The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the “Linguistic Turn”

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.


“Has the lady vanished?” When Elizabeth Clark poses this question she means to ask, can we recover women’s voices in their pure and simple form from historical texts? (31) The simple answer is, no we cannot. However, answers to difficult questions rarely tend to be simple. This is also the case for this question, because in a sense, although the insights of the “linguistic turn” tell us that the “pure and simple” voice of women can no longer be found in texts, there are other ways to find traces of women’s voices in texts. As Clark explains, “she leaves her traces…embedded in a larger social-linguistic framework.” (31) And even though in a sense the lady has in fact vanished, “she lives on.” (31)

Clark’s essay which attempts to defend the possibility of feminist history after the

clark
Duke Historian, Elizabeth Clark

“linguistic turn,” referring to structuralism and post-structuralism, begins by explaining how these linguistically grounded schools of thought overlaps and contradicts the feminist agenda. The linguistic turn in literary criticism and even historiography has aided feminist thinkers by confirming the feminist critique of objectivity. The feminist historian can be thankful for this. Yet at the same time the various schools of the linguistic turn have so critiqued objectivity and so emphasized how we cannot escape our social-cultural-linguistic location that they “annihilated the female subject.” (3) After she explores a few potential solutions to this problem of the vanishing lady, and finding them wanting, she proposes a more temperate approach. This approach follows the work of Spiegel who suggests that texts can be treated as both consequences of extratextual development (read: cultural-linguistic frameworks) but also causes which can impose and help create new ways of thinking. With this dual concept of consequence and cause, the historian can not only approach a historical “text” as a product of the extra-textual realities which produced it but also as a “text” which also plays a role in producing new extra-textual realities.

For of how this consequence-cause concept plays out in reading ancient Christian texts we might look to how Clark understands Macrina’s voice in Gregory of Nyssa’s Vita  and On the Soul and the Resurrection. Like post-structuralists, Clark recognizes how Macrina’s voice, is written out within the framework of a particular genre: Lives of Philosophers

0719-macrina
An icon of St. Macrina

and within particular cultural assumptions about gender. Because of these two realities, we don’t “really” hear Macrina’s voice, but rather we hear: 1) Gregory’s voice and 2)the voice of the culture. However, in another sense Macrina has not “really” lost her voice, we can hear her voice as we examine how women and gender are constructed in the text.

Analysis

Apart from the direct application to feminist historiography, this essay provides interesting food for thought concerning the general epistemology of history. Like several of the other essays we have read this week, Clark’s essay emphasizes the large role that cultural-linguistic frameworks play in the creation and in our reading of texts. Clark is rightly worried that pushing this point to far yields a skepticism about the subjects of those texts. In other words, its not just the lady that vanishes, but the subject as well. The only thing we have left with an extreme version of he linguistic turn is languages and cultures – no individuals. This result should be concerning to the historian. Yet the historian should not be too concerned because Clark has pointed one way out of this problem: an emphasis on consequence and cause. This is an important distinction for some of the work I’m doing on Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of hell. Edwards is in a sense bound up in his own cultural-linguistic framework when he thinks about this doctrine. Thus, everything he writes is a consequence of his social-location. However, to leave it at that would mean that he could never move beyond the ideological assumptions of that location. The concept of “cause” however opens up the possibility of examining how his work plays a role in changing the cultural-linguistic framework which makes up this doctrine. Thus, even an ideologically powerful concept, like the doctrine of hell, does not simply perpetuate a particular “oppressive” or “totalizing” agenda, that is, it does not necessarily act as a strategy for domination,” it can also challenge common agendas of the day.

Despite the significance of “consequence and cause,” I am left wondering if the hermeneutic of suspicion engendered by the linguistic turn leads us to being uncharitable to the authors of texts. It seems to me that emphasizing the “consequence” too much leads to an interpretation of texts that the authors would not recognize as their own.


Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn,’” Church History 67 (1998): 1-31.

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1 thought on “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the “Linguistic Turn”

  1. This is really interesting, but I think I might lack some of the background knowledge to fully understand what’s going on here… but I’m going to take a crack at summarizing it. Let me know if I’m understanding it right…

    Is the contention that women’s voices can only be understood in the context of the culture they’re writing into, and in a male dominated structure, the distinctly feminine voice is lost? Or is it that we *can* tease out the specifically female voice, and understand the ways in which they shaped culture (because of the dual consequence and cause)?

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