Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

By Michael Bérubé | Go to book overview

8
It's Renaissance Time: New Historicism, American Studies, and American Identity

There's a new historicism in American Studies, and you might think at first that it would first start working at the nation's roots. If this new historicism owes anything to poststructuralism, as of course it does, then certainly it should pose a challenge to the self-definition of the United States, since poststructuralism challenges any narrative of unitary identity, nationalist or otherwise. Moreover, the national narrative of the United States is based explicitly on the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment - precisely the ideals poststructuralism questions most thoroughly. Something there is in poststructuralist thought that does not love an Enlightenment, and since the United States was the first nation to ground itself on the premises of the Enlightenment, you can see that the potential for ideological conflict here is quite considerable: a new American Studies that launches a poststructuralist critique of the nation's very foundations would seem to pose a threat to the nation's conceptual identity.

For one thing, poststructuralism enables a form of historicist perspectivalism. It has insisted, for instance, that the idea of liberal individualism is not some kind of discovery of the eternal: when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights', he may have claimed to uncover a hitherto unknown universal law (underwritten by the Creator), but from a historicist perspective he was doing no such thing. For new historicists, generally, it's more defensible to say that Jefferson, drawing on the tradition of British empiricism via Locke, invented an idea of men who were endowed with such rights. For by no means would such a conception of 'rights' have been 'self-evident' to Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, or the Stuart monarchs; even as Jefferson was writing, too, there remained any number of people for whom the divine right of kings was self-evident. To this day, in fact, there are influential intellectuals in

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Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction American Political Culture and Cultural Politics 1
  • Part I - PC and the Humanities 41
  • 1 - Discipline and Theory 43
  • Notes 58
  • 2 - Winning Hearts and Minds 59
  • 3 - Exigencies of Value 87
  • Notes 112
  • Part II - Critical Theory in the Public Sphere 117
  • 4 - Just the Fax, Ma'Am: Or, Postmodernism's Journey to Decenter 119
  • Notes 133
  • 5 - Pop Goes the Academy: Cult Studs Fight the Power 137
  • Notes 159
  • 6 - Bite Size Theory: Popularizing Academic Criticism 161
  • Part III - At the Closing of the American Century 179
  • 7 - Paranoia in a Vacuum: 2001 and the National Security State 181
  • Notes 200
  • 8 - It's Renaissance Time: New Historicism, American Studies, and American Identity 203
  • Notes 222
  • 9 - Disuniting America Again 225
  • Epilogue 243
  • Notes 266
  • Index 269
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