Between Form and Culture

New Historicism and the Promise of a Historical Formalism
  • Stephen Cohen


Since its inception—or at least its christening—new historicism has proclaimed its antiformalism. The movement’s critical oppositionality is implicit in its very name: “new historicism” not only distinguishes itself from an “old historicism” but also invokes the longstanding historicist/formalist opposition by appropriating for the former the adjectival bravado of the latter’s chief American exemplar, the New Criticism.1 The name was first used in its current sense by Stephen Greenblatt in the introduction to a collection of essays said to exemplify the critical movement he is generally credited with founding, and the context in which he uses the term confirms new historicism s oppositional roots: “diverse as they are, many of the present essays give voice, I think, to what we may call the new historicism, set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two.”2 For Greenblatt, this formalism is closely identified with the New Critical orthodoxy of his own professional training in the 1960s, characterized by its decontextualization of literary works, its treatment of literature as “a fixed set of texts that are set apart from all other forms of expression and that contain their own determinate meanings….”3 The task of new historicism, then, was to recontextualize literature, not—as in the “old” historicism—as a privileged or transcendent reflection of its historical situation, but as one cultural discourse among others, not only “socially produced” but also “socially productive.”4


Historical Formalism Literary Text Relative Autonomy Literary Form Cultural Discourse 
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  1. 6.
    John Brannigan, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 80–81. In the same paragraph, Brannigan refers to new historicism’s success in “replacing the right-wing formalist orthodoxy with a historicizing and politicizing agenda. …”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 8.
    The most nuanced and persuasive version of this argument of which I am aware is Alan Liu’s “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism,” ELH 56 (1989): 721–771; for a variety of others, see Strier, Resistant Structures, 70–78; Ryan, New Historicism, xiii–xiv;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Howard Felperin, “‘Cultural Poetics’ versus ‘Cultural Materialism’: The Two New Historicisms in Renaissance Studies,” in The Uses of the Canon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 154–55;Google Scholar
  4. Don E. Wayne, “Power, Politics, and the Shakespearean Text: Recent Criticism in England and the United States,” in Shakespeare Reproduced, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 61; and Walter Cohen, “Political Criticism of Shakespeare,” in Howard and O’Connor, Shakespeare Reproduced, 35–37. On the formalist connotations of the term “cultural poetics,” see Brannigan, New Historicism, 83–84, 91–92; and Ryan, New Historicism, xiv. Greenblatt has refuted some of these charges against his own practice in “Resonance and Wonder” (Learning to Curse, 161–183). In “After the New Historicism” (Alternative Shakespeares: Volume 2, ed. Terence Hawkes [London: Routledge, 1996], 17–37), Steven Mullaney offers a qualified defense of Greenblatt while distinguishing his work from that of other new historicists more interested in resistance and historical change. While for the moment I am less interested in the accuracy than in the irony of these charges of “cultural formalism,” I will return to them later to assess their relationship to new historicism’s (non) treatment of literary form.Google Scholar
  5. For a useful summary of their work in relation to Marxist theories of literary form, see Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 27–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 10.
    An extreme example of such an idealism is the Russian formalist doctrine that all literary form has a defamiliarizing function. While the stylistic means are historically variable, the defamiliarizing effect constitutes a definition of (true) literature, a goal to which literary content is entirely subordinated. On the value and limits of Russian formalism from a Marxist perspective, see Tony Bennett, Marxism and Formalism (London: Methuen, 1979),Google Scholar
  7. and Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972); see especially pp. 58–59 of the latter for the relation between the Russian formalist concept of ostranenie and Brechts Verfremdungseffekt.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 135. Further references in text. See also his argument that while ideology in general has no history (in the sense of being omnipresent and transhistorical—a not unproblematic assertion), individual ideologies and ideological apparatuses “have a history of their own (although it is determined in the last instance by the class struggle)” (160–161).Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: Verso, 1978; orig. pub. NLB, 1976), 64–69. Further references in text.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 23–58. Further references in text.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    For the product/practice distinction, see Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 45–49. First published in 1973, the essay anticipates many of the issues elaborated in Marxism and Literature.Google Scholar
  12. 28.
    Along with Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and E. P. Thompson, Williams is generally considered one of the founding figures of cultural studies. For concise accounts of the field’s origins and development, see the introductions to three useful cultural studies anthologies: Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992);Google Scholar
  13. Simon During, ed., The Cultural Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993);Google Scholar
  14. and Jessica Munns and Gita Rajan, eds., A Cultural Studies Reader: History, Theory, Practice, (London: Longman, 1995).Google Scholar
  15. 35.
    See Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes,’ and the Pastoral of Power,” English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 153–82, and “Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form” ELH 50 (1983): 415–459;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. and Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  17. 39.
    On this tendency, see Brook Thomas, “The New Historicism and the Privileging of Literature,” Annals of Scholarship 4 (1987): 32–33; revised and reprinted in his The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), ch. 6.Google Scholar
  18. 41.
    Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” Representations 1 (1983), 1–29; reprinted in Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 99–130. My in-text citations will be from the latter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 44.
    Though valuable for its extrapolation of what Eagleton calls “authorial ideology” to the theater’s corporate mode of production, it is Greenblatt’s focus on intent that renders this type of reading problematic by ignoring the “built-in” ideological implications of dramatic forms and conventions that may bypass authorial intent and still register with audiences. It also rests upon entirely unsupported (and perhaps unsupportable) assumptions about the motives and priorities of Renaissance dramatists and other theatrical practitioners. On the politically conservative implications of this sort of reading and their connection to the conservatism of Greenblatt’s synchronic “cultural formalism,” see Stephen Cohen, “New Historicism and Genre: Towards a Historical Formalism,” REAL 11 (1995): 408–411. Much of my treatment of new historicism in the present essay is a reconceptualization and recontextualization of this earlier work.Google Scholar
  20. 49.
    Louis Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 50.
    Stephen Greenblatt, “What Is the History of Literature?” Critical Inquiry 23 (1997): 462. Further references in text.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 52.
    Though not plentiful, valuable examples may be found elsewhere as well. In her 1990 A Happier Eden: The Politics of Marriage in the Stuart Epithala-mium (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), Heather Dub row calls for “a new formalism [that] can view aesthetic issues as related, not inimical, to history …” (268), and begins to meet her own challenge in that volume as well as her 1995 Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press). Other extended considerations of the relations between history and form—each quite methodologically distinct from the others—include Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller (London: Verso, 1983);Google Scholar
  23. Thomas O. Beebee, The Ideology of Genre (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  24. and Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). With the exception of Moretti’s chapter on Renaissance tragedy (parts of which were printed earlier in the 1982 “Forms of Power and Power of Forms” issue of Genre), none of the three deals substantively with Renaissance literature.Google Scholar

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© Mark David Rasmussen 2002

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  • Stephen Cohen

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