chapter  8
14 Pages

Fables of progression: Modernism, modernity, narrative


By the time that modernist studies witnessed the emergence of a programmatically historical trend, the movement known as New Historicism had long since expanded beyond its initial beachhead in Renaissance studies and had made significant gains in most other areas of literary scholarship. An indication of the lagging response of modernist studies to the New Historicist insurgency is that, over the course of the 1980s, Representations, the journal most closely identified with New Historicism, published only two essays devoted to thoroughly modernist topics.1 It is therefore not surprising that, in the introduction to the 1989 collection The New Historicism-a collection that can be seen to have marked New Historicism’s apex as a theoretically self-reflective movement-the editor, H. Aram Veeser, does not so much as allude to modernism. Nor is it surprising that Jane Marcus, the one contributor who engages directly with modernism, is concerned less with the impact of New Historicism on modernist studies than with its impact on feminist studies. At the moment of New Historicism’s peak, modernism seemed hopelessly far from the red-hot center of critical inquiry. Yet subsequent developments make it apparent that modernist studies is one of the areas in which New Historicism has had its most enduring impact. This impact, however, has encouraged the rejection not only of the theoretical dimension of New Historicism but also of the very idea of theory as a legitimate basis for literary interpretation. This reversion to the norms of scholarly conservatism, though widespread

throughout literary studies, has had a particularly damaging effect on modernist studies, a field that stands in an unusually intimate relation to the questions associated with critical theory. Even if we limit ourselves to a narrowly conservative view of the history of ideas, we are compelled to include, in the matrix of modernism, the writings of Freud, Weber, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, Benjamin, and Mannheim. How could anyone deny the pertinence of theory to a field that is thus implicated in more or less the same network of concerns that can be found in the work of such formidable French theorists as Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Althusser, and Lyotard? And yet, in the present climate, writings on modernism that accord a prominent place to theory tend to be treated as anachronistic.2 Exceptions, it is true, are sometimes made for writings in which the theoretical elements are subordinated to a historical framework, and in which

there is a self-abnegating reverence for fact. But theory is regularly ignored when most needed: that is, in those cases in which, in the pursuit of an enhanced sense of verisimilitude, there is an uncritical fetishization of factual data and diachronic contiguity. The desire to tell lucid stories with orderly beginnings, middles, and endings has all but supplanted the desire to engage with the uncanniness and uncertainty that arise from sustained theoretical reflection on the hermeneutics of literary interpretation. Marcus’s contribution to Veeser’s 1989 collection can be seen to provide an

early illustration of the way in which anti-theoretical stances have regularly been justified using the surprising claim that, in abandoning the notion that truth is absolute and essential, we simultaneously abandon all hope of effecting social change. Adopting a stance that reflects the broader backlash against theory that, by the late 1980s, was already gathering momentum, Marcus attacks the New Historicism for being excessively invested in what she terms “the postmodern suspicion of ‘truth value’” (Marcus 1989: 133). As vindication for her claims regarding the nihilistic tendencies of “the postmodern intellectual,” Marcus points to “the recent revelations about the anti-Semitic and collaborationist essays written by the late Yale critic, Paul de Man, in Belgium during the Second World War” (Marcus 1989: 132). Blurring a variety of conceptual and institutional distinctions, Marcus produces an ideology critique in which Sandra Gilbert-a feminist scholar who is not a New Historicist-is treated as the prime example of how “[f]eminist versions of New Historicism” are tainted by “presentist concerns” (Marcus 1989: 133). In her focus on the alleged betrayal of historical truth, Marcus directly anticipates

how an anti-theoretical set of historical impulses would come to attain hegemonic status within modernist studies. She rejects the interpretive skepticism associated with the theoretical dimension of the New Historicism. Using the specter of de Man to ascribe sinister, reactionary motives to those who indulge in “an insecurity about human agency over language” (Marcus 1989: 132), she complains that “New Historicism plays with history to enhance the text” (Marcus 1989: 133). Yet, citing in a laudatory way “[t]he reprinting of women’s novels about World War I,” she encourages the material recovery of archival materials that ostensibly enable “historians to answer historicists” (Marcus 1989: 148). Marcus dubiously assumes that the answer to historicist skepticism can be found in a faithful resuscitation of texts and documents whose testimonial authenticity lets us circumvent the constraints of interpretive mediation. In thus envisioning a form of historical reconstruction that would bracket out the epistemological distractions of historicism, she ignores the extent to which, as Hayden White notes elsewhere in Veeser’s collection, “there is no such thing as a specifically historical approach to the study of history, but a variety of such approaches” (White 1989: 302). Marcus voices a desire for a way of narrating history that, by abolishing the need to theorize the conditions of historical knowledge, would allow unmediated access to factual historical experience. With the best intentions, she contributes to the intellectually conservative turn toward history and away from theory that, by the early 1990s, set the dominant tone for modernist studies.