Anti-history: the meaning of 'Historical Culture.' (Sande Cohen)
The twentieth century has not been kind to historical discourse. The modernist literary imagination, neatly characterized by Hayden White in "The Burden of History" (1966), revolted against history. Much of modernist science described "narrative" and"knowledge" as antonyms, and analytic philosophy followed suit. Structuralist linguistics deployed such beliefs to argue that history is merely a systematic arrangement of signs which may be mechanically decoded by scientific observers. Thinkers as different as Carl Hempel and Roland Barthes have shared in the modernist suspicions of "history" and valorization of "analysis." And key words like analysis, test, findings, hypothesis, codes, system, and generalization now decorate the working vocabularies of even those historians hostile to linguistic turns.(2)
In 1988 Peter Novick's commanding social history of the discipline in America, That Noble Dream, lamented the state of historical imagination. The book's final chapter on the scattering of the faithful, "There Was No King in Israel," treats us to the dismal spectacle of cultural historians unable to converse with their compatriots in economic history, of social historians illiterate in the "Derridese" of the latest monograph in European intellectual history, and the inability and unwillingness of the public to brave any history at all, save perhaps the newest shiny volume on the Civil War. How long the chaos might continue, said Novick, "is anyone's guess." As a central exhibit in his case against the jargonization of history, following hard on the heels of a forbidding mathematical equation lifted from Time on the Cross, Novick offered these lines.
The dust jacket of a recent work in intellectual history carried the prediction by Mark Poster that "no historian who reads and comprehends this book will ever write in the same way again." This promise (or threat) was limited by the qualifying "and comprehends": while the author of the book helpfully provided a glossary of such terms as "distransitivity," "actantial/actant," and "psycohologeme," "there were no entries for terms which presumably all but the hopelessly illiterate commanded, like "chrononym," dromomatics," and "intradiegetic."
The scorn for this hapless author effectively demonstrates what Novick says of the profession at large, that the "increasing use of such language within history not only furthered the decline in the profession's sense of wholeness but produced a fair amount of resentment as well."(3)
Novick's reference is to Sande Cohen's Historical Culture (1986), a book that develops the most sustained critique of historical discourse to appear in recent years. Cohen argues that "history" is a signifier without a signified and that historical practice is inherently reactionary, regardless of how much revolutionary rhetoric it produces. The work is much cited but seldom discussed. Most reviewers have conflated it with the metahistory of Hayden White or cast it into the post-structural darkness." Such facile maneuvers reinforce the common but inaccurate notion that critiques of history originated with a handful of wild-eyed, continental hippies. In fact, anti-history is as Anglo-American as vodka martini, and a century of serious philosophical questioning of historical discourse smoothed the reception of better publicized linguistic turns. Historical Culture's vocabulary affiliates it with both structuralism and post-structuralism, but its accounts of history as priestcraft reprise logical positivism's denials of the meaningfulness of historical propositions. Its attacks on metaphor and poesy distance it from Hayden White's early engagements with myth criticism. And its consistent denunciation of narrative resonates strangely with what Lyotard has described as the racialized and gendered legitimations of modern science. In Cohen's hands, semiotics replaces logical positivism as the bane of historical imagination.
A quick sketch of anti-historicism in the twentieth century will help us to understand the cultural codes that make a work like Historical Culture possible. The dissolution of history, long in the making, has been bound up with the valorization of the "hard" sciences. As early as 1905, Charles Peirce argued that philosophers should sweep away the "meaningless gibberish" of metaphysics and remake philosophy Into a "series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences." True sciences were Instrumentalist: "The rational meaning of every proposition lies in the future," said Peirce, since its meaning depends on its "applicability to human conduct." That meant "future time", since we could predict, control, or manipulate only future outcomes. Even the verification of some statement about the past depended on present or future acts of evidentiary testing. Peirce did not descend to historical skepticism, but his conception of the past differed radically from that elucidated by a Royce or a Croce. In his famous words, "a belief that Christopher Columbus discovered America really refers to the future."(5)
Peirce may have been the first to say that historical knowledge depended on future outcomes rather than past objects, but logical positivists like Rudolf Carnap put things in motion. Carnap's description of Heideggerian philosophy as a squishy mixture of poesy and pseudo-science opened the door through which history would be sent packing. If propositions were either scientific or meaningless, and if scientific propositions comprised either empirical observation statements or else logical explanations, then disciplines like history, which had traditionally joined art and science, were in trouble. Thinkers like A. J. Ayer argued that, since scientists could observe only present evidence, "we should doubt the very existence of "past-referring statements." And if history's observation statements were suspect, "explanation" was even more elusive. Carl Hempel's "Function of General Laws in History" (1942) claimed that explanations in true sciences always subsumed particular happenings under general or covering laws: If x happens, then y will follow. In order to be scientific, history needed to produce falsifiable propositions cast in a conditional future tense. Some philosophers saw Hempel's claims as extreme, but the article reoriented the aging debates over historical knowledge, and the idea that predictive law lay at the heart of science became a virtual truism.(6)
In the 1950s and early 1960s, a host of analytic philosophers took up the debate in terms pioneered by the positivists. Edward Bond summarized the common argument: "Only what can be observed can be known. Only what is present can be observed. Nothing past can be present. Therefore, nothing past can be known." Bond thought that this argument could be overcome and historical knowledge grounded in Wittgensteinian descriptions of the ways language users acquire competence with the past tense, but many others did not share his optimism. Bruce Waters argued that "history has no data", that our belief in history is "always a matter of mere assent", and we may "either reject history on the basis of an over-intellectualized skepticism, or accept it as simply being saved by grace." In 1965 Robert Meyers concluded that, if positivism's account of science were correct, one could justify historical statements only by resorting to metaphysics or time travel. That same year, Jack W. Meiland's Scepticism and Historical Knowledge concluded that the bulk of literature supported the skeptic's claim that "historical propositions cannot be known to be true." Meiland's book was overshadowed, however, by other works growing out of these conversations, especially Arthur Danto's Analytical Philosophy of History and Morton White's Foundations of Historical Knowledge. Each defended historical thought while partly assimilating Hempel's covering law model. But each also foregrounded a word not common in the old debates: "narrative."(7)
Narrative theory reshaped philosophy of history when structuralists such as Claude Levi-Strauss took up modernist philosophy's faith in future tense. Levi-Strauss contended that structural linguistics would devise and test "general laws" in the analysis of narrative and do away with the effeminate idealisms that had clouded the vision of older generations. Little surprise, then, that in his 1962 critique of Sartre, Levi-Strauss should cast doubt on the scientific respectability - perhaps even the existence - of history. Unlike anthropology, history was a discipline with "no distinct object." As the anthropologist put it, "[H]istory may lead to anything, provided you get out of it." In 1967, when Roland Barthes wrote "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," he could rely on an established body of work assuring one and all that scientific explanation followed a logical course and history did not. Against the cognitive rigor of structuralism, Barthes set the Ideological figures of narrative. Carnap and Barthes were in many ways light years apart, but they shared a series of modernist beliefs: that there exists a peculiarly scientific mode of discourse we may call explanation; that it obeys intelligible ahistorical rules and that it may be decoded and exemplified by rigorous linguistic analysis.(8)
Where logical positivists hoped to make language in general and philosophy in particular as hard as physical science, the new critiques of narrative aligned with more radical operations. Narrative, some argued, served ideology. And historical narrative generated the sort of repressive bourgeois personalities that culture critics like Norman O. Brown had blamed for many of modernity's evils. By the seventies, two different traditions had converged. On the one hand, thinkers suspected "historical narrative" because it was not really scientific; on the other, they believed "historical narrative" was implicated in the well-advertised crimes against humanity of both liberal and communist regimes. And even in history, Annalistes and New Social Historians condemned narrative and claimed to have risen to truly "analytic" modes of historical discourse."
But by the time Barthes was writing his influential essays and Hayden White was urging readers to emulate Camus and liberate themselves from the "burden of the past", the hegemony of logical positivism (and its account of how scientific verification worked) was eroding. For one thing, it threatened to trash much of modern science. If all statements about past events were unverifiable, then huge chunks of geology, biology, and even physics went out the window along with history. (In one amusing low point, Karl Popper declared that biology was not a science.) And while semiologists normalized the suspicion of narrative and history by contrasting those soft, figurative forms with the rigor of scientific analysis, some Anglo-American philosophers were concluding that narrative and figurative language was crucial even to such exemplary sciences as theoretical physics. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1963) made historicist hash of the positivist's monologic of explanation and scientific knowledge; a leading textbook in analytic philosophy, Quine and Ulliam's The Web of Belief (1970), described hypotheses as "plausible stories" and feminist scholars like Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding told readers that science had legitimated itself by gendering the world Into masculine ("hard," "objective," "analytic") and feminine ("soft," "subjective," "figurative") domains. The stage was set for historicisms to begin edging back into philosophy.
The radical differentiation of analysis and narration continues to shape the ways we think about history, however, and it shadows both the celebrated return of history to literary criticism and the social sciences, and the trendiest rejections of history in cultural studies and elsewhere. It carries the weight of centuries of Western vocabularies contrasting the eternal with the temporal, and reproduces the racialized and gendered codes of the metanarratives of modernity. Those antinomies opened the spaces within which Sande Cohen and Hayden White built their critiques of historical narrative.
While Hayden White's metahistorical writings have won both criticism and praise, Cohen's more radical critique has not attracted careful attention. But it interweaves the two broad traditions of anti-history: the scientistic suspicion of narrative and the revolutionary suspicion of tradition.
Historical Culture announces its grand "hypotheses" in the introduction. First, "by imposing the form of story, academic history reproduces a culture of common language, common society, or common reality in the face of uncommon language (codes), class society, and uncommon realities (chasms between cultural worlds)" (16). By making the "present" imaginable only as a linear extension of the past, narrative precludes any effective understanding of the here and now. Second, this narrativization of reality is "part of the overall requirement for cultural stability." Historians make "history" and the present vanishes, along with any potential for transforming social relations. Finally, "there is no primary object or complex that warrants calling forth the signifier `history'" (21). Readers might object that such esoteric critique is at best tangential and at worst, through its utopian claims to stand outside the system, reinforces the tendencies it condemns. Cohen identifies the danger: "The comforting notion of `outside' (including opposition), still sustains artists and writers: it offers mind the illusion of intellectual gratification." There is no position outside of language or culture. The critic, as in Jacques Derrida's formulation, must denounce order from within order.
We can see the burdens of Historical Culture. Although happily enlisting the apparatus of narratology, the text disavows the scientism of many semioticians. It seeks to show that historical narratives are inextricably implicated in capitalism and "anti-intellectualism." And it hopes to dissolve "history" while reclaiming the "present" for revolution.
Cohen's third hypothesis, history is a signifier without a signified initially appears plausible, coming as it does on the heels of decades of similar or even stronger claims by logicians. Not even vulgar historical realists claim to hold "history" in their hands or between the covers of a book. That history is a different sort of subject, or object, than a table or chair has been frequently remarked. The second thesis, that "history" is necessary for cultural stability, is also uncontroversial (save Cohen's implied value judgment). When we combine the last two theses with the first we begin to sense the extremity of his position. If we break his first hypothesis into three of the "lexia" which decorate the pages of Historical Culture, it looks like this:
(1) My initial hypothesis is this: (2) by imposing the form of story, (3) academic history reproduces a culture of common language,
common society or common reality in the face of uncommon
language (codes), class society, and uncommon realities (chasms
between cultural worlds).
Lexia one provides a scientistic frame. What follows is "hypothesis," not description or story. Despite Cohen's nods to poststructuralism, his rhetorical accoutrements are those conventionally associated with professional science. Cohen wears a white lab-coat and not the historian's tweed. The invidious comparison emerges in (2) where we find academic history "imposing" stories on a passive non-storied reality. These two clauses enact the principal thematic of Historical Culture, the oppositions of analysis and narrative, science and history, present and past, critic and storyteller, revolution and reaction.
The equation recalls the conventional academic association of narrative with primitive others ("old wives' tales"), and while Cohen does not intend to activate those cultural codes, he cannot insulate himself or his text from those histories. Although a careful reader of Lyotard, his work rides the wake of modern science's traditional "othering" of narrative. Cohen agrees with an Annaliste like Fernand Braudel that stories must go, but he does not believe that social historians can escape narration. He has taken to heart Arthur Danto's claim that The difference between history and science is not that history does and science does not employ organizing schemes which go beyond what is given. Both do. The difference has to do with the kind of organizing schemes employed by each. History tells stories." And that, Cohen believes, is the problem with history. He rejects Louis Mink's contention that narrative form is a primary cognitive instrument, along with Hayden White's claim that some history is non-narrative in form. All histories narrate, and narrative is a form of "disintellection" inferior to the rigor of logical criticism.
If the argument seems familiar but rather nebulous, lexia (3) gives us something more substantive and explains why Cohen's third thesis is so radical.
(3) academic history reproduces a culture of common language,
common society or common reality in the face of uncommon
language (codes), class society, and uncommon realities (chasms
between cultural worlds).
These final clauses depend on a series of implicit positive claims: languages are diverse and not common; society is class-stratified and not continuous; and the universe comprises a series of "cultural worlds" separated by "chasms." These are unsubstantiated existential statements about the true nature of the world before it is misrepresented by historians.
Cohen's first proposition, that the world contains diverse and "uncommon" languages or codes, is obscure. One assumes that he has in mind a degree of uncommonness greater than the differences between, say, English and Hebrew. The notion seems to be that "uncommon" languages cannot be meaningfully intertranslated. But a thoughtful theorist should not make this claim without some supporting argument. Given the quality and quantity of work on the topic, one would hope for at least an acknowledgement of that literature. But we are only a comma and a microsecond away from the claim that the world's human populations are stratified by class. This is less objectionable, as one might divide humans into any number of classes. (Cohen has a particular taxonomy in mind.) And a third truth claim is bearing down like a freight train: Humans inhabit "cultural worlds" separated by epistemic "chasms." These phrases open onto worlds of debate, but Cohen buries any questions as to how we make or imagine "cultural worlds" beneath the glib assurance that they are really out there, although academic historians are busy with their whitewash and rollers.
Cohen's claims about uncommon language, society, and culture are premises and not "hypotheses" (at least as that word is used in most "sciences," including semiology). We all need some premise from which to begin, if only as an instrumentally motivated rhetorical gesture that allows us to formulate arguments. But Cohen valorizes his own aesthetic while vilifying others. Read with a skeptical eye, Historical Culture's affinities with, say, Derridean poststructuralism quickly fade.
Consider the claim that history is a signifier without a signified: Cohen does not explain why this is true of "history" but not of "culture," "class," or "language." He eschews the examples favored by realists - tables and chairs, rocks, Mack trucks, speeding bullets, and the like - in favor of terms that seem at least as problematic as "history." Presumably, these terms do have something to back them up which warrants calling them forth as signifiers, if only their shared placement in the "present," the here and now. But that term remains little more than a threat. Unlike a Meiland or a Meyers, Cohen imagines "past" as more epistemically reliable than "history" (although Historical Culture is written almost exclusively in present tense). But like them, Cohen makes the "present" the arbiter of the real. On this point, Historical Culture's arguments veer sharply away from the critique of the "present," and "presence" undertaken by Heidegger and popularized by writers like Derrida and Spivak.
In fact, Cohen displaces the historical past by naturalizing a specious present. This is just the sort of thing that he decries in narrative history, the naturalizing of some problematic subject, "history," "culture," or whatever, as a means of describing it as an active agent while removing it from the empirical gaze: "An assumption is recast as an assertion so placed in a story that it appears to be part of the very fabric of the story: [it] is made not critical, but narrative, not a function, but a need, not suitable for analysis, but comprehensible as narrativized" (325). Take this sentence, replace "story" and "narrative" with "critique" and "critical," and you have a reasonably good description of the "reality effects" of Cohen's first hypothesis.(12)
Historical Culture naturalizes its key words much as academic histories naturalize history. In Cohen's view, the "textual device" of transcendence constitutes history as a subject. Turning to the glossary, we find that transcendence "is the use of a cultural form as the interpretant of another where the interpreting form contains the interpreted" (331). More simply, it is the use of a missing third term or phrase ("historical thought") to resolve a semantic conflict. "Historical" narratives encode semantic oppositions that lead a reader to imagine "historical thinking" or "history" as a meditating third term, the necessary resolution of that conflict. But Cohen's first thesis exemplifies transcendence. It arrays (real) uncommon languages, class society, and cultural difference against (false) common codes, social continuity, and cultural homogeneity. Aligned with the first group of terms we find the present, analysis, and engagement. Paired with the second are history, narrative, and disintellection. This semantic opposition is transcended through the heroic semiosis of "a reader who systematically refuses the signifier as it is made part of such distorting and deintellectualizing sign forms" (324). Historical Culture's transcendent third term is "critical thought," a "cultural form" which "contains its interpreted" equation in its recognition that history exists only in the present. Critical thought is here personified by the heroic semiologist, in this case, Cohen himself. This is all very Hegelian.
If Cohen's anti-history reminds us of Carnap's assault on Heidegger, Ayer's denial of past-referring statements, and Claude Levi-Strauss's critique of Sartre, it should recall also the work of Cohen's mentor, Hayden White. White's Metahistory (1973) invoked formalist critics Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke, as well as Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche, to contend that historians impose narrative order upon an essentially chaotic past; that historical narratives rely upon some archetypal plot form, such as Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, or Satire; that each narrative is centered on a particular master trope: metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, or irony; and that these narrative forms hold an ideological content, namely the legitimation of some social center or state apparatus. White's positive projects called for a willful turn away from irony to metaphor and non-narrativized, even mythic forms of discourse.(13)
Cohen contends that White's attack on historical narrative failed because of its pseudo-humanist desire to recuperate poesy. Noting White's enthusiastic gloss of Vico's account of metaphor, Cohen argues that the privileging of metaphor conflates poetic and nonpoetic language and makes it more difficult to "sort out operations involving comparison" (49). Scholars have incorrectly Identified metaphor with the origin of language. Vico, for instance, historicized rather than explained poesy. But "poetic language was an aristocratic invention," and the humanist's love Of poetics installs academe as the keeper of the metaphoric flame in a lifeless, ironic society: "The academic is responsible, then, for judging and preserving how one can present a restrained sublime element in culture. . . . One is thus in the realm of an academia understood as Intellectual repression . . . performed In the name of preserving the masses' `instincts' from dissolution" (57). Even modernist mythopoesis romanticizes mass culture, suppresses critical thought, and valorizes academia.(14)
The construction slaps Vico and White, but it also carries Cohen far from Nietzsche's famous polemic against history. His "Use and Abuse of History for Life" (1874) claimed that "the historical and unhistorical are necessary in equal measure" and held out mythopoesis as an answer to Europe's surplus of historical thinking. Cohen instead demands the end of both history and poetic hubris.
It is understandable, then, that he sees Metahistory as a rear-guard defense of history. White grounded historical narratives in the master tropes. But where do master tropes come from? In White's Tropics of Discourse (1978), especially, they look like Kantian categories, although it is difficult to say where they are found.(16) Are tropes or plot forms located in a transcendental subject? In culture? In language? As Cohen asks, "Plot structures, raised to a metalinguistic fiction of the defense of the autonomy of the tropes, require a more basic question, which is properly cognitive: in the leap from plot to history, what thinks in historical thought,?" (84). Metahistory described Northrop Frye's modes of emplotment as autonomous forms independent of putative narrative content. Emplotment reflects an author's aesthetic and moral choices, and the reader recognizes plot forms on some deep unconscious level. But plot structures are not transcendental types," says Cohen; they are not Platonic essences or Kantian categories; they are cultural forms which the metahistorian projected onto his texts: "[P]ots function . . . only in relation to the value systems of social groups who already embody a system of expectations about inclusion and exclusion from certain cultural activities." We determine their effects not by aesthetic appraisals that reify bourgeois subjectivity, but through critical analysis.
Cohen offers a counterreading of one of the texts which Hayden White examined in Metahistory, Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution. The passage in question appears in Historical Culture in a series of lexias.
(21) In 1780 there could no longer be any talk of France's being
on the downgrade:
(22) on the contrary, it seems that no limit could be set to her
(23) And it was now that theories of the perfectibility of man and
continuous progress came into fashion.
(24) Twenty years earlier there had been no hope for the future
in 1789 no anxiety was felt about it.
(25) Dazzled by the prospects of a felicity undreamed of hitherto
and now within their grasp, people were blind to the very
real improvements that had taken place and eager to precipitate
White read this as the literary form of tragedy: " [T]he laws by which those whose condition of life is improving should look to the advent of some calamity, usually a product of the overextension of their own limited capacities for understanding the world or for looking at it and themselves "realistically."'(17) Tocqueville employed peripety, hamartia, hubris, and decline to describe how the enthusiastic but naive political consciousness of the French people leads to their downfall. White did not endorse this tragic emplotment: Tocqueville's condescension looks fairly unappealing.
Cohen believes that Ironic reversal and unpredictable outcomes are insufficient evidence of tragedy. By White's line of reasoning "one could regard the Viet Cong victory over the U. S. military forces as tragic if one also regarded the current Vietnamese regime as the conclusion of the whole story" (83). The passage from Tocqueville does, as White observed, present a story about contradictions and blindness," but this is not because it is Inherently Tragic rather its narrator works off a dominant psychological code, that of Desire's refusal to acknowledge reality . . . . [T]he historical con sequence, the later tragedy of the French Revolution, was presented by means of a theory of relations between desire and thinking, not by means of a plot structure at all" (84). The semantic force of the passage from Tocqueville derives not from an autonomous plot form, Tragedy, which the reader recognizes on some unconscious level, but from the socio-psychological action of a code on readers. The passage imposes "historical thought" upon the reader as the only mediating term for reconciling two contradictories. We might describe Tocqueville's narrative as Tragedy, but this is an after-the-fact con struction of the metahistorian and not an immanent feature of the text.
The differend between Metahistory and Historical Culture is one of myth criticism and high structuralism more than competing poststructuralisms. Metahistory developed an archetypal analysis of The Old Regime (the work projects to the reader the form of Tragedy) and an ironic commentary on its realism (Tocqueville's condescension is naive). Histortical Culture locates the text's meaning in the structural opposition of Desire and thought in the text's psychological code, "that people cannot know in self-presence their own thoughts and demands" (83). Despite Cohen's disavowal of any search for deep structures of language, this is a pseudo-freudian projection of his axis of myth and reason. He begins at the end with his predicted outcome, the heroic agon of myth and reason that drove his initial hypothesis. There this equation surfaced as the opposition of common and uncommon, narrative and analysis, past and present, reaction and revolution. In Tocqueville's prose, he finds these antinomies manifested in the opposition of "dazzled" and "real," the false consciousness of the French people versus their true situation. (25) Dazzled by the prospects of a felicity undreamed of hitherto and now within their grasp, people were blind to the very real improvements that had taken place and eager to precipitate events. Cohen describes this as the passage's "synthes's proposition" where conflicts are transcended by the implied historical thought," the absence of which leads to a regrettable outcome. In White's reading, Tocqueville laments the inability of his subjects to comprehend the tragic weight of their situation; in Cohen's reading, both Tocqueville and White mythologize the past and mystify the present. The conflict of interpretations points to a fiercer battle between competing deals of subjectivity projected by competing models of reading. Of White's reading, Cohen comments that The circuits that connect story, narration, and reader are tautological: story is encoded by plot, plot is encoded by literature, literature is encoded by language, language is encoded by psychology, and the act of reading, since it is always in alignment with its object, confirms the history text as yet another formation of the passive Western subject it produces the reactive reader for whom the text recodes existing classificatory systems, keeping the reader's pre-existing subjectivity intact" (15, 86). The criticism is valid but probably banal; any Interpretive system is to some extent self-referential. Cohen's more urgent objection is that White's system precludes the construction of a revolutionary reader. In it, Cohen's act of self-creation, the genesis of the heroic semiologist-reader, is not conceivable. But Historical Culture is no less tautological. In its exegesis, Tocqueville's implied resolution, "historical thought," pairs off with its implied contradictory, "critical thought." This antinomy is in turn transcended by the heroic semiologist who recognizes the constructedness, the presentness," of history, in an act of transcendental semiosis that underwrites a heroic refusal of historical narrative."'
Cohen has too much invested in the oppositional reader to say that the myth and reason axis is a mere regulative idea. Had his baseline assumptions simply provided a horizon within which to work, the problem might not be so bad. But he elevates heuristics to evaluative principle: Vico "narrativizes" rather than analyzes"; historians "impose" where semioticians "disentangle"; narrative "distorts" where discourse "frees," and so on. He has, though, suggestively elaborated a metahistorical critique. Where others question White's lack of interest in mechanisms of change or his emphasis on individual acts of authorial will, Cohen assails his formalist presuppositions: first, by reminding us that textual qualities inhere less in some immanent plot form or trope than in acts of reading; and second, by providing a competing interpretation of one of White's own objects of criticism, something with which to compare and contrast the method of Metahistory.
We might agree with Cohen that plot forms are not essences and still read The Old Regime as tragedy. If White's commentary does not enforce such a reading, Cohen's does not exclude it. Ironically, Cohen's complaint that White's account of emplotment would allow him plot the victory of the Vietcong as a tragedy, verges on metaphysical realism - the past is given to us in the form of stories and we may evaluate histories by their correspondence to that reality. The metahistorian might respond that a historian could indeed emplot Vietcong success as tragedy without necessarily "falsifying" the documentary record. Plot forms are always empirically underdetermined. We might make good moral or aesthetic arguments against tragic employments of Viet Cong victory, but Cohen's appeals to the out rageousness of such things does not refute White. So far as The Old Regime is concerned, we might say that Tocqueville figures his deep conflict, between Desire and thinking, as tragedy. Describing the story's thematic agon as the conflict of Desire and thought suggests a tragic emplotment with affinities to Hegel. By stressing the lack of historical consciousness, The Old Regime provides the hamartia that anticipates and explains the ultimate tragic fall. This reading leaves the status of plot forms in ironic brackets; such conventions deserve examination, but I suspect that the historian would need to cast her net somewhat wider than a handful of Great Books and a model reader to develop a truly plausible account of emplotment as a cultural event.
With that much abused word, "reading," we might begin to wind down this essay. Having read with qualified enthusiasm Cohen's critique of Metahistory's rudimentary theory of reading, and having been promised in the introduction that chapters two through five would analyze the interaction of text and reader, it is with some chagrin that we find yet another unexamined dichotomy pairing the passive bourgeois reader with the heroic semiological reader. Once again the world breaks into halves: Some readers have the training, talent, or will to think critically, and some do not. Cohen says nothing about Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, or Hans Robert Jauss; he dismisses Wolfgang Iser in a single clause. Historical Culture instead follows Barthes, and historical narrative beats a passive reader into submission. Sentences, propositions, and narrative summaries are "given to" or "presented to" the passive reader the reader is "directed to," "drawn into," returned to," "located at," "precoded" and even "programmed." The reader owns no active verbs. Indeed, The narrator never relinquishes control over these linearized precritical thoughts and their reproduction as utterances of the reader's parole" (325). Here lies the ultimate metaphor of Histortical Culture, the reader as prisoner, never dreaming that outside her storybook dungeon the heroic semiologist romps free.
If as Dominick LaCapra claims, White's Metahistory described the individual historian as free shaping agent with respect to an inert, neutral documentary record,"(19) then Cohen's Historical Culture imagines the individual historical narrative as free shaping agent with respect to an inert, neutral bourgeois reader. The differentiation of narrative and reader, text and context, is as unforgiving as in White's formalism. Meaning is generated not in acts of reading but in the Internal dynamics of self-contained narratives, each of which offers roughly two different readings: the false, reactive and disintellectual reading imposed on the average reader; and the true, radical, and critical reading won by the heroic semiologist. Only our critical hero can overthrow historical narrative and its semantic legerdemain. "Disentangling" is difficult," admits Cohen modestly, wiping the sweat from his brow.
At this point, active bourgeois readers are well advised simply to bracket Cohen's favorite polarities. Doing so sheds Historical Culture of utopian extravagence, but should not lead readers away from the book. If we encounter no especially helpful account of reading, we do find some brilliant readings, particularly the ironic reversals of Fernand Braudel. Where Braudel represented himself as having transcended the childish figures of storytelling, Cohen finds narrative elements built into the most basic structures of the great Annaliste's work, a reading that undermines Hayden White's suggestion that the Annalistes produced something other" than historical narrative, namely, a variety of social science discourse with a "different order" of truths.20 It is such specific readings and not the grand theses of Historical Culture that offer the strongest argument for semiotic historiography. At its best (and many of Cohen's readings are virtuoso performances) it offers startling accounts of the narrative conventions woven through non-narrative" histories. If we place to one side Historical Culture's utopian theory hope, we might even imagine the book as part of a broad sweep of literature in philosophy of science that now decodes "figurative" conventions in the most "analytical" discourses, rather than a heroic, post-structural unveiling of historiography's figural shame.
Despite its denunciation of textual forms that stabilize contradiction, the grand theses of Historical Culture circle around their own set of unproblematized and suspect dichotomies: past and present, narrative and analysis, reaction and revolution, chaos and continuity. We should not be surprised to learn that a critique of history naturalizes its own key words. If one is going to expound a specifically historical skepticism, one needs to contrast history with a properly cognitive" practice: for Hempel, physics; for Levi-strauss, anthropology; for Cohen, semiotics. Unfortunately, so many of us have grown up with modernity's judgments on the scandalous impropriety of savage myths and old wives, tales that we find such contrasts familiar and forget their unhappy racialist and sexist coding. This Is not to say that Cohen reads Ayer or nurses a repressed affection for logical positivism. At issue are the cultural codes that make his critique possible. The danger, as he says, is that comforting notion of `outside.'" Historical Culture cannot stand outside the linguistic traditions so nicely glossed by Lyotard. Its grandiose attacks on historical narrativity can resonate with readers precisely because its vocabulary conserves the common codes of modernity: Historians, like women, children, and savages, engage in improper behavior, spinning stories when they should be struggling toward enlightenment.
If our tale twists in tragic directions, it is not just because Cohen believes it is revolutionary to write in the present tense about twenty five-year-old works of French philosophy; it is also because so many historians react to his work in ways that suggest they share that belief. For a few professional renegades, the shock value of Historical Culture is itself attractive. Some of us empathize with complaints about academia's intellectual conservatism, and it can be fun to cheer when an iconoclast wins screams of outrage from the Establishment. But Cohen's Inattention to the dangerous relations between his own thought and certain other traditions threatens to reduce his work to an interest-group politics in which one set of white collar professionals (theorists) legitimates itself by attacking another group of white collar professionals (historians). We need only pause to consider what Cohen's constructions would mean for the narrative traditions of tribal cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, to realize that his indictment of academic obscurantism also enacts less desirable judgments.
Saying that Histortical Culture reinscribes reactionary cultural codes does not mean that "history" is unproblematic, or that historians do not deploy it in naive and repressive ways, or that it is not entangled with modern political economy. But these remain issues for exploration rather than axioms for evangelism. Perhaps historical narrative's complicity with capital owes not to the action of narrative sign-forms but to capitalist culture "itself." If we occupy something we might usefully describe as capitalist culture, we should not be surprised to find it staring back at us from our texts. If a society of surplus accumulation" is constituted by historical narrative, it is no less present in historiography and criticism, heroic or otherwise. I paid thirteen dollars and ninety-five cents plus sales tax for my copy of Historical Culture, and it now sits on my overloaded book shelf, a scarlet sign-form of my complicity in surplus accumulation. Cohen is not blind to such banal ironies, but would likely assure me that such contradictions will be overcome only by critical thought In the here and now, through a willful transcendence of history by the all-too-real present. For my part, I suggest that we read the hope of escaping histories in terms of a conflict between thought and desire.
(1.) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979; Eng. lang. ed., Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984), 27. (2.) Hayden White, "The Burden of History" (1966), in Tropics of Discourse" Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978), 27-50; Carl G. Hempel, "The Function of General Laws in History," Journal of Philosophy 39 (1942): 35-48; Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of History," (1967) in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986), 127-40. (3.) Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 589. (4.) Sande Cohen, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an Academic Discipline (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986). Page citations will appear in the text. See also Cohen, Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), Steven Watts, "The Idiocy of American Studies: Poststructuralism, Language, and Politics in the Age of Self-Fulfillment," American Quarterly 43 (1991):646, invokes Cohen's work as an example of the errors of the "Linguistic Left," the product of a "failed radicalism" that has strayed from the materialist fold. Watts chastises Cohen's "poststructuralism" and accuses this work of the aesthetic disengagement that Cohen criticizes in the works of White, et al. Bryan D. Palmer, in Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990), offers Cohen's work as "an exemplary case of the worst that critical theory can produce," calling it "Tales told by idiots, signifying nothing, burp" [sic] (242, 86). Colin Loader, in a review of Palmer's book in CLIO 20 (1991):289, agrees with Palmer that social history should be defended, but suggests that "A response to Cohen would have helped to clarify the irreconcilability of poststructuralism and social history." Russell Jacoby, "A New Intellectual History?" American Historical Review 97 (1992):419-21, assimilates Cohen to the work of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. A few reviewers of Historical Culture were more generous. See, for instance, David Hollinger's review in Pacific Historical Review 92 (1988): 344-45 and Dominick LaCapra, review in American Historical Review 92 (1987):376-77. Hayden White's publication puff on the dust jacket claims that it is "the most original contribution to historiographical theory since Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative." (5.) Peirce, "What Pragmaticism Is" and "Issues of Pragmatics," in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume V: and VI, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968), 282, 284, 285, 312, 313. (6.) Rudolf Carnap, "The Overcoming of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis" (1935), in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, ed. Michael Murray (New Haven: Yale UP, (1978), 23-24; W. T. Stace, "Metaphysics and Meaning" in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap (Glencoe, III The Free Press, 1957) 565-75; A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic reprint, New York Dover, 1952), 100-3; Hempel, "The Function of General Laws in History." Ayer later amended his position. See his Philosophical Essays (New York, 1954), 167-90. (7.) Harold Lee, "The Hypothetical Nature of Historical Knowledge," Journal of Philosophy 51 (1954) Bruce Waters, "The Past and the Historical Past," journal of Philosophy Donald C. Williams, "More on the Ordinariness of History," Journal of Philosophy 52 (1955):269-77; Edward J. Bond, "The Concept of the Past," Mind 72 (1963):533-44; G. E. M. Anscombe, "The Reality of the Past," in Philosophical Analysis: A Collection of Essays, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), Michael Dummett, "Bringing About the Past," Philosophical Review 73 (1964):338-59; Samuel Gorovitz, "Leaving the Past Alone," Philosophical Review 73 (1964):360-71; Robert Meyers, "Discussion: Stace, Historical Statements, and Verifiability," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 26 (1965):260-62; R. G. Swinburne, "Affecting the Past," Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1966): 341-47; Richard K. Scheer, "Statements About the Past," Mind 76 (1967);432-34; Jack W. Meiland, Scepticism and Historical Knowledge (New York: Random House, 1965); Arthur C. Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History (New York: Columbia UP, 1965); Morton G. White, Foundations of Historical Knowledge (New York: Harper and Row, 1965). (8.) Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962; Eng. lang. ed., Chicago: U of Chicago P, (1966), in Image/Music/Text, trans. Steven Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 79-124; Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of History." (9.) Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (London: Routledge, 1959). (10.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (1962 Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970); W. V. O. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief (New York, 1970), 43; Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985); and Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986). (11.) Danto cited in Louis O. Mink, "History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension" (1970), 45; Louis Mink, "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument" (1978), 185; both essays in Historical Understanding, ed. Brian Fay, et al. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987). (12.) Curiously, although the book was published in 1986, it does not engage Paul Ricoeur's work nor does Cohen discuss Louis Mink's account of narrative and time. [13.] Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973). This article is concerned only with this early phase of White's work. His later essays, collected in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), come much closer to Cohen, although White distinguishes between "narrativity," on which all histories depend, and "narrative," which historians may reject in favor of other forms. (14.) But see Cohen, "Toward Events without History," in Historical Criticism and the Challenge of Theory, ed. Janet Levarie Smarr (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991), 117-18 n. 14. Elsewhere, Cohen says "I am not intimating that logic, binarism, grammar, the sentence form, or propositions make up `thought.' And that the form of such thought is more primary than the aesthetic. I am saying that until there is a cultural revolution on the forms of language, academic forms can only aestheticize thinking, not theorize thinking as nonreactive. Bourgeois-academic writing is never and cannot be about anything other than its self-attempt to transcend itself as thought, in which the aesthetics of summary is but one shape of cultural transcendence" (Historical Culture, 172). Coming after almost two-hundred pages of relentless dichotomizing the claim is unpersuasive. At best, Cohen naturalizes cognition in the pragmatic belief that this is a revolutionary act. At worst he evinces the sort of utopianism he attributes to Fredric Jameson. (15.) Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" (1874), in Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1878; Eng. lang. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), 57-123. (16.) Hayden White, The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978). (17.) White, Metahistory, 217. (18.) See Wlad Gozich's comments in his foreword to Didier Coste, Narrative as Communication (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991), ix-xvii. (19.) Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985, 35, and "Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts" (1980), in Rethinking Intellectual History. Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca: Cornell Up 1983), 63. (20.) White, The Content of the Form, 44.
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|Author:||Klein, Kerwin Lee|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1996|
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