Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 1)

American History Review Forum: Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective

Part One: Forum Readings

An answer to this assignment.

Judith Surkis: When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Geneaology, pp. 700-722

The historiographical task of historicizing historiographical turns is itself a historiographical turn (716, 717). Seen this way, the emergence of historiographical turns can be narrowed down to the emergence of, not necessarily a widespread “turning” per se, but of the reflexive self-evidence that there has been a “turn”. Then, the different influences leading up to it can be gathered: anthologies (705), political influences (709), and linguistic maneuvers, such as ironic distancing (710), the definite article “the” before “the” turn (712), and the editorial “we” (714). In the specific case of “the linguistic turn”, its overarching concern with language leads, consequently, to a constant questioning of what the other of language is: experience (713) or a politics of (the) body/bodies (721).

Gary Wilder: From Optic to Tpic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns, pp. 723-745

“Turns”, especially “the” linguistic and cultural “turns”, present a false choice between exclusively navel-gazing reflection while “the turn” lasts, and a complete closure of reflection in favor of a shallow empiricism when “the turn” is declared “over”, dead and done (728). To circumvent this false choice, a resurrection of a Marxism-inspired historiography is needed (739). The colonial alternative to imperial history, however, at the time being, only represents the above false choice (737). The task of the historian must rather be an actualization of history, to reflect contemporary concerns (742).

James W. Cook: The Kids Are All Right: On the “Turning” of Cultural History, pp. 746-771

The proclamation of the end of a “turn” (747) is always also a retroactive declaration of its coherence (753), such that subsequent theorizing, even within a new “turn”, remains retrospective reflection on the previous “turn” (755). At the same time, however, the proclamation of a “turn”‘s end also always happens within an ongoing and very much alive continuation of the “turn”‘s discussions and issues (749, 763), calling into question such seemingly self-evident elements of its coherence as the editorial “we” (759). Like the “linguistic turn”, the “cultural turn”, too, continually asks for its other (761 sqq.), reinforcing its coherence by asserting a common object.

Durba Ghosh: Another Set of Imperial Turns?, pp. 772-793

In the case of imperial and postcolonial studies, the coherence of a “turn” can be assumed because both of them revolve around a common political cause that can serve to overcome or alleviate the differences within their approaches (775). With empires being “a product of global history rather than a driver of it” (782), both imperial and (post)colonial history has to embed the story/ies of empire(s) into broad, non-Eurocentric narratives (783), thus serving the political cause. Within this setting, even archival research ceases to be positivist, and becomes a liberatory activity (791).

Julia Adeney Thomas: Not Yet Far Enough, pp. 794-803

The other four pieces focusing on the twin questions of whether there were “turns” at all, and if there were, what their prescriptions were (795), all four of them, and indeed most of historiography, misses out on one of the most fundamental threats to the possibility of doing historical research at all: global climate change (801). What historians can contribute to an ecological politics is a rewriting of historical accounts based on the insights of new materialism (802).

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal: Generational Turns, pp. 804-813

The four pieces of the forum focused on ruptures rather than coherence between the turns. It is precisely the generational set-up of historians following each other in academic position that provides for coherence (805). The current [as of 2012, S.E.] “turn”, if there is one (811), can be described as, not a turn to archival positivism (807), but an emphasis on discursive texts (808) within a broader framework made coherent by the overarching categories of the “everyday” (809) and “network structures” (810).

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