History from Outside

According to Joan Scott, “Positive definitions rest always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” The definition of anything involves the exclusion of those things that are not considered part of, or germane to, or important in its nature. But its “nature” is based on its perceived use or value to particular people in a particular time and place.

Perhaps a good way of thinking about definition is in terms of set theory rather than some type of unitary equality. A thing (noun) is a set of attributes (adjectives); the most crucial ones “defining” its nature. Looking at it this way would enable us to observe changes in the set of attributes considered most important, and to ask questions about these changes.

Scott goes on to point out that “categorical oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category.” (Joan Wallach Scott,
Gender and the Politics of History, 7) When people define things as binary pairs, the characteristics that separate them may not do so as completely as the definers believe. The point of differentiation between the two opposite things may not be as clear-cut and unambiguous as it seems to the definers. And, there may be other characteristics of the “opposites” that are similar or the same -- but these are not considered “essential” at the particular time and place where definition is being done.

Scott says a major element of Derrida’s deconstruction spoke “precisely to this arrangement [in which] the second term is present and central because required for the definition of the first.” This tends to ignore the “non-essential” characteristics and focus on the binary, which in the end may validate the initial definition to an undeserved degree. But it’s okay as far as it goes. Conflicts over meaning thus “attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability.” I’d add that, inasmuch as meanings continue to be “constructed through exclusions,” the changing relevance of specific elements in a definitional set over time, is a particularly interesting question for the historian. What happens when an apparently “natural” category’s definition changes? Especially, when characteristics that were once considered “essential” slip in importance, to be replaced by other characteristics that were less important when the initial dichotomy was formed? Does the binary evaporate? Or does it persist, even though the elements that constituted the initial definition-by-exclusion are no longer relevant?

Scott says traditional history is based on “a politics that sets and enforces priorities, represses some subjects in the name of the greater importance of others, naturalizes certain categories, and disqualifies others.” (9) She reminds us that “history, through its practices, produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past,” which means that “history operates as a particular kind of cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of” (she says gender, I’m going to substitute) social identity.

What I’m thinking, as I’m reading this, is that I can formulate an “outsider history” along some of the same lines Scott used to define gender history. And it might be interesting, to look at gender through that lens. Because it doesn’t retain its outsider status. So part of my toolkit could include ways to look at that change, from outside to inside. See what happens to people and ideas, when they achieve some type of legitimacy.

One of the things I’d want to do, would be to keep it about people and ideas. Not ideas and categories. Even if the “meanings of concepts are taken to be unstable [and to] require vigilant repetition, reassertion, and implementation,” (5) my question is, why do people choose to continue expending energy on their maintenance? There’s got to be some personal reason in each choice, or the whole thing devolves into a sort-of ahistorical chronicle of the memes. But that’s probably a topic for another day...

Bradlaugh Party!

This is a photo of the Charles Bradlaugh Society, which met in Northampton (I’d assume around CB’s birthday on Sept. 26th) for their 8th annual celebration of the atheist, radical leader’s life. A nice man I’ve never met, named Norman Adams, sent me a clipping from the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. He apparently saw my website, www.bradlaugh.com, because he commented on my interest in both Bradlaugh and Alan Moore, the graphic novel author (From Hell) who spoke at the event.

My interest in Bradlaugh began a couple of years ago, when I discovered him during a British History class I was taking in Minnesota. I’ve written parts of a couple of biographies of Bradlaugh (an adult version, a young adult version, and I’ve played around with a historical novel as well; but that’s a long story), but I really need to go to London and read the archive at Bishopsgate before I’m ready to complete that project.

The clipping came at the right time, to remind me why I got into the history PhD program, and what I ought to be doing. So now, I remember…

Thanks, Norman!