restricted access The Passing of a Generation
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July/August 2008 Historically Speaking 33 The Passing of a Generation MarkBevir» obert Rosenstone, Joan Scott, Mark Poster, Elizabeth Ermarth, Patrick Joyce, Dominick LaCapra, Hayden White—die names of die contributors suggest the subset of historians that is on show here. These historians are the champions of structuralism, poststructuralism , and postmodernism. It was they who in die 1970s and 1980s introduced Anglophone historians to French theory. Hence, while the essays are called manifestos, they can be read more poignandy as reflections on the success and failure of the attempt to bring poststructuralism to history. The essays are not the products of young Turks laying out principles that will guide their life's work. They are restatements (or, in the better cases, reassessments) of ideas to which die authors already *" '""station have devoted whole careers. The essays are the retrospectives of a generation that is passing from the scene. Joan Scott, in her essay, suggests that it is fashionable to talk about poststructuralism in the past tense, and she equates this fashion with a new yearning for certainty apparent in a retreat from theory to empiricism. As I co-edited a volume on Histories of Postmodernism, I am, I suppose, fashionable. However, far from wanting to retreat from theory, I worry about theoretical complacency among historians indebted to poststructuralism . All too often these historians merely repeat the same tired old ideas: they do not refer to philosophical debates on diese ideas, let alone try to rethink their theories in response to these debates . If I were to write a manifesto—and, of course, I am doing so here—I would echo Scott's call for "history-writing as critique," but I would also call on those of us who believe in critique to confront what are by now well-established dieoretical problems with poststructuralism. How might we assess poststructuralist theory? Although I do not want to dwell on this issue, I need at least to mention die dreadful jargon it has inspired . In lesser hands dian our essayists, poststructuralism has led to some of die worst writing I have read. Fashionable terms hide a lack of clear meaning. Impenetrable prose takes the place of clear thinking. A desire to be on the side of all die angels all die time leads to banal moralizing . In substantive terms, poststructuralism particularly fails when it embraces linguistic formalism, hostility to agency, or anti-realist constructivism. Let me discuss each of diese failings. Poststructuralism typically draws on die linguistic formalism of Ferdinand de Saussure. For Saussure, signs conjoin a signifier (or sound) widi a signified (or concept), where these signifiers and signifieds are presumed to have die content they from Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours da Linguistique Generale (Paris, do by virtue of their difference from other units in a system of signs. Poststructuralists believe, as Elizabeth Ermarth puts it in her manifesto, that "linguistic meanings only arise negatively within the system of differential signs that constitute a language," or, as Scott puts it, that "meaning is established differentially." There are several reasons to reject this linguistic theory. First, Saussure argued for it only as a methodological gesture that would establish linguistics as a science. It is a mistake to treat his methodological gesture as akin to a philosophical account of language as such. Second, linguists themselves have generally rejected formal, structural analyses of language in favor of transformational grammars, and historians should be wary of touting outdated linguistic theories. Third, there are excellent philosophical arguments against the idea diat language is purely differential. The easiest way to introduce these philosophical arguments is to distinguish a contextual theory of meaning from a differential one. Many philosophers accept that concepts acquire meaning only in the context of broader "webs of belief" or "language games." Consider die case of malaria. Perhaps we cannot teach someone the meaning of malaria merely by pointing to examples and saying "malaria." However, our inability to do so shows only that the meaning of malaria depends on our background theories about the world, not that die meaning of malaria derives from its difference from other concepts. Once we accept various theories about the cause of certain physical symptoms, we can still define malaria...