STEPHEN GREENBLATT begins his most theoretical statement about New Historicism, "Towards a Poetics of Culture," by stating that his methodology is, at best a "practice" rather than a "doctrine": "One of the peculiar characteristics of the 'new historicism' in literary studies is precisely how unresolved and in some ways disingenuous it has been—I have been—about the relation to literary theory" (1). He goes to point out some of the influences on the school (Michel Foucault and European anthropological and social theorists) while distinguishing the approach from both Marxist critics like Fredric Jameson and poststructructuralist critics like Jean-François Lyotard. On the one hand, he questions Jameson's characterization of capitalism as a force seeking to establish a false separation between private and public spheres or between aesthetic and political domains, while rejecting Jameson's belief in a utopic future moment when we will finally achieve a classless future, stating that poststructuralism "has raised serious questions about such a vision, challenging both its underlying oppositions and the primal organic unity that it posits as either paradisal origin or utopian, eschatological end" (3). On the other hand, Greenblatt questions Jean-François Lyotard's tendency to associate capitalism with the effort to impose a single language onto all experience, thus destroying all differences between people or cultural spheres as well as all differences between aesthetics and politics. Greenblatt argues that both Jameson and Lyotard employ "history" in an effort to support one theoretical viewpoint that in turn leads to their monolithic and contradictory versions of capitalism:

The difference between Jameson's capitalism, the perpetrator of separate discursive domains, the agent of privacy, psychology, and the individual, and Lyotard's capitalism, the enemy of such domains and the destroyer of privacy, psychology, and the individual, may in part be traced to a difference between Marxist and poststructuralist projects. Jameson, seeking to expose the fallaciousness of a separate artistic sphere and to celebrate the materialist integration of all discourses, finds capitalism at the root of the false differentiation; Lyotard, seeking to celebrate the differentiation of all discourses and to expose the fallaciousness of monological unity, finds capitalism at the root of the false integration. History functions in both cases as a convenient anecdotal ornament upon a theoretical structure, and capitalism appears not as a complex social and economic development in the West but as a malign philosophical principle. (5).

Greenblatt argues that New Historicism, by contrast, works to remain always attuned to the contradictions of any historical moment, including those moments dominated by capitalism. On the issue of the relation between private and public or between the aesthetic and political realms, Greenblatt argues that "the effortless invocation of two apparently contradictory accounts of art is characteristic of American capitalism in the late twentieth century and an outcome of long-term tendencies in the relationship of art and capital; in the same moment a working distinction between the aesthetic and the real is established and abrogated" (7). What characterizes capitalism is, rather, a "circulation" between the two apparently contradictory versions of capitalism that Greenblatt associates with Jameson and Lyotard: "I am suggesting that the oscillation between totalization and difference, uniformity and the diversity of names, unitary truth and a proliferation of distinct entities—in short, between Lyotard's capitalism and Jameson's—is built into the poetics of everyday behavior in America" (8).

The result of such attunement to the contradictions of any given historical moment lead Greenblatt (and other New Historicists) into a number of basic premises: 1) one should begin with specific details, anecdotes, and examples in order to avoid a totalizing version of history; 2) one should proceed from such details to illustrate how they are tied up with larger contradictory forces in a given time period, no matter how apparently innocuous the detail may seem at first; 3) one should remain self-conscious about one's methodologies, thus resisting "a historicism based upon faith in the transparency of signs and interpretative procedures" (12); 4) one should be suspicious of liberatory narratives: everything is, on some level, caught up in the circulations of power in a given time period; and 5) all cultural products, whether they are high art, political documents, personal letters, or trash, are a part of larger discursive structures and, so, can offer clues to the ideological contradictions of a given time period.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Module on Stephen Greenblatt: On History." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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