New Historicism - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

New Historicism
The Rise of Literary Theory

New Historicism is the general term given to a wide variety of theories and methodologies that are HISTORICIST in orientation. Unlike prior forms of historicism, the New Historicism is strongly influenced by poststructuralist theories of language and TEXTUALITY and is indebted to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” set out the terms for a historicism that calls its own assumptions into question and that rejects the dominant modes of historiography (i.e., antiquarian and monumental). Nietzsche recommends critical history as the form that could best combat the oppression of a “present need” (“Uses” 72). “If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worthy to be condemned” (“Uses” 75-76). There are two alternatives to history “proper,” the unhistorical, which is “the art and power offorgetting and of enclosing oneself within a bounded horizon,” and the supra-historical, which “lead[s] the eye away from becoming towards that which bestows upon existence the character of the eternal and stable, towards art and religion” The unhistorical and the supra-historical are “the natural antidotes to the stifling of life by the historical, by the malady of history” (“Uses” 120-21). In his later work, Nietzsche developed a theory of GENEALOGY that traces the progress of human values as they are (re) interpreted in different contexts, for different aims: “the whole history of a thing, an organ, a custom, becomes a continuous chain of reinterpretations and rearrangements, which need not be causally connected among themselves, which may simply follow one another” (Genealogy 210). Nietzsche's critique of morality in Genealogy of Morals brilliantly shows how moral values emerge and remerge along multiple and often scattered points in time and place. The genealogical challenge to conventional ways of thinking about the past created the conditions for a “transvaluation of all values.” It is also the theoretical foundation for Michel Foucault's ARCHAEOLOGICAL method, another “anti-historical” approach to history.

Foucault argues that genealogy is a fundamentally interpretative attitude towards the past. “Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersal of forgotten things… . Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people” (“Nietzsche” 146). For Foucault, a historical “event” is not a stable phenomenon that can be captured by documentary evidence; nor is it the result of purposeful human action. It is instead a sign of domination, of the shifting of power relations. It is “the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked ’other' ” (“Nietzsche” 154). A good example of Foucault's method is his History of Sexuality, which looks at how social and cultural power created the modern notion of sexuality: “The history of sexuality … must be written from the viewpoint of a history of discourses” (Sexuality 69). The discourse on sex is the articulation of POWER, “a rule of law” (Sexuality 83). Foucault's method here, and in his other genealogical works, abandons conventional ideas about historical events, diachronic sequence, causality, and origin. Following Nietzsche, he focuses instead on interpretations of the relations of power and how they shape human experience through the agency of discourse.

The emphasis on interpretation and power, in both Nietzsche and Foucault, is found in much New Historicist writing, especially that which takes a TEXTUALIST approach to history. This tendency towards textualism provoked Fredric Jameson to describe New Historicism as a form of nominalism (a belief that ideas represented in language have no basis in reality). Catherine Gallagher resolves the dilemma by constructing a hybrid methodology that accommodates both Foucauldian and Marxian theories in a critical discourse suited to a localized and highly mobile “micro-politics of daily life” (Gallagher 43). Stephen Greenblatt offers a similar resolution. His vision of CULTURAL POETICS draws from both materialist and textualist traditions and entails a flexible and self- critical framework for historical criticism and a commitment to a rigorous methodology. Though Greenblatt privileges literary texts, at times ascribing to them “relative” AUTONOMY from social conditions, he maintains that such texts are embedded in specific relations of power and “systems of public signification” (Greenblatt 5), even though they may at times elude these relations and systems. When reading “powerful” texts, “we feel at once pulled out of our own world and plunged back with redoubled force into it” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 17).

In Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Greenblatt draws on a Foucauld- ian notion of POWER to fashion a POETICS OF CULTURE capable of reading the complex web-like disposition of languages, literatures, and other sign systems that he finds in Renaissance literature. He reads Shakespeare's Othello as “the supreme expression of the cultural mode” of improvisation (232), a mode of self-fashioning that entails the displacement and absorption of symbolic structures found in the culture at large and that is made possible by “the subversive perception of another's truth as ideological construct” (228). Identity in the Renaissance, according to Greenblatt, is not a matter of achieving or sustaining autonomy but of negotiating among social and cultural discourses whose DETERMINATIONS impose constraints on self-fashioning. Shakespeare’s play exists within a socio-historical matrix in which such discourses, emanating from institutions (for example, the Church and the State), help to determine its meaning. The same is true of the work of Christopher Marlowe, whose achievement can best be understood by looking not “at the playwright's literary sources, not even at the relentless power-hunger of Tudor absolutism, but at the acquisitive energies of English merchants, entrepreneurs, and adventurers, promoters, alike of trading companies and theatrical companies” (194). It is the task of the New Historicist to “map” the various connections and relations between literary texts and the social and cultural contexts. The result of these discursive negotiations and exchanges is the construction of what Tony Bennett calls a reading formation, a set of determinations that “mediate the relations between text and context” (qtd. in Montrose 398). In a reading formation, context does not lie outside of discourses but is established by them and their interrelations. This textualist approach to historical context and TEXTUALITY is characterized, as Louis Montrose puts it, by “a reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of histories.” All texts and all modes of reading must be understood as historically embedded; but at the same time, “we can have no access to a full and authentic past, to a material existence that is unmediated by the textual traces of the society in question” (Montrose 410).

As a form of cultural poetics, New Historicism assumes that historical phenomena can be read like a text. H. Aram Veeser has isolated five key assumptions: 1) “every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices”; 2) every critique inevitably “uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes”; 3) literary and non-literary texts “circulate inseparably”; 4) no discourse “gives access to unchanging truths” nor “expresses inalterable human nature”; and 5) critical methods under capitalism “participate in the economy they describe” (xi). While these assumptions can be traced to poststructuralist and cultural materialist discourses, New Historicism owes much to the textualist anthropology of Clifford Geertz, for whom “local knowledge” is not an impersonal function or structure but rather a “readable” cultural practice, as in the famous Balinese cock-fight: “a story [the people] tell themselves about themselves” (448). Hayden White and other theorists of history refute the charge that textualism itself is ahis- torical and argue that at some level all history is textual. The critical issue is whether or not one can get beyond the textual level of analysis (of primary documents and historical accounts) to say something meaningful about the concrete social world. if the past can be known only through the negotiation of competing interpretations of the archival evidence and through the critical awareness of the historian's own role in the selection and representation of it, then an exploration of the archive is a prerequisite to understanding fully the relations of power in any given epoch and to subverting prevailing historical explanations.

All of this has led some critics to claim that if history is only a text or, more broadly, an archive, there can be no historical “truth.” Yet New Historicism has emerged in part out of a desire to say something “true” about the past. It is caught up in the dilemma that Stanley Fish describes: “the problem of reconciling the assertion of ’wall to wall' textuality - the denial that the writing of history could find its foundation in a substratum of unmediated fact - with the desire to say something specific and normative” (“Commentary” 303). The possibility of “saying something specific and normative” is especially relevant to CULTURAL MATERIALISM, according to which ideas, beliefs, and IDEOLOGIES are formed by material conditions, by constraints imposed by social, cultural, and political policies and forces. The British tradition of cultural materialism, from Christopher Caudwell and Raymond Williams to E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, has focused attention on the specific relationships between material and cultural production. Literature and the arts, though at times granted autonomous status, are no exception. indeed, aesthetic forms are highly sensitive sites of social, political, even economic conflict; as such, they can reveal contradictions in social conditions and foster a standpoint for a

materialist critique of them. For Raymond Williams, cultural materialism was bound up with the representation of “structures of feeling,” the “distilled residue” of a particular community's cultural organization independent of its ideological determinations. In recent years, materialist theorists like jameson and jonathan Dollimore have adopted poststructuralist theories of the text. It is important to emphasize, however, that while such theorists may draw on the work of Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan, they do not subscribe to a radical form of textualism. Indeed, Jameson has pointed out “that history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it … necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious” (35). For the cultural materialist, the text is always an opening to the material conditions that may not be otherwise available to us.


Fish, Stanley. “Commentary: The Young and the Restless.” In The New Historicism. Ed. Veeser. 303-16.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. 1976. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

---- . “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977. 139-64.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Marxism and New Historicism.” in The New Historicism. Ed. Aram H. Veeser. 37-48.

---- and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Montrose, Louis. “New Historicism.” In Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York, MLA, 1992. 392-418.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” In Untimely Meditations. Ed. Daniel Breazeale. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 57-123.

---- . On the Genealogy of Morals. Ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson. Trans. Carol Diethe. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Veeser, H. Aram, ed. The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989.