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Re: [XTalk] Deconstruction and doing history

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  • Steve Black
    ... I am rather new to this whole methodology , and so I cannot point you to any works. ... I, personally am still sorting through the various claims of
    Message 1 of 3 , Jun 1, 2001
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      >Steve, Dave,
      >
      >Deconstruction has been around now for quite some time, as has historical
      >work on the Shoa, so I will make my request more specific:
      >
      >Could someone name a major work on the Shoa that is written by a
      >deconstructionist?

      I am rather new to this whole "methodology", and so I cannot point
      you to any works.

      >Has anyone demonstrated, or even argued convincingly, that any major work on
      >the Shoa would have been better if its author had espoused the
      >deconstructionist mind-set and theory?

      I, personally am still sorting through the various claims of
      deconstructionism. I have not got to the point where I can personally
      make any final statements regarding it. Many claims, mostly focusing
      on the nature of the historian, and the constructed nature of
      history, on a philosophical level (apart from historical results)
      seem pretty hard to get around. The recognition of "power plays", and
      agendas. and so forth also seem invaluable to a true and honest
      historical criticism. The relevance to HJ seems inescapable.

      >
      >My impression is that the decon--ists in practice consider their work as a
      substitute for doing history.

      Just a thought, its seems that to be a coherent teller of history, we
      probably need (or have by default) a philosophy of history that
      guides us. I would see deconstructionism as more of that
      philosophical background than the actual history itself. [Perhaps...]
      >
      >
      >In any case I am glad that they have not put their historical work on hold
      >until they have swum the length of deconstruction's acid bath.

      I've always liked acid baths

      --
      Peace

      Steve Black
      Diocese of New Westminster
      Anglican Church of Canada
    • David C. Hindley
      ... historical work on the Shoa, so I will make my request more specific: Could someone name a major work on the Shoa that is written by a deconstructionist?
      Message 2 of 3 , Jun 2, 2001
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        Brian McCarthy says:

        >>Deconstruction has been around now for quite some time, as has
        historical work on the Shoa, so I will make my request more specific:

        Could someone name a major work on the Shoa that is written by a
        deconstructionist?

        Has anyone demonstrated, or even argued convincingly, that any major
        work on the Shoa would have been better if its author had espoused the
        deconstructionist mind-set and theory?

        My impression is that the decon--ists in practice consider their work
        as a substitute for doing history.

        Perhaps some working historians have quietly profited from their
        critique. I don't think either Yehuda Bauer or Peter Novick
        acknowledges doing so.

        In any case I am glad that they have not put their historical work on
        hold until they have swum the length of deconstruction's acid bath.<<

        To be honest, I do not want to be using any single example as a litmus
        test. The Holocaust (Shoa) is a deeply personal event for many who
        lived through it as well as the families of those affected by it in
        other ways.

        I engaged in a quick web search and think I am getting a feel for the
        position you have voiced. A March 1998 archive from the arch-theory
        list contained a thread that seemed to mirror your concern. Authors of
        various posts suggested that narrative deconstruction was being
        employed by some to deny the certainty of Holocaust events.

        I also found an essay by Diane Purkiss (_The Witch in History_)
        responding to a review of her book by Richard Evans (who wrote _In
        Defense of History_). From this (plus other links I looked at
        yesterday but could not find today) I get the impression that there
        are some historians, especially among Jews, who "are fond of pointing
        out that deconstruction�s leading American exponent was a Nazi
        sympathiser and anti-Semite during the war, indicating the dire
        political consequences of deconstruction�s challenge to traditional
        history. (Purkiss, P. 70)"

        The objection seems to hinge on a couple things: especially that Paul
        de Man, a well known poststructualist and narrative deconstructionist,
        wrote 170 articles for a Belgian collaborationist newspaper during
        WW2, including one that was explicitly anti-Semitic, and that
        Holocaust deniers have employed narrative deconstruction to try to
        undermine the claims of Holocaust survivors (and the recorders of
        archives) as well as lend legitimacy to their own explanation of
        events.

        Sometimes the Holocaust deniers' presentation mimics bona-fide
        historical scholarship so thoroughly that Evans complains the
        Holocaust deniers� "use of the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and
        references, and their insistence that they are telling the objective
        truth [as opposed, I suppose, to some sort of subjective
        agenda-influenced accounts of Holocaust activists], demonstrates in
        Purkiss�s view the �dire consequences� of such a scholarly apparatus,
        the bankruptcy of such a belief in objectivity and truth." (pp. 140-1)
        Keep in mind, though, that Purkiss took exception to this
        characterization of her position as being inaccurate, and connected
        the misrepresentation to Evans' "attempt to link postmodernism with
        Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial."

        So there appears to be a tendency on the part of Holocaust defenders
        (as opposed to deniers) to see narrative deconstructionist method as a
        threat to claims for the truth/reality of holocaust events. There is
        an undercurrent that also objects to the use of narrative
        deconstruction as an exegetical tool which allows feminists and others
        to read their specific issues into historical evidence, and it is
        suggested that feminists and Holocaust deniers are both trying to
        rewrite history in order to bring it in-line with their own agendas.
        The key difference, as I see it, between such exegetical use of
        narrative deconstruction (which is being used quite a bit in Biblical
        studies) and the analytical use of it in the study of historical
        sources (primary and secondary), is that excesses in its exegetical
        use do not negate its usefulness as an analytical tool for
        understanding historical narrative.

        The holocaust is directly mentioned only once in Munslow's book (pg
        97, with my previous quote from pg. 149 being an indirect reference).
        This reference in page 97 is in relation to Marxist constructionist
        historian Alex Callinicos's objection that deconstructionist White, by
        "Conceiving history as a fictive historical representation, where
        meaning derives from how it is written rather than according to the
        factual anchor of objectively discoverable and describable real
        events, suggests ... White has a skeptical and relativist (that is
        postmodern) North Atlantic bourgeois liberal agenda! White is thus not
        equipped to tell fact from fiction, or ... able to distance himself
        from 'nationalist historical mythologies', by which he <Callinicos>
        means White's treatment particularly of events like the Holocaust." I
        am not sure what this refers to, as the Holocaust is not mentioned at
        all in the index to _Metahistory_, so it probably relates to something
        in one of the two major collections of White's essays in print,
        neither of which I have on hand. Summarizing Callinico's position
        regarding deconstructionist White, Munslow says "In Callinicos's view,
        as well as that of other non-Marxist critics, White's formalism and
        relativism make him incapable of distinguishing truth from
        interpretation, and fact from fiction."

        So there are obviously critics of the historical deconstructionist
        approach. Even so, all historical approaches have strong and weak
        points (which Munslow steps through, one by one, as I'll indicate
        below), including the positions of reconstructionists (employing
        traditional empirical methods) and constructionists
        (reconstructionists aided by the heavy use social theory to fill in
        the blanks between points of evidence analyzed in the traditional
        empirical method). Munslow, to his credit, not only devotes two
        chapters to reconstructionist/constructionist and deconstructionist
        historical methods respectively, but also two more that ask what is
        wrong with each of those two basic approaches. In each chapter he
        devotes sections that discuss issues related to epistemology,
        evidence, and theories of history relevant to each positions,
        including their problems, and how these all relate to structural and
        poststructural narrative theory. Munslow's book is a true textbook,
        not a vanity book intended to expound the virtues of a favored
        position.

        BTW, I was drawn to take a look at narrative deconstruction (as it
        relates to historical investigation) for reasons very similar to those
        mentioned by Steve Black, and have reached quite similar conclusions
        about it. To be honest, I am not yet sure how to apply it to analysis
        of primary sources, but I definitely see its applicability for
        analyzing the secondary product of modern historians. Hayden White's
        methods are exceptionally well defined and based on the work of
        specialists (he defines them in the first 42 pages of _Metahistory_),
        and are not just his fuzzy hunches. He stands out in contrast to many
        others, so it does not bother me that any "fad" interest in his work
        has faded. That only means that serious use of his methods is what we
        can expect from now on, and I look forward to that.

        Respectfully,

        Dave Hindley
        Cleveland, Ohio, USA
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