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April 26, 2007

Literature, History, Politics

Literature, History, Politics

Catherine Belsey…I think I picked the wrong essay.

Belsey identifies in her essay “Literature, History, Politics” that “to bring these three terms together explicitly is still to scandalize the institution of literary criticism, because it is to propose a relationship between the transcendent (literature), the contingent (history) and the merely strategic (politics)” (428). This, however, is not her claim, but instead the claim of academia, who, she feels, wishes to control he concept of literary criticism as being limited to the author’s intention and the text, without regard to additional outside influence.

“The sole inhabitant of the universe of literature is Eternal Man…whose brooding, feeling presence precedes, determines and transcends history” (428). This notion of the Eternal Man, Belsey feels, is the ideal reader in literary criticism, as it shows itself as constant and static, without the need of temporal change of motives, i.e. history and politics. This Eternal Man, however, is then identified with “the suppression of history with a new and resounding authority. Ironically, Saussure’s analysis of language as a system of differences was invoked to initiate the elimination of all difference” (429).

This analysis, Belsey notes, “permitted Roland Barthes on behalf of anarchism to identify Eternal Man as the product and pivot of bourgeois mythology” (429). In observing this, Belsey has identified that the quintessential example against the inclusion of history was a product of history. The concept of Eternal Man, instead, was a construct of the elite and learned in an ideal and unrealistic sense.

Belsey even goes on to note that as “linguistic habits alter, cultures are transformed. Difference, history, change reappear. (429). This begins to form her argument that history, and therefore politics, are able to mutate from generation and literary era to the next as the means by which stories are told change. As the linguistic approach is modified, so, too, is the meaning and inherent source behind the meaning.

Belsey then goes on to discuss the various issues surrounding the politics of literature, invoking the then-American President Ronald Reagan. “While the American Deconstructionists play, Reagan is preparing to reduce us all to radioactive rubble to preserve our freedom. The control of meanings – of freedom, democracy, the American way of life – the control of these meanings is political power, but it is a mistake to suppose that the abolition of the signified is the abolition of power” (430).

This idea that literature endures exclusive of its surroundings seems absurd to many of us, even Belsey claims that we are in “a history of the forms in which people become conscious of their differences and begin to fight them out.” Let’s take a moment and look at these two ideas. That history and literature are mutually exclusive of one another, and that people are awakening to the notion of differences betwixt one another. Even though Belsey wrote this essay in 1983 (even before I was alive, mind you), can it be applied to today? What connections can be made between the two?

There are, of course, various new forms of literature, such as Harry Turtledove’s novels which are of an alternate history and novels about the impending zombie war. But there are also works which directly relate to the differences in cultures which we have been told, for a long time, didn’t exist in literature.

Belsey claims that “representative experience is understood to be whatever a lot of people said they felt, and it is held to be the origin of, and to issue in, representative behaviour” (431). Her argument then moves on to identify that we, as readers, experience “a different history of the family, sex, and marriage. This is the history not of an irrecoverable experience, but of meanings” (432). This is where new-historicism finds its roots, in the ever changing definitions of certain social and society constructs. The institution of marriage has changed progressively since its inception. In centuries past, marriage was determined by arrangement of political power or wealth, not love. Marriage then became about love (as well as holding on to some of the previous beliefs, such as name and bloodline), and now has moved into a realm being explored – can “marriage” exist between two men or two women, instead of a pairing of one of each?

We will not allow this to become an ideological debate, but it is a notion to consider. Belsey admits that until this point she has had little to show involving literature. She claims that we must identify “literature as distinct from its residue, popular fiction” (432). She then insists that we “replace the quest for value by an ‘analysis of the social contestation of value’” (432). In establishing that we must search for the social value, Belsey clearly sates that “the effect of this project, in other words, is to decenter literary criticism, to displace “the text,” the “primary material,’ from its authoritative position at the heart of the syllabus, to dislodge the belief in the close reading of the text as the critic’s essential and indispensable skill” (432).

Belsey concludes in noting that “What is to be read closely is criticism, official reports on the teaching of English, examination papers, and all the other discursive displays of institutional power” (432).

Dave became a living example of the new historicism, insofar that he connected Belsey’s essay and her points about deconstructionists and their absurdist beliefs being naïve to the song “Land of Confusion” by Genesis, a political satire during it’s time.

Erin identified this notion of taking a pre-existing knowledge into a text as all of us, the readers, being “potters at the wheel” which presents the readers with more “hope than just settling for ideologies smushed into literature.”

Mitchell raises an interesting series of questions, though, by asking “Why is it so wrong to look at the work without an outside presence. IS the work not worthy to stand alone without a footnote as to the significance of it. I like to think that a work is worthy of that task and can complete it.”

Vanessa even went so far as to ask “Was this an argument that history and politics are more important or influential than literature?” Well, what do you think?

It is not that that Belsey simply wanted to say that new historicism was the only way to go, it was that she said it couldn’t be ignored because everything is temporal and the definitions of things change. It wasn’t to state that history and politics are more important than literature, but instead equally as important, though different.

Posted by KevinMcGinnis at April 26, 2007 4:20 PM


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