Turn It Around: Intellectual Turns that Flipped History Writing Upside Down

While people have been writing history since the beginning of written language, the way they have done so has, of course, been evolving ever since. Greek poets, for example, didn’t use the same methodologies as nineteenth century historians. In this post we want to take a look at three of the most recent theoretical waves that shifted historians’ perspectives on writing history and that helped shape historical research as it exists today: the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, and the performative turn. These “turns” didn’t just impact history (or even had their origins in history), but instead touched most of the social sciences and made scientists across fields have a minor breakdown and possibly an existential crisis or two. Who doesn’t love drama, right?

Medieval reenactment in Bruges, Belgium (via Gruuthuse museum)

The linguistic turn has its origins in Western philosophy in the early twentieth century. Philosophers like Wittgenstein, Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault focused more and more on the meaning of language and on language philosophy. The idea, roughly, was that concepts can’t exist outside of the structure of language. The word “table” doesn’t just function as a label that we attach to the concept of a table, but rather, we recognize a table because it has certain characteristics (which are defined by language) and because it’s not anything other than a table. That means that what we think of as reality is a convention of naming and characterizing. Reality exists because of the system of language.

The impact of the linguistic turn on history is mostly characterized by the writings of American historian Hayden White. In his essay collection ‘The Content of the Form’ (1987), he wrote:

“The text-context relationship, once an unexamined presupposition of historical investigation, has become a problem, not in the sense of being simply difficult to establish by the once vaunted “rules of evidence,” but rather in the sense of becoming “undecidable,” elusive, uncreditable —in the same way as the so-called rules of evidence. And yet this very undecidability of the question of where the text ends and the context begins and the nature of their relationship appears to be a cause for celebration, to provide a vista onto a new and more fruitful activity for the intellectual historian, to authorize a posture before the archive of history more dialogistic than analytic, more conversational than assertive and judgmental.” — Hayden White, The Content of the Form, 186.

White stated that language is a construct in which connotation, intertextuality and context play the leading roles. Text isn’t simply a mirror to reality, but always has its origin within a specific historical context and with a specific purpose in mind. Under White’s influence, methodologies such as historical discourse analysis (this post is an example) took shape and historians made sure to see their written primary sources as products of their context. In other words, in the 1970s and 1980s the idea of writing  “one objective total history of all of society” made room for the idea that history is a kaleidoscope of different voices and texts.

Things didn’t really quiet down after the ruckus caused by the linguistic turn, though. Riding on its waves, in the 1980s and 1990s came the cultural turn. The failure of Marxism, the rise of second wave feminism, and the intellectual stirrings of the linguistic turn made historians such as Davis, Burke, and Joyce turn away from social history with its well-defined set categories and structures and towards cultural history. They became more focused on making connections to the historical context, the context of language and of identity instead of on the Marxist idea of the “evolution” of history (the idea that history is moving towards a single ideal society). Just like the linguistic turn, the cultural turn was mostly about deconstructing existing notions and categories such as class, society, and the state and recognizing that a culture is made of bunch of different voices, viewpoints and possibilities. This shift in perspective also led to the creation of cultural studies as a separate discipline.

Just like the linguistic and cultural turns, the performative turn most recently brought about a reorganization of historians’ priorities. Based on theories originating in anthropology, performative turn historians see all human behavior as performance. A household can be seen as a performance, for example, in which (sorry for the heteronormative stereotype) a husband and wife’s relationship is a role play between them (here’s an example of how gender roles played a huge part in feminism). This means that culture as a whole can be seen as performative, but also, for example, political kinship, diplomacy, and the act of writing history, just to name a few. Think about medieval European kings having ‘Joyous Entries’ in the most important cities of their territory to establish power over their subjects, all different kinds of reenactment festivals, and even tattoos that literally embody memories. Performing the past is a way to create a shared social memory that’s based on traditions and established social roles and, just like the linguistic and cultural turns, breaks away from the idea of a fixed history with only one truth.

These three turns are essential three different answers to the question, “What is history?” They didn’t just create an opening for historians to consider different areas or topics of study, but rather they were a change of perspective. I think you can imagine the controversy some of these theories and turns created. People didn’t necessarily react super well when someone wanted to shake up an entire field with a theory that probably sounded more than a little out there upon first hearing it. In the end though, their theories turned out to have more supporters than critics and provided the base for new and exciting historical research and, especially, for more open minded thinking in the field. This opened the field to fresh voices and perspectives; which would, in turn, lead to a revolution of more inclusive historical narratives!


Sources and further reading:

The Content of the Form (White, 1987)
Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing after the Linguistic Turn (Spiegel, 2005)
The Pursuit of History (Tosh, 2013)
Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Biernacki, 1999)
Performing the Past: Memory, History and Identity in modern Europe (Tilmans, Van Vree & Winter, 2009)


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