New Historicism

New Historicism is a theoretical approach to literature that suggests that literature must be read, studied and interpreted within the historical context of its production, including the personal history of the author. It differs from New Criticism in that, unlike the latter, it does not accept the autonomy of the text, that a literary text can be studied in isolation, independent of the historical conditions in which it was produced, including the life of the author. While previous historical criticism limited itself to showing how a text reflected (or refracted) the times in which it was produced, New Historicism, abandoning the object-mirror frame, attempts to reveal how a text is related in complex ways to the times of its production. New Historicism, again, unlike previous historical criticism, does not view the text and its context as separate entities. Rather, it discusses the text also as part of its historical context. New Historicist readings normally use vast amounts of background information collected from social, cultural, political and literary history in analyzing the text. It will look for cues/clues in the text which tell the reader about cultural phenomena, social conditions and historical processes which inform the text. New Historicism will, for example, look at the ways in which the practice of slavery in America in the Nineteenth Century influenced Whitman’s poetry, explain how Robert Lowell’s poem For the Union Dead (1964) relates itself to both the anti-Vietnam-War protests and the reaction of the Beat generation to the crass commercialization of American culture in the Sixties, how liberal democratic opposition to the Communist Party in Kerala in the Fifties is voiced in Basheer’s Viswavikhyaadamaaya Mookku (The World-renowned Nose, 1954) and how some of the narrator’s statements and turns in the plot in Karoor’s story Poovanpazham (1949) can be explicated with reference to the Caste System as it was practiced in Kerala in the middle of the Twentieth Century. In short, unlike New Criticism which looks only into the text, New Historicism constantly looks outside the text for its reading. New Historicist readings will also be on the look out for the author’s biographical details which illuminate the whole or parts of the text. They often dwell on the author’s childhood and upbringing, her maturity and career and the experiences and books that influenced her writing. In reading M T Vasudevan Nair’s novel Naalukettu, for instance, a New Historicist critic is likely to inquire into the author’s childhood and education, his upbringing in a traditional Nair Tharavad, the deprivations he faced in early life and the pecuniary circumstances of his education, to speculate on whether the author created the protagonist Appunni in his own image, and to look for models in real life for imposing characters in the novel like Valyammaama. Moreover, New Historicism does not look at writers as sages or prophets. Although writers are often less involved in the issues of day-to-day life than average citizens, they too participate in social life. New Historicism recognizes the skills of the writers which make them different from other members of society, but it credits them with the same basic capabilities and weaknesses as human beings. The author or artist does not conjure the work entirely from their own imagination like a wizard from out of his hat, but draws from the ideas, vocabularies and beliefs of her or his culture to produce a work which that culture can understand. Even

when a writer is seen as being ahead of his times, or thinking differently from most of his contemporaries, New Historicist readings, instead of describing him/her as an isolated visionary, try to relate this difference to emerging or entrenched subversive or antithetical movements and trends in contemporary literature or culture. Thus Pulimaana Parameswaran Pillai’s expressionist play in Malayalam Samathvavadi (The Socialist, 1944)) though certainly much ahead of its times, can be perceived as an experiment in drama inspired by Western models with which it had become fashionable to cultivate an acquaintance during the author’s career, especially after the publication of the introductory articles on European fiction and drama by Kesari Balakrishna Pillai. It was Stephen Greenblatt who first used the term New Historicism in 1982 to describe the work he and some others had done on the European Renaissance. But New Historicist critical practice can be said to have been really launched in 1980 when Greenblatt published his book Renaissance and Self Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. New Historicism was primarily an American critical movement, while Cultural Materialism another movement with which New Historicism shared many attributes was largely practiced in Britain. The preoccupation of New Historicism with the historicity of literary texts has much in common with traditional Marxist criticism. But New Historicism evolved as a theoretical paradigm under the strong influence of poststructuralist theories of language and textuality, especially the work of Michel Foucoult. Among the many ideas that New Historicism drew from Foucoult, the following, all of which represent a deviation from traditional Marxist positions, may be considered crucial: 1) The notion that history is discontinuous, that history is basically a series of phenomena that are juxtaposed, that overlap or intersect with one another, but never move in linear progression or form a unified whole. Traditional Marxist criticism looked at history in terms of linear progression and societies which were organized on the basis of holistic ideologies. 2) The idea that any period of history has to be viewed, not as a unified whole with a monolithic social structure or all-pervasive ideology (as traditional Marxism did), but as a site for contending world views and organizing principles. Thus one has to talk about “Victorian World Views” (in the plural) rather than “Victorian World View.” 3) The view that power is not something appropriated by a class or group and is imposed on the masses (the traditional Marxist view) but something that governs all human relations, interactions and communications. Power is not considered as a necessarily oppressive force, but as something that produces discourse, something that makes the wheels of society turn, even producing pleasure in the process. New Historicism also adopted Fourcoult’s notions of identity as constructed, rather than given, and of the textuality of history. Louise Montrose, who like Stephen Greenblatt, is considered one of the founding fathers of New Historicism, talks about the textuality of history along with the historicity of texts. History is not a ‘true record of past events’, but writings about past events from various points of view or ideological positions. This is in tune with much of post-structuralist theory which does not accept absolute or universal truths, but regard the truth value of any idea as being constructed in specific contexts under specific set of perceptions. The cutting edge of New Historicist analysis and interpretation became visible in studies on the culture and literature of the European Renaissance, especially on iconic

literary figures like Shakespeare. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Greenblatt invokes Foucault’s conceptualization of power to fashion a critical paradigm, a ‘poetics of culture’ that enables the reading of the complex network of languages, literatures and other sign systems that he locates in Renaissance literature. The most revealing insights about the works and times of Shakespeare till date have, perhaps, been the contribution of New Historicism. In New Historicist readings, Shakespeare appears, not as the quintessential icon of English/British culture, nor as a literary genius par excellence, but as a writer whose writing is inseparable from its historical context. Surprisingly, New Historicism, in bringing Shakespeare down to earth, seems to have elevated him in literary status – as a writer whose works brilliantly negotiate the complexities and constraints of his age. New Historicism makes no distinction between literary and non-literary texts, an attitude that is diametrically opposite to that of New Criticism, which privileged literary texts. All texts, regardless of the discourse which produced them – religion, law, commerce, science, or whatever – are considered to be equally revealing and equally relatable to the socio-cultural matrix from which they emerged. New Historicism also makes no distinction between popular culture and high culture. Greenblatt’s extensive use of non-literary texts produced during the Renaissance is illustrative. As New Historicism accepted the notion that all identities, believes and values are constructed, rather than given, it is also willing to concede that its own assumptions could be considered as constructed, and be deconstructed in their turn. But such an open-minded approach did not prevent the practitioners of New Historicism from taking up strong political positions, especially in combating the neo-conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America. Some of the most serious criticism of New Historicism has come from Cultural Materialism with which it shares a large territory of assumptions and beliefs. One problem that has been identified with New Historicism is that it works with a model, which, because of its ‘neutrality’ and non-privileging attitude cannot generate the energy for political action, something which clearly distinguishes it from traditional Marxist criticism. For Cultural Materialism, the avowed task is to expose the ways in which hegemonic forces try to stave off the challenge from residual and emergent forces that threaten to undermine their hegemony. Such an exposure will necessarily outlines ways and possibilities for subversion. There is also a case for criticizing New Historicism for its excessive dependence on Foucouldian notions of power. In Foucault, power is not always a repressive force. In fact it is almost a benignant force when he talks about it creating discourse and producing pleasure. To classical Marxism, power was a necessary evil, to be used by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, on seizing power, to continue the class war. Its utopian vision of the state withering away also incorporates the notion of the withering away of power – of all power relations. The pessimistic strain in some of Greenblatt’s works is also suggestive. In his essay “Invisible Bullets” (1981) Greenblatt argues that subversion plays into the hands of power, that power needs subversion and that power, in fact, produces subversion to further its end. Frederic Jameson’s criticism that New Historicism’s textualist approach to history leads to a kind

of nominalism ( the notion that the ideas represented in language has no basis in reality) should also be taken seriously. Visappu Let us approach Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s story Visappu (Hunger), written sometime between 1937 and 1941 according to the author, using New Historicist strategies. The protagonist of the story is Kochukrishnan who is a peon ( or ‘peons’ as he liked to put it a little pompously), or office attendant in a college. Like many young bachelors he is frustrated by his failure to strike up relationships with women. All he can do is to watch young women and girls, some of them students, walking along the road with longing eyes. He is particularly fond of watching the wife of the principal of the college where he works. She makes quite a spectacle to him as she stands on the balcony of her home, scantily dressed by the generally accepted standards of her day, in what appears to Kochukrishnan as an alluring pose. The description of her appearance, made from Kochukrishnan’s point of view, is a word picture that closely resembles the photographs of actors and models commonly seen on the covers of popular magazines and in film posters today. But at the beginning of the Forties of the Twentieth Century no film poster or magazine cover displayed such photographs. Probably Visappu is the first story that carries such a description in Malayalam fiction. The sight of the Principal’s wife leaves Kochukrishnan’s throat parched and his eyes blurred. Ousepp and Damodaran, Kochukrishnan’s roommates at the lodge where he lived were unimpressed by his plight. They probably held jobs as poorly paid as Kochukrishnan’s. But unlike Kochukrishnan, they were married and the exigensies of life had made them rigidly practical. They could not imagine the kind of frustration that made Kochukrishnan lose his appetite. In fact, Ousepp advised Kochukrishnan to purge his bowels the following weekend so that he could regain his appetite. It is at this point that the significance of the title of the story becomes apparent. Hunger was thematically central to the Left-leaning literary movement called Jeevalsahitha Prasthanam (literally ‘living literature movement’) founded in 1937 and renamed later as Purogamana Sahitya Prasthanam (Progressive Literary Movement). It was the first literary movement in Malayalam committed to the practice and study of literature that addressed the underprivileged sections of society. Although many of the writers in the movement were friends and acquaintances of Basheer, he himself was not associated with the movement. But hunger was a recurring theme in many of Basheer’s works written during this period, including Janmadinam, Maranathinte Nizhalil and Kathabeejam. Many of these stories could be traced to Basheer;s personal experiences, as both his memoirs and the accounts of his close associates and friends indicate. However, for Basheer, food was not the only thing that men and women hungered for. They hungered for love, sex, peace and spirituality too. Ousepp and Damodaran, like many writers in the Purogamana Sahitya Prasthanam, could not conceive of these human urges as hunger. Which is why they were insensitive to Kochukrishnan’s predicament.

Kochukrishnan’s hunger for the presence of women is an ‘integrated’ hunger. Although the story begins with a description which can be traditionally describes as pornographic, the author makes it clear a little later in the story during Kochukrishnan’s meeting with Elizabeth, a sex worker, that Kochukrishnan hungers after woman as a totality – for both her body and her mind. This signals a break with the unnatural, mechanical separation of body and mind in the representation of relations between the opposite sexes in much of Malayalam literature in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the representation at the core of most of Kumaran Asan’s poems and taken over by Changampuzha, especially in his popular poems like Udyaanadevatha and Ramanan. As it happened, Kochukrishanan’s hunger remained unsatiated. Elizabeth, after giving him false hopes, failed to turn up at the appointed hour. Hoping against hope, Kochukrishnan waited for her for three years. When he saw her next, she looked like a hag, aged unnaturally by disease and poverty. She now begged for a living. Although Kochukrishnan recognized her, she was unable to recognize him. Kochukrishnan bought her lunch and handed her a packet which he had kept for her for the last three years. It contained a sari, a length of white silk cloth for a bodice, a bottle of perfume and a toilet soap. Obviously, it was not just sexual desire that had attracted Kochukrishnan to Elizabeth. The story ends with a repeat of the opening paragraph – the description of the Principal’s wife standing on the balcony of her home. It is interesting to look at the ways in which the story historicizes itself. Kochukrishnan drew a monthly salary of Eight Rupees, which was probably not much more than what a farmhand or an industrial worker earned in those days (a regularly appointed office attendant in a government institution earns about a thousand times as much today). We learn from Ousepp and Damodaran that the bodice, a precursor of the contemporary bra, was then a new-fangled thing that was catching the fancy of women. There are revealing descriptions of Kochukrishnan’s regular monthly budget and of a revised one which was to become applicable if he were to start living with Elizabeth. The monthly rent for a room in a cheap lodge was two rupees. A plain lunch at a restaurant cost nine paise, a cup of tea three paise and a toilet soap eighteen paise. The Japanese sari that Kochukrishnan bought Elizabeth cost him two rupees. Visappu is both story and history.

Further reading
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Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translation of Surveiller et Punir. Vintage, 1979. Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U Chicago P, 1980. Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare. Routledge, 2002. Veeser, H. Aram (Ed.). The New Historicism. Routledge, 1989. Dixon, C 2005, Important people in New Historicism, viewed 26 April 2006. Felluga, D 2003, General introduction to New Historicism, viewed 28 April 2006, Hedges, W 2000, New Historicism explained, viewed 20 March 2006 Murfin, R. & Ray, S 1998, The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, St Martins.

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Myers, D G 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, Rice, P & Waugh, P 1989, Modern literary theory: a reader, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Melbourne. Seaton, J 1999, "The metaphysics of postmodernism", review of Carl Rapp, Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism (1998), in Humanitas 12.1 (1999), viewed 29 April 2006. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 2004, 4th edn, Oxford University Press,South Melbourne.

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