English 250

Research Seminar: The Limits of Historicism

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2016 Best, Stephen M.
Tues. 3:30-6:30 115 Barrows

Book List

Bennett, Jane: Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things; Hartman, Saidiya: Lose Your Mother; Liu, Alan: Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database; Love, Heather: Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History; Morrison, Toni: A Mercy


Fredric Jameson famously enjoined critics to “Always historicize!,” and while many responded by committing to ideology critique and the project of demystification, of late a number have sought to satisfy the imperative by “practic[ing] the principles of the craft in full awareness of their poverty” (Constantin Fasolt, The Limits of History).  This course will take a particular interest in this more recent response: the paradox of satisfying the historicist imperative through methods consciously intended to moderate, discount, and contain historical ambition.  Our conversations will center around recent interventions in the fields of queer theory, African-American literature/slavery studies, and postcolonial theory, asking what it is about the objects and archives in these fields that have led to the raising once again of the question of the limits of historicism.  We will focus on a range of methodological experiments in these fields including queer anti-historicism and the elucidation of queer time, the affective turn and critical melancholy, deep time and the new incrementalism (scaling up versus scaling down), objects and the new materialism, and surface reading.

As this is a course on method, we will begin by trying to define what historicism is, whether it is a method or has affinities for certain methods.  We will survey specific attempts to posit a relation between the literary and the historical (e.g., New Historicist anecdotalism, Foucauldian genealogy, metahistory) and will also compare a recent string of “ends of history” special issues (in American Literary History, New Literary History, Representations, and Victorian Studies) to previous debates regarding historical criticism.  The course will consider “the long nineteenth century” in relation to what the critics Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan term the “nineteenthcentricity” of the current moment of critical historicist reflection.  Students will be encouraged to think comparatively about their own fields and to consider the various “nineteenth centuries” in literary history – i.e., Victorian and American nineteenth centuries of archival abundance and an African American nineteenth century of relative archival scarcity.  How do new archives change our sense of what historicism is or does?  Should historicist methods be applied differently to different archives?  To different ethnic literatures?  Does the degraded archive of slavery (a literature forged under duress) continue to call for the “suspicious” modes of 1980s historicism?  Do the minor, the lost, and the left aside require a commitment to recovery?  We will seek answers in some recent examples of minoritized historiography that proffer alternatives to the narrative of retrieval, ones that attempt to grapple with the stubborn negativity of the past (Love, Feeling Backward), the ambition and failure to unearth what others haven’t (Hartman, Lose Your Mother), and the recognition that sexuality may be an impossible object within the colonial archive (Arondekar, For the Record).

Readings by Anjali Arondekar, Ian Baucom, Lauren Berlant, Georges Didi-Huberman, Rita Felski, Joel Fineman, Michel Foucault, Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Saidiya Hartman, Heather Love, Walter Benn Michaels, Friedrich Nietzsche, David Scott, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Valerie Traub, and Kenneth Warren, among others.

This course satisfies the Group 6 (Non-historical) requirement.

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