What’s ‘new’ about this historical approach?
1980’s – 90’s movement that does away with “historical background” concepts and
argues for a parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts from same historical moment
Instead of “contexts” – “co-texts”
You can never have a direct, immediate access to any historical fact or event. Any event
that happened in the past is preserved in a textual form (mostly). History is a “textual
record of the past.” And texts, we know (as good Derridans), are not a reliable vehicle of
the real. On top of that, a text has an author. And all authors, as Marxists like Althusser
tell us, are always interpellated by ISAs, implicated in the ideologies of their historical
moment, and never really have access to “truth”. To add to this distance from ‘history’,
we, the readers of historical texts, are ourselves ideologically conditioned – everything
we read is being mediated by the ideologies that inscribe us.
So, all historical events are “thrice-processed” – through ideology of its time, through
ideology of readers’ time, and through the distorting web of language.
No privileging of literary over other kinds of texts (recipe books, children’s school texts, farming
Basis of this assumption: “textuality of history and historicity of texts”
Notion of “archival continuum”
Discipline and Punish Not exactly New Historicist critic but does a mixture of different theoretical approaches, though
he tends to be always fundamentally concerned (like most Marxist/Historicist/Cultural critics)
about how individuals in a society are socialized or “subjected” to economic/political structures
(he was Althusser’s student, though he does not always agree with him).
One of the most important questions Foucault tackles – nature of Power, method of its exercise,
impact on subjects
One way of understanding Foucauldian notion of “power” – all the means by which one
entity gets another entity to do, to be and/or to act a certain way
Power – not a top down mechanism but as something “dispersed throughout society”
“Power is not a property but a strategy…a network of relations, constantly in tension, in
activity, rather than a privilege one might possess… Its model is perpetual battle…
Furthermore, this power is not exercised simply as a prohibition on those who “do not
have it” – it invests them, is transmitted by them and through them… This means that
these relations (networks of power) go right down into the depths of society…”
Power constructs, invests, shapes people
One of the most important strategies of power is the production of knowledge
Traditionally we image “true” knowledge can exist only when power relations are
suspended. The free pursuit of knowledge outside fear and demand is one of the
greatest ideals of civilization.
There is this idea that knowledge is an equal field
Foucault rejects this – instead, he says, “We should admit rather that power produces
knowledge…that power and knowledge directly imply one another, that there is no power
relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge
that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”
To understand how this works, we need to consider Foucault’s notion of DISCOURSE
“Foucaldian ‘Discourse’ is that through which ideology circulates throughout the body
For Althusser, ideology is not abstract ideas but ‘embodied’ – in people who act
according to the ideology or in specific ideological State Apparatuses (rituals/institutions/practices – playing the national anthem at the end of football
games/Surgeon General’s office, etc.)
For Foucault ideology is always expressed in DISCOURSE
Discourse: oral, written, visual texts produced as KNOWLEDGE about a certain topic or area.
These discourses create the possible ways to think about that topic and also create the
methods/instruments/practices we have for dealing with particular topics. Discourses are
constantly in flux and ebb and flow through history.
For eg. Breastfeeding: What are the ways in which you might approach this topic today?
Medical terms – health of baby, mother, what is the physical process involved, what
might be the physical problems
Emotive/sentimental terms – mother feeding a baby might be seen as the quintessential
nurturing aspect of motherhood, an embodiment of the almost divine, beautiful bond
between mother and child
Public morality terms – is breastfeeding in public decent or vulgar? Does it violate
social/civilized codes of physical display? Or is it the most ‘natural’ thing ever and thus
not subject to notions of public policing?
Pornographic terms – just yesterday I saw a “Friends” episode in which Rachel is trying
to feed her infant with Joey in the room… you get the titillating (pardon the pun) potential
of the scene
Did you also know that breastfeeding had other discourses in history? For instance, it
was spoken of in terms of class (aristocratic women had wet-nurses for their children),
infant’s moral education (if fed at the breast of an immoral, vice-ridden wet-nurse, the
infant would catch the ‘moral contagion’ at the breast and with the milk ingest the nurse’s
moral follies) etc.
All these different discourses imply ideologically different ways of thinking, speaking,
writing about that particular activity. These discourses are not static but constantly
interacting, colliding, more or less prevalent at a particular historical moment – but it
determines who speaks of it (doctors, artists/preachers, lawyers, talk show hosts,
feminist activists, porn-makers), how it is spoken of (healthy/unhealthy, moral/immoral
Discourses impact social and institutional practice – certain discourses about
breastfeeding result in architectural changes (feeding stations in women’s restrooms),
economic disbursement (maternity leave), change in law (revealing breast in public is no
longer a violation of public obscenity law), etc. Discourse – oral, written, visual texts produced as KNOWLEDGE about a particular topic –
expresses ideology. Thus DISCOURSE, or such ‘KNOWLEDGE’ is an instrument of
disseminating various ideologies.
Knowledge, we think of as something