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French history debate results May 12, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in Uncategorized.
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Sorry for another prolonged absence. Obviously Will is beating me in the number of posts here but I will do my best to plod alongside his commentary. This post summarizes our online debate that occurred several weeks ago. We are thinking of trying something similar, maybe with more of a direct science slant, in the near future.

Online debate on French history, theory, and the question of modernism

Our first experimental virtual chat went very well, and we are happy to report that we had the generous participation of some French historians in training who took some time to talk with us about the usage of theory, the meanings behind history, and what it means to be modern.

Our guests included Micah Alpaugh, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Irvine, who studies non-violent political protest during the French Revolution; Meghan Cunningham, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern, who examines modern conceptions of the family as evidenced in the writings of Enlightenment savants; and Natasha Naujoks, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UNC Chapel Hill, who investigates the mythology of Napoleon during the 19th century in light of both classical and contemporary traditions.

Here are summaries and fragmented excerpts selected from our group chat:

1. Derrida and Foucault in the Classroom

The long shadowy presence of Foucault seemed to dominate this part of the conversation since most of our participants’ educational backgrounds had touched upon his theories in some way. Most of our guests were in agreement that theory was often taught but there was little in the way of guidance about how to employ theory in relation to history. Natasha recommended Elizabeth Clark’s History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn as a good source that commented about the origins of the “new intellectual history” and its debt to French theory. Apparently, it also turned out that I was the sole supporter of theory with Will and the others quite happy to leave it alone. No closet Deleuzians here…

2. Textual Interpretation, Inside Out

Literary interpretation was another area of interest that seemed to be debilitating, or at least, lacking in proper means of usage. Meghan raised the problem of interpreting the emotional language found in the letters between romantic partners, parents/children, and friends for the purposes of her dissertation. Micah agreed that linguistic categories were equally limiting for the concept of mass-action. Everyone seemed to enjoy the work of Clifford Geertz as a budding graduate student, but Micah’s dislike of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms merit as a micro-history divided the group. Bruno Latour’s Laboratory Life and Science in Action provided some amusing thoughts about the agency of salmon.

Meghan: (summarizing the book)…with the more theory-inclined arguing that bacteria have agency…
Meghan: and this one history grad student pipes up, “So what’s next? Salmon have agency?”
Will: See, it’s not that he’s wrong, if you read him right, it’s that he’s not that helpful.
Meghan: I would say that was my take on him as well.

3. Historians are Humanists too!

Should history graduate students really pretend to be part of the humanities in order to garner more grants and fellowships (when art historians really do need the money)? As Natasha aptly articulated, the “exercise in fantasy,” when a dissertation has yet to become a concrete project, is a mix of rhetorical posturing and not knowing where one will find the appropriate forms of evidence (if they even exist). Some shuddered at the thought that some historians do not even use archives at all.

4. Traversing the *“Leaderless Minefield”

Meghan noted that some historians, in the spirit of finding new frontiers, were making the move to the area of material culture. Which possibly could devolve into museum studies, according to Will. Which could be generalized as visual culture, as I implied. Which could end up in media studies. Not quite sure if that is so good. In retreating to the analysis of culture, the group agreed that there was a strong lack of argumentative programs that did not offer any original viewpoints about the state of the field (there were many scholars who were certainly trying to avoid obvious faux pas or attempting to revise the revisionist literature).

*We actually owe this term “leaderless minefield” to Micah.

5. Modern, Modernism, Modernity, WTF?

We managed somehow to return to address Fish’s assertion that deconstruction does not and could not have a politics, which did not sit well with most of the guests. The conversation finalized around the types of questions that our guests are posing in their projects and if looming presence of modernity played a role in their assessment of historical periods, fields of study, and the kinds of conclusions drawn from scholarship.

Micah: Very broadly, I think it’s time to have Revolution come back in — the Soviet hangover’s worn off a bunch over the last twenty years, and the world over the next few is likely to get a lot more interesting…
Meghan: I would say my chief interpretative issue is how to write a sort of collective biography, and in particular how to access emotional/private life issues through texts, which involves a lot of correspondence theory.
Natasha: on a provincial level, I’m challenging early modern and modern French historians about periodization
Natasha: I really resent the 1789 dividing line
Me: What would be the new date of the French Revolution?
Micah: I’m pretty invested in the 1789 line myself.
Natasha: I’m in favor of 1750-1850, not across the board of course
Micah: Sounds Furettian ;)
Natasha: well, I do love my ferrets, you know…no seriously, think about teaching the French Revolution, how could you possibly start in 1789 and make sense of it? Inevitably you’d have to create a sort of prologue unit, you know, “origins of…”
Micah: Such is the great challenge, but a worthwhile one. Did the French Revolution really have origins?
Natasha: no, was an accident…you’re right :-) Seriously, though, I’m not sure I’m convinced by the conflation of the FR and “modernity,” fraught with teleological problems
Micah: Yeah, modernity, WTF?

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