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Voice, the New Historicism, and the Americas
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Voice, the New Historicism, and the Americas
David E. Johnson
State University of New York, Buffalo
David E. Johnson

David E. Johnson is a pan-Americanist teaching Spanish and English in Buffalo, New York. He has published essays in The American Review, Amerindian Images, Arizona Quarterly, Chasqui, and Siglo XX/20th Century. Currently he is working on a book-length manuscript tentatively titled, "Translating Borders/American Literature."


1. This essay does not consider Greenblatt's newest book, Marvelous Possessions or Todorov's Nous et les autres: la Réflexion français sur la diversité humaine.

2. It would seem, however, that Eurocentric understanding is making progress in its efforts to comprehend Mayan hieroglyphs; see David Roberts, "The Decipherment of Ancient Maya." This is a fine essay detailing the (so-called) "advancements" in the fields of epigraphy and Maya studies, but it suffers a fundamentally Eurocentric limitation: the essay figures the emerging "truth" of Maya civilization as a function of the "discovery" that the hieroglyphs have a phonetic element. Roberts thus figures the coincidence of truth and phonetic writing, of truth, then, and the voice.

3. Remarking Montrose's refusal to distinguish between text and context, it is fair to ask how faithful he and other new historicists remain to their avowed task. "Context" according to the OED at one time meant "text": it signified a script, a literary practice. This signification today is obsolete. Ostensibily, the new historicists wish to reinvigorate context by understanding its textual nature. But I suggest that they move all-too-quickly away from the text to an imagined life, to a Zeitgeist, with the possible exception of Jonathan Goldberg in Voice Terminal Echo where he posits life as a function of textuality.

4. David Scott Kastan, in his recent review, writes that one of the new historicism's "untested assumptions" is the belief "that politics is somehow a firmer and more self-evident ground of reality than other human constructs (for example, philosophy or ethics)" (College English 695). He goes on to argue that the new historicists generally—though Leonard Tennenhouse's Power on Display is the particular reference—conceive of politics in a rather reductive way, locating as they do all power, all authority, at court.

5. See the preface to Jonathan Goldberg's James I and the Politics of Literature, where at the very end he writes: "If it were not too audacious, I would close by invoking the name of Michel Foucault" (xv).

6. In an earlier essay, Montrose writes: "By following the usage of Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and others ..." ("Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History" 9). The specificity of the reference to Foucault, in contrast to the anonymity of the "others" in the essay on the Elizabethan subject, functions to privilege one discourse over another. Montrose implicitly hierarchizes and values the range of discourses applicable to a historicist criticism.

7. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak offers an even more forceful reading of Foucault's preservation of the S/subject, and thus a certain Hegelianism, in "Can the Subaltern Speak?"

8. Porter points out that Greenblatt's notion of power depends on a "credible but not inevitable" reading of Foucault; see "History and Literature" (263).

9. In The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau makes the distinction between historical events and historical facts; it is this difference that I invoke, although I am aware that I use "event" in this essay to mean both events and facts. I have done so because I wanted to avoid translating the new historicist's language (for example, Tennenhouse's "semiotic events") into de Certeau's. De Certeau writes of the relation between events and facts that "the event is that which must delimit, if there is to be intelligibility; the historical fact is that which must fill, if there is to be meaningful statement. The former conditions the organization of discourse, while the latter provides the signifiers intended to form a series of significant elements in the mode of narrative. In sum, the former defines, and the latter spells out" (96).

10. Two examples will suffice. First, in "Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History," Montrose approvingly cites...