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History and Theory 45 (May 2006), 244-251

Wesleyan University 2006 ISSN: 0018-2656

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HISTORY, THEORY, TEXT: HISTORIANS AND THE LINGUISTIC TURN. By Elizabeth A. Clark. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 318. Elizabeth Clarks comprehensive and intelligent book, History, Theory, Text, has a dual purpose, one scholarly and one polemical. The first is to offer to the as yet uninitiated scholars of premodern periods of Western historyor, more accurately, to late ancient/early medieval and Byzantine historiansa survey of developments in historiographical theorizing. This survey, she believes, will rescue the study of these periods and places from the disciplinary blindness in which they have been languishing due to their neglect of the basic postulates of poststructuralism and other forms of postmodern critical theory. The second is to advance a fervent argument for the utility of critical theory for the study of premodernity, defined as noted above. A premise informing this double agenda is that scholars of the late ancient and early medieval civilizations of Rome and its successor states have neglected the conceptual resources that postmodern theory offers. This is despite the fact that, she believes, there are natural affinities between the ways that postmodern theory approaches questions of textuality and the nature of ancient and medieval texts themselves. As a medievalist who works in a later period, I am not in a position to judge the degree of receptivity to critical theory among premodern historians, but there is little reason to doubt the essential correctness of this assertion. An additional premise is that the rehearsal of the history of historiographical theorizing will prove sufficiently compelling to convince those not yet converted to poststructuralism and its theoretical affines to take up its banner in the name of a reformedpostmodernpractice of premodern history. While the first premise seems essentially correct, only time will tell if the promise of the second is fulfilled. The polemical stake here is, as she asserts, the placement of premodern studies within the recently reinvigorated subfield of intellectual history (2). Her goal, then, is a more theoretically oriented intellectual history, one that, in contrast to the old history of ideas, offers an especially welcoming disciplinary home for students of premodernity (5). The book is divided into two, extremely asymmetrical, parts. The vast bulk of History, Theory, Text, and its great virtue even for those who are not premodern scholars, consists in a systematic and extraordinarily comprehensive review of ideas of history from Ranke down to the present, with a particular emphasis on what we have now come to call French Theory and its dissemination among Anglophone scholars. Only in the final chapter (chapter 8) are we treated to a glimpse of how the stipulated salutary effects of critical theory for the interpre-

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tation of premodern texts actually works in a (very) few select examples, one of which, at least, introduces work based on postcolonial theory not previously discussed. Given this, I suspect that the value of Clarks book for most premodern historians lies in its conscientious and insightful tracing of the developments both those that succeeded and those that proved to be dead-endsthat culminated in recent decades in the elaboration of poststructuralism, the postmodern theoretical component privileged in her reading of critical theory, though not necessarily sustained in her choice of examples (on which more later). It should perhaps also be noted that, like most historians, Clarks understanding of poststructuralism focuses on the ways that it has been framed by historians in terms of the linguistic turn; hence it is preoccupied with questions of referentiality and representation, truth and relativism, continuity and discontinuity and contextualization, issues less salient, one assumes, for literary scholars. The goal is a version of late ancient Christian studies that emphasizes discontinuity, ideology, and power:
Such histories should acknowledge that, as intellectual constructions, they differ from the past, vanished and now available only through traces, and that no historical construction is politically innocent but is driven by the problems and questions set by the historian in the present. Learning from structuralism and postructuralism, such studies look less to historical continuity (and hence to the nostalgia for the past that such histories often encourage) than to discontinuity, noting both breaks in the larger historical order and the gaps, absences, aporias, and contradictions in texts. They eschew grand narratives that often mask ideological presuppositions, as well as categories such as experience if understood as a foundational court of appeal. They implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that a correspondence theory of verification is untenable, and that their own representations are not to be confused with reference. They recognize that contexts are often multiple or unknown, and are variously constructed by different readers . . . [who] look to the site of the texts production and to the texts own productivity. (7)

Hortatory statements like this are not exactly news to most historians, but it is probably wise to remember that late ancient Christian studies until recently operated institutionally within the framework of the history of theology, where doubtless they were anathema. From that perspective, Clarks book is both beneficial and brave in that it forthrightly seeks to displace the basic professional disposition of patristics as a discipline normally concerned with the Church Fathers Trinitarian and Christological expositions against heretics (160), as was customary during the period of Clarks own professional training, and to re-orient it toward questions of textuality linguistically conceived. If Clarks theoretical program ultimately comes to rest on familiar terrain, what is unusual, and remarkable, in the book is the care with which she narrates how we arrived there. Chapter 1 reaches back to Ranke and the elaboration of historical positivism; follows through with Diltheys hermeneutic rejection of it; pursues the exportation of Ranke to the shores of America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with its peculiar neglect of Rankes idealism already signaled by Georg Iggers and Dorothy Ross. At the same time it notes the partial rejection of the noble dream of scientific objectivity on the part of a handful of historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker, whose efforts to intro-

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duce a certain degree of relativism into the American brand of scientific history constituted a total failure (13). One oddity is that this rejection took place in the context of paradigmatic shifts in science and philosophynotably the rise of relativity theory in physics that portended the demolition of the epistemological foundationalism that historians had sought in the sciences (15). Once again, this is familiar territory, well documented by Peter Novick and others, but few advocates of poststructuralism have felt, as Clark does, the need to provide their readers with a careful account of it. What this section achieves is an introduction to epistemological questions that remain a constant concern throughout the remainder of the book, although Clark realizes, with Novick and others, that what historians do worst is reflect on epistemology (17). Indeed, my own view is that there is no good epistemology for history, and that questions often debated in epistemological terms are actually ethical in motivation and substance. Although I am confident that Clark would not concede this point, it is noteworthy that she herself finds epistemological fault with virtually every position under review. The chapter on German historicism is followed by one devoted to AngloAmerican philosophy and, in particular, the attempt to craft an analytic philosophy of history based on the views of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists in thinkers like Hempel and Popper, whose interests in sustaining a scientific basis for historical work were imperfectly translated to America in methodological books by W. H. Walsh and Dray. The most prominent Anglo-American avatar of an analytic philosophy of history is Arthur Danto, who sought to maintain its salience for the generation of the 1960s. But, as Clark demonstrates, Dantos ideas held little interest for historians and in the end, the Anglo-American linguistic philosophers attempt to improve the status of history as a discipline was abandoned by philosophers and rejected by historians (36). Insofar as historians now bother at all with philosophy to justify their epistemological assumptions (which prove resistant to most forms of reasoning), they have recourse either to Hilary Putnams notion of practical (or internal) realism, or to a popular version of pragmatism derived from Dewey and articulated by Rorty. As careful as Clarks account of these developments is, one is left to wonder how it relates to her larger programmatic advocacy for a poststructuralist approach to premodern textuality. To be sure, pragmatisms abandonment of metaphysical realism in part paved the philosophical way for later developments, even if most historians paid scant attention to it. Yet as Clark herself indicates, the handful of historians, like Hunt, Appleby, and Jacob in Telling the Truth about History, who actually appeal to Putnams notion of practical realism as epistemological warrant for historical study, misinterpret it to support their contention that human perceptions of the external world do, to some extent, correspond with that world, thus enabling historians to connect words to things by using words (39) and to rehabilitate correspondence theory, a position that Putnams concepts do not philosophically sustain. Only in chapter 3, dedicated to Languages and Structures, does Clark begin to lay the basis for her eventual polemic through a careful consideration of the rise of structuralism, in both its linguistic (that is to say, Saussurean) and anthro-

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pological (or Lvi-Straussian) guises. This mapping of structuralism is followed by a review of four critiques of structural linguistics and Lvi-Straussian anthropology by Ricoeur, Derrida, Perry Anderson, and Pierre Macherey. One of the great virtues of this chapter lies in its sensitivity to the chronology of these developments as they were emerging in France, since it enables her to avoidand correctsome of the errors in appropriation that occurred in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, as structuralism and poststructuralism made a simultaneous appearance on this side of the Atlantic. This led to considerable confusion about the boundaries between them, a situation not helped, among historians, by their tendency to focus on Foucault at a time when the different phases through which his work passed were not as apparent to most American historians as they are now. Indeed, I would argue that in the debates that raged among historians throughout the 1970s and 1980s and on into the 1990s, the linguistic turn tended to be presented in its most rigid, structuralist variant, despite the fact that it entered the Academy in the guise of poststructuralism, itself both a continuation and critique of fundamental features of Saussurean linguistics. Thus historians advocating a semiotic view of culture and society tended to emphasize the impersonal operation of semiotic codes as prefiguring, and hence constitutive of, reality; to quote without cease Derridas assertion that poststructuralism marked the moment when language invaded the universal problematic and everything became discourse;1 and to repeat with even greater fervor his lapidary maxim il ny a pas de hors texte, a phrase Derrida insisted has been universally misinterpreted. By clearly disengaging the emergence of structuralism in France from its subsequent poststructural critiques, Clark benefits from her later vantage point in time, and is able to see, as many historians were not at the time, that in France, unlike the Anglophone world, post-structuralism truly came after structuralism, absorbing as well as modifying its themes (42). However, it is precisely the comprehensive, and thus necessarily synoptic, view of crucial authors such as Foucault that tends to occlude the precise ways in which these developments took place in any given authors work, since the enormous range and number of authors whom Clark discusses restricts the amount of space that can be granted to any one. To the extent that the book serves, and is intended to serve, as an introduction to the key thinkers and postulates of twentieth-century critical theory, its admirable breadth ultimately entails some critical costs, since she is unable to offer a reading of any given writer that pursues the evolution of his or her thought throughout his or her career. In a thinker such a Foucault, this can lead the uninitiated, Clarks targeted audience, to a considerable misapprehension of the complex layering and differential nature of his thought at particular moments. Still, there is no mistaking Clarks mastery of her subject. Chapter 3 introduces the basic principles of Saussurean semiotics and structuralism and highlights their entailments for historical work: the way in which structuralism was inimical to historical concerns with temporal antecedents and causal chains, due to its privileging of synchrony over diachrony, form over content, the signifier over
1. Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, in Writing and Difference, transl. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 280.

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the signified, space over time, the text over the author, and the unconscious over the conscious (43). Moreover, she usefully shows how already in 1939, Benveniste recast Saussurean arbitrariness as relating not to the signifier (the sound/image) and the signified concept, but to the signifier and an extra-mental referent, that is, to language and things, thus moving semiotics into closer contact with historians perennial preoccupation with knowing and representing the past. As she indicates, the technical aspects of Saussures research held less appeal [for historians] than its implications for an exploration of linguistic and nonlinguistic representation and of cultural signs (46), as was to prove the case in both French and Anglophone historians appropriation of his ideas. For it was on the basis of this enlarged understanding of Saussurean linguistics that theorists posited that the real is known only in and through its discursive construction, established through an intralinguistic system of differences (47). As a result, discourse emerged as the proper object of the historians investigations, a phenomenon that would lead to the major revisions to social, cultural, and intellectual history with which we are all familiar. Although Clark is an advocate of poststructuralist readings of history, she nonetheless believes that several features of the structuralist program remain important, including its denaturalization of culture, its privileging of discontinuity over continuity, its semiotic interpretation of culture, its injunction to break down and rebuild the object of study, and its attention to the self-referring quality of language (62), all of which, if accepted, make the traditional correspondence theory of truth deployed by historians untenable. Having laid the foundations for a semiotic approach to history, Clark then returns in time to trace the evolution of historiographical practices in the French and Anglophone worlds, with chapters on The Territory of the Historian devoted to a review of Annaliste historiography, the Anglophone tradition of narrative approaches, and the so-called New Intellectual history. This section reaches back to Lovejoy and his critics and traces the evolution of intellectual history down to Dominick LaCapras importation of French theory as a new way of approaching it. Once again, this is material well known to many historians, especially those who have occupied themselves with critical historiography, and it represents something of an elaborate detour from her main objectives (it constitutes roughly half the book). It is not surprising to discover that she finds Annaliste history overly structural in approach and social in content, including the study of mentalits, which represented the French attempt to apply the principles of Annaliste historiography to intellectual spheres. To be sure, however, it emerged as a (short-lived) reaction, according to Hans Kellner, of the third generation of Annalistes against the serial and quantitative history favored by the elders of previous generations (68). The person who emerges as something of a hero in this story is Paul Veyne, primarily for his anticipation of themes that would dominate poststructuralist critiques of Annaliste historiography. The principal criticism leveled against the Annales School, as well as the Italian brand of microhistory and British Marxist historysurveyed as wellis their lack of concern with epistemology, which left them committed to what Roland Barthes liked to

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call the reality effect of historical discourse (that is, the belief that there is a real correspondence between the words of historians and the reality of the past represented by them, which Barthes considered illusory). The absence of epistemological concerns, for Clark, functions as the mark of a lack of theoretical engagement since, she concludes, even the most celebrated historians of the twentieth century display little concern for the epistemological problems attending the writing of history (83). It is unclear to me why a defense of empiricism and historical truth does not rise to the status of a theoretical engagement with historiography, although grounded in an epistemology that one may dislike. In the realm of theory, after all, de gustibus non disputandum est. Somewhat surprisingly, Clark is not much more approving of the narrativist schools of White, Kellner, Ankersmit, et al. and she even suggests that Whites Metahistory, despite its eventual importance for opening up intellectual texts, was more often than not ignored by historians (100), a statement that I find difficult to accept. The same is asserted of Foucault, namely that Foucaults elaboration of discourse and discursive formations was welcomed by literary schoolsbut not by most historians (114). I find this claim wholly unsustainable, since it was precisely because Foucault committed himself to working through the implications of poststructuralism within the domain of history that made him perhaps the most valued and widely utilized French theorist among historians. There seems a tendency here to want to create a more heroic narrative by having virtually all historians reject theory and epistemology untilfinally!historians such as Roger Chartier, LaCapra, and others of their ilk took it upon themselves to modify the governing paradigms of traditional and/or Annaliste historiography. None of this detracts from Clarks careful reading of the works of the large number of scholars she reviews, but it discloses the polemical edge at work throughout the book. It should be said that the theorists she privilegesDerrida, Barthes, Kristeva in the realm of textuality, Pocock and Skinner in that of contextualism (all reviewed in chapter 7 on Texts and Contexts)scarcely fare better as unqualified guides to the approach Clark urges upon premodern historians of late ancient Christian texts. Although Clark values their utility for the reformulation of historiographical practices, nonetheless, she argues, the specificity of such texts needs to be preserved against those who would textualize the non-textual world and those who would imagine that we transparently locate practices as they really were in the texts (128). One might note here the amalgamation of theoretical orientations, which, from a specifically epistemological point of view, represents something of a quagmire, since it is open to the same epistemological criticisms leveled earlier against various historians and theorists. Hers is not, in the end, a straight or purely poststructuralist approach to early Christian texts, since it embraces social contextualization and an effort to grasp the social conditions of possibility that gave rise to them. It was therefore, with some surprise that I found her dissenting, in the final chapter devoted to Historians and the Premodern Text, to my notion of the social logic of the text, since, au fond, the position it stakes out is not ulti-

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mately very different from the one she recommendsand illustrates by examplefor premodern historians generally. I think Clark is right that the tone of that article and a subsequent essay on the middle ground read more conservatively than actually represents my beliefs; my only response is that they were written between 1990 and 1993, at a time when no medievalist had the slightest interest in such questions and when I myself was far less conversant with theory than is the case today. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that it does represent a position (admittedly epistemologically compromised) that increasingly is being staked out by historians who earlier functioned as the leaders in adapting poststructuralism to history,2 so that Clark, in positioning premodern Christian studies to absorb and apply postructuralist principles to the reading of late ancient Christian texts, would appear to be following a course embarked upon by medieval and modern historians in the late 1980s and early 1990s but now to some extent superseded. I am grateful that she at least finds that the notion of the social logic of the text provides a stimulating mental tool (note the Annaliste vocabulary) for the study of early Christian works and, in particular, finds provocative my encouragement to ferret out the political unconscious of the text (165). At base, her reading and criticism of my work is essentially correct and the criticisms justifiable, as is the case with her criticisms of almost all the authors reviewed. Unfortunately, only the last thirty pages or so of the book are devoted to demonstrating the utility of the theory advocated for the actual practice of early Christian/patristic historiography. Here she advocates a social-theological approach to the texts, arguing that the highly literary writings of patristic authors, who struggled to overcome the contradictions and fill in the gaps in Biblical texts, reveal problems and aporias that signal for modern readers the textual and extratextual conflicts in which these writers were mired (179, my emphasis). Moreover, Clark is justly concerned with the ideological work such texts perform, a fine example of which is given in her analysis of Gregory of Nyssas Life of Macrina (his sister) and On the Soul and the Resurrection, in which Gregory uses his sister to modify the ideas of Origen, the effect of which is to deploy Macrina as spokesperson for Gregorys own revised Origenist theology (see 179) as well as other theological postulates he wished to advance but, apparently, hesitated to do so openly. Somewhat oddly, this example is followed by an account of the utility of postcolonial theory for the study of the late Roman Empire and early Christianity, although postcolonial theory nowhere before made an appearance (it begins here on page 181 of a book that runs to 185 pages of text). What is interesting about the late addition of this material is that it similarly commits her to a dual social/intellectual approach to the texts, demonstrating, I think, how unavoidable this double gesture is for historians, even for those committed in principle to a thoroughgoing poststructuralism. As in the case of so many earlier theories praised for their thought-provoking qualities, Clark here suggests that, several of [postcolonialisms] major themes . . . helpfully illuminate ancient texts (182).
2. For a review of these developments, see my recently published book Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (London: Routledge, 2005).

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Not to belabor the point, but Clark here, as everywhere, ultimately adopts a highly eclectic approach to theory, the examples of which, she concludes,
serve to illustrate how attending to various stripes of theory might illuminate ancient texts. By appropriating the mental tools made available by scholars whose disciplinary homes range across the humanities and social sciences, those who explore early Christian texts join the wider academy as contributors to, not just recipients of, a refurbished intellectual history. (185)

I join Clark in thinking that this is an admirable goal for scholarship on late ancient/early Christian history and admire her scrupulousness in undertaking the extensive review of theorys roots and development that she here offers her colleagues. In this, she has produced a book useful not only for patristic scholars, but for any historian interested in the principles and benefits of a theoretical approach to the practice of history. Her wide reading in and deep understanding of these matters is exemplary, and if, finally, she is no more consistent than most of us in applying them to her period, it only bespeaks her commitment as a historian to the study of the past. GABRIELLE M. SPIEGEL Johns Hopkins University