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Theoretically Speaking about Mormon History

By: Joel - April 22, 2008

Before anything else, I want to wish everyone good luck or congratulations on their end of semester work–which ever option best fits your own situation. After having done my best to diagram the historical craft in my previous post and postulate what such observations might mean for the study of Mormon history, I have decided today to tackle the role of theory in historical inquiry. Once again, I am treating an extremely complex topic, but I hope to present my ideas in a clear and concise manner. As such, I will probably oversimplify some concepts for which I profoundly apologize-this topic has proven much more difficult than I initially thought.

To begin this discussion, I would like to define “theory” as a set of ideas or a concepts that influence and guide the ways that historians make assumptions either about the forces that drive history or how to piece together the past. Historians employ theory to stock their analytical toolboxes and to reflect critically upon the stories they tell. Thus, they have generally drawn their theoretical suppositions from the traditions of both social and critical theory. Social theorists seek to create understanding about the ways that a society functions. This theory often comes to historians via other disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Psychology. Historians draw on such social theory to help them understand what historical factors have caused change over time in the societies they study. Critical theory, on the other hand and in a very narrow sense, focuses more inwardly on the craft itself. Critical theorists focus on the nature of truth and objectivity; they focus on the process of historical inquiry and the assumptions and biases embedded in these academic pursuits. Some historical traditions, such as post-colonialism and post-structuralism seek to influence both veins of theory. The following paragraphs offer a small taste of how both theoretical approaches have been debated and utilized by historians as well as their tensions with devotional history.

Social theories often help historians identify what will be the object of their historical analyses. For many years, historians focused primarily on what have been termed “great men.” This was probably the predominant approach to history at the turn of the twentieth century and still remained influential in the academy until the 1960s. It focuses on politicians, intellectuals, and artists as the principle movers and shakers throughout history and plays little attention to the common man. This approach has been challenged over the years by Progressive historians that touted the importance of economic motivations and technology as principle factors driving social change over time. Marxist historians, in their many iterations, have claimed that the most important factor along the path of history has been some variation of class conflict. More recently, in correlation with identity politics, historians have employed the constructs of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and empire as important intellectual tools for discovering the secrets of the past. While I don’t have time or space to outline how each of these approaches works, I will offer two rather simplistic observations about how social theory has affected the historical craft. Over time, historians have generally moved theoretically from a perception of history as teleology (the linear progression or digression of the human race) to a conception of history as contingency (life is full of chance and chaos). They have also left examinations that speculate about single causative factors to favor more complex and layered causal analyses.

Critical theory has also played an earth-shattering role in the historical profession-especially over the last twenty or thirty years. I would argue that the idea of scientific objectivity was one of the first theoretical approaches in the modern historical profession. The American students of Germany’s preeminent historian Leopold van Ranke tried to import his ideas about scientific objectivity in the study of the past into their quest for professionalization in the late 19th century-ignoring the fact that the construction of narrative always involves the subjective interpretation of the historian. The roots of this wedding between science and history emerged when Enlightenment thinkers began to push and exploit the depths of human reason and understanding to comprehend the ways that the world and its peoples function.

Nevertheless, theorists have devastatingly critiqued the idea of scientific objectivity by pointing out the imaginative and performative components of narrative creation. Scholars like Michel Foucault and Edward Said have ably demonstrated scholars’ inability to escape the prevailing discourses (ways of thinking/dominating societal assumptions) entrenched in the societies in which they live. Jacques Derrida has shown how all scholarly writing holds examples of societal assumptions especially binary relationships, and how omissions to the historical record often reveal more than they unveil. Post-colonial scholars have argued that studying the margins of empires is essential for understanding centers of power. They also have questioned the inclusiveness of archival records which favor the rich and powerful. Transnational scholars have critiqued the role of historians in the creation of nationalism, and have looked to write histories that transcend the artificial boundaries of the nation. All of these theorists profoundly question the possibility of historical objectivity and the ability to capture historical “Truth” for a variety of different reasons. Some even go so far as to claim that the search for truth itself is futile.

Now, having outlined what theory is and some of the questions with which it is concerned, I would like to give some reasons why theory is important and necessary in the creation of history. First, evidence can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. Theory often helps the historians bring coherence to the chaos of the archive. Second, there are always gaps in the historical record. Theory gives historians analytical tools for filling in those gaps in an intelligent manner. Third, theory helps us create authority through community. The existence of theoretical communities limits the usefulness of ad hominem attacks and allows historians to build their own analyses based on the credibility of more than just their individual understanding. Theory also offers historians a bridge between their politics and their craft. By utilizing theory to identify what went wrong and what went right in the past, historians hope to influence political choices in the future. Finally, theory helps historians understand and acknowledge the consciously constructed nature of their craft.

Most of the theory that historians use emerged from the rational traditions of modernity based in the Enlightenment or are reactions to this modernity. Although the thinkers of the Enlightenment did not categorically reject organized religion, it seems that this intellectual movement, in part, was a reaction to the religiously inspired violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. Men like Locke, Diderot, and Rousseau hoped to introduce reason over faith as the primary lens for understanding the world. Such were the roots of secular history.

There are several aspects of secular historical theory that make many church members uncomfortable. First devotional history, especially Mormon devotional history, is almost always envisioned as teleological. We want to see the hand of God guiding the Church and the affairs of men toward the end of the world. This represents a historical tradition that hearkens, in many ways, more towards vision of history demonstrated by the scriptures and St. Augustine. We are uncomfortable depending strictly on reason-we are told to study things out in our minds and in our hearts. We learn to trust feelings, visions, dreams, and blessings which in many ways are both unquantifiable and unverifiable. Whereas, modern critics would admonish us that the Truth is unknowable, members of the church routinely testify that they know that the church is “True,” that Jesus Christ is “real,” and that they have a Heavenly Father that loves them. Religious “truth” and historical “truth” are really talking about two very different things-though the tension between devotional history and modernity often rises out of assumed parallels and contradictions between the two endeavors.

Sorry that this post is so long. I think this is a weighty subject, and I still probably haven’t done it justice. I would really like to know what theoretical approaches invigorate your pursuit of Mormon history. Do you agree with my analyses? Is it so overly simplistic that it misunderstands the role of theory in historical inquiry? Do you feel the same tension between social and critical theory and devotional history that I do? Am I too skeptical about objectivity and “Truth”? Bushman seems to think that there is room for faithful history in a post-modern world, what do you think?

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27 Comments

  1. Stanley Fish had some somewhat relevant thoughts on theory earlier this week.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 23, 2008 @ 1:56 am

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the link. Fish’s article is a review of a book about Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze. It’s Definitely worth a look, though he really isn’t talking about the theory from a historiographical perspective. I do enjoy that the Times tries to find people that can analyze the importance of such theory for the masses. I still appreciate them for running this thoughtful obituary on Derrida. It was the first time I really felt like I understood the context from which hia ideas emerged.

    Comment by Joel — April 23, 2008 @ 7:53 am

  3. Joel, I’m impressed that you were able to summarize all of this so succinctly. I agree that understanding and utilizing theory is crucial in creating historical narratives.

    Regarding s few of your questions: I don’t know if I would label myself “postmodern,” but poststructural and postcolonial thought certainly have influenced how I approach and interpret sources. I’m also intrigued by using race, ethnicity, and gender (in addition to religion) as interpretive lens through which to read and write history, and think these fields all are still wide open within the field of Mormon Studies/history.

    I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the tension between faithful history and critical theory. I don’t think you’re too skeptical of objectivity, either. Regarding there being a place in the postmodern world for faithful history, John-Charles Duffy’s article in the latest issue of Dialogue (“Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism”) is worth a read.

    Thanks for bringing these issues up. I’m interested in what others have to say.

    Comment by Christopher — April 23, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  4. Postmodernism is a term so abused and suffused with so many disparate meanings that I’m not sure it ends up being helpful.

    I think the use of “postmodernism” in faithful scholarship (nee apologetics) is pretty overstated though. (Even though as folks probably know I spend a lot of time studying Heidegger, Derrida, and company)

    Regarding objectivity I think that while some theories about what constitutes objectivity are false that doesn’t mean we ought throw out the idea or term. Often what happens is that folks say since objectivity isn’t possible that we ought embrace some variation of relativism. (Even when this isn’t consciously stated it often devolves into that)

    I’d note that I think Derrida adopts a Nietzschean line where competing powers (not people) selects interpretations and that power can be stable. Peirce adopts a position of continued inquiry in which belief may be stable through continued inquiry. Both those approaches allow a fairly postmodern sense of objectivity IMO.

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  5. I haven’t read the Duffy article. Anyone have a copy they can send me? I’m curious as I think this gets belabored way too much. Plus I think most people get deconstruction wrong too.

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  6. Clark,

    I agree that post-modernism is a term that has become overly utilized in the academic world, yet I might argue that the ways that perceptions of so-called “post-modernist” theory have been applied are more important than what the theorist actually said in a disciplinary epistemological study like this. Most of my analysis of theory is colored by the historical lens through which I read it. I’m not sure how your conception of objectivity could work in a historical sense. Are you saying that because the influence of power remains constant, awareness or acquired awareness enables objective thought?

    Christopher,

    I forgot, in my earlier comment, to point out one of the problems with the article that Jonathan pointed out above. Fish uses Derrida as the exemplar of French philosophy, but almost ignores the importance of Foucault. I would argue that Foucault has probably been much more influential on the discipline of history than Derrida.

    Comment by Joel — April 23, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  7. Thanks for the link to my writings on the Wightites in your sidebar! I turned this in as a brief paper in a utopian communities seminar whose assignment was to examine how a communal society has shaped the American frontier. I enjoyed and appreciated your comments and clarifications!

    Pax et bonum

    Comment by Tracy Fennell — April 23, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  8. I would argue that Foucault has probably been much more influential on the discipline of history than Derrida.

    Agreed.

    Comment by Christopher — April 23, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  9. I’m having trouble with this quote:

    Jacques Derrida has shown how all scholarly writing holds examples of societal assumptions especially binary relationships, and how omissions to the historical record often reveal more than they unveil.

    Did you mean that things which are omitted reveal more by being withheld than they would have revealed by being included?

    I am reminded in all this that “the letter killeth, and the Spirit giveth life.” It is an interesting dilemma in the study and writing of LDS history. Can or should the historian attribute the miraculous to whatever current environmental influence that may have caused a miracle? There is less of a dichotomy between the spiritual and historical in Christianity than we sometimes grant. For example, we have records of people who swear they quite literally beheld an angel and looked at physical golden plates that had specific measurments and weight. The angel holding the plates is an interesting image for me; it seems so naturally supernatural.

    I would really like to know what theoretical approaches invigorate your pursuit of Mormon history.

    So on the one hand we have the metaphysical, the spiritual, and on the other we have the physical, environmental, empirical. In LDS thought we believe the lines are not so demarcated, however, which compounds the difficulty. Bushman talked about letting the witnesses do the talking. If Joseph Smith said he had plates, consider the record as though he did. But still, that accepts one major paradigm over another. We’re still choosing sides.

    Do you feel the same tension between social and critical theory and devotional history that I do?

    Dan Peterson and David Honey wrote an interesting article in BYU Studies called “Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History.” Also the most recent FARMS Review has an article regarding the role of history, Latter-day Saints, and Jews. See Midgley and Novack, “Remembrance and the Past.”

    Am I too skeptical about objectivity and “Truth”

    If you haven’t already, read Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream. It talks about the “myth of objectivity.” (Not necessarily myth in the “false, fairy tale” way.)

    Comment by BHodges — April 23, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  10. Are you saying that because the influence of power remains constant, awareness or acquired awareness enables objective thought?

    In a Nietzschean sense of what I see Peirce suggesting what we end up with is inquiry opening up new power arrangements. If, despite these rearrangements our views remain stable we are justified in believing we have an objective truth. We may have incomplete views of the truth but we have it as well. I think this is what Derrida holds as a position as well. Especially consider the extra interview with Derrida published at the end of Limited Inc. for evidence for this view. I actually view Derrida as a kind of medieval realist myself.

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  11. Joel, this is an excellent post. Like Chris, I am drawn to poststructuralism and postcolonialism as interpretive tools by which to organize the past. As you say, Foucault is definitely more influential on me than Derrida, Lacan, or any of the other French theorists. It is very common now to hear grad students talking about “discourse,” “constructions,” and “histories of contact,” even if these students have never read any actual theory. These ideas have permeated the academy. Spencer Fluhman, in his excellent dissertation on anti-Mormon discourse, gets away without mentioning Foucault even one time, which illustrates my point.

    I agree that there is a tension between academic, theory-driven history and devotional history and I like your description of the differences. Given academe’s fascination with power and its structures, most academic inquiries of Mormonism’s histories of gender, race, and class are going to come into conflict with devotional histories, which imo are in many ways designed to maintain power structures.

    Comment by David G. — April 23, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  12. I think it wrong to think that devotional histories are designed to maintain power structures. Often they are designed to subvert them. Now they may be designed to support or maintain overt power structures (say the authority of GA pronouncements) but those are hardly the only power structures around.

    Consider an example. Home teaching. Most of us are in the locus of power structures such that home teaching in many wards is below 60%. The power structures that dominate aren’t ecclesiastical ones but ones maintained by other sources. (Say the NFL conglomorate) In this case various histories focused on presenting a certain manifestation of the value of home teaching by showing a certain power relation are there not to maintain existing power structures but to subvert them. (i.e. get off your butt, stop watching the game, and do your home teaching)

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  13. Just to add, one thing I’ve noticed from focus on power relations in discourses about the Church is how privileged Church power relations – especially overt or formal relations – are. This seems downright unFoucalt like even though I understand why many authors do this. (I’ll coughingly joke about certain buildings seen as power manifest as a phallic symbol) To me this is often because the authors are themselves caught up in power structures they wish to maintain. The ultimate issue is competing power relationships with a certain nexus of power within the academy seeing as threatful ecclesiastical power relations. Thus hidden but often more powerful relations are subverted to the easy to see overt ones.

    Anyway, as Foucalt’s History of Madness for all of its many, many flaws shows, the overt and covert power relations reveal something quite different.

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  14. Clark, agreed. There certainly are many competing power structures in the church, as in any organization or group. When I think of devotional historians, Roberts, JFS II, Joseph Fielding McConkie, etc, all of whom are certainly dedicated to maintaining the power structures surrounding the GAs. But you’re right, the ordinary EQP trying to get his elders to do their hometeaching does draw upon devotional narratives to contest other power structures.

    Comment by David G. — April 23, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

  15. Note that I was using a Home Teaching lesson just to illustrate a point. My ultimate point is that say McConkie isn’t trying to maintain power structures but to extend them since all Mormons are already embedded in a world of pre-existing power structures. Most with considerable more power than McConkie and company.

    When the power relations of say McConkie are discussed those other power relations of the world Mormons find themselves embedded within are repressed. That very act of repression is a privileging of these other power relations.

    Comment by Clark — April 24, 2008 @ 12:48 am

  16. Did you mean that things which are omitted reveal more by being withheld than they would have revealed by being included?

    I think that the choices we make about inclusion and exclusion in our writing reveal the power dynamics under which we compose our thoughts. Thus, what is excluded can often help us uncover meta-narratives as much as what is included. One example that Derrida highlights is the modern obsession with binaries like good and evil, moral and immoral, or black and white. While I believe that good and bad exist in the world–I think that they are often portrayed in an overly simplistic way. Derrida would probably go much further and argue that the way that society constructs what is “good” and what is “bad” is is wrought by relationships of power.

    Given academe’s fascination with power and its structures, most academic inquiries of Mormonism’s histories of gender, race, and class are going to come into conflict with devotional histories, which imo are in many ways designed to maintain power structures.

    When the power relations of say McConkie are discussed those other power relations of the world Mormons find themselves embedded within are repressed. That very act of repression is a privileging of these other power relations.

    Wow, these two competing conceptualizations demonstrate the power of positionality don’t they? I have never thought of General Authorities as anti-colonialists fighting the colonizing influences of the world at large. I am going to have to think about that a little more. I think David’s and Clark’s exchange begs the question about whether power, in itself, is inherently oppressive or undesirable. If so, then do we have to pick our poison? Fascinating stuff!

    Comment by Joel — April 24, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  17. I think that the choices we make about inclusion and exclusion in our writing reveal the power dynamics under which we compose our thoughts. Thus, what is excluded can often help us uncover meta-narratives as much as what is included.

    Yes, I figured that was what the intent was, but I thought the wording implied something different. I see “reveal” and “unveil” as synonyms, which if I read your point correctly, would misrepresent what you meant:

    Jacques Derrida has shown how all scholarly writing holds examples of societal assumptions especially binary relationships, and how omissions to the historical record often reveal more than they unveil.

    Comment by BHodges — April 24, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  18. One example that Derrida highlights is the modern obsession with binaries like good and evil, moral and immoral, or black and white. While I believe that good and bad exist in the world–I think that they are often portrayed in an overly simplistic way. Derrida would probably go much further and argue that the way that society constructs what is “good” and what is “bad” is is wrought by relationships of power.

    As I read Derrida his point is both stronger yet more subtle than that. He’d say our representations of good and evil are the results of power relationships yet I think he’d simultaneously say there is a real ‘good’ that exceeds my understanding. The great error is that we confuse our particular nexus of power that choses our position as if it were universal, when it is not. But I’d add (although I can’t recall off hand where Derrida says this in so many words) that this doesn’t mean Derrida rejects the universal of Good. Rather he is completely focused on such universals. (As I said I can’t think of Derrida talking of the Good off hand. But he talks a lot about universals like justice, giving, and so forth)

    Comment by Clark — April 24, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  19. BHodges,

    You’re right. I misspoke in the original post.

    Comment by Joel — April 24, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  20. I think David’s and Clark’s exchange begs the question about whether power, in itself, is inherently oppressive or undesirable. If so, then do we have to pick our poison?

    To me one of the big errors of some self-styled postmodernists is the idea that power is something that can be escaped. We are always already in a world. And the word is the expressions of power. The Derridean (as opposed to Foucalt) take on this is much more in line with Heidegger’s authentic/inauthentic categories. The authentic is letting things be which is always bringing new lines of power into the situation. And the authentic/inauthentic shouldn’t be taken as moral categories (although I think Heideggarians push that a tad too far at times). Rather they are just two modes of being which are always operational in humans.

    The big mistake I see way too much is folks seeing lines of power and then somehow thinking these are intrinsically good or evil. Yet if good and evil are themselves conceived of in terms of power then how on earth could one make such a claim?

    All of this takes one back to Levinas instead of Foucalt though. Levinas says that what ought count as primordial is the demand of the Other. Something “in excess” of power. Yet Derrida’s critiques of Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics” can’t be understated since violence is basically an other word for a certain kind of power manifestation. The question is how to conceive of both power and Other. I think that Derrida critiques both the early Levinas as well as Foucalt in how they conceive of this. Levinas reacted to Derrida’s critiques. I’m not sure Foucalt did beyond bad mouthing Derrida to Searle.

    Comment by Clark — April 24, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  21. [...] Mormon history and critical theory. An interesting discussion of Nietzsche, Derrida and Foucalt as well. [...]

    Pingback by Mormon History & Critical Theory : Mormon Metaphysics — April 24, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  22. BTW – I’d put up excerpts from the Derrida interview at my blog a few years back. It’s well worth reading for Derrida speaking fairly clearly and a little less technically about his position.

    Comment by Clark — April 24, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  23. Clark,

    Thanks for the link and for the excellent commentary. You obviously have a better grasp on some of these theorists than I do, and I think our discussion has been enlivened by your participation. It helped me realize how much we historians have to dilute some of this theory to make it useful to us. I also think that theory is used to political ends in history that sometimes are different than the theorists’ original intentions.

    Comment by Joel — April 25, 2008 @ 7:08 am

  24. One of the problems with postmodern is that it is so easy to turn things on their head. Just shift your perspective a little bit and the villains and victims switch places.

    One of the reasons why historians have traditionally resisted theory was because it was transhistorical. Theory claimed to provide universally-applicable explanations of how and why things happened. Historians were skeptical, to say the least, since they saw massive variation in how human societies operated and thought at different times and places. I think historians need to be careful that they don’t become wedded to any particular theory, lest they start seeing everything through that particular lens.

    The obsession with agency in modern historical discourse might be fruitfully compared with Mormon teachings on the subject someday. Mormons might also have some useful things to say about identity.

    Comment by Sterling — April 25, 2008 @ 9:28 am

  25. It helped me realize how much we historians have to dilute some of this theory to make it useful to us. I also think that theory is used to political ends in history that sometimes are different than the theorists’ original intentions.

    These theories and stories become founding myths for different paradigms in my opinion.Great stuff, all.

    Comment by BHodges — April 25, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  26. Sterling,

    I agree that theory is transhistorical, but so is narrative. Historians have always looked at the past through the lens of the present, they just do so a little bit more conscientiously today.

    Comment by Joel — April 25, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  27. [...] Theoretically Speaking About Mormon History [...]

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