Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The historicist’s useful fiction
Bill Benzon’s post on aesthetic vs. ethnographic criticism, which notes that the ethnographic critic "simply needs to be interested in culture wherever and however it is," leads me to wonder about one of the ethnographic critic’s key but frequently unstated difficulties: not what any given author knew, but what s/he likely did not know. The historicist critic, in particular, is easily tempted to speak of what an author "probably" knew, or "certainly" knew, or maybe "must have" known. This historical novelist must have been aware of that ongoing theological controversy; that poet surely was acquainted with this other contemporary political debate; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It’s very tempting, in other words, to posit a completely informed author--especially since imagining such an author justifies us in situating his work in a purportedly relevant "context." We don’t really have a critical language for dealing with authors who might have been (at best) only partly aware of their current intellectual and political surroundings, or even (at worst) completely oblivious to them. And yet, even a quick moment of introspection will reveal the massive gaps in our own understanding of something as undemanding as, say, contemporary pop culture, let alone current politics or even the scholarship outside our own field. Some resemblances among discourses are accidents, after all, not signs of contact between high and low culture or political and literary languages.
[X-posted from The Little Professor.]
In other words, the historicist can do the job too well, producing a “thick description” in excess of what any single individual could have experienced.
There’s an great moment in Augustine’s Confessions where an acquaintance named Patricianus mentions to him Athanasius’s biography of the great St. Antony, founder of desert monasticism, hero of the faith, world-famous exemplar of holiness, etc. etc., and Augustine and his friend Alypius look at each other and say, “Who?”
Miriam, I think you’ve nailed it here. This is one reason why I’m attracted to the type of historicism performed by people like Lukacs, Raymond Williams, and Jameson, where cultural forms are tied to large-scale economic and social changes. Ultimately, the kind of historicism you describe—where the author is ken to all the goings on of her time—is more a source study than an historical study, insofar as historicism entails some concept of causation.
"Some resemblances among discourses are accidents,”
Yeah but that’s BORING. Plus a butterfly’s wings and a hurricane and everything.