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The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt: On Poetics of Culture and the Interpretation of Shakespeare

Jan R. Veenstra
History and Theory
Vol. 34, No. 3 (Oct., 1995), pp. 174-198
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
DOI: 10.2307/2505620
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2505620
Page Count: 25
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The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt: On Poetics of Culture and the Interpretation of Shakespeare
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Abstract

This essay on the much acclaimed critic Stephen Greenblatt deals extensively with the New Historicism he developed and for which he coined the name "Poetics of Culture." Contrary to many older interpretive methods and schools that tend to see historical and literary texts as autonomous entities, Poetics of Culture seeks to reveal the relationship between texts and their sociohistorical contexts. Cultural Poetics assumes that texts not only document the social forces that inform and constitute history and society but also feature prominently in the social processes themselves which fashion both individual identity and the sociohistorical situation. By means of an economic metaphor, Greenblatt explains how texts and other symbolic goods, by circulating in a society via channels of negotiation and exchange, contribute to the distribution of social energy, by which he means the intensities of experience that give value and meaning to life and that are also indispensable to the construction of self-awareness and identity. The beating heart, as it were, of this whole process of circulation is identified as a dialectics of totalization and differentiation, as a powerful social force that oscillates between the extremes of sameness and otherness. In several books Greenblatt has elaborated the various aspects of this Poetics of Culture, such as the circulation of social energy, the dialectics of totalization and differentiation, and the process of self-fashioning. This essay discusses some problems of this interpretive method and argues, in comparing it to a more traditional hermeneutics, that social energy, self-fashioning, and the earlier mentioned dialectic are only phenomena in Greenblatt's interpretation of texts and are not actual parts of sociohistorical contexts. Poetics of Culture, in spite of its radical claims, is a genuine hermeneutics operating in a more or less traditional vein.

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