Malcolm Dunnachie Thompson wrote:
> Perhaps I should clarify my perhaps needlessly snide query. (I also
> apologize for its tone.)
> By questioning the existence of an "actual past" I don't mean to suggest
> that, in fact, the Napoleonic Wars never happened, or whatever. I only
> question the idea that these events have an unproblematic existence
> vis-a-vis the present (which is, I think, really the object of every
> historical enquiry - a point I'll return to). Also, to speak of "events
> in the past" and to speak of "the past" are two very different things. I
> agree that history becomes controversial as soon as you try to determine
> (that is, *narrativize*) the meanings of events. But, of course, this
> means that those events are, in themselves, *meaningless*.
Events can have "meaning" in several ways: (1) they can be personally
meaningful (for example, one might say that being invited to and attending the
wedding of a friend from whom one was estranged long ago was very meaningful:
here the meaning would derive from the sense of relief one feels from the
resolution of a past conflict: the estrangement and its causes would seem
almost necessary in relation to the pleasure of a friendship rediscovered);
(2) they can be meaningful _within_ a discipline (as the tarriff act passed
by Congress before the Great Depression has meaning for, among others,
economists); and they can be meaningful through the connection of one event in
the past to another (say, the invention of the printing press and the rise in literacy
in the West [although the invention of the printing press can be meaningful vis-a-vis
other, related events or developments, too]).
This list is by no means exhastive. But I hope it conveys that the
"meaninglessness" of events-in-the-past as such is not problematic for me.
> The writing of history is not the simple cataloguing of occurences (which only "come
> down to us" in the form of textual memory anyway, which already
> drastically problematizes the issue).
Of the sources for evidence on events in the past, one is written texts. There
are many others.
> As soon as you relate one event to another, you've ascribed meaning to it
> (as a cause, as an effect, or whatever, depending on the explanatory role
> it plays in the specific narrative). And the mode in which one does this relating of
> events is already inextricably tied to the present, to one's ideological
> investments in one narrative mode rather than another. There is no history that is not
> already a narrative. I only question the gesture of ascribing one of these narratives
> the status of the "master narrative", the narrative which *unproblematically* refers
> to the
> "actual" past. And make no mistake: there is *no* reference to the past
> that is not already a narrativization of it. Hence, there is no "actual"
> past that we can refer to in order to ground our narratives about "it".
> There are only competing versions. In which case, the criteria for what
> is a "good" history and what is a "bad" history ceases to be the extent
> to which a history corresponds to the actual past - and becomes instead:
> how does this history help in my contemporary political struggle?
I ask in earnest, with no intent of disparaging you, are there currently any
grand, political struggles in the West?
> The past does not exist in the same way that this computer screen exists.
> So how does it exist? Only as a narrative, so the motivations,
> investments and regularities of its telling are as important if not more
> important than its correspondence to the "truth" - which is, of course,
> itself always already narrativized. Which brings me back to my point
> about the present being the real object of historical enquiry. (well,
> actually, I'm not sure if it does, but I'd like to return to it anyway.)
> Foucault's histories are relevant because they help me to explain why it
> is I find myself in the situation I'm in. I don't actually care about
> Carl Westphal or Charcot themselves - what I care about is how their
> activities are worked into a strategy of control that still has effects
> today. All histories are really about explaining the present, so it is
> one's perspective on that present that will determine the kind of history
> you write. This is true for *everybody*. And to turn that proposition on
> its head: it is possible to infer from someone's written histories what
> perspective they have on the present. Do they try to account for the
> faces and modes of oppression with their histories? Or do they to
> rationalize these oppressions by either ignoring them or resolving them
> into some other narrative? What is foregrounded in a particular history?
> Does this narrative gesture help? If so, then good, that's enough. If
> not, then the history is ideologically specious.
I do find it problematic that you insist that history (as practiced by . .?) is
little more than an exercize in the maintainance of a dominant regime. Certainly,
people "in power" usually like to stay "in power," but that doesn't mean that they
have any more control over me than my best friend does. This is the sort of thought
that leads left-wingers and conservative ideologues alike to criticze the media for
being overtly in favor of the positions they oppose. It is also the sort of thought
that sustains view that the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations
are conspiring with the U.N. and officials of the governments of the West to establish
an oppressive global regime. It's Chomskyism.
I am overstating the case here, but I'm doing so for a reason. Please do not be
offended: I would like engage you in a discussion. But bear with me, as I have recently
become rather critical of what little I do know of Foucault but am not sure what
elements of his thought I would like to keep.