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My thanks to Aman and Jim for such a lively, entertaining and thought-provoking session. I just hate to let it end there …The reason I became a historicist, having trained as anything but (Cambridge Practical Criticism is about as a-historicist as it gets), is that I became increasingly frustrated by the slipperiness of meaning both at the linguistic level and at the level of genre. Words and genres simply do not stand still, and our assumption that we can read them now as anyone read them even twenty years ago (without the utmost circumspection) is deeply suspect. We may continue to read Pride and Prejudice, but any assumption that we continue to read it with anything like the understanding brought to it by (say) the Prince Regent on its publication seems to me simply misguided. Continue reading
Well, there’s gratitude for you. You give a colleague a copy of your new book and then he goes and publicly trashes it—while you’re sitting next to him. Still, I have no one to blame but myself—not only did I give Aman the book but I also noted in my inscription that it would provide ammunition for him in this debate. So, who’s my real opponent here?
I think I better leave that as, well, a rhetorical question and express my sincere gratitude. I’m grateful to you for coming out, even if you’re more interested in the spectacle of a possible Non-Celebrity Death Match than in what’s at stake in the differences between historicist and rhetorical approaches to narrative. And I’m deeply to Aman for suggesting this debate in the first place, for his willingness to make the first statement, and especially for his clear articulation of his historicist-oriented quarrels with rhetorical theory, and his identification of the larger stakes of those quarrels. Since those matters are so important to this debate, let me begin by summarizing them. Aman has two related quarrels: (1) rhetorical theory’s efforts to talk about the experience of reading are deeply flawed because rhetorical theory inevitably flattens out that experience and ends up working with what Aman calls “a kind of stunted affective response,” (2) This flattening out is inevitable because of the particular historical situation in which rhetorical theory operates. In our situation, “academia’s particular institutional pressures . . . force one to make affect marginal in an effort to be attentive, to be smart, and to have all the answers.” One can see the power of these institutional pressures in the rhetorical theory’s characteristic mode of expression—its use of diagrams and taxonomies, which give it affinities to the bureaucratic memo. As he moves to what’s at stake in his preference for an historicist approach, Aman contends that the advantage of historicist criticism is not that it is any less bureaucratic but that it is more open to critical self-reflexivity, more likely to be aware of how our institutional situation constrains our accounts of reading and thus more highly attuned to the differences between our practices and those of audiences in the past. Because rhetorical criticism denies “the particularity of professional reading” and declares “its affective vagueness as a universal norm,” rhetorical criticism actually “prevents such self-reflexive knowledge.” Consequently, the choice for the historicist approach over the rhetorical approach is relatively easy.
Now if I believed all that, I’d be a historicist too.
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.