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