Here are my notes on Toohey. Hope they help. If you have questions don’t hesitate to address them to the comments section of this post.
Notes on Peter Toohey, “The Cultural Logic of Historical Periodization” from Handbook of Historical Sociology (2003)
Note the opening paragraph: the lures of periodization. As an aid to study. Yet the act of periodization may be “romantic”– i.e., may give a exotic gloss to the past by converting it into another country (209). One way to consider this point is to imagine a journey into antiquity via time machine. Assuming you could, say, master Attic Greek and leap across millennia to the Age of Sophocles, what would you find? It’s this kind of mystery that attracts the historian in some sense: the desire to enter an historical space totally “other” to the present.
One effect of periodization as historical “othering” is to make the contemporary scene particular to itself. Or, Toohey suggests, “it can provide grounds for self-reproach and self-castigation.”
Henry Maudsley’s warning: by generalizing from our observations we run the risk of having those generalizations overdetermine our thinking.
Toohey notes that scholars have tended to periodize based on their own rather narrow fields of inquiry. In a sense this is unavoidable: who can know everything? “This generalizing from limited evidence,” while understandable, nonetheless underscores the necessary “relativism” of the periodizing process (210).
“stratigraphies”= basically, the study of stratification or strata. Note that this is a geological metaphor for historiographical inquiry. Not at all uncommon. The past is earth to be excavated, layer upon layer of history to be revealed.
In what follows, Toohey provides us with a handful of test cases for periodization. The first concerns the Enlightenment. He makes a fairly obvious objection that for some people, the Enlightenment fails to resonate in the way that it might for a European or North American. Indeed, the Enlightenment was also the age when “Race Science”– a pseudo-scientific discourse seeking, usually, to prove the fundamental inequalities between races– began.
To wit: “Periodization is a procedure that is rooted within specific cultures. It is not easily universalized.”
“procrustean”= from the Greek myth-figure Procrustes, a bandit who kidnapped people and forced their bodies to fit into an iron bed, either by stretching them on a rack or amputating their legs.
“Each nation, each region, even each individual, can have its own. Their periodization, utterly relative constructs, reflect their own sense of the ‘style’ of their historical past.”
I’m not sure I agree entirely. What would it mean to have a personal history? Isn’t their something necessarily communal or agreed upon when it comes to history? But it is important to note the use of “style.”
That reference is expanded upon somewhat in the next section of the text, where Toohey offers the observation that there are two types of periodization, the chronological and the “style-driven.” I tend to think of the latter in terms of the German term Zeitgeist, a word usually translated as “spirit of the age.” We could even think of the “style-driven” method of periodization as “zeitgeisting.”
There follows another example with the concept of nostalgia. Against the claims of Svetlana Boym, who argues that nostalgia is an invention of the Enlightenment era, Toohey offers counter-evidence from antiquity: what about long-suffering Odysseus?
Or boredom: Patricia Meyer Spacks argues for the Enlightenment roots of this form of affect. To which Toohey responds by noting the Latin word veternus or Seneca’s references to “taedium vitae” (211).
Henry Maudsley makes a reappearance: “observation establishes generalizations that, having become positive entities, come to tyrannize subsequent observation and understanding.”
See what we’re doing here? We’re thinking about thinking.
Additional exempla: Leisure, the Self, the Body.
Then onto the section subtitled “Periodization as Self-Reproach”
“Periodization can, by highlighting the differences between different eras, be used to emphasize the alleged aberrations of present practices and institutions” (212).
To demonstrate this assertion Toohey glosses recent scholarship on homosexuality– i.e. the claim that “homosexuality was ‘invented’ a mere century ago” (213). He gives us in very truncated form the arguments of David Halperin, who argued that “the homosexual” can only exist (epistemologically, as social or intellectual category) when two basic conditions have been met. “Morphology: an exterior mode or dress of behavior that is identifiably non-heterosexual [and] a homosexual subjectivity; a conscious recognition that one has a sexuality and that this is directed in a same-sex mode.” The invention of homosexuality also meant the invention of homophobia, recall. And Toohey argues that the “politics of reproach” which guide this thesis– while perfectly understandable and even commendable– have overdetermined the case to be made.
“Periodization as Nostalgia”
Taking up work on literacy, Toohey warns against the tendency to “spill over into a romantic nostalgia.” As if pre-literate society were purer, more rooted and real than our own.
Here’s a passage that caused me to write “AND?” in the margin:
“This revelation [he’s talking about the oral composition of the Homeric epics] came, what is more, in the very period when so much… linguistic discussion was being made of the purported disjunction, of the gap, between words and things, between signifiers and the signified” (214).
It’s not that this observation is without merit but that Toohey doesn’t exactly establish what such a coincidence might mean. Note also that in the discussion which follows there is some reliance on the terminology of structural linguistics. If we have time and there is sufficient interest, we might just scratch the surface of what terms like “signifier,” “sign,” and “signified” mean.
Moving on: Toohey sees an insufficient effort to note the blending and overlapping of historical and cultural change over the long term. Creating a stark division between pre-literate and literate means that Ong, et al are inattentive to nuance.
Here’s a good one: “The predictability of ideational substructure of this material shows just how troubling the act of periodization really can be” (215). What does it mean?
“Periodization as Genre”
The broadest periodizations tend to be so uncontroversial that they’re banal. Thus when Schiavone “distinguishes ancient Roman society from contemporary society by the presence or absence of slavery and industrialization he is probably telling us both a truth and a truism.”
Taking up the topic of manic depression as a test case for the value of examining “intermediary phases” in contrast to over-broad periodizations, Toohey makes a rather remarkable claim. Though the depressive (passive) appears to be privileged over the manic (active) in the medical writings of Aretaeus and others, a fact that might be extrapolated as evidence of “a ‘discourse’ or ‘habitus’ or ‘epistem’ or mentality”– or “even part of a Zeitgeist”– once we leave the genre of writing and enter the genre of pictorial representation– specifically a painting of Orestes dated prior to the aforementioned medical treatises– we find counter-evidence that this “new” discourse of manic-depression is already well-established iconographically.
I apologize for that last sentence.
The point here, as Toohey writes, is that “perhaps it is easier to see these sorts of problems than it is to say them…. It appears that the traditions of the visual are well out of synchronization with those of the written.”
In other words, periodization depends in part on our choice of genres to be studied.
Finally, the jist:
Periodization is an indispensable tool, though one we should look upon with suspicion.
Even further: periodizations may perform a useful function, but once they tend to get set in stone as truisms then they ought to be refashioned or abandoned, as they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Periodizations are heuristics.