New Historicism

stephen greenblatt by tina berning

New Historicism is a school of literary theory that developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s. The goal of the theory is to understand information by its historical context, and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature. Michel Foucault based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand a particular time. New Historicism is claimed to be a more neutral approach to historical events, and to be sensitive towards different cultures.

‘Sub-literary’ texts and uninspired non-literary texts all came to be read as documents of historical discourse, side-by-side with the ‘great works of literature.’ A typical focus of New Historicist critics, led by Stephen Orgel, has been on understanding Shakespeare less as an autonomous great author in the modern sense than as a clue to the conjunction of the world of Renaissance theater—a collaborative and largely anonymous free-for-all—and the complex social politics of the time. In this sense, Shakespeare’s plays are seen as inseparable from the context in which he wrote.

In this shift of focus, a comparison can be made with the best discussions of works of decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms, comparable to the literary New Criticism, under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations—’the limits of the possible’ in economic historian Fernand Braudel’s famous phrase.

In its historicism (a theory emphasizing the importance of history) and in its political interpretations, New Historicism is indebted to Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its cruder forms) tends to see literature as part of a ‘superstructure’ in which the economic ‘base’ (i.e. material relations of production) manifests itself, New Historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society. This view derives primarily from Michel Foucault and his work in critical theory.

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no ‘fixed’ literary value above and beyond the way specific societies read them in specific situations, New Historicism also owes something to postmodernism. However, New Historicists tend to exhibit less skepticism than postmodernists and to show more willingness to perform the ‘traditional’ tasks of literary criticism: i.e. explaining the text in its context, and asking how the text enforces the cultural practices that it depends on for its own production and dissemination.

New Historicism shares many of the same theories as with what is often called cultural materialism, but cultural materialist critics are even more likely to put emphasis on the present implications of their study and to position themselves in disagreement to current power structures, working to give power to traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and often focus predominantly on the productions of ‘popular culture.’  New Historicists analyze text with an eye to history.

New Historicism frequently addresses the critical theory based idea that the lowest common denominator for all human actions is power, so the New Historicist seeks to find examples of power and how it is dispersed within the text. Power is a means through which the marginalized are controlled, and the thing that the marginalized (or, other) seek to gain. This relates back to the idea that because literature is written by those who have the most power, there must be details in it that show the views of the common people. New Historicists seek to find ‘sites of struggle’ to identify just who is the group or entity with the most power.

Foucault’s conception of power is neither reductive nor synonymous with domination. Rather he understands power (in modern times at least) as continually articulated on knowledge and knowledge on power. Nevertheless, his work in the 1970s on prisons may have been influential on the New Historicists. In these studies Foucault examined shifts in the mechanisms of power in these institutional settings. His discussions of techniques included the panopticon, a theoretical prison system developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham stated that the perfect prison/surveillance system would be a cylindrical shaped room that held prison cells on the outside walls. In the middle of this spherical room would be a large guard tower with a light that would shine in all the cells. The prisoners thus would never know for certain whether they were being watched, so they would effectively police themselves, and be as actors on a stage, giving the appearance of submission, even when they are probably not being watched.

Foucault included the panopticon in his discussions on the technologies of power in part to illustrate the idea of lateral surveillance, or self-policing, that occurs when those who are subject to these techniques of power believe they are being watched. His purpose was to show that these techniques of power go beyond mere force and could prompt different regimes of self-discipline among those subject to the exercise of these visibility techniques. This often meant that, in effect, prisoners would often fall into line whether or not there was an actual need to do so.

New historicism has suffered from criticism, most particularly from the clashing views of those considered to be postmodernists. New Historicism denies the claim that society has entered a ‘post-modern’ or ‘post-historical’ phase and allegedly ignited the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s. They counter with the argument that unlike post-modernism, they acknowledges that almost all historic views, accounts, and facts contain biases. As Carl Rapp states: ‘[the new historicists] often appear to be saying, ‘We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own.’

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