Academic journal article Hecate

The Feminist History Group Goes to the Berks

Academic journal article Hecate

The Feminist History Group Goes to the Berks

Article excerpt

The Feminist History Group Goes to the Berks

Introduction

As a context out of which I write, I want to invoke both the `linguistic turn' among historians and the `new historicism' among literary critics. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg encapsulates one North American version of historians' turn to language when she asks, "Can one write about `Writing History' and not deal with the interaction of writing and history, an interaction so methodologically and philosophically problematic?" Clearly not. She answers her own question like this:

Writing presumes words, history the world that speaks them. Seemingly distinct, they form a seamless web, for how can we know the world except through the words it constructs? History offers us no exit from this circle of mutual referents, for history is part of the circle, a composite of words about words, a narrative of narratives.(1)

Judith Lowder Newton offers one North American description of the `new historicism' among literary critics which runs like this:

Those engaged in `new historicism'...generally assume that there is no transhistorical or universal essence and that human subjectivity is constructed by cultural codes which position and limit all of us in various and divided ways. They assume that there is no `objectivity,' that we experience the `world' in language, and that all our representations of the world, our readings of texts and of the past, are informed by our own historical position, by the values and politics that are rooted in them. They assume...that representation `makes things happen' by `shaping human consciousness' and that as forces acting in history various forms of representation ought to be read in relation to non-discursive `texts' like `events.'(2)

For historians, the `linguistic turn' signals an end to the preoccupation with causal explanation of the 1950s and 1960s (if we accept Paul Bourke's periodisation),(3) and the 1970s (if we take into account the concern with causality that dominated the structural Marxism of both new Left and feminist historiography)(4) and the surfacing of a fresh concern with hermeneutics or the production and reproduction of meaning. Such a change of direction in the 1980s is closely associated with poststructuralist theory, and is seen by some as profoundly threatening. Lawrence Stone in a 1991 issue of Past and Present, for instance, trumpeted the dangers for `History' of everything associated with the terms post-structuralism, post-modernism and deconstruction, and called upon historical scholars to mount the barricades and repel the barbarians at the gate.(5) It would be easy, though perhaps unfair, to see such distress at this shift as the result of many historians feeling bereft of the psychological satisfactions to be found in a search for origins, a fruitful endeavour for those trained in a discipline in which chronology can often substitute for causal explanation.

This shift has also, for historians, problematised the process of reading the material, traditionally designated `the documents' or `the sources' from which we compile our accounts, descriptions, examinations of change in past time. The same shift has meant, for literary critics, a fresh attention to the social and cultural contexts in which the texts that they read are produced. Instead of operating within a Leavisite or `New Critical' formalism -- a focus on this or that text, to be read by a sensitive sensibility as transparent communication, regardless of the historical period or culture in which it was written -- those involved in the `new historicist' criticism are becoming cultural critics, like their English fore-runners at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and in the Sociology of Literature school of analysis of literary texts,(6) and are having to learn some of the skills of historians in researching the specific social, cultural and economic conditions within which any particular text might have been produced. …

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