Lessons of History Revisited

I’ve reread my postings of October 12 and 18 about what I have learned from history. Not very inspiring for the second half of my life. And I am now astonished that I left out what was probably the most hard-won and significant lesson that I learned: Most of what we accept as true and real is but the pale reflection of concepts and words. These concepts and words are based much less on observation than on the constant modification and recombination of concepts and words from the past.

It is not that I ignored this insight. Instead, in a reductionist manner, I dismantled it and disbursed it among other insights: especially #1b (we recreate the world in the image of our concepts) and #5 (when we produce analyses based in the academic disciplines, we are always wrong). But I did not present it in its fullest form. To really insist on this lesson in its fullness, rather than breaking it down into more manageable subheadings, is to doubt the possibility of writing history altogether. History writing itself becomes the product and producer of history, unable to fulfill its claim of hindsight that stands outside and analyzes history.

I know why I left it out. In part, I was trying to disassociate myself from an insight that has become bowdlerized and formulaic, inasmuch as it is a foundational credo of social constructionism, post-modernism, cultural studies, radical feminism, the linguistic turn and much anthropology. The very act of critiquing the genealogy of social knowledge has itself become mired in the heavy-handed deployment of dogmatic concepts and words. And the people who wield such concepts almost never follow the logic of their analyses to the end. Instead, they conclude their critiques with a violent about-face and insist that they have somehow promoted social justice, recognized human agency, called for true democracy, resisted oppression, or warned us of the dangerous path our society is taking. In other words, they resort to precisely the kinds of vacant platitudes that are so foundational to the social structure they have just deconstructed. If the emperor has no clothes, it is only because we have taken them to the tailors for refitting.

More significantly, I left out this lesson because I was going through a period of distancing myself from some of my favorites (Foucault, Tim Mitchell, John Meyer, Kuhn, late Wallerstein). These are still some of the few academic writers I will read with pleasure. But I felt that their social constructionist vision went too far in neglecting, and even denying all of those churning feelings and intuitions within. Sure, they provide great insights into the conventions that mold, channel, give meaning and form to those feelings. But it is cold and dry. To embrace that kind of analysis is to live a dessicated and angry life. It isn’t worth it.

Now I think that, if I want to restore some warm and moist passion to my life, I need to embrace this lesson to its radical end. I need to turn this analysis on myself, to deconstruct the concepts and words that have created the pale reflection that is my reality. If I want access to those churning feelings inside, I need to perceive and dissolve those fantastic conceptions, those absurd categories and cozy words that have contorted and choked my perceptions and understanding. I have to resist putting new names on those churning feelings. Maybe nothing will be left, as some of the deconstructionists insist. Maybe something will be.

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Posted on July 8, 2012, in Academic History, The Big Questions and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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