Publication Date

December 1, 2012

When asked to speculate about the future, historians typically decline, noting that our expertise rests with the past. This is, of course, not always the case. When the mantle of the public intellectual is irresistible historical scholars do sometimes turn themselves into seers, but usually with mixed results. For example, two noted historians of the 18th century have recently weighed in on discussions of the future of printed books and of the libraries that house them, resorting to a technological determinism they would disdain in their scholarly work. Gone is the attention to complexity, conflicts of interest, cultural systems, contingency, mentalité, political machinations, structures of power and resistance to them. In their place, a singular inevitability: the pulsing force of electronic machines; digitization as social revolution. Closer to home—that is, to predictions about the discipline of history itself—there are elders in the field gleefully announcing the passing of the theory they refer to as the “linguistic turn.” Again, employing conceptual tools they would renounce in the study of medieval society or modern intellectual history, they chronicle a succession of phases or stages (from the political to the social to the cultural, to language, to the postcolonial and the global) that totalize history’s practices at any point in time. They reduce the theoretical preoccupations of “language” to a simple thematics, it becomes an object of study (in a succession of them) rather than (what it is) an epistemological position. It is as if the discipline had only one aspect, free of controversy, singular in its orthodoxy, when, in fact, any serious study of it would reveal a multiplicity of theory and method, a contested rather than consensual terrain, and nothing linear about the path of its evolution.

How can we account for this loss of perspective, the substitution of reductive reasoning for the analysis of complexity, on the part of historians who presume to offer knowledge of the future? Some of the explanation lies with the exercise of prediction itself. It is, in the end, a way of articulating a wish of some kind, one that is not always conscious and not necessarily tied to the subject at hand. Predictions about the future—even when they are made by reputable scholars—function like the dream in Freudian theory, "its content was the fulfillment of a wish and its motive was a wish."1 Historian prognosticators may wish to have more contemporary relevance than is usually accorded their craft; they may wish to serve as exemplars for their peers (masters of material technology, featured among the avant-garde); they may wish to quiet their own ambivalence about a love affair with Google by attributing it to the inevitable force of history; or (in the case of pronouncements of the death of theory) they may wish to do away with a set of disturbing questions they never felt competent to answer. It is this last wish I want to address in the rest of this brief essay. In a sense, my projection for the future of the discipline is the counter wish to the one that declares theory dead.

There has been great celebration recently, in the pages of the American Historical Review and elsewhere, of the passing of the linguistic turn (a stand-in for theory more broadly) and the restoration of the empirical imperative in contemporary historical work. Sylvia Schafer refers to “the sigh of relief” that has accompanied this commentary. “Declaring theoretically informed historical writing of a certain kind ‘dead’ not only distances history ever further from modes of thought that have never sat well with its preferred politics of knowledge. It also suggests that no ‘new’ insight can emerge from history’s past.”2 Schafer also points to the way in which attention to theory is treated thematically in these commentaries and she’s struck by the oddity of what she calls “history’s fascination with the new.” This thematizing of theory, its placement in a succession of ever-evolving objects of study, she concludes, nullifies its epistemological threat and renders it simply out of style, passé.

The explanation for theory's passing finds it inevitable, if not natural. As a professional body, historians are said to be averse to theory: it interferes with the accurate capture of life as it was lived in the past; it ignores complexity, imposes causality, blinds us to contingency, neglects particularity; it is anachronistic, reductive, universalist; its implied polemic interferes with objectivity. That hasn't been my experience with the theory that gets referred to as poststructuralism (or more irritatingly, postmodernism). To the contrary, the modes of analysis offered by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Spivak, Johnson and others have enabled me to probe questions about the operations of difference in ways that my disciplined historical formation did not. (They have also enabled me to read both Freud and Marx differently.) My students and colleagues who have taken this epistemological turn have produced astonishing readings of the past, sharpening our understanding of the meanings of words and actions hitherto misunderstood or simply ignored. It is particularly in the area of those taken-for-granted concepts (strangers, fevers, incest, sex, man, woman, religion….) that they have offered new insight. These concepts have histories. They were the objects of debate, struggle, appropriation, and manipulation then, as they are now. They are the stuff with which the past has created its futures. Learning to read them through the lens of theory opens us not only to new thinking about the events of the past, but to the complex ways language works in our own time. It's not that past and present are causally related; it's that critical analytic thinking of this kind works for both. Michel Foucault put it this way: "It consists in seeing on what types of evidence, colloquialisms, and inherited modes of thought rest the practices that we take for granted. There is always a bit of thought even in the most stupid of institutions, there is always thought even in mute habits. Critique consists in flushing out this thought and in trying to change it."3 And, it goes without saying, critique is informed by theory, if not synonymous with it.

My wish for history-the-discipline's future involves an embrace of these theories now said to belong to the past. It calls for the recognition of the difference between themes and epistemes and respect for epistemological differences among us. It seeks serious attention for theories that make our conventional assumptions uncomfortable; it defines interdisciplinary work not as complementarity, but as disruptive; it asks not only what we know and how we know it, but, crucially, what we don't know. Indeed, I think the discipline of the future ought to include theoretically informed history. I don't mean work that simply gestures at the outset to some philosopher or that has a few fancy words in its vocabulary. I mean serious engagement with the critical work of theory (whether Marxist, psychoanalytic, poststructuralist or some combination of them). At the very least, we need to leave space in the profession for historians who take theory with them to the archives, who embed it in their empirical descriptions, whose work problematizes existing conventions and categories, including those enshrined in the discipline's orthodoxy.

Fortunately, the heralds of the death of theory are false prophets (or inattentive researchers). There is ample evidence for its vitality in the work of historians too numerous to mention here. What's needed is protection of the space in which they work, for it is they who will guarantee that history's future remains open not only to unforeseen possibility, but to the critical work that secures our continuing interest in the past, to the processes by which futures—our own included—are made.

Joan Scott is Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. She is a founding editor of History of the Present, a journal for theoretically informed history. Her most recent book is the Fantasy of Feminist History, Duke University Press, 2011.


1. Sigmund Freud,The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900, [p. 119].

2. Sylvia Schafer, “Still Turning: Language, ‘Theory,’ and History’s Fascination with the New,”differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23:2 (2012), 165–174.

3. Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” [in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997); Also in the Bulletin de la société française de la philosophie 84:2 (1990), 35–63.]

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