The “New” Historicism

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.


What happens when E.H. Carr’s claim that “The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history” is applied to the historical study of literary texts? (Carr, 48) [See the previous blog post] What happens when “the norm of disembodied objectivity to which humanists have increasingly aspired” is perceived as an illusion, and not just an illusion but an illusion which is capable of producing harm? (Veeser, ix) The result is what is called, “The New Historicism.”

Although the term escapes a clear definition (Veeser, x) or an “agreed upon intellectual and institutional program,” or a “systematic or authoritative paradigm” for practicing the New Historicism,” (Montrose, 18) there are several key assumptions which tend to mark New Historicist thought. Veeser lists five of these assumptions. (Veeser, xi) What binds these assumptions together is the idea that all “texts” both literary and non-literary do not stand apart from cultural-linguistic frameworks. Because no text ever exists a se the literary critic ought to discard modes of analysis which content themselves in analyzing the purely literary features of written texts. There is no purely literary text. As Montrose explains, “the social is understood to be discursively constructed”  and “language use is… socially and materially determined and constrained.” (Montrose, 15) Because language is socially and materially determined and constrained, literary texts like those of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Orson Wells or any number of authors of “great books” are products of history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender. (Montrose, 15) Recognizing that all texts are socially constructed (even determined) the New Historicist also recognizes that her own writing of “texts” will be socially constructed. She will realize that she is also “incapable of offering any description or explanation that is located at some Archimedean point” outside of history. (Montrose, 30) She will recognize that issues of politics, gender, ethnicity, class, age color her choice of which literary texts to read, how she reads these texts, and how she writes about them. In other words the New Historicist is a “product of history.”

Recognizing that she is a project of history, the New Historicist cannot help but be invested in her “product.” She has a task, namely to, “disabuse students of the notion that history is what’s over and done with.” (Montrose, 25) This task, is by no means neutral, it is a task of “oppositional social and political praxis.” By showing students that “they live history” the New Historicist takes part in the task of exposing hidden assumptions in our own cultural-linguistic frameworks. In doing so she takes part in confronting “harmful” ideologies.

Analysis

There is something attractive to me about this approach to the study of historical texts. The New Historicism as represented in these two texts correctly, in my mind, draws our attention to the fact that historical texts do not exist in a vacuum but that when they were first created they were placed within a particular cultural-linguistic framework. That is historical texts are based on the assumptions of their day. Second, the New Historicism draws our attention to the idea that even the historian is socially and linguistically located, and that such a location affects both the texts we select as worthy of study and how we study those texts. To ignore the role our own history plays in doing history would be foolish. These two points are points that are very similar to E.H. Carr’s in What is History? However, these two points differ a bit from Carr’s points in that they emphasize not just that cultural-linguistic location affects the texts that are read and our reading of these texts, but that the cultural-linguistic location determine and constrain texts and reading of texts. Carr advocated for the possibility of “objectivity” through a dialectical process of moving between the past and present. However, it is not clear to me that the New Historicist believes that such a dialectical process is even possible. Without the possibility of “objectivity” even in the sense that Carr calls for it seems to me that the possibility of doing history is severely undercut – historical analysis ends up being the critical practice of analyzing  how our own ideological commitments color older ideologically colored texts.


For references see:

  • H. Aram Veeser, “Introduction” in The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989), ix-xvi.
  • Louis A. Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, 15-36.
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