Death of the Critic

New Historicism

Written by: Tom Blaich

As this site moves forward and we begin to introduce more complex topics it will become useful for us to give a primer in some of the themes and ideas that we are talking about. We've done a little bit of this already, but we will be digging in a little deeper into the topics in question. Death of the Critic is, at its heart, a critical website where we try to take a deeper look at different aspects of media. From movies to games to music and more, we aim to enhance the discussion around media in order to deepen our knowledge and understanding.

Let’s talk about schools of theory. When we critique, frequently we do so through a specific lens. Works can have a lot of meaning hidden deep within them, and if we aimed to fully analyze a book, movie, or game, we could easily fill an entire book. So we use these schools of theory as a way to focus in on one particular area of a work. This helps us hone in on a specific idea and expand upon it more fully than if we had tried to do a very broad reading. By centering on one aspect, the analysis becomes more clear and focused.

In many ways, New Historicism is the exact opposite of New Criticism. New Criticism sought to look at a text, and nothing else, and see how its form affected its meaning. New Historicism, on the other hand, looks at a text as a historical document that can be used to glean valuable information about the time in which it was written. It is a study of context, and the marriage of these two styles led directly to the creation of many of the popular schools of criticism that are frequently used today. It’s a sociological way of looking at a text instead of a scientific one.

A New Historicist critic would look at a piece of work to see how it reflected the time in which it was created. In this way, texts became time capsules of ages gone by. How characters interact, dress, speak, and act can all give us valuable clues about the social norms of the time of the text’s creation. For example, if you were to examine literature from 1860 and 2016 side by side, the way in which minority characters are treated would be entirely different. So many advances have been made since then that texts from the 1860’s and now reflect different cultures.

The same can be said of film from the early 20th century to the movies that are created today. Everything from subject matter to who was cast in what role has changed, and the increasing diversity throughout the industry would give future critics hints as to what our society might look like.

You can also see it in what is created. Different trends reflect the changing appetite of consumers. This year, superhero movies are popular and horror films are less so. But 10 years ago, our tastes were different. We can see how the broad consumer appetite for a genre can go up or down depending on outside factors. When a country is at war, what films are popular? What games are played during an election? When a country goes through a sexual revolution, how does literature change?

This focus was narrowed into many of the schools of theory that we have today. Gender Theory focuses on the interaction between genders, and might ignore financial class conflict. When New Historicism cemented the idea to examine a culture’s history through a text, later schools would use these techniques to explore specific ideas much like how New Critics introduced us to close reading. Through a combinations of these ideas, we were able to delve deeper into our texts.

Suggested Readings

Discipline and Punish - Michel Foucault
Modern Literary Theory: A Reader - P. Rice and P. Waugh
New Historicism Explained - W. Hedges


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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