This article reflects on the relief with which mainstream historical scholarship has distanced itself in the last decade or so from serious engagements with the so-called linguistic turn of the later twentieth century. This twenty-first-century repudiation of theory continually declares the importance of seeking “the next thing” in both subject matter and approach while simultaneously posting and reposting the death notice of historical writing informed by poststructuralism. Reflecting on her own intellectual trajectory and the evolution of her efforts to write genealogical histories of language and governance in modern France, the author considers the value—and costs—of persisting in such “outmoded” practices. This brief essay thus ruminates on what might be at stake for historians who continue to attend to the play of language in the texts we read—or who persist in mobilizing certain “outmoded” feminist theoretical questions for the power of the productive disturbances they can create in the interpretation of sources—in a field that takes the past as its subject but has come, increasingly, to denigrate the past of its own conceptual possibilities in its present-day celebration of the new. The repeated pronouncement of the death of history nourished by poststructuralist theory, along with a concurrent embrace of scientific imperatives of innovation, the author suggests, operate as an attempt to settle disciplinary unease with undecidability while at the same time distancing history from the possibilities opened in its own past by the practice of historical reading and writing as critique.
Sylvia Schafer; Still Turning: Language, “Theory,” And History’s Fascination with the New. differences 1 September 2012; 23 (2): 165–174. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1629848
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