New Historicism

A critical approach developed in the 1980s in the writings of Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism is characterised by a parallel reading of a text with its socio-cultural and historical conditions, which form the co-text. New Historians rejected the fundamental tenets of New Criticism (that the text is an autotelic artefact), and Liberal Humanism (that the text has timeless significance and universal value) . On the contrary, New Historicism, as Louis Montrose suggested, deals with the “texuality of history and the historicity of texts.” Textuality of history refers to the idea that history is constructed and fictionalised, and the historicity of text refers to its inevitable embedment within the socio-political conditions of its production and interpretation. Though it rejects many of the assumptions of poststructuralism, New Historicism is in a way poststructuralist in that it rejects the essential idea of a common human nature that is shared by the author, characters and readers; instead it believes that identity is plural and hybrid.

A New Historicist interpretation of a text begins with identifying the literary and non-literary texts available and accessible to the public, at the time of its production, followed by reading and interpreting the text in the light of its co-text. Such an interpretative analysis would ideally begin with a powerful and dramatic explication of the “anecdote”, which is the historical context or the co-text. Thus the text and the context are perceived as expressions of the same historical moment. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980) does a New Historicist reading of Renaissance plays, reavealing how ‘self-fashioning was an episteme of the era, as depicted in the portraits and literature  of the time.

The discipline of New Historicism has been influenced by Althusserian concept of ideology; the Derridian deconstructionist idea that a text is at war with itself; Bhaktinian dialogism which posits that a text contains a multiplicity of conflicting voices; and most prominently by Foucauldian Power/Knowledge and discourse. Analysing the nature of  power, Foucault  expounds that Power (for instance, in the form of the panoptic surveillant sate), defines what is truth, knowledge, normalcy. New Historicism believes in the Foucauldian idea of the “capillary modes of power” which like Althusser’s Ideology interpellates the lives and actions of the citizens.

Foucault’s archeological concept of history as archive, informs yet another tendency of the New Historicists, in that they consider history as fictionalised and as a “co-text” while traditional historians consider history as facts and as the background to the text, which is the foreground. Foucault observes that history is characterised by gaps and fissures contemporary historicists highlight the discontinuities and conflicts of history, rather than write in a coherent manner. He does not, like traditional historians, write history as a unified, continuous story.

Thus New Historicism applies the poststructuralist idea that reality is constructed and multiple, and the Foucauldian idea of the role of power in creating knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “New Historicism

  1. […] New Historicism envisages and practises a mode of study where the literary text and the non-literary cotext are given “equal weighting”, whereas old historicism considers history as a “background” of facts to the “foreground” of literature. While Old historicism follows a hierarchical approach by creating a historical framework and placing the literary text within it, New Historicism, upholding the Derridean view that there is nothing outside the text, or that everything is available to us in “textual” or narrative form, breaks such hierarchies, and follows a parallel reading of literature and history, and looks at history as represented and recorded in literary texts. In short, while Old Historicism is concerned with the “world” of the past, New Historicism deals with the “word” of the past. […]

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