literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical and cultural texts
The following questions are intended to summarize approaches to literary analysis employed by new historicists and cultural critics. In the terminology of cultural criticism, these questions offer us ways to examine the cultural work performed by literary texts.
As you read these questions and imagine the ways in which a new historical or cultural critic might address them, keep in mind that, for such critics, no historical event, artifact, or ideology can be completely understood in isolation from the innumerable historical events, artifacts, and ideologies among which it circulates, and our own cultural experience inevitably influences our perceptions, making true objectivity impossible. For we can use new historical and cultural criticism properly only if we keep clearly in mind that our analysis is always incomplete, partial, and our perspective is always sub‑ jective. We can’t stand outside our own culture and analyze texts from an objec‑ tive vantage point. We can write only from within our own historical moment.
1. How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other his‑ torical and cultural texts from the same period, for example, penal codes, birthing practices, educational priorities, the treatment of children under the law, other art forms (including popular art forms), attitudes toward sexuality, and the like? That is, taken as part of a “thick description” of a given culture at a given point in history, what does this literary work add to our tentative understanding of human experience in that particular time and place, including the ways in which individual identity shapes and is shaped by cultural institutions?
2. How can we use a literary work to “map” the interplay of both traditional and subversive discourses circulating in the culture in which that work emerged and/or the cultures in which the work has been interpreted? Put another way, how does the text promote ideologies that support and/or undermine the prevailing power structures of the time and place in which it was written and/or interpreted?
3. Using rhetorical analysis (analysis of a text’s purpose and the stylistic means by which it tries to achieve that purpose), what does the literary text add to our understanding of the ways in which literary and nonliterary discourses (such as political, scientific, economic, and educational theo‑ ries) have influenced, overlapped with, and competed with one another at specific historical moments?
4. What does the literary work suggest about the experience of groups of people who have been ignored, underrepresented, or misrepresented by traditional history (for example, laborers, prisoners, women, people of color, lesbians and gay men, children, the insane, and so on)? Keep in mind that new historical and cultural criticism usually include attention to the intersection of the literary work with nonliterary discourses prevalent in the culture in which the work emerged and/or in the cultures in which it has been interpreted and often focus on such issues as the circulation of power and the dynamics of personal and group identity.
5. How has the work’s reception by literary critics and the reading public— including the reception at its point of origin, changing responses to the work overtime, and its possible future relationship with its audience— been shaped by and shaped the cultuiqure in which that reception occurred?