A Conference on Historicism and Its Discontents

by Henry S. Turner

The Historicism and Its Discontents Conference, held on October 12, 2007, was the inaugural event for the new Program in Early Modern Studies (PEMS) at Rutgers. The purpose of the PEMS is to draw together Rutgers faculty working on the historical period between 1400 and 1800 in order to examine some of the large continuities that extend from the late medieval period into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and even up to into the eighteenth, while also taking account of what was genuinely novel about this broad historical period.

Foremost among these novelties is the growing internationalism of the world we describe as “early modern,” from the East Indies to Russia to Africa to the Americas. Arguably no field has played a more important role in establishing historicism as an international critical orthodoxy than the field of early modern studies, which continues to furnish topics of inquiry that drive literary scholarship in the academy as a whole. At the same time, some of the most exciting recent work in early modern studies has begun to reexamine the methodological foundations of historicism and to propose new departures: toward problems of form, figure, and style; toward a renewed interest in “theory”; toward comparative literature; toward the deliberate anachronism of “presentism.”

The conference brought four leading critics to Rutgers: Jean E. Howard, the George Delacorte Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, speaking about reading and the historicist imperative; Aranye Fradenburg, a professor of English and medieval studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, speaking on Freud and Chaucer; Madhavi Menon, an assistant professor of literature at American University, speaking on “homo-history”; and Kathryn Schwarz, an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University, speaking on misogyny and masquerade.

To recall Freud, from whom the title of the conference was taken, we may say that “historicism” has become the source of the greatest accomplishments of early modern studies, but also the source of its greatest torments; its finest sublimation, but also the root of its most persistent neuroses.