Michel Foucault

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What is the relation between Foucault and New Historicism?

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To a considerable extent, Foucault can be seen as one of the guiding spirits behind the school of criticism known as New Historicism. The leading lights of New Historicism such as Stephen Greenblatt consciously sought to challenge prevailing conceptions of textual interpretation by offering up parallel readings of texts grounded in specific socio-historical and cultural conditions.

In doing so, New Historicist critics placed texts in their wider historical contexts while also textualizing history—that is to say, showing how the writing of history involves the production of a constructed text rather than the disinterested presentation of timeless truths. In contrast to the purely text-based New Criticism, New Historicism strives to go beyond the text in giving a much broader social and political context to a specific written work.

One of Foucault's main ideas is that knowledge is always constructed in specific historical contexts. To Foucault, knowledge in any given historical epoch is generated by the prevailing power structure. Indeed, not only is knowledge a product of power, it also serves to maintain and propagate that power through its dissemination by institutional structures such as universities.

Taking their cue from Foucault, New Historicists seek to locate examples of power in certain texts, how they are dispersed within them, and how they contribute to propping up the dominant power structures in society. To that end, New Historicists, no less than Foucault, actively pursue a political agenda designed to uncover and challenge what they see as the underlying, unarticulated presuppositions of late capitalist society.

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Michel Foucault did not view himself as a founder of New Historicism—his work was much broader than the literary field that it is usually associated with. Some of his most important insights, however, were fundamental to this way of thinking.

Foucault was primarily interested in the relationship between power and knowledge and the way that knowledge was a product of, and tended to reinforce, power structures. In an important book titled The Order of Things, Foucault attempts to illustrate what he calls a "positive unconscious of knowledge"—a set of assumptions, rules, and discourse that he also describes as an episteme. Everyone writing within this period, which in Foucault's study essentially encompasses the European Enlightenment, wrote within this episteme, and works cannot be understood without reference to it.

New Historicism, first applied to literary criticism, takes Foucault's ideas further (as he himself did in later works.) It argues that texts can only be understood in context. Their meanings are subjective, because modern readers, reading outside the episteme in which the texts were written, bring different meanings to them. Again, Foucault was primarily interested in how these systems of knowledge that produced texts were related to power. Many New Historicists were interested in these same themes, and they all tended to deemphasize the author's importance. All texts were the products of a context, or a milieu, far more than a single mind. Applied to other fields, New Historicism tends to stress the subjective nature of all knowledge. But it is beyond dispute that the work of Foucault was highly influential among its practitioners.

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Michel Foucault was an influential thinker who rose to prominence in the mid-twentieth century. Many academic circles credit him with laying the foundation upon which the New Historicism movement was built.

In the 1950s, Foucault began arguing the importance of recognizing that each cultural epoch has its own structures of thoughts and societal norms, which shape the actions of individuals living in that time frame. Foucault applied his guiding philosophy to the study of things like power, epistemology, and subjectivity. Foucault is important to New Historicism because his ideas are often credited as the inspiration for the entire field of study.

New Historicism started being seriously studied in the early 1980s. As a practice of literary theory, it attempts to understand the history of intellectualism through literature. One of its key philosophies is that every act within a piece of literature is embedded in a network of societal practices. Thus, a New Historicist would believe that, in order to truly understand a piece of literature, we must first understand the society in which it was created.

The guiding principles of New Historicism have been applied to academic disciplines beyond literature as well. History, governance, and more can all be viewed through a New Historicism perspective. New Historicism is a popular academic movement, and Foucault is often credited as one of its founding fathers.

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Although New Historicism was in large part the work of literary critic Stephan Greenblatt, it was influenced by many others including Marxist and structuralist philosophers.  Michel Foucault's work, including his studies of prisons, were pivotal to this movement in criticism.  In the 1970s he studied the changes in mechanisms of power in the prison environment, including the theory of the panoptican of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English philosopher and reformer.  The panopticon was a theoretical prison structure in which all prisoners could be observed at all times without their certain knowledge of the observation, through means of a circular prison with a central tower and various methods of hiding the observers.  This concept is applied to New Historicism in that the critic sees the literary work and all documents of the time of it's writing as equally important in the understanding of both, and the critic is the observer.  Art imitates life, which imitates art.

Of course Foucault includes the concept of history as a series of mind structures controlled by the power methods of governments.  New Historicism, through Foucault, views criticism and history as dealing with a world with all-seeing and constantly observing Establishments, monolithic structures of state surveillence which perpetuate their power through controlled information permeating societies and nearly totally resistent to change.  It is not merely a somewhat paranoid view of governments, but a theory of the interlinking forces through history which create these establishments, their actions, people's reactions in literature and art, and society's reactions to that art ad infinitum.

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