- New Historicism and Containment: Toward a Post-Cold War Cultural Theory
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 1992
- p. pp. 137-161
- View Citation
DAVID SUCHOFF New Historicism and Containment: Toward a Post-Cold War Cultural Theory s part of cold war cultural theory, New Historicism opposed .the idea of a subversive modernism with "containment," reading literary works as suffused by power, controlled by mass culture, or subject to the state. This New Historical reaction against the notion of a subvetsive literary text was framed against textual approaches, but also against the claims of the "liberal imagination," whose foremost exponent in America was Lionel Trilling. The return to history, like feminism , situated novels once again in excluded areas of history, and defined cultural criticism itself as subject to the control of social context. But the development ofAmerican criticism, as Frank Lentricchia noted in After the New Criticism, had already left to one side the Frankfurt School analysis of literature's domination by the marketplace, as well as its quest for a redemptive cultural critique (Lentricchia 12).1 New Historicism, however, carried Cold War limits into its evaluation of mass society. New Historical writing rethought the claimed freedom of the "liberal imagination," considered the ideological uses of modernist "subversion, " and examined mass culture almost exclusively as a source of social control. This development from liberal cultural theory, and away from its socialist predecessors, took place in the political culture of McCarthyism, liberal pluralism, and the foreign policy doctrine of "containment," formulated by George Kennan in 1947.2 Such limited views of mass culture, as well as oppositional criticism, all emerged from this specific American situation, and their attitudes toArizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 1, Spring 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004-1610 138David Suchoff ward modernism and socialism—the historical antecedents of a devalued "subversion"—continue to shape our own. This essay will historicize these terms of contemporary cultural debate, and demonstrate the origins of "containment" as the horizon ofNew Historicism's American cultural history and its limited view of mass culture; finally, I will examine Frankfurt School approaches to the commodification of literature , and their potential for shaping a post-Cold War cultural critique. COLD WAR CULTURAL THEORY: MODERNISM, SOCIALISM AND SUBVERSION When Criticism and Social Change appeared in 1983, Frank Lentricchia urged the political criticism of literature to avoid the blind alley of deconstruction and return to history. "Kantian, symbolist, and aestheticist patterns of thought ... all of which father modern political refusals," Lentricchia argued, had left their traces in poststructuralism's concern with signs, and were to be avoided in favor of attention to the matetial functions of literature in society. But Lentricchia's brief against modernism had its own American cultural history: the Cold War. As liberal cultural theory separated itself from the radicalism of the Thirties and the realist aesthetic favored by the Popular Front, a notion of modern narrative as subversive had been formed. Dickens, Melville, and Kafka were used to construct a cultural criticism that was liberal and modernist, but set socialism aside. That version of modernism, Lionel Trilling argued, was anticipated by Freud, who articulated a modern self "submitting to culture and yet . . . in opposition" to culture's conformist forces. The scope of its narrative canon was established significantly by Dickens and Kafka, whose novels were said to show "the perfect continuity of the nineteenth century with the twentieth" (Beyond Culture 102).' J. Hillis Miller's influential Charhs Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958) would reinforce the connection between Dickens and Kafka as novelists of "metaphysical alienation" and social criticism (233-34). But a somewhat obscure book by C.L.R. James—Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953)—had already placed Melville in the same line of alienated cultural rebellion. An important Caribbean historian and a leader of the Workers Party, James defined Melville as a cultural rather than political opponent of New Historicism and Containment139 American society.4 H. Bruce Franklin's New Left revival of James revised his earlier mythic interpretation of Melville, Tfie Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (1963), but saw Melville's class-conscious radicalism without the textual acuity that the contemporary work of Fredric Jameson on the novel would supply. 5 Together with later works, such...