To begin to discuss the differences between historicist and rhetorical criticism, it’s necessary to provide some definitions. Historicist criticism assumes that the critic has a relationship of otherness to a literary text’s perspectives, references, and value judgments. What accounts for this “otherness,” moreover, is history, that is the temporal, geographical, and cultural differences between the critic’s immediate circumstances and those in which the text was created and/or published. This definition refers to historicism broadly: for instance, to New Historicism and some forms of political criticism, which are rooted in post-structuralist ideas, and to book history, biographical criticism, and philology, which are rooted in more “traditional” accounts of cultural change. The historicist criticism I’m talking about can be thought of abstractly – it analyzes literary narratives in terms of historical narratives – or, better, concretely – it reaches its conclusions by using a lot of history’s markers: that is, references to dates, geographical locations, political events and turning points, etc.
By contrast, the rhetorical analysis of narrative shares a number of qualities with what is thought of as “narrative theory” generally, in that it works mostly to locate a text’s meaningfulness internally – that is, it explores and delineates how a text’s formal aspects relate to one another, rather than how they relate to a culture’s historical circumstances. To refer to a non-rhetorical narrative theorist for a moment as an example: Gerard Gennette, in his important book Narrative Discourse, discusses the concept of “time” in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. For Genette, time refers only to temporal relationships between moments within the text – between Marcel’s “time of insomnia” and the time at which Swann’s story begins – which is before Marcel is born – for example. Time almost never refers to the historical time separating, for instance, Proust’s publishing of his novel (that is, from 1913 to 1927) and eighteenth-century France or Gennette’s own time. To cite an example within the rhetorical tradition: though Garrett Stewart in his book Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in 19th Century British Fiction more often refers to history – or at least, to historical periods – most of his analysis proceeds by exploring the different rhetorical voices or moods within 19th Century British texts. Thus what we learn in Stewart’s work about Frankenstein and Jane Eyre ultimately has far more to do with each text’s internal manipulation of rhetorical modes of address – exhortation, salutation, etc. – and grammatical moods – the imperative, vocative, etc. — than how each text shows the differences, politically or economically, between Bronte’s England in 1848 and Shelley’s in 1815. While a good example, I think, of rhetorical criticism’s general procedures, Stewart’s book also shows that these procedures exist only rarely in pure form – that is, since Stewart does mention history, his work suggests that perhaps “historicist” and “rhetorical” modes are not completely mutually exclusive. A lot – if not most – critical work in fact to some extent combines both approaches. Yet when such combinations occur, usually one mode clearly dominates, and the critical work contains an impoverished version of the alternative mode. Historicist criticism – especially “new historicism” – often pays a lot of attention to the narrator’s rhetoric or characters’ interactions, for example, yet even when it addresses these topics, it does so with nothing of the subtlety, precision, or extensiveness of rhetorical criticism. The concept of “point of view” in most historicist criticism is treated in a way that can only be called amateurish in light of the rich explorations of that mechanism in narrative theory. Likewise, even in historically oriented rhetorical criticism, like Stewart’s or Robyn Warhol’s, such concepts as nationalism, gender difference, class identity, and political change are referred to in a way that seems simplistic and coarse when one reads the incredibly nuanced accounts of those same concepts by academic historians. So while theoretically and to some extent practically, one critical work can combine historicist and rhetorical modes, in actuality, such attempts still follow one mode or the other. It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to do justice to the facts and ideas we have at hand about a text’s historical moment while simultaneously doing justice to the concepts and discriminations about a text’s mechanics that rhetorical theory gives us, a point that Brian McHale has also made in his essay in the Blackwell Companion to Narrative Theory.
I mention this near-impossibility mostly to justify this debate. While inevitably a critic’s work samples different approaches, in fact, a critic almost always has to tie his or her conclusions to one mode of inquiry. In terms of this debate, one must either commit oneself to revealing the truth of a text’s expression of its historical situation or to revealing the truth of its rhetorical dynamics. One can try to do both – but as a practical necessity, one will end up highly privileging history or rhetoric.
Why choose history? My argument is that historical criticism is far more able to capture, help us analyze, and produce knowledge about the phenomena of literary consumption and production. Human experience is always historically, culturally situated, and any critical work that does not compel one to talk about history won’t reveal all that much about what, how, and why people have read and do read. To be sure, it’s not accurate to say that rhetorical criticism’s methods prevent a critic from discussing history. But it is accurate to say that rhetorical criticism generally asserts that internal “rhetorical” features of texts are far more powerful than external, historical circumstances in accounting for readers’ responses and in producing meaning. In his recent book Experiencing Fiction, for instance Jim explains that literary narratives’ rhetorical features can and do produce similar readerly experiences in different people and across a wide range of historical circumstance. His interest in such “shared experiences” leads him in his book to analyze those rhetorical features that produce such possibly transhistorical experiences, rather than to postulate that particular experiences are embedded in, or determined by, writers’ and readers’ historical situation. Its mode and conclusions are explicitly ahistorical. While certainly not speaking for all works of rhetorical criticism, in the purity of its internal, ahistorical methods and conclusions, the book does, I think, “bare the device” of such criticism generally. For this reason, and not just because he’s sitting next to me, it’s worth paying some attention to this book in this debate.
My critique of the book will be short, for now, and it’s perhaps worth beginning by saying how it will not proceed. I won’t dispute, first of all, that internal features of texts undoubtedly play a large part in determining readers’ responses and judgments. No future human historical situations or historical discoveries about Jane Austen’s life or times, for instance, or could validate a reading of Pride and Prejudice in which Collins is more attractive and heroic than Darcy. I also won’t claim that my “experience” of the narratives Jim discusses differ greatly than those experiences he identifies as following inevitably from various rhetorical structures. Instead I’ll argue two points: one, that the book proceeds to back up its claims by naming “shared experiences” that are so generalized and abstract as to hardly deserve the name of “experience” – in the sense that “experience” usually refers to something fairly intense and subjective. Two, that this very abstraction of experience reveals the particular institutional framework underlying the book’s critical enterprise. Thus the book’s abstracting form and content locates Jim’s work in the very material, historical particularity that the project seeks to transcend. That is, the work’s generalization of “experience” (and experience’s attendant phenomena – response, affect, etc.) is an expression of the work’s total identification with circumstances particular to today’s academy.
I can make both points by referring to the anecdote that begins the book. An anecdote usually promises a revelation of some very particular, and often idiosyncratic, personal experience. This one is almost such a revelation. “In the spring of 1973,” the book begins,
when I was a very green MA student at the University of Chicago, I walked into the first session of Sheldon Sacks’s course in the Eighteenth-Century Novel and heard him ask a question that has stayed with me ever since: “Do we read the same books?” Sacks wanted to point to a paradox: While most of us in that room, including him, would instinctively answer yes…, once we set about discussing the meaning of any one novel—Sacks’s example that day was Pride and Prejudice—our interpretations would suggest the opposite conclusion. We students started to express the meaning in thematic terms: Pride and Prejudice is a statement about marriage in an acquisitive society; it’s a warning about the risks of putting too much stock in first impressions, etc. Sacks surprised me and, I believe, most of my classmates, not by explicitly disagreeing with these accounts but by saying that they all missed something crucial to the experience of reading Austen’s novel: the pleasure and satisfaction it offered in the culminating marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. In my case at least, the surprise was also a revelation: for the first time in my five years of formal study of literature someone was putting the experience of reading at the center of the interpretive enterprise.
I’ll get right to my first point: while the anecdote unveils a trans-subjective experience of “pleasure” and “satisfaction” at Pride and Prejudice’s end as a moment of dramatic enlightenment – as a “surprise” and a “revelation” – a moment’s consideration in fact suggests that what Sacks offered up as a unifying, universal experience is universal precisely because it is so vague and, possibly, banal. The effect of naming “satisfaction” as an important experience in the reading of Pride and Prejudice is a flattening out of experience – it’s a bit like a professor saying, after students have offered various interpretations of Bleak House, that what the students have missed is that Bleak House is pretty long, or that some of its characters are kind of funny. While the professor has invoked an inarguably universal experience, the professor has paid a price: he or she has made “experience” refer to something that radically lacks affective complexity and intensity.
And that brings me to my second point: This definition of “experience” naturalizes affective vagueness and simplicity, when in fact, such affective vagueness and simplicity is rarely a part of a reading experience. Better: such suspension or flattening of affect rarely plays a role in what John Guillory calls “lay” reading – that is, nonprofessional, nonacademic reading – but it is a staple of, in fact, somewhat a necessity in, academic, professionalized reading. In other words, while intensity of affective response is everywhere encouraged say, on Oprah, it is usually grounds for dismissal or ridicule in a graduate seminar, like the one that is the anecdote’s setting. What goes by the name of universal, “shared experiences” throughout much of Experiencing Fiction is, in fact, a kind of stunted affective response created by reading practices that grow out of academia’s particular institutional pressures – which force one to make affect marginal in an effort to be attentive, to be smart, and to try have all the answers. Indeed, despite much of rhetorical theory’s invocation of subjective “experiences,” this theory all but acknowledges its privileging of institutional rigor over actual, human experience in its – as in much of narrative theory’s – typical form, which is defined by the use of diagrams, numbered classifications, and conceptual lists, and thus shares characteristics with one of the most institutionalized, and affectively subdued of discursive forms: the bureaucratic memo.
My claim here is not that historicist criticism is essentially less bureaucratic or more exciting or affectively “authentic.” It is none of those things. Rather, my point here is that historicism opens the door to (although it admittedly does not require) a higher degree of critical self-reflexivity, so that we can become aware of the particularity of – and intellectual distortions inherent to – our positions as readers in academia in the 21st century. Why do we, in the profession, read literature, what constitutes our expertise, and what kinds of knowledge do we owe to the students and to the discipline supporting us? These important questions can only be answered, and the answers can only be translated into practice, if we can differentiate our reading, its circumstances, and our ideas about it from other acts of reading, circumstances, and ideas – especially those of other times and cultures. We need otherness to know ourselves, and by denying the particularity of professional reading – indeed, by declaring its affective vagueness as a universal norm – rhetorical criticism prevents such self-reflexive knowledge. Only if we can historically and socially situate our practices can we then see the possibilities and limits of our claims to knowledge. It is my claim that it is not just historically based knowledge about literature that historicist criticism creates – it also creates the possibility of us possessing realistic knowledge about our capacities and responsibilities as academics.