BMCR 2006.09.31

History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn

, History, theory, text : historians and the linguistic turn. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (x, 325 pages). ISBN 9780674029583 $19.95 (pb).

One of the (very) few advantages to being as late as I consistently am with reviews is that one has the chance to see how a book is received in the scholarly community. In the case of this remarkable work, at least one volume of essays has already paid tribute to Clark’s influential arguments for the use of theory in late-antique historiography;1 and I have had the double advantage of being able to read a review discussion, together with Professor Clark’s response ( Church History 74 [2005]). Despite the differences in opinion about the (manifold) strengths and (relatively few) weaknesses of History, Theory, Text, the reviewers are united in their conviction that this book should be essential reading for all historians, not just those to whom it is explicitly aimed, i.e., students of late antiquity. I come to it neither as a historian nor as a scholar of late antiquity, but as a literary historiographer who has never had the good fortune to find a really clear, richly documented, survey and analysis of contemporary literary theories as they bear on the practice of writing history. Not, that is, until now. History, Theory, Text offers practicing historians and historiographers alike an overview of what they do, and a challenge for how they (might) do it.

In eight economical chapters Clark does what she sets out to do, that is, to “provide an instructive, historically oriented, and user-friendly survey of some important moments in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates surrounding history, philosophy, and critical theory” (ix). On the grounds that German historiographical scholarship was — after its earlier influential status — a relative latecomer to this party, C. concentrates on Anglo-American and French theorists, historians, and philosophers. Her central contention is that practicing historians have not, as a rule, thought hard enough about the epistemological issues raised by the historical enterprise: specifically, that the “linguistic turn” of the early twentieth century has brought to the fore fundamental questions about the relationship of language to the world that historians continue to ignore at their (intellectual) peril. (There are, of course, historiographical and anthropological approaches that this book does not address; that may be considered a limitation, but such a restricted focus helps give the book its punchiness and concentration.) C.’s primary interest — which she announces at the start, and keeps to the fore — is in convincing her fellow historians of late antiquity, whose evidence comes overwhelmingly from texts of a “high cultural order,” that a philosophically self-conscious, “textually oriented history of premodernity” can both refurbish intellectual history and open up whole areas outside the “grand narrative” to our understanding (157-8). But her eclectic, broadly informed approach — which is, indeed, the approach of the best cultural historians working today — has much to offer to those of us interested predominantly in the ancient world, as well.

To get us to the point, C. begins with Ranke, and with the epistemological issues raised by the “quest for objectivity” (ch. 1, “Defending and Lamenting History”). C.’s argument requires her to set up “historians of a traditional cast” (21) as the opposition; but even given that necessary rhetorical stance, C., who is never simplistic or simplifying, shows clearly how the challenges of postmodernism and deconstruction, in particular, have raised hackles, driving historians to defend an indefensible empiricism (26-7). She posits that even practitioners of the Annales school, microhistorians, and Marxist historians retain unexamined epistemological assumptions (23, argued fully in ch. 4), and sets out to give a hearing to both sides of the debate.

Chapters 2-7 take us on a partly chronological, partly thematically organized tour of the major philosophical and historiographical movements of the twentieth century, moving from Popper, Danto, and Putnam (ch. 2) through Structuralism (ch. 3), European history (the Annalistes, microhistorians, and British Marxists in ch. 4), narrative (ch. 5, moving through Mink, Ricoeur, Stone, Barthes, and White, among others), “The New Intellectual History” (ch. 6: including Lovejoy, Collingwood, Gadamer; Foucault, de Certeau, Chartier, LaCapra), and finally, “Texts and Contexts,” including Derrida, Pocock, Skinner and the interpretative anthropologists Geertz and Darnton (ch. 7). C.’s reading is almost mind-bogglingly wide and deep; she cites texts in translation when she can (I assume to make all this strange stuff that much more accessible), uses both histories of individual movements (e.g., Franois Dosse’s two-volume History of Structuralism) and the primary texts themselves, quoting selectively from the philosophers (etc.) under discussion. The notes offer plenty of discussion and suggestions for further reading (135 of the 325 pages are devoted to annotation and bibliography): this is neither a book nor a press — thank heavens — that is afraid of footnotes!

As is appropriate for a companion to all this difficult material, C.’s book provides not only explication of these many different philosophical approaches, but also critique. That comes both from contemporaries (so, for instance, we get a good sense of the voices raised both in Germany and in America against Ranke’s “exaltation of documentary history” [11-14], or of Lawrence Stone’s claim for a “revival of narrative” [93-4]) and from herself. She argues astutely about the relative utility of the various “mental tools” that form the subject of this book, as she explores both the proper and the possible boundaries of the discipline of history writing.

And her heroes among the philosophers of history who have engaged with “the linguistic turn”? Not only these, but very definitely including Michel de Certeau and Roger Chartier, whose move away from a search for origins and causes offers a productive approach to studying the production of the past traces that have come down to us; Dominick LaCapra, who sees that the past does not exist “on its own terms and for its own sake” (156); Jacques Derrida, who helps us focus on the gaps and aporias in texts; and Roland Barthes, who points us away from the author toward the reader. History, Theory, Text ends with a practical demonstration of the possibilities opened up by a richly eclectic, theoretically informed, approach to ancient texts. Beginning with Gabrielle Spiegel’s influential Speculum piece, “History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages,” C. considers the extent to which a practicing historian can meet “the consequences that post-structuralist theory might entail for historical studies” (162). The extent to which anything and everything may be considered “text” is a real problem: but, as C. goes on to note, since “no continuous historiographical tradition stretches from antiquity to the present,” and there is “no natural object ‘history’,” (166), the calls made by Finley, Wiseman, Cameron, and Woodman to heed the rhetorical and ideological bases of ancient history apply equally to the texts on which much of our construction of late antiquity is based (166-9). C. then moves through several promising directions, among them the questions about author-ity raised by the many anonymous early Christian texts; ideological critiques of the representation of early Christian women; and the benefits to be gained by viewing the Roman Empire’s relationship to the early Christians through postcolonial theory.

The big question at the bottom of this is raised by C. herself, in her explication of LaCapra’s critique of J.G.A. Pocock: “LaCapra questions whether Pocock’s self-proclaimed allegiance to theory runs very deep, insofar as he constantly resorts to contexts of speech [as opposed to writing, which is always already detached from its producer]; and his suspicion is heightened by Pocock’s self-description as a ‘working historian,’ since such a historian is committed to reconstructing (not deconstructing) the past” (141). Can a working historian ever be theoretical in a non-trivial way? C.’s answer is emphatically yes, and her last chapter — together with her own distinguished body of work — aims to illustrate how. Her generous approach to other scholars’ work; her lucid exposition of the most difficult (and sometimes rebarbative) theory; and her own enthusiasm for her subject makes this book unputdownable. I hope that those historians of premodernity who have not yet picked it up, will do so.


1. Dale B. Martin, Patricia Cox Miller, edd. The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005 (reviewed at BMCR 2006.06.14).