Seventeenth Century Studies by William Kerrigan

By analyzing the whole of the theoretical paradigm that are produced by the contemporary theory industry, Kerrigan claims that changes in the literary studies is not solely the result of these theories rather change in natural process, and significant change has taken place even in the application of liberal humanism as a tool.

If new historicism was quite decisive and crucial in Renaissance studies, in the 17th century studies, it remained unimportant and an outsider because the new historicist of 17th century studies really became unable to produce the analytical discourse about the so called marginalized, non canonical authors and their texts. In this regard Kerrigan further argues that although in the Renaissance studies, the liberal humanistic paradigm is deconstructed on the basis of power, the liberal humanistic paradigm is deconstructed on the basis of power, ideology and material relation, nothing in the history requires to be described in terms of power ideology and material production relation.

Though new historicists analyze the history in terms of binary opposition and foreground the marginalized by deconstructing the binaries, for Kerrigan, marginalization is not a crime because everything marginalizes something.

New historicism was mainly applied in the study of the Renaissance and its impact is quite feeble in other studies such as 17th and 18th century studies, Victorian and romantic studies etc. In the study of Shakespeare and Milton under Renaissance studies, new historicism became crucial, but in the study of Milton under 17th century studies it became weak. Despite the application of liberal paradigm, Milton has also become a site of conflict, of contest and of action within the humanities. Instead, feminists are more interested in Milton than other figures like John Donne, Andrew Marvel and Robert Herrick.

In this regard, Kerrigan seems to claim that changes in the literary and art criticism occurred not because certain theoretical tool became crucial to one particular area or was accepted in other areas as well, but because change came on the basis  of the humanistic paradigm- the gradual change on the basis of the content itself.

If new historicism always foregrounds the “margin” or “periphery” in term of ideology, and repressive power, the new historicist has not even become able to produce a good book about the minor poets of the 17th century like Suckling and Lovelace. Donne’s verse letters, Marvell’s satire etc. are being ignored even by recent critics. Rather the liberal humanist scholars have produced a great deal of literature review about these minor writers. Regarding metaphysical poetry, no fruitful studies are made. Recent critics gave no justice to John Donne and his poetry. Psychoanalytical study on Donne’s poem by John Carey depicted Donne as a sexist and a phallus centric poet. If the new historicists are still interested in the poetry of John Donne and other metaphysical, for Kerrigan, It is nothing but the literary wantonness of the scholar like John Carey.

Kerrigan prefers the feminist approach and endeavor made by the recent feminist scholars under 17th century studies rather than various other recent approaches. In the contemporary theory industry, this is the only sector to gain reputation and to develop the rhetoric of self Canonization. Though the feminist approach has something in common with various other theoretical paradigms, it does not always fall in with psychoanalysis, Marxism, post-colonialism or new historicism. The feminist scholars have produced new editions of the poems, diaries and domestic treatises of Renaissance women largely ignored by other scholars, though ironically it was the theoretical commitment of the new historicists.

Most of the new historicists are interested in the study of Elizabethan literature, but a recent critical study has shifted towards the 17th century literature. Those recent scholars interested in the 17th century were the part of liberal humanism itself. Milton has been studied under 17th century literature. Milton has been studied under 17th century studies than any other literary figures. If Shakespeare was “out of control” within the new historical paradigm, Milton, who is studied under a liberal, humanistic paradigm is disciplined, ordered and more unanimous. Milton was and still is a man of his age, a man of genius-writing about politics, medicine, theology and being interpreted in a variety of ways (as dreamt by new historicist) by the liberal humanist scholars themselves. Most of the post modernist scholars are studying Milton by combining the poststructuralist perspective of different critics such as Bloom, Althusser, Derrida, de Man etc. This Miltonist of recent age is defending the feminist attack on Milton. Critics like Sandra M. Glibert and Suasan Gubar, in their seminal book The Mad Women in the Attic have discussed the repressive aspect of Milton. Women are, for those two critics, equalized with Satan in the unholy trinity of Satan, Sins and Eve by mimicking the holy trinity of God, Christ and Adam. Such repressive notion of Milton largely criticized by the feminist was also studied by the liberal humanist critics. For them, it is nothing but historical degradation of the female principle. Ironically, even the new historicist held similar views about this unholy trinity of Milton.

Kerrigan believes that gender is not an embarrassing thing for Milton but his best claim is to reflect contemporary cachet. He deliberately activates and restructures the mythologies of gender difference. In fact, modern female intellectual discover the Paradise Lost as a valuable reservoir that provides an opportunity to engage the strategies, possibilities, and contractions of patriarchy more powerfully and rigorously than any other English poem. Because Milton has reflected only the ideology of his century gender issue of Milton was a deliberate choice, and modern female intellectuals (more recent female intellectuals) have discovered that Milton’s Paradise Lost provides an opportunity to engage the strategic possibilities and contradictions of patriarchy more fully rigorously than any other English poem.

Liberal feminists of recent time also have favored the gender issue of Milton and claimed that Milton has offered the women what they exactly needed in his time-an opportunity to create and claim their individuality by moving beyond the context of Milton.

Bender agrees with Foucault and further claims that power is never a fixed object but a multiplicity of relationship and techniques that are to be changed and reproduction in order to maintain themselves. The nature of power alters according to the social and cultural structure.

Enlightenment is not a strict historical period not a monolith in which certain categories of thought emerge and become definite but a period a structured by its production of operation within certain characteristic oppositions: reason Vs sentiment, public Vs private, the private Vs aesthetic, masculine Vs feminine and even naturalizes the ‘reality’. For such frames were considered to be coherent. But over a period of time, this enlightenment culture is reproduced within a broad range of institutions that on the one-hand deeply accept these values and on the other, alter their nature in many ways. For example, the enlightenment autonomy of art has been reproduced in a variety of ways. The organist aspect was, at first used in the periodical, then by the aestheticisms and finally by the American New critics. This disinterestedness was included within the service of art with these examples it becomes clear that as claimed by many the whole institution of criticism has not been built on the enlightenment foundation.

John Bender is making a review of four different enlightenment categories that have largely attracted the attention of the critics until the recent critical practices of new historicism, cultural materialism, feminism and partly deconstruction while challenged the frame of reference or the category like aesthetic autonomy, disinterestedness and gendered sexuality. They were considered to be fixed, stable and natural within the Anglo-American academies. John Bender in order to justify the Foucauldian sense of power and the discursive truth, claim that the power structure and the discourse to be meaningful go to be changed otherwise; it ceases to exist likewise, enlightenment frame of reference-the totality of the four different categories. In course of time each of the categories of the component of frame of reference has undergone a massive change. Aesthetic as autonomous discipline was invented during the eighteen - century enlightenment, especially because of the contribution of Immanuel Kant. With the autonomy assigned to the judging of the different aesthetic sphere are literature, music, painting, architecture, sculpture. Aesthetic in general became an alien to the society. Once the art was divorced from the complex socio-historical content, it becomes synonymous to the institution and imagination. Before the age of enlightenment, the term literature used to comprehend virtually everything that is written. Bender is answering this change made by the liberal humanist and other scholars challenged by innovative and Tran disciplinary new moments. The earlier is emphasized instead by reconstituting it as historical phenomena subject to critical analysis.

The autonomy based on Kantian disinterestedness underwent massive transformation during the 19th century. Further, it was changed by the avant-gardism of the 1920s. The modernist frame of reference nostalgically recollected during 1970s. The modernist frame of reference nostalgically recollected during the 1970s also crucially transformed the aesthetic autonomy that had begun all the way from the 18th century.


Author under enlightenment was an authority a locus (center) a Tran historical category unique entity and such qualities were considered to be manifested in the ‘work’. The anchoring of discourse by a subject was considered to be aesthetic during the 17th century and such concept was further naturalized during eighteen century. The category of the authorship consolidated in the romantic era in which art was identified as an attribute of creative potentiality. But now the ‘author’ as ‘authority’ and a trans-historical being, is challenged by the recent critical practices of the new historicist. As Foucault says in his seminal essay “What is an author?”