Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Historicism

Unspoken power behind a text. That's what we are talking about in this post. Implicit power discourse. New historicism places a text firmly in history and says that it cannot separate itself from it. You know, like how early '00s emo bands were certainly influenced by both myspace and Hot Topic, even if they claimed not to be. Or how every post-9/11 super hero film is dark as hell. Signs of the times!

New Historicism as a literary theory comes from. . . you guessed it: FOUCAULT! Is there anything this guy CAN'T DO?! All his talk about power and discourse and how we are all under surveillance leaked into this postmodern understanding of literature so that new historicists would ignore the "genius of the author" and look at the text as part of its historical context.

Now, to some extent, this will always be true. I can escape my cultural and societal boundaries no better than the thirteenth-century saga compilers, the Danish quirk Ole Worm, or even Tolkein. Each of us had or has an affinity to the Old Norse sources, but our understanding and perception--and therefore our writing--remains stubbornly bound to cultures in which we were raised. Bertens discusses, however, how close this comes to Marxism. Indeed, you are getting close to sounding conspiratorial when claims of unseen themes run amok in texts. But what the historians are really saying is that everything outside of the text should also be taken into account.

Kenneth Johnston uses a great example from Wordsworth's poetry. In the past, the poem "Tintern Abbey" would be in the foreground and the focus of literary critics. Remember Arnold's holy poetry fervor? Well, we might scale that back a bit. But still, the point is to look specifically at the text. Wordsworth's notes, biographical information, political leanings, etc, would take a backseat as secondary or background information to assist in better understanding the text and author. New historicism, however, wants to take into account background and foreground and in fact compare and study both together.

This is a difficult jump to make. Again, I think we can take for granted our shaping and formulating. But to actually subconsciously (or in some cases consciously) promote a certain discourse of power? Shouldn't Huckleberry Finn be read without discussing the race relations of post-reconstruction in the American South? Well, maybe that's a bad example. I mean, can't we use the helpful contributions to Old Norse studies by Otto Brunner (whom we've discussed here before) without mentioning is Nazi sympathizing?

Here's an awfully unpleasant and embarrassing attempt of bringing Huck Finn closer to a modern audience. Enjoy!

Okay, I admit these are extreme examples, but you see the reason behind the thinking? One of the critiques Johnston hurls at New Historicism is their obsession with tangible anecdotes, which, I admit, I fell prey to during my MA thesis. For instance: When I discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson had read and written about Heimskringla, and Thoreau mentioned once in passing the idea of Vinland, I took these threads and tried to weave together a sort of literary discourse in New England during the nineteenth century that focused on Old Norse literature. To be sure, these things were on the periphery of whatever nonsense the Transcendentalists were kicking around at the time. But it is so tantalizing, it's difficult to ignore. This is what Johnson complains about: "Interesting anecdotes need to be connected to a larger explanation." WHAT A FOOL I'VE BEEN!

More important to my field of research is this idea that comes from Foucault that the powers that be subvert smaller groups, and that texts, when picked apart (or DECONSTRUCTED) can reveal certain ideas related to this discourse of power. But when the "privileges of power" becomes the focus, the subverted groups can often become homogenized. And in a cruel twist, some scholars have suggested that dissent simply exists to justify the power and is therefore a part of the machine. However, it is difficult to ignore this approach altogether when look at Old Norse sagas, as they, themselves, are partially historicized. In fact, it is almost a necessity. Which is a total shame because some of the stories, by themselves, are tremendous. But today one does not often scrutinize the text as a text but rather search for hints and threads that can be connected to history so that generalizations can be hypothesized.

In short: it's got its ups and downs and I am fine and annoyed with it. GO AWAY LEAVE ME ALONE!

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