New Historicism and Cultural Materialism
Greenblatt’s writings on Renaissance drama in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980) diverge and converge with the work of Alan Sinfield (b. 1941) and Jonathan Dollimore (b. 1948), whose edited collection of essays Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (1985) includes Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets”. The collection also points to ways in which Shakespeare’s plays could be understood with reference to the discourses and practices of colonialism and patriarchy. In the foreword, Sinfield and Dollimore define their aim:
Cultural materialism does not, like much established literary criticism, attempt to mystify its perspective as the natural, obvious or right interpretation of an allegedly given textual fact.
On the contrary, it registers its commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender and class.
Cultural materialism, which also emerged in the 1980s, is not entirely synonymous with New Historicism. Some cultural materialists were sceptical of the Foucauldian motivations of New Historicism: to them, networks of power do not only operate at the level of discourse, but also have specific material, social and economic determinations. New Historicists tended to disregard these as a result of their focus on textuality.
The reassertion of a materialist historicism originated within a Marxist milieu. It is identified most closely with Raymond Williams (1921—88), who, in books such as Marxism and Literature (1977) and Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980), attempted to extend a materialist method of social analysis into the realm of cultural production.
Williams’s work ranged across diverse forms of 20th-century cultural production and mass communication, including film and television. His writings were also influential in pioneering the discipline of cultural studies, which carved out a prominent niche at the University of Birmingham between 1964 and 2002, under the direction of Richard Hoggart (1918—2014) and, later, Stuart Hall (1932—2014).
The work originating within the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies problematized the traditional distinction between “high” and “low” culture and scrutinized the effects of mass culture, with a particular focus on class and education.
One of the most striking and ominous features of our present cultural situation is the division between the technical languages of the experts and the extraordinarily low level of the organs of mass communication.