Problems Associated with New Historicism

The apriority of ideology in New Historicist thought (its basis in something assumed or presumed to be already known) raises large questions. The principal one is this: how does the critic know that the ideology located in the work of literature under discussion genuinely belongs to the past? How can he be sure that the ideology is not simply his own political sympathy which has been injected into the work and then ''located" there by means of an ingenious selection of the evidence? These questions occur spontaneously to anyone who reads very widely in New Historicist writing, so much of which expresses a politically au courant sympathy for exploited peoples, powerless women, workers, slaves, peasants. A critic like Stephen Greenblatt is too intelligent not to acknowledge that his own sympathy for such peoples is based upon hindsight and sympathies of our time. In the essay that launched the New Historicist journal Representations, Greenblatt interprets a Dürer sketch in The Painter's Manual (1525) for a monument commemorating a victory over rebellious peasants - a somewhat ludicrous design topped off by a peasant stabbed in the back - as ironic and subversive. Greenblatt goes on to admit, though, that ''[t]he bitter irony we initially perceived [in Dürer's sketch] was constituted less by concrete evidence of Dürer's subversiveness than by our own sympathy for the peasants, sympathy conditioned by our century's ideology, by recent historical scholarship, and no doubt above all, by our safe distance from the fear and loathing of 1525." He does not stop there, however. This admission, he continues, "though necessary, seems inadequate, for our solidarity with early sixteenth-century German peasants is of interest only insofar as it seems to have been called forth by Dürer's monument and not simply read into it" (emphasis added).

Yet how can the critic be certain that the work studied has not simply provided him with an occasion for a renewed outbreak of familiar feeling, like a pop song from our adolescence that reminds us of a girl we once ached for? Greenblatt passes silently over such a question. The real question for him "is how Dürer could have created a brilliant, detailed, and coherent design that could lend itself to a strong interpretation so much at odds with his own probable intentions"? But this isn't a scholarly question so much as it is a dilemma for a certain kind of scholar. For such a scholar (i.e., one for whom the intentions of the artist are not normative), almost any work, no matter how brilliant, detailed, and coherent, can be made to lend itself to almost any interpretation at all. For Greenblatt, the aim of scholarship is to square the artist's intentions with the scholar's own sympathy. He simply assumes that Dürer's design is "at odds" with the sympathy any sensitive modern would feel. The sympathy is treated as a fact of equal importance (and comparable ontological status) with the design. No effort is made to ascertain whether the design really is at odds with anything; it is simply treated as a donnée of interpretation that it must be. The critic knows because of the way he feels.

The error of the New Historicism lies not in its political allegiances, however, but in the logic of its method. That method might be described as a way of salvaging initially favoured hypotheses (or "strong interpretations") in the face of a lack of concrete evidence. Two main objections to such a procedure come to mind. First, we may simply disagree with the conviction that has inspired the argument in the first place. We may not happen to agree that it is a prima facie likelihood that all of the men within any given culture have sought to oppress the women or that those who express contempt for peasants are expressing the ambivalence of a wish-fulfilment fantasy. And if we disagree, no amount of evidence about the "discursive practices" of the age will persuade us otherwise. The very choice of what to quote in corroboration of this view (and what to withhold) will be made on the basis of the conviction that it is true - a conviction that is held long in advance of a search for evidence. But secondly, even if for the sake of argument we grant this assumption, we are not bound to any conclusion reached by its means. We can yield the point that Elizabethan culture u as patriarchal, or that those who serve ruling minorities desire secretly to see them toppled, and still go on to deny that A Midsummer Night's Dream or Dürer's sketch contain these meanings. If it is not self-contradictory for us to do this - if we can simultaneously grant an assumption and reject its interpretive significance - it follows that any interpretation grounded upon an unproven assumption about a work's historical context is trifling, if not untenable. Only if a reader of a New Historicist argument is prepared to accept its a priori assumptions can its conclusions be accepted as true to history. The essential categories of New Historicist thought make the necessary facts appear.

"The whole point" of the New Historicist enterprise, Jean E. Howard says, "is to grasp the terms of the discourse which made it possible [for contemporaries] to see the 'facts' [of their own time] in a particular

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