General Introduction to New Historicism

THERE ARE A NUMBER of similarities between this school and Marxism, especially a British group of critics making up a school usually referred to as Cultural Materialism. Both New Historicists and Cultural Materialists are interested in recovering lost histories and in exploring mechanisms of repression and subjugation. The major difference is that New Historicists tend to concentrate on those at the top of the social hierarchy (i.e. the church, the monarchy, the upper-classes) while Cultural Materialists tend to concentrate on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy (the lower-classes, women, and other marginalized peoples). Also, though each of the schools practices different kinds of history, New Historicists tend to draw on the disciplines of political science and anthropology given their interest in governments, institutions, and culture, while Cultural Materialists tend to rely on economics and sociology given their interest in class, economics, and commodification. New Historicists are, like the Cultural Materialists, interested in questions of circulation, negotiation, profit and exchange , i.e. how activities that purport to be above the market (including literature) are in fact informed by the values of that market. However, New Historicists take this position further by then claiming that all cultural activities may be considered as equally important texts for historical analysis: contemporary trials of hermaphrodites or the intricacies of map-making may inform a Shakespeare play as much as, say, Shakespeare's literary precursors. New Historicism is also more specifically concerned with questions of power and culture (especially the messy commingling of the social and the cultural or of the supposedly autonomous self and the cultural/ political institutions that in fact produce that self).

Part of the difficulty of introducing this school is that a number of different approaches to history and culture often get lumped together under the category of "new historicism." The sheer number of historical and cultural studies that have appeared since the early 1990s, including the dominance of the still-larger umbrella term, Cultural Studies, makes the cordoning off of a group of critics as "New Historicists" difficult. The effort to do so is certainly not helped by the fact that some of the most prominent New Historicists, like Stephen Greenblatt and Alan Liu, either reject or critique the very term, "New Historicism." Nonetheless, this critical school and those scholars commonly associated with the school have been hugely influential on scholarship of the last decade, so it's important to come to grips with some of the general trends and common practices of this critical approach. As in the other sections of this Guide to Theory, I here also provide Modules on individual theorists in order to give a somewhat more detailed introduction to a few influential figures. I have chosen to offer one important precursor, Michel Foucault, as well as one exemplary practitioner, Stephen Greenblatt (who applies the methods of the school to Renaissance texts). The links on the left will lead you to specific ideas discussed by these critics; however, you might like to begin with a quick overview:


MICHEL FOUCAULT is quite possibly the most influential critic of the last quarter-century. His interest in issues of power, epistemology, subjectivity, and ideology have influenced critics not only in literary studies but also political science, history, and anthropology. His willingness to analyze and discuss disparate disciplines (medicine, criminal science, philosophy, the history of sexuality, government, literature, etc.) as well as his questioning of the very principle of disciplinarity and specialization have inspired a host of subsequent critics to explore interdisciplinary connections between areas that had rarely been examined together. Foucault also had the ability to pick up common terms and give them new meaning, thus changing the way critics addressed such pervasive issues as "power," "discourse," "discipline," "subjectivity," "sexuality," and "government."

STEPHEN GREENBLATT's brilliant studies of the Renaissance have established him as the major figure commonly associated with New Historicism. Indeed, his influence meant that New Historicism first gained popularity among Renaissance scholars, many of whom were directly inspired by Greenblatt's ideas and anecdotal approach. This fascination with history and the minute details of culture soon caught on among scholars working in other historical periods, leading to the increasing popularity of culturally- and historically-minded studies. This general trend is often referred to as Cultural Studies.


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "General Introduction to 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. <>.






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