New Historicism and Cultural Criticism (Lee's lecture notes from Lois Tyson's Critical Theory Today Et cetera)

last updated 3/17/09

New Historicism is a post-structuralist (deconstructive) theory that does not focus on the facticity of history but on the ambiguities of the language about (it), the various versions of history, and what this tells us about those who wrote the history. As with Deconstructive theory, nothing is "out-of-play," not even past events that for old historicists meant absolute fact.

These questions come into play: How does ideology operate in terms of individual and group identity? How does a "culture's perception of itself influence it's political, legal, and social policies and customs"? How does an analysis of history show us the eternal exchange of power (think of Foucault here)? (p. 288)

New Historicism (Old) Historicism or Traditional History
interpretive; shaped by all surrounding texts and shaping them

Stephen Greenblatt (a famous New Historicist/marxists): more of a practice rather than a doctrine; says that art and history are not different discourses, not separated from "discursive institutions that are operative elsewhere in culture."

What is Art?  "It is not a pure flame that lies at the source of our interpretations--it is the product of a set of manipulations, even from the reader...a product of negotiation, an exchange..." A product much like history, both swimming in ideological seas...

For the New Historicist, texts about history, or history itself (because what is it if not a text) is yet another text that circulates power.  

NHers do "thick descriptions," or the detailing/close reading of webs of social meaning.  They also use self positioning to be more up front about their own ideological perspectives (which is NOT a way toward objectivity).

history as fixed and factual; logocentric, and phallolocentric, eurocentric, positivist, monolithic--something that factually happened

Phillys Schlafly (president of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum): "2. Take engineering, math and science. You learn things that are true...10. If you take English, beware of professors who believe in Deconstructionism. That means there is no such thing as intrinsic merit in a work of literature and that what matters is what you think about the author, not what he actually wrote...12. Seek out courses (if any) that teach the true history and achievements of Western civilization and the United States rather than Multiculturalism, which is a code word for downgrading America as the worst of all cultures."

Greenblatt: Old Hist. has "faith in the transparency of signs and interpretive procedures" (12)...or Lee might say, language can't be neutered that much...

Orlando: "...the first duty of a biographer, which is to the indelible footprints of truth...on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone..." (65)

A key question: how does any text collude with or deconstruct the historical ideologies of it's time period?

How do you see (hi)stories (historical, ideological discourse) being used (circulating) to support ideologies in power (and what power exchanges do you see within and around these discourses?--see Foucault)?

Based on deconstructive theories, NH says history is made up of webs of signifiers, like any text; webs of discourses or stories people/cultures/times tell themselves about themselves and Others (like Alexie's signifyin(g) story about Mary Rowlandson's 1676 captivity narrative that apparently helped form Native policy in the U.S. Norton p. 342). A link with biographical information about Rowlandson (always, though, we think about the discourses circulating in any of these texts)

NH sees history as a matter of textual interpretation.  Historical discourses are therefore NOT:

NH deconstructs the ideologies of master narratives by showing the circulation of power among various discourses, master and marginal.  Stories/histories shape and are shaped by the culture they emerge from/within.

Greenblatt asks how material is transferred from one discursive or ideological sphere to another (11).  Like if you go to Yosemite, the wilderness, there are More Rules (9).  Or like Normal Mailer's Executioner Song about the real killer Gary Gilmore, and how that became a popular success and a TV miniseries (that sold cars etc.; 10); Mailer wrote a letter and Gilmore got out and killed again--art and murder mixing.


Cultural Criticism

How is culture separated from history? It isn't...but for some theorists, cultural criticism is perhaps more political than new historicism, and perhaps looks at the discourses circulating in popular culture.

In relationship to Marxism, some cultural critics focus on the circulating discrouse that strongly undervalues working-class culture (and thus we go back to concerns about high vs. low art). Of course, you can think about how popular culture examples from the last decade have focused on what you could say is an overvaluing of working-class culture (Larry the Cable Guy; Jeff Foxworthy; W. Bush) and an undervaluation (or not always under) of white-collar workers and intellectuals...