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David Quint on Structuralism and New Historicism and Theory in General

David Quint, in his estimable book Epic and Empire, argues against the totalizing tendency of much literary theory and criticism of the 20th century. He speaks of poststructuralism and New Historicism but the general argument could apply to any number of other theories as well. (This is, essentially, what I criticized Derrida for doing in his attack on Husserl.)

I register here my methodological distance from, while acknowledging my indebtedness to, a poststructuralist critical practice that, in turning literary studies back toward history, has incorporated the models of structuralist anthropology. In this line of work, which is sometimes broadly called New Historicism, the literary text is one of an array of cultural products that share a single deep structure or mentality.

My reservations about this practice are partly conditioned by the more local explanations I have arrived at concerning epic and its relationship to the political order. In the widely conceived web of intertextual relationships that constitute the structuralist-historicist slice of history—in which all components of the culture are presupposed to develop at more or less the same rate at any historical moment—the literary text seems capable of being linked with almost any other text of the culture, and there appears to be no control to determine the juxtaposition. The text’s own explicit allusive network becomes only one element of this intertextuality, and certainly not a privileged one. Politics, too, the social disposition of coercive power, becomes one more product of this patterned mentality or “poetics.” That is, politics is necessarily aestheticized by the interpreter. It is one thing to acknowledge that power to some degree depends on the manipulation of semiotic and symbolic order—I do, in fact, argue this—but quite another to conflate the two.

Furthermore, attention to synchronous historical relationships can cause the text’s participation in a diachronic literary history to be overlooked.

David Quint, Epic and Empire (14)

Similar points have been made by many critics of such overarching theories, but this is the most compact statement of the critique that I’ve seen, so I thought it deserved quoting. The underlying irony Quint seems to emphasize is that the conflation of power and semiotics is, in fact, a semiotic power grab.

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