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Embracing paleostructuralism

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and I have somehow managed to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish by this time. On Friday, this seemed like a goal that was unattainable, so I am reasonably pleased.

Somebody mentioned to me this last Saturday, “I occasionally read your rants against post-structuralism.” It had not been explicitly discussed in class that Foucault and company actually constitute an “-ism”, so I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights for a second while I figured out what my friend meant. Flesh of My Flesh has been explicitly exposed to more theory than I have, so I’ve been hearing about the supposed difference between signifier and signified for some time, but again, that this movement had a name was new information for me. A couple of things clicked once I understood the label; this is the same friend who a few years ago overheard me saying that it made no sense to me to read modern ideas of sexual equality and identity into texts for which those ideas would be anachronistic, and consequently chided me for “not believing in gender theory,” adding, “Applying theory is not ‘reading something into’ anything. That’s just you having an ideological problem.”

For all I know, maybe he’s right. He’s in the English department, and maybe there’s a way these things actually make sense from the standpoint of literature. Maybe, too, this is the difference between a “scholar” and an “intellectual” — I do not give a fat, furry, flying rat’s hindquarters about theory. I have not entered an academic discipline because I am interested in the “isms” which seem to plague the humanities right now. (I am told that “thing theory” was rather well-represented at last week’s Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference, which makes me want to tear out my own teeth with a rusty screwdriver.) I have entered an academic discipline, because, funny and naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am actually interested in, and even like, my subject of study.

What does that make me? A paleostructuralist? If so, then so be it. (“Paleostructuralist” sounds cooler and more dignified than “anti-post-structuralist” anyway.)

I still have more to write on Foucault in this space, but it’s going to have to wait a bit yet while I finish some other things. In the meantime, my most recent (and last) response paper for my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course starts to sketch out some of the thoughts that will show up there. Certain elements will be no surprise to those who visit here somewhat regularly, there are a couple of moments where it will be evident that I just got through watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which merits its own post), and the couple of somewhat coy suggestions that certain things should be discussed elsewhere will be developed in my final paper for this course.

The Safe Retreat into Omniscient Third-Person:

The Problem of Historicizing Oneself


A Response to Kate Brown’s “A Place in Biography for Oneself”

(As Well as a Number of Other Bits and Pieces from the Fall 2009 H601 Course)

“Historians,” writes Kate Brown in her essay “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” “expose other people’s biographies, not their own.”[1] How can this be, however, when according to Marx, “[m]en make their own history” [2]? How, ultimately, may historians be their own agents of history while being true to their own profession? How might historians assume the first person voice in their own work, that is to say, our own work, or still more to the point, my own work – honestly?

To expand Marx’s quote, men make their own history, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Brown certainly did not choose her circumstances. She is from a small Midwestern town whose economic history could have stepped out of the pages of The Marx-Engels Reader; in her home town of Elgin, Illinois, as she tells it, the beginning of her life intersected with a narrative of Western expansion, labor strife, industry flight, economic redevelopment, and gentrification.[3] Her own retelling of the story gives significant credibility to Marx’s claim that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”[4]:

From Elgin… I came to understand how closely one’s biography is linked to one’s place… I recognized the impulse to bulldoze and start over, to push on toward a brighter, cleaned-up destiny, which meant abandoning some places and people and losers of an unannounced contest.[5]

The past – that is to say, one’s history – and its relationship to location are a weight that one must learn to carry or learn to jettison. Perhaps this can be understood as an inversion of the opening line of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides – rather than the wound being geography, the anchorage, the port of call, it is geography, and the confluence of circumstances that one encounters in that geography, that is the wound.

All well and good — but how real is this confluence of circumstances? How objectively may its existence be assumed? Per Benedict Anderson and his analysis of how seemingly disconnected events make up the front page of a newspaper, perhaps not much:

Why are these events so juxtaposed? What connects them to each other? Not sheer caprice. Yet obviously most of them happen independently, without the actors being aware of each other or of what the others are up to. The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition… shows that the linkage between them is imagined.[6]

What, then, is the difference between one’s life and the front page of a newspaper? Do they both represent a constructed – that is to say, not objectively real – and affected way of arranging events? For the historian, how does that construction and that affectation influence how they read history, view history, and write history? How does understanding how one’s life interacts with one’s work impact either, for better or for worse?

As a scholar, I have been carefully trained to avoid using the first person in my work. “Don’t ever say things like ‘We can see the following…’ in your research,” I remember being told in one undergraduate course. “This is not a journey ‘we’re’ going on together. It’s a research paper.” My training in languages also tends to inform how I view texts – “Read what it says, not what you think it means,” my first Greek instructor repeatedly told our class. My research goal, therefore, is typically to state a clear, impersonal thesis and then get the hell out of the way of my own argument, simply letting the facts and the observations speak for themselves as much as possible. If I present it as something that “I” think, then I will have fundamentally devalued and undermined my argument – why should anybody care what I think?

Naturally, there is far more to it than a hope to rest comfortably on objectivity. Why should anybody care what I think, indeed. I’m a nobody, a college dropout from nowhere, a first generation college graduate at the age of 29, having taken eleven years to finish a four year degree (a B. Mus. at that, not a liberal arts degree), who then, even with good grades and test scores, still had to do three years of coursework as an unmatriculated student before there was any way to be competitive for graduate schools, all the while hearing from a chorus of professors, “I’m more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, but I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get there from here.” Why should anybody care what I think? Good heavens, I will need to make sure I publish under a pseudonym just to be taken at all seriously. Better yet, I should somehow indicate on my C. V. that I simply sprang forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus with my PhD already in hand.

But there is still more to it than that, surely. I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of “home” from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a “citizen of the world,” to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?

But, of course, there is still more to it than that.

“In my quest to explore the human condition,” writes Brown, “I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim to project my own sentiments and feelings.”[7] There is an undeniable connection between who somebody is and what interests them; for her own part, Brown describes this connection by saying, “I believe that I was able to see stories that had not yet taken shape for other historians because of the sensitivities I acquired in my past.”[8] My advisor, Professor Edward Watts, is potentially an example; he is an academic raised in a family of academics. His parents are both academics, and his sister is an academic. What was the subject of his dissertation? Rhetorical education in Late Antique Alexandria and Athens. As I told him after I read the book, it is difficult to not see his work as having an aspect of meta-commentary on the academic life. He chuckled and said, “You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.”

Beyond that example, I saw with my own eyes how the personal connection between historian and subject might manifest with my colleagues during orientation and initial class meetings:

“Hi, I’m Roberto Arroyo, and I’m interested in Latin American history.”

“My name is Isaac Rosenbaum, and I do Holocaust history.”

“I’m Lakshmi Patel, and I’m studying the history of relations between India and Pakistan.”

The Late Antique Byzantinist whose last name is not “Ioannides” or “Sotiriou” is left at something of a disadvantage in such company. Yes, there is, in fact, a personal reason that connects me to my subject of inquiry, a personal reason that should not be too hard to surmise for the careful observer (but one that is best discussed in another setting), but a personal reason that is nonetheless internal, abstract, and conceptual rather than immediately and concretely constructed by place or family – that is to say, by the circumstances which I did not choose. I have personal stakes that led me to my areas of interest, but because they are of my own choosing I must be circumspect in how I speak in terms of “I”, “we”, and “our” if I am to be seen as having sufficient distance from my subject to be credible as a scholar. Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty appear adamant that cultures and societies must define themselves, that to not allow such self-definition is cultural imperialism,[9] and yet this mandate of courtesy with respect to communal identity does not appear to extend to those who have embraced certain communities voluntarily.

Of course, I also have the problem that I am not interested in my subject from a critical point of view; I find it anachronistic to explicitly read whatever my own political beliefs and values may be – and, for today’s purposes, we may broadly describe them as uncomfortably conservative as Russell Kirk defined the word, which according to contemporary definitions probably makes me liberal – into my historical subject, but per Elizabeth Blackmar as quoted by Ted Steinberg, we historians are not supposed to evade the question of politics.[10] According to Steinberg, the role of the historian in the present day is evidently to explore “the history of oppression,”[11] and this attitude is one I see largely borne out in my cohort. Nonetheless, the reality is that such a history is not the history of the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire I have any desire to write. I have better things to do than study something with the express purpose of tearing it down. I fundamentally believe it is possible to be more productive and constructive – but do I only believe that because of my other beliefs in the first place? Is my choice of the word “constructive” itself telling, possibly signifying that I would rather buy into the social constructions that historians are supposed to deconstruct? The 3rd person voice of objectivity keeps me from having to mess with such potentially treacherous questions.

If men make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose for themselves, and history is supposed to be the history of oppression, then must a historian writing their own history engage in self-hatred by definition? Brown does not appear to write a piece of self-hatred, but it is clear that she is uncomfortable with the implications of her own essay – “My palms sweat as I write this… The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between author and subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”[12] Chakrabarty suggests one possible way out, explicitly referencing autobiography and history as two separate and distinct genres[13] – so not only is autobiography, the history of oneself, not history, but history isn’t a discipline anyway, it’s a genre. But here is the rub – if history is a genre somewhere “between” the social sciences and the humanities, and a historian writing their own history must find a methodologically honest way to not engage themselves at the level of self-hatred, which then in fact moves the work into a different genre altogether, then the historian can never actually engage in a real work of self-historicization that is not self-mutilatory.

At any rate, can we claim objectivity anyway by avoiding biographical detail or the first person? In a post-structuralist world where we must assume a fundamental disconnect between signifier and signified, does it really matter to begin with? Or is a research paper written in the omniscient third person much like Bruno Latour’s depiction of the laboratory[14] or Bonnie Smith’s history seminar and archive[15] – a socially constructed, that is to say false, space of knowledge-based privilege that can assert authority it does not actually have simply because a particular group of people have become convinced that it does?

I do not have answers to my own questions, posed at the outset of this musing. I am not certain where to go with them. My inclination is to say the various circumstances of my own life may appear as arbitrary as Anderson insists the front page of the newspaper actually is, but by virtue of the very fact that I in fact experience those circumstances in chronological order, I nonetheless perceive them as my own narrative. My inclination is to say that I cannot be forced to historicize my own life as a history of oppression any more than I can legally be required to self-incriminate in a court of law. My inclination is to say that nonetheless, I am better off keeping my arguments in the third person and keeping my “self” out of the voice of my own work, that regardless of what I think, we all know what a coffee table will feel like if we rap it with our knuckles, and that in saying that I am not privileging people who have hands or who do not have nerve damage. My inclination is to say that there must be a world outside of our own minds, and that there must be a way we can discuss it, even if our own minds tell us how we’re going to organize our perceptions of that world. Are these words and ideas too strong, too dangerous, too naïve, too uninformed? I do not know, but I do not know where else to start.

And perhaps that is why it is good I work in a period many people find irrelevant. It keeps me from becoming a danger to myself or to others.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. “Contemplating the Force of Nature.” Radical Historians Newsletter no. 70 (1994).

Brown, Kate. “A Place in Biography for Oneself.” American Historical Review no. 114 (2009): 596-605.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?” Representations no. 37 (1992): 1-26.

Latour, Bruno. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” In Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 141-70. London: Sage, 1983.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.

Smith, Bonnie. “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research.” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998): 1150-76.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.

[1] Kate Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” American Historical Review, no. 114 (2009), 603.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978), 595.

[3] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 600-3.

[4] Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 595.

[5] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 604.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 33.

[7] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003). Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?,” Representations, no. 37 (1992).

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar, “Contemplating the Force of Nature,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 70 (1994)., 4. Quoted in Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002), 804.

[11] Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” 802.

[12] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[13] Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?”, 8.

[14] Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983). Accessed online at on 9 November 2009.

[15] Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research,” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998).



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