a culture. But this is no more than to say that Foucault has provided New Historicists with their own épistéme. Their work cannot really be said to extend or elaborate upon Foucault's. Nor is it critical of Foucault's concept of the épistéme. It merely embraces the concept as a given.
New Historicism in Practice
What do these assumptions lead New Historicists to argue? The initial effort is to relocate the literary text among the other, traditionally non-literary "discursive practices" of an age. The representation of character in the nineteenth-century novel, for instance, is said to be bound up with contemporary debates over parliamentary representation; or, Iago's plot against Othello is described as typical of Elizabethan attempts to deny the otherness of subject peoples. But the larger purpose of New Historicist inquiry is the reconstruction of the actual (as opposed to the "represented") relations in which people lived during a particular time. For example, in one of the most widely read essays by a New Historicist, Louis Adrian Montrose interprets Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as an ideological attempt to comprehend the power of Queen Elizabeth - to make sense of it and place it safely within bounds - while simultaneously upholding the authority of males within Elizabethan culture. By citing a variety of contemporary writing (in order to reinstate the "discursive practices" of the age), Montrose demonstrates the Elizabethans' ambivalence toward their queen: abiding respect mixed with a dark desire to master her sexually. In this context, A Midsummer Night's Dream is re-read as a fable of the restoration of male governance. Mothers are significantly excluded from the dramatis personae of the play, just as the danger of matriarchy (with which the Elizabethans flirted in their fascination with the myth of the Amazons) was quietly suppressed by the celebration of Elizabeth's virginity. The very real possibility that power might actually be passed from mother to daughter was concealed from women of the age by such cultural productions as Shakespeare's play, in which Elizabeth was a willing collaborator as much by her decision to remain unwed and barren as by her "cultural presence" within the play.
It is in this sense that works of literature such as A Midsummer Night's Dream are "representations" of the culture from which they emerge. They are the emanations, the active agents, of the culture's circumambient ideology. Literary works are both what a culture produces as well as what reproduces the ideology. The term "representations" is misleading insofar as it suggests a mimetic Theory of literature. Nothing could be further from New Historicist truths. In fact, the New Historicism presumes that artistic fiction does not imitate human action; it mediates it. That is, fiction is defined as the lens through which a certain portrait of the human experience is brought into focus. And as mediation rather than as imitation of social practices, it can thus be said to shape rather than to reflect an age's understanding of human experience and potentiality.
In New Historicist interpretation, as a consequence, history is not viewed as the cause or the source of a work. Instead, the relationship between history and the work is seen as a dialectic: the literary text is interpreted as both product and producer, end and source, of history. One undeniable side benefit of such a view is that history is no longer conceived, as in some vulgar historical scholarship, as a thing wholly prior, a process which completes itself at the appearance of the work. At the same time, though, it must not be thought that the New Historicism dispenses with the cognitive category of priority. For the New Historicist it is ideology, not history, which is prior. The literary text is said to be a constituent part of a culture's ideology by virtue of passing it on; but the ideology nevertheless exists' intact' intelligible, in a form separate from (and therefore prior to) the work. If it didn't, the critic could not discern a relationship between work and ideology; and if the ideology were not prior to the work, it wouldn't be a historical relationship.
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