New Historicism

In 1982 Stephen Greenblatt edited a special issue of Genre on Renaissance writing, and in his introduction to this volume he claimed that the articles he had solicited were engaged in a joint enterprise, namely, an effort to rethink the ways that early modern texts were situated within the larger spectrum of discourses and practices that organized sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English culture. This reconsideration had become necessary because many contemporary Renaissance critics had developed misgivings about two sets of assumptions that informed much of the scholarship of previous decades. Unlike the New Critics, Greenblatt and his colleagues were reluctant to consign texts to an autonomous aesthetic realm that dissociated Renaissance writing from other forms of cultural production; and unlike the prewar historicists, they refused to assume that Renaissance texts mirrored, from a safe distance, a unified and coherent world-view that was held by a whole population, or at least by an entire literate class. Rejecting both of these perspectives, Greenblatt announced that a new historicism had appeared in the academy and that it would work from its own set of premises: that Elizabethan and Jacobean society was a site where occasionally antagonistic institutions sponsored a diverse and perhaps even contradictory assortment of beliefs, codes, and customs; that authors who were positioned within this terrain experienced a complex array of subversive and orthodox impulses and registered these complicated attitudes toward authority in their texts; and that critics who wish to understand sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing must delineate the ways the texts they study were linked to the network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constituted Renaissance culture in its entirety.

In some ways, Greenblatt’s declaration of New Historicism’s existence was a problematic gesture, for while his title quickly garnered considerable prestige for critics working in this area, it also created expectations that the New Historicists could not satisfy. Specifically, the scholars who encountered Greenblatt’s term tended to conceive of New Historicism as a doctrine or movement, and their inference led them to anticipate that Greenblatt and his colleagues would soon articulate a coherent theoretical program and delineate a set of methodological procedures that would govern their interpretive efforts. When the New Historicists failed to produce such position papers, critics began to accuse them of having a disingenuous relation to literary theory. In response to such objections, Greenblatt published an essay entitled “Towards a Poetics of Culture” (1987), which has had a profound impact on the way academics understand the phenomenon of New Historicism today. In this piece, Greenblatt attempted to show, by way of a shrewd juxtaposition Of Jean-François Lyotard‘s and Fredric Jameson‘s paradigms for conceptualizing capitalism, that the genera) question they address, namely, how art and society are interrelated, cannot be answered by appealing to a single theoretical stance. And since the question both Lyotard and Jameson pose is one that New Historicism also raises, its proponents should see the failure of Marxist and poststructuralist attempts to understand the contradictory character of capitalist aesthetics as a warning against any attempt to convert New Historicism into a doctrine or a method. From Greenblatt’s perspective, New Historicism never was and never should be a theory; it is an array of reading practices that investigate a series of issues that emerge when critics seek to chart the ways texts, in dialectical fashion, both represent a society’s behavior patterns and perpetuate, shape, or alter that culture’s dominant codes.

In part because his argument was so effective, and in part because his colleagues developed similar positions independently, most of the critics working in the field of cultural poetics agree that New Historicism is organized by a series of questions and problems, not by a systematic paradigm for the interpretation of literary works. Louis Montrose, for instance, has described some of these issues at length, and in his essay “The Poetics and Politics of Culture” (1986) he provides a list of concerns shared by New Historicists that agrees with and extends Greenblatt’s commentary. Like Greenblatt, Montrose insists that one aim of New Historicism is to refigure the relationship between texts and the cultural system in which they were produced, and he indicates that as a first step in such an undertaking, critics must problematize or reject both the formalist conception of literature as an autonomous aesthetic order that transcends needs and interests and the reflectionist notion that writing simply mirrors a stable and coherent ideology that is endorsed by all members of a society. Having abandoned these paradigms, the New Historicist, he argues, must explain how texts not only represent culturally constructed forms of knowledge and authority but actually instantiate or reproduce in readers the very practices and codes they embody.

Stephen Greenblatt/Pinterest

Montrose also suggests that if New Historicism calls for a rethinking of the relationship between writing and culture, it also initiates a reconsideration of the ways authors specifically and human agents generally interact with social and linguistic systems. This second New Historicist concern is an extension of the first, for if the idea that every human activity is embedded in a cultural field raises questions about the autonomy of literary texts, it also implies that individuals may be inscribed more fully in a network of social practices than many critics tend to believe. But as Montrose goes on to suggest, the New Historicist hostility toward humanist models of freely functioning subjectivity does not imply that he and his colleagues are social determinists. Instead, Montrose argues that individual agency is constituted by a process he calls “subjectification,” which he describes as follows: on the one hand, culture produces individuals who are endowed with subjectivity and the capacity of agency; on the other, it positions them within social networks and subjects them to cultural codes that ultimately exceed their comprehension and control.

In another section of his essay, Montrose adds a third concern to define New Historicism: to what extent can a literary text offer a genuinely radical critique of authority, or articulate views that threaten political orthodoxy? New Historicists have to confront this issue because they are interested in delineating the full range of social work that writing can perform, but as Montrose suggests, they have not yet arrived at a consensus regarding whether literature can generate effective resistance. On one side, critics such as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield claim that Renaissance texts contest the dominant religious and political ideologies of their time; on the other, some critics argue that the hegemonic powers of the Tudor and Stuart governments are so great that the state can neutralize all dissident behavior. Although Montrose offers his own distinctive response to the containment- subversion problem, he insists that a willingness to explore the political potential of writing is a distinguishing mark of New Historicism.

A final problem Montrose expects his New Historicist colleagues to engage might be called “the question of theory.” Even as he insists that cultural poetics is not itself a systematic paradigm for producing knowledge, he argues that the New Historicists must be well versed in literary and social theory and be prepared to deploy various modes of analysis in their study of writing and culture. Montrose finds notions of textuality from d e c o n s t r u c t io n and poststructuralism to be particularly useful for the practice of historical criticism, for their emphasis on the discursive character of all experience and their position that every human act is embedded in an arbitrary system of signification that social agents use to make sense of their world allow him and his colleagues to think of events from the past as texts that must be deciphered. In fact, these poststructuralist theories often underlie the cryptically chiastic formulations, such as “the historicity of texts and the textuality of history,” that appeal so much to the practitioners of cultural poetics. Other New Historicists invoke different interpretive perspectives, especially those found in the writings of Michel Foucault and Clifford Geertz, to aid their interpretive endeavors. The crucial point here is that virtually every New Historicist finds theory to be a potential ally.

Such, then, are the issues that shape the terrain of New Historicism. In what remains, I will comment in some detail upon the writings of three exemplary New Historicists, Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Goldberg, and Walter Benn Michaels. As a result, many significant contributors to this field will go undiscussed, but it is especially important to gain a sense of how these practitioners of cultural poetics actually interpret texts.

New Historicism: A Brief Note

In his introduction to Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Greenblatt indicates that his book aims to chart the ways identity was constituted in sixteenth-century English culture. He argues that the scene in which his authors lived was controlled by a variety of authorities— institutions such as the church, court, family, and colonial administration, as well as agencies such as God or a sacred book—and that these powers came into conflict because they endorsed competing patterns for organizing social experience. From Greenblatt’s New Historicist perspective, the rival codes and practices that these authorities sponsored were cultural constructions, collective fictions that communities created to regulate behavior and make sense of their world; however, the powers themselves tended to view their customs as natural imperatives, and they sought to represent their enemies as aliens or demonic parodists of genuine order. Because human agents were constituted as selves at the moment they submitted to one of these cultural authorities, their behavior was shaped by the codes that were sponsored by the institution with which they identified, and they learned to fear or hate the Other that threatened their very existence.

Since authors were fully situated within this cultural system, Greenblatt contends that their writings both comment generally upon the political struggles that emerged within the Tudor state and register their complicated encounters with authorities and aliens. To prove his thesis, he analyzes self-fashioning in a number of significant Renaissance works, and he shows that these texts record sophisticated responses to a series of cultural problems. Greenblatt demonstrates that Thomas More’s late writings are the culmination of his engagement with theological controversy, for these letters reiterate his sense that his identity is shaped by his participation in the Catholic community, and they restate his belief that Protestant theology is an alien threat that should be rooted out of England. Edmund Spenser’s Bower of Bliss scene in The Faerie Queene encodes and relieves anxieties about the ways sexuality challenges the state’s legitimate authority, and Thomas Wyatt’ssatires explore whether an aristocrat can detach himself from a court society that has become wholly corrupt.

By consistently situating the texts he studies in relation to sixteenth-century political problems, Greenblatt avoids the formalist error of consigning writing to an autonomous aesthetic realm and produces analyses that accord with the New Historicist premise that critics can understand Renaissance works only by linking them to the network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constituted Tudor culture in its entirety. And if one of the aims of cultural poetics is to explain how texts are both socially produced and socially productive, Greenblatt addresses this question directly in his chapter on William Tyndale. He argues there that the invention of the printing press converted books into a form of power that could control, guide, and discipline, and he proves that texts fashioned acceptable versions of the self by narrating the story of James Bainham, that ultimate creation of the written word. Following John Foxe, Greenblatt recounts that when Bainham publicly declared his Protestant faith, he spoke with “the New Testament in his hand in English and the Obedience of a Christian Man in his bosom,” and since the “Obedience” is the title of one of Tyndale’s most influential moral tracts, Greenblatt concludes that Bainham’s identity has been constituted by a text.

Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism

While Greenblatt’s book distinctly advances the New Historicist project of rethinking the relationship between literature and society, it also investigates the other questions that Montrose uses to define cultural poetics. Since self-fashioning is a close analogue to Montrose’s own idea of subjectification, it is clear that much of Greenblatt’s attention is focused on the social processes by which identity is constituted. In his chapter on Christopher Marlowe’s plays, Greenblatt also offers his views on the question whether literature can generate effective resistance, and he concludes that the political ideologies and economic practices that both Marlowe and his characters seek to contest are ultimately too powerful to subvert.

Finally, concerning Greenblatt’s response to the question of theory, it seems fair to conclude that at the time he wrote Renaissance Self-Fashioning he had already decided that no single interpretive model could explain the full complexity of the cultural process New Historicism investigates. Although he invokes a vast array of approaches from a considerable number of disciplines, three of his theoretical borrowings are especially significant. Following Geertz, Greenblatt argues that every social action is embedded in a system of public signification, and this premise is responsible for one of the most spectacular features of his reading practice, namely, his ability to trace in seemingly trivial anecdotes the codes, beliefs, and strategies that organize an entire society. If cultural anthropology supplies Greenblatt with the techniques of thick description that he uses to interpret letters from colonial outposts, then Foucault offers him the theory of power that informs much of his work, for as his chapters on More and Tyndale demonstrate, Greenblatt views disciplinary mechanisms such as shaming, surveillance, and confession as productive of Renaissance culture, not as repressive of innate human potential. Lastly, in poststructuralist criticism from the 1970s and 1980s, Greenblatt finds corroboration of his idea that the self is a vulnerable construction, not a fixed and coherent substance, though he deviates somewhat from deconstructive analyses when he argues that culture, rather than language, creates the subject’s instability. Frankly, when considering his ability to forge these potentially contradictory theories into a powerful critical stance, one wonders who is more adept at self-fashioning, he or the writers he discusses.

In his introduction to James I and the Politics of Literature (1983), Jonathan Goldberg commends Greenblatt’s study of the relationship between Renaissance texts and society, and he claims that his book, like Greenblatt’s, will reveal “the social presence to the world of the literary text and the social presence of the world in the literary text” (Goldberg, James xv, quoting Greenblatt, Renaissance 5). But unlike Greenblatt, who analyzes the techniques that a number of competing institutions use to discipline behavior, Goldberg tends to focus on the ways political discourses circulate around a single authority, James I. According to Goldberg, James’s Roman rhetoric is filled with contradictions, two of which are especially important. First, while James wishes to maintain the integrity of the royal line from which he descends, he also claims that he is both self-originating and the world’s secret animating force. Second, while James refers to kingship as a kind of performance in which his thoughts are fully revealed, he also characterizes public display as necessarily obfuscating and opaque.

In a characteristically New Historicist manner, Goldberg offers a political interpretation of these inconsistencies, and he then proceeds to demonstrate that artistic productions replicate the structures of royal authority. Goldberg claims that James’s emphasis on self-origination is an effort to mystify his body, to free himself from his dubious family history and to derive his sovereignty from a transcendent and eternal world. This strategy allows the king to claim that all life springs from hisspiritual substance, but it also enables him to argue that he is unaccountable to the social world he governs. While the king used this doctrine of mystery and state secrecy to protect his political power, Renaissance writers appropriated his language to make sense of their own activities and experiences, b e n jo n s o n appeals to the theory of arcana imperii in his masques because he wants them to point beyond themselves to the royal patron who is responsible for their existence. John Donne uses James’s terms to represent the undiagnosable disease that festers within him as an undisclosed policy that governs a newly founded kingdom. If the discourse of the state secret infiltrates the body here, it also pervades the Renaissance conception of the family, for in an astonishing analysis of domestic portraits, Goldberg shows that the father, modeled on royal authority, generates his lineage but remains distant and unaccountable as he dreamily gazes away from his wife and children.

From even this brief summary, we see that Goldberg shares many of the enabling assumptions of Renaissance Self-Fashioning: he senses that all human activity is inevitably inscribed in a system of signification that organizes the ways agents understand their world; he views Renaissance literature as being inextricably related to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century social practices; and he conceives of the self as a culturally constituted entity that is shaped by structures of authority. The above account also hints that Goldberg’s theoretical orientation is heavily Foucauldian, for his description of the ways the body is inscribed within discourse echoes Foucault’s notion that disciplinary mechanisms swarm and produce their subtle effects even in the domains of human experience that seem intensely private and personal.

But how does Goldberg respond to the containmentsubversion problem, which is consistently investigated in New Historicist writing? We can answer this question by briefly summarizing the argument of his chapter “The Theatre of Conscience.” Goldberg here examines the ways Renaissance texts replicate the second contradiction inherent in James’s discourse, and he begins by suggesting that George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois and William Shakespeare’s Henry V both depict characters who gain authority by using performative arts to conceal their plans and desires. But if these works concur with James’s sense that power can only be maintained through opaque self-dramatization, other texts invoke the royal rhetoric of obfuscating theatricality to challenge the king’s policies. Writers such as Jonson and Donne confidently satirize the tolerated licentiousness of James’s court because they recognize that if the monarch is aloof, unknowable, and unaccountable, then poets can never say anything that intentionally questions royal motives. And if the censor or the king himself raises doubts about an author’s loyalty, that writer can always cloak himself in the language of regal inscrutability and claim that his works, like James’s acts, were constantly being misread. Goldberg’s point, then, is that subversive behavior emerges from within absolutist discourse itself, and he implies that while such a structure allows writers to express feelings of disgust and contempt, it also ultimately contains the threat posed by gestures of dissent and rebellion.

New Historicism’s Deviation from Old Historicism

Goldberg’s work has helped to convince many Renaissance scholars that they should become practitioners of cultural poetics, and as a result New Historicism thrives in the field of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English criticism. Since academics who work in other areas of literary studies have also found this reading strategy congenial, we should now briefly consider the way one of these figures has used New Historicist assumptions to interpret texts drawn from a later culture. In his introduction to The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987), Walter Benn Michaels states that his aim is to study how American writing is shaped by changes in economic production, distribution, and consumption that occurred after the Civil War, and his thesis is that the literary mode commonly called naturalism participates in and exemplifies a capitalist discursive system that is structured by a series of internal divisions. Each significant element of American economic practice—corporations, money, commodities, and identities— is intrinsically differentiated from itself, and since writing too is a part of this massive political formation, it must also display the logic of contradiction that drives mercantile culture.

Perhaps the chapter that most clearly illustrates Michaels’s powers as a reader is the one from which he borrows his book’s title. There Michaels discusses the late nineteenth-century debates between the goldbugs and the advocates of paper currency, and he shows that the controversy between these groups stems from competing assumptions about the nature of money itself: while the defenders of precious metals sense that the value of gold resides in its innate beauty, their opponents think that gold is only desirable because it is a representation of money. Having delineated these opposing views, Michaels shows that both of these positions are illustrated in Frank Norris’s McTeague, for the narrative’s two misers are motivated by these contradictory models of wealth. Trina’s hoarding of gold enacts her society’s presumption that metal is the money itself, and her act encodes her culture’s fear that should preciousmetals stop circulating, civilization will be undone. Zerkow’s collecting of junk embodies his world’s recognition that if wealth is an effect of representation, then anything can be converted into money, and his behavior demonstrates that a discrepancy between material and value is the enabling condition of capital. Michaels’s point in producing this analysis is not that either of these theories of wealth is truer than the other but that the tension between them is a constitutive element of the discourse of naturalism and that any literary text produced at this time will display both views toward money.

By demonstrating that the logic of naturalism informs both the gold-standard debate and Norris’s text, Michaels performs the first task expected of the New Historicist, namely, explaining how writing is a part of the culture in which it was produced. In the same chapter, he turns to Norris’s Vandover and the Brute to consider the ways that subjectivity is constructed. By means of an intricate reading operation, he shows that Vandover’s consciousness is deeply divided, for while the character sometimes conceives of his self as an extension of his own animal being, at other times he discovers that his identity is a product of textual representation. But since this split neatly replicates the contradictions inherent in the nineteenth-century understanding of money, Michaels concludes that Vandover’s subjectivity is fully inscribed in the discourse of naturalism. Michaels’s understanding of selfhood shapes his response to the third question that Montrose claims New Historicists should address, for Michaels strongly insists that the socially constituted character of human identity prevents individuals from imagining progressive alternatives to the society in which they live. Indeed, in a particularly memorable passage, he dismisses utopian visions as fantasies of transcendence that have haunted cultural criticism from the time of Jeremiah. Finally, on the question of method, one must acknowledge that Michaels not only borrows from other scholars but actually offers insights that complicate existing theories. Although his use of Foucault’s model of discourse is fairly predictable, his discussion of the ways capitalist practices conform to a structure of internal difference is innovative because, as Brook Thomas has noted, this idea indicates that the poststructuralist dismantling of the autonomous subject may be more complicit with mercantile economic systems than has often been recognized.

While few would deny the brilliance of Greenblatt’s, Goldberg’s, or Michaels’s analyses, some critics have developed misgivings about various aspects of their reading practices. A number of critics have argued that despite the New Historicists’ professed interest in cultural difference, many of them speak of societies as if they were monolithic entities and thereby suppress the fact that in a given political formation different paradigms for organizing economic or aesthetic activity exist simultaneously. Some feminists have claimed that the New Historicists have appropriated their assumptions and interpretive strategies but have not contributed much to the study of gender relations. While it is not yet apparent whether these and other criticisms will lead to the demise of cultural poetics in the foreseeable future, it is clear that the emergence of New Historicism has reminded scholars that they will not be able to understand texts unless they study the links between writing and other social practices, and this contribution alone is an honorable legacy.

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987); Walter Cohen, “Political Criticism of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, 1987); Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (1983), “The Politics of Renaissance Literature: A Review Essay,” ELH 49 (1982), “Recent Studies in the English Renaissance,” Studies in English Literature (1984); Stephen Greenblatt, Introduction to The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms, special issue, Genre 15 (1992), “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,” Political Shakespeare (ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 1985), Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), “Towards a Poetics of Culture” (Veeser); Richard Helgerson, “The Land Speaks: Cartography, Chorography, and Subversion in Renaissance England,” Representations 16 (1986), Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System (1983); Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986); Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987); Louis A. Montrose, “Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form” ELH 50 (1983), “The Poetics and Politics of Culture” (Veeser), “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios 7 (1980), “Shaping Fantasies: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 2 (1983); Edward Pechter, “The New Historicism and Its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama,” PMLA ioi (1987); Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (1990); Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres (1986); Brook Thomas, The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics (1991); H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism (1989); Don E. Wayne, “Power, Politics, and the Shakespearean Text: Recent Criticism in England and the United States,” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, 1987).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Foucault’s Influence on New Historicism

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