“Critiques of Early Modern Criticism: Poetics, Historicism, and the Pitfalls of Periodization.”
In this paper, I will look not only at what recent and contemporary theory may bring to literary criticism of the early modern period, but also at how that literature may develop and enhance theory. My focus will be on Derrida and Foucault as readers of Montaigne and Descartes, and the different ways that these modern French philosophers view the transition between their precursors as definitional or disruptive of a period and its relationship to the present. An important part of my consideration will bear on the operations by which these and other texts from the past make contact with and may be coherently read in the present. Taking a critical stance toward the historicist imperative of reconstructing the social and cultural circumstances of a text’s production and initial circulation, I will explore the question of whether texts indeed have poetic properties, such as “aphoristic energy” (Derrida) or “social energy” (Greenblatt), by which they are durable enough to become available to subsequent eras, and how these properties might work. To what degree do texts last, and to what degree do institutions of criticism make them last? I will also suggest that the fact that a text may be read and interpreted across eras, whether poetically or historically, poses problems to the very notion of periodization, to the idea that texts belong to and hence must be interpreted primarily according to their period-based contexts. My main purpose in this paper will be to evaluate the effectiveness and limitations of theory in apprehending the past, in light of the challenge that the past continually presents to the present.