Historiographic essay: “Whither history?”

In her presidential address to the American Historical Association, Gabrielle Spiegel (pictured right) equated the problematic ungroundedness of postmodern histories with the psychological impossibility of feeling grounded following the Holocaust:

Both for those who survived and for those who came after, the Holocaust appears to exceed the representational capacity of language, and thus to cast suspicion on the ability of words to convey reality. And for the second generation [those who inherited the wound but did not experience its infliction], the question is not even how to speak but, more profoundly, if one has a right to speak, a delegitimation of the speaking self that, turned outward, interrogates the authority, the privilege of all speech. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 7)

It is for this reason, Spiegel suggests, that the historians who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s became suspicious of their ability to represent truth. Not only were the events of the Holocaust fundamentally indescribable to any adequate degree, but the language itself seemed stricken to silence. There were simply no words to describe the reality. Only grammars — conjugations of understood essences — retained their capacity to convey; to construct meaning.

Pretensions of intellectual objectivity died at Auschwitz. Or rather, argues Spiegel, they died following innumerable failed attempts to describe what it was like to have been there. And this had a fundamental impact on what it meant to do history.

the emergence of poststructuralism under the sign of the linguistic turn bespoke the end of the confident, optimistic era of European Enlightenment with its faith in the continual progress of human history under the aegis of scientific learning and methods and, not least among them, scientific history. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 8 )

A new call was thus raised; rather than celebrating individual events or actors, context became king. For thirty years, social and cultural histories reigned.

But there has recently been some disgruntlement.  Analyses of language and its constructions are beginning to sound hollow. Culture is more than interaction of disembodied symbols; it’s where people live.

Culture, thereby, is recast as a “performative term,” one realized only processually as “signs put to work” to “reference” and interpret the world. Historical investigation, from this perspective, takes practice (not structure) as the starting point of social analysis, since practice emerges here as the space in which a meaningful intersection between discursive constitution and individual initiative occurs. This initiative is, in the first instance, cognitive, a subject’s ongoing reformulation of values, priorities, interests, and behaviors in terms provided, but not governed, by available discourses or languages (i.e., sign systems). (Spiegel, 2009, p. 10)

Yet if it is indeed the case that we have entered a period of post-postmodernism, and history is becoming more psychological in its framing, then we are left with a question.

Spiegel asks, “Whither history?”

If not stories of context, or of what it was like, then what sorts of stories will we tell?

It seems probable that as our consciousness of the penetration of global capitalism and its impact on all forms of social formation grows, historical writing will increasingly be influenced by the problematics fostered by this development and will, therefore, create new objects of investigation. This is already apparent in the growing concern with questions of diaspora, migration, immigration, and the rapidly developing field of transnational history… which deploys a global perspective that emphasizes the basic hybridity of global cultures in the postcolonial and postmodern world. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 11)

This also implies the development of a new perspective of historical enculturation:

how the local is produced and what forms it takes in the space of dispersal, or how, precisely, it relates to the culture of origin. As a conceptual device, the idea of “de-territorialized identity” seems to reflect the recognition that in the context of a world increasingly marked by migrations, cultural as well as economic globalization, intermarriage, an unbounded intercommunication, questions of home, community, allegiance, and hence identity are constantly being redefined. At the same time, it provides an analytical framework that allows scholars to talk about these processes from a global perspective, one independent of the nation-state as the framing unit of discussion. (Spiegel, 2009, p. 12)

Applying these insights to history of science requires an interpretive leap. From one perspective, we are led to histories of cultural concepts (e.g., emotion, objectivity). From another, we seem led toward examinations of migratory boundary objects; analyses of interdisciplinarity as a cross-cultural endeavor; and discussions of scientific diaspora, be they movement between countries or between disciplines, and the issues appertaining thereto.

Under either interpretation, we are led to a further set of questions:

When we see a scientist, we see the science and the context in which it is done. We see laboratory life. But how did that context come to be? And how did its scientists come to find themselves in it? How did the assumptions that ground them evolve?

Are these the questions of the next generation of historians? The generation who grew up with the wound of postmodernism, but not the cause behind its infliction?


Spiegel, G. M. (2009). Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian. American Historical Review, 114(1), 1-15.

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “Historiographic essay: “Whither history?”

  1. An interview at Inside Higher Ed, on the theme of “becoming historians,” adds some further context to Spiegel’s discussion:

    Q: Do you see common themes on how this diverse group of historians were attracted to the discipline and grew into distinguished scholars?

    John R. Gillis, professor emeritus at Rutgers University: I have been struck by how much chance rather than design has shaped the lives of this generation, born just before or after World War II. All were inspired by liberal arts educations that opened the world to them. They arrived at graduate school eager and enthusiastic, though unfocused, and were almost universally disappointed by the specialization they found awaiting them. All around them, the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams; and it was not long before they were challenging the conventions in and outside academe, changing their chosen fields, often inventing whole new fields of historical endeavor….

    James M. Banner Jr., co-founder of the National History Center and historian-in-residence at American University: In addition to what John writes (and with which I fully concur), I’d add a certain element of boldness to the mix. Members of our generation of historians were people unshackled from the economic necessities of the previous, World War II generation. They were of more diverse origins. Their world seemed to be filled with uncertainty and implacable demands for justice and equality. Also, by good fortune, employment was available enough so that “newcomers” like women and African Americans could find academic and other berths.

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