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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Shockingly Emotional?

I have talked, on this blog, before about the issues involved with discussing atrocity in the past and the 'statute of limitations' that evidently exists in using particular language to describe the horrors of the past - the double standards that involves an expectation of condemnatory language when relating modern European massacres and the disapproval of 'emotional' language when describing such events in the more remote past, or outside the West.

I have recently been thinking about this again and especially about the use of affective language in historical writing.  What my previous posts on this topic have moved towards suggesting, I think, is that there should be no statute of limitations and that an ethical demand within history requires the use of the same sorts of condemnation for all such acts in the past - which is not to say that they should not be explained within their historical context too.  What that moves towards is the acceptance of such language as a part of historical writing, not its pooh-poohing as a breach of the historian's supposed duty to be impartial and objective (an impossibility as we all know).

But … today I wonder whether such an acceptance of this language would not defeat the object.  [What follows also stems from some of my scepticism about the history of the emotions, by the way.]  If it became standard practice to evaluate the morality or otherwise, to condemn or approve, of past actions in the past, the risk would be that eventually such language, however 'emotional', would, because it had become a normal element of historical discourse, cease to provoke any reflection on the event, in both its historical singularity and in its iterability in the world (the grounds for Derrida's discussions of justice).  One would eventually skim over the account just as one does in current sterilised, unemotive academic historical language.  

So, perhaps the suggestion would be to use language that is currently considered inappropriate precisely to force this sort of punctum - this moment where an event in the past can reach through the medium of its representation to pierce the reader.  There would be writing strategies here to accomplish that effect, even in the discussion of modern atrocity, where emotive language is accepted (and thus ignored?) - perhaps in these cases the use of sterile unemotive language, with subsequent reflection, can produce a similar effect?  When certain language ceases to provoke ethical reflection, then maybe the time is to employ a different strategy.  Here  we would return to the issues of the moving present of discussion and debate in which I have located the point of 'pointless' history: a constant dialogue employing the evidence of the past for reflection in the present, seeing no consensus, end-points or final answers.