The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Linguist Roy Harris on history: “post-structuralist panic”

Am reading for duty right now more than pleasure…. (not that duty cannot be pleasurable)

Came across the following quotation in Roy Harris’ book, The Linguistics of History:

Narrative form in history, as in fiction, is an artifice, the product of individual imagination.  Yet at the same time it is accepted as claiming truth – that is, representing a real ensemble of interrelationships in past actuality.  Nor can we say that narrative form is like a hypothesis in science, which is the product of individual imagination but once suggested leads to research that can confirm or disconfirm it.  The crucial difference is that the narrative combination of relations is simply not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation, as any one of them taken separately might be.  So we have a second dilemma about historical narrative: as historical it claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as a narrative it is a product of imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by an accepted procedure of argument or authentication.  (Mink, Historical Understanding, Cornell U. Press, 1987, 199)

(whatever you think of the above quote, isn’t this well put?)

This, Harris says, is “post-structuralist panic, with ensuing rush for the lifeboats” (162).  Harris says that “the problem [here] is generated by its location in a post-structuralist desert.  There the language-user is found wandering in a no-man’s land, where no one (male or female, historian or histopathologist) is quite sure about how words relate to anything at all”. (162)

What do you think of the problem that Mink identifies?  Is it a problem?  What about Harris’ diagnosis?

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