University of Chicago Press, 2008, 392 pages, ISBN-10: 0226486966, ISBN-13: 978-0226486963

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Driven by global economic forces to innovate, today’s society paradoxically looks forward to the future while staring only at the nearest, most local present–the most recent financial quarter, the latest artistic movement, the instant message or blog post at the top of the screen. Postmodernity is lived, it seems, at the end of history.

In the essays collected in Local Transcendence, Alan Liu takes the pulse of such postmodern historicism by tracking two leading indicators of its acceleration in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: postmodern cultural criticism–including the new historicism, the new cultural history, cultural anthropology, the new pragmatism, and postmodern and postindustrial theory–and digital information technology. What is the relation between the new historicist anecdote and the database field, Liu asks, and can either have a critical function in the age of postmodern historicism? Local Transcendence includes two previously unpublished essays and a synthetic introduction, in which Liu traverses from his earlier work on the theory of historicism to his recent studies of information culture to propose a theory of contingent method incorporating a special inflection of history: media history.

“This book is a reflection of and on a nearly twenty-year career. It is as much a work of history as of literary and cultural critique, as much a narrative and a piece of performance art as it is philosophical investigation and Nietzschean genealogy. Alan Liu is sui generis.”

–Marjorie Levinson, University of Michigan

“Following the magnificent achievement of The Laws of Cool, Alan Liu in Local Transcendence takes on the problem he astutely identified as deeply connected with the ‘cool’: the loss of historical grounding and consequent restructuring of identities by postindustrial corporations. Offering a rigorous yet humane critique of new historicism and cultural criticism from the inside, he interrogates the possibilities for historical grounding in the age of information in a witty prose style and a capacious field of reference. Local Transcendence is required reading for anyone interested in the multiple conjunctions, oppositions, and synergies between information, historicism, and cultural context.”

–N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los Angeles

“Before he turned to digital humanities, Alan Liu once posed the key question for the new historicism: what’s the connection? What’s the connection, for example, between two juxtaposed details or anecdotes in a cultural field? Now he has reframed both inquiries with a broader question that raises the level of both the game and its stakes: what is the connection between the ‘new historicism’ and the ‘new media’? The result is a book that addresses the central question of the ‘link’ itself in our age and that links the link not only conceptually but also historically. It is a book for anyone interested in how disciplinary and technological innovation in the humanities have informed each other over these past two decades.”

–James Chandler, University of Chicago
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Contingent Methods

1. The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism

2. Trying Cultural Criticism: Wordsworth and Subversion

3. Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism,
and the Romanticism of Detail

4. Remembering the Spruce Goose: Historicism and Postmodernism

5. The New Historicism and the Work of Mourning

6. The Interdisciplinary War Machine

7. Sidney’s Technology: A Critique by Technology of Literary History

8. “Transcendental Data: Toward A Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse”

9. Escaping History: New Historicism, Databases, and Contingency

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