History as “Why?” & “How?”: Agency through Autobiography

Technically, class-consciousness has not been conceived of as psychological consciousness.  It has been separated from ‘the empirically given, and from the psychologically describable and explicable ideas that men form about their situation in life’, and has been seen rather as a possible set of reactions people might have to discovering the implications of the position they occupy within the realm of production (Steedman 1986, 13).

This quote by historian, Carolyn Kay Steedman, reveals one of her main issues with histories dealing with class and class-consciousness, their generalizing and universalizing tendencies. She asserts that the most predominant of these places nearly all individuals of the British working class within a stereotyped, ‘emotionally passive’ life ‘”where survival is more important than elaboration of relationships.  .  .  “(Seabrook)’ and “the streets are all the same;  nothing changes” (Steedman 10-11).

To me, it is evident why this reading follows Foucault in the order of class readings. Foucault’s strategy was to utilize discourse analysis in order to illuminate the measures of control and discipline embedded in those discourses.  Here is one instance of a “Why?” and “How?”  related to the discourse of history that can be applied to Steedman’s project, in which she says:

This extraordinary attribution of sameness and the acceptance of sameness to lives arises from several sources. First of all delineation of emotional and psychological selfhood has been made by and through the testimony of people in a central relationship to the dominant culture, that is to say by and through people who are not working class.

The development of selfhood by those external to the working class does not necessarily totally discredit it. However, it does provide a reason for one following Foucault’s methods, to question who is, in fact, developing the interpretation of the selfhood of the working class in order to determine what the payoff in terms of power relations is for them.

This Foucauldian type of questioning might function as part of an archaeology/genealogy in which particular moments in the historiography of the working class can be uncovered and then utilized to open up the discussion of these formulas.

Utilizing a working class perspective through her autobiographical method, Steedman begins the project of reassessing the “granite-like plot” of the working class that considers only issues of exploitation and production.  She finds her own interpretation of “Why?” and “How?” in the question of the timing, the process of development, of working class ‘mental life’, or consciousness (14).  Like Foucault’s use of historical specificity, Steedman’s work attempts to “particularize” the stereotypical illustration (and she says, “profoundly a-historical landscape”) used in traditional working class histories.

Her motivation, too, is particularly genealogical and postmodern in intention as its particularizing elements are not meant to establish universals, but rather, to empower “the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets…to use the autobiographical ‘I’, and tell the stories of their life” (16).






One thought on “History as “Why?” & “How?”: Agency through Autobiography”

  1. Thank you for bringing Foucault into this topic. It is impressive for me. I didn’t think they can connected to each other by this way. And this makes me think about another point to link Foucault and Steedman, as they both have introduced the issue about “seeing” into the filed. Foucault discusses this issue of visibility by his study of panopticism, and Steedman, from another way, places analytical lens to see the story of her mother and herself, with making her private story visible. While Foucault illustrates how controls occur in relation and in “seeing”, Steedman also shows the values and potential risks (tension, biases…) when historians do research through autobiography, which rarely be a sole way and source to represent a subject. They both remind me to review the way I see things.

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