New historicism and cultural materialism are engaged in the process of renewing our images of the past, of revisiting the past. They carry out this work to different ends: new historicism aims to show that each era or period has its own conceptual and ideological frameworks, that people of the past did not understand concepts like ‘the individual’, ‘God’, ‘reality’ or ‘gender’ in the same way that we do now; cultural materialism aims to show that our political and ideological systems manipulate images and texts of the past to serve their own interests, and that these images and texts can be interpreted from alternative and radically different perspectives, often constructed by placing those images or texts in their historical contexts. I want to argue in this chapter that both new historicism and cultural materialism are concerned from the beginning with the concept of ‘difference’, both historical and cultural difference, and that this concept becomes important in explaining how both critical practices have changed in recent years. In the 1980s both were interested in stressing the extent to which the past differs from contemporary uses of the past, the extent to which the past is alien or ‘other’ to our own modern epistemé, and, borrowing from Foucault and Geertz, new historicists and cultural materialists were at the same time aware of the structural similarities between this historical difference and the cultural differences being emphasised by postcolonial critics, feminists, gay theorists and race theorists.
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