New Historicism and Cultural Materialism
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New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

John Brannigan

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eBook - ePub

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

John Brannigan

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New historicism and cultural materialism emerged in the early 1980s as prominent literary theories and came to represent a revival of interest in history and in historicising literature. Their proponents rejected both formalist criticism and earlier attempts to read literature in its historical context and defined new ways of thinking about literature in relation to history. This study explains the development of these theories and demonstrates both their uses and weaknesses as critical practices. The potential future direction for the theories is explored and the controversial debates about their validity in literary studies are discussed.

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Part I
The Turn to History
1 Key Contexts and Theorists
so I came to you, you men of the present, and to the land of culture…. Truly, you could wear no better masks than your own faces, you men of the present! Who could – recognize you! Written over with the signs of the past and these signs overdaubed with new signs: thus you have hidden yourselves well from all interpreters of signs!
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Key contexts
Before embarking on an explanation and exploration of the issues, debates and the evolution and development of new historicism and cultural materialism, we need to set these theories in the context of wider and older debates taking place in the academy and in intellectual discourse. For the most part both new historicism and cultural materialism share common influences, although to different extents. Marxism is much more apparent as an influence in cultural materialism than it is in new historicism, whereas the influence of anthropology is more discernible in new historicism than in cultural materialism. In this chapter of the book I will examine the various factors and figures influencing new historicists and cultural materialists, but, because these influences differ in degrees between both theories, my immediate point of departure is the relationship between new historicism and cultural materialism.
The relationship between new historicism and cultural materialism
In some ways new historicism and cultural materialism are fully intertwined, hence the fact that they are considered so compatible for a book of this nature, and the fact that they have been consistently placed alongside each other in anthologies and critical books. When Jean Howard attempted to account for the developments of new historicist interpretations in 1986 she referred to Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore as typical practitioners of new historicism in Britain (Howard 1986, 13–16), although she recognised in a footnote that there were differences between cultural materialism and new historicism which were beginning to become clear. In some cases the relationship has in my view been misunderstood. Cultural materialists are not simply British critics practising new historicism under a different name, as Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton claim in the introduction to New Historicism and Renaissance Drama. It is not simply ‘the British wing’ of new historicism (Wilson and Dutton 1992, xi), and it is not the case that ‘Cultural Materialism was the name they adopted in contradistinction to Cultural Poetics’ (15). It is clear from Dollimore and Sinfield’s preface to Political Shakespeare that there were a variety of factors in British culture and in the British academy which led to the separate genesis of cultural materialism, and which placed cultural materialist critics in separate, although not dissimilar, circumstances and interpretive positions. In particular, a strong tradition of literary humanism1 had insisted on treating Shakespeare and other canonical authors as part of a great English heritage without recognising the ideological function of such a heritage, and this tradition was most entrenched in the British education system.
Where cultural materialist critics have endeavoured to argue that Shakespeare might equally produce images and ideas of dissidence and transgression for twentieth-century readers or audiences than support the moral values of liberal humanism, new historicists have been more interested in Shakespeare’s plays as examples of a prominent Renaissance cultural form which makes visible Renaissance power relations, most particularly the encounter between Europe and the New World. For cultural materialists, Raymond Williams had been the first critic to challenge the liberal humanism of F. R. Leavis in English literary studies, and it is from Williams’s use of the phrase ‘cultural materialism’ in Marxism and Literature that Dollimore and Sinfield adopted and defined the new critical practice in Britain, and not in opposition to ‘Cultural Poetics’, which only gained prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an alternative label which Greenblatt began to prefer over new historicism. There has been a degree of confusion over the relationship between cultural materialism and new historicism, and many critics discuss the two practices as if they were one and the same. In this book I have tried to organise discussion of the two theories into separate sections precisely to avoid confusion. But they also have a large number of preoccupations and interpretive strategies in common, and this is what sometimes makes the relationship between them so dynamic, but also contributes to confusion.
Both made a dramatic impact on studies of Renaissance literature in the mid-1980s, and brought a number of important poststructuralist2 ideas to literary studies. Chief among these was the idea that all human behaviour, practices and knowledge were constructs and inventions, rather than natural or instinctual. Such a realisation leads to the practice of reading texts as participants in the construction of human beliefs and ideologies, a practice which is common to both new historicists and cultural materialists. Because texts are understood as participating in the production of ideology and culture, both new historicists and cultural materialists insist that there is no division between text and context, or between literature and politics. Out of this common belief both critical practices treat literary texts on an equal basis with texts and documents of all kinds, professing not to privilege ‘literature’ as a form of expression outside the realms of society or politics or history. This common basis makes it difficult to separate the two, and indeed enhances the work of both new historicists and cultural materialists. The differences between them cannot simply be regarded as the product of different national and state institutions, one from Britain, one from the USA, and we ought to pay attention to the possibility that some so-called new historicists in the USA may be more appropriately called cultural materialist, and vice versa. Kiernan Ryan advocates this degree of subtlety when approaching theoretical distinctions of this kind. He looks forward to a situation ‘in which American scholars can find themselves more at home with cultural materialist assumptions; in which radical British readings can thrive when transplanted into transatlantic hotbeds of new historicism’ (Ryan 1996, xi).
There is a larger area of concern that looms here in how we define a critical practice in the first place. Inevitably the most prominent practitioners of the theories become the first to define what those theories are, and this is no exception with Greenblatt for new historicism and Dollimore and Sinfield for cultural materialism. Editors of anthologies and authors of explanatory essays and books become the next to set out the major assumptions and defining traits of the critical practice. Those critics who are negative about the critical practice also help to define it, either by defining what it is not, or by provoking an explanatory response from practitioners. But there are always a diversity of interests and goals in the practices of different critics within new historicism and cultural materialism, and all such labels invite the exclusion of those who no longer practice the particular theory, the inclusion of newcomers, the tracing of developments within it, and the subtle differentiation of degrees of conformity to it. But precisely what is the defining norm of the theory and critical practice is always a matter for debate. There is no way of defining a critical practice without basing it on the work of individual practitioners, but any such definition will rely on the reduction of differences between practitioners to find the common denominators, and the accuracy of such common denominators is somewhat uncertain. Critics rarely work to a formula either, thankfully, and this means that it is difficult to discriminate when a critic is ‘being’ new historicist and when s/he is carrying this practice into new realms or strategies. It seems to me, for example, that there is little to mark the difference between Greenblatt’s work as a new historicist and his work as a practitioner of cultural poetics other than his announcement that he preferred the latter label. If this means that changes in literary studies resemble the world of marketing and brand names, then we need to historicise the emergence of new historicism and cultural materialism more stringently in order to examine the circumstances in which they emerged, and the pressures involved in defining and monitoring new critical practices.
If new historicism and cultural materialism are the products of clever marketing and selling strategies in the academic sphere, this may not altogether be something to be frowned upon. We need to recognise that literary studies is not outside the world of sales and marketing, but in fact is an industry in some ways itself. Glance at the acknowledgements, preface page or notes of a good edition of a Shakespeare play and we can see the efforts which have gone into ensuring that Shakespeare is made meaningful for us, whether it is in translating words which bear no significance today, or in rescuing ‘lost’ histories of people, places, events or customs which are referred to in the manuscripts. Shakespeare is not naturally familiar to readers in the twentieth century, and there are thousands of jobs and careers built on educating us to read Shakespeare. There is therefore a lot at stake in keeping alive the critical industry of reading Shakespeare, and reading literature in general, and what lies at the heart of this is the belief that reading literature is somehow a morally uplifting, civilising pursuit, which will produce people of good character and of high moral and civic principle. It is within, and sometimes against, this industry of producing people of good character, a highly idealised and ideological construct, that literary theories of the latter half of the twentieth century have been working. One of the most radical trends which has been provoked by new historicist and cultural materialist work is the interpretation of Shakespeare, and many other canonical, ‘civilised’ authors, in ways which go against the grain of this industry. Reading articulations of transgressive sexualities, anti-colonial sentiments, feminist and post-Marxist politics, both new historicism and cultural materialism attempt to find alternatives to the humanist deployments of literature as a vehicle for the production of the moral, law-abiding citizen. Perhaps the most successful way of marking this radical break from humanist tradition is by marketing itself as a new way of approaching literature, open and attentive to alternative perspectives and identities. Marketing a new theory by drawing attention to its common themes and strategies is a way of using the critical industry in literary studies to turn against its more conservative and humanist tendencies. Recognising that literature has been used to construct and reinforce conservative and humanist ideology is an important realisation of Marxist literary and cultural theories, and Marxist thinkers such as Althusser, Benjamin and Lukács have had a wide-ranging influence on new historicism and cultural materialism.
On a simple level Marxism fractures the idea that history is singular and universal by positing that all history is rife with class struggle, in which the interests of the dominant economic group are represented as the interests of society in general while the interests of the proletariat, those who sell their labour for wages, are not represented, or are represented as those of a particular minority. One direct consequence of this view is evident in the work of Marxist historians who have revisited conventional accounts of the past with a view to telling stories of how the working or labouring classes lived. E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is a classic example of this kind of work. Broadly speaking, Marxist thinkers have followed two different interpretations of this idea that, in Marx’s words, ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ (Marx and Engels 1991, 50). The first interpretation is that economics is the determining factor in any society or culture, and that the ruling mode of economic production (e.g. capitalism, feudalism) determines the ruling mode of cultural production. According to this view, which tended to dominate the institutional Marxism which came to prominence in the USSR and China among other places, all ideas, beliefs, values and cultural forms belong to and shape the superstructure which is determined by the interests of the economic base. Capitalism, therefore, produces its own ideology. This drove Lenin, and in particularly crude forms, Stalin and Mao, to believe that a change in the economic structure would destroy capitalist ideology and would replace it with the ideas, beliefs, values and cultural forms of a communist society. More sophisticated Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Louis Althusser and Raymond Williams have found this view too deterministic and crude, and have overhauled the base-superstructure model in favour of an interpretation which sees economics and ideology in a relationship which is interactive and dialectical.
This forms the basis of the second interpretation, which focuses less on economics as determining factor, and more on the function of cultural representation. For Marx the existence of culture as an autonomous entity devoid of politics was an illusion which concealed the fact that culture functioned as a means of control. The ruling class employed cultural forms to represent its interests as the interests of all humanity:
Only one must not form the narrow-minded opinion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. (Marx and Engels 1991, 114)
Rather than ideology being the product of this dominant class, the petty bourgeoisie, ideology also plays a vital part in producing the ruling class. It is the ‘false consciousness’ by which the ruling class come to believe (and by which other classes also come to be convinced), that its interests are the interests of the whole society, and in this way ideology is as much a determining factor in the construction of economic interests as vice versa. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains how Napoleon’s nephew came to rule in a coup in December 1851 by representing himself in heroic guise as his uncle, and so acquires power through an act of representation rather than a product of economics. Doubtless there are economic factors involved also in his coming to power, but economics is not the only determining factor.
One can trace the influence that this idea has had on new historicist and cultural materialist critics through a line of Marxist thinkers who revise and add to it. Much has been made of the materialism of Marx’s thought, and certainly Marx insisted that all cultural and ideological forms were embedded in material practices and institutions, but one can see in the work of Marx and of Marxist thinkers that representation becomes as significant a field of struggle as the world of empirical economic circumstances. It is finally the control of the means of representation which ensures that the peasant class in Louis Bonaparte’s France remain exploited and oppressed, as Marx describes the position of the peasants: ‘They cannot represent themselves. They must be represented’ (Marx 1991, 164). The bourgeois may dominate the peasants by economic means, but their dominance is made plausible and is perpetuated at the level of representation. For Gramsci the task of Marxist criticism is then to engage with capitalism on an ideological level, representing the interests of the working and peasant classes and exposing the contradictions and ‘false consciousness’ of the bourgeoisie. Indeed the possibility of all social and political change relies upon the outcome of this ideological struggle, as Gramsci explains in his Prison Notebooks ‘men acquire consciousness of structural conflicts on the level of ideologies’ (Gramsci 1971, 365). According to the view which sees economics as the sole determining factor, ideology is a delusion which conceals the real, and therefore need only be dismissed as false while the real task of transferring the means of economic production to the proletariat is conducted. But this is to miss the point that bourgeois ideology succeeds in holding the captive attention and support of all classes. Gramsci referred to this condition as hegemony.
Both Gramsci and Lukács were struggling to understand the events that had taken place in Western Europe after the First World War. In their respective countries, Italy and Hungary, conditions for the revolution had reached a crucial point for Marxists who saw economics as the determinant. The bourgeois economy had entered a severe crisis, an optimum moment for the proletariat to recognise its true destiny in obtaining the means of production for itself. No such revolution occurred, and in Italy Gramsci witnessed instead the emergence of an extreme right-wing system which adhered all the more rigorously to bourgeois ideology. Despite the virtual collapse of the capitalist economic system the structure of bourgeois civil society remained intact. Clearly the prediction that an economic crisis would automatically precipitate a socialist revolution had failed. Lukács and Gramsci were instrumental in searching for a Marxist interpretation of why the revolution had failed. Lukács posited the notion that although material circumstances determined the position of the proletariat, and although material circumstances also determined that capitalism would enter into a crisis which would provide the opportunity for change, there was no inevitability about the proletariat coming to a sudden consciousness of their historical destiny. The problem for Marxism was not one of economics but of consciousness and the ideological factors which exerted pressures on consciousness. Gramsci argued that the relationship between economics and ideology was not one of a base which determined a superstructure but was rather of an economic structure which acted in mutual exchange with an ideological structure, thus while economics determined the position of the proletariat, ideology determined the consciousness of the proletariat. Ideology was not simply some grand delusion, therefore, but existed through a vast material mechanism of schools, churches, the media, the army, the parish and town civil organisations, political parties and the law courts. The whole system of social, political and cultural organisation was implicated in representing society to itself according to the interests of the ruling class but in the name of the general good of society, and because the proletariat lived, worked, were reared and educated within these material institutions and apparatus they were also fully implicated in those representations, and unconsciously subscribed to th...

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Citation styles for New Historicism and Cultural Materialism
APA 6 Citation
Brannigan, J. (2016). New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Brannigan, John. (2016) 2016. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Brannigan, J. (2016) New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.