(originally published by H-German on 17 May 1996)
Geschichte und Gesellschaft distinguishes itself because it not only unambiguously advocates a specific approach to historical research (historical social science), it also occasionally provides space in its pages for authors and essays subjecting that approach to searching critiques. It is thus not surprising that the long-overdue encounter between the German historical profession and poststructuralism should begin in a series of articles on historical methodology that have appeared over the past year in G & G. Although Peter Jelavich names the subject of his essay "poststructuralism," while Georg Iggers prefers to speak of the "linguistic turn," both generally refer to the same set of theories and theorists.
Neither Jelavich nor Iggers are advocates or practitioners of poststructuralism, although both are sympathetic to some positions they associate with poststructuralism or the linguistic turn. Their status as clear-headed, well-informed historians makes them appropriate choices to present poststructuralist ideas to a potentially hostile audience. The advantage of their style of presentation is that they highlight the elements of poststructuralism least likely to offend methodologically conservative German historians. In their attempt to make poststructuralist insights seem reasonable, however, they downplay the importance of positions central to poststructuralist theory or associate poststructuralism with earlier forms of epistemological skepticism with which poststructuralism has relatively little in common. This approach makes poststructuralism seem less threatening to conventional historical methodologies, but it also may lead some readers to conclude that if one already is familiar with the positions of, for example, Max Weber or Ferdinand de Saussure, poststructuralism has nothing new to offer.
Both authors fill the bulk of their essays with synoptic discussions of works by historians who serve as exemplars of useful applications of poststructuralist theory. While Jelavich avoids positioning his own historiographic practice with reference to poststructuralism in his G & G essay, he has done so more clearly in his autobiographical musings which appeared in New German Critique.
Jelavich begins and ends his NGC essay with a quotation from August Wilhelm Schlegel's Athenaeum Fragments, "Es ist gleich tödlich für den Geist, ein System zu haben, und keins. Er wird sich also wohl entschließen müssen, beides zu verbinden." Jelavich seeks to demonstrate the applicability of this quotation to cultural history. The cultural historian, due to the very nature of cultural-historical research, must combine the causal logic typical of historical narratives with interpretive strategies drawn from the humanities. One hears echoes of Pierre Bourdieu throughout Jelavich's essay. Culture, Jelavich informs us, is created by acting subjects, but it also manipulates those subjects. Jelavich writes of the market in which artists try to succeed as both a structured structure and a structuring structure. But Jelavich avoids full commitment to any one methodology; he stresses that cultural historians must supplement the dialectic between structure and agency with something he calls "the essayistic realm of interpretation, of aesthetic enjoyment, of play." (77)
In his NGC essay Jelavich ponders the lessons he has learned from studying cultural modernism. Jelavich's research experience has led him to supplement the Frankfurt School approach to cultural history, to which his earlier work was indebted, with elements of poststructuralism. Jelavich describes artists engaged in complex games in which their actions are circumscribed by two sophisticated structures -- censorship and the market -- and yet artists also consciously manipulate and position themselves with respect to these two structures. Jelavich's archival sources reveal artists as conscious actors who often successfully negotiate their interactions with these structures. He therefore rejects the poststructuralist denial of the importance of individual human subjects and their intentions. And yet in the bowels of the archives, he and his fellow cultural historians have found ample evidence in support of the poststructuralist critique of metanarratives, closure, and the unidirectional dispersion of power. Jelavich criticizes the Frankfurt School for its inadequate cognizance of important interactions between elite and popular culture and for its monolithic interpretation of the impact of market forces on cultural production.
Jelavich attempted to incorporate these insights into his book on cabaret in Berlin (Berlin Cabaret [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993]). The book is essayistic and borrows its structure from its subject matter. It is like a cabaretic revue, with the various pieces connected only tentatively by Jelavich's narrative. But Jelavich presents his current methodology as a temporary resting point in the cultural historian's endless struggle to fend off methodologies that give priority to structure or agency. He seeks to combine both, as Schlegel recommends, in order to create a space for interpretive play.
Given his NGC piece, it is not surprising that Jelavich's views on poststructuralism continue to evolve. Jelavich's essay on deconstruction in Central European History in 1989 concluded that there are good reasons for German historians to be wary of poststructuralism. Jelavich reminded readers of Paul de Man's and Martin Heidegger's Nazi sympathies and of Friedrich Nietzsche's often violent and irresponsible rhetoric. Jelavich asserted, moreover, that deconstructionists have totalitarian tendencies because "their elision of the subject into language is itself a product of imposing an enclosing consistency upon the linguistic realm." (377) Yet while Jelavich's CEH piece implied that poststructuralists may simply be wrong about how subjects and structures interact, his NGC piece indicates that, after years of archival work, Jelavich has reached conclusions similar to those of poststructuralists regarding the fragmentary nature of human history. Jelavich tends in his G & G piece to stress the historical insights to be derived from poststructuralist theory, but he does so by creating a strikingly coherent (and thus non-poststructuralist) narrative of the dispersion of poststructuralist ideas.
Jelavich begins pointedly with a discussion of the neglect of cultural history in the German historical social sciences (he specifically discusses Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Kocka). Lacking familiarity with the new cultural history inspired by the linguistic turn, German historians tend to lapse into a very familiar argument about the ways in which ideas fuel historical change. Such an argument is indebted to the traditional Geistesgeschichte that the modern German historical social sciences have supposedly abandoned. Jelavich suggests that insights drawn from the linguistic turn could help German historians develop a more innovative approach to cultural history.
Jelavich credits Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault with introducing historians to the linguistic turn. He then elegantly summarizes their most important theoretical contributions. Derrida treats language as an autonomous system of signs that structures meaning. Linguistic signs bear no necessary relationship to extralinguistic objects. Meaning derives rather from the relationships among signifiers in the linguistic system. Derrida thus rejects the notion of a transcendental signifier, such as God or the subject, that gives meaning to all others. Rather, the ego is constructed out of language. Derrida criticizes the hierarchical binary oppositions that arise our of linguistic systems, and his readings often involve a reversal of traditional hierarchies arising from binary oppositions. Our subjectivities thus dissolve into the linguistic system. What remains is the concept of play.
Derrida enjoyed a marked impact on American literary criticism, but, dissatisfied with deconstruction's seemingly ahistorical (and therefore apolitical) qualities, American literary critics have recently become increasingly interested in history at the same time as historians have renewed their interest in culture and narrative. While Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra introduced American historians to poststructuralist literary theory, however, Derridean deconstruction had little impact on the historical profession.
Foucault, however, is another matter. He focuses not on authors and intentionality but on discourses and power. Foucault does not simply deconstruct the subject; he rather studies the embodiment of discourses in disciplinary practices and the formation of subjects through such practices. Comparing Foucault to Derrida, Jelavich concludes that, while Derrida treats writing as an instance of the indistinction of language and as a locus for play, Foucault understands writing as a concrete practice that prescribes and controls. (271)
Foucault's influence has been especially notable among social historians, and he has encouraged new conceptualizations of power and reformulations of traditional categories of social analysis. Jelavich discusses three social historians who make use of Foucault: Jan Goldstein on French female hysteria; Lynn Hunt on the French Revolution; and Joan Scott on the construction of gender identity. Jelavich presents these historians as struggling with the same tension he described in his NGC essay between the poststructuralist emphasis on the ways discourses shape subjectivities and the historian's desire to preserve the realm of individual freedom of action. All three women stress the construction through language of traditional "structures" such as gender or national identity, but they do not abandon the concept of active subjects, nor do they accept the absolute primacy of language.
Jelavich proposes that German historians may gain access to a poststructuralist reading of cultural history by re-reading Weber with an eye to his anticipations of poststructuralist theory. But, here again, Jelavich must acknowledge that Weber remained a "humanist;" that is, he was committed to the notion of the individual as an active subject, an idea at odds with poststructuralist theory. Jelavich concludes by praising recent works by German historians (Thomas Childers, Thomas Nipperdey, Wolfgang Hardtwig) that focus on language and its impact on the shaping of political discourse and the construction of individual and group identities. But Jelavich is unwilling to grant language the primacy it enjoys in poststructuralist theory. Jelavich thus concludes that there exists beyond language a historical reality based on human actions and made by human beings who must take responsibility for their decisions.
Georg Iggers' essay places the linguistic turn in a broader intellectual context and sees many poststructuralist insights anticipated in the works of structuralists, the French Annales school of historians, and even German cultural pessimists. The linguistic turn inverts Marx by viewing social life as a product of language. For historians, however, the poststructuralist denial of subjects and objects of discourse means an end to Wissenschaft in its conventional sense. Iggers, like Jelavich, nonetheless acknowledges a number of historical works that have benefitted from insights derived from the linguistic turn.
Iggers divides the scholarship he discusses into five categories, ranging from the "thick description" practiced by cultural anthropologists and historians inspired by Clifford Geertz, to the more traditional analyses of political discourses found in the works of John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and the scholars associated with the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe project. The divisions among the remaining three categories are less distinct, but the remaining scholars are generally associated with the new cultural history (e.g., Lynn Hunt, Joan Scott) or with the new interest in linguistic analyses of political discourse (e.g., William Sewell, Thomas Childers).
Like Jelavich, Iggers finds the new linguistic theories most convincing in their understanding of subjects and of human history as fragmentary, internally contradictory, open to various interpretations, and lacking in unitary intention. Iggers also subscribes to the deconstructionist claim that language communicates and enforces hierarchical power relations. But Iggers sees in this nothing new. Linguistic theory has simply replaced Kantian reason with language as the ultimate criterion for truth. Yet language philosophers contradict themselves: on the one hand, they claim that language is a meaningless system of signs; on the other hand, according to the new cultural history, language produces all systems of meaning and values in a culture. Joan Scott thus seems to stray from poststructuralist orthodoxy when she sees in the critique of language the means for the smashing of political structures. Iggers is, moreover, generally skeptical regarding the prospects for arguments drawn from the linguistic turn having the political impact Scott seems to intend for them.
Iggers therefore concludes that the linguistic turn is best left to the literary critics, for whom claims to some basis for their assertions in real events is less important. Historians indebted to the linguistic turn are seeking not to displace social historical analysis but to provide a supplement to such analysis through linguistic analysis. Language does not need to be treated as absolute for us to recognize that language, rhetoric, and symbolic practice have powerful influences on political action. Iggers, like Jelavich, prefers not to decide between structures and agency. While linguistic differences structure society, he concludes, social differences also structure language.
These essays provide ample evidence of the excellent works in historical research and interpretation undertaken by leading historians influenced by the linguistic turn. But the two G & G essays are remarkably similar both in their basic positions on poststructuralism and in the narratives they construct of how poststructuralist ideas were disseminated. If G & G continues to publish essays on this subject, it is to be hoped that the editors will include the voices of scholars who see in poststructuralism a fundamental challenge to conventional historiographic practices and assumptions. It is also to be hoped that future discussions of poststructuralism will include a more detailed treatment of some other leading thinkers (Jean-François Lyotard, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, Louis Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, Luce Irigaray, Pierre Bourdieu, to name just a few) whose ideas will undoubtedly influence scholarship in the decades to come.