Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Terms Used by New Historicism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.


Terms Used by New Historicism

THE FOLLOWING TERMS are presented in alphabetical order; however, someone beginning to learn about New Historicism needs to stay conscious of the fact that this school is particularly heterogeneous, with many different critics interpreting terms in their own way. I have indicated those terms that are particularly tied to an individual theorist, as well as those terms that are used differently by two different critics. For an introduction to the work of a few theorists who inspired or are currently influencing New Historicism, see the Modules on New Historicism in this site. Whenever a defined term is used elsewhere in the Guide to Theory, a hyperlink will eventually (if it does not already) allow you to review the term in the bottom frame of your browser window. The menu on the left allows you to check out the available terms without having to scroll through the list below. Note that the left-hand frame works best in Explorer, Mozilla, and Netscape 4; you may experience some bugs in Netscape 6 and Opera. (See the Guide to the Guide for suggestions.) I will also soon provide an alternate menu option; for now, just scroll down.


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Body Politic :
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  New Historicists argue that all levels of society share in the circulation of power through the production and distribution of the most elementary cultural and social "texts." Power does not reside somehow "above," with lawyers, politicians, and the police, but rather follows a principle of circulation, whereby everyone participates in the maintainence of existing power structures.
  Whereas Marx-inspired Cultural Materialists tend to examine sites of subversion in literature, New Historicists (inspired by Michel Foucault) tend to concern themselves with forces of containment and the ways hegemonic forces consolidate the status quo. New Historicists look at moments of rupture to examine how forces of rebellion are still able to be co-opted by the powers that be (e.g. how Public Enemy's message in "Fight the Power" is compromised and even nullified by the group's participation in the corporate music industry).
  Like Cultural Materialists, New Historicists reject the New Critical precept that texts are autonomous units that should be examined without bringing in what New Critics termed the "intentional fallacy" (i.e. biographical criticism) or the "historical fallacy." New Historicists, by contrast, argue that texts are always intimately connected to their historical and social context, especially perhaps when texts attempt to repress that context. To put it another (psychoanalytical) way, history serves as the repressed unconscious of literature.
Co-Opt (co-optation):
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  The processes by which dominant culture maintains its dominant position: for example, the use of institutions to formalize power; the employment of a bureaucracy to make power seem abstract (and, therefore, not attached to any one individual); the inculcation of the populace in the ideals of the hegomonic group through education, advertising, publication, etc.; the mobilization of a police force as well as military personnel to subdue opposition.
  New Historicists reject the Western tendency to write history from the top down (e.g. political history) or in grand narrative strokes. They are instead more concerned with what Lyotard terms petits récits, particularly how such "little narratives" participate in the consolidation and maintainance of the status quo.
  New Historicists tend to follow the post-Lacanian and post-Marxist view of ideology; rather than see ideology as false consciousness, as something that is obscuring one's perception of the truth, New Historicists argue that to recognize your own ideology is like pushing the bus you're riding on, since it is so much a part of the way you perceive the world and its workings.
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Marginal (marginalized):
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Oppositional Discourse :
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  "[A] way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action" (Foucault, "Subject" 220). Although this term seems as if it should be self-explanatory, it has in fact been inflected by its re-definition in the work of an important precursor for New Historicism, Michel Foucault. In his work, Foucault argues that power is not merely physical force but a pervasive human dynamic determining our relationships to others. (One need only think of how one acts differently the moment someone enters a room in which one had previously been alone.) Power is also not necessarily "bad," since it can also be productive. (We may be willing, for example, to assign to certain people the power to organize an activity because we know they are capable of helping us actually accomplish the task at hand.) We could also say that power is essential to a just society; all people exert a certain power over us insofar as we defer to their needs and desires. The moment we cease to acknowledge this power an other has over us, then we deny that other's humanity (his/her human rights.) As Foucault puts it, "slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains" (Foucault, "Subject" 221). However, power also refers to the (often surreptitious) ways in which a dominant group exerts its influence over others. Though this hegemonic power may (at some end point) rely on the threat of punishment, it does not necessarily rely on actual physical enforcement on a day-to-day basis. (Imagine this scenario, for example: you are driving over a flat country landscape at night and you reach a stop light. There is no one else that you can see for miles, and yet do you not feel obliged to stop for the light?) For more, follow the New Historicism: Modules: Foucault: Power pathway.
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  According to New Historicism, all texts may be examined for their historicity, just as any historical phenomenon, no matter how apparently trivial or unimportant (e.g. Madonna videos or Renaissance miniature portraiture), can be analysed much as one would a literary text.
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Uneven Development :










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