After the Linguistic Turn, a Productive History of Silences?

Last week my Writing of History class tackled with essays I put under the heading “Cautions,” grappling with (or being pinned by) Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, their interpreters and successors.

Given that this was a cameo and not a sustained investigation of the theorists, I assigned the readings with the biggest challenges for historians, intending to provide something to hold back an overconfident pen, or to muse upon while formulating a historical argument.

Derrida and Hayden White can sure silence a room of new graduate students! There was uncertainty, confusion, even anger at these theorists for their seemingly opaque mode of presentation, when the topic at hand is supposed to be the clarity of writing. As we explicated their ideas of history-as-satire, history-as-comedy, and the perils of communication, students came to understand their questions and doubts—though, I hope, not to be completely held captive by them.

But the text that grabbed me was another after-dinner speech, this time Gabrielle Spiegel’s 2009 American Historical Association address, “The Task of the Historian.” After locating the origins of Derrida’s thought in the traumatic silences of Holocaust survivors and the post-Holocaust generation, Spiegel attempted to shape and name the trends in history after the linguistic turn. “We are now able to look across the sand to see what might be worth salvaging,” she wrote, “before the next waves of theory and research begin to pound the shore.”

In this intertidal moment, Speigel finds silence as a productive mode of inquiry. She cites a list from Michael Roth, including the study of “ethics, intensity, postcolonialism, empire, the sacred, cosmopolitanism, trauma and animals,” and then adds a list of current buzzwords—“diaspora…bordertravelcreolization, transculturationhybridity, and transnational migrant circuitsexileexpatriation, postcoloniality, migrancy, globality, and transnationality.”

Part of this seems old news, as Speigel noted. From diplomatic to political to social and cultural history, there was first the study of the nation-state, its processes, and its proper citizens. Then its categories of exclusion, from class to race to gender to sexual orientation. And now there are new histories of migration, the disabled, children, and adolescents. Roth mentioned the animals; the hoof tracks through books like Elinor Melville’s A Plague of Sheep give voice to the nonhuman, just as Bill Cronon, read in our first week, asked about finding a voice for nature.

Yet seeking history in silence—this is more than allowing the subaltern to speak. Once phrased this way, recent studies of the traumatized, the incommunicado, the silenced came to mind: Violence over the Land, Ned Blackhawk’s analysis of violence, trauma, and silence in the Great Basin; Wendy Warren’s essay on the depth of a slave woman’s despair after rape; and Sarah Keyes’s recovery of the sounds of the overland trails, ruminating on the meaning of this “sonic conquest” for the residents of the region.

Animal, sensory and emotional histories seem to answer Spiegel’s call, delving into pre-linguistic experiences and the struggle to capture them from linguistic and artistic sources. Other and old modes of history will not fade away, of course. But by focusing on these subjects, could new studies stand high on the shore, after the linguistic turn has taken out the tide? Or do they simply, naturally, welcome the next wave in the construction of history?

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