Opinion Articles

The self-reflective turn in historical writing and the demise of identity history

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The rise of romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century deeply affected historical writing, whose perspectives were thoroughly nationalized. According to Wimmer and Glick-Schiller this ‘methodological nationalism’ had much to do with the function of professional historians as legitimators of existing or aspiring nation states. But it was not just national identities that historians sought to underpin. As Berger and Lorenz point out religious, ethnic and class identities also were constructed through historical writing. The women’s movement, the LGBTQI movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement, movements against racism and for greater equality of ‘people of colour’ as well as indigenous populations have all been using history to claim a voice and to demand an end to discrimination and social injustice. Because historians, from the nineteenth century onwards, have been able to set themselves up as those who could speak authoritatively about the past, they have also been in the vanguard, along with other disciplines including literary studies, of constructing collective identities. As the German theorist of history, Joern Rüsen has put it: ‘The question of identity is a fundamental fact of human culture. It demands a response. Historical thinking is an essential medium for that response.’

Rüsen and many others, like him, have been searching for the historical foundations for collective identities that could be cosmopolitan, tolerant of ‘the other’ and non-violent. Yet, in historical perspective, it remains striking to what extent constructions of collective identities in many  previous generations’ historical writing (and through other means) have led to the essentialization of these identities, to the construction of ‘others’ as enemies (rather than merely rivals), enemies that had to be eliminated in order for the required collective identity to succeed. Wars, genocides and ethnic cleansing all followed in the wake of such constructions of collective identity. Establishing essentialized collective identities through historical writing seemed an exercise that often ended in bloodbaths.

Yet since the 1980s we have witnessed a move by historians towards the problematization of such essentialized constructions of collective identities. This move has been facilitated by a range of very diverse theories of history and philosophies of history. Narratological approaches, following the pathbreaking publication of Hayden White’s early work, certainly managed to put a major question mark behind the scientificity claims of the historical sciences. Weakening their scientific pretensions also undermined the authority with which they constructed essentialist collective identities and highlighted the political contents of such efforts. Michel de Certeau’s attention to everyday practices that reappropriated and recontextualized meanings which could develop into oppositional strategies, in relation to collective identities, pointed in the direction of their contestedness and pluralization. The connection between knowledge and power was, of course, at the centre of Michel Foucault’s writings, both theoretical and historical. The many ways of reading the past made it necessary for the historian to practice an archaeological approach bringing to the surface what had laid hidden. With regard to identity, Foucault’s formulation was: ‘the purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation.’ Jean Francois Lyotard’s questioning of master narratives further undermined the construction of essentialist collective identities through historical writing.

Based on completely different theoretical premises, social constructivism worked in the same direction of legitimating a plurality of possible constructions of collective identity. How those constructions were aligned to different power ambitions of specific social groups could be learned from Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction. Similarly influential on generations of historians was the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. Especially his insistence on the openness and unfinalizability of the past became important in working against closure of the past and in favour of a polyphony of multiple voices and interpretations which ultimately made any essentialization of collective identity absurd.

Furthermore, Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction was based on the recognition that concepts of collective identity could not be identical with themselves. Instead they were captured in a system of differences which had to be deconstructed by scholarship. As Ethan Kleinberg formulated it in relation to Derrida’s influence on the conception of history: ‘the unheimlich (uncanny) realization that history and identity are moving targets is revealed by (Derridean) deconstruction.’  Derrida’s as well as Roland Barthe’s and Jacques Lacan’s deep skepticsim about the role of history in constructing collective identity had a major influence on a group of feminist theorists, including Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Judith Butler, who in turn influenced feminist historians intent on deconstructing essentialist gender identities. The task of deconstructing colonial as well as postcolonial identities was also taken up by a range of postcolonial scholars. One of their trailblazers, Edward Said, had voiced his deep skepticism about essentialist identity discourses: ‘I think the one thing that I find, I guess, the most – I wouldn’t say repellent but I would say antagonistic – for me is identity. The notion of a single identity. And so multiple identity, the polyphony of many voices playing off against each other, without, as I say, the need to reconcile them, just to hold them together, is what my work is all about.’ Hybridity became the hallmark of postcolonial perspectives on collective identity constructions.

With regard to essentialist class discourses, the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe reached back to Antonio Gramsci in order to understand social identities not as fixed and determined but as constantly to be renegotiated. De-essentializing class identities  became an exercise in historical studies that was followed by the de-essentialization of ethnic, racial and other identities that had been dear to the political left for some time. Here the work of Stuart Hall has been hugely important  in finding a language of identity that would take leave of the very concept of identity to replace it with the notion of ‘identification’. The latter, Hall argued, already contained a high degree of self-reflexivity about the constructedness and situatedness of every identity construction.

 Many historians today write about collective identity in order to question it and to document its instability and contestedness. They destabilize the clear boundaries drawn around collective identities and they emphasize their ambiguities, contradictions and insecurities. Where historians are still defending concepts of collective identity in order to defend oppressed and discriminated groups in society, they tend to do so with reference to negotiated processes of identification in Hall’s sense rather than with reference to essentialized collective identities. A politics of identification rather than an identity politics makes sense also historiographically, pace Francis Fukuyama’s ill-fated recent attempt to come to new forms of national master narratives via a critique of identity politics.

Yet we do not have to look far to find historians in different parts of the world who still see themselves as prophets of the nation or of some other form of collective identity. There are still many essentializations of such collective identity, in historical writing and elsewhere. Even where professional historians have said good-bye to them, publicists and others are often ready to breach the gap and provide their own essentialist constructions of collective identity. With the rise of populist movements across the world's democracies, it is likely that the publications of those many historians which address questions of identity will become of ever greater public policy and political importance.



This short intervention is dedicated to my friend and colleague Joep Leerssen, recently retired from the University of Amsterdam.


References discussed in the text:

Bakhtin, M. M., Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Berger, Stefan, and Chris Lorenz (eds), The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

De Certeau, Michel, The Writing of History, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Downs, Laura Lee, Writing Gender History, 2nd edn, London: Bloomsbury, 2010.

Foucault,  Michel, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History‘, In: Paul Rabinow (ed.), Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, New York: The New Press, 1994, pp. 76 – 100. (the quote is from p.77)

Fukuyama, Francis, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, New York: Profile Books, 2018.

Hall, Stuart, ‘Introduction: Who Needs Identity?’, in: Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage, 1996, pp. 1- 17.

Kleinberg, Ethan, ‘Haunting History: Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision’, in: History and Theory 46:4 (2007), pp. 113 – 143.(the quote is from p.142).

Kleinberg, Ethan, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, ‘ Theses on Theory and History’, in: http://theoryrevolt.com/download/WildOnCollective_Theses-Booklet_EN.pdf [May 2018).

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso, 1985.

Lyotard, François, The Postmodern Condition, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Rüsen, Jörn, Evidence and Meaning: a Theory of Historical Studies, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2017 (quote from p.105).

Said, Edward, ‘Criticism, Culture and Performance’, in: Gauri Viswanathan (ed.), Power, Politics and Culture. Interviews with Edward W. Said, London: Bloomsburgy, 2005.(the quote is from p.99)

White, Hayden, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Wimmer, Andreas, and Nina Glick-Schiller, ‘Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and Social Sciences’, in: Global Networks 2:4 (2002), pp. 301 – 334.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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