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Racine's Politics: The Subject/Subversion of Power in Britannic us Suzanne Gearhart FOR SOME TIME numerous forms of literary and cultural analysis have been shaped by a multi-faceted critique or questioning of the subject . As many would agree, one of the most prominent of these has come to be known as the new historicism. In contrast to older forms of historicism that sought to write the history of a fundamentally unchanging human subjectivity as it manifests itself in the literary and cultural productions of various ages, the new historicism has argued that the human subject is, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, "the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society."1 Unlike those who have assumed the universality and naturalness of subjectivity, Greenblatt and other new historicists have asserted that it is essentially a construct of impersonal historical forces and more specifically of power relations in a given historical period. Both implicitly and explicitly, new historicists have thus tended to assimilate the critique of the subject with the interests of new historicism. This assimilation has involved a number of consequences (as well as ironies). From the perspective of Greenblatt, one of the most important has been the discrediting of alternative approaches to literature and culture, perhaps especially those of a psychological or psychoanalytic nature, on the grounds that they take the concept of subjectivity as an unproblematic point of departure. As Greenblatt presents it, Freud is above all the romantic theorist of the "alienated self," that is, of a self that can be recovered through psychoanalytic interpretation.2 Freudian psychoanalysis thus for him appeals to and confirms our own (ultimately false) sense of selfhood as well as our sense of autonomy with respect to our historical situation. Equally important, psychoanalysis serves an essentially conservative political and social purpose, because it denies or obscures the role of power relations in the construction of the subject and in doing so helps to solidify those relations. In contrast, Greenblatt's position is that the subversion of power is impossible for an individual subject because the subject itself is a construct of power relations, and in that sense his/her actions—even subversive actions—are always already determined by them. In Greenblatt's terms, this recognition of the fundamen34 Summer 1998 Gearhart tal lack of freedom of the subject makes new historicism the truly subversive theory, even if its subversion takes the highly ironic form of proclaiming the impossibility of subversion. It might seem a bit arbitrary to evoke the name of Racine in the context of the contemporary critique of the subject and the turn it has taken in the work of new historicists. But when one considers a significant segment of the criticism devoted to Racine's work and to seventeenth-century French literature in general, it seems fairly obvious that much of what is argued today by new historicists was already being argued by another generation of historicists in connection with Racine's texts and those of many of his contemporaries. For these older historicists, the psychological character of seventeenth-century French literature was one of its major defects, and their criticisms of the psychological realism of neo-classical authors anticipated the new historicist critique of psychoanalytic theories for presupposing a natural or universal form of subjectivity. Despite the many important differences between the historicisms of JeanPaul Sartre and Erich Auerbach, when each looks at neo-classical literature, what they share with each other and with the new historicism becomes clear. In Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, for example, Sartre asserts that in classical literature "l'image de l'homme classique est purement psychologique parce que le public classique n'a conscience que de sa psychologie."3 In a similar spirit, Erich Auerbach argued that the prevalence of "a trend toward psychological types" in the plays of Racine and the work of many of his contemporaries had the effect of inhibiting the representation of the political and historical milieu, thus making impossible even "the slightest trace of . . . social or economic criticism."4 Taken as a whole, Auerbach concluded, French neo-classical drama "accepts the prevailing structure of society, takes for granted its justification , permanence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 34-48
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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