Study Guide

New Historicism Critics

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  • Clifford Geertz

    The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.

    Culture is made up of a bunch of texts. And that doesn’t just mean books or written works. Rituals and social routines are also texts. The Super Bowl is a “text” that we can “read” to understand American culture—what better anthropological study than joining half the country screaming as a bunch of padded men knock each other over to grab a leather ball one Sunday a year?

    And that’s not all. We can analyze weddings, Fourth of July barbecues, that big shopping day after Thanksgiving, and presidential inaugurations all as “texts” that make up American culture.

    Our job as anthropologists (or New Historicists) is to decode these cultural and social texts in order to understand a culture or a society better.

    Geertz’s notion of culture-as-text became super important to the New Historicists because it allowed them to go way beyond analyzing traditional literary “texts,” but instead to look at things like Elizabethan theatrical conventions, historical documents, and anecdotes, and to analyze those along with literary texts.

    Geertz’s ideas, in other words, challenge the distinction between “literary” and “non-literary” texts. The New Historicists followed in Geertz’s footsteps by also challenging that distinction.

  • Michel Foucault

    [D]iscourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized.

    Discourse (a group of statements or utterances about a specific theme or topic) doesn’t just tell us about who has power and who doesn’t. Discourse is itself a medium of power. If we control discourse, we also control power.

    Let’s think of it in terms of the discourse over abortion. There are those who are “pro-choice” (they believe in giving women the right have an abortion) and those who are “pro-life” (putting the fetus’ right to life above a woman’s right to have an abortion). Both sides in the abortion fight insist on using the terms “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” depending on which camp they’re in. By insisting on these different terms, each side is trying to control the discourse on abortion. And why are they doing that? They’re doing that because whoever controls the terms of the abortion debate, also controls the outcome of the debate.

    So Foucault is big on the link between discourse and power. The relationship between these two is very important to the New Historicists, who like to explore how power relationships are reflected in literary works—which are, of course, “mini” discourses in themselves.

  • Stephen Greenblatt

    Self-fashioning is in effect the Renaissance version of these control mechanisms, the cultural system of meanings that creates specific individuals by governing the passage from abstract potential to concrete historical embodiment. Literature functions within this system in three interlocking ways: as a manifestation of the concrete behavior of its particular author, as itself the expression of the codes by which behavior is shaped, and as a reflection upon those codes.

    Most of us believe that we can be who we want to be and do what we want to with our lives. In other words, we think that we are free to self-fashion: to define our own identity, decide what values are important to us, and so on—yes, including “self-fashion” in the sense of wearing whatever clothes we feel like—whether pop diva, puppet diva, or diva who’s seven feet tall.

    But, if we think about it, that’s not entirely true. Even when we “self-fashion,” we do that fashioning according to a certain set of rules and regulations. If we’re a literature professor one day, we can’t wake up and be an astronaut the next day. Even if we wear whatever clothes we feel like, the fact of the matter is we’ll never show up naked to work, or wear the sort of things Shakespeare donned in his day (well, unless we work at the local Renaissance Faire, that is). So even our self-fashioning is regulated by social and cultural “control mechanisms.”

    Even when it was the Renaissance, “self-fashioning” worked in much the same way. Aristocrats, artists, and others could self-fashion, but they were always doing it according to a set of cultural rules that limited how free they were to create their own identities and personas.

    Literature’s relationship to Renaissance self-fashioning has three layers. First, a work of literature reflects the behavior of its author, as well as his (or her) values and point of view. Second, a work of literature also reflects those “control mechanisms” and the codes that shape behavior, and third, a work of literature comments on those control mechanisms and codes.

    Stephen Greenblatt’s book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, is the book that kicked off the New Historicist craze in the 1980s. Now that we know what he means by “self-fashioning,” we can be more aware next time we wear our flannel shirt and oversized glasses (or corset and monocle, for that matter).

    Language, like other sign systems, is a collective construction; our interpretive task must be to grasp more sensitively the consequences of this fact by investigating both the social presence to the world of the literary text and the social presence of the world in the literary text.

    When we speak or write, we’re not just speaking or writing our own, unique language. Mommy and daddy taught us to speak when we were tiny, and read all kinds of children’s books to us. And our kindergarten teachers taught us new words. And then, even later in school, we read a whole bunch of books that also influenced the way that we used language. And of course there’s all that slang that we spoke with our friends during recess.

    The language that we use, in other words, is made up of all the languages of all these different people that we interact with over the course of our lives. In that sense the language that we use is a “collective construction.”

    Our task as clever New Historicist literary critics is to show how the social world influences the language that writers use, and how the language that writers use reflects the social world. Who was Shakespeare speaking to? What was he reading? Who were his theatre buddies and what kind of slang did they joke around with? We need to reconstruct Shakespeare’s social world because only through understanding it can we understand Shakespeare’s language, too.

    Here’s another really important New Historicist idea: the language a writer uses isn’t just created in a vacuum. Sure, Shakespeare was a genius, and his way with words is to-die-for and all, but he didn’t just invent it out of nowhere.

    That’s right—Shakespeare was out there talking to people, listening to people, reading a lot, and acting in other people’s plays, and his own language is made up of all those little tidbits of language picked up from the social world he was living and moving in. To be or not to be? Shakey just overheard someone trying to figure out which door to go into.

  • Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt

    The notion of culture as text has a further major attraction: it vastly expands the range of objects available to be read and interpreted. Major works of art remain centrally important, but they are jostled now by an array of other texts and images. Some of these alternative objects of attention are literary works regarded as too minor to deserve sustained interest and hence marginalized or excluded entirely from the canon. Others are texts that have been regarded as altogether nonliterary….There has been in effect a social rebellion in the study of culture, so that figures hitherto kept outside the proper circles of interest…have now forced their way in, or rather have been invited in by our generation of critics.

    When we think of culture as a text, it makes our job as literary critics so much more interesting. That’s because we then open up all aspects of culture for literary analysis. We don’t have to confine ourselves to just analyzing Shakespeare
    and John Milton and Geoffrey Chaucer and all those other literary bigwigs (and let’s be honest: we sometimes get tired of reading those bigwigs).

    When we think of culture as a text, we free ourselves to analyze some random writer that no one’s thought about for, like, 400 years. We can analyze food recipes or football games or historical documents from a literary angle.

    And what’s good about this approach is that it challenges the really “uppity” view of culture that nothing is worth paying attention to unless it’s high culture. You know: it’s all worthless unless it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, or art house films.

    Which is not cool.

    Because what if we really love Rihanna and want to write about her music videos, or other similar things? Or what if we love The Twilight Saga (or hate it) and want to write about that? Why can’t we?

    Well, today’s your lucky day, because you can. Because these “non-canonical” and “nonliterary” texts also have a lot to teach us about the culture that produced them. Because yes, a Rihanna music video can be analyzed as a text from a New Historicist perspective—just as Twilight can have swaths of lit crit writ about it).

    Also note that here Greenblatt and Gallagher are giving a shout-out to Clifford Geertz, who, you might remember, is the anthropologist who came up with the idea of “culture as text.” Greenblatt and Gallagher are directly referencing Geertz’s ideas here, even if they all came before Twilight.

    Greenblatt and Gallagher are also outlining one of the defining characteristics of the New Historicist approach—the tendency to mix it all up by throwing together all kinds of texts, such as canonical with non-canonical, literary with non-literary, you name it.

    One of the recurrent criticisms of new historicism is that it is insufficiently theorized. The criticism is certainly just, and yet it seems curiously out of touch with the simultaneous fascination with theory and resistance to it that has shaped from the start our whole attempt to rethink the practice of literary and cultural studies. We speculated about first principles and respected the firmer theoretical commitments of other members of our discussion group, but both of us were and remain deeply skeptical of the notion that we should formulate an abstract system and then apply it to literary works. We doubt that it is possible to construct such a system independent of our own time and place and of the particular objects by which we are interested.

    What these two are saying is that we New Historicists have a very a conflicted relationship to theory. On the one hand, we draw a lot of inspiration from theoretical works (like those of Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault). But on the other hand, we don’t like theory very much because it’s kind of rude to the whole cultural focus we try to have, so we aim to do without it when we analyze literary works.

    The reason we try to resist theory is because we believe that we can’t just come up with one theory that can apply to any text. It’s like sewing a dress in one size and then expecting it to fit bodies of all different shapes. Um, no.

    And anyway, any theory we come up with is going to be limited in perspective. That’s because we, as literary critics, are the product of a certain culture and a certain historical moment. We can’t escape the fact that we’re living in a specific time and place (21st century America), and whatever theory we come up with is also going to be limited by the time and place that we’re living in.

    Here, Gallagher and Greenblatt are outlining New Historicism’s very complicated relationship to theory. These critics are not too crazy about being characterized as “theorists” because they think that theory doesn’t always get us very far in understanding literary works.

    And what’s also important about Gallagher and Greenblatt’s statement is that they’re calling attention to their own situation as literary critics. They’re very aware of the fact that they’re the product of a certain set of historical circumstances, just like the Renaissance authors they study have their own, much puffier-sleeved version of circumstances. And G & G believe that they can’t escape their own location in a specific culture and/or historical moment, just like the Renaissancers couldn’t.

  • Harold Aram Veeser

    Key assumptions continually reappear and bind together the avowed practitioners and even some of their critics: these assumptions are as follows:

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

    Gurl, that’s a lot of numbers. But don’t worry, it’s cool, because even though our buds the New Historicist critics come in tons of shapes and sizes and are interested in loads of different periods and issues, we can still identify some common assumptions that underlie their work. Five assumptions, to be precise, and they are these:

    1. When we (or great authors like Shakespeare or Chuck Dickens) express ourselves, we don’t just do it in a vacuum. We express ourselves out of very concrete economic, material and historical circumstances. Sure, geniuses like Bill and Chuck express themselves much more eloquently than we do, but like us, their expression (especially artistic expression) was influenced by concrete circumstances such as economics, class structures, political structures, and beyond.

    2. Wanna critique Billy and Chuckie? Careful: it’s tough to critique something without putting ourselves in the funny position of becoming that thing we’re critiquing. Our big brother likes to pull our nose. Annoying, yeah? So, to protest his tyranny, we slap him in the face. Great, so we’re also using the same oppressive tools he’s using (violence). In the literary world, this means that if you talk about the classist assumptions Charlie makes in his depiction of imperial England, maybe you’re saying some stuff that comes from a sort of elitist academic background of today, too.

    3. There is no boundary that separates “high” literature from “low” literature. We may consider Shakespeare to be “high” literature, but guess what, folksies? Shakespeare was reading a lot of trash. If some of his work was inspired by reading trashy stuff, how do we draw the line between highbrow art and real trashy stuff? It’s all mixed up together. So let’s not try to separate the high from the low.

    4. There is no such thing as “universal truth” or a deep, unchanging “human nature.” It all depends. So let’s get rid of the idea that “great” works of art give us some kind of special access to these deep truths, because these truths don’t exist—whatever deep thing you’re seeking is going to be different whether you’re reading Dostoevsky, or Dickinson, or Dante. Take that, all you truth-seekers out there.

    5. Capitalism? Screw that. It forces people to work long hours for low pay, it concentrates wealth into the hands of the very few at the top, and it turns us all into these Robo-consumers who buy, buy, buy. Gross, Not to mention that it means making art becomes about making money, and that isn’t good for art.

      So, from a theory perspective? Well, we New Historicists may sit there and criticize capitalism and its effects on culture, but the fact is even our critique of capitalism participates in, and upholds, the capitalist economy. We are, after all, a bunch of academics working at universities that are filthy rich thanks to capitalism (those huge tuition fees that students have to pay for an education? All used to pay fat salaries for badass New Historicist research. One hundred percent true.).

    We know you’d just been craving this theory in bullet points all this time, and thanks to Harold Veeser, you got it, friend.

    But what’s cool about Harry’s summary is that it points to the fact that, even though New Historicist critics work in very different periods and deal with very different issues and materials, there are still some core beliefs and assumptions that define their work. Whew!

  • Marjorie Levinson

    The new historicism….has emerged as a kind of systems analysis….By our functionalist exercises in closed-field intertextuality, we tacitly reject that teleological formalism associated with the old historicism, the dominant form of nineteenth-century historiography. Ours is an empirically responsible investigation of the contemporary meanings informing literary works (their parts, their production, their reception), as well as other social texts. We regard these meanings as systematically interrelated within the period in question.

    In case you didn’t get it yet, we New Historicists aren’t just analyzing literature. We’re analyzing literature and the system (social, cultural, economic, historical) that it’s a part of.

    We’re doing things in a much bigger way than the literary critics who came before us, because we’re just that awesome. Those old dudes just liked to sit there and analyze a poem without considering its historical or economic context—or any other context for that matter.

    Whereas we analyze the poem and everything that’s around it: its author’s biography, the social environment it came out of, its historical context, the color font it was originally penned in. Why? Because we believe that everything is connected. If we want to understand a love poem from the Renaissance, we need to figure out how people thought about love and marriage back in the day and how they went about doing it (marriage, that is), and then we can understand the significance of the poem.

    Levinson’s statement is useful because she’s making it clear how the New Historicists differ from the literary critics (especially the New Critics) who came before them. The New Historicists, in contrast to the old-school literary critics, are all about context, of course.

  • Louis Adrian Montrose

    The poststructuralist orientation to history now emerging in literary studies I characterize chiastically, as a reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.

    Whoa. Textuality? Reciprocal? Chiastically? According to Microsoft two of those aren’t even words.

    But don’t worry. We New Historicists are very influenced by post-structuralism (it came after structuralism). And what this idea leads us to do is to turn things on their head: we look at literary texts in terms of history, and we look at history in terms of literary texts.

    In other words, we like to emphasize how a literary text is bound up in its historical context. We also like to emphasize how history itself is like a text. History isn’t some unchanging thing, or a list of objective facts. There is no one “true” version of history, just as there is no one true “interpretation” of a Shakespearean tragedy. When we “write” history, we’re not just re-stating the facts. We’re composing history in the same way that an author composes a literary text.

    Montrose’s definition of New Historicism here is famous, even if it uses kind of silly words. That’s because it captures really well the relationship between literature and history, as the New Historicists understand it. If anyone asks us to explain New Historicism, we can just quote Montrose: it’s all about “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.” That is definitely a line to impress the girls and guys with.

  • Jerome McGann

    [P]oems are social and historical products and…the critical study of such products must be grounded in a socio-historical analytic. This does not mean that “purely” stylistic, rhetorical, formal, or other specialized analyses cannot or will not be pursued. Quite the contrary…What it does mean is that all such specialized studies must find their raison d’etre in the socio-historical ground.

    Poems aren’t just linguistic compositions. They are also social and historical compositions. That is, it’s not just words that go into the writing of a poem—there are social values, historical circumstances, and even economic issues that go into the writing of a poem. These things may not be obvious, but they’re there nonetheless. And our job as literary critics is to analyze that socio-historical context.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t analyze a poem’s style, its formal characteristics, its language (we are literary critics after all). But it’s just as important to pay attention to its socio-historical context as it is to pay attention to its linguistic or formal characteristics. As critics we should be working at both these levels, not just focusing on one at the expense of the other.

    McGann’s words here are useful because they clarify how New Historicists approach close-reading. The point that McGann’s making is that we can do close reading as New Historicists, but it always has to be balanced by attention to issues that extend beyond the text.

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