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Limits and Beyond: Greenblatt, New Historicism and a Feminist Genealogy

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Limits and Beyond: Greenblatt, New Historicism and a Feminist Genealogy

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Though one of the most powerful disciplines of contemporary literary criticism, New Historicism has faced attacks from various quarters. Accordingly, using Greenblatt's works as examples, I am going to explore the theoretical problems of New Historicism in detail by dividing its development into two stages—the first stage is the "panoptical past: language, self and power" and the second is "go-betweenness: wonder and resonance." The former is trapped a Foucauldian closure-structure of power relations with the politics of cultural despair, whereas the latter has tended to escape from this pessimistic trap with the strategy of "go-betweenness." Facing up to these aspects, rather than presenting a "shopping list" of improvements required for New Historicism, I will explain how New Historicism should be reconciled with the mainstream postmodernism, which is more diverse, affirmative and ethico-political than the formalistic and pessimistic theory advocated by Greenblatt. I will then ex-amine the possibility of a feminist new historicism to show how New Historicism can revitalize its critique, cross its limits and thus reach beyond its traditional domain.

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Different traditions of theorists have defined the relationship between literary text and history in myriad ways. In keeping with the tradition of the early Marxists of a literary work being a reflection of the economic base of the social, historical and cultural aspects of existence, Pierre Macheray and George Lukacs posited the role of literature in transfiguring the ideological structure in which it participated. Later when critics like Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin established a correlation between literature and ideology, language ceased to remain an instrument in the hands of the author and/or the reader, rather becoming a concrete narrator, not only representing the conditions of a particular space and time thereby mirroring lived experience, but also, with creating experiences anew, oftentimes not even corresponding to the objective reality. Further, theorists like Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan held the view that as soon as one is born and acquires language, one is constituted as a subject. Interpellation causes the notion of the 'self' or the 'subject' to be a construct of the ideology one inhabits and the language one uses. Mikhail Bakhtin also upheld that language had both ideological and dialogic overtones, therefore, considering form and content inseparable. He understood fiction to be immersed in the socio-historic rhetoric of the time of its composition-the 'heteroglossia' of language. In the first half of the twentieth century, New Critics and Formalists denounced acknowledgement of contingencies of any specific time or place in analysing a text, thus emphasising an objective interpretation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when New Historicism arrived at the theoretical scene, it was against any kind of reading that pretended to be absolute, therefore recommending a non-linear, disjunctive and fragmented reading of the text. While Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism challenges the traditional historicist method of approaching a text, Hayden White's view tends to depart from it. In the light of these two models of approaching literature, this paper tries to locate Harold Bloom's discontent with the reduction of literature to history as he makes a case for aesthetics and canonisation. The New Historicist approach to the recording of history is a particularly interesting one in that it does not consider history to be an objective sequence of observations depicting what happened in a given time and place. It is rather a subjective narration influenced by the socio-cultural context of a historian in possession of 'power' in Foucauldian terms thus creating knowledge and not merely recording it, ushering in the dissemination of knowledge and the circulation of discourse. Regardless of his commitment to producing objective readings, the historian can never manage to do so, because he cannot transcend his own values, experiences, and knowledge. Inevitably caught up in his own social and cultural contexts, the historian cannot escape the viewpoints provided by the ideas and institutions of his own day. Like the literary analyst, the historian who reads a "text" is involved in interpretation, reinforcing the subjectivity of any account of history. (Dobie 179) Could that bring one to conclude that the history of British literature, prescribed to undergraduate and postgraduate students of English studies in universities across the world, is discriminatory? New Historicism's answer to this question would be 'yes'.
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In the 1980s, a new perspective was introduced to the study of literature under the leadership of Stephen Greenblatt. According to this new point of view, history should be evaluated with a non-traditional approach, known as new historicism, with history in close relation with literature. Contrary to previous historical theories, which reflect the belief that a literary text reflects the period in which it was written, new historicism focuses on the influence of the historical conditions in which the literary text is produced. At the same time, this theory also takes into account the social atmosphere of the time and the psychological state of the author. Literature is evidence for history in new historicism. New historicism has emerged as a reaction to traditional historical understandings, which emphasize the importance of literary works and ignore non-literary works. This theory emphasizes the problematic nature of history by examining it with a critical approach; interestingly, although it emerges as a historical approach, it is not only about history, but about many things. New historicism is mostly interested in culture and society. For example, while addressing an event in history, this theory tries to explain the causes of this event, taking into account the conditions of that period. New historicism usually focuses on minority groups such as women, the oppressed, the insane, and homosexuals, which traditional history often ignores. This study introduces new historicism, which has an important place in literary studies
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The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism Author(s): Alan Liu Source: ELH, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp. 721-771 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873158 . Accessed: 13/07/2014 01:51 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to ELH. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 128.111.121.42 on Sun, 13 Jul 2014 01:51:25 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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This essay on the much acclaimed critic Stephen Greenblatt deals extensively with the New Historicism he developed and for which he coined the name "Poetics of Culture." Contrary to many older interpretive methods and schools that tend to see historical and literary texts as autonomous entities, Poetics of Culture seeks to reveal the relationship between texts and their sociohistorical contexts. Cultural Poetics assumes that texts not only document the social forces that inform and constitute history and society but also feature prominently in the social processes themselves which fashion both individual identity and the sociohistorical situation. By means of an economic metaphor, Greenblatt explains how texts and other symbolic goods, by circulating in a society via channels of negotiation and exchange, contribute to the distribution of social energy, by which he means the intensities of experience that give value and meaning to life and that are also indispensable to the construction of self-awareness and identity. The beating heart, as it were, of this whole process of circulation is identified as a dialectics of totalization and differentiation, as a powerful social force that oscillates between the extremes of sameness and otherness. In several books Greenblatt has elaborated the various aspects of this Poetics of Culture, such as the circulation of social energy, the dialectics of totalization and differentiation, and the process of self-fashioning. This essay discusses some problems of this interpretive method and argues, in comparing it to a more traditional hermeneutics, that social energy, self-fashioning, and the earlier mentioned dialectic are only phenomena in Greenblatt's interpretation of texts and are not actual parts of sociohistorical contexts. Poetics of Culture, in spite of its radical claims, is a genuine hermeneutics operating in a more or less traditional vein.
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This article argues that Shakespeare studies has been limited by a lack of interest in political analysis and discussion, even though many critics profess that their work is seriously concerned with political issues. The field has become dominated by identity politics and the theoretical exploration of the self, legitimate concerns for a politicized criticism. However, as a result, analysis of political institutions and political treatises has been neglected, leaving debates dependent on insights produced in the 1980s, with discussions of politics often taking place without any curiosity about politics in early modern England. An analysis of Shakespeare's writing and career, read in terms of contemporary political arguments, indicates that he was not the apologist for absolutism that critics of both Left and Right have generally conceived. His early histories, The Rape of Lucrece and Titus Andronicus, suggest that he was keenly aware of the political debates and problems that dominated public life in England in the 1590s. Furthermore, they indicate a sophisticated awareness of comparative political analysis, and a well-developed understanding of republicanism. Republicanism in the late sixteenth century could not easily be equated with republicanism as it appeared in the 1640s – one reason why earlier forms have been overlooked or denied by historians – and concentrated on limiting the power of the monarch, rather than overthrowing him or her, and developing institutions that would protect the liberty of the people. Reading Shakespeare's works in the light of such history and theory is a way of returning to the political agenda announced by cultural materialists in the 1980s, and attempting to rediscover a public form of literary and cultural analysis.
Renaissance Self-Fashioning is a study of sixteenth-century life and literature that spawned a new era of scholarly inquiry. Stephen Greenblatt examines the structure of selfhood as evidenced in major literary figures of the English Renaissance—More, Tyndale, Wyatt, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare—and finds that in the early modern period new questions surrounding the nature of identity heavily influenced the literature of the era. Now a classic text in literary studies, Renaissance Self-Fashioning continues to be of interest to students of the Renaissance, English literature, and the new historicist tradition, and this new edition includes a preface by the author on the book's creation and influence. "No one who has read [Greenblatt's] accounts of More, Tyndale, Wyatt, and others can fail to be moved, as well as enlightened, by an interpretive mode which is as humane and sympathetic as it is analytical. These portraits are poignantly, subtly, and minutely rendered in a beautifully lucid prose alive in every sentence to the ambivalences and complexities of its subjects."—Harry Berger Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz
For almost twenty years, new historicism has been a highly controversial and influential force in literary and cultural studies. In Practicing the New Historicism, two of its most distinguished practitioners reflect on its surprisingly disparate sources and far-reaching effects. In lucid and jargon-free prose, Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt focus on five central aspects of new historicism: recurrent use of anecdotes, preoccupation with the nature of representations, fascination with the history of the body, sharp focus on neglected details, and skeptical analysis of ideology. Arguing that new historicism has always been more a passionately engaged practice of questioning and analysis than an abstract theory, Gallagher and Greenblatt demonstrate this practice in a series of characteristically dazzling readings of works ranging from paintings by Joos van Gent and Paolo Uccello to Hamlet and Great Expectations. By juxtaposing analyses of Renaissance and nineteenth-century topics, the authors uncover a number of unexpected contrasts and connections between the two periods. Are aspects of the dispute over the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist detectable in British political economists' hostility to the potato? How does Pip's isolation in Great Expectations shed light on Hamlet's doubt? Offering not only an insider's view of new historicism, but also a lively dialogue between a Renaissance scholar and a Victorianist, Practicing the New Historicism is an illuminating and unpredictable performance by two of America's most respected literary scholars. "Gallagher and Greenblatt offer a brilliant introduction to new historicism. In their hands, difficult ideas become coherent and accessible."—Choice "A tour de force of new literary criticism. . . . Gallagher and Greenblatt's virtuoso readings of paintings, potatoes (yes, spuds), religious ritual, and novels—all 'texts'—as well as essays on criticism and the significance of anecdotes, are likely to take their place as model examples of the qualities of the new critical school that they lead. . . . A zesty work for those already initiated into the incestuous world of contemporary literary criticism-and for those who might like to see what all the fuss is about."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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This essay argues that the critical practice of New Historicism is a mode of “literary” history whose “literariness” lies in bringing imaginative operations closer to the surface of nonliterary texts and briefly describes some of the practice's leading literary features and strategies. I further point out that the ostensible “arbitrary connectedness” (Cohen 1987) of New Historicist writing is in fact aesthetically coded and patterned, both stylistically and in terms of potential semantic correspondences between various representations of the past. I then move on to address the question of why anecdotal evidence features centrally and has come to play a key role in New Historicist writing. Here, I contend that, as components of narrative discourse, anecdotal materials are central in enabling New Historicists to make discernible on the surface of their discourse procedures of meaning production typically found in literary forms. In particular, anecdotal materials are the fragmented “stuff” of historical narratization: they facilitate the shaping of historical events into stories and more or less formalized “facts.” This essay examines how the New Historicist anecdote remodels historical reality “as it might have been,” reviving the way history is experienced and concretely reproduced by contemporary readers of literary history. Finally, the essay confirms how the textual reproduction of anecdotal evidence also enables the New Historicist mode of “literary” history to secure its links to literary artifacts, literary scholarship, and conventional historical discourse.
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