Friday, October 29, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 8: Whose history?

The seminar examined New Historicism for the past two weeks. Contrary to its title, New Historicism is not a method created by historians writing histories. It emerged from literary criticism among professors of Renaissance literature who were trying to illuminate literature with reference to historical sources and intertextuality investigating what Greenblatt (the originator of the approach and pictured here) calls Cultural Poetics. This approach developed in critic of New Criticism, not old-school German Historicism and Positivism. New Criticism is the common approach to literature with reads it ahistorically, focusing on single texts as enclosed units of narrative and imagery.

New Historicism or Cultural Poetics tries to examine the text in its context, while also asking how the text enforces the cultural practices that it depends on for its own production and dissemination. In this way, these critics draw attention to the processes being employed by contemporary power structures, like the chuch, state, and academy, to disseminate knowledge. They explore a text's historical context and its political implications, and then through a close textual analysis they note the dominant hegemonic position. New Historicism or Cultural Poetics is a politicized form of literary criticism with an eye toward historical contextuality. It is grounded in the critical theory of Foucault, the work of the Cultural Materialists, and anthropology of the variety espoused by Clifford Geertz who advocated writing "thick descriptions" of culture that explains human behavior within particular contexts rather than merely as part of symbolic systems.

After reading deeply into this scholarship, I really feel that New Historicism has a political mission. These critics are all about critiquing capitalism and market relations, and in my mind, retrofitting that critique back onto historical sources. So what they write often appears anachronistic, that is, bringing our contemporary values to play in the past. To their credit, they are aware of this, and so are willing to admit it in their analyses.

To do this, they read all literature and artifacts side-by-side with no distinction, mining what they call the cracks, slippages, fault lines and absences in the traditional historical narratives. While their willingness to eliminate canonical boundaries is to be applauded, I am less thrilled that they do not generally evaluate the differences in the media they examine. Various forms of materials were created with difference purposes and different intent, and what any of it can tell us about anything must be weighed carefully. A letter fragment and a gospel, for instance, are not the same thing. A masterpiece painting and a magical drawing in a recipe book are interesting, but they are not giving us similar information. What either might tell us needs discussion.

While I found much of their work stimulating, I was left a bit puzzled. How "new" is any of this? Historians have been dealing with cultural context, artifacts, and multiple texts for, well, forever. In religious studies, we have been dealing with breaking down canonical boundaries for over fifty years, and we have been discussing power relations and political agendas for at least as long. The differences are that historians are interested in getting at the meanings of the literature they are examining, and we want to investigate the politics of the time of the texts. New Historians are interested in exploring the various discourses that inform the literature they read, and are more motivated by contemporary politics which they think is somehow reflected in these discourses (in ways similar to the ideas of queer theorists or feminist theologians).

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