Friday, January 18, 2008

Kleinberg on deconstruction (light polemic)

Kleinberg, Ethan. “Haunting History: Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision.” History and Theory. Vol 46 (December 2007). 113-143.

This essay essentially tracks the troubled and confused ways in which historians have talked about deconstruction as a method in historiography. This is largely a history of confusion and fear, allowing for a certain amount of play on deconstruction as a Derridean specter (following Specters of Marx). The story centers around the linguistic turns of the 1980s in intellectual and cultural history embodied in the volumes Modern European Intellectual History (1982) and The New Cultural History­ (1987), and subsequent debates in the 90s and post- 9/11 US academy. Kleinberg points out the various ways in which Derrida and other French thinkers, especially Foucault, were all reduced into the somewhat vague word ‘deconstruction,’ generally meaning ‘to upset hierarchies, value-systems and assumptions.’ Kleinberg pays close attention to the rhetorical invocation of the specter of deconstruction. The essay is a useful overview of several of these debates.

Now, I broadly agree with Kleinberg, but I can’t help but notice that his paper treats methodological essays alone. This was no doubt on purpose, but it seems to me to preclude the strongest argument for the historiographical usefulness of Derrida in particular, and poststructuralism more generally: all the good books of history that have been written in a deconstructive vein. To mention two books I’ve been thinking with lately, Sexing the Citizen (2006), and to a lesser extent, The French Imperial Nation-State (2005) both rely on what it is neither especially unfair nor reductive to call deconstructive methods. I suspect that one reason Kleinberg stayed away from actual books of history is that one often finds Derrida and Foucault together in them. Surkis is a perfect case in point. If we think of Derrida as having (through Scott), taught historians to look for the points of contradiction and silence in cultural formations or well-articulated elite self-justification, then we might think of Foucault as standing for the attention to power which so often ‘fills in’ the gaps in various cultural and intellectual logics. The Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (1995), whatever its faults, is surely right about this.

Of course one can object to this way of framing things. Are these uses of Derrida and Foucault at all fair to the body of work left behind by these two remarkable thinkers? Not at all. Is this the only way to do history? Certainly not. But I do think that Kleinberg, since he is mostly interested in uses of deconstruction as a word, and a few argumentative tropes associated with critiques of it, leaves aside the very real and deep impact poststructuralism (this more generic and historical term is, i think, safe) has had on historiography. He’s also not interested in answering what strikes me as the most serious critique of certain forms of academic history: that they render the historian ‘theoretically and morally naked’(paraphrase of Trouillot) before genuine political threats. He mentions this criticism but brushes it aside as though it were obviously false. I happen to think it’s a completely incorrect and intellectually lazy attack on various forms of radical critique. But that doesn’t mean it can go unanswered (though it will here, for the moment).

Kleinberg argues that historians have, especially in recent years, retreated back into ‘experience’ as either an explanatory category or at least a source of authority. He cites Scott’s argument against this concept. He also points out that it cannot, ultimately, lead to universalizable authority, since even collective experience cannot possibly ‘collect’ everyone. I’m not sure about this argument from a number of directions (also, I’m somewhat committing something of a heresy of paraphrase here with his argument). In the end, I would certainly range myself on the side of ‘deconstruction’ in history, though we’d then have to fight about what it meant. I would want it to be as material as possible (relatively easy), and to attend above all to sites of ambiguity through which power is exercised. I suspect this sentence sounds as though it was written in 1986—but so what? Is this set of questions ‘saturated’ (to use Badiou’s synonym for ‘boring’)? I think not.

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