- Historicism Blues
“Always historicize!” Fredric Jameson calls this opening salvo from 1981’s The Political Unconscious the book’s “transhistorical imperative” and its “moral” (9). Is this, indeed, the most sacred of all critical commandments? The “thou shalt not kill” of literary studies (above all, perhaps, of American literary studies)? (Nietzsche might have called it, rather, the “thou shalt kill”: in his words, “[a] historical phenomenon . . . resolved into a phenomenon of knowledge, is, for him who has perceived it, dead” .) In an essay in one of the recent twentieth-anniversary issues of ALH, the author, Joel Pfister, characterizes graduate programs in English today as “historicizer-training factories.” “Most Americanists have to historicize if they want to land jobs,” he states (583). This seems fair; ALH has scrutinized the categories American and literary relentlessly since its inception, but the third category—history—has been taken more in Jameson’s sense, as an “imperative,” than as an object for equivalent examination and potential critique. Perhaps, indeed, as a “moral” as well. “Professors assign an ethos to historicism,” Pfister writes (583). Ethos: a guiding belief, an ideal, an intangible quality giving us our ethical stance. For an earlier generation of critics, the totemic status of American or literary might have given rise to that inner spirit animating our labors; now, history does so. In the same issue, Mary Esteve similarly detects an “evangelical impuls[e]” in our practice; hence, she calls Jameson-style ideology critique “the form of moral criticism that since the 1980s has dominated American literary studies” (531).
Recent years, however, have also seen a certain backing away from ideology critique as Jameson defined it, even if this has been less the case in American literary studies than elsewhere in the discipline. Most notably, the journal Representations, itself an offspring of the same contextualizing turn, announced in the fall of 2009 that [End Page 699] Jameson-style “symptomatic reading” can no longer adequately account for what its editors term “the way we read now” (Best and Marcus 1). In place of this tendency, the issue’s editors, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, discern an overall move in recent scholarly practice toward what they term “surface reading,” as evident in developments such as data mining, statistical analysis, book history, and criticism informed by neuropsychology and cognitive science (which would encompass various “new materialisms,” including some forms of affect theory). The concatenation of these diverse approaches is a provocative one, and the issue deserves commendation for its stated desire to avoid the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the moralized ideology critique Esteve also describes. It is striking, then, to note the degree to which the essays in the issue, despite the ritual denunciations of Jameson, in fact retain a historicist framework—indeed, the degree to which they might even be said to hyperbolize it.
Thus, the editors write, “[w]here Jameson’s horizons [of causality] recede infinitely,” one of their contributors, Margaret Cohen, “conceives of a horizon as a legible set of points one can use to navigate within a literary field”; specifically, she locates the “value” of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) not in its “artful narrative poetics or sublime prose” but in “the epistemological frames it shares with maritime writing” (7). Further examples given of the new so-called surface reading include “Clifford Siskin’s demonstration that large-scale shifts in how literature defines reality coincide with epochal changes in media history, and Marc Angenot’s study of ‘social discourse,’ in which he looks at everything published in France in a particular year in order to chart ‘a global typology of the prevailing sayable’” (11–12). In an unexpected echo of the response to the initial new historicist criticism of the 1980s—the assertions, including Jameson’s own, that books like Walter Benn Michaels’s The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987) had failed to purge the traces of a prior formalism—the critique seems to be not that we made any sort of error by historicizing, but, rather, that we failed to heed the commandment rigorously enough.
The lesson of the persistence of historicism, then, might appear to lie in a constitutive elusiveness of...