New York — In her presidential address to the American Historical Association here Saturday night, Gabrielle M. Spiegel, a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, provided a valedictory goodbye to postmodernist theory. Surveying the influence of what Richard Rorty once called “the linguistic turn” in the humanities, Ms. Spiegel, a well-known theorist who has written extensively about how language has shaped the writing of history, noted that “we all sense this profound change has run its course.”
“The whole influence of poststructuralist and postmodernist historiography is receding,” she said. “What is worth saving?”
Starting in the mid-1960s, scholars in history — and throughout the humanities — began to focus on how coded meanings in language affect the way that people experience, and understand, their lives. As the linguistic turn moved through semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction, scholars increasingly began to emphasize the multiple layers in language, and the instability of meaning. By the late 1980s, Ms. Spiegel noted, many historians were calling the impact of postmodernism “an epistemological crisis” that undermined traditional ideas of causation and action in history.
Today, however, forces like vast technological change and the spread of global capitalism have shifted the focus of scholarship to transnational history: to topics like diaspora, war, exile, migration, the hybridization of cultures as people combine identities, and the cosmopolitanism that emerges. Indeed, the program here featured panels on “Spaceflight, Place, and Memory in a Global Setting,” “The Transnational History of Food in 20th-Century East Asia,” “Global History in the Early 20th Century,” “Missions to the World: Transnational Perspectives on Modern American Religion,” “Hamilton and Hamiltonianism: Fresh Reflections From the Globalized 21st Century,” “Remembering Race and Rethinking the American Midwest in Global Perspective,” “Doing Transnational History,” “Globalizing Beauty: Body Conflicts in the Modern World,” “Disrupting Boundaries and Globalizing Historiographies: Consumer Cultures and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” and much more. The last year has also seen the founding of new journals like the Journal of Transnational American Studies.
“Whither is this history going?” Ms. Spiegel asked. That’s not yet clear, she said, but she warned against throwing out all the insights of postmodernist theory.
The key to understanding what is still valuable in the linguistic turn lies in the psychological causes that led to its development, Ms. Spiegel went on. Those, she said, lay in the experience of the second generation after the Holocaust. For postmodernist theorists like Jacques Derrida, the way the Holocaust was filtered to them through their parents provided the impetus for their radical destabilization of meaning. The second generation felt the psychic wounds inflicted by the Holocaust, but also confronted the unwillingness of their parents to discuss them directly. The legacy, for their generation, was one of death, loss, blankness, rupture — and the inadequacy of language to describe the Holocaust. All led to a challenge to any sense of stable meaning.
That is gone, Ms. Spiegel said. But she was suspicious of what she called “the triumphalist tone” of much of the current trend for transnational history. The focus on the mixture of cultures, and on the movement of peoples, contains an implicit emphasis on the strength of hybrid cultures: how they have brought people together in new identities. But the transnational moment also has its burdens, Ms. Spiegel warned. The common thread in much of the history of transnational movements today is on how culture has been “deterritorialized,” she said. “We need to attend to the sense of loss of culture, too.”
For that — and to understand what people give up, as well as what they gain, when they leave one place for another — historians can learn from postmodernism and its attention to loss, fractured meaning, and instability, she concluded. “We still have to take account of memory as a constructed narrative.” —Karen J. Winkler