sexta-feira, 26 de setembro de 2014

An interview with Dominick LaCapra at Intellectual History Review

COUTO, Cristiano Pinheiro de Paula. 2014. Interview with Dominick LaCapra. Intellectual History Review, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2014, pp. 239-237.

Volume 24, Number 2 of the Intellectual History Review contains an interview with Dominick LaCapra, conducted by Cristiano Pinheiro de Paula Couto back in 2012. Professor LaCapra discussed several aspects of his voluminous work, marked by a persistent willingness to investigate the boundaries between history and other disciplines.

Here is a link to the interview. I selected some quotes:

On the possibility of a (in Couto’s words) “dialogue with the dead”, disagreeing with Sebald’s claim that “only in literature […] can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship”:

“History at some level is always a dialogue with the dead, but the dialogue may be mostly like a monologue when it is restricted to empirical research and reporting the facts with a kind of antiseptic analysis of the facts, that’s when the dialogue becomes most like a monologue, us talking about the dead as something we understand only in narrowly objective terms. But it is possible for history to be at least comparable to literature when it has other dimensions, such as the dimension of the elegy, awareness of political assumptions and effects, and possible implications for the future. To the extent that history has these other performative, ethical, and political dimensions, it is also in essence an “attempt at restitution” – not necessarily redemption but you are in a way bringing back the past and its dead and finding them to be still living in a way that has an impact on how people live today and shape the future.” (241)

Intellectual historians as intellectuals:

“The intellectuals in the United States who tend to be most influential are people who are directly engaged in government and in political processes, as well as people who are in some sense affiliated with corporations.” But this is rarely the case with intellectual historians: “I think the role of people like intellectual historians is much more indirect, and here it is interesting how significant education is for students. The role of the university, of certain courses, and of certain professors may be noteworthy in their lives. That can be something which is pretty significant. It may also be the case that they do something subsequently that takes them very far away from what they did in the university, but it may also be the case that the way they started thinking in the university engaged processes of thought that may nonetheless play a role in what they do in life. I had in class people who later worked on the stock market. Or there was one person, for example, who flew a plane in the navy. These are people who continued to think about things that didn’t really fit in with their own activities but on some level still helped to shape their thought processes.” (242-243)


“The most prominent thing, I think, is the way in which people with whom you work may go on themselves to be educators, sometimes on university levels but not always, and they in a way continue to transmit to other students not what you’ve told them but processes that they developed during interactions with you and other people in classes.” (243)

Two comments on the interaction between discourses of different disciplines:

“What always happens, which is to some extent fortunate and to some extent unfortunate, is that certain kinds of discourses tend to be developed, and once there is more conflict people within those discourses tend to believe that they are under siege. And so they flock together to help protect themselves against external pressures, and to some extent that happens within deconstructive discourse, and poststructuralist discourse in general, as well as psychoanalytic discourse, and the problem is that there may be a decline in mutual cross-fertilization, in the kind of interaction that those within the tendency and those outside the tendency see as challenging.” (244)

“[…] I think the role of intellectual historians is not simply to learn the discourses and be able to speak like Foucault or Derrida, but to engage in a process of translation. There should be, at least in intellectual history, a kind of translation going on between the discourse that seems alien and the discourse that’s been developed as more or less current within the historical field. History is often if not typically very close to common sense, a commonsensical language. So there has to be a kind of mutual give-and-take with interactive inflections made with respect to “ordinary” or commonsensical language and the distinctive discourses or special languages of critical theory. In this way problems seen as significant within the discipline may be rethought in part through an appeal to discourses experienced as alien by historians and in part as these “alien” or unfamiliar discourses are affected by certain problems – including the problems studied in detail by historians – so that critical-theoretical discourses don’t simply go their own way by developing a very, very abstract, involuted orientation that is not affected by certain problems that people in history or government or sociology see as significant problems. There has to be that kind of mutual interaction, which is always a form of translation with both the gains and losses of translation. In a very broad sense these are issues that have both obvious political ramifications and more subtle political ramifications in terms of the constitution of and interactions among disciplines.” (244-245)


Again on the idea of history as a “dialogue” with the past, now with an emphasis on the concept of “transference”:

“I would begin by pointing out that I have never seen history (in the sense of historiography) only as an exchange or “dialogue” with the past. I have also insisted that any exchange is tensely bound up with reconstruction requiring research. So a dialogue is mediated and even checked in multiple ways – by disciplinary protocols that are both constraining and enabling, by exchanges with other inquirers investigating the same object or subject, and by the results of research. It may also be limited or blocked by various forces – differences in power, unconscious processes (including projective tendencies), and the obscurity or opacity of the object.” (245)

“ transference I mean primarily one’s implication in the other or the object of study with the tendency to repeat in one’s own discourse or practice tendencies active in, or projected into, the other or object, for example, having a ritualistic, phobic response to ritual or replicating a scapegoat mechanism in an analysis of scapegoating (say, with respect to historians or other analysts who disagree with your approach). This dimension of transference is, I think, less developed in the literature than the interpersonal bond, which is often centered overmuch on the relation between psychoanalyst and analysand. Transferential processes are most pronounced and difficult to manage with respect to the most affectively charged or ‘cathected’ issues, for example, topics such as the Holocaust, slavery, colonialism, or, until recently in France, the French Revolution. I think that clinical, Oedipally centered transference is best understood as a subcase of this broader tendency to repeat.” (245-246) “Transference is related to a certain excess in relations between self and other that calls for understanding and representation yet is not fully open to mastery or knowledge. In this sense one cannot say exactly what one means by transference if by “exactly” one means a definition or set of criteria that provide adequate knowledge and a full grasp of the problems involved. Such a definition of transference would eliminate the problem of transference. One can only be as precise and comprehensive as the problems allow. And one can call for greater reflection and self-reflection about them on the part of those implicated in them – reflection that may revise, supplement, or contest one’s own formulations.” (246)

Answering the question: “Is it possible to apply psychoanalysis, which is a theory about the individual, to history, a field of knowledge about the human collective, social life through time?” (246)

“I have been trying to argue that it is possible, and I think that the belief that psychoanalysis is a theory about the individual is itself dogmatic and open to question. I would argue that the basic concepts of psychoanalysis, such as transference, repression, disavowal, acting-out and working-through undercut the opposition between the individual and the collective and are individuated or collectivized to varying degrees as they apply in different contexts […]”. (247)

On his “primary motivation in criticizing the opposition between history and memory”: (247)

“It is rather to place in question a conception of history that defines its own putative critical, secular rationality by opposing itself to a homogeneous, indiscriminate, even phobic idea of memory as its other. This deceptive conception of history effaces or denies the very possibility both of a critically tested memory and of possibly fetishized aspects of historiography itself (for example, a certain idea of the archive or the document). In brief, I argue that history and memory are modes of inscription that certainly should not be conflated, but neither should they simply be opposed.” (247)

“Indeed one of the ways history is not merely professional or a matter of research, which of course does not imply denigrating research, is that it undertakes to create a critically tested, accurate memory as its contribution to a cognitively and ethically responsible public sphere.” (248)

On what is entailed by the deconstruction of binary oppositions:

“One of the dubious understandings of deconstruction itself, which has had an influence even on tendencies critical of deconstruction, is the idea that the deconstruction of binary oppositions necessarily entails the undoing or blurring of all distinctions. On the contrary, I argue that the deconstruction of binaries, which is fruitful in undoing the bases of a scapegoat mechanism and, more generally, in questioning overly sharp boundaries, for example, between disciplines, does not entail a collapse of all distinctions or a conception of all thought as entering into a gray zone or an area of free play. Rather it poses in accentuated terms the problem of elaborating distinctions in examining empirical reality or history, criticizing the manner in which distinctions are often compulsively converted into binaries, developing what one argues to be more desirable distinctions, assessing their strength or weakness, and carefully exploring their relations to what Derrida terms undecidability.” (249-250)

On the current state of the field:

“I would say that at the present time an important concern is that intellectual and even cultural history may be in the process of being de-institutionalized within the discipline of history.” (254)

“The elimination or down-sizing of theoretically alert intellectual or cultural-intellectual historians from departments of history would deprive the discipline of a certain leaven, and it would impair the sustained critical interaction between theoretical reflection and practices of research addressed to specific problems.” (254)

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