By Florence S. Boos
History and Community: Essays in Victorian Medievalism, edited by Florence S. Boos (New York, 1992)
Introduction: European and American intellectuals have often debated the uses and abuses of “historicism,” a term which has itself had a complicated history since Friedrich Schlegel first used it in 1789. At its broadest it simply records the truistic recognition that all human phenomena undergo historical change. Critics of “historicism” have long since exposed some of the more reactionary normative uses of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European developmental histories– crude causal or teleological models which made specious national or political unities “inevitable,” and suppressed structural inequity and social conflict More recently, Michel Foucault and his “new historicist” descendants have argued for an “archeology of the human sciences”–a metaphor that would have appealed to many Victorians–that would forego “uniform, simple notion[s] of . . . causality” for more holist consideration of “dependencies” in “discursive formation[s].” One such “discursive formation” might be found in the Victorians’ tendency to find themselves prefigured in past cultures, or overshadowed by them.