Future Conditional: Feminist Theory, New Historicism, and Eighteenth-Century Studies

By Conway, Alison | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Future Conditional: Feminist Theory, New Historicism, and Eighteenth-Century Studies


Conway, Alison, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


In 1987, the editors of The New Eighteenth Century worried: "one danger in the 'rise' of new historicism in America lies in its potential establishment as a new orthodoxy, particularly if it comes to be perceived as a flight from the theoretical possibilities of other post-structuralist movements such as deconstruction, or as an alternative to the more explicit political commitments of Marxism, feminism, and antiracist, postcolonial critiques." (1) In areas where new historicism's emergence produced a radical refashioning of critical practices--as in the field of British Romanticism, for instance--the historical and literary claims advanced by its practitioners have been hotly contested. (2) The field of eighteenth-century studies has proven more hospitable to new historicism, in part because of its long-standing resistance to the formalist imperatives that shaped both New Criticism and, later, structuralism and deconstruction. (3) But if new historicism has indeed become the new orthodoxy, it has not led, in eighteenth-century studies, to the end of political criticism. Rather, I suggest, new historicism has absorbed politics into its narratives, becoming, perhaps, overly inclined to find a fit between the investments of the past and our own. (4)

I still remember clearly the surprise I felt when I read, about ten years ago, this sentence in the introduction to Carol Kay's Political Constructions: "Of all the movements that have recently nourished democratic hopes, feminism has affected my life most dramatically." Nothing in the pages previous, which describe Kay's interest in British political philosophy and the rise of the novel, prepared me for Kay's announcement of her personal indebtedness to feminism, nor for her expression, a few sentences later, of a desire "to sustain specifically political activism within the feminist movement." (5) These sentences cast a new light on the book and led me to read the chapters that followed differently than I would have, had they not appeared. While a myriad of causes might explain my surprise (including, most simply, a shift in sensibility between generations of feminists), I believe our field's embrace of new historicism renders it difficult, today, to announce a feminist commitment as openly as did Kay twenty years ago. This essay examines what feminist theory has to offer a field that has always, for the most part, put history first. (6) In particular, I argue that it encourages the analysis of desires that historicisms, old and new, tend to disown. (7) Feminist theory is not singular in its ability to name its critical investments, but it confronts us with the importance of doing so in a particularly forceful way. (8)

I focus my attention here on two features of new historicist practice that contribute to the attenuation of both theoretical and political references: its suspicion of master narratives and its critical aesthetics. Both in terms of the objects it studies and the academic discourse it maintains, new historicism has fostered a critical interest in power--the operations of containment, the possibilities of subversion, and the individual and collective acts that together shape the meaning of cultural artifacts and their circulation in the world. And yet the politics of new historicism have proved difficult to pin down, despite the fact that many of its practitioners study under-represented or marginalized subjects. The reasons for this difficulty can be traced, first, to new historicism's resistance to narratives that attach the operations of power to a particular set of relations. New historicists examine the "hidden places of negotiation and exchange" where representations are circulated within economies of "relative systems." (9) This attention to the particularity of power's operations, in turn, draws new historicist scholars close to the objects they study and away from the kinds of abstraction that characterize theory: "My own work has always been done with a sense of just having to go about and do it, without establishing first exactly what my theoretical position is," writes Stephen Greenblatt. …

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