As a recent refugee from the hard sciences, where, at least in my department, researchers paid lip service to postpositivism and then went on their positivist way, I was struck again this week with the theoretical difficulties in elucidating a reasonable role for the researcher. Are the objective “facts”—whether historical or physical—“out there” and as researchers do we believe it is possible to apprehend these facts in the course of research? In thinking about these questions as I read, I found that all the authors seemed to want it both ways. Schiappa and Kynell and Seeley, postpositivist (and therefore modernist) in their belief that historical facts exist “out there,” although our interpretation of those facts will always be situated and incomplete, seem to want postmodern cred on the academic street as well. This is analogous to my positivist physics professors’ lip service to postpositivism. Meanwhile, the postmodernists (Poulakos and Tierney) deny that objective facts exist, period… except when they need them to prove their point.
On the whole, the positions of Schiappa and Kynell and Seeley (which I acknowledge I’ve reduced simplistically to the ill-defined moniker “modernist”) seem more balanced. My problem is not with their belief in the existence of objective facts, nor in how they situate the researcher of these facts, but instead in their claim that both modern and postmodern inquiry can occur separately yet in parallel in the same research program. On page 196, Schiappa states this claim succinctly: “I am not suggesting that historical reconstruction should be done to the exclusion of rational reconstruction. With Rorty, I believe that both ought to be done, but done ‘separately’ (1984, p. 49)” (Schiappa 196). Unlike Schiappa, Kynell and Seeley do not explicitly attempt to combine modern and postmodern agendas. However, their advice to TC researchers, following the examples of historians and social scientists, to eclectically and pragmatically “borrow” (73) methodologies does not problematize the mixing of multiple modern and postmodern theoretical perspectives.
Both Schiappa’s and Kynell and Seeley’s unproblematized approach to multitheoretical research seems to me to be a mistaken attempt to reconcile the hip theoretical frameworks of their postmodern critics with their own modernist stances. The TC researcher or rhetorician attempting to investigate historical events will primarily be doing so through texts—the trade journals, historical records and textbooks Kynell and Seeley discuss. Poststructuralism (which comprises one part of postmodernist program) denies the existence of a “center” in any text. Knowledge is not merely mutable or imperfect to researchers working within this theoretical paradigm; true knowledge simply does not exist. Reconciling these two ontologies within the same research program commits a logical fallacy, because the ontological categories of each are mutually exclusive. You simply cannot have a coherent research program that simultaneously admits and denies the existence of any objective reality.
In spite of my critique of “the modernists” for their greediness for analytical riches, I think the postmodernists’ appropriation of the factual assets of the modernists deserves more censure. Poulakos condemns Schiappa for being “under the illusion that a value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis, is possible” (p 220, but the quote is from Hayden White). Yet Poulakos then describes at length how his own corpus search for declensions of the Greek rhetorike yields pre-4th century instances of the word, thus refuting Schiappa’s argument. Poulakos believes in this case that his “facts” (pre-4th century instances of rhetorike) about the Greek corpus are objective and his data reproducible using the computer equipment he specifies. If his data were indeed correct, (which, as we learned in class, unfortunately were not) Poulakos would make a finer social scientist than postmodernist.
Tierney makes an error that I’m considering here to be analogous to Poulakos’ and symptomatic of what I called in class postmodernist cake (or fact) eating. As Kenny pointed out in class and in his post, Tierney’s deploys his postmodernist stance in contradictory fashion when it comes to Lewis’s sexual identity. While acknowledging on page 294 that “gay” means something different in the 20th century than in the 19th (and it is debatable whether 20th century “gay” even existed in 1809) Tierney repeatedly applies the description “gay” to Lewis (p. 294, 309, 313, 314). Tierney’s use of “gay” as a stable, empirical category strikes me not as a deconstruction and decolonization of essentialized categories, but as an artifact of modernist thinking. To make his postmodern argument, Tierney must find recourse in an “objective” truth (or at least an objective sexual category). However emancipatory or destabilizing his intentions are, Tierney finds it necessary at times to behave like a modernist.
Week 4 Reflections, Barbara Schulman
I am struck by the contrast between views on what constitutes appropriate methodology in history. Tierney, for example, describes himself as a postmodern historian who is writing a history of the present, who unabashedly aligns himself with postmodernism with a particular focus on what life histories (i.e., the testimonio) can add to the discipline. His emphasis then is on opposing the disengaged modernist who presumes himself or herself to be discovering facts or knowledge, on honoring individual lives “represented” in oral histories as societal and cultural constructs, on cultivating sensitivity to his own role as a societally and culturally situated researcher and on being cognizant of how these issues impact the production of knowledge with respect to the “facts.” His process approach to history, his strong concern with decolonization and social activism (echoed in his arguments for vulnerability in the voice of the researcher) are all elements of his postmodern project.
Contrast this with Kynell and Seely who posit that historians tend not to be too deeply concerned about issues of methodology or about contextual frameworks (what Creswell would call knowledge claims) as compared to researchers in the social sciences and humanities. Historians, they write, have a basic pragmatism when it comes to methods: historians use those methods that will most help them to obtain the kind of information they need and are not shy about adopting methodological tools from other disciplines. In further contrast to Tierney, we have Schiappa’s program for historical reconstruction and that includes concerns about the way in which postmodern historical research is conducted. As was pointed out in class, Schiappa feels that “rational reconstruction” is a conceptual tradition that is no longer appropriate for the study of Greek thought, particularly because of a tendency towards “doxagraphies,” towards casting philosophical and rhetorical history in generalizing trends or as conceptual constants that stretch throughout the history of Western Europe; as a result, researchers miss historical nuances (i.e., they miss the local). The other problem is that history then becomes a sort of Rorschach; in short, historical accounts “tend to become self-affirming discoveries of early anticipations of voguish philosophical theories” (Schiappa, 196).
In reflecting on these issues, I have two responses. First, I wonder how helpful it is to put these ideas into dogmatic camps of thought (i.e., postmodern vs. modern). In some instances, the boundaries do not always seem that clear or clean. For example, Schiappa is clearly concerned about accuracy in uncovering what factual data can be had, but so is Tierney on a certain level (see page 303 where he writes that “no one I know who subscribes to postmodernism suggests that the veracity of a statement should go unchecked…”). And Schiappa is concerned that historical research not be about projecting one’s own agenda onto the facts which is not at odds with postmodernist concerns about the situated researcher; but perhaps I am being naïve and Schiappa is just turning postmodernist theory back on itself as an argumentative technique.. Kynell and Seely, however, go too far. Simply ignoring the issues created by postmodernist theory (i.e., by giving them a back seat) means backing away from complexities that surely would enrich their research; Longo’s Spurious Coin is a case in point. (Also, is it true that Kynell and Seely represent “most historians”?)
Second, we are faced with what all this means for a rhetorician choosing historical research as a methodology. For example, what constitutes responsible and competent historical research? What is the line between historical research and the social sciences (Is ethnography a tool for the social sciences or for history or for both?) And where does rhetoric fit as a discipline? What are its boundaries, if any? Although I realize that disciplinary boundaries have blurred in the last 15 years, rhetoric as a field seems to be more multi-disciplinary than most (just look at the range of backgrounds students bring to this class). This creates key challenges because it means a rhetorician may need to have facility with a variety of approaches; it also raises issues of professional training: What kinds of coursework would one need to become truly competent in historical reconstruction, ethnography or survey design?
Week 4 Discussion Questions
Rhetoric 8011, Barbara Schulman
This week’s readings gave us an overview of the differences and tensions between modernist and postmodernist approaches to history (ranging from William Tierney’s arguments in concerning the postmodern approach to life histories to Kynell and Seely’s more casual approach to the issue of contextual frameworks). If you were to conduct historical research, where would you fall in the spectrum and why would you make those choices?
How would you differentiate the historian’s methodologies from those of a social sciences researcher? What arguments would you make that historical research is not to be differentiated from social science research?
Edward Schiappa is clearly concerned about the effect that postmodernist approaches might have on historical research as a discipline. Compare Tierney’s conception of historical research as a history of the present (i.e., investigating the creation of the past as a comment on the present condition) and Schiappa’s position on historical reconstruction.
Kynell and Seely mention the importance of framing clear and specific research questions that may later have to be adjusted and altered the more one encounters the historical material. But if one wishes to use a historical method in conjunction with another (like rhetorical analysis), what is the line between doing the work of history and doing the work of interpretation? Also given what they say about the tentative nature of research questions in historical methods, isn’t it entirely possible that the scope and direction of an historical study might change the more one gets into the research?
I think of Tierney’s questions of Meriwether Lewis’s sexuality, a line of thought that I find (whether or not appropriate in this case) tremendously importantly both politically and historically. The normative assumption that one is straight until proven gay does more to obscure the historical truth (whatever that is) than uncover it. At the same time, Tierney’s brand of postmodernism (and queer theory) seems contradictory and naïve. He aptly defines queer theory as the “’ongoing deconstruction of sexual subjectivity’” (294). Yet asking whether or not Lewis was gay is not the same thing as asking whether or not his desire for Clark was a homoerotic or even sexual one.
If Tierney is saying that “we cannot use the ways we define identity today to define identities of yesterday,” then how can he use the “G-word” without acknowledging the cultural identification that goes with that word? Clearly, I am not saying that homosexuality did not exist before Ulrich’s definition in 1870. But I am saying that his use of that word is not only antithetical to his epistemological project but also (arguably) inappropriate when it comes to speaking of past representations of same-sex attraction. Of course, Tierney himself makes this point, and then goes back to discussion of a gay Lewis. As Zoe said in class today about Schiappa, Tierney seens to want to have his cake and eat it.
What I see as the naivety of Tierney’s argument surfaces in his discussion of the decolonization of the subject. What makes testimonio so decolonizing? How does allowing someone to tell a perhaps willfully-constructed version of their life bring about a sense of agency and empowerment? If one views historical and third-person narratives as totalizing (Lyotard), what makes a first-person narrative different? After all Menchu is criticized for misrepresenting not only herself but others in her family and community. In that sense, can’t her narrative be understood as colonizing those about whom she speaks and speaks incorrectly?
In making these statements, I suppose I am somewhat (and tentatively for the moment) siding with Schiappa in his debate with Poulakos. The terms we use are extremely important, because of the interdisciplinary nature of all humanities-based research. If we unproblematically deploy obscure terms or conflate entire bodies of texts and ideas, then those other scholars using our work will unknowingly be doing the same. Not having read the original Poulakos work that Schiappa is critiquing, I cannot say which one of them actually wins the debate, though I do find Schiappa’s (and Rorty’s) categories of historic reconstruction and rational reconstruction (or modern appropriate, as Art mentioned in class) very useful as broadly-defined categories.
I am wondering whether or not it is surprising that I see historical methods as conservative and the ideas of Kynell and Seely and Schiappa as extremely cautious. After all, isn’t history used by so many other disciplines and fields of inquiry as the foundation on which they can base their work? For example, literary new-historicism either makes liberal use or unfortunately no use of “reliable” published historical accounts as the “truth” on which their theorizations can rest. Would we really want to read a history if we thought that is was more interpretation than “fact”? Would we want to use this history in our own research?