Imagining Me

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

The term new historicism is invented by American critic Stephen Greenblatt, and his book entitled Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare which was published in 1980 is considered as the beginning of new historicism. A simple definition of new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary text, and usually both texts are from the same historical period. Instead of seeing historical texts as the “background” and literary texts as the “foreground”, new historicism sees and practices a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other. On the other hand, British critic Graham Holderness describes cultural materialism as a politicized form of historiography, which means as the study of historical material (which includes literary texts) within politicized framework, and in this framework includes an offering that those literary texts have helped to shape in some way. The term cultural materialism was first used by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield as a subtitle of their collection of essays. Dollimore and Sinfield stated that cultural materialism has four characteristic, which are; historical context, theoretical method, political commitment, and textual analysis.

Although both new historicism and cultural materialism often linked, and the fact that the two movement belong in the same family, there is some differences between the two movement. The first difference is that cultural materialist concentrate on the interventions where men and woman make their own history while mew historicist believe in the power of social and ideological structures which restrain them. Secondly, cultural materialist see new historicists are making a disadvantage by absorbing post-structuralist part to their own, thus cultural materialist did not do that. The third difference is that new historicist situates the literary text in the political situation of its own day, while cultural materialist situates the literary text in political situation of their days. What new historicists do is that they put together literary and non literary text and reading the literary text with the light of non literary text. Then they try to defamiliarize the canonical literary text, detaching it from any weight and see it as a new. After that, they focus their attention in both texts on issues of state power and how it is maintain. Then, they make use of the aspects of the post-structuralist outlook. On the other hand, what cultural materialist do is that they read literary text in a way to enables them to recover history. Then, they foreground those elements which cause those histories to be lost. Then they use combination of Marxist and Feminist approach to the text. Then they use close textual analysis technique, and at the same time they work mainly within traditional notions of the canon works.

One literary works that can be analyzed using new historicism is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. When analyzing this play, what people always talks about is that whether the play shows Shakespeare to be anti-Semitic. The New Historicist recognizes that this is not a simple yes or no question that can be teased out by studying the text. This work must be judged in the context in which it was written. New historicist also says that cultural history can be revealed by studying the work, especially by studying the use and dispersion of power and the marginalization of social classes within the work. Studying the history reveals more about the text; studying the text reveals more about the history.


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