Literary Criticism and the Return to "History"

Critical Inquiry 14 (4):721-747 (1988)

If any emergent historical criticism will tend by its own choice toward inclusiveness and eclecticism, it is also likely to be constrained by more subtle forms of complicity with the theoretical subculture within which it seeks its audience. It is not in principle impossible that we might choose to set going an initiative that is very different indeed from the methods and approaches already in place. But is nonetheless clear that we must be aware, in some propaedeutic way, of the predispositions for or against such change that are latent in the horizons of the field as they are presently conceived and transmitted. An account of these predispositions will take up most of the following essay. Whether or not the particular texts I shall discuss constitute anything as firm as an establishment in the absolute sense does not matter much: they neither sum up the ongoing careers of their particular authors, in the diachronic sense, nor do they represent any simple totality in the critical culture of the late 1960s. All we need here is the weaker assumption: that these writings by Derrida, Paul de Man, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Macherey do offer, by virtue of their very notoriety, evidence of the priorities within the discipline that have afforded them their reputations in the first place. Thus, while they do not in themselves prohibit the emergence of alternatives, they do give us clues about the residual pressures that might constrain those alternatives, and they signal the questions that the historical party must respond to if it is to be recognized as making an important contribution to a debate. My argument will be that the influential critics of the late 1960s have made it very hard indeed to find a place for history, so much so that the avowedly Marxist alternative set forth by Jameson finds itself making disabling concessions to those very influences. I do not claim to describe the entire range of options and alternatives, and indeed offer no discussion of the most excitingly contested field of all, that represented by contemporary feminisms. I mean instead to demonstrate, through a reading of those methodologies that have become authoritative, that the status of historical inquiry has been so eroded that its reactive renaissance, in whatever form, threatens to remain merely gestural and generic. “History” promises thus to function as legitimating any reference to a context beyond literature exclusively conceived, whether it be one of discourse, biography, political or material circumstance. In particular, given the current popularity of discourse analysis, it seems likely that for many practitioners the historical method will remain founded in covertly idealist reconstructions. David Simpson is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of various books and essays, most recently The Politics of American English, 1776-1850 and Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement
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DOI 10.1086/448463
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