Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.


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I was trained in New Historicism as an undergraduate, as that was the dominant school of thought in my history department. However, the primary take away that was emphasized there, was that “history is everything,” i.e. a historian shouldn’t limit oneself only to evidence that has traditionally been the realm of historians. Instead, it’s perfectly alright, even imperative, that historians look at, for example, the music of an era, or its popular literature. While it’s true that the New Historicism tends to reject meta-narratives, following the general postmodern drift away from them, the corollary of that–which I take as a very positive thing–is that the New Historicism takes the particular much more seriously, and appropriately so, in my opinion. It’s interesting that he links this tendency against universalizing to conservatism… as a traditionalist conservative (but fundamentally *not* a modern tea party type conservative), that may be one reason I like it. I don’t think it negates the ability to draw conclusions about trends, etc… it just means that those theories are taken with a grain of salt, and the weight is toward viewing a particular time as largely peculiar in itself.

[…] I recently ran across this interesting post on the New Historicism on the Religiosity blog.  Below are some of my thoughts in response: Michel Foucault. One of the major influences on New Historicism […]

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