Deconstructing Deconstructionism

As anticipated, Foucault was a challenge this week. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I had read a little of Foucault’s work before this class and had already formulated somewhat of a confused bias, but in any case, I definitely found myself bogged down trying to make sense out of what appeared to me as a jumble of philosophy and words I did not know. Thank goodness for the “Key Foucauldian Concepts,” putting at least some of his ideas into common (or comprehendible to me) English.

Spiegal’s “The Task of the Historian” was by far my favorite reading of the week. She was able to break down the concept of deconstructionism and describe the “linguistic turn” in ways that were completely understandable and compelling. For instance, she highlighted a link between the post-Holocaust second generation and post-modern consciousness that helped explain why the linguistic turn occurred when it did. To the second generation following the Holocaust, the actual word “Holocaust” did not seem to have the capacity to represent all that the event entailed (mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, etc.), and therefore people began to question the “ability of words to convey reality” (7). Put in these terms, the rise of post-structural thought seems almost logical–how can we rely on words if they cannot properly articulate what something means? Spiegal’s use of this example highlighted once more the importance of placing events and intellectual turns into context (and also brought up the Holocaust in a much more applicable and appropriate way than I did last class). Additionally, she pointed to reasons why the linguistic turn, though heavily criticized, might yet have some value and place within the study of history. She pointed to the benefits of applying post-structuralism in the study of diasporas, which provides an alternate and more effective unit of study than that of the “nation-state” (12). I think her attempt to find a place within the study of history for the merits of a receding line of thought underscores the fact that, though our discipline is ever-evolving, we need not systematically embrace and then dispose of every theory or line of thought that comes our way. Rather, we can apply the valuable aspects of each to the discipline in the hopes of becoming more analytical and more knowledgeable historians.

One aspect of the readings that I found particularly intriguing but am not entirely sure I understand is the concept of “Enlightenment” as it is found in Foucault’s critique of Kant. According to Foucault, Kant describes the Enlightenment being characterized by a “way out” or, the process that “releases us from a state of immaturity,” in which we escape someone else’s authority (What is Enlightenment). Does this mean that, as a society and as individuals, the Enlightenment represented a modification in the way we (human individuals) perceive authority and the ability to reason? Or perhaps the greater point is that, in order to understand the Enlightenment, we must understand the societal and individual context in which it occurred? Additionally, the concept of the Enlightenment (this time as a period of history) is brought up briefly in Spiegal’s article, where she states, “…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” (“The Task of the Historian”, 8). Is this “Enlightenment” the same that Foucault and Kant are referring to? I find myself empathizing with the historians that so objected and feared the linguistic turn—it appeared to be uprooting everything they “knew” about their discipline (a feeling many of us in class have experienced once or twice since the beginning of the term).

I am anxiously anticipating class discussion this week. I am hoping to gain a little more insight into what Foucault was all about, as well as insight into the numerous terms and names of theories that littered the pages of the readings for this week.

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing Deconstructionism”

  1. Yes, it is that Enlightenment! I agree that Spiegel does a great job of setting out the psychological, social and procedural “why” of the linguistic turn, and we should definitely talk more about that in class. Also, I appreciate your empathy for the the historians who first encountered post-structualism!

  2. “…though our discipline is ever-evolving, we need not systematically embrace and then dispose of every theory or line of thought that comes our way. Rather, we can apply the valuable aspects of each to the discipline in the hopes of becoming more analytical and more knowledgeable historians.”
    I love this quote from your analysis. You are so right that we can (and should!) embrace the new aspects and theories that come to us as the discipline evolves. I think it will radically change the field if we learn to handle such openness and trying new things.

  3. Hi Carmen,

    The Enlightenment represented optimism about what can be accomplished through the application of reason. Thinkers like Hegel and even Marx conceived of a linear trajectory on which history developed. My interpretation of Spiegel’s article is that at least one of her points was that the Holocaust was a major challenge to that idea of progress, but that interpretation may be coming from other readings I have done recently about challenges to modernity in other classes.


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