- Past, Present and Future: New Historicism versus Cultural Materialism
One of the most conspicuous trends in the recent history of contemporary literary and cultural theory—a field dominated since the early eighties by the so-called “historical turn”—has been the extraordinarily rapid institutionalization of the twin movements of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism within literary studies. Proclaimed by Stephen Greenblatt in 1982 as a novel reading method that would shy away from the critical deficiencies of both the traditional historical school and the various formalist movements by which it was replaced, the New Historicism as it was practiced by Greenblatt and many other Anglo-American Renaissance scholars gained the immediate interest of those who had become dissatisfied with the stringent textualist ideology upheld by most American deconstructionists. Part of the attraction of the New Historicism was the double promise which it contained for practitioners of theory who wanted to move on instead of returning to the practical—i.e. untheoretical—paradigm that had been dominant in the heyday of New Criticism. To these critics, the New Historicism seemed to have it all: not only was it based upon the best of post-structuralist thought (Foucault, Derrida, de Certeau, Barthes and so on), it also applied that thought to the broad investigative field for which it was initially devised—not just to the self-deconstructive rhetorics of canonical literary texts. As Greenblatt himself once put it, post-structuralism in its deconstructive guise “was not only the negative limit but the positive condition for the emergence of New Historicism.”1
As a consequence of this double promise, then, the New Historicism was embraced by many. It became the hotly debated subject of conferences, articles, studies, and special issues of academic journals. From 1985 onwards, a number of critical collections were published that attempted to combine the practical and the theoretical focus inherent to the object of their attention.2 Most of these included, on the one hand, a number of practical pieces in which the New Historicist reading method was applied and/or tested, and, on the other, a number of theoretical articles which reflected upon the critical axioms that, from the beginning, had served as the conceptual basis of the method. Most of the latter, written mainly by scholars supportive of the New Historicist project, were meant as a contribution to the ongoing elaboration of the method under scrutiny.
Despite this gradual proliferation of critical attention, however, it has taken quite a while for the first book-length monograph on New Historicism to appear. In 1997, Manchester University Press published Claire Colebrook’s New Literary Histories, a mainly theoretical survey of the movement’s affiliations with the work of contemporary theoreticians such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Raymond Williams and Michel de Certeau. One year later, Colebrook’s study was followed by the book under review here, John Brannigan’s New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. In contrast to that of Colebrook, Brannigan’s study is characterized by an attempt to couple theoretical analysis to practical reading. While the larger part of it is devoted to theoretical and methodological issues, the book also contains four “applications and readings,” in which Brannigan analyzes several literary texts—Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a number of poems by Tennyson, and Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” The purpose of these applications is not only to describe and illustrate the preferred reading tactics of New Historicists and Cultural Materialists, but also to lay bare the critical constraints with which their readings have to cope. Ideally, the latter aim is prepared for in the preceding, theoretical half of the book, which is intended to give the reader an idea of the genesis and the development of both movements and of the critical dilemmas surrounding them. Brannigan concludes his book with two briefer chapters which consider the future of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism.
Brannigan’s work, a critical introduction initially aimed at a general audience of students and other non-specialist readers, suffers both the positive and the negative consequences of its generalist purpose. On the one...