History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory

Critical theory is intimately related to intellectual understandings of identity as the discursive conjuncture of layered subjectivities. Experience, in contrast, is often dismissed as the slippery recourse of a populist historiography, what Dominick LaCapra refers to as a compensatory drift into “unrestrained speculation, projective identification, and ventriloquism” (p. 4). This book refuses the oppositional fracturing of experience and identity, demanding an accounting.

LaCapra’s long-standing concern with what he designates a “dialogical encounter” between immanence and transcendence, between what is within the world and open to readings of experience and representation, and what is capable of going beyond or working through, transformatively, that which is never simply “given,” frames this text. Acknowledging that history is always in motion, LaCapra insists that those who practice it adopt more self-conscious and critically inquisitive stands on their identities and experiences, highlighting how this can work to good effect. At the core of the book are two chapters centrally concerned with the meaning of history, memory, and trauma, most especially the experience of the Holocaust.

Central to the overall argument are a series of stimulating meditations on psychoanalysis as the critical theory of experience, on empathy and ethics, and on the institutional and disciplinary setting of academic labor. If he enters these arenas on the tramways of textualism, addressing the “crisis of the University” via an extended discussion of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (1996) or exploring the limits one can place on the reach of the Shoah through a dissection of the performativity of Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz (1999), LaCapra’s gestures toward context are often informed and illuminating, as are his remarks on text/context. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, LaCapra lives an intellectual life defined by his unwillingness to “simply mind his or her own business” (p. 248).

Sometimes, to be sure, LaCapra falters. His offhand comments on Karl Marx and Marxism are cavalier. A stimulating questioning of disciplinary identity is inattentive to difference. Essentializing historians as an experiential occupational category, adhering to like-minded understandings of recognized status and commonalities of practice seems out of step with the actualities of a disciplinary fragmentation quite pronounced over the last decade and more. It also flies in the face of a binary opposition that LaCapra too unthinkingly articulates. The historical profession is hardly separated into two camps: those who seek illumination by “grubbing” in the archives, the dust of facticity a badge of honor; and others who instead, however attuned to evidence, interrogate the archive and “turn erudition into learning” by rising above the boundaries of “information” (p. 270). This is LaCapra’s achilles heel, a “minding of his own business” that also surfaces at the bottom of his pages. Footnotes reveal a prolific writer who has seldom met a critic, however innocuous, that did not goad him to reply.

Comment in the epilogue is particularly blunt. Reducing Russell Jacoby’s writings to an “intellectual phantasmagoria” that “runs together neoconservatism and seeming leftism” is a bit much, especially when the citation is one article and there is no engagement with the arguments posed nor a single quote from the pilloried author (p. 250). One does not have to agree with very much of the collection of essays pulled together by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (1999), or even the cause behind its publication, to wince at LaCapra’s slippage into the most personalized of rejections, in which he avoids the content of the text, disparaging instead the publication of “a series of manifestos that are dedicated to the editors’ fathers (as well as a grandfather) and are presumed to serve the interests of an intellectually conservative society” (p. 250). The “trace” is truly transparent, but is this really what LaCapra wants to bring to the table of argument?

This book is a provocatively revisionist invitation to rethink historical practice, refreshing in its willingness to engage empathetically with experience. It raises many questions well. But it is simply too easy to suggest that all critique of historical practice ordered by critical theory is merely a “backlash,” an anti-theory turn that is “neopositivistic, narrowly empirical, antitheoretical, or at best domesticating” (p. 249). Adequate representation of the experience of the discipline, in all its diversity, necessitates a more nuanced appreciation of the identities of many of its dissenting practitioners.

Bryan D. Palmer
Trent University