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Notes and Fragments INDIVIDUALISM, HISTORICISM, AND NEW STYLES OF OVERREACHING by William Kerrigan How does someone enter into one or another of the theory ideologies , specifically the movement called new historicism? I take it as axiomatic that few of us grew up thinking the intellectual visions of Clifford Geertz or Michel Foucault. Granted that, as I believe is true, one could not be intelligible as an intellectual without some degree of discipleship, that being an intellectual means in part a wUlingness to apprentice your mind to a set of masters, why these two? When set in the company of possible masters, Geertz seems a fine example of his discipline, a good anthropologist of no extraordinary originality, not a Freud, not a Lévi-Strauss, and maybe not even a Malinowski; while Foucault seems an extremist full of all-too-much originality, his claims about history sometimes fairly obviously inspired by paranoid resentment . There must be a conversion experience here, a revelation that marks off new historicism from its competitors, on the basis of which people affiliate. Younger scholars in the movement probably encountered this transforming revelation in the classroom of a new-historicist teacher. I suppose that the makers of the movement must also have wandered onto their roads to Damascus in classrooms. But they were rejectors of the revelations staged by their teachers, refusers of the traditions played out by the sovereigns of their graduate seminars for graduate-student courtiers, who now pass on to their own students the conversion experiences they themselves made rather than found. Without wanting to mount a theory here, I suggest that the precise 115 116Philosophy and Literature terms of an initial conversion to any one of the new theory discourses, including programmatic anti-theory, wUl tend to reappear at key moments throughout the career of a critic, almost like a creation myth, told over and over as a way ofreaffirming the lightness ofthe beginning, rededicating oneself to the project, and relieving pressure from the current backlog of skeptical doubts. For such doubts are, to my mind, inevitable in any theory discourse that sets itself up as the absolute superior ofits competitors, our sole access to the finest forms of correct knowing. Such discourses must on those grounds alone be wrong, and at some level—the one Kant terms "sincerity"—their champions know that} Take the case ofStephen Greenblatt, mastermind ofa new historicism. One gathers from the emphatic personal moments in his work, even from its famous rhetorical itinerary (the long anecdote gradually dissolving into talk about the social constitution ofreality and its regulatory structures) that his conversion experience probably involved a rejection of individualism. As he has told us so many times, individual identity is not an interior possession, but communal, a question of property rights, a place-holder in a web of legal and social determinations. Recendy , in his contribution to the Parker-Quint anthology Literary Theory/ Renaissance Texts, he has gone out of his way to deliver to psychoanalytic critics of Shakespeare one of the shibboleths of our day, "always historicize ," on the grounds that their presuppositions about individual identity are the effects of the Renaissance and not its cause. Psychoanalysis , he maintains, "is the historical outcome ofcertain characteristic Renaissance strategies."2 The Renaissance cause of the effect of Freud is anthropological and sociological; Freudian readings of Renaissance culture put the subsequent into the prior: The consequence, I think, is that psychoanalytic interpretation seems to follow upon rather than to explain Renaissance texts. If psychoanalysis was, in effect, made possible by (among other things) the legal and literary proceedings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then its interpretive practice is not irrelevant to those proceedings, nor is it exactìy an anachronism. But psychoanalytic interpretation is causally belated, even as itis causally linked: hence the curious effect ofa discourse that functions as if the psychological categories it invokes were not only simultaneous with but even prior to and themselves causes of the very phenomena of which in actual factthey were the results. I do not propose thatwe abandon the attempts at psychologically deep readings ofRenaissance texts; rather, William Kerrigan117 in the companyofliterary criticism and history, psychoanalysis can redeem its belatedness only...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 115-126
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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