Assumptions underlying the New Historical critical
approach (taken from Judith Newton, "History as Usual?:
Feminism and the 'New Historicism,'" Cultural Critique 9 :
- "that there is no transhistorical or universal human essence and that
human subjectivity is constructed by cultural codes which position and limit
all of us in various and divided ways" (88).
- Instead of the autonomous "self" or "individual," these
critics speak of subject positions that are socially and linguistically
constructed, created by various discourses of a given culture.
- They are influenced by the work of the French theorist Michel
Foucault, who focused upon the intricately structured power relations in a
given culture at a given time to demonstrate how that society controls its
members through constructing and defining what appear to be
"universal" and "natural" truths.
- They are skeptical toward any "universalizing" or
"totalizing" claims, focusing rather on the specificities of a
particular historical and cultural context.
- See Abrams, point #3 (250-51) and discussion of "discourse" (
249). See also the glossary in Chopin under "discourse" (331).
- "that there is no 'objectivity,' that we experience the 'world' in
language, and that all our representations of the world, our readings of texts
and of the past, are informed by our own historical position, by the values and
politics that are rooted in them" (88).
- They emphasize the necessity for self-awareness on the part of the critic,
who must be constantly aware of the difficulties of seeing the past except
through the lenses and cultural constructs of the present.
- See Abrams, point #4 (251).
- "that representation 'makes things happen' by 'shaping human
consciousness' and that, as forces acting in history, various forms of
representation ought to be read in relation to each other and in relation to
non-discursive 'texts' like 'events'" (88-89).
- Critics need to look not only at the historical causes of literary works,
but also at their consequences.
- In a process of thick description, they link literary works with
many other cultural phenomena of a period, including the discourse of
"popular culture" and of areas like economics, law, medicine,
- See Abrams, points #1 and #2 (249-50) and discussion of technique of
"thick description" (249). See also the glossary in Chopin under
New Historicism shares the above assumptions with what is often called
Cultural Studies, but cultural critics are
even more likely to emphasize the present implications of their study and to
position themselves in opposition to current power structures, working to
empower traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the
distinction between "high" and "low" culture and often
focus particularly on the productions of "popular culture."
Barbara F. McManus
Historicism (Warren Hedges, Southern Oregon University); includes
information on Michel Foucault
Readings and Assignments