Greenblatt’s new historicism

Stephen Greenblatt is a pathbreaking literary critic. But since the 1990s I’ve also looked at Greenblatt as a genuinely innovative and insightful contributor to the historical social sciences as well. He poses questions that are enormously important for anyone trying to make sense of humanity in history. What is a cultural identity? How do background social, cultural, and ideological conditions shape the individual’s mental frameworks? 

Greenblatt’s advocacy and formulation of the “New Historicism” is an important contribution to literary criticism. But it is likewise a very important contribution to a topic of current interest to me, the question of the making of human cultures in concrete and heterogeneous terms. Nasrullah Mambrol does an excellent job of providing an exposition of the main ideas of the new historicism in a series of essays in Literary Theory and Criticism, including “New Historicism” (2020; link), “New Historicism: A Brief Note” (2016; link), and “Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism” (2017; link).)

Of special interest to current philosophy of social science is the heterogeneity and plasticity that the “New Historicism” presupposes concerning cultures and worldviews. Here is how Mambrol (2017) summarizes this idea:

In contrast with this earlier formalism and historicism, the New Historicism questions its own methodological assumptions, and is less concerned with treating literary works as models of organic unity than as “fields of force, places of dissension and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses.” New Historicism also challenges the hierarchical distinction between “literary foreground” and “political background,” as well as between artistic and other kinds of production. It acknowledges that when we speak of “culture,” we are speaking of a “complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs.”

Mambrol highlights this feature of “world-view heterogeneity” in his “New Historicism” piece (2020):

Unlike the prewar historicists, they [the New Historicists] refused to assume that Renaissance texts mirrored, from a safe distance, a unified and coherent world-view that was held by a whole population, or at least by an entire literate class. (Mambrol, 2020)

Culture and worldview are not “unitary” entities; rather, there are important differences across a population and within a generation with respect to very important aspects of identity. This is relevant to the interpretation of literature because it implies that the critic needs to try to work out how the author related to “the complex network of institutions” of culture that were prevalent in his or her lifetime. Here is Mambrol:

[Greenblatt] argues that the scene in which his authors lived was controlled by a variety of authorities— institutions such as the church, court, family, and colonial administration, as well as agencies such as God or a sacred book—and that these powers came into conflict because they endorsed competing patterns for organizing social experience. From Greenblatt’s New Historicist perspective, the rival codes and practices that these authorities sponsored were cultural constructions, collective fictions that communities created to regulate behavior and make sense of their world; however, the powers themselves tended to view their customs as natural imperatives, and they sought to represent their enemies as aliens or demonic parodists of genuine order. (Mambrol 2020)

To put it simply, there was no unitary mentality of sixteenth-century English culture; rather, there were multiple narratives and texts with rather different implications for the individual. We might ask, though Mambrol does not, whether all such variants were equally powerful, or whether one or more were “hegemonic”; and the answer seems obvious: powerful institutions like the church and the state also had powerful means for conveying the lineaments of their preferred ideology. But hegemony does not imply univocal acceptance, and as Gramsci insisted, resistant voices and thoughts are possible even within “hegemonic” ideological forces. This means, as Greenblatt is very eloquent in discovering, that subversive and critical ideas in literature can emerge from a contentious set of ideologies, some of which are “hegemonic”. (See James Scott’s similar view about “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcriptslink.)

Mambrol suggests that Greenblatt’s 1987 essay “Towards a Poetics of Culture” is an important place where readers can find clarification and amplification of the purpose and ideas of the New Historicism (link). The essay is published with a few minor changes as chapter one of H. Aram Veeser’s The New Historicism. Greenblatt is emphatic about several points. The New Historicism is not a new “theory” of criticism or of the relationship between literature and the social environment; it is not a manifesto. Instead, it is a call for recognition of the fluidity of culture and worldview, and the many-many relationships that exist between the many cultures of a time and the literatures and artistic creations of the time. Literature emerges from concrete social and mental arrangements in society; but the relationships that exist are not deterministic, and — crucially — different authors respond to different versions of the mental frameworks of their time. Here is Greenblatt:

I propose that the general question addressed by Jameson and Lyotard—what is the historical relation between art and society or between one institutionally demarcated discursive practice and another?—does not lend itself to a single, theoretically satisfactory answer of the kind that Jameson and Lyotard are trying to provide. Or rather theoretical satisfaction here seems to depend upon a utopian vision that collapses the contradictions of history into a moral imperative. (kl 370)

His critique of both Jameson (New Marxism) and Lyotard (Post-structuralism) is that both systems are flawed precisely because they hope that a single abstract theory of capitalism can answer the question of the relationship between literature and society. No! Rather, historical inquiry — inquiry that is sensitive to detail, to contingency, and to the heterogeneity of social and structural realities — will suffice to provide a partial answer to a question such as: How did Shakespeare’s cultural and mental world influence his plays? Historical research, not theoretical development and application, can allow for meaningful and illuminating answers to particular questions like these; and there are no general theoretical answers to the big question: How do social institutions influence or determine artistic and literary creation? 

These comments have to do with literary interpretation. But the point is relevant for social scientists for a similar reason: rather than asking, “how do white working class men think about Donald Trump?” or “how do Latina women relate to the Democratic Party?”, we need to be receptive to the idea that there is no single answer to the question. There is variation across each of these groups. At the same time, the ideological struggle between “white supremacy”, “Reaganite rejection of government power”, and “adherence to liberal democratic values” reflects a hugely important battleground of identities and mental frameworks in the contemporary United States. Greenblatt’s masterful analysis of the currents of authoritarianism in contemporary US politics, and the Trump presidency in particular, through his analysis of Shakespeare’s tyrants, is brilliant (link). And the aptness of Greenblatt’s treatment of Richard III as a foil for Donald Trump illustrates an important point: tyranny depends on shaping values and expectations in the public. And for mysterious reasons, it is hard to dispute the fact that Trump and his acolytes shifted the terms of public thinking about the state and political legitimacy. What seemed like unhinged bravado when candidate Trump uttered these words now seems only an obvious truth today (as quoted in The Guardian in 2018): “US Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is so confident in his support base that he said he could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue “and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters.”

What is the relevance of “New Historicism” to the idea that humanity is self-creating when it comes to culture? The connection is straightforward. Greenblatt demonstrates in his criticism and his more reflective writings that literary creation emerges from an intellectual and moral world that is full of difference, change, and contradiction; that the ambient ideas of a time are sometimes horrible, sometimes dominant, but never univocal; and that writers like Shakespeare have the ability to create something new for human beings to contemplate as they consider morality, social existence, and the tasks of living together. This implies a capacity for creativity that extends beyond literature and into morality and narratives of identity.

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