I suggest in this book that provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history: they grow out of the same cultural need and intend to do the same cultural work ... I am writing about a political process [state formation] and its connection with literary innovation ... I intend ... to deal directly with the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power. Above all, I do not see the political process as a static or knowable factual context in which to situate artistic change in order to explain it. To paraphrase what Marx refers to as the guiding idea of all of his inquiry, it is the sphere of culture in its largest sense in which people become conscious of changes in their existence and in which these changes are fought out.(2)
Stein's linking of romance to history through changes in governmental structures and ambitions is a highpoint of his study. I want to point out, though, its deployment of a doctrine that historicists taught us long ago to accept: art is intractably enmeshed within the culture that generates it; art (here, historiography and romance) performs labor; art does cultural work.
Compare Stein's point of departure to Helen Vendler's swift application of the emergency brake when critics perform this kind of politically-minded reading. Rachel Donadio writes in "The Closest Reader" (NYT Review of Books):
[Vendler] can be harsh about those she sees as subordinating literature to an ideological agenda. In a review of David Denby’s “Great Books” (1996), the film critic’s account of how he returned to college, immersing himself in Columbia’s core curriculum, Vendler wrote, “Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone use a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel.” In 2001, again in The New Republic, her main venue in recent years, Vendler took the critic James Fenton to task for his interpretation of Robert Frost’s 1942 poem “The Gift Outright,” a version of which was recited by the aging poet at the Kennedy inauguration in 1961. Fenton, in her view, had imposed a mistaken interpretation on a poem as much “about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans,” because “his politics has wrenched him into misreading it.” (Some argued Vendler herself was misreading the poem by choosing to ignore its subject matter.)
I'm guessing that most (though certainly not all) medievalists will find their sympathies more drawn to Fenton and Denby and Stein than to Vendler. We work in a discipline which stresses historical context so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to play the "impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code." Sure, we can and do look closely at prosody ... but seldom do we detach such analysis from a social context that we argue is either much like our own (the Middle Ages as threshold of the Same) or very different from our own (the Middle Ages as hopelessly or chastely Other).
I wonder, though, if either model really does much for art. It's not so much that one or the other model need be chosen (as always the truth no doubt resides between the extremes), but rather that there seems something in art that is inapposite, extraneous, not capable of being reduced to pure aesthetics or pure politics. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite neglected theorists, the surrealist biologist Roger Caillois, argues that art is not possessed only by humans or by animals: it is a superfluous beauty that is made as much by stones as by hands. His book The Writing of Stones is a stunningly illustrated tour of nonhuman art: lithic sculptures offered for no particular audience to admire, the petrification of a universal impulse to produce beyond utility, the thing that unites the human to what had seemed until Caillois looked so intently upon it to be the inert.