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Extracts from Compact Guide for Quick Revision

New Historicism (Pages 129-130)

•    Critical approach that developed in the 1980s, mainly through the work of Stephen Greenblatt
•    Reaction against New Criticism, Structuralism and Deconstruction, which privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context
•    Literature seen as an expression of the power structures of the surrounding society
•    Based on the premise that a literary work should be considered a product of the historical & cultural conditions of its production and interpretations, rather than as an isolated creation of genius
•    New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature

Basic Principles
•    “Parallel” reading of literary and non-literary texts
•    Instead of a literary “foreground” and a historical “background,” both texts have equal weight (“co-texts”) and constantly inform or interrogate each other
•    Louis Montrose: New Historicism deals with “the textuality of history and the historicity of texts”

Premises (contesting Liberal Humanism)
•    Literature does not occupy an aesthetic realm independent of economic, social and political conditions; nor does it have timeless artistic value
•    History is not a homogeneous and stable pattern of facts and events which forms a “background” to the literature of an era, which literature simply “reflects.” [Literary text is embedded in context]
•    The humanistic concept of an essential human nature that is common to the author, characters and reader is to be rejected.  Identity is not unified, unique, enduring or personal [The degree of involvement of the author in creating meaning contested]
•    The author and the reader are “subjects” who are constructed and positioned by the conditions of their own era

The New Historicist Practice
Steps in New Historicist Reading
•    Identifying what other literary and non-literary texts the public had access to at the time of writing the text [to understand the relationship between a text and the political, social and economic circumstances in which it originated]
•    Placing the literary text within the “frame” of a non-literary text [Literary text as “embedded” within the non-literary text]
•    The New Historicist essay begins with a powerful & dramatic “anecdote” (historical document)
•    Anecdote (historical document) not “context” but “co-text”
•    The text and co-text seen as expressions of the same historical moment

What Stephen Greenblatt did
•    Book: Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980)
•    Juxtaposed Renaissance plays with horrifying colonial policies
•    Drew attention to marginalization and dehumanizing of oppressed Others
•    Self-fashioning is the creation of oneself according to a set of socially acceptable standards

Renaissance Self-Fashioning: A Digression
•    During the Renaissance the upper class practised self-fashioning. Prescribed attire and behavior was created for the noblemen and women, and was represented through portraits. Masculinity was portrayed through symbols of authority and power. Male rulers depicted themselves in armour or with weapons. The most important characteristic attributed to women was beauty. Beauty represents the concepts of purity, virtue and modesty. In portraits women illustrated these notions through idealized features, fancy dresses, and elaborate jewelry.
•    The Book of the Courtier, by Castiglione is one of the first texts that depicted how individuals were to behave in society. Men of the noble class were to “create” themselves as works of art, according to the conventions of dress and manner set forth by the monarchs. One was to conduct and dress in a way that reflected their position in society. One was not supposed to act in an affected manner, but present naturalness and nonchalance. In addition to this, The Courtier puts emphasis on the importance of not only trying to resemble one’s master, but actually trying to transform himself into the master.

New and Old Historicisms: Differences
•    New Historicism gives “equal weighting” to literary and non-literary texts
•    New Historicism deals with history-as-text [The ‘word’ of the past has replaced the ‘world’ of the past
•    Derridean view that there is nothing outside the text, or that everything is available to us only in textual form]

Influences of Other Theories
•    Poststructuralism
•    Althusserian Marxism
•    Ideology manifests itself in all institutions including literature
•    Ideology operates covertly to “subjectify” and subordinate language users to the interests of the ruling classes
•    Foucault
•    The discourse of an era brings into being concepts, oppositions and hierarchies
•    These are products and propagators of power
•    These determine what is “knowledge,” “truth” and “normal” at a given time
•    Deconstruction
•    Texts involve modes of signification that war against each other
•    Bakhtin’s Dialogism
•    Texts incorporate a number of conflicting voices that represent diverse social classes

•    Cultural Materialism
•    Term used by Raymond Williams
•    Marxist orientation of New Historicism
•    Analysis of any Historical Material (literature included), within a politicized framework
•    The four characteristics of this method are:
•    Historical context
•    Theoretical Method
•    Political Commitment
•    Textual Analysis
•    Cultural Materialists go beyond Marxism in that they focus on the marginalized rather than just focusing solely on class conflict. In this sense it is more radical and subversive.

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