History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory

November 18, 2017 | Author: mail2agastaya7024 | Category: Postmodernism, Philosophical Movements, Philosophical Theories, Epistemology, Psychology & Cognitive Science
Share Embed Donate

Short Description

Dominick LaCapra...


Dominick LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory by Dominick  LaCapra Review by: John E. Toews The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 78, No. 3 (September 2006), pp. 684-686 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/509151 . Accessed: 22/04/2013 10:53 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]


The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of Modern History.


This content downloaded from on Mon, 22 Apr 2013 10:53:02 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Book Reviews History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. By Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xiⳭ274. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper). History in Transit is the tenth volume of critical essays by Dominick LaCapra since Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca, NY, 1983), his first demonstration of this genre as his preferred form of intellectual communication. There is a remarkable thematic consistency and argumentative persistence in this body of work. The desire to sustain a dialogic tension between archivalists and textualists within the discipline of history so prominent in his critical interventions of the early and mid-1980s surfaces with equal concern and vehemence in the lengthy introduction to this volume. The focus on historicizing the Holocaust, and traumatic experience more generally, as the exemplary problem of representing past experience in contemporary historiography, which emerged in his work in Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (Ithaca, NY, 1994) and remained central to his essay collections published in 1998 and 2001, also informs the central essays of his new book—extended review essays on Giorgio Agamben and recent trauma studies (chaps. 3 and 4). The essay “History, Psychoanalysis, Critical Theory” (chap. 2) expands and clarifies certain points in his use of the psychoanalytic concepts of transference, acting out, and working through but remains true to its “original”—the essay “History and Psychoanalysis,” first published in 1985, republished in revised form in Soundings in Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY, 1989), and evident in some form in each of his essay collections since. LaCapra’s intellectual and critical conversations, as his footnotes now also suggest, are increasingly conversations with himself as well as with his critics or exemplary “others.” Not that he has changed or rejected positions taken earlier— rather, they have become more nuanced, complex, and peppered with qualifying adjectives and parenthetical phrases in the constant struggle to make himself clear(er), to defend himself against misreadings, and to keep everyone talking as lucidly as possible. History in Transit thus can serve as an adequate introduction to the full range of LaCapra’s concerns and critical practices. The reader coming to LaCapra for the first time need go no further. The title of the book names the two primary organizational foci of LaCapra’s essays. The phrase “history in transit” is obviously meant to contrast with statements about the “end of history” that ground the postapocalyptic forms of historicization LaCapra attempts to engage in critical dialogue. Both as a body of disciplinary knowledge and as a process of experiencing self and other through time, history is in a constant state of transition and transformation. But if historical identities are always unstable, never fixed in place, they are not necessarily completely indeterminable or meaningless. LaCapra would like to defend meaningful identity, and the normative bonds and institutions it makes possible, against the nihilists and utopians who see the traumatic destruction of inherited values— the historical “deaths” of God and man—as the existential ground for a leap into transcendence. From the perspective of LaCapra’s “dialogue partners,” the radical negation of the present represented by the death-in-life of the Nazi extermination camps (Agamben) or the total commodification of life under global capitalism (Bill Readings) becomes the starting point for an ecstatic experience of return to ground zero, the unrepresentable existential site from which all contingent historical forms arise and from which a kind of Nietzschean transvaluation of values can be projected. LaCapra tries hard to practice empathetic reading and compassionate understanding of the positions of his nihilistic and prophetic dialogue partners. Careful and self-critical examinations of these surveys of the Permission to reprint a book review printed in this section may be obtained only from the author.

This content downloaded from on Mon, 22 Apr 2013 10:53:02 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Book Reviews


sites of destruction is required before it can be pointed out that beneath the all-or-nothing hyperbole of the destruction/transcendence discourse there remain elements of continuity and potential progressive change from which normative boundaries and institutional frameworks for social interaction can be salvaged, reformed, or built anew. Even in the wake of traumatizing experiences that seem to leave inherited meaning in ruins, immanent historical criticism that builds on the past and present to refashion identities and norms (and not just proclaim their death), LaCapra insists, is still possible. To declare an end to the interminable process of making and remaking identities that defines historical existence is an evasion—understandable perhaps under certain extreme conditions but nonetheless an evasion—of responsible maturity. At the center of LaCapra’s defense of “history in transit” against the “end of history,” of interminable, self-critical historicization against the postapocalyptic combination of nihilism and transcendence, lies his second organizing focus (designated in both the subtitle of the book and the title of its first chapter)—a critical, theoretical reconsideration of the relationship between experience and identity. The discussion of identity and experience is the most interesting part of this book; it shows LaCapra himself in process, not quite clear about his position, not confident enough to get schematic in his distinctions. The chapter seems unfinished and relatively unpolished, almost like a series of notes that take the author in different directions. The overall tendency of LaCapra’s analysis, however, is clear: he would like to defend identity and experience as concepts referring to something beyond the discourses of the symbolic world of culture and simultaneously to insist that they are also formed and shaped within those discourses. “Identity” seems easier for him to handle. LaCapra wants to define its referent not as an essence but as a process, an active (and endless) process of choice, selection, and integration among the “subject positions” that are given as discursive possibilities within the various networks of cultural meaning. There is clearly a passive side to identity—subject positions are historically given—but the process of making an identity out of them is an experimental and ultimately ethical activity. Group identities also involve complex issues of subjective identification and negotiation. What is important for LaCapra is that identity can be saved as a referential concept even if the notion of essential identities is dismissed. A similar pattern of argument is pursued in relation to “experience.” LaCapra rejects the notion of experience as the essential “other” that defines the limits of the discursive world. Experience, like identity, has both a passive and an active dimension. The passive element of experience is perhaps most familiar. We use “experience” to refer to events and facts that impose themselves on the subject as somehow “objective”—from the most emotionally trivial things that just happen to us; to the traumatic and ecstatic experiences of being torn, grabbed, redeemed, or elevated; to “structural” experiences like being turned into an instrument or a commodity by the slow and often hidden transformation of global systems of exchange or production. For LaCapra’s purposes, however, it is crucial to point out as well that “experience” refers to an active process in which what is passively experienced is related to desire and will, in which the subject not only registers objects or events but selects, chooses, and integrates. We experience subject positions passively as possibilities imposed on us by the various discursive worlds we inhabit—but we actively configure (and reconfigure) those positions in the processes of identity production, and we experience ourselves as actors in these processes. Desire and agency are “experienced” as much as objects and events. “Working through” a passive experience of an object or event, especially a traumatic experience, in order to reconstruct group identity, ethical responsibility within normative limits, and rational communication with recognized others who are also conceived as agents of their own processes of identification, LaCapra implies, refers to a reality not completely encompassed within the exchanges of the discursive world. The “real” beyond the symbolic is encountered not only in trauma and ecstasy, in suffering and passion, but also in the everyday acts of historical agency in the world. The essays in this volume remain predominantly focused on the problem that the passive experience of trauma presents for processes of representation and historicization. However,

This content downloaded from on Mon, 22 Apr 2013 10:53:02 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


Book Reviews

there are hints everywhere that LaCapra’s real project for his next few volumes should be the issue of agency, of desire and will, especially the disciplined desire and will of the self-conscious, “rational” acting subject that produces its identity through a complex process of negotiation with the already-produced identities that are available to it. Engaging in critical examination of the issues involved in representing the experience of historical victims of traumatic events has provided LaCapra and others with significant insights into issues of historical representation more generally. But this focus illuminates only one side of the issue of historicizing identity and experience. Examining the problem of representing the experience of the perpetrator (in the broadest sense), and of the relationship between experiences of perpetrator and victim, raises questions of agency and responsibility that are of equal, if not greater, significance for understanding, representing, and constructing our identities as historical beings and as historians. JOHN E. TOEWS University of Washington Postmodernism for Historians. By Callum G. Brown. London: Pearson Education, 2005. Pp. viiⳭ200. £14.99. Many books define themselves as “primers” of structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism, but very few seek to mitigate the incomprehension and even hostility that have often characterized the relationship between history and postmodernist theory. True, historians have by now absorbed the challenges posed by both the linguistic and the cultural turn in ways that have led both to methodological innovation and to a focus on new objects of analysis. Yet in spite of a lowering of the polemical tone of earlier debates about theory, many historians still regard it with unease and suspicion. Thus a book that advertises itself (on its back cover) as a “primer on postmodernism for the History student” can only be welcome. Moreover, Callum G. Brown declares himself an enthusiast of postmodernist ideas and seeks to explain not only their central concepts but also their usefulness for historians. The author organizes the book thematically rather than chronologically. Accordingly, he does not provide a history of ideas to explain the historical condition we call “postmodernism,” by which he means “the intellectual, social, and moral condition that superseded modernity at some point in the twentieth century (probably the 1960s) . . . characterized by a rejection and subversion of some of the key intellectual, social, and moral principles of Enlightenment modernity” (8). Instead, the book focuses on key concepts of postmodernism that continue to mystify historians—among them, sign, discourse, poststructuralism, and text. He summarizes each concept, gives brief overviews of key figures (say, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault), offers an analysis of the various ways historians themselves have incorporated some of these ideas, and then provides guides to further reading. In the best chapter (“Criticism of Postmodernism in History”), he argues with the works of the most ardent critics of “postmodernist theory”—Richard Evans’s In Defense of History (New York, 1997), in particular—seeking to show where they have gone astray. This book, however, might be understood not as a primer of postmodernism for historians but as the story of how historians use postmodernist ideas, and even that claim is not fully explicated except by reference to what some historians say they are doing. For example, Brown cites works by Judith Walkowitz, by Robert Darnton, and by Edward Muir as exemplary of fruitful uses of postmodernist concepts—discourse, semiology, and post-structuralism, respectively—without any sustained analysis of how historical method absorbs these resolutely antihistoricist modes of analysis. Thus Brown’s book, for all its promises, does not offer a sufficiently rigorous analysis of the tensions between historical method and the theoretical underpinnings of various critical discourses aligned with postmodernity (except to note that historians have been traditionally wedded to empiricism,

This content downloaded from on Mon, 22 Apr 2013 10:53:02 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

View more...


Copyright ©2017 KUPDF Inc.