History in Bits
This is an expanded version of a paper that was given at the conference After the New Historicism, organised by Steve Clark for the Centre for English Studies, and held at the Clore Centre, Birkbeck College, 13-14 March 1998. A print version appears in REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 17 (2001), ‘Literary History/Cultural History’, ed. Herbert Grabes, pp. 311-23. The paper asks whether new historicism needs a strong theory of what it is doing to do it most effectively and decides that it doesn’t. It says that the most important promise of new historicism lies in the kinds of historical practices it invents and imagines, rather than in the account that it gives of those practices.
Coming to Bits
There are several ways in which the new historicism may be said to come to bits. First of all, it comes to bits in its deliberated happening upon the bittiness of the world. Against the formalism and aestheticism of a literary tradition associated with heroic integration, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that new historicist critics `have been more interested in unresolved conflict and contradiction than in integration; they are as concerned with the margins as with the centre; and they have turned from a celebration of achieved aesthetic order to an exploration of the ideological and material bases for the production of this order’.  The writing of history has been said to involve a necessary acknowledgement of the gratuity and intermittence of the way things happen to have happened.
This desire to represent the arbitrariness rather than the necessity of the past has also been accompanied by a new sense of the complexity of the encounter between the historical period under investigation and the period of the historian. New historicism sees the act of writing history not as an inheritance, nor a fidelity, but as negotiatiated abrasion. The disjunctive conjunctures between times brought about in the act of writing history parallel the curiously broken conjunctures between discourses and forms of symbolic life discovered by the new historicist in the period that is his or her subject. Instead of large and inclusive explanations, new historicism has often been impelled by a Benjaminian willingness to arrest the flows of history, and to chop into its received continuities. Marjorie Levinson draws – whether as a new historicist or in an effort to be something else I will not here decide – on a hermenutic tradition which allows her to consider the nature of the epochal conjunctures between times brought about by new historicism in its practice as well as the complex synchronic conjunctures that typically form its subject.
We define the structure of the past as an absent cause promoting a range of effects that, at a certain historical moment, configurate with an origin to which they are related by difference and distance. At that moment, which we regard as a unique opportunity for critical translation – the origin coalesces as a structure, one which is really, suddenly, there in the past, but only by the retroactive practice of the present. Our totalizing act thereby becomes part of the movement by which history continually reorganizes itself. Even as we wait upon the real development of that history as the sufficient condition for our critical acts, these acts also hasten that development. That is why we really are part of the object that we study, subject to the changes that our study effects. 
Such an encounter is supposed to be both finite and open; it reestablishes the possibility of meaningfully successive history only in a form of an `epochal relatedness’ which is conjured from within history itself, from within one’s situated, partial perspectives, rather from some imaginary position outside history, or beyond its imaginary end. History is unbroken, but is made up of discontinuities, flaws and faultlines (it is unbroken because it is made up of discontinuities; its discontinuities are what hold it together). So new historicism finds bittiness in its subject and in the mode of its encounter with its subject. The next section deals with the ways in which it also comes apart from its own purposes or theoretical self-understanding.
Not Knowing What You’re Doing
The resolve, characteristic of new historicism, to acknowledge or embrace one’s condition of historical partiality (in both senses) has encountered two contrasting forms of philosophical challenge, that I am going to use the arguments of Christopher Norris and Stanley Fish to exemplify. Christopher Norris sees in new historicism’s disposition to see the past as other, and its professed and displayed willingness to tolerate and itself to proliferate different ways of being human, a performative self- contradiction. A performative self-contradiction is a contradiction between your articulated and your implicit purposes, between what you say you are up to in doing what you do and what you have to assume you are up to in order to do it at all. For Norris, such a relation of contradiction obtains between the sustaining belief in the possibility of shared experience and value across regimes of thought and representation, and a practice that claims to have discarded such beliefs as sentimental, or appropriative, or downright oppressive.
With the New Historicists, like Foucault before them, the normative dimension is everywhere manifest in their will to redeem the long history of oppression inflicted upon subject peoples, sexual minorities, `deviant’ sub-groups, victims of coercive (psychiatric or penal) institutions, etc. Yet their theorizing offers absolutely no basis for any such principled ethical stance. Indeed it cuts away the very grounds of judgment by asserting that history is entirely a product of textual or discursive representation, that subjects are likewise constructed in language (along with all categories of knowledge and experience), and hence – as Lyotard would have it – that we commit a wrong, an infraction of the narrative differend, by presuming to speak on the other’s behalf, or by invoking ideas of truth and justice that would somehow transcend this condition of absolute alterity. 
What I want to isolate from Norris’s account is its own sustaining assumption – which is of course not implicit at all, but fully and self-consciously announced – that an historical enterprise, or any enterprise at all, which is characterised by such performative self-contradiction, must thereby be rendered rickety and unreliable. I think that what Norris wants is for the new historicism literally to pull itself together; to acknowledge its performative self-contradiction in order to escape it.
For Norris, new historicism is vulnerable to attack, because it does not sufficiently know what it is doing. One response to this would be to observe that Norris appears not to have read, or to be unable to recognise when he does read it, all the work in which new historicists reflect upon precisely these exquisite difficulties of self-contradiction. It is not that new historicists do not recognise contradiction, it is rather, perhaps that new historicists do not draw from the recognition of this contradiction the same lesson that Norris draws.
New historicism has also come under challenge by Stanley Fish, but from seemingly the opposite point of view. Where Norris finds new historicism insufficiently self-aware, Fish finds it excessively so. Curiously, and unexpectedly, though, Fish, like Norris, relies upon an exposure of self-contradiction.
Bertrand Russell once remarked approvingly of theoretical mathematics that it was an intellectual proceeding in which we literally do not know what we are talking about. I want, partly with and partly against Fish, to ask whether history need necessarily be the kind of intellectual practice in which we literally do not know, or need not know what we’re doing; whether knowing what we’re doing is desirable either in itself, or as a way of ensuring that we do what we do better. At stake, as Stanley Fish has insisted throughout his recent writings, is an ideal of the unity of intellectual enterprise; a wish to believe that it is not only useful but also necessary to be able to monitor our own performance theoretically; that our theory and our practice should sing the same song, rather than pulling us apart.
Fish’s argument is much simpler to set out than to get shut of. It is that `the insight of historicity – of the fashioned or constructed nature of all forms of thought and organization – is too powerful a weapon for those who appropriate it to attack the projects of others; for it turns against them when they attempt to place their own project on a footing that is different…Left critical theory… [is in the condition of] acknowledging as inescapable the condition of historicity, but claiming nevertheless to have escaped it.’  Taken not as a loose ensemble of related habits and idioms, but as a kind of general claim about the ways in which it is appropriate to read and reread the past, new historicism can seem to offer the possibility of rotating the predicament of one’s historicity into a kind of epistemological prerogative, finding an expansion of vision from the historicist awareness of the necessary limitation of perspective. In an essay written as an afterword for the volume The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York and London: Routledge, 1989, Fish scorns the idea that there could be `a general faculty, a distinct muscle of the spirit or mind whose exercise leads not to an alternative plan of directed action but to a plan (if that is the word) to be directionless, to refuse direction, to resist the drawing of lines, to perform multiplicity and provisionality’. 
1. Can you at once assert the textuality of history and make specific and positive historical arguments?
2. Can you make specific and historical arguments that follow from – have the form they do as a consequence of – the assertion that history is textual? 
Fish’s answer to the first question is a round and serene yes; his answer to the second is a robust and obstinate no. The answer to the first question is yes, because Fish turns the `at once’ in the formula `Can you at once…?’ into mere temporal coincidence as opposed to logical codependency. `The two actions – asserting the textuality of history and making specific historical argument – have nothing to do with one another. They are actions in different practices, moves in different games’.  You can do these two things at once, in the same way as you can say a poem to yourself as you drive to work. What you cannot do, or cannot legitimately do (but who says so, whose legitimacy is this?), is to allow or even expect the one action to define or determine the other. There is just no significant relationship between saying poetry and driving. Were I to write a best-selling driving manual in hexameters, such a relation could, of course, come to obtain; but, in Fish’s view, this would not count as an example of some new or newly disclosed causative or consequential connection between poetry and driving, since in order to exert an influence upon driving practices, for good or for ill, my poem in hexameters would already have to have crossed over from the language game of poetry to the language game of, shall we say, vehicular pedagogics. Fish insists that history, and the practice of writing history, are both more discontinuous than new historicists themselves acknowledge. His theory is anticipated by Buck Mulligan’s joke told about the old woman congratulating herself on the strength of her tea at the beginning of Ulysses: `When I makes tea, I makes tea. And when I makes water, I makes water.’ (God send, Mrs. Grogan, that you don’t make them in the same pot)’ For Fish, when the critic does history he does history and when he does theory he does theory.
Fish’s arguments seem both to bank on and be betrayed by his extraordinary account of the process of change. In one sense, the principle of change is vital; we can register the force of the conditions obtaining within particular disciplines and between different periods by looking to other times and places when such conditions were not operative. But, although he insists on the fact of historical changeability, Fish seems to have no satisfactory way of accounting for the passage from one set of assumptions to another. Instead, he offers a view of the discipline of history and of the history of disciplines as a kind of catastrophic automatism, in which one is softly and suddenly abducted from one wholly determining set of disciplinary assumptions by another, with no memory of or way of establishing continuity with one’s previous life. In the land of the always- already, there are no links, transitions or half-way houses; nor yet any shifts of conceptual level or slow stirrings of self- consciousness. Fish is at his sinuous best in puncturing the grandiose wholehoggery of certain versions of the interdisciplinary imperative; but his sternly allergic response to the mixed, the partial and the imperfect in intellectual and professional life, and his insistence on being able to see all the way round the condition of never being able to see round one’s determining conditions, give his own arguments an integrity that is itself curiously autistic.
Another problem with Fish’s argument might be that it seems to overrate its own implications. If it is not only not necessary, but also not possible to know what you’re doing, to be master of your own motives and actions and implications, then what is the force of the critique that Fish mounts, which is precisely a critique founded on the principle that we should know what we’re doing (we should know, and presumably derive some epistemological edge from knowing, that we never really know in the round what we’re doing). Why, for instance, does Fish not say that, since we cannot anyway know what we’re doing, there is no harm in our pretending that we do, or thinking that we do when we don’t? Actually, Fish does come close to saying something like this, when he argues that we need `theory talk’ to engage our interests, forge intellectual solidarity, buck ourselves up generally – though not in any significant way to guide or orientate our practice. If we really do not know what we’re doing, how can we be certain that we don’t, even by accident? Fish wishes to deny others the advantage of knowing what they are doing, but does not himself wish to surrender the advantage which apparently accrues to knowing that we don’t know what we’re doing.
The strangest thing about Fish’s argument is his insistence on keeping language games, communities of understanding and disciplinary modes of functioning so sharply quarantined from each other. When he prohibits the mingling or interference between these games and frames, he relies upon just the kind of general faculty of discernment that the theory of the multiple determinations of games and frames is supposed to disallow. Besides which, he also emphasises one aspect of these games and frames, namely their conservative tendency to self-replication, at the expense of others. If the games and frames of discourse are contraining, they are also productive, of movement and self- transformation. One of the rules of functioning of driving – or, as I think I would currently prefer to say, one of its phenomenological conditions -is that it includes the possibility of absorbing or itself being absorbed in other kinds of practice – to the extent of being dangerously interefered with. You can’t not be in two places at once when you are in a car. There is a sense in which driving includes poetry, or includes its potential inclusion of poetry. Correspondingly one of the rules of functioning of poetry is that it can wrap itself round or thread itself through other kinds of activity (marching, singing, philosophical reflection, and so on). Overall, we could do with a less two-dimensional and more topological way of conceiving the distinctions between realms of discourse and ways of behaving. [But does new historicism have a strong theoretical self-image?]
Remembering to Forget
Fish suggests that forgetting is an action of the critical and historical mind that is less culpable than is often thought. One could say that forgetfulness – in terms of the separation of actual practices and historical theory – is necessary and inescapable. Fish might seem to be arguing for naive empiricism, a form of historical enquiry that would forget to remember its own theoretical principles; in fact, he is urging something a little more complicated and, in his own terms, more dubious than this, namely that we should continuously remember to forget the contradictions between practice and theory. It is in this respect that Fish can be seen, not as arguing against metahistorical and metacritical competence, but finessing a more sophisticated form of it.
There is a curious and significant parallel between Fish’s wish to keep hold of, or retain acknowledgement of the difference between practice and theory (which is anyway just a difference between different kinds of practice) and the very different claims made by Jean-François Lyotard concerning the need to remain philosophically open to the indeterminacy of what he calls the event. What Lyotard calls an event is, of course, almost exactly the reverse of what an historian tends to mean by this term. For an historian, an event is something that has happened, which is to say, something that has attained a kind of definiteness and visibility. Thus, Nelson’s death at Trafalgar is an event; Nelson’s premonitory dream of his own death the night before the battle is not an event, though, of course, it would be, had he confided the details to his diary, or his dresser, such that the dream would have come to have a significance in the light of the events of the battle, or in terms of the stories told about Nelson’s participation in it. Even now, were a diary to be discovered which reported such a dream, it could still attain the status of an historical event. For Lyotard, an event is something that has not yet happened, has not yet hardened into form, significance or consequence; has not yet become representable, interpretable, historical. It is the business of a postmodernist avant-garde practice, Lyotard says, to bear witness to the incommensurability of events and their understandings. Avant-garde practice (the practice of modernism before it becomes modernism, a practice that qualifies modernism as exactly the kind of indeterminate, or not-yet-determined event that Lyotard has in mind) inhabits what Lyotard calls the future anterior, seeking to discover the rules of what will have happened.
What interests me in Lyotard’s formulation is that it adds a temporal dimension to an argument that rarely has such dimension. It seems to me that this openness to elapsing and emergence is a feature that is missing from many new historicist encounters with the past, or accounts of such encounters. Coming to bits, or remaining in bits, means refusing the spurious syntheses of the absolute self-coincidence that believes itself to be able to balance all, bring all to mind. The answer to the question `What are the ethical and political implications of your practice?’ is not `That will depend upon the nature of the language-game, interpretive community, institutional conditions etc, in which my practice functions'; and the answer to the question `What is the significance of the encounter between the historical period that you are investigating and your investigation itself?’ is not `Well, let me take a look at my political investments and see how they are encouraged or discouraged by the historical material I am investigating’. Nor is the answer `given the way things stand at the moment, there are in principle no meaningful connections with the ethical and the political.’ The answer to both questions is more simply, and more alarmingly, `Call round later’. (`We know what we do, and we know why we do it’ says Michel Foucault. `But we do not know what what we do does.’ This is a question that can safely be left to the angels.)
Thus, to appear to proscribe in advance and in principle the development of any kind of consequential links between different forms of practice or discourse is to exercise the same kind of wholehoggery as to attempt to prescribe in advance precisely the kind of consequential links one is prepared to recognise. It is not surprising that people read Fish as saying that it is not only strategically unwise to try to conduct serious politics through the exercise of literary and cultural theory (given the actual lack of significant connections between these realms), but also foolish to expect that these realms or frames of activity could ever start to approach or leak into each other. For Fish is more inclined than he needs to be to let snapshot positions substitute for the evolving topology of his arguments. It is a mistake to assume that, since Fish’s arguments do not give us a way of lifting or fast-forwarding ourselves out of time, they leave us merely putting up with the way things are, or listlessly hanging around waiting to see how they are going to turn out.
Tales of the Unexpected
I want to project some of the kinds of history that become possible, not as a fulfilment of any announced or presumptive new historicist programme, but as a response to some of what new historicism has done. Typically, accounts of what new historicism is and does will point to its characteristic willingness to attend to a wide range of different kinds of historical evidence. New historicists, we are told, do not allow the literary text to exist radiantly and autotelically on its own terms. For the new historicism, literary texts are not a special form of textuality; they are part of a web of cultural practices of representation and self-representation; meaning is derived from the interplay and negotiation between different forms of textuality and the forms of social energy that they embody. Here, nearly every characterisation of the new historicism will resort to a list, which is meant to be exemplary of miscellaneity itself. Literary texts, we hear, are read alongside sermons, witchcraft trials, dreams, medical writings, criminal ballads, legal disquisitions, and so on, infinitely.
Miscellaneity goes along in popular accounts of the new historicism with the use of the anecdote. Paul Hamilton characterises the use of the anecdote in terms of its unsettling power:
Discourses of the body, of medicine, exorcism, conduct and other archives of a purely anthropological character provide anecdotally interpretative moments with which to skew the reading a tragedy, comedy, or epic ostensibly demands. The more anecdotal the critical intervention, the more likely its chances of evoking the arbitrariness which history disguises in the uniformity of narrative. 
Decentring, in other words, can begin to look like deregulation…this democratizing gesture, which rejects the Elizabethan and Jacobean use of art to mystify power, can be seen to mime the hegemonies contemporary with Greenblatt’s own writing, Reagonomics and Thatcherism.
The implication here, once again, is that to have failed to escape the determinations of one’s own epoch would be a failure of knowledge and self-control. Louis Montrose is also made nervous by the practice of anecdote in new historicism, and concedes some ground to the objections of critics like Walter Cohen and Dominick LaCapra that this can lead to facile juxtapositions, unmotivated montage or simple free association; new historicism has been susceptible to such reponses, says Louis Montrose `because it has freqently failed to theorize its method or its model of culture in any sustained way’.  For both Hamilton and Montrose, the anecdotal is a moment of danger, a chink in the historicist’s self-possession.
Kiernan Ryan, by contrast, sees the opposite danger in the anecdotal impulse of the new historicism: the use of the anecdote is meant to demonstrate the force of the unassimilated but always ends up demonstrating the entrapping force of what it is assimilated to:
Apart from exuding an antiquarian whiff of authenticity, the anecdote signals the critic’s commitment to local rather than global knowledge, to petits as opposed to grand r‚cits. As a strategy of estrangement the anecdote works admirably at first, forcing readers to drop their stale assumptions about books and backgrounds, and confront the work and its world afresh in all their idiosyncrasy. But in the end the eccentric anecdote repeatedly turns out to be a synecdoche, an exemplary illustration of a pervasive cultural logic, which even the wildest imaginations of the age are powerless to escape. 
The thematics of dissidence and containment are themselves part of what Ryan calls a `remorselessly diagnostic attitude’ (p. xvii). But of course Ryan’s objection belongs to the same diagnostic paradigm. If the only question that one can ask is how far this or that apparently irregular practice shores up or resists regimes of power, then the answer is always given in advance by the form of the question. If one asks another kind of question, there might be other kinds of answer.
The answer to both of these forms of objection might be a history that set out to provide tales of the unexpected without having a strong plan for the function of such unexpectedness. A history in bits may not need to perform like the party bore who keeps telling you stories that show how completely crazy he is, or how drunk he was at the time. This may mean a different kind of remembering to forget, a different way of allowing onself to suspend the question of whether one’s topic of investigation is indeed hegemonic or marginal, or whether it tends to the consolidation or the decentring of power.
I have recently become interested in fostering, and imagining a form of historical attention that, if one were being theoretical, by which I really mean doing publicity, could be called cultural phenomenology. Being given the opportunity to reflect on the efflorescence and aftermath of new historicism has made me see how much my ambition and curiosity owes to those moments of unzipping in which new historicism suddenly lights, with a wild surmise, upon an entire range of writings and practices that have previously been seen as nothing but background evidence, raw material or subsidiary exemplification in the production of long-range, large-scale histories. I think that what will turn out to have mattered about the new historicism will have been the temper, texture and rhythm of its absorption in its materials (though that prediction does not form the basis of my own arguments or recommendations here – I am not giving share advice). I have suggested that cultural phenomenology – a term which I make no claim to have invented – is a good name for the work I have in mind because it would inherit from the phenomenological tradition a desire to articulate the worldliness and embodiedness of experience – the in-the-worldness of all existence, while also remaining alive to the collective or shared conditions of making that constitute that in-the-worldness. Cultural phenomenology would at times be a history of the everyday, but not programmatically of the everyday; it would try to do without the category of everydayness. It would certainly be a history that was drawn to the unintegrated or unassimilated, but would not be congratulating itself all the time about its zaniness, or for its daring demotion of the authority of the literary text (new historicists and their interpreters need to remember that they are vastly outnumbered by people who are entirely untrammelled by any considerations of the transcendental authority of the literary text). It would not, like new historicism, try to define a category of the noncategorial. It would probably have to be a history that was much less concerned with integrating its practice with its outcomes, less laced together by feedback loops and self-monitoring.
This makes it difficult to specify in advance, and in total, what a history of bits, a history of the bittiness of things might be concerned with. If I give a list of some of the topics that historical phenomenology might well concern itself with, it is not in order to have you guess at the essential features that underlie all these different items in the list. It is to help you and me to imagine the kinds of substances, habits, organs, obsessions, pathologies, processes and affective forms to which historical attention might well be paid. If, like Marina Warner, you become interested in a history of bananas, such a history would have to include the ludicrous along with the dignified, since the meaning of the banana is, or has become, the ludicrous itself. I leave you to imagine the strange and striking ensemble of arguments about the economics of slavery, the theology and sexuality of food, the relationship between ridicule, hostility and fear, and so on, that such an investigation might require or provoke. If you are interested as I am in a history of skin, or an historical investigation of topics like malediction, miniaturisation, luck, disgust, remote control, gossip or pop-up books, (here is an amplified curriculum of the kind of subjects that cultural phenomenology might be drawn to) you are going to have to be prepared to cultivate a similar kind of willingness to improvise.
Writing in Bits
The generalised awareness of the importance of the writtenness of history, the importance of trope and narrative and textuality has had a surprising lack of effect on the actual forms in which history gets written. Despite its attention to the density, the actuality and the gratuity of the social word in all its forms, the new historicism, like history in general, proclaims in its own practice that it believes in the absolute transparency of its word, in the absolute power of a particular form of writing – the academic book or article – to embody historical truth. Given the invigorating sensitivity to the different ways in which cultures are made and negotiated in different forms of writing and symbolic expression, this apparent faith in the forms in which history happens currently to have to be written is intriguing, to say the least. The insight into the textuality of history leads has done nothing to discompose the tranquil consensus that history is bibliomorphic. It may be that a history in bytes will start to offers advantages over a history in bits conducted in the usual bibliographic forms, for example by making it easier to correlate texts and commentary, or to create more various ensembles of visual and auditory material; it may be that this will happen, though I wouldn’t bet on it in the short term. But I do find myself imagining a history that could be written in different ways, not instead of but as well as the ways in which it currently gets written.
I characterise all this a disposition rather than a programme. I am not inclined to try to specify in advance the full range of possibilities and outcomes of such thinking and writing. Nor – and this is the point which I have had the most difficulty in getting people to believe – am I arguing that what I call cultural phenomenology is the only or the best kind of historical research that cultural or literary historians, or historians in general should be undertaking. I lay a wager, that it would give me great pleasure to lose, that I will not be able to persuade you to believe me when I tell you that I am not recommending that you do cultural phenomenology all the time, or abandon every other kind of history in order to devote yourself to it. It’s a ravelling, a concavity; a loophole, not a lifeline.
1. Stephen Greenblatt, `Resonance and Wonder’, in New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: A Reader, ed. Kiernan Ryan (London: Edward Arnold, 1996), p. 59. Back to Text
2. Marjorie Levinson, `The New Historicism: Back to the Future’, in Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, Jerome McGann and Paul Hamilton, Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 23. Back to Text
3. Christopher Norris, Truth and the Ethics of Criticism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 54. Back to Text
4. Stanley Fish, `Critical Self-Consciousness, or, Can We Know What We’re Doing?’, in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 455, 456. Back to Text
5. Stanley Fish, `The Young and the Restless’, in There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech And It’s A Good Thing, Too (New York and Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 251. Back to Text
6. Ibid, pp. 247-8. Back to Text
7. Ibid, p. 248. Back to Text
8. Paul Hamilton, Historicism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 169. Back to Text
9. Ibid. Back to Text
10. Louis Montrose, `New Historicisms’, in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992), p. 400. Back to Text
11. Kiernan Ryan, `Introduction’, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism: A Reader, p. xvii. Back to Text