New Historicism

New Historicism: Revisionism as Dogma

Note: The following exchange is based on an actual correspondence.

Hello Marena,

I have a question for you, or frustration with academia. I am taking a research seminar this semester in which I will be writing my MA thesis. My interest is in minority groups. I’m finding that this is very political topic and that the questions that seem to interest scholars are things like the construction of ethnic identity and political questions of who is oppressing whom. One article by a very well known scholar is on how the Chinese perceive their minorities as “female” in relation to their “male” self. Another identified the relationship between the Chinese and the minorities as “internal colonialism,” and gave examples of how minorities are labeled and categorized in demeaning and stereotypical ways.

Factually, this is all true and perhaps it is good to have my eyes opened to reality. But even though I can’t put my finger on it yet, there is something that bothers me about the way that colonialism and imperialism are over-used to criminalize any majority or powerful group. I want to be concerned about justice and to care about minorities, but even though these scholars appear to be on a “righteous” crusade, I sense that they are missing the boat somewhere and that this isn’t the way the Lord sees things.

Anyway, I’m feeling quite alone in this for it is hard to criticize effectively when I am such a novice in the whole field and can’t even articulate what I do want to study.

Does this make sense? Any thoughts?


Dear Ben:

The academic view of minorities is just what you detail above, and it has more relationship to literary theory than you might think. “New Historicism” has taken over the academy: it affects the study of literature, history, political science, and other disciplines, and its influence is great. This kind of historicism has produced a new set of social norms, and a righteous crusade referred to popularly as “political correctness,” with which you no doubt are all too familiar.

The problem with New Historicism (it may go by other names) is its assumptions, some of which you mention below. It assumes that man is a creature made by his environment: he is “socially constructed,” not constructed by God. It assumes that the Marxist view of history is essentially correct, that history is a tale of power, with some people having power and oppressing others (it has no room for God or virtuous action). It assumes that male-female relationships function on a power principle, too, so that “gender oppression” describes the history of man-woman interactions (which belittles love).

Because the above ideas are the assumptions of historicist scholarship, work done with that approach tends to fit the specifics of a culture into a preconceived plan. The spirit of genuine inquiry is dead, because the assumptions can’t be challenged. The work of the scholar is to reinforce them: if he doesn’t, he becomes immoral. For these assumptions make up a religion of sorts, not merely a philosophy. Historicism proposes to take up the sixties’ crusades for the rights of the oppressed, which gives the scholarship its motive, but also cuts it off from any true disinterestedness (new historicists continually deny the reality of any disinterest: everything, including scholarship, is political, and is based on power relations and self-interest). It is not too much to say that historicism entirely misses the boat, by judging sinful self-interest and struggles for power to be the only realities in this world.

But we know God is in charge here, and that he works mightily to recover his creation for its original purpose, which has nothing to do with sin. Consider the history of the Puritans, or the very public Victorian age struggles against moral and spiritual darkness. When people seek the Lord, His love begins to work in this dark world, and people do selfless things in His power, and the whole axis of life on this planet is changed.

Historically, the principal champions of the oppressed have been Christians (like the abolitionist William Wilberforce) who believed that every person is of eternal value in the eyes of God. Most historicists, though they appear to champion in the oppressed, are in fact anti-humanists who believe that individual will and freedom are illusions only. The downtrodden are of interest to them not primarily as human beings, but as challengers of social norms. The real goal of the historicist scholar is not human equality (which he considers a romantic, naïve notion at best), but the destruction of authoritative moral standards to which all of us must answer.

As scholarship, New Historicism is ultimately self-defeating. It maintains that we are all so shaped by experience that not one of us can understand anything except within the mental boundaries of his culture. But in order to criticize “Western” culture the historicist has to claim personal exemption from this limitation. To be morally indignant, he must lay claim to real perceptual and moral knowledge of real events, the same knowledge he categorically insists upon is unavailable to anyone else.

A few historicists understand the self-contradictory nature of this claim to special knowledge and insight, and have shown a weariness with the crusading fervor of their colleagues. They seem half aware that by denying the existence of real, universal truth, we, as the Bible says, “become fools,” and render our thinking futile. (Romans 1) We take the road back from all that futility when we recognize that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and “a good understanding have all they that do his commandments.” (Psalm 111)

© 1999 The Yale Standard Committee