Dominick LaCapra

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Dominick LaCapra (born 1939) is an American-born historian of European intellectual history, best known for his work in intellectual history and trauma studies. He served as the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, where he is now a professor emeritus.


History & Criticism (1985)[edit]

  • Rhetoric involves a dialogical understanding of discourse and of “truth” itself in contrast to a monological idea of a unified authorial voice providing an ideally exhaustive and definitive (total) account of a fully mastered object of knowledge. Historiography is dialogical in that, through it, the historian enters into a “conversational” exchange with the past and with other inquirers seeking an understanding of it. The problem is the nature of the conversation.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Rhetoric includes “performative” uses of language that make a difference in one’s relation to the object of study. This does not mean that the historian is obliged to resort to explicit moral judgments, overt didacticism in drawing lessons, or “show and tell” sessions in which one’s values or autobiographical propensities are bared to one’s audience. The more direct forms of public exposure generally serve a purgative function and rarely inform an account in a telling or transformative way.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Rhetoric highlights the problem of how one reads texts. It even raises the question of whether historians are trained to read. I have already noted the tendency of professional historians to see texts as documents in the narrow sense of the word and, by the same token, to ignore the textual dimensions of documents themselves, that is, the manner in which documents “process” or rework material in ways intimately bound up with larger sociocultural and political processes.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Rhetoric exceeds not only documentary or referential but all utilitarian, workaday, and instrumental functions of language. It involves verbal display or performance in a sense larger than that comprised in the standard notion of the “performative.”
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Rhetoric engages the dialectic of recognition among speakers, of which certain forms of persuasion are only the monological variants. It also fosters the awareness that a dialogical relation to the past encounters the problem of coming to terms with “transference” in the psychoanalytic sense of a repetition/displacement of the “object” of study in one’s own discourse about it—a problem that is circumvented or repressed both in the idea of full empathetic communion with the past and in the idea of a totally objective representation of it.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Rhetoric raises the issues of ambivalence and role tension in language use and their relation to the interaction of discursive modes. With respect to historiography, one obvious problem is the relation between a sympathetic rendering of the past, requiring a measure of identification, and critical distance from it in the interest of both scientific objectivity and critical judgment. A parallel problem is the role of the rhetorical in making all history a living memory that may (as Michelet desired) resurrect the dead and disclose their significance for the present and future. These problems indicate that historiography is itself a tensely mixed mode of language use involving both documentary or “scientific” knowledge and rhetoric in a broader and unavoidably problematic notion of cognition.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • The lack of attention to the problem of rhetoric, or the simple dichotomy between science and rhetoric, induces a tendency to perceive rhetoric as “merely” rhetorical and to understand scientific truth in terms of a rather blind rhetoric of anti-rhetoric. This tendency, which defines science as the adversary or antithesis of rhetoric, has often been conjoined with a defense of a “plain style” that attempts or pretends to be entirely transparent to its object. It is not uncommon to observe that the anti-rhetoric of plain style or, more elaborately, of “scientificity” is itself a self-denying quest for a certain rhetoric, a rhetoric unadorned by figures, unmoved by emotion, unclouded by images, and universalistic in its conceptual or mathematical scope.
    • Chap. 1 : Rhetoric and History
  • Historiography today is not in that state of fermentation to be found in fields such as literary criticism and Continental philosophy. Historians tend to pride themselves on their immunity to the wormlike doubt and self-reflective scrutiny that have appeared in other areas of inquiry, notably those infiltrated by recent French thought. Far from seeing recent critical initiatives as holding forth the angelic promise of a reformation or even a renaissance in historical studies, many historians have been seized with what might almost be called a counter-reformational zeal in reasserting orthodox procedures. But the contemporary historical profession is not a solid block, and even the most traditional scholars show an openness to at least a few newer movements. If one were to generalize somewhat rashly about prominent trends in the profession, one might list the following: an inclination to rely on a social definition of context as an explanatory matrix; a shift toward an interest in popular culture; a reconceptualization of culture in terms of collective discourses, mentalities, world views, and even “languages”; a redefinition of intellectual history as the study of social meaning as historically constituted; and an archivally based documentary realism that treats artifacts as quarries for facts in the reconstitution of societies and cultures of the past.
    • Chap. 2 : The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Twentieth-Century Historian
  • At present, historians are quite willing to listen to neighbors in the social sciences, but the less manageable contributions of literary critics and philosophers are often met with extreme suspicion if not active resistance. Yet transference may be blindest when disciplinary or subdisciplinary boundaries and protocols of research become the foundations for a self-enclosed frame of reference that induces the methodological scapegoating—the exclusion or reduction—of phenomena and perspectives that cannot be fully adjusted to it. The problem of transference in all its dimensions arises in an especially pointed way, I think, in the relation of intellectual and sociocultural historians to one another as well as to their “objects” of study.
    • Chap. 3 : Is Everyone a Mentalité Case? Transference and the “Culture” Concept
  • Contemporary sociocultural history was in part motivated by a justifiable revolt against an abstracted history of ideas. But it has often tended simply to reverse the latter’s assumptions (through reductionism) and to replicate its documentary treatment of artifacts (as symptoms of society or economy rather than mind). It has also replicated an all-too-prevalent social reaction to intellectual history’s objects of study (both artifacts and artists or intellectuals).
    • Chap. 3 : Is Everyone a Mentalité Case? Transference and the “Culture” Concept
  • I have no synoptic formula for resolving the various problems I have tried to raise. I would simply end by saying that what emerges from my discussion is the necessity and the difficulty of linking the history of criticism to criticism itself—criticism that is not only literary but sociocultural and political as well. Another way to state this point is to reiterate the need to come to terms with the problem of transference in the relation between past and present. In this respect, the practice of the critic would have to engage the issue of its own situation in the complex intellectual and institutional network formed by elite, official, popular, and “mass” (or commodified) culture. Countering the temptation to replicate in one’s own protocols of interpretation some of the most questionable features of cultural history is for the critic writing the history of criticism—or indeed any form of history—an endeavor that is substantive and self-reflexive at the same time.
    • Chap. 4 : Writing the History of Criticism Now?
  • If the novel is read at all in history, it is typically because it may be employed as a source telling us something factual about the past. Its value is in its referential functions—the way it serves as a window on life or developments in the past. The historian’s focus is, accordingly, on the content of the novel—its representation of social life, its characters, its themes, and so forth. In a word, the novel is pertinent to historical research to the extent that it may be converted into useful knowledge or information.
    • Chap. 5 : History and the Novel
  • Contexts of interpretation are at least three-fold; those of writing, reception, and critical reading.
    • Chap. 5 : History and the Novel

History and Reading: Tocqueville, Foucault, French Studies (2000)[edit]

  • Genealogical history in both Tocqueville and Foucault begins with an important if not burning issue in the present and traces it back to its often concealed or repressed roots in the past. The purpose of such inquiry is not purely antiquarian. History for both men involves an at times intense involvement or implication of the historian in the object studied and an active exchange between the present and the past in ways that may be useful in shaping the future.
    • Introduction
  • Reading in both its literal and metaphoric senses is a crucial constituent of the problem of language, and it is reciprocally related to writing. A mode of reading implies a mode of writing (and vice versa). In this sense, a different mode of reading would imply that the writing of history would also undergo significant variations and that historical works might take different forms.
    • Chap. 1 : History, Reading, and Critical Theory
  • Tocqueville certainly wants to be meticulous in his research and accurate in his facts. He makes pointed reference to all the archives he has visited and is manifestly concerned about establishing his narrative and analytic authority. But he is also preoccupied with the problem of proximity and distance in his relation to his subject matter. And he does at times question himself, change voices, and make explicit but modulated use of irony, parody, and other rhetorical devices. Tocqueville thus enacts one form of dialogic exchange with the past, a form in some instances so pronounced that it may disconcert more conventional historians who might otherwise find congenial his methodology, his balanced and often mellifluous style, and his basic conception of historical discourse. He also manifests a tension between a desire for objectivity and an involvement or implication in the events he treats. At certain times his voice is explicitly normative and performative, particularly with reference to his desire to give his defence of liberty implications for the present and future.
    • Chap. 2 : Rereading Tocqueville's Old Regime
  • For Foucault the true voices of unreason in the modern period went underground in art and literature, and they lacked a sustaining sociocultural background. The unmoored voices of unreason in an obscure dialogue with reason seemed to come not out of the cosmos or even out of a more delimited cultural context but out of the void. Here Foucault refers to such iconic figures as Nietzsche, Holderlin, Artaud, and Sade. He tellingly contrasts the paintings of Bosch and Goya. In Bosch, unreason is a subterranean force of the cosmos; in Goya (at least in certain paintings), unreason erupts from an abyss.
    • Chap. 3 : Rereading Foucault's 'History of Madness'
  • The interactions between metropolitan France and its former colonies have been complex, often hegemonically skewed, and typically strained. Still, any understanding of francophone literature and culture should, I think, attempt not to isolate it but to explore its contested relations with the metropole and with figures and intellectual or cultural forces that are themselves not simply metropolitan but often internally complex, self-contradictory, hybridized, or riven.
    • Chap. 4 : Reconfiguring French Studies

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