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Rethinking

Intellectual
History: Texts, Contests,
Language.
Dominick
LaCapra (Ithaca and London: Cornell University
Press. 19s:). 350 pp.
This book brings together
ten essays on the theory and practice
of
intellectual
history that Dominick LaCapra has ivritten over the last decade.
Although most of these pieces have appeared in journals. their publication
in
one volume provides a useful introduction
to the critical literary position that
LaCapra has staked out for himself within contemporary
historiography
and
that informs other books he has written on Sartre and Raubert.
He recognises
that his methodology
remains marginal for most practitioners
of intellectual
history, that slightly ambiguous
term for the study of ideas and culture which
is itself often on the margins of history. Yet, it is precisely the marginality
of
his particular approach and of the subdiscipline
as a lvhole that appeals to him
and that offers an opening for the insights from literary theory Lvhich he finds
sorely missing in mainstream
historiography.
LaCapra wants his essays to provoke further investigation
of unexamined
assumptions
among two groups in particular:
historians and critical theorists.
His criticism therefore
focuses on what he sees as the distorting tendency of
historians to treat comples ideas as a simple reflection of social contests and
of theorists to advocate one-dimensional
ideas and simple dichotomies
that
obscure or repress alternatives
which challenge the unity of those concepts.
According
to LaCapra,
the problem for both historians
and theorists is to
understand
the way in which historical
texts and ideas contest whatever
interpretation
or category is assigned to them. But his project is not only one
of criticism, for he offers his own dialogical approach to ideas. contests and
the quest for systematic theory. Dialogical history and theor), encourages
a
process of inquiry in which writers question the past and, equally important,
allow the past to question them. LaCapra draws especially upon the uork and
methodology
of Jacques Derrida to raise his own questions about commonsense views of social reality.
language
and meaning
and to examine
submerged ideas in the texts of historians or theorists. His general intention is
to bring the suppressed
assumptions
of various texts to a more explicit level,
so that these assumptions
can enter into dialogue with ideas u hose apparent
unity depends
upon continued
suppression
and whose apparent
common
sense rests upon implicit (not to say naive) metaphysical
assertions.
To summarise
the argument
in simple form. one can say that LaCapra
opposes in history. theory and life whatever tends to support monological
language
(that which denies dialogue
with its other). to assume simple
dichotomies
(for example. text/context)
or to presume simple hierarchy and
control (for example. the scholar who is said to master a field). He furours in
literature
or in life whatever tends to encourage
dialogical language,
reject
simple dichotomies
and challenge the presumption
of hierarchy and control.
The tendencies
which LaCapra believes to be negative turn up most often in
historians and social theorists - even radical ones - Lvhile the tendencies
he

SLIppOrts appear rna~niyin great nwcls


and in rhc \\orF; of Sjetzschc.
Heidwger.
Derrid;~ and hlikhail Bakhrtn. At the riqii of lcip>ins into Simple
opposition<.
jome reader5 mav ~\cll conclude that t;iCapra< distinctlc,ns ;tnd
preferencc5
could be describe~d :ts the hisher dichotom>.
An important
point of Rflfhiukio 8 I~rtrilrcrr~ul Hl.rfc)c,\ i\ to introduce
the
dicllogical rendenc!
to historians
and to encourage
it< uw in the btudy and
writing of historical texts. LaCapra ?;ug?its
that the dialogue in intellecturtl
hIstory should focus on great rather than second-rate
\\orks. since it i< the
srt;lt tests k\ hich challenge
the interpretations
or desires of historians
and
societies in the most creatkr
\v;I~. He critic&es those ivho rad both great and
minor texts as documents
that simply reveal social realities or. alternativei~,
as abstractions
that hax.e little to do gvith the real x\orld. .Accvrding
to
LnCapra. the text context (reality) rcl;ttioni;hip
is infiniteI>- more complicated
than -documentary
historians
recoqise
because
test<.
contests
and the
historians who try to describe them are all implicated
in intricate interpretive
net\\orks
of language.
epistemological
assumptions
and ontc,ltrgical theories
that pass unexamined
through praoticall\~ e\ery ivorli of history.
LaCapra
wants to restore the intricacies
that others try to rcduct. In
opposition
to the test:rcality
dichotom)~. for example. he argues that realit)
can in fact be seen as another
kind of test. in that all experience
and all
description3
of espcricnce
depend
upon interpretations
that arc always
already situated in language anti in ;f tradition
that none of us can escape.
The contest
itself is ;I test of sorts, \rrites LaCapra:
.it calls not for
stereotypical.
i~fe~~~~~~ic~ll
-descriptions
but for intcrpret~Iti~?n and informed
criticism (p. 95). Great texts, on the other hand, may he seen as major events
Lvhosc place in history is no lcss real than other events that historians describe
as reality. LrtCapro believes that the dichotomous
thought of most historians
enables
them to Forget that they necessarily
read contests
as a kind of
privileged text (their sources arc, aftLr all. tests) and that great texts arc as
complicated
as any other reality in history. Historians.
though, prefer not to
think about how they read. Their goal. says LaCapra. is to describe a reality
that exists beyond interpretation
or outside tests and their desire to do so may
be compared to ;L traditional
metaphysical
desire for fuli presence or for pure
being (God. the Real), ;i Western desire as old as the Old Testament
and
Greek philosophy.
LaCapra
discovers
this same desire in critical theorists
such ~1s Paul
Ricosur,
Frederic Jameson.
Habermas,
Sartre and Mars. nil of whom use
dichotomies
and categories that they try to situate beyond conkstation
in a
realm of full clarity,. essence or being (esamples
of such categories
include
context, freedom. utopia, pure language).
Like the historians. ho\+wer. these
kvriters find their desire for totalising categories contested by oppositions
that
are not pure. but \vhich (to use LaCapras
term again) arc always already
within the category uhich they theoretically
oppose. In simple terms, one
might note that it is impossible
to conceive of light lvithout darkness or to
think of presence
without
absence;
each concept
carries or overlaps
or
supplements
the other. The argument will be familiar to those who have read
Derrida.

Rr\,irrr,.s

187

Where then might one find a more adequate expression of the interplay of
that interaction
often emerges someoverlapping
opposites?
Significantly.
what unsslfconsciously
in the work of writers who tend to den\ it in theorv.
For example. one comes upon the questioning
of categories and dichotomies
in Sartres novels and in blarss parodic study of Louis Napoleon.
LaCapra
argues that the literarv form of these texts sets language at plav. breaks down
enables
metaphor
to over\\ helm
the categories
that reign elsewhere.
intentionaiity
and allows a dialogue to emerge. This interest in the dialogical
process owes much to Bakhtins analysis of Dostoevsky
and Rabelais and to
his discussion of the carnivalesque
in life and literature.
The carnivalesque
emphasis on the reversal of categories, the breakdown
of dichotomies
and the
value of play emerges as a prime example of how the dialogical might actually
function in literature or history as well as in life, and it confirms Bakhtins role
in LaCapras
book as one of those critics who (along with Nietzsche and
contestatory
dimensions
of language,
Derrida)
perceive
the ambivalent,
thought and experience.
The carnivalesque
in face comes closer to a pure
utopia in these essays than LaCapra might like to admit.
This book clearly establishes
LaCapras position as a leading advocate for
the use of more European
literary theory (especially more French theory) in
American
historiography.
By showing how literary or linguistic theory can
refocus the study of texts and contexts alike, he contributes
an important
emphasis to the perennial
debate about how best to approach the history of
ideas. But his project is certain to raise skeptical questions from many of the
historians
he wants to influence.
Some critics will dismiss this vvork as an
attack on a genre of positivism that has largely disappeared
in an era vvhen
most historians freely acknowledge
the intepretive
aspect of almost all of their
work. Although
LaCapra seems to assume that true believers in a positive,
objective
reality
flourish
in the field of history and elsevvhere.
most
contemporary
historians may disclaim the beliefs that he attributes
to them.
As for LaCapra himself, he may well be taken by critics as essentially
one
more voice in the relativist tradition,
despite his own interest in refuting the
simple relativism/positivism
dichotomy.
Indeed, this relativist label may be
expected from historians
and others because even those who recognise the
interpretive
character of their work are likely to oppose LaCapras claim for
the textuality of all contexts, since that claim denies the existence of reality in
the common-sense
way that most people believe it exists. If reality becomes
essentially
an issue of interpretation,
does one surrender
the belief in real
historical forces and real social contexts?
This question appears implicitly in many of the essays. but it surfaces most
explicitly in his discussion of the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson. vvho stresses
the existence of the Real in history, even as he concedes that we cannot know
it except through language or texts. LaCapra attacks this belief in the Real as
a surrogate for a missing divinity because it presupposes
the existence of a
pure category (Reality) that functions like a transcendental
signified (God,
in the metaphysical
tradition) outside of symbols. In LaCapras v.iew. reality
must be understood
as a symbolic system that can never be securely grounded
somewhere
beyond language.
This is the fascinating
and the disconcerting

1%

ReL~iews

ambivalence
of symbols the fact that nothing
entireI!
esc:tpes their
signifling
potter or is simply presented , grasped or giLen by them (p. ?s).
The Status of realit! thus becomes for LaCapra so implicated
In s~mboiic
ambivalence
that most historians are likely to belie\-e that It disappears in ;ink
sense which they can use for research or for situatigs
tests they Lvish to
ana@e historicall\..
in practical terms, when historians avant to i~ritt about
the relation
betlveen
ideas and their contest.
they \iill slmosr inevitabl)
discuss contexts as an estratestual
reality and describe that reality in accounts
that will al\vays seem monological
or metaphysical
from LaCapr;is perspective. The context poses complicated
problems for inteprrtation.
and ]ret most
historians will surely arqx that it esists in some form that exceeds language
and that can be plausibly described as history.
LaCapra tries to avoid the monological
temptation
in his o\\n prose b)
distancing himself from the assertions he makes. He tends to express his views
with phrases such as one is tempted
to put forth the dictum that in the
human sciences everything
begins in ideology and ends in methodology
(p. 342). thereby stating the point and partly withdrawing
it at the wne time.
(Note also the scare quotes to challenge
the use of terms.) His style is less
encumbered
by jargon
or obscurity
than that of most critics with a
post-structuralist
orientation,
though historians
who favour straightfor\vard
narrati\.e
Lvriting will be disappointed.
For theoretical
reasons.
LaCapra
wants them to be.
It must be repeated
in conclusion
that this book makes an important
theoretical
contribution
to the study of ideas, especially lvithin the historiographv
of the United
States.
LaCapra
forcefully
represents
a critical
perspective
that is too easily dismissed by historians because it challenges the
assumptions.
needs and methods upon kvhich they bass their work. It is a
perspective
that returns
to Nietzsches
criticism of the use and abuse of
history and that seeks to reanimate
the tradition
of The Guy Scietlce. That
tradition has of course seemed dangerous
to most practising historians.
and it
has always been relegated
to the margins of historiography
- the critical
position from which LaCapra begins and in which he \vill almost certainly
remain.
Lloyd S. Kramer
Stmfortl

University

NOTES
I. Dominick LaCapra, A Prefuce to Sartrr (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 197s)
and Matfarne BOVNT~O~I Trid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1982).
2. The argument LaCapra discusses appears in Frederic Jameson. Tlw Political
Unconsciotrs: Narrutir~e IIS N Socially Symbolic Au (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 19Sl).