New Historicism envisages and practises a mode of study where the literary text and the non-literary cotext are given “equal weighting”, whereas old historicism considers history as a “background” of facts to the “foreground” of literature. While Old historicism follows a hierarchical approach by creating a historical framework and placing the literary text within it, New Historicism, upholding the Derridean view that there is nothing outside the text, or that everything is available to us in “textual” or narrative form, breaks such hierarchies, and follows a parallel reading of literature and history, and looks at history as represented and recorded in literary texts. In short, while Old Historicism is concerned with the “world” of the past, New Historicism deals with the “word” of the past.
This radical difference can be attributed to the remarkable influence of a who Foucault, who thought his “historical” works Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things examined the discursive powers that influenced the development of psychiatry, medicine and the human sciences, respectively. Introducing the archaeological concept of history as archive, Foucault maintained that history is an intersection of multiple discourses with gaps and discontinuities, and suggested an approach of historical analysis to discover/uncover discontinuities in the conditions of human knowledge.
Foucault argues that old historians aimed at reconstituting the past by referring to documents about the past, and, appropriating facts and details such that the incoherent elements are concealed, and create a seemingly unified narrative of history, that complies with the discourse of the time and age. On the contrary, new historicists, work on reference documents from within to understand the inherent fissures. This new approach serves the purpose of proliferation of discontinuities in the history of ideas, in the place of a continuous chronology of reason. This idea is corollary to Foucault’s understanding of knowledge as a manifestation of power:Thus, in a typical poststructuralist manner, new historicists foreground and take pride in discontinuities.