Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism

While he was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Greenblatt helped to found a journal called Representations, in which some of the earlier important New Historicist criticism appeared. As mentioned earlier, however, it was his introduction to The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (1982) that spurred the growth of the New Historicism. In this introduction, Greenblatt differentiated what he called the “New Historicism” from both the New Criticism, which views the text as a selfcontained structure, and the earlier historicism which was monological and attempted to discover a unitary political vision. Both of these earlier modes of analysis, according to Greenblatt, engaged in a project of uniting disparate and contradictory elements into an organic whole, whether in the text itself or in its historical background. The earlier historicism, moreover, viewed the resulting totality or unity as a historical fact rather than the product of interpretation or of the ideological leanings of certain groups. Such a homogenizing procedure allows the unified vision of historical context to serve as a fixed point of reference which could form the background of literary interpretation.

In contrast with this earlier formalism and historicism, the New Historicism questions its own methodological assumptions, and is less concerned with treating literary works as models of organic unity than as “fields of force, places of dissension and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses.” New Historicism also challenges the hierarchical distinction between “literary foreground” and “political background,” as well as between artistic and other kinds of production. It acknowledges that when we speak of “culture,” we are speaking of a “complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs.”

Greenblatt elaborated his statements about New Historicism in a subsequent influential essay, Towards a Poetics of Culture (1987). He begins by noting that he will not attempt to “define” the New Historicism but rather to “situate it as a practice.” What distinguishes it from the “positivist historical scholarship” of the early twentieth century is its openness to recent theory; Greenblatt remarks that his own critical practice has been informed by Foucault, as well as anthropological and social theory. He proposes to situate this practice in relation to Marxism, on the one hand, and poststructuralism, on the other. Citing passages from the Marxist Fredric Jameson and the poststructuralist Jean-François Lyotard, Greenblatt questions the generalizations made about “capitalism” in each passage. Both writers are addressing the question of the connection between art and society:

Jameson, seeking to expose the fallaciousness of a separate artistic sphere and to celebrate the materialist integration of all discourses, finds capitalism at the root of the false differentiation; Lyotard, seeking to celebrate the differentiation of all discourses and to expose the fallaciousness of monological unity, finds capitalism at the root of the false integration. History functions in both cases as a convenient anecdotal ornament upon a theoretical structure, and capitalism appears not as a complex social and economic development in the West but as a malign philosophical principle. 

Greenblatt further charges that both Jameson and Lyotard are trying to provide a “single, theoretically satisfactory” answer to the question of the relation between art and society. Neither of these theorists can “come to terms with the apparently contradictory historical effects of capitalism.” Jameson treats capitalism as the agent of “repressive differentiation,”and Lyotard treats it as the agent of “monological totalization” (“TPC,” 5).In contrast to these reductive theories, Greenblatt espouses a critical practice that would recognize capitalism’s production of “a powerful and effective oscillation between the establishment of distinct discursive domains and the collapse of those domains into one another. It is this restless oscillation . . . that constitutes the distinct power of capitalism” (“TPC,” 6). Greenblatt wishes to move beyond literary criticism’s familiar terminology for treating the relationship between art and society: allusion, symbolism, allegory, representation, and mimesis. We need to develop, he urges, terms to describe the ways in which material “is transferred from one discursive sphere to another and becomes aesthetic property,” a process which is not unidirectional because the “social discourse is already charged with aesthetic energies” (“TPC,” 11). The New Historicism is marked by a “methodological self-consciousness,” rather than the old historicist “faith in the transparency of signs and interpretative procedures.” The New HistoricismNew Historicism will view the work of art itself as “the product of a set of manipulations . . . the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society” (“TPC,” 12). The general movement here is away from a mimetic theory of art to an interpretative model that will “more adequately account for the unsettling circulation of materials and discourses that is . . . the heart of modern aesthetic practice” (“TPC,” 12).

There are some problems with Greenblatt’s arguments as stated above. To some extent, the allegedly unifying models from which New Historicism would distinguish itself are straw targets. The best New Critics engage in intricate analyses which acknowledge the contradictions and tensions in a given literary text. And the best Marxist critics do not engage in naive reflectionist theories of the connection between literary or philosophical texts and their historical contexts. LukácsThe Young Hegel, for example, does precisely the opposite, situating Hegel’s work within a complex network of economic and political discourses in a manner that exposes reductive liberal-humanist accounts, treating complex notions such as “contradiction” and “totality” on a high intellectual level. Greenblatt’s characterization of what he takes to be “the” Marxist perspective violates his own New Historicist principles by treating it in isolation: clearly, the statements of a critic such as Fredric Jameson should be taken within the context of a vast tradition of Marxist thinking which has indeed recognized the complex and contradictory nature of capitalism. Jameson’s own formulation of a “dialectical criticism” at the conclusion of his Marxism and Form is a highly articulate testimony to the non-reductive and genuinely complex character of his Marxist thought, informed as it is (or was at that time) by Hegelian concepts. In fact, Greenblatt’s own characterization of the “distinctive feature” of capitalism as the “oscillation” between totalizing and fragmenting tendencies is as reductive as the positions he impugns; moreover, this insight is already contained in the work of previous Marxist thinkers. Finally, there appears to be absent in Greenblatt’s formulation of the New Historicism any assessment of its connections with the earlier forms of historicism discussed at the beginning of this chapter. The historicism of figures such as Dilthey and Gadamer demonstrated anything but a “faith in the transparency of signs and interpretative procedures.” It should be noted that, in both of the articles discussed above, when Greenblatt refers to the “earlier historicism,” he is thinking not of the historicism descending from Hegel or of figures such as Gadamer and Dilthey, but of the historical literary scholarship which preceded the New Criticism and which was continued in the work of figures such as Dover Wilson. In the second article, as we have seen, Greenblatt refers to this as “the positivist historical scholarship of the early twentieth century” (“TPC,” 1). The connections between the earlier lines of historicism (as opposed to positivist historical scholarship – which is anything but positivistic) and Greenblatt’s version of historicism remain unformulated.

Notwithstanding such objections, Greenblatt’s own books, such as Renaissance Self Fashioning (1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), are illustrious examples of the critical practice he advocates. The former book, for example, explores the complex ways in which identity was created in the sixteenth century in an atmosphere of competition between various institutions, authorities, and ideologies, political, religious, domestic, and colonial. And, as mentioned earlier, New Historicists have profoundly reassessed the entire image of the Renaissance and other periods, questioning conventional categories of analysis and infusing a new energy, revitalized by recent theories, into the study of literature within its cultural contexts. New Historicism has been of further value in as much as it has refused to align itself with a definite series of positions, and as such, it has drawn upon insights from Marxism, feminism, structuralism, and poststructuralism; in turn, its insights have been enlisted by critics from a broad range of perspectives.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, New Historicism

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