On Foucault
Public debate
"Always historicize"
Hernadi debates Jameson
(Francis Steen; revised October 29, 1998)

A frequent objection against a cognitive and evolutionary approach to literary and cultural studies is that such approaches produce essentialist and ahistorical accounts. The debate between Paul Hernadi and Fredric Jameson in New Literary History XII (1980-81) provides an interesting entry into this issue.

In "The Erotics of Retrospection: Historytelling, Audience Response, and the Strategies of Desire," Hernadi asks, "Why, indeed, should the typologist of the historical imagination stop short of turning his findings into a contribution to a theory of man?"

In his comments on Hernadi's essay, Jameson responds to this question by attributing to him "some ultimate conviction as to the stability of human nature, the latter's identity through history," contrasting with his own view of "the radical historicity of everything we may be tempted to think of as permanent (the structure of the psyche, the body, and the senses, fully as much as 'values,' emotional reactions, and the like)."

At stake here is our conception of history. First of all, Jameson's contrast between "stability" and "historicity" is forced. As Hernadi points out, "No account of change in nature or culture can avoid postulating relatively constant factors (such as Jameson's 'class conflict' and 'the mode of production in the widest sense') in relation to which change becomes noticeable."  This does not quite amount to a suggestion that Jameson's interpretation of culture implicitly presupposes the kind of "theory of man" that he explicitly disavows, but it points in that direction. Historicity cannot simply mean that everything alwsys changes; there are patterns of invariance.

Secondly, the stronger the claim for the universal validity of a model for understanding history, the stronger must be the claim for the stability of the phenomenon described. Thus, Hernadi points out that Jameson himself has described a characteristically Western and particularly postenlightenment methodological demand —'Always historicize!'—as "the one absolute and  and we may even say 'transhistorical' imperative of all dialectical thought (The Political Unconscious, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981, p. 9)." The point here is not simply to locate Jameson's ahistorical imperative within history (a self-evident deconstructive move), but to suggest that the conviction that such imperatives are transhistorical implies that certain features of historical causation remain invariant.

Although it brings out the central points at stake, this exchange does not resolve the issue of the relation of a "theory of man" (in Hernadi's terms) to Jameson's historicizing imperative. The difficulty lies in Jameson's conception of history, which fails to historicize itself because of an inappropriately constricted horizon. When he speaks of the "radical historicity" of "the structure of the psyche, the body, and the senses," Jameson retains a distinctly non-radical conception of history, one that is closer to the letter of the Bible than to the spirit of his imperative. History, it seems, starts with agriculture, perhaps preceded by a few weeks in the Garden of Eden; the human subject arrives along with the state, writing, and the first cities. We now know that only a tiny proportion of human history happened during the few thousand years that generally pass for history, which leaves out the hundreds of thousands of years during which contingent historical events did in fact shape "the structure of the psyche, the body, and the senses, fully as much as 'values,' emotional reactions, and the like)." The true horizon of history far exceeds the common conception, and it is this forgotten or at least overlooked history that allows us to remove "always historicize!" from the realm of the transhistorical.

Compared to the brief span of civilizations, the hundreds of thousands of years human beings spent as hunters and gatherers in small groups have left a much more decisive historical imprint. Our ability to communicate with words or without, to learn any language we are born into, to grimace, to smile, to understand the mental states and emotions of others, to quarrel and bicker, love and adore, cooperate and cheat, all have their roots in this extended past, a history that has left little trace except in our very minds and moving bodies. While we may feel the written history through which we more directly hear the voices of the past is more real, we ourselves, like living relics of another age, bear witness to distant and much more persistent past.

Far from supporting "some ultimate conviction as to the stability of human nature, the latter's identity through history," evolutionary psychology challenges the narrow conception of history that usually lies at the base of the humanities. Our significant past does not begin with the official records of Sumer and Egypt, preceded only by an indescribable and indistinct primitivism. Society before the state was complex and sophisticated, and its history is highly relevant to the understanding of contemporary culture. The project of evolutionary psychology is to historicize human nature by tracing its capacities and proclivities to a large set of contingent historical events.

In this spirit, "Always historicize" can itself be historicized: The very conditions of possibility for such a demand are certainly no older than episodic memory, which may date back only a couple of  hundred thousand years. In contrast, elements of some emotions such as fear and desire are millions
of years old, and aspects of structures of the body are hundreds of millions of years old. These different rates of historical change allow us to model historical causation at one level against a background of relative invariance on another.

Jameson's fallacy - and it is not his, but that of a whole profession - is to assume that history can adequately be equated with the history of civilization, thus confusing the act of recording a phenomenon with its history. This leaves him with no option but to conclude that the natural is ahistorical and can only be understood in terms of invariant essences – the subject of "ultimate convictions" that must be resisted. In fact, the historicizing of human bodies, senses, emotions, and cognitive abilities is conjectural, empirical, and does not provide any kind of ultimate knowledge.

Francis Steen
October 1998


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© 1998 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles