Principles of New Historicism

What are the principles - or what Greenblatt calls the "enabling presumptions" - behind the New Historicist method? The movement establishes itself upon four main contentions. Literature is historical, which means (in this exhibition) that a literary work is not primarily the record of one mind's attempt to solve certain formal problems and the need to find something to say; it is a social and cultural construct shaped by more than one consciousness. The proper way to understand it, therefore, is through the culture and society that produced it. Literature, then, is not a distinct category of human activity. It must be assimilated to history, which means a particular vision of history. Like works of literature, man himself is a social construct, the sloppy composition of social and political forces - there is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history. Renaissance man belongs inescapably and irretrievably to the Renaissance. There is no continuity between him and us; history is a series of "ruptures" between ages and men. As a consequence, the historian/ critic is trapped in his own "historicity." No one can rise above his own social formations, his own ideological upbringing, in order to understand the past on its terms. A modern reader can never experience a text as its contemporaries experienced it. Given this fact, the best a modern historicist approach to literature can hope to accomplish, according to Catherine Belsey, is "to use the text as a basis for the reconstruction of an ideology."

Such an approach stands traditional historical scholarship on its head. The first principle of traditional scholarship - its generally agreed-upon point of departure - was that the recovery of the original meaning of a literary text is the whole aim of critical interpretation. But the New Historicism premises that recovery of meaning is impossible, to attempt it naive. What practitioners of the new method are concerned with, by contrast, is the recovery of the original ideology which gave birth to the text, and which the text in turn helped to disseminate throughout a culture. This dimension of critical interpretation has been neglected by traditional scholars not merely because the required concept, the "enabling presumption" of ideology, was unavailable to them until recently; in the New Historicist view, it had never been widely attempted because literary texts themselves suppress the means by which they construct ideology. A traditional formalistic approach, treating the text as self-contained, can never locate these ideological operations, also known as "representations." Only a historicist approach, treating the text as one element in the ideology of an age, can hope to lay them bare.

Although the movement represents itself, then, as being more faithful to the true, hitherto-neglected nature of literature, in reality its key assumptions are derived from the institutional milieu in which it arose. Its concepts and categories are simply those which, over the last few years, have conditioned a large part of the literary thought within the university. Thus, the New Historicism is critical of the ''enabling presumptions" of its more distant, but not of its more immediate, predecessors. For instance, the movement follows poststructuralism in its assurance that literary works mean any number of things to any number of readers (the doctrine of the plurality of meaning), freeing New Historicists to find the warrant for their interpretations not in the author's intentions for his work but in the ideology of his age. Similarly, the New Historicist effort to assimilate the literary text to history is guaranteed by the poststructuralist doctrine of textuality, which states that the text is not aloof from the surrounding context, that there is a contiguity, an ebb and flow, between text and whatever might once have been seen as "outside" it. Yet these ideas are obtained second-hand. They are not established by original inquiry or argument. They are simply the precipitate of an academic climate in which a plurality of meanings is recognized as offering the greatest good for the greatest number of literary scholars, and in which the re-assimilation of text to context is the goal of practically everybody.

The other sources of the movement will be equally familiar to observers of the academic scene. The doctrine of historicity is a Heideggerian motif that came to the movement via the writings of German hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. The New Historicist conception of ideology is not that of Marx, but rather that of the French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser - though, in plain fact, the New Historicists seem more directly influenced by expositors of Marxist doctrine like Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton than by Althusser. Finally, in its general orientation toward scholarship and historical research the New Historicism dances attendance on the figure of the late Michel Foucault. Again, though, the influence of Foucault is a generalized and second-hand one: it permeates the New Historicist conception of history as a succession of épistémes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within

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