Toohey Notes (HUM303, 415)

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.

7 thoughts on “Toohey Notes (HUM303, 415)

  1. Mari

    I hope I don’t confuse you but…
    In this blog post you wrote, “In other words, periodization depends in part on our choice of genres to be studied.”
    I also see that with the concept of personal history. Personal history depends in part of our choice of what we want to take out of it and what we want, on a personal or communal level, to learn and study.
    You asked the question, “What would it mean to have a personal history? Isn’t there something necessarily communal or agreed upon when it comes to history?”
    Well this is how I see it. There is definitely something agreed upon in terms of historical events. As a society we all know, as an example, the general events in the Enlightenment. It was a time when exploration among art and science was evolving. But everyone has their own way of explaining this time period and the significance of the Enlightenment.
    Personal history to me, in one aspect, means ideas and events that an individual or a community grasp onto. Personal history is what we choose to focus on in certain events and parts of history whether it is for personal or mundane reasons.
    In class you were discussing about the Enlightenment and how people tend to see the “positives” that came forth from this era. But not a lot of people recognize or choose to acknowledge on the negative aspects from these “advances.”
    Personally I tend to look at how the idea of cultural evolution came about during this time and how this led to other instances and periods in science and sociology that would harbor racism and overall ignorance to help justify things like colonialism, assimilation and imperialism.
    On an individual level people choose to grasp on to events that mean something to them. Example, when I look at American history I tend to look closely at the events affecting Native American culture. My personal reason as to why I choose to grasp on to these events is because of my heritage, for others it maybe for different reasons.
    I think institutions as well cater to a personal history. For example most public high schools (high schools in general) when discussing history tend to focus on European and American history. Most cater to Western ideology and may slightly cover other cultures and countries. It is understandable though. It’s difficult to cover every culture so schools tend to generalize and as well periodize on their own terms.
    I don’t know if this is making sense. The reading was a bit difficult and there are a lot of ideas racing through my mind.

    1. apciv Post author

      I know what you mean. And an emphasis on things like Native American history serves a very valuable function as a kind of counter-narrative to the dominant account of history. I share that interest, in part for personal reasons: one of my ancestors participated in the ethnic-cleansing of the Cherokee from North Carolina. So, yes, I agree. The way we periodize, what we choose to emphasize in a culture or historical period, reflects our commitments and as such that choice is ultimately political. The only thing I’d be wary of is this:

      “But everyone has their own way of explaining this time period and the significance of the Enlightenment.”

      Not because it isn’t true, but because it seems as though if we were to take that notion to its extreme we’d end up with a totally relative view of the world. In other words, history would become whatever anyone wants to make of it. The difficulty, I suppose, is how to weigh the value of a given periodization.

      1. Mari

        I see your point : D
        What’s sad though is that I feel that many people do see history own their own terms to cater to their own needs. There are people that only see history through what they want to believe, like for example a variety of extremely religious people that take, for example, the bible as an 100% accurate historical document even though a document such as that one is questionable or people who deny the holocaust even though clearly millions of people died because of this tragic event.

        I feel there are people that do have a general sense of history, but we do tend to focus a little bit more on historical events and figures that we have an interest on and that we see as significant and at times, not always, as individuals we may talk about a historical event in a way that is different from another person’s telling. Overall, the way that I explain a particular historical event will be different from someone else’s telling not because I’m making things up or the other person is making things up, but because as humans we are all different and we see things differently and explain things differently. I think that was my point…if that makes any sense.

        I myself try to understand the full picture and process. For example, I’m really into Irish culture and learning about the history and political process in this country but I also make it a point to learn about British culture and how this violent and political conflict among the British and Irish came about on both sides.

        I think some would do the same and keep an open mind while others will write history on their own terms completely to satisfy themselves or maybe because of ignorance…
        I sort of see that with periodizing. Periodizing sort of leads us to not look at the full picture but at times only look at a certain aspect of a particular era or time. I try to see all of it which is kind of impossible.
        Let me know if that made sense ^_^

  2. Pingback: Eras « failing better

  3. Pingback: Postmodernism and Consumer Society (HUM415) « analepsis

  4. Pingback: Midterm Review: Part One (HUM415) « analepsis

  5. Pingback: Cultural Periods and Styles (303) | analepsis

Comments are closed.