to Aram Veeser's book The New Historicism, to my good friend Dr. Thomas, MT College, and to research articles by Niranjan Goswami & Dan Williams, both 'New Historicist' Scholars. 

This post first appeared on My Academic Space, please read the originial post: here

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'New Historicism': A Critical Overview


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