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New Historicism
General Overview
General ideas about post-modernism:
we should not read texts superficially but look for those cracks and fault-lines –
where alternative and sometimes contradictory meanings emerge;
 we should read texts as texts and not as extensions of the author’s mood, life,
politics, etc. (there is nothing outside of the text)
there are no absolute or transcendental references or truths: everything is
contingent upon (depends on) culture, history, etc.
 we can read human subjectivity, experience and the world as text – just as we
would a written or literary text.
 the way we tell history and tell a story essentially involves the same narrative
strategies; contemporary literary and non-literary texts when read together can
be mutually illuminating
 The trajectory of women (as subjects, as writers) in the
history of literature is very different from that of men;
 gender and biological sex are not necessarily the same
thing and the former is more a social/cultural construct
than a fixed essence;
 the West has a long history of exploiting and excluding
– or ‘othering’ – certain peoples and communities,
especially peoples of colour and ‘orientals.’ Note that
‘oriental’ is no longer an accepted term for people who are of Asian origin.
 (Other groups traditionally subject to ‘othering’ include
people who prefer and/or practice non-normative
sexuality, the disabled, people who profess alternative
religious or political beliefs, etc.).
 CTLLI is a course on and about critical and textual
analysis, and biographical and contextual literaryhistorical information should be kept to a minimum.
 while Spanish society is vastly different from the
1940s racist American society described by Toni
Morrison in The Bluest Eye, ethnic diversity and its
attendant problems is very firmly part of
contemporary Spanish experience
 a text is not a priori ethnic or feminist or anything
else; our reading of it, however, can be inflected by
certain approaches (ethnic, feminist, etc.).
 What this means, then, is that an Elizabeth Bishop
poem can benefit from a gender, ethnic, new
historicist or poststructuralist reading; similarly
Heart of Darkness or any of the other literary texts
on this course.
 It is a response to the apolitical and a-historicist
orthodoxies of deconstruction.
 It draws on poststructuralist theories of discourse.
 Greater attention to specific stories, to the details
and local contextualizations of concrete instances
and a greater emphasis on the body, the actual
insertion of the human into the texture of time and
 New Historicism (or the ‘historical method’) argues
that texts are not transcendent, i.e. detached from
certain contextual particularities such as time, place,
social forces, ideology, etc.,
 but on the contrary, are products of and generated
among these particularities or discourses.
 In its attention to ideological specificity, New
Historicism owes much to Marxist methodology,
while the dynamic between literature and history is
constantly held up to scrutiny and problematized.
 By the late 1970s, even Marxists had abandoned
their earlier concern with economic and social
history in favor of a critique of ideology focused on
the politics of form.”.
 As a result of Post-Structuralism, history was no
longer what it used to be –a background of ideas or a
field of empirical facts”.
 New Historicists approach literature as just one
more discourse that exists in interaction with
other discourses at a given moment in history.
 In this respect, New Historicists are particularly
influenced by critiques of power, discourse and
history of Michel Foucault.
 The New Historicist rejects a static or totalizing view
of the literary work as transcendent, aesthetically
and thematically self-contained or isolated,
 instead a dynamic ‘cultural poetics’ which
acknowledges “the social and cultural negotiations,
transactions, and exchanges that go into the making
of a literary work”
 One consequence is that, just as literature becomes
historized, so history becomes textualized and one
can speak of ‘narratives of history’.
 “History is always a matter of telling a story about
the past.”
 The concern with the collusion (confabulación)
between discourse and power, appropriated from
Michel Foucault, has generated two strands within
New Historicism itself:
1. One (more closely identified with Greenblatt and
the American School) is pessimistic about the
possibilities of literary discourse to subvert power
since it is always implicated in “the terms of the
discourses which hold … social order in place”.
2. The other, in the line with both British and American
theorists, seeks to re-inscribe a text within the
discursive context which produced it,
 a project which requires an imaginative re-creation of the
inter-discursive exchange between the text and the other
texts –ideological, cultural, social- of its day.
 The point here is to occupy “a position within, the
writer’s ideological frame of reference”, meaning that a
text will necessarily be apprehended from a certain
position –that of the critic reading in the presentwhich is inconsistent with that of its author or its original
 This method has been challenged on the grounds
that by situating a text within its own time (generally
the past.
 While Stephen Greenblatt turned to history to
explain the formal structures of literary texts,
 White investigated the formal literary structures of
history describing a “poetics of history.”
 It’s a broad reflection on narrative and its relation to
 “To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to
invite reflection on the very nature of culture and on
the nature of humanity itself.
 Reacting against the tendency of history as a
discipline to seek its models in the sciences,
 White considers the literary dimension of history
cannot be dismissed.
 Historians deploy the traditional devices of narrative
to make sense of raw data, to organize and give
meaning to their accounts of the past.
 Using the tools of the literary critic White analyses
the nature and mechanisms of history as discourse.
The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact
 In this book, he examines the structuring role of
plots and tropes (figures of speech) in the discourse
of history.
 It provides a synopsis of his main arguments in
Metahistory, beginning with his definition of metahistory as the attempt to “get behind or beneath the
presuppositions which sustain a given type of inquiry
[in this case historical inquiry].”
 It was thought that history (judged by its
correspondence to reality) and literature (judged as
 They are two distinct, diametrically opposed, activities
 History, like literature, is a verbal structure and the
historian is a writer, the tools that have served literary
critics, the tools that compose the linguistic and
rhetorical structures of a text, serve the historian as well.
 The language in which history is written cannot be
 Language in history is never merely a means to an end.
 It is neither transparent nor neutral.
 He argues that history, because of its claims to represent
reality adequately, is the form best suited for a study of
the style of narrative “realism.”
 Histories gain their explanatory power by processing
data into stories. Those stories take their shape from
 White calls “emplotment,” the process through which the
facts contained in “chronicles” are encoded as
components of plots.
 Plots are not immanent in events themselves but
exist in the mind of historians.
 The event emerges as a plotted story, which takes on
meaning when it is combined with other elements in
the limited number of generic plot structures by
which a series of events can be constituted
White identifies four possible emplotments
 Tragic, comic, romantic, and ironic.
 These generic deep-plot structures are shared between
historians and their audiences by virtue of their participation
in a common culture.
 The kind of emplotment historians will employ is determined
by the dominant figurative mode of the language they use to
describe these events and story elements.
 He identifies four master tropes or modes of figurative
representation –metaphor, metonymy, synechdoque,
and irony- which correspond to the four types of
 Tropes are ineradicable from discourse, as are plots. Thus
history evokes reality: it does not reproduce or represent it.
 Historians have mistakenly focused their attention
only on the surface, while ignoring the underlying
deep structures that produces those narratives.
 Historians have objected to his narrowing of history
to language, while more poststructuralist-minded
literary critics have taken issue with his structuralist
reductionism .
 White imagines plot as a quintessential
expression of the historian’s personal style and
 Despite these objections, White’s skilful dismantling
of the opposition between history and literature has
paved the way for many productive studies in both
 According to Lévy- Strauss our explanation of
historical processes are determined more by what we
leave out than by what we put in.
 Historical narrative as an extended metaphor it does
not reproduce the events it describes, it tells us in
what direction to think about the events.