||Historicism has two main meanings within the humanities and social sciences: (i) critical traditions that insist on the importance of historical context to the interpretation of cultural texts and practices; and (ii) intellectual traditions that assume human history to have an inner logic, overall design or direction (\'telos\').
These two meanings often work against one another: while the first criticizes interpretations that appeal to trans-historical constants, essences or mechanisms (\'human nature\' or \'the\' human subject), the second invokes trans-historical forces to structure its explanations of human \'progress\' (perhaps most clearly in the movement of the world-spirit or Geist found in Hegel\'s philosophical history). In practice, however, the sensitivity to context and the suspicion of trans-historical principles is of much more consequence to contemporary social inquiry: elements of historicism in this sense are activated by hermeneutics and post-structuralism. The appeal of teleology â€” of \'unfolding\' models of social change in which a series of social situations is logically and necessarily derived forwards from the first term in the sequence or backwards from its last term â€” has considerably diminished, and there are few scholars who would now accept that human history is predictable and susceptible to the formulation of universal scientific laws (cf. positivism). When Karl Popper railed against the \'poverty\' of this sense of historicism in 1945, he had a reading of historical materialism as economic determinism squarely in his sights, but modern versions of Marxism offer a much more open-ended view of human history and the spaces for political action and intervention (cf. Popper, 1960).
The importance of historical context and historical specificity is an article of faith in historical geography and underwrote the claim by both D. Whittlesey and H.C. Darby that \'all geography is historical geography\'. Such afirmations were attacked â€” or, rather, ignored â€” by the reconstruction of modern geography as spatial science in the 1960s and 1970s, but the recent formation of a cultural-historical geography with a critical edge has brought much of human geography into engagement with a New Historicism. The parallels have rarely been remarked but they are extremely close.
New Historicism is in fact a label applied to a cluster of approaches to literary and cultural studies which had its origins in the USA in the 1980s. It was most closely associated with Stephen Greenblatt and other scholars who made a series of critical interventions around what they came to call the \'cultural poetics\' of the Renaissance. It is often regarded as an American counterpart to British cultural materialism (Wilson, 1995), but in practice has drawn on a variety of both American and European sources. Among others, New Historicism appeals to the thick description of Clifford Geertz to establish the importance of a close reading of minor events, the re-telling of anecdotes, in such a way that they reveal the larger situations of which they are a part and to which they can be made to speak; the genealogy of Michel Foucault to develop an analytics of power that can resist \'power\'s description of itself\' by looking to the margins and the peripheries of situations; and the historical materialism of Raymond Williams to capture the materiality of cultural formations and their contradictory constitution.
New Historicism has been the subject of considerable critical debate (Veeser, 1989), but its protocols have influenced the close critical reading of colonial discourse (see postcolonialism) and they have much in common with recent work in cultural geography and in the development of what has come to be called a \'contextual\' approach to the history of geography. Finally, it should be noted that when Soja (1989, 1996) objects to \'historicism\' in the humanities and social sciences and proposes a \'spatial critique\' he seems to have in mind simply an aggressive over-valuation of historical explanation and a marginalization, even erasure of a \'spatial imagination\': but there are many practitioners of New Historicism who have little or no problem in attending to both the historicity and the spatiality of their objects of inquiry.Â (DG)
References Hamilton, P. 1996: Historicism. London: Routledge.Â Popper, K. 1960: The poverty of historicism. London: Hutchinson; New York: Harper & Row (first published in 1945).Â Soja, E. 1989: Postmodern geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso.Â Soja, E. 1996: Thirdspace: journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Â Veeser, H.A., ed., 1989: The new historicism. London and New York: Routledge.Â Wilson, S. 1995: Cultural materialism: theory and practice. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Suggested Reading Hamilton (1996), pp. 133-204.Â Soja (1996), pp. 164-83.