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"The Evidence of Experience"

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Joan ScottEdit

(b. 1941) Scott is an American historian of France who is most notable for her contributions to gender history and historical practice. She is currently the Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Scott received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. According to Scott's webpage at the Institute for Advanced Study: "Joan Scott’s groundbreaking work has challenged the foundations of conventional historical practice, including the nature of historical evidence and historical experience and the role of narrative in the writing of history. Broadly, the object of her work is the question of difference in history: its uses, enunciations, implementations, justifications, and transformations in the construction of social and political life. Scott’s recent books have focused on the vexed relationship of the particularity of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics."

The Evidence of Experience [1991]Edit

In her Critical Inquiry essay "The Evidence of Experience", Scott discusss the problematic state of "experience" as a foundational epistemology in history, and proposes a method that can give a more rich and critical inquiry into the utilization of "experience" as historical evidence.

Scott covers historical ground in broad strokes, noting the recent move toward "experience" as a basis for feminist history, often pitted in opposition to what was understood as a masculinist bias of presumed objectivity. For many historians of difference, accounts of other's experience has been enabled in such a way that experience is presumed to be transparent, immediately visible and directly relational to historical truth. Scott writes:

"Documenting the experience of others in this way has been at once a highly successful and limiting strategy for historians of difference. It has been successful because it remains so comfortably within the disciplinary framework of history, working according to rules that permit calling old narratives into question when new evidence is dicovered [...] On the other hand, historians' rhetorical treatment of evidence and their use of it to falsify prevailing interpretations, depends on a referential notion of evidence which denies that it is anything but reflection of the real" (776).

Scott gleans offer various definitions of "experience" used by historians, including Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, and R.G. Collingwood, ultimately declaring that none of them are fully useful. Any appeal to evidence as foundational or uncontestable is problematic for Scott, for "by remaining within the epistemological frame of orthodox history, these students lose the possibility of examining the assumptions and practices that excluded the considerations of difference in the first place" (777). By presuming oppressed subject categories as self-evident, historians fail to contextualize the discursive construction at work in experience. In this way, agency can be presumed, constructing what will inevitably amount to a teleological account of oppression, resistance, and emancipation. In short, history in this method "reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems--those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves" (778).

Scott is intensely focused on the discursive character of experience, the way language itself plays a role in shaping one's relation to experience. Scott argues that the defense of experience:

"[...] establishes a realm of reality outside of discourse and it authorizes the historians who has access to it. The evidence of experience works as a foundation providing both a starting point and a conclusive kind of explanation, beyond which few questions can or need be asked. And yet it is precisely the questions precluded--questions about discourse, difference, and subjectivity, as well as about what counts as experience and who gets to make that determiniation--that would enable us to historicize experience, and to reflect critically on the history we write about it, rather than to premise our history on it" (790).

What Scott wants then, are methods that enable us to historicize experience and make visible subject-positions so that we might "understand the operations of the complex and changing discursive processes by which identities are ascribed, resisted, or embraced, and which processes themselves are unremarked and indeed achieve their effect because they are not noticed" (792). This requires an analysis of language that does not presume transparency or direct correspondance between the experience of an individual and the material/historical conditions that constitute that experience. Such an analysis of language also does not strive for necessary resolution or closed readings. This "literary" analysis of history "takes all categories of analysis as contextual, contested, and contingent" (796). What this ultimately amounts to is a Foucauldian genealogy, a history of interpretations (presuming herein that interpretation does not uncover some metaphysical sacred kernal at the center of an object); for Foucault, genealogy is to record this history, a history of concepts "as they stand for the emergence of different interpretations, they must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process" (Foucault qtd. in Scott 796).

Media ThoughtsEdit

The media archaeology (Kittler especially, but McLuhan, Parikka, etc) approach to this is against discourse, arguing instead that we must read for the "mediation", as language, experience and consciousness itself has a technological a priori of media.

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