Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Catherine Gimelli Martin


The Ahistoricism of the New Historicism

Knowledge as Power versus Power as Knowledge
in Bacon's New Atlantis

It is easy to slide from “let us not oversimplify” into a theoretical justification, or a tacit assumption, of history as just one damn thing after another—a historical nihilism which is becoming fashionable today, for obvious sociological reasons.

—Christopher Hill, “Puritanism, Capitalism, and the Scientific Revolution”

When Christopher Hill issued this warning against the increasing dominance of historical revisionism in the mid-seventies, he could hardly have suspected that the revisionists would soon be reinforced by their new literary counterpart: new historicism. 1. While the two movements employ different methods and historical paradigms, both agree that revolutionary change was something of an illusion. Power changes hands, but so locally and arbitrarily that in the end only power remains. By explaining away the existence of authentically new ideological formations or modes of thought, both historical revisionists and new historicists thus effectively regard history as “just one damned thing after another”: a force without real agents, ideals, or goals. However, as Hill rightly observes, this view of history has proved attractive for some “obvious sociological reasons, ” including the failure of the great political and social revolutions of the early twentieth century. These reasons also go far toward explaining the widespread currency of Stephen Greenblatt's “sub-

____________________
1.
For an overview of the debate as it then stood (including some well-founded critiques of Hill's model of history), see Charles Webster, ed., The Intellectual Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London: Kegan Paul, 1974). This volume examines Hill's support of the Weber- Tawney-Merton hypothesis concerning the interrelated rise of Puritanism, capitalism, and modern science; Hill's retort to his critics appears on p. 253. For a recent overview of the rise and demise of historical revisionism, see Peter Lake's new introduction to Geoffrey F. Nuttall's classic study The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (1947; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), ix—xxv.

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