Climate talks and Joan Scott

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One of the things I've been noticing, as the COP21 talks have progressed, is the media attempting to tell the climate change story as if it's not an argument, and as if the time for hope and positive action was not past. I think the second point is important, that there's  reason for hope and immediate action based on the idea that we can still mitigate the negative effects of modern life. But the shift in the language used in some of these stories, and the widespread avoidance of identifying the "sides" in the debate has reminded me of some observations Joan Scott made in a different context.

I read Scott when I was thinking about how to do histories of outsiders. According to Scott, “Positive definitions rest always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” The definition of anything naturally  involves the exclusion of those things that are not considered part of, or germane to, or important in its nature. That's the common sense part. It gets interesting when she says the thing's “nature” is based on its perceived use or value to particular people in a particular time and place.

Maybe a better way of thinking about definition would be in terms of set theory rather than some type of unitary equality or inequality. A thing (noun) is a set of attributes (adjectives); the most crucial ones “defining” its nature -- but only in a given place and time, based on the locally predominant values. Looking at identity this way would enable us to observe changes in the set of attributes considered most important, and to ask questions about these changes. It would also allow us to ask questions like, "why didn't urban wage workers and farmers find more political common ground in the nineteenth century?"

Scott points out that “categorical oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category” (in
Gender and the Politics of History). When people define things as binary pairs, the characteristics that separate them may not do so as completely as the definers believe. The characteristic that differentiates two "opposite" things may not be as clear-cut and unambiguous as it seems to the definers. Or as clearly-perceived by the members of the opposing groups. And there may be other characteristics of the “opposites” that are similar or the same -- but these are not considered “essential” at the particular time and place where definition is being done.

Scott says a major element of Derrida’s deconstruction spoke “precisely to this arrangement [in which] the second term is present and central because required for the definition of the first.” This focus on opposition tends to ignore the “non-essential” characteristics and zero in on the binary, which may validate the initial definition to an undeserved degree. It’s okay as far as it goes -- we just have to remember it only goes so far. Conflicts over meaning thus “attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability.”

I’d add that, inasmuch as meanings continue to be “constructed through exclusions,” the changing relevance of specific elements in a definition set over time is a particularly interesting question for the historian. What happens when an apparently “natural” category’s definition changes? Especially, when characteristics that were once considered “essential” slip in importance, to be replaced by other characteristics that were less important when the initial dichotomy was formed? Does the binary evaporate? Or does it persist, even though the elements that constituted the initial definition-by-exclusion are no longer relevant?

Scott says academic history is based on “a politics that sets and enforces priorities, represses some subjects in the name of the greater importance of others, naturalizes certain categories, and disqualifies others.” She reminds us that “history, through its practices, produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past,” which means that “history operates as a particular kind of cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of” (she says gender, I’m going to substitute) social identity.

What I was thinking, as I read this, was that I could formulate an “outsider history” along some of the same lines Scott used to define gender history. One of the interesting questions would be, what happens when outsiders win? What happens to people and ideas, defined by opposition to something no longer relevant, when they achieve some type of legitimacy.

One of the things I’d want to do, would be to keep it about people and ideas. Not about ideas and categories. Even if the “meanings of concepts are taken to be unstable [and to] require vigilant repetition, reassertion, and implementation,” I keep wondering,
why do people choose to continue expending energy on their maintenance? When you bring people back into the story, you have to start asking about actual choices rather than set theory. I think that leads pretty quickly to the classic forensic question, Cui bono? That's a question that's relevant to the current situation.