The first keynote at the International Society for Cultural History’s inaugural conference yesterday was by Catherine Belsey, who critiqued the new historicism – and especially Stephen Greenblatt – for its monolithic representation of culture – a familiar complaint. Her solution to the problem, however, was not the traditional cultural-materialist answer.
She suggested that attention to literary form in fiction might function as a way out of the problem. Her argument was that the new historicism tends to reduce literature to a simple narrative in its readings, and that although it advocates a chiastic relation between literature and culture, it is often unable to show how literature affects culture. She argues that this can be countered by paying attention to form. On the one hand, fiction, because it creates imaginary worlds, allows for heterogeneity in culture – several options can exist at the same time. On the other hand, she also suggested that the complexity of literary form (comedy mixed with tragedy, for example) cannot be reduced to a simple narrative, and therefore resists a monolithic representation of culture.
This does not mean that Belsey wants to re-instate literature to the canonical status it had in formalism. She argued that all forms of fiction have this ability to incorporate apparent opposites, and that she did not want to express value judgements. Nevertheless, she did argue that James Shapiro’s 1599 reduces Shakespeare’s As You Like It to a nineteenth-century romance novel – which seems to imply a value judgement.
I think a similar movement is taking shape in nineteenth-century studies. I recently came across an article by Herbert Tucker called “The Fix of Form” (Victorian Literature and Culture (1999), 531-35), which also calls for renewed attention to form in new historicism and cultural studies.
Anyone out there who knows more about this trend in cultural history?