The Textuality of History and the Historicity of Texts

Louis Montrose, in Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture claimed that New Historicism deals with the “textuality of history and the historicity of texts.” While “historicity of texts”refers to the “cultural specificity and social embedment of all modes of writing”, the rootedness of a text in the social-historical, political and cultural ambiance of its production, “textuality of history” refers to the fictionality and constructedness of history, which Foucault in his archaeological approach to history as archive, explicates, arguing that old historians erase and even out all inconsistencies, contradictions and discontinuities of actual history and develop a coherent and consistent historical narrative, complying with the dominant ideology of the state, There is no such thing as objective history, because history is a narrative, which, like language, is produced in a context and is governed by the social, economic and political interests of the ‘dominant groups/institutions. This approach of New Historicism is parallel to Derrida‘s notion that reality is textualised and Foucault’s idea of social structures as determined by dominant discursive practices. Thus, New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature.

In the book Metahistory, Hayden White suggests that all historical “facts” come to us only in the form of narrative or language, where the historian links the facts in a cause-effect sequence. The hierarchy of the narrative is not dependent on the facts but on the historian’s interpretation and evaluation of the facts. New Historicism, following White’s formulations, proposes that history is always written with the historian’s present context and with its need in mind. All history writing is about interpreting the past for the sake of the present. New Historicism seeks to bring our attention to the “location” of the historian in construction of history. New Historicism also argues that history is made up of conflicting visions and attitudes. Rejecting all overarching narratives of history, New Historicism believes that every age has its schisms and tensions, and the task of the historian is to locate these conflicting/ struggling versions of any society/age by paying attention to subversive, anarchic and counter movements and moments in every age, which the narratives of history generally wipe out.

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  1. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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