Guide to Week 12: Tuesday or Wednesday--Take the New Historicism and Cultural Criticism Quiz!
Read Tyson's chapter on these two related theories of interpretation, and pay close attention to the ways in which the New Historicists' theories support, without necessarily touching, Cultural Criticism, and the ways Cultural Criticism draws upon New Historicist assumptions without necessarily mentioning them by name. New Historicists usually work within established academic departments of literary studies, history, and political science, though the literature scholars far out number the others. Among literature scholars, Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare  is still probably the most influential single work, and for most historians, a common reference point would be Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe . When you are fairly certain that you understand how the New Historicists and Cultural Critics operate, click here for some concepts and terms they use, and test your ability to explain them. If we have time after reviewing them, we might be able to talk about some serious implications that arise from these two theoretical approaches to interpretation, including those below.
New Historicism asks us to consider seriously the notion that human consciousness, as a socially constructed phenomenon, changes as culture changes. That has profound consequences for readers of literature from any era other than their own, or from any cultural sub-group other than the one they belong to. In effect, authors like Greenblatt (see above) argue that Renaissance English people like Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare went through a mental transformation that made them far different kinds of mentalities than the Medieval people who preceded them. For Medievalists, this poses a related problem--how can one read Chaucer until one can think like Chaucer? Even accounting for the difference between Middle and Modern English, Medieval English literature poses severe interpretive challenges that routinely have racked the interpretive community every few decades. A recent example was D.W. Robertson Jr.'s A Preface to Chaucer (1963) which argued that readers of Chaucer's culture were so profoundly indoctrinated by Christian thought (attending Mass sometimes daily), that they would have interpreted all of the Canterbury Tales using Christian allegory to extract moral lessons consistent with their faith. The Wife of Bath's Prologue? She was Revelations' "Whore of Babylon" for Robertson. That thesis collapsed due to its assumption that every Medieval English person belonged to a homogeneous "monoculture" discourse, a claim that runs contrary to the obvious evidence offered by the "General Prologue"'s variety of religious views and by the narrator's frequent contradictory or ambiguous moral judgments. Nevertheless, more nuanced readings of Medieval English religious thought have rescued from neglect many of Chaucer's overtly religious works.
Think about how strongly your own reading is constrained by your culturally encoded consciousness. Do you believe in a god or gods? Do you think capitalism or liberalism or human rights are "normal" and good concepts? If your answer to the first question was "no," and your answer to the second was "yes," you have a big job ahead of you when reading works by authors who assume the answers are "yes" and "no." Can you compare this with Fetterly's notion of "immasculation" for women readers of texts which presume their readers are males?
Because the syllabus and writing assignment are tipped toward Barthes' style of Cultural Criticism, which depends mainly upon the analyst's knowledge of popular culture, you might benefit from reading about some more traditional New Historicist scholarship. That kind of work takes longer to prepare for because the scholars have to immerse themselves in the lived material and imaginary culture of previous eras and cultures that are, by definition, alien to themselves. See GoucherLearn to read Ferdinand Mount's TLS review of John Styles' The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008), April 4, 2008 edition (3-4). It's an excellent example of New Historicist scholarship that does not tell a politically predictable tale of the poor oppressed masses suffering under the ideological "boot" of the wealthy. In fact, the reviewer interestingly compares Styles' "thick description"-based conclusions with those of the more traditional historian, E. P. Thompson, whose The Making of the English Working Class (1964) concludes the possessions of the working poor were so few and wretched that they never had more than "a few articles of cotton clothing" (qtd. by Mount 3). Paintings and engravings of workers dressed in fancy clothes were dismissed as C18 sentimentalism, the Enlightenment equivalent of Renaissance pastoral poetry where the shepherds and shepherdesses were all poets, secretly princes and princesses, and their sheep didn't stink, so to speak. Mount's reading of Styles' evidence suggests that the poor "went shopping" at country fairs, bought gifts for each other, and (if we include smuggled and stolen goods) had access to more clothing choices than Thompson imagined. Even more "New Historicist" and "Cult-Crit," English fashion history of the C18 records the privileging of peasant fashions among the aristos, shocking the French court (think Versailles) by dressing the men in handkerchiefs instead of silken cravats, loose seamen's trousers and waistcoats, and other working-class styles, while the aristo women wore milkmaids' aprons. Read Mount and you'll find out the real answer to the folksong's question: "O dear, what can the matter be? / Johnny's so long at the fair." Johnny has been shopping.