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Why Study History?

By Peter N. Stearns

People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the
study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating
what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? Given all the desirable and available
branches of knowledge, why insistas most American educational programs doon a good bit
of history? And why urge many students to study even more history than they are required to?
Any subject of study needs justification: its advocates must explain why it is worth attention.
Most widely accepted subjectsand history is certainly one of themattract some people who
simply like the information and modes of thought involved. But audiences less spontaneously
drawn to the subject and more doubtful about why to bother need to know what the purpose is.
Historians do not perform heart transplants, improve highway design, or arrest criminals. In a
society that quite correctly expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history
can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering or medicine. History is in fact very
useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes
less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines.
In the past history has been justified for reasons we would no longer accept. For instance, one of
the reasons history holds its place in current education is because earlier leaders believed that a
knowledge of certain historical facts helped distinguish the educated from the uneducated; the
person who could reel off the date of the Norman conquest of England (1066) or the name of the
person who came up with the theory of evolution at about the same time that Darwin did
(Wallace) was deemed superiora better candidate for law school or even a business promotion.
Knowledge of historical facts has been used as a screening device in many societies, from China
to the United States, and the habit is still with us to some extent. Unfortunately, this use can
encourage mindless memorizationa real but not very appealing aspect of the discipline.
History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it
harbors beauty. There are many ways to discuss the real functions of the subjectas there are
many different historical talents and many different paths to historical meaning. All definitions of
history's utility, however, rely on two fundamental facts.
History Helps Us Understand People and Societies
In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies
behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of
disciplines make the attempt. An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap
our efforts. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peaceunless we use historical
materials? How can we understand genius, the influence of technological innovation, or the role
that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we don't use what we know about experiences in the
past? Some social scientists attempt to formulate laws or theories about human behavior. But

even these recourses depend on historical information, except for in limited, often artificial cases
in which experiments can be devised to determine how people act. Major aspects of a society's
operation, like mass elections, missionary activities, or military alliances, cannot be set up as
precise experiments. Consequently, history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory,
and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure
out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why
we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the
contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of
how societies function simply to run their own lives. History Helps Us Understand Change and
How the Society We Live in Came to Be The second reason history is inescapable as a subject of
serious study follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time
we try to know why something happenedwhether a shift in political party dominance in the
American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the
Middle Eastwe have to look for factors that took shape earlier. Sometimes fairly recent history
will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify
the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only
through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through
history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.
The Importance of History in Our Own Lives
These two fundamental reasons for studying history underlie more specific and quite diverse
uses of history in our own lives. History well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most
appeal to the general reading public know the importance of dramatic and skillful writingas
well as of accuracy. Biography and military history appeal in part because of the tales they
contain. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on
the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and
societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in
other times and places. The same aesthetic and humanistic goals inspire people to immerse
themselves in efforts to reconstruct quite remote pasts, far removed from immediate, present-day
utility. Exploring what historians sometimes call the "pastness of the past"the ways people in
distant ages constructed their livesinvolves a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately
another perspective on human life and society.
History Contributes to Moral Understanding
History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and
situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it
against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who
have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances
can provide inspiration. "History teaching by example" is one phrase that describes this use of a
study of the pasta study not only of certifiable heroes, the great men and women of history

who successfully worked through moral dilemmas, but also of more ordinary people who
provide lessons in courage, diligence, or constructive protest.
History Provides Identity
History also helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern
nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how
families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved
while retaining cohesion. For many Americans, studying the history of one's own family is the
most obvious use of history, for it provides facts about genealogy and (at a slightly more
complex level) a basis for understanding how the family has interacted with larger historical
change. Family identity is established and confirmed. Many institutions, businesses,
communities, and social units, such as ethnic groups in the United States, use history for similar
identity purposes. Merely defining the group in the present pales against the possibility of
forming an identity based on a rich past. And of course nations use identity history as welland
sometimes abuse it. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the
national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a
commitment to national loyalty.
Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship
A study of history is essential for good citizenship. This is the most common justification for the
place of history in school curricula. Sometimes advocates of citizenship history hope merely to
promote national identity and loyalty through a history spiced by vivid stories and lessons in
individual success and morality. But the importance of history for citizenship goes beyond this
narrow goal and can even challenge it at some points.
History that lays the foundation for genuine citizenship returns, in one sense, to the essential uses
of the study of the past. History provides data about the emergence of national institutions,
problems, and valuesit's the only significant storehouse of such data available. It offers
evidence also about how nations have interacted with other societies, providing international and
comparative perspectives essential for responsible citizenship. Further, studying history helps us
understand how recent, current, and prospective changes that affect the lives of citizens are
emerging or may emerge and what causes are involved. More important, studying history
encourages habits of mind that are vital for responsible public behavior, whether as a national or
community leader, an informed voter, a petitioner, or a simple observer.
What Skills Does a Student of History Develop?
What does a well-trained student of history, schooled to work on past materials and on case
studies in social change, learn how to do? The list is manageable, but it contains several
overlapping categories.
The Ability to Assess Evidence. The study of history builds experience in dealing with and
assessing various kinds of evidencethe sorts of evidence historians use in shaping the most

accurate pictures of the past that they can. Learning how to interpret the statements of past
political leadersone kind of evidencehelps form the capacity to distinguish between the
objective and the self-serving among statements made by present-day political leaders. Learning
how to combine different kinds of evidencepublic statements, private records, numerical data,
visual materialsdevelops the ability to make coherent arguments based on a variety of data.
This skill can also be applied to information encountered in everyday life.
The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations. Learning history means gaining some skill in
sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations. Understanding how societies work
the central goal of historical studyis inherently imprecise, and the same certainly holds true for
understanding what is going on in the present day. Learning how to identify and evaluate
conflicting interpretations is an essential citizenship skill for which history, as an often-contested
laboratory of human experience, provides training. This is one area in which the full benefits of
historical study sometimes clash with the narrower uses of the past to construct identity.
Experience in examining past situations provides a constructively critical sense that can be
applied to partisan claims about the glories of national or group identity. The study of history in
no sense undermines loyalty or commitment, but it does teach the need for assessing arguments,
and it provides opportunities to engage in debate and achieve perspective.
Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change. Experience in assessing past examples of
change is vital to understanding change in society todayit's an essential skill in what we are
regularly told is our "ever-changing world." Analysis of change means developing some capacity
for determining the magnitude and significance of change, for some changes are more
fundamental than others. Comparing particular changes to relevant examples from the past helps
students of history develop this capacity. The ability to identify the continuities that always
accompany even the most dramatic changes also comes from studying history, as does the skill to
determine probable causes of change. Learning history helps one figure out, for example, if one
main factorsuch as a technological innovation or some deliberate new policyaccounts for a
change or whether, as is more commonly the case, a number of factors combine to generate the
actual change that occurs.
Historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of that elusive creature, the well-informed
citizen. It provides basic factual information about the background of our political institutions
and about the values and problems that affect our social well-being. It also contributes to our
capacity to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. No one can
ever quite deal with the present as the historian deals with the pastwe lack the perspective for
this feat; but we can move in this direction by applying historical habits of mind, and we will
function as better citizens in the process.
History Is Useful in the World of Work
History is useful for work. Its study helps create good businesspeople, professionals, and
political leaders. The number of explicit professional jobs for historians is considerable, but most

people who study history do not become professional historians. Professional historians teach at
various levels, work in museums and media centers, do historical research for businesses or
public agencies, or participate in the growing number of historical consultancies. These
categories are importantindeed vitalto keep the basic enterprise of history going, but most
people who study history use their training for broader professional purposes. Students of history
find their experience directly relevant to jobs in a variety of careers as well as to further study in
fields like law and public administration. Employers often deliberately seek students with the
kinds of capacities historical study promotes. The reasons are not hard to identify: students of
history acquire, by studying different phases of the past and different societies in the past, a
broad perspective that gives them the range and flexibility required in many work situations.
They develop research skills, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information, and the
means to identify and evaluate diverse interpretations. Work in history also improves basic
writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the
public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential.
Historical study is unquestionably an asset for a variety of work and professional situations, even
though it does not, for most students, lead as directly to a particular job slot, as do some technical
fields. But history particularly prepares students for the long haul in their careers, its qualities
helping adaptation and advancement beyond entry-level employment. There is no denying that in
our society many people who are drawn to historical study worry about relevance. In our
changing economy, there is concern about job futures in most fields. Historical training is not,
however, an indulgence; it applies directly to many careers and can clearly help us in our
working lives.
Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of
human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of
mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with
relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple
awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally
"salable" skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some
historythat confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate
environmentis essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal
taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the
inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through
cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the
world works.

Why Study History? (1985)

By William H. McNeill

Why should anyone bother learning about things that happened far away and long ago? Who
cares about Cleopatra, Charlemagne, Montezuma or Confucius? And why worry about George
Washington, or how democratic government and industrial society arose? Isn't there quite
enough to learn about the world today? Why add to the burden by looking at the past? Historians
ought to try to answer such questions by saying what the study of history is good for, and what it
cannot do. But since no one can speak for the historical profession as a whole, this essay is no
more than a personal statement, commissioned by the American Historical Association in the
hope of convincing all concerned that the study of history is indeed worthwhile and necessary for
the education of effective citizens and worthy human beings. Historical knowledge is no more
and no less than carefully and critically constructed collective memory. As such it can both make
us wiser in our public choices and more richly human in our private lives.

Historical knowledge is no more and no less than carefully and critically constructed
collective memory.

Without individual memory, a person literally loses his or her identity, and would not know how
to act in encounters with others. Imagine waking up one morning unable to tell total strangers
from family and friends! Collective memory is similar, though its loss does not immediately
paralyze everyday private activity. But ignorance of history-that is, absent or defective collective
memory-does deprive us of the best available guide for public action, especially in encounters
with outsiders, whether the outsiders are another nation, another civilization, or some special
group within national borders.
Often it is enough for experts to know about outsiders, if their advice is listened to. But
democratic citizenship and effective participation in the determination of public policy require
citizens to share a collective memory, organized into historical knowledge and belief. Otherwise,
agreement on what ought to be done in a given situation is difficult to achieve. Agreement on
some sort of comfortable falsehood will not do, for without reasonably accurate knowledge of
the past, we cannot expect to accomplish intended results, simply because we will fail to foresee
how others are likely to react to anything we decide on. Nasty surprises and frustrating failures
are sure to multiply under such circumstances.
This value of historical knowledge obviously justifies teaching and learning about what
happened in recent times, for the way things are descends from the way they were yesterday and
the day before that. But in fact, institutions that govern a great deal of our everyday behavior
took shape hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Having been preserved and altered across

the generations to our own time, they are sure to continue into the future. The United States
government is such an institution; so is the world market, armies and the Christian church. Skills
like writing, and devices like bureaucracy are even older than Christianity, and concerns that
bother us still can be read into the cave paintings left behind by Stone Age hunters as much as
twenty thousand years ago. Only an acquaintance with the entire human adventure on earth
allows us to understand these dimensions of contemporary reality.
Memory is not something fixed and forever. As time passes, remembered personal experiences
take on new meanings. A bitter disappointment may come to seem a blessing in disguise; a
triumph may later turn sour, while something trivial may subsequently loom large-all because of
what happens later on. Collective memory is quite the same. Historians are always at work
reinterpreting the past, asking new questions, searching new sources and finding new meanings
in old documents in order to bring the perspective of new knowledge and experience to bear on
the task of understanding the past. This means, of course, that what we know and believe about
history is always changing. In other words, our collective, codified memory alters with time just
as personal memories do, and for the same reasons.

. . . the changing perspectives of historical understanding are the very best introduction we
can have to the practical problems of real life.

When teachers of history admit that their best efforts at understanding the past are only tentative
and sure to be altered in time to come, skeptics are likely to conclude that history has no right to
take student time from other subjects. If what is taught today is not really true, how can it claim
space in a crowded school curriculum?
But what if the world is more complicated and diverse than words can ever tell? What if human
minds are incapable of finding' neat pigeon holes into which everything that happens will fit?
What if we have to learn to live with uncertainty and probabilities, and act on the basis of the
best guesswork we are capable of? Then, surely, the changing perspectives of historical
understanding are the very best introduction we can have to the practical problems of real life.
Then, surely, a serious effort to understand the interplay of change and continuity in human
affairs is the only adequate introduction human beings can have to the confusing flow of events
that constitutes the actual, adult world.
Since that is the way the world is, it follows that study of history is essential for every young
person. Systematic sciences are not enough. They discount time, and therefore oversimplify
reality, especially human reality. Current events are not enough either. Destined to almost instant
obsolescence, they foreshorten and thereby distort the time dimension within which human lives
unfold and, thanks to memory, are conducted.

Memory, indeed, makes us human. History, our collective memory, carefully codified and
critically revised, makes us social, sharing ideas and ideals with others so as to form all sorts of
different human groups. Each such group acts as it does largely because of shared ideas and
beliefs about the past and about what the past, as understood and interpreted by the group in
question, tells about the present and probable future.
BUT, you may say: suppose we agree that some sort of knowledge of history is essential for an
adult understanding of the world, what actually belongs in our classrooms? The varieties of
history are enormous; facts and probabilities about the past are far too numerous for anyone to
comprehend them all. Every sort of human group has its own history; so do ideas, institutions,
techniques, areas, civilizations, and humanity at large. How to begin? Where to start? How bring
some sort of order to the enormous variety of things known and believed about the past?
Teachers of history have always had to struggle with these questions. Early in this century,
teachers and academic administrators pretty well agreed that two sorts of history courses were
needed: a survey of the national history of the United States and a survey of European history.
This second course was often broadened into a survey of Western civilization in the 1930s and
1940s. But by the 1960s and 1970s these courses were becoming outdated, left behind by the rise
of new kinds social and quantitative history, especially the history of women, of Blacks, and of
other formerly overlooked groups within the borders of the United States, and of peoples
emerging from colonial status in the world beyond our borders. These, and still other new sorts
of history, enhanced older sensibilities and corrected older biases; but, being both new and
different, did not fit smoothly into existing surveys of U.S. national history and western

Clearly we need careful reflection about, and search for, enduring patterns and critical
turning points in the past, for these are the historical facts that everyone needs to know ...

Teachers found it exciting to teach the new kinds of history in special courses that allowed them
time to develop the subject properly. It was less satisfying and much harder to combine old with
new to make an inclusive, judiciously balanced (and far less novel) introductory course for high
school or college students.
But abandoning the effort to present a meaningful portrait of the entire national and civilizational
past destroyed the original justification for requiring students to study history. As specialized
electives multiplied, historians could not convince others that random samples from the past,
reflecting each teacher's special expertise or interests, belonged in everyone's education. For if
one sample was as good as another, none could claim to be essential. Competing subjects
abounded, and no one could or would decide what mattered most and should take precedence. As

this happened, studying history became only one among many possible ways of spending time in
Level I. Personal-Local History
The costs of this change are now becoming apparent, and many concerned persons agree that
returning to a more structured curriculum, in which history ought to play a prominent part, is
imperative. But choice of what sort of history to teach remains as difficult as ever. Clearly we
need careful reflection about, and search for, enduring patterns and critical turning points in the
past, for these are the historical facts that everyone needs to know, not what happens to interest a
particular teacher or aspiring specialist. Whether historians will rise to the occasion and
successfully bring old and new sorts of history together into an understandable whole remains to
be seen. In the meanwhile, a few obvious suggestions are all that can be offered here.
Amongst all the varieties of history that specialists have so energetically and successfully
explored in recent decades, three levels of generality seem likely to have the greatest importance
for ordinary people. First is family, local, neighborhood history: something often transmitted
orally, but worth attention in school for all that. This would seem especially important for
primary school years, when children start to experience the world outside their homes. Second is
national history, because that is where political power is concentrated in our time. Last is global
history, because intensified communications make encounters with all the other peoples of the
earth increasingly important. These levels belong to high school and college, in the years when
young people start to pay attention to public affairs and prepare to assume the responsibilities of
citizenship. Other pasts are certainly worth attention, but are better studied in the context of a
prior acquaintance with personal-local, national, and global history. That is because these three
levels are the ones that affect most powerfully what all other groups and segments of society
actually do.
Can such courses be taught and fitted into the curriculum? The answer is yes, if teachers and
administrators try hard to put first things first and achieve a modicum of clarity about what
everyone ought to know. National history that leaves out Blacks and women and other minorities
is no longer acceptable; but American history that leaves out the Founding Fathers and the
Constitution is not acceptable either. What is needed is a vision of the whole, warts and all.
Global history is perhaps more difficult. Certainly our traditional training sidesteps the problem
of attaining a satisfactory vision of the history of humanity, since few historians even try for a
global overview. Still, some have made the attempt. Moreover, every scale of history has its own
appropriate patterns which, once perceived, are as definite and as easily tested by the evidence as
are the meaningful patterns that emerge on any other scale. This means, I think, that careful and
critical world history is attainable just as surely as is a careful and critical national history that
does not omit the important and newly self-conscious groups that were previously overlooked.
Level II: National History

But consensus is slow to come, and may never be achieved. In the meanwhile, teachers and
curriculum planners have a difficult task. Authoritative models for courses in national and global
history are not readily available. Personal and neighborhood history, too, must be worked out
independently for each classroom and locality. But questions to be asked and the range of
information that can be handled by children in the primary grades is, perhaps, less difficult to
agree upon than at the high school and college levels. Serious and concentrated effort is clearly
called for. Only so can history and historians deserve and expect to regain the central place in the
education of the young that once was theirs.
Level III: Global History
THREE points remain. First, the study of history does not lead to exact prediction of future
events. Though it fosters practical wisdom, knowledge of the past does not permit anyone to
know exactly what is going to happen. Looking at some selected segment from the past in order
to find out what will occur "next time" can mislead the unwary, simply because the complex
setting within which human beings act is never twice the same. Consequently, the lessons of
history, though supremely valuable when wisely formulated, become grossly misleading when
oversimplifiers try to transfer them mechanically from one age to another, or from one place to
another. Anyone who claims to perform such a feat is sadly self-deceived. Practical wisdom
requires us instead to expect differences as well as similarities, changes as well as continuitiesalways and everywhere. Predictable fixity is simply not the human way of behaving.
Probabilities and possibilities-together with a few complete surprises-are what we live with and
must learn to expect.
Second, as acquaintance with the past expands, delight in knowing more and more can and often
does become an end in itself. History offers innumerable heroes and villains. Reading about what
people did in far away times and places enlarges our sense of human capacities both for good and
evil. Encountering powerful commitments to vanished ideas and ideals, like those that built the
pyramids, puts our personal commitment to our own ideals into a new perspective, perhaps
bitter-sweet. Discovering fears and hopes like our own in pages written by the medieval Japanese
courtier, Lady Murasaki, or reading about the heroic and futile quest for immortality undertaken
by the ancient Mesopotamian king, Gilgamesh, stirs a sense of shared humanity that reaches
back to the beginning of civilization and across all cultural barriers.
On the other hand, studying alien religious beliefs, strange customs, diverse family patterns and
vanished social structures shows how differently various human groups have tried to cope with
the world around them. Broadening our humanity and extending our sensibilities by recognizing
sameness and difference throughout the recorded past is therefore an important reason for
studying history, and especially the history of peoples far away and long ago. For we can only
know ourselves by knowing how we resemble and how we differ from others. Acquaintance with
the human past is the only way to such self knowledge.

... ignorance of history--that is, absent or defective collective memory--does deprive us of the
best available guide for public action .. .

Finally, for those especially attracted to it, search into odd corners and contemplation of the main
outlines of history can develop into a hunt for understandings of one's own, as new ideas about
connections between one thing and another spring to mind. This sort of historical research and
creativity is, of course, the special province of graduate school and of the historical profession at
large. Reinterpretations and modifications of received notions about what really happened result
from such personal venturing; and new ideas and meanings, tested against the evidence available
to other historians, feed into high school and college classrooms by providing teachers with an
ever-evolving understanding of the past to set before the young.
In such interaction between research and teaching, eternal and unchanging truth does not emerge.
Only inspired, informed guesses about what mattered and how things changed through time. That
is all human minds can do to unravel the mystery of humanity and of human groups' encounters
with one another and with the world. Not very good, perhaps; simply the best we have in the
unending effort to understand ourselves and others, and what happens and will happen to us and
to them, time without end.

What Does It Mean to Think Historically?

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, January 2007
When we started working on Teachers for a New Era, a Carnegie-sponsored initiative designed
to strengthen teacher training, we thought we knew a thing or two about our discipline. As we
began reading such works as Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,
however, we encountered an unexpected challenge.1 If our understandings of the past constituted
a sort of craft knowledge, how could we distill and communicate habits of mind we and our
colleagues had developed through years of apprenticeship, guild membership, and daily practice
to university students so that they, in turn, could impart these habits in K12 classrooms?
In response, we developed an approach we call the "five C's of historical thinking." The concepts
of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, we believe, together
describe the shared foundations of our discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions
historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. These
ideas are hardly new to professional historians. But that is precisely their value: They make our
implicit ways of thought explicit to the students and teachers whom we train. The five C's do not
encompass the universe of historical thinking, yet they do provide a remarkably useful tool for
helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on
primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in
secondary sources. In this article, we define the five C's, explain how each concept helps us to
understand the past, and provide some brief examples of how we have employed the five C's
when teaching teachers. Our approach is necessarily broad and basic, characteristics well suited
for a foundation upon which we invite our colleagues from kindergartens to research universities
to build.
Change over Time
The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C's to grasp. Students readily
acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that
we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also
note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of
the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the
same rituals and words to mark a day's significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of
the idea of change over time.
Students often find the concept of change over time elementary. Even individuals who claim to
despise history can remember a few dates and explain that some preceded or followed others. At
any educational level, timelines can teach change over time as well as the selective process that
leads people to pay attention to some events while ignoring others. In our U.S. survey class, we

often ask students to interview family and friends and write a paper explaining how their family's
history has intersected with major events and trends that we are studying. By discovering their
own family's past, students often see how individuals can make a difference and how personal
history changes over time along with major events.
As historians of the American West and environmental historians, we often turn to maps to teach
change over time. The same space represented in different ways as political power, economic
structures, and cultural influences shift can often put in shocking relief the differences that time
makes. The work of repeat photographers such as Mark Klett offers another compelling tool for
teaching change over time. Such photographers begin with a historic landscape photograph, then
take pains to re-take the shot from the same site, at the same angle, using similar equipment, and
even under analogous conditions.2 While suburbs and industry have overrun many western
locales, students are often surprised to see that some places have become more desolate and
others have hardly changed at all. The exercise engages students with a non-written primary
source, photographs, and demands that they reassess their expectations regarding how time
Some things change, others stay the samenot a very interesting story but reason for concern
since history, as the best teachers will tell you, is about telling stories. Good story telling, we
contend, builds upon an understanding of context. Given young people's fascination with
narratives and their enthusiasm for imaginative play, pupils (particularly elementary school
students) often find context the most engaging element of historical thinking. As students mature,
of course, they recognize that the past is not just a playful alternate universe. Working with
primary sources, they discover that the past makes more sense when they set it within two
frameworks. In our teaching, we liken the first to the floating words that roll across the screen at
the beginning of every Star Wars film. This kind of context sets the stage; the second helps us to
interpret evidence concerning the action that ensues. Texts, events, individual lives, collective
strugglesall develop within a tightly interwoven world.
Historians who excel at the art of storytelling often rely heavily upon context. Jonathan
Spence's Death of Woman Wang, for example, skillfully recreates 17th-century China by
following the trail of a sparsely documented murder. To solve the mystery, students must
understand the time and place in which it occurred. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich brings colonial New
England to life by concentrating on the details of textile production and basket making in Age of
Homespun. College courses regularly use the work of both authors because they not only spark
student interest, but also hone students' ability to describe the past and identify distinctive
elements of different eras.3
Imaginative play is what makes context, arguably the easiest, yet also, paradoxically, the most
difficult of the five C's to teach. Elementary school assignments that require students to research
and wear medieval European clothes or build a California mission from sugar cubes both strive

to teach context. The problem with such assignments is that they often blur the lines between
reality and make-believe. The picturesque often trumps more banal or more disturbing truths.
Young children may never be able to get all the facts straight. As one elementary school teacher
once reminded us, "We teach kids who still believe in Santa Claus." Nonetheless, elementary
school teachers can be cautious in their re-creations, and, most of all, they can be comfortable
telling students when they don't know a given fact or when more research is necessary. That an
idea might require more thought or more research is a valuable lesson at any age. The desire to
recreate a world sometimes drives students to dig more deeply into their books, a reaction few
teachers lament.
In our own classes, we have taught context using an assignment that we call "Fact, Fiction, or
Creative Memory." In this exercise, students wrestle with a given source and determine whether
it is primarily a work of history, fiction, or memory. We have asked students to bring in a
present-day representation of 1950s life and explain what it teaches people today about life in
1950s America. Then, we have asked the class to discuss if the representation is a historically fair
depiction of the era. We have also assigned textbook passages and Don DeLillo's Pafko at the
Wall, then asked students to compare them to decide which offers stronger insights into the
character of Cold War America.4 Each of these assignments addresses context, because each asks
students to think about the distinctions between representations of the past and the critical
thinking about the past that is history. Moreoever, each asks students to weave together a variety
of sources and assess the reliability of each before incorporating them into a whole.
Historians use context, change over time, and causality to form arguments explaining past
change. While scientists can devise experiments to test theories and yield data, historians cannot
alter past conditions to produce new information. Rather, they must base their arguments upon
the interpretation of partial primary sources that frequently offer multiple explanations for a
single event. Historians have long argued over the causes of the Protestant Reformation or World
War I, for example, without achieving consensus. Such uncertainty troubles some students, but
history classrooms are at their most dynamic when teachers encourage pupils to evaluate the
contributions of multiple factors in shaping past events, as well as to formulate arguments
asserting the primacy of some causes over others.
To teach causality, we have turned to the stand-by activities of the history classroom: debates and
role-playing. After arming students with primary sources, we ask them to argue whether
monetary or fiscal policy played a greater role in causing the Great Depression. After giving
students descriptions drawn from primary sources of immigrant families in Los Angeles, we have
asked students to take on the role of various family members and explain their reasons for
immigrating and their reasons for settling in particular neighborhoods. Neither exercise is
especially novel, but both fulfill a central goal of studying history: to develop persuasive
explanations of historical events and processes based on logical interpretations of evidence.

Contingency may, in fact, be the most difficult of the C's. To argue that history is contingent is to
claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of
these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of
contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior
condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently. Lee could have won at
Gettysburg, Gore might have won in Florida, China might have inaugurated the world's first
industrial revolution.
Contingency can be an unsettling ideaso much so that people in the past have often tried to
mask it with myths of national and racial destiny. The Pilgrim William Bradford, for instance,
interpreted the decimation of New England's native peoples not as a consequence of smallpox,
but as a literal godsend.5Two centuries later, American ideologues chose to rationalize their
unlikely fortunesfrom the purchase of Louisiana to the discovery of gold in Californiaas
their nation's "Manifest Destiny." Historians, unlike Bradford and the apologists of westward
expansion, look at the same outcomes differently. They see not divine fate, but a series of
contingent results possessing other possibilities.
Contingency demands that students think deeply about past, present, and future. It offers a
powerful corrective to teleology, the fallacy that events pursue a straight-arrow course to a predetermined outcome, since people in the past had no way of anticipating our present world.
Contingency also reminds us that individuals shape the course of human events. What if Karl
Marx had decided to elude Prussian censors by emigrating to the United States instead of France,
where he met Frederick Engels? To assert that the past is contingent is to impress upon students
the notion that the future is up for grabs, and that they bear some responsibility for shaping the
course of future history.
Contingency can be a difficult concept to present abstractly, but it suffuses the stories historians
tend to tell about individual lives. Futurology, however, might offer an even stronger tool for
imparting contingency than biography. Mechanistic views of history as the inevitable march
toward the present tend to collapse once students see how different their world is from any
predicted in the past.
Moral, epistemological, and causal complexity distinguish historical thinking from the
conception of "history" held by many non-historians.6 Re-enacting battles and remembering
names and dates require effort but not necessarily analytical rigor. Making sense of a messy
world that we cannot know directly, in contrast, is more confounding but also more rewarding.
Chronicles distill intricate historical processes into a mere catalogue, while nostalgia conjures an
uncomplicated golden age that saves us the trouble of having to think about the past. Our own
need for order can obscure our understanding of how past worlds functioned and blind us to the
ways in which myths of rosy pasts do political and cultural work in the present. Reveling in

complexity rather than shying away from it, historians seek to dispel the power of chronicle,
nostalgia, and other traps that obscure our ability to understand the past on its own terms.
One of the most successful exercises we have developed for conveying complexity in all of these
dimensions is a mock debate on Cherokee Removal. Two features of the exercise account for the
richness and depth of understanding that it imparts on students. First, the debate involves
multiple parties; the Treaty and Anti-Treaty Parties, Cherokee women, John Marshall, Andrew
Jackson, northern missionaries, the State of Georgia, and white settlers each offer a different
perspective on the issue. Second, students develop their understanding of their respective
positions using the primary sources collected in Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with
Documents by Theda Perdue and Michael Green.7 While it can be difficult to assess what
students learn from such exercises, we have noted anecdotally that, following the exercise,
students seem much less comfortable referring to "American" or "Indian" positions as monolithic
Our experiments with the five C's have confronted us with several challenges. These concepts
offer a fluid tool for engaging historical thought at multiple levels, but they can easily degenerate
into a checklist. Students who favor memorization over analysis seem inclined to recite the C's
without necessarily understanding them. Moreover, as habits of mind, the five C's develop only
with practice. Though primary and secondary schools increasingly emphasize some aspects of
these themes, particularly the use of primary sources as evidence, more attention to the five C's
with appropriate variations over the course of K12 education would help future citizens not
only to care about history, but also to contemplate it. It is our hope that this might help students
to see the past not simply as prelude to our present, nor a list of facts to memorize, a cast of
heroes and villains to cheer and boo, nor as an itinerary of places to tour, but rather as an ideal
field for thinking long and hard about important questions.
Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrews are both assistant professors of history and Teachers for
a New Era faculty members at California State University at Northridge. Burke is working on a
book for the University Press of Kansas tentatively entitled Longing and Belonging: Mabel
Dodge Luhan and Greenwich Village's Avant-Garde in Taos. Andrews is completing a
manuscript for Harvard University Press, tentatively entitledLudlow: The Nature of Industrial
Struggle in the Colorado Coalfields.
1. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of
Teaching the Past(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
2. Mark Klett, Kyle Bajakian, William L. Fox, Michael Marshall, Toshi Ueshina, and Byron G.
Wolfe, Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West (Santa Fe:
Museum of New Mexico Press, 2004).

3. Jonathan D. Spence, Death of Woman Wang (New York: Viking, 1978); Laurel Thatcher
Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New
York: Knopf, 2001).
4. Don DeLillo, Pafko at the Wall: A Novella (New York: Scribner's, 2001).
5. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Random
House, 1952).
6. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in
American Life(New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
7. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with
Documents 2nd ed. (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005).
This presidential address was delivered at the 123rd annual meeting of the American Historical
Association, held in New York City in 2009.

The Task of the Historian

Gabrielle M. Spiegel

Traditionally, for historians, the ethical core of our professional commitment has been a belief
that our arduous, often tedious labor yields some authentic knowledge of the dead other, a
knowledge admittedly shaped by the historian's own perceptions and biases, but nonetheless
retaining a degree of autonomy, in the sense that it cannot be made entirely to bend to the
historian's will. This founding belief in the irreducible otherness of the past conferred on history
its proper function, which was to recover that past in as close an approximation of how it
actually was as possible. In the interest of preserving the autonomy of the past, the historian
practiced modesty as a supreme ethical virtue, discreetly holding in abeyance his or her own
beliefs, prejudices, and presuppositions.
Yet this traditional understanding of the nature, epistemological grounding, truthvalue, and
goals of historical research faced a significant challenge beginning in the late 1960s and the
1970s with the emergence of what came to be known as the linguistic turn, the belief that
language is the constitutive agent of human consciousness and the social production of meaning,
and that our apprehension of the world, both past and present, arrives only through the lens of
language's precoded perceptions. Moreover, language, once understood as a relatively neutral
medium of communication, sufficiently transparent to convey a reasonably accurate sense of
reality, itself had been reconceptualized with the emergence of structural linguistics or semiotics,
a movement that began with the publication in 1916 of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in
General Linguistics. Far from reflecting the social world of which it is a part, language, Saussure
argued, precedes the world and makes it intelligible according to its own rules of signification.
Since for Saussure such rules are inherently arbitrary, in the sense of being social conventions
implicitly understood in different ways by differing linguistic communities, the idea of an
objective universe existing independently of speech and universally comprehensible despite one's
membership in any particular language system is an illusion.1
Such was the semiotic challenge posed to the practice of historiography by the rise of
structural linguistics and continuing with the successive emergence of structuralism, semiotics,
and poststructuralism, including the elaboration of deconstruction.2 The principal impact of
these cognate developments was felt most intensely in the period after World War II; after 1965
they assumed the name linguistic turn, a term disseminated by the pragmatic philosopher
Richard Rorty in his essay Metaphysical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy and generalized
to various disciplines throughout the course of the seventies and after.3 Whether or not the
linguistic turn constituted the kind of epistemological crisis for historiography that several of my
predecessors in this office believed, it is clear that it represented a massive change in our
understanding of the nature of historical reality, the methods of research we deployed in seeking
to recover the past, and the nature of the truth claims that could be asserted about the product of

our labors. Never entirely accepted in the full range of its claims, it nonetheless had a significant
impact on how historians construed their basic tasks and the procedures and language in which
they were conducted.
Anyone who has lived through the last four decades of change in historiographical praxis can
appreciate the need to investigate how such a profound transformation in the nature and
understanding of historical work, both in practice and in theory, could have taken place. The
reason for doing so now is that we all sense that this profound change has run its course. As
Michael Roth recently noted, for the last decade or so, recognition has been spreading that the
linguistic turn that had motivated much advanced work in the humanities is over. The massive
tide of language that connected analytic philosophy with pragmatism, anthropology with social
history, philosophy of science with deconstruction, has receded; we are now able to look across
the sand to see what might be worth salvaging before the next waves of theory and research
begin to pound the shore.4 But to determine what might be worth saving, we need some
explanation of how and why this sea change in history occurred; what motivated it; what
governed the rhythms of its acceptance, dissemination, and decline; and what its implications are
for our continuing practice, even as we sense that the hold of poststructuralism and
postmodernism on current historiography is diminishing.5What, if any, shared epistemologies,
methodologies, and questions might exist between the fundamental postulates of the linguistic
turn and the new foci of historical work on the immediate horizon? An appreciation of the
determining constituents of this rather extreme case of historiographical change may offer some
insights into what remains valuable as we move forward into a new era of historical concerns,
one that is already, and increasingly will be, adapted to the new global environment in which we
currently live.
Before broaching the question of what caused, in some sense still to be discovered, the rise of
linguistic turn historiography, we would do well to consider more generally what historical
practice consists of, for any change in practice, even one as startling and deeprooted as the
linguistic turn, necessarily occurs initially within the confines of normal historiographical
practice, and thus must be seen against the background of its routines.
One of the most significant characteristics of the contemporary practice of history, important for
the points I wish eventually to make, derives from the central paradox of historical writing as
analyzed by Michel de Certeau. In de Certeau's opinion, modern Western history essentially
begins with a decisive differentiation between the present and the past. Like modern medicine,
whose birth was contemporaneous with that of modern historiography, the practice of history
becomes possible only when a dead corpse is opened to investigation, made legible such that it
can be translated into that which can be written within a space of language.6 Historians must
draw a line between what is dead (past) and what is not, and therefore they posit death as a total
social fact, in contrast to tradition, which figures a lived body of traditional knowledge, passed
down in gestures, habits, unspoken but nonetheless real memories borne by living societies. For
de Certeau, discourse about the past has as the very condition of its possibility the status of being
discourse about the dead, a discourse with which historians fill the void between past and present

created by history's founding gesture of rupture.7 In that sense, the basic principle of modern
historiography is the disappearance of the past from the present, its movement from visibility to
invisibility. The historian's task becomes, therefore, what Hugo von Hofmannsthal defined as
reading what was never written.8 It is in this moment that the past is saved, not in being
returned to what once existed, but instead, precisely in being transformed into something that
never was, in being read as what was never written.9 From that perspective, the principal
relation of the historian to the past is an engagement with absence.
The fact that historians must construct the objects of their investigation does not mean, however,
that they are necessarily free of the past or that the findings so generated are merely fictive
postulates. Historians escape neither the survival of former structures nor the weight of an
endlessly present pastan inertia that traditionalists were wont to call continuity. But it does
mean that in contemporary historiography, the sign of history has become less the real than the
intelligible, an intelligibility achieved through the production of historiographical discourse
according to narrativist principles, hence always flirting with the fictive that is intrinsic to the
operation of narrative. In this process, the historical referent (or what used to be called the
real, the true, the fact) is not so much obliterated as displaced. No longer a given of the
past that offers itself to the historian's gaze, the referent is something constantly recreated in the
recurring movement between past and present, hence everchanging as that relationship itself is
modified in the present.
If we acknowledge that history is the product of contemporary mental representations of the
absent past that bear within them strong ideological and/or political imprintsand it seems
unlikely that any historian would today disagree with this, whether framed in terms of discourse,
social location, or some other form of the historian's fashioningthen it seems logical to include
within the determinants of historical practice the impress of individual psychological forces in
the coding and decoding of those socially generated norms and discourses. To be sure, there were
forces within the intellectual traditions of European philosophy and history that shaped the
course of these developments as well, together with powerful social changes at work, but my
interest here is in the psychological roots of the linguistic turn, however realized through
additional channels of thought.10
In attempting to discover the possible psychic roots of the linguistic turn that so challenged our
understanding of history, I would like to begin with what I have elsewhere argued are the psychic
roots of poststructuralism, and of Derridean deconstruction in particular, which I consider to
have been the basic articulation of poststructuralism'sand hence the linguistic turn'smost
important principles.11 Although there certainly were strands of deconstruction that differed
from Derrida's, and, more generally, principles of postmodernism that addressed quite different
concerns, for the purposes of this argument I will take Derridean deconstruction as the key
expression of the impulses at work in generating the linguistic turn.12
We may legitimately take, I believe, the hallmark of deconstruction to have been a new and
deeply counterintuitive understanding of the relationship between language and reality

counterintuitive in the sense that deconstruction's framing of that relationship interposes so many
layers of mediation that what we experience as reality is seen to be a socially (that is,
linguistically) constituted artifact or effect of the particular language systems we inhabit,
thereby undermining materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency
inherent in them. Moreover, deconstruction proposes an inherent instability at the core of
language that places the determination of meaning ultimately beyond our reach, for every text, in
the broad sense that deconstruction understands that term, founders ultimately on its own
indeterminacy, its aporia, the impasse beyond all possible transaction, as Derrida defines it,
which is connected with the multiplicity of meanings embedded within the uniqueness of
textual inscription.13 The psychic destabilization produced by such a problematizing of the
relationship betweenres and verba (object and word), together with the decentering of language
and thus of those who author and authorize it, suggests that deconstruction represents not only a
rupture in the traditions of Western philosophy and history, but a psychic response to those
traditions that is itself founded in rupture.14
It is my belief that Derrida alchemized into philosophy a psychology deeply marked by the
Holocaustmarked by but not part of its experiential domainin which the Holocaust figures
as the absent origin that Derrida himself did so much to theorize. This is to argue that, living at a
moment burdened with the inescapable consciousness of the Holocaust, Derrida emerged into the
history of philosophy as a theoretician of linguistic play, a time synonymous with the moment
when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center
or origin, everything became discourse.15
Derrida belonged both by birth and by selfconscious identification to that second generation
of the postHolocaust world on whose psyche had been indelibly inscribed an event in which it
did not participate, but which nonetheless constitutes the underlying narrative of the lives of its
members.16Theirs was, first and foremost, a world of silence, a silence, as French
psychologist Nadine Fresco tells us in her brilliant evocation of the psychology of the second
generation, that swallowed up the past, all the past.17 The parents of these children
transmitted only the wound to their children, to whom the memory had been refused and who
grew up in the compact world of the unspeakable, amid litanies of silence . Life was now
the trace, molded by death . The past has been utterly burnt away at the center of their lives .
They feel their existence as a sort of exile, not from a place in the present or future, but from a
time now gone forever, which would have been that of identity itself.18
They feel themselves to be deported from meaning, their resident permits withdrawn, expelled
from a lost paradise, abolished in a death in turn dissolved, dissipated . deported from a self
that ought to have been that of another. Death is merely a matter of substitution.19
It is a generation lost between the orations of dead bodies piled up at Auschwitz, which spoke
tellingly but tragically, and the silences imposed by its elders, who literally could not speak the
Holocaust (which was, in any case, in all senses of the word unspeakable). From their parents,

this generation received only, in Erika Apfelbaum's words, un heritage en formes d'absences (a
legacy in the form of absences).20And linked to the notion of absence in the work of French
writers of the second generation, as Ellen Fine has demonstrated, are repeated evocations of
void, lack, blank, gap, and abyss. La mmoire absente, in the novels of Henri Raczymow, is
la mmoire troue: hollowed out, fragmented, ruptured.21
Perhaps most striking of all in the work of these writers is their sense of the utter inadequacy of
language. The world of Auschwitz, in George Steiner's famous remark, lies outside speech as
it lies outside reason.22 Language after Auschwitz is language in a condition of severe
diminishment and decline, and no one has argued more forcefully than Steiner the corruption
indeed the ruinof language as a result of the political bestiality of our age.23 And yet, for those
who come after, there is nothing but language. As the protagonist in Elie Wiesel's novel The Fifth
Son states: Born after the war I endure its effects. I suffer from an Event I did not even
experience . From a past that has made History tremble, I have retained only words.24
Both for those who survived and for those who came after, the Holocaust appears to exceed the
representational capacity of language, and thus to cast suspicion on the ability of words to
convey reality.25 And for the second generation, the question is not even how to speak but, more
profoundly, if one has a right to speak, a delegitimation of the speaking self that, turned outward,
interrogates the authority, the privilege of all speech. Which, of course, is precisely what Derrida
and deconstruction does in the attack on logocentrism.
It is not difficult to see the parallels between this psychology of the second generation and the
basic tenets of poststructuralism: the feeling of life as a trace, haunted by an absent presence; its
sense of indeterminacy; a belief in the ultimate undecidability of language (its aporia, in
Derrida's sense); the transgressive approaches to knowledge and authority; and, perhaps most
powerfully, the conviction of the ultimately intransitive, selfreflective character of language,
which seems to have lost its power to represent anything outside itself, hence to have lost its
ability, finally, to signify. In its profound commitment to a fractured, fragmented, and endlessly
deferred, hence displaced, understanding of language and the (im)possibilities of meaning,
poststructuralism shares with the second generation the anguish of belatedness, the scars of an
unhealed wound of absent memory, and the legacy of silence.
It is clear as well that the sense of loss that subtends this psychology of the second generation is
not confined to individuals, nor to Jews, but constitutes an entire generation's understanding of
the wreck of history attendant upon the war and the revelations of its horrors. Furthermore, I
should point out that I am not the only historian to argue on behalf of the probable link between
postHolocaust and post modern consciousness, a phenomenon that began with Habermas's
articulation of the general sense that there [in Auschwitz] something happened that up to now
nobody considered even possible . Auschwitz has changed the basis for the continuity of the
condition of life within history.26 Such a link is also implicit in Lyotard's metonymic use of
the jews in Heidegger and the jews as the very figure of postmodernity, that is, of precisely
what can no longer be phrased after Auschwitzthe excess that disrupts and puts into

question all former categories of being and knowledge.27 In this country, scholars such as
Dominick LaCapra and Eric Santner have also insisted upon the crucial role of the Holocaust and
its aftermath as, in LaCapra's terms, a divider between modernism and
postmodernism.28 Santner argues even more forcefully that the postmodern destabilization of
certain fundamental cultural norms and notions, above all those dealing with selfidentity and
community, cannot be understood without reference to the ethical and intellectual imperatives of
life after Auschwitz.29 Both point to the prominence of themes of loss, death,
impoverishment, and mourning that pervade much of postmodern criticism and writing. In that
sense, the emergence of poststructuralism under the sign of the linguistic turn bespoke the end of
the confident, optimistic era of European Enlightenment with its faith in the continual progress
of human history under the aegis of scientific learning and methods and, not least among them,
scientific history.
It is worth noting how tied to the experiences of a single generation the transformations effected
by poststructuralism and the linguistic turn appear to be, which in turn helps to explain the
timing of its advent in the seventies and eighties, rather than in the years immediately following
the war. The preoccupations of the surviving postwar generation lay with rebuilding Europe, and
in America with the emerging Cold War conflict and the rise of McCarthyism. Apart, perhaps,
from the refugee historians themselves, whose impact on the development of German and
European history in this country was noted by David Pinkney in his presidential address of 1980,
leaders of the historical profession took surprisingly little note of the possible impact that the war
and its aftermath might have on the practice of history.30As Europe struggled to reconstitute its
social fabric, social history reigned supreme, a fact signaled by the dominance of Annaliste
historiography throughout the continent and the United States and the prestige of social history
more generally everywhere.31
Not until the midsixties to the midseventies, that is, with the maturing of the second generation,
did the psychology that I have sought to describe begin to come into play. The first mention of
the term postmodern in an AHA presidential address does not appear until 1978, with William
J. Bouwsma's address on The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History, who notes it
only to confess that I am . bewildered by the suggestion that we have now entered into a
postmodern age. Bouwsma did acknowledge that
the epistemological decisions embedded in language are thus the precondition of human
apprehension of an external world; culture in this sense is prior to both materialism and idealism,
which represent contrary efforts to assign ontological status toin the language of sociology, to
legitimizea world whose actual source in the creativity of man violates the alltoohuman need
for transcendence . Beyond this, history as construction often tends to be a misleading and
sometimes pernicious reification.32
A decade later, in 1989, David Harlan clearly labeled the emergence of poststructuralism an
epistemological crisis for historical study in the pages of the American Historical Review,
asserting that the linguistic turn has questioned our belief in a fixed and determinable past,

compromised the possibility of historical representation, and undermined our ability to locate
ourselves in time. The result of all this has been to reduce historical knowledge to a tissue of
remnants and fabrications concealing, it is said, an essential absence.33 By 1997, Joyce
Appleby, in her presidential address on The Power of History, forthrightly declared that
poststructuralism and the linguistic turn had created an epistemological crisis among historians
and their publics and argued on behalf of a balanced return to the importance of social history,
one that continued to acknowledge the interpretive power of poststructuralist theories of
discourse and what she called language's insinuating codes and their shaping force in the
cultural formation of the individual and society, but simultaneously sought to have historians
appreciate that history has an irreducible positivistic element and that its power derives from
the persistence of the past in the present, compelling us to reconstruct it.34
Today, some thirty years or so after the introduction of poststructuralism and the linguistic
turn, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with its overly systematic account of the
operation of language in the domain of human endeavors of all kinds, even among those
committed to its fundamental postulates and insights. As William Sewell has noted, there has
been a pervasive reaction against the concept of culture as a system of symbols and meanings,
inclining rather to the belief that culture is a sphere of practical activity shot through by willful
action, power relations, struggle, contradiction and change.35 In this view, culture emerges less
as a systematic structure than as a repertoire of competencies, a tool kit, a regime of practical
rationality, or a set of strategies guiding action, whereby symbols/signs are mobilized to identify
those aspects of the agent's experience which, in this process, are made meaningful, that is,
experientially real.
Culture, thereby, is recast as a performative term, one realized only processually as signs put
to work to reference and interpret the world.36 Historical investigation, from this perspective,
takes practice (not structure) as the starting point of social analysis, since practice emerges here
as the space in which a meaningful intersection between discursive constitution and individual
initiative occurs. This initiative is, in the first instance, cognitive, a subject's ongoing
reformulation of values, priorities, interests, and behaviors in terms provided, but not governed,
by available discourses or languages (i.e., sign systems).37
In light of the accumulating discontent with poststructuralism and its model of language as the
constituent of human culture and behavior, it is fair to say that the semiotic challenge has been
addressed, absorbed, andmost importantthat the dominant concerns of historical thought and
writing are currently undergoing a process of alteration, although the precise direction in which
we are moving and the modes and methodologies by which historical research and writing will
be framed are difficult to discern. Still, we need to pose the question: Whither history? If we
have, indeed, as Nancy Partner now argues, entered the postpostmodern period, what does this
include, and what is being left behind? What remains relevant and useful for the directions in
which historiographical practice is likely to move, and to what extent does our understanding of
the forces and conditions that fostered the linguistic turn in the first place inform these
developments? As she notes, it is highly unlikely that we will return to quasiscientific realism,

nave empiricism, or any of the prepostmodern assumptions that informed the writing of
history.38 Nor is it likely that most historians will answer the call to sublime historical
experience recently issued by F. R. Ankersmit.39 Candidates for new topics of central concern,
set forth, for example, by Michael Roth, include ethics, intensity, postcolonialism, empire, the
sacred, cosmopolitanism, trauma and animals.40All these proposed new topics, Partner
remarks, share a common desire to escape language, restore a pure and immediate connection
with the past or at least some central aspect of experience and generally deny the power of
language to contaminate history with its own uncontrollable meanings.41
We can agree, I think, that the historical concerns of the next generation will be quite different, as
is usually the case, especially in periods of rapid change such as we have been experiencing over
the last few decades, not least in the realm of technology and the spread of global capital. Yet it is
not equally clear to me that the fundamental insights of poststructuralism areor should beso
easily jettisoned. If, as I have argued, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and some varieties of
postmodernism in their psychic impulses enact a philosophy of rupture and displacement, to
what extent are the insights generated by them still valuable for what is likely be the dominant
concern of historians in the coming generation? This is not to argue that there is a fundamental
continuity in the psychological shaping or intellectual goals of the rising generation, or that its
members are necessarily bound to the agendas earlier generated by the war and its aftermath.
Only that we can and should continue to appreciate and employ what poststructuralism has
taught us by and in its enactment of the complex tensions that shape the contemporary world.
The question is to identify what remains valuable in the legacy of the linguistic turn, at least
insofar as there exists, or might exist, an underlying commonality between the nature and needs
of historical thought and writing under the sign of the linguistic turn and the new
historiographical agendas in the process of being crafted by historians now and in the coming
It seems probable that as our consciousness of the penetration of global capitalism and its impact
on all forms of social formation grows, historical writing will increasingly be influenced by the
problematics fostered by this development and will, therefore, create new objects of
investigation. This is already apparent in the growing concern with questions of diaspora,
migration, immigration, and the rapidly developing field of transnational history, with its focus
on what Franoise Lionnet has termed minority cultures, which deploys a global perspective
that emphasizes the basic hybridity of global cultures in the postcolonial and postmodern
That the field of transnationalism should appear as the sign of this shift in consciousness, a
field in part promoted by the movement of new groups of scholars into the profession, is hardly
unexpected and may be seen as one of the social determinants of this reorientation and revision
in current historiography. And since the signal characteristic of these new fields of inquiry is that
they entail the study of discontinuities in the experiences of, and displacements of location in, the
lives of their subjects as a result of migration, exile, war, and the like, perhaps it is also apposite
to inquire into the losses experienced in the process of migration, exile, and diasporic movement.

Such a question might interrogate, and seek to nuance, the rather triumphalist tone of current
work on transnationalism, with its celebration of fluidity and hybridity, multiplicity and mobility,
by inquiring into the sense of loss of cultural identity that often accompanies displacement from
one's homeland, language, and culture.
More pertinent still is the utility of certain insights proffered by poststructuralism to the
enormously expanding field of diaspora studies, for that field shares with the postHolocaust
generation a legacy in terms of the very notion of diaspora, which seems now, however, to
function as a covering term and concept employed to characterize cultures of displacement in the
broadest possible sense, such as (to borrow James Clifford's
accounting) border, travel, creolization, transculturation, hybridity, andtransnational migrant
circuits.43 To these might be added exile, expatriation, postcoloniality, migrancy,globality,
and transnationality.44 The one common thread that runs through these various characterizations
of diaspora is that of deterritorialized identities.45 According to this view, de
territorialization paradoxically occurs as diasporic peoples root themselves physically in their
hostlands, but refuse (or are refused) assimilation to them, producing a sense of dual belonging
and cultural consciousness that resists locating identity fully in either home or hostland. In this
context, Barbara KirshenblattGimblett points out, diasporic discourse is strong on displacement,
detachment, uprooting, and dispersionon disarticulationbut is less clear about how re
articulation takes place: how the local is produced and what forms it takes in the space of
dispersal, or how, precisely, it relates to the culture of origin.46 As a conceptual device, the idea
of deterritorialized identity seems to reflect the recognition that in the context of a world
increasingly marked by migrations, cultural as well as economic globalization, intermarriage,
and unbounded intercommunication, questions of home, community, allegiance, and hence
identity are constantly being redefined. At the same time, it provides an analytical framework
that allows scholars to talk about these processes from a global perspective, one independent of
the nationstate as the framing unit of discussion.
This, in turn, poses the question of the relationship, real or imagined, of diaspora as a form of
consciousness to the nationstate, traditionally considered to function as the place where
individual and social identities are shaped. Indeed, the new conceptual field of diaspora would
appear to function as a means of transvaluing the term, which for much of its history was a mark
of failure in relation to the normative ideal of the nationstate, but now betokens a privileged
transcendence of national identity in favor of transnational bonds. The widespread use of
diaspora in the field of Africana studies offers the most illuminating example here, both
because it possesses the most complex relationship to a notion of homeland (forming what has
been called a stateless diaspora, that is, one without a common country of origin, language,
religion, or culture) and because it represents the most pervasive use of the term diaspora in
current academic circles.
The stateless power of diaspora, as Khachig Tllyan has shown, resides in a heightened
awareness of the rewards as well as the burdens of multiple belonging, and in the exemplary
grappling with the paradoxes of such belonging.47 Diaspora communities, in this sense, must

actively reproduce an identity with homeland and maintain contact with it or, where it does not
exist, with a mythical notion of homeland, since a commitment, real or imagined, to multilocality
is a central feature of diasporic consciousness. Thus, as Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge
point out, diasporas always leave a trail of collective memory about another place and time and
create new maps of desire and of attachment, the result of which is not necessarily the
consolidation of identities, but more often the fracturing of memories.48 One analytic feature of
the concept of diaspora, therefore, is that it is fundamentally dialogic, constantly negotiating a
willed relationship between here and there tantamount, as well, to the relationship between
now and then, the present and the past, presence and absence. In that sense, I would argue,
diaspora studies and its related fields of transnationalism, immigration, and migration history are
fundamentally concerned, as in the case of poststructuralism, with the problematics of
displacement and absent or fractured memory. To the extent that this is true, they are
involved, by definition, in questions of displaced persons and absent memory, and any notions of
identity and subjectivity that they seek to deploy necessarily will be dependent on an
understanding of memory as constructed narrative, and hence on language as the ultimate bearer
of the particular form of historical consciousness entailed in diasporic being. It is here that I see
the continuing utility of poststructuralist notions of the constitutive force of language in the
shaping of identity and the relationship between the self/subject and experience.
Given this, the new historiography doubtless will also require a revised understanding of
subjectivity as something more than the discursively constituted subject positions framed in
poststructuralist theory, but also something other than a wholly recentered humanist
subject.49 Although recent literature on the topics of self and agency has been sharply critical of
the fracturing, decentering effects of poststructuralist formulations, I see scant evidence of an
appeal to return to prelinguistic turn notions of the centered, humanist subject. Rather, what
Amanda Anderson has called the postpoststructuralist turn to subjectivity might approach the
human actor in both past and present, she argues, by means of a postconventional
understanding of identity and its formation.50 In her account, this takes the form of a rationally
governed and continually refashioned sense of self, informed by selfreflective and selfcritical
understandings arrived at through dialogue with both the self and others. Such an approach seeks
to restore to human agents the depth psychology, selfawareness, and rationality capable of
governing behavior, but it also includes a recognition of the historical conditionsincluding
the discursiveout of which beliefs and values emerge, as well as the possibility for the
ongoing recognition of the many forces (psychological, social and political) that can thwart,
undermine, or delay the[ir] achievements.51
In light of this, one might speculate that however one construes the generational locus of the new
work on transnationalism and diaspora studies, it remains the case that the much more diverse
cultural and intellectual global field within which it operates introduces complexities that
historians in the past for the most part were not forced to address, and for which there are few
guides at present. If work in these fields can be seen from one perspective as innovative ways of
dealing with and reformulating earlier questions that arose in the context of the identity politics

of the civil rights and postcivil rights era, then how does the affirmation of multiple belonging
or plural citizenship complicate the story, seeing national boundaries as permeable and not
necessarily constitutive of identity?52 If not from the nation, society, or domicile, from where
does social identity derive its shape? If we are at once citizens of the world and citizens and
subjects of specific nations, how are the contradictions implicit in this form of multilocality
negotiated on both the individual and the collective level?
We live in a moment of great cultural instability and uncertainty. As historians, we struggle to
know the absent and the other, to affirm a right to words and to speech. Like Derrida, we are
trying to write the question: (what is) meaning to say?53 Precisely what instruments we will
deploy in the pursuit of our historical labors is not entirely clear. But I persist in believing that
there is one thing that deconstruction has taught us, more powerfully than any other strategy of
reading that I know of, and that is to listen to silence. As historians of the past, we are constantly
engaged in attending, as Paul Zumthor has written, to the discourse of some invisible other that
speaks to us from some deathbed, of which the exact location is unknown. We strive to hear the
echo of a voice which, somewhere, probes, knocks against the world's silences, begins again, is
stifled.54 Our most fundamental task as historians, I would argue, is to solicit those fragmented
inner narratives to emerge from their silences. In the last analysis, what is the past but a once
material existence now silenced, extant only as sign and as sign drawing to itself chains of
conflicting interpretations that hover over its absent presence and compete for possession of the
relics, seeking to invest traces of significance upon the bodies of the dead.
Gabrielle M. Spiegel served as president of the American Historical Association in 2008. She is
Krieger-Eisenhower University Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.
1 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in
collaboration with Albert Riedlinger, trans. with an introduction and notes by Wade Baskin (New York,
1966), 67ff. Positions like these made it easy for critics such as Perez Zagorin to argue that
postmodernism is a philosophy of linguistic idealism . [which] denies both the ability of language or
discourse to refer to an independent world of facts and things and the determinacy or decidability of
textual meanings. By the same token it also dismisses the possibility of objective knowledge and truth as
goals of inquiry. In Zagorin's view, this represents a fundamental misreading of Saussure, who never
abandoned the notion of the referential relation of signs to things, even if signs as such were inherently
arbitrary. See Zagorin, History, the Referent, and Narrative: Reflections on Postmodernism
Now, History and Theory 38 (1999): 7. For a response to Zagorin, on the grounds that postmodernism is
not antirealist but rather antirepresentationalist, see Keith Jenkins, A Postmodern Reply to Perez
Zagorin, History and Theory 39 (2000): 182ff. Although Zagorin is correct that Saussure believed in the
constative or referential function of signs within given speech communities, he is surely wrong in his
charge of linguistic idealism, since, as Jason A. Frank has pointed out, the emphasis in [linguistic turn]
historiography has been on written language, tropes, socially structured speech patterns and the practices
of literary production and consumption, rather than on the selfsufficiency of ideas existing free of
material embodiment. Frank, History and the Necessary Limits of Theory (unpublished Field Paper in
Historiography and the Problematics of Historical Knowledge, Johns Hopkins University), 8.

2 On these developments, see my article History, Historicism and the Social Logic of the Text in the
Middle Ages, Speculum 65 (1990): 5986, reprinted in Gabrielle M. Spiegel, The Past as Text: The
Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography (Baltimore, 1997), 328.
3 The essay was published in Richard Rorty, ed., The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical
Method(Chicago, 1967). Rorty, of course, was working within the tradition of analytic philosophy, a
tradition that to a certain extent ran parallel to that arising from Saussurean linguistics, and one that was
also highly influential in the work of historians such as John Pocock and Quentin Skinner and the
school of political thought that their work fostered. As an aside, it might be worth pointing out that even
Rorty, whose 1965 article is generally credited with having introduced the notion of a fundamental
linguistic turn in philosophy and related disciplines, retreated from his original position on its enduring
significance. In a retrospective essay, TwentyFive Years Later, Rorty confessed that the importance he
attributed to the phenomenon of the linguistic turn seemed to him already in 1975the date of an
initial retrospective essay (Ten Years Later)to have been little more than a tempest in an academic
teapot, and now appears positively antique. Indeed, he asserts, his earlier assumption that the
problems of philosophy are problems of language strikes me as confused, primarily, he explains, because
he is no longer inclined to think there is such as thing as language in any sense which makes it possible
to speak of problems of language. Rorty, TwentyFive Years Later, in Rorty, ed., The Linguistic
Turn: Essays in Philosophical MethodWith Two Retrospective Essays (Chicago, 1992), 371. For Rorty,
in a statement that appears to me to be deeply symptomatic of a much broader response at present to the
linguistic turn, what now counts as philosophically interesting and legitimate is problems connected to
what [Ian] Hacking calls interfacing. These are problems about the relation of mind and reality, or
language and reality, viewed as the relation between a medium of representation and what is purportedly
represented. Ibid., 371.
4 Michael Roth, Ebb Tide, review of Frank Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience, History and
Theory46 (2007): 66.
5 I should acknowledge that the extent to which the profession as a whole adopted the linguistic turn is
probably exaggerated here, although I think the prevalence of studies of discourse, the spread of
feminist concepts of gender, and the rise of postcolonial theory and history bear witness to the fact that its
impact was far wider than might be thought merely from examining the work of those directly engaged
with debating theory or doing intellectual history. However, it remains true that the actual number of
historians actively engaged with these questions was probably relatively small in comparison to the field
as a whole. Nonetheless, it did represent a significant challenge to historians' traditional ways of
conceiving history and had a discernible impact on the nature of the truth claims and epistemological
objectivity that historians felt comfortable in asserting.
6 Interestingly, the Greek autopsia (to see for oneself), as it appears in Herodotus and other ancient
historians, originally referred to facts narrated by the historian to which he was himself an eyewitness,
indicating an etymological link between the investigation of the past and postmortem examination.
7 Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York, 1988), 5.
8 The phrase of Hofmannsthal is cited in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann
and Hermann Schweppenhuser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main, 19721989), 1: pt. 3, 1238. I am indebted to
Daniel HellerRoazen for this reference.

9 See the discussion of this in Daniel HellerRoazen, Introduction, in Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities,
ed. and trans. Daniel HellerRoazen (Stanford, Calif., 1999), 1.
10 In that sense, one cannot legitimately account for Derrida's deconstructive turn without taking into
account the impact of his reading of Husserl and his confrontation with Heidegger, but my concern here is
less with the specifically philosophical constituents of his thought than with the impulses that led him to
reformulate philosophy in a specific deconstructive fashion.
11 See my Orations of the Dean/Silences of the Living: The Sociology of the Linguistic Turn, in
Spiegel,The Past as Text, 2943.
12 I am, of course, aware of the fact that the French theorist who in all likelihood most
influencedhistorians was the early (that is, archaeological, or pregenealogical) Foucault, rather than
Derrida or even Lyotard. This was in part because Foucault committed himself to working out the
implications of semiotics within history itself, through a study of modern epistemological regimes, or
epistemes. Moreover, Foucault's notion of discourse operating within a microphysics of power, and his
demonstration of the very power of discourse itself, had enormous appeal in terms of its ability to join
cultural and social history within a single framework. However, to the extent that the linguistic turn
expressed fundamental questions arising within the framework of poststructuralism, I believe that
Derrida, rather than Foucault, is a better guide to what might have motivated its emergence, since
Foucault remained, at least in his early phases, highly structuralist in his deployment of discourse.
13 Jacques Derrida, Shibboleth, in Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and
Literature(New Haven, Conn., 1986), 323.
14 As Derrida himself noted, deconstruction proposes the notion of a decentered structure, that is, a
structure whose decentering is the result of the event I called a rupture, itself, in turn, an effect of the
coming into consciousness of the structurality of structure. See Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign and
Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, in Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass
(Chicago, 1978), 278. Derrida does not, however, specify the event he calls a rupture, merelyand
somewhat tautologicallypresenting it as an effect of an emerging awareness of structure's structurality,
or constructed nature. One is tempted to see this as a compelling example of the intellectual displacement
of a psychological phenomenon.
15 Ibid., 292, 289. For Derrida, the articulation of play is central to that process of alchemization that
makes writing after Auschwitz possible. Indeed, in a highly displaced form, this is precisely the starting
point of Derrida's critique of what he calls the structuralist thematic of broken immediacy: This
structuralist thematic of broken immediacy is therefore the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty,
Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play whose other side would be Nietzschean affirmation, that is the
joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world
of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation. This
affirmation then determines the non center otherwise than as loss of the center. It probably should be
noted that Derrida has repeatedly protested that it is totally false to suggest that deconstruction is a
suspension of reference . I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that
there is nothing beyond language . What I call text implies all the structures called real, economic,
historical, socioinstitutional, in short all possible referents . There is nothing outside of the text .
does not mean that all referents are suspended, denied, or enclosed in a book, as people have claimed,

or have been naive enough to believe and to have accused me of believing. But it does mean that every
referent and all reality has the structure of a differential trace . and that one cannot refer to this real
except in an interpretive experience. Cited in Jenkins, A Postmodern Reply to Perez Zagorin, 190
191. See also Jacques Derrida, Deconstructions: The Impossible, in Sylvre Lotringer and Sande
Cohen, eds.,French Theory in America (New York, 2001), 1331.
16 Technically, of course, Derrida, having been born in 1930, was a bit old to be properly classified as a
member of the second generation. Indeed, in 1942 he was expelled from school as a result of the lowering
to 7 percent of the numerus clausus of Jews allowed to attend. Between then and the end of the war, he
attended a school run by Jews in Algiers, experiencing in that sense the war and the antisemitism of the
Ptain regime. Nonetheless, in relation to the Holocaust and the experiences of European Jews, Derrida's
childhood in Algiers, I believe, maintains a comparable position of marginality and belatedness that
informs the psychology of the second generation.
17 Nadine Fresco, Remembering the Unknown, International Review of Psychoanalysis 11 (1984): 419.
18 Ibid., 420421.
19 Ibid., 420423.
20 Quoted in Ellen S. Fine, The Absent Memory: The Act of Writing in PostHolocaust French
Literature, in Berel Lang, ed., Writing and the Holocaust (Ithaca, N.Y., 1988), 44.
21 Ibid., 45.
22 George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York,
1986), 123.
23 Ibid., 4.
24 Quoted in Fine, The Absent Memory, 41.
25 The unrepresentable nature of the Holocaust is the subject of a considerable literature, beginning
with the essays collected in Saul Friedlander, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the
Final Solution (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). See also his Memory, History, and the Extermination of the
Jews of Europe (Bloomington Ind., 1993), as well as Lang, Writing and the Holocaust, and Dominick
LaCapra,Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca, N.Y., 1994).
26 Cited in the introduction to Friedlander, Probing the Limits of Representation, 2.
27 JeanFranois Lyotard, Heidegger and the jews, trans. Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts,
introduction by David Carroll (Minneapolis, 1990).
28 LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust, 188.
29 Eric L. Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca, N.Y.,
1990), xiv.
30 David H. Pinkney, American Historians on the European Past, 1980 AHA Presidential
Address,American Historical Review 86, no. 1 (February 1981): 34.

31 For excellent descriptions of how the rise of social history occurred, see Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line:
From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2005), and William H. Sewell, Logics
of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago, 2005). See also the AHR Forum on Eley's
book and Eley's response, American Historical Review 113, no. 2 (April 2008): 391437.
32 William J. Bouwsma, The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History, 1978 AHA Presidential
Address, American Historical Review 84, no. 1 (February 1979): 5, 11.
33 David Harlan, Intellectual History and the Return of Literature, American Historical Review 94, no.
3 (June 1989): 581.
34 Joyce Appleby, The Power of History, 1997 AHA Presidential Address, American Historical
Review103, no. 1 (February 1998): 12, 14. Appleby joined with Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob in an
attempt to redress what they saw as poststructuralism's exaggeratedly ironic, perhaps even despairing
view of the world, one that, in its extreme forms, offers little role for history as previously known;
Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994), 207.
35 William Sewell, The Concept(s) of Culture, in Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the
Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1999), 44.
36 Ibid., 45. See also Richard Biernacki, Language and the Shift from Signs to Practices in Cultural
Inquiry, History and Theory 30 (2000): 289310.
37 For a much fuller discussion of current revisions to the poststructuralist understanding of subjectivity,
see my introduction to Gabrielle M. Spiegel, ed., Practicing History: New Directions in Historical
Writing after the Linguistic Turn (London, 2005), 1118.
38 Nancy Partner, Narrative Persistence: The PostPostmodern Life of Narrative Theory, in Frank
Ankersmit, Ewa Domanska, and Hans Kellner, eds., ReFiguring Hayden White (forthcoming from
Stanford University Press), 2. I would like to thank Professor Partner for sharing this essay with me
before its publication.
39 See Frank Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford, Calif., 2005).
40 Roth, Ebb Tide, 66. To this list one might add the study of affects, which seems to be experiencing
something of a boom at the moment. It might also be pointed out that Roth's list of new topics of
consideration includes many matters that were already the subject of intense investigation during the high
tide of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Thus the extent to which this list genuinely reflects new
agendas is somewhat problematic. For what I see as more likely candidates for new areas of historical
inquiry, see below.
41 Partner, Narrative Persistence, 23.
42 See Franoise Lionnet and Shumei Shih, eds., Minor Transnationalism (Durham, N.C., 2005).
43 James Clifford, Diasporas, Cultural Anthropology 9 (1994): 303. For an extraordinary list of what
currently is counted as a diaspora, one need only go to Wikipedia's List of
Diasporas, , where the term is applied to a host of
population movements and displacements in relation to peoples and phenomena as diverse as, to name

only a few, the Albanians, Basques, Chechens, Sikhs, Fiji Islanders, Vikings, Lebanese, Indians (South
Asians), Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans, Ukrainians, Portuguese, Irish, Tamil, Palestinians, and the hiphop
diaspora (i.e., musical forms associated with hiphop culture and rap music, known in Europe as
Spaghetti funk!). Diaspora is also employed metaphorically, as William Safron points out, to
characterize alien residents,political refugees, and ethnic and racial minorities, thus adding to the already
overly rich stew of referents. See Safron, Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and
Return, Diaspora 1 (1991): 8399. At its furthest definitional reach, diaspora has even been applied to
what Gayatri Spivak calls microelectronic diasporas generated by digital technologies that allow widely
dispersed people to imagine and thus to constitute themselves as a voluntary community based on self
selection and communication, a community that possessed no common homeland in the past nor seeks to
create one in the future other than that imaginatively enabled by the Internet; Spivak, Who Claims
Alterity? in Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, eds., Remaking History (Seattle, 1989), 276. As Barbara
KirshenblattGimblett points out, the instantaneity of telecommunication produces an extreme case of
physical distance and social proximity under conditions of disembodied presence and the immateriality of
placeentirely routes without roots. KirshenblattGimblett, Spaces of Dispersal, Cultural
Anthropology 9, no. 3 (1994): 342.
44 See the interesting discussion of the term in Brent Hayes Edwards, The Uses of Diaspora, Social
Text66 (2001): 4573. Edwards also provides a valuable sketch of the evolution of the term as applied to
the African diaspora in relation to changing historical needs and contexts.
45 See, for example, Steven Vertovec, Three Meanings of Diaspora, Exemplified among South Asian
Religions, Diaspora 6 (1997): 1.
46 KirshenblattGimblett, Spaces of Dispersal, 339.
47 Khachig Tllyan, Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless in the Transnational Moment, Diaspora 5
(1996): 8.
48 Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge, On Moving Targets, Public Culture 2 (1989): i. Cited in
Vertovec, Three Meanings of Diaspora, 9.
49 For a discussion of what I have called the return of an actorcentered or neophenomenological
understanding of subjectivity and agency, one that highlights the disjunction between culturally given
meanings and the individual uses of them in contingent, historically conditioned ways, see my
introduction to Practicing History, 1118. A particularly cogent examination of this problem and its
implications for historiography can be found in a collection of articles by William H. Sewell, Jr., in
his Logics of History.Particularly useful among them are A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and
Transformation (124151) and Concept(s) of Culture (152174). For a list of some recent
bibliography on this topic, see also my contribution to the AHR Forum on Geoff Eley's book, Comment
on A Crooked Line, American Historical Review 113, no. 2 (April 2008): 406416.
50 Amanda Anderson, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (Princeton, N.J.,
2006), 172.
51 Ibid., 122.
52 I am indebted to Nathan Connolly for the specific formulation of these questions.

53 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1981), 14.

54 Paul Zumthor, Speaking of the Middle Ages, trans. Sarah White (Lincoln, Nebr., 1986), 37.