goto Appendx main menu "So much is there . . .
and so much . . .
is lacking" : Eric Rosenberg
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | notes
previous page 
One of the more consistently argued features of recent developments in poststructuralist discourse concerns the extent to which the ideas most closely associated with these interests are "new" or properly contextualized,1 the extent to which they can be historicized,2 or whether they have been around for quite a long time.3  Numerous studies have been devoted to the problem, and it is far from resolved; by its very nature it might resist resolution. Thus far, however, evidence of historical interest in or manifestation of ideas currently held to be poststructural have been confined to the work of major theoretical figures of the past, from Kant and Hegel to Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Bataille, and Blanchot.4  Less interest has been shown in more mundane instances of like-minded assumptions about the performance of history or criticism. 

That texts of everyday life and the discourses they belong to should seem less worthy of evidential position vis-a-vis the history of critical theory speaks more perhaps to insecurities surrounding the field's present-day status—its need to couch its past, or any individual and arguably necessary claim to a past, in a world of high discourse (its fear of and homage to the institutional control so much the ironic result of Foucauldian anxieties)—than any kind of account of the paucity of quotidian testimony to the place of poststructuralism in everyday criticism. But the notion of questioning authoritative, essentialist readings of historical phenomena—positing belief in truths rather than truth and asserting the ephemeral and quixotic, the contingent and contradictory character of writing, and the polemical, intransigent presence of gender Appendx 3 page break 104 | 105politics and disjunctions— has surfaced in less elevated critical settings and occasioned the disfiguration of persona expected of a deconstructive relationship between writer and writing. 

A case in point: In November 1886, The Art Review, a New York-based periodical, ran an essay by M. G. van Rensselaer entitled "Wanted: A History of Architecture."5  The article's premise was a call for a satisfactory history of medieval art and architecture. For van Rensselaer, none of the existing accounts, solely identified as English, French, and German, would do in and of themselves. She believed that the very practice of history was problematic—deserved sorting out in concurrence with a larger sense of contemporary and historical social concerns. It is van Rensselaer's notion of historical work as problematic that I propose to examine here: the extent to which that practice historicizes concerns seemingly contemporary to us, and how awareness of such issues is the result of just how dramatically the writer had to imagine a deconstruction of her persona and identity simply to theorize change in historical practice. 

From the outset of "Wanted: A History of Architecture," van Rensselaer makes perfectly clear that she assumes certain preliminary conditions for the production and acquisition of historical knowledge: 

    Let me suppose that you have made your first steps in the study (from books) of the history of medieval art; have familiarized yourself with its fundamental facts, and are trying to pursue your path along its various national branches. Your point of outlook will be now historical and critical. 
Setting the stage for the imagined reader, the writer declares faith in some kind of base notion of the empirical, the ability to receive it from books, from versions already established, already written—what might pass as the truth or its building blocks. Armed with awareness of the vicissitudes of national interpretations and what she calls the "fundamental facts," a historical and critical assessment of the problem at hand might reasonably be undertaken. Fact, text, study, familiarization, steadfast pursual of a course, the engagement of the problem from the moment of "first steps": the way is cleared by sensitivity to divergent branches and the extent to which a critical outlook will render difference contingent and produce the historical. All of this speaks to belief in a moment wiped clean of, or a priori to, later ideological blurrings and some originary objective impulse. Appendx 3 page break 105 | 106 

But the moment we believe that something like unilateral truth might signify the historical, we recognize the signs of contingency and contradiction built into this definition of history and criticism. Both endeavors are quite blatantly described as subservient to the inconsistencies of representations, and embodiments of difference, such as nationalism. Some sense of unease must also result from the form in which the article opens: as an address to a reader. Upon further scrutiny it becomes clear that van Rensselaer herself will not, perhaps cannot, undertake this necessary project. Her call is directed to an other, most probably a male. This other will possess an "outlook"; and that can hardly be assumed to be universal even though it will most certainly be dominant. The moment or vantage point of "first steps" turns out, ironically, to be a phrase of empowerment, banishing the notions of objectivity and vantage point, so important to the myth of historical practice, as conditions available to all, and replacing them with the idea of primacy. Nevertheless, because of the position of the anticipated male reader it is assumed that he can carve out a place of putative objectivity, something van Rensselaer finds denied to herself. 

In short, the optimism with which the article opens is chimerical. We soon realize that the way to history and criticism is fraught with obstacles and is best transferred to one with greater access to the materials of history, someone configured away from the writer. Leaving the reader in little doubt as to her ability to describe the problems posed by such a project and how one might go about it, van Rensselaer concludes the article in keeping with the form of address and advice directed outward. She admits the ultimate folly of such an introductory call, the naivete inherent in her opening lines: 

    If I were quite young, and a man, and rich—or strong and resolute enough to make poverty serve the turn of riches—it seems to me that there are few things which would tempt me more than a project of this work. But to throw a seed into what I cannot but believe is good ground is all I can now attempt. 
Now van Rensselaer's imagined constraints are named as gender and class, issues requiring moderate redefinition of signs of identity, if not wholesale upheaval, issues that necessitate the construction of a language not very dissimilar to that which might characterize many of the most recent assumptions of critical theory and historicism. Van Rensselaer's interests, so seemingly straightforward and feasible at the beginning of the article, are in conclusion redefined by projections and assumptions of Appendx 3 page break 106 | 107otherness and transferal of embodiment necessary to the completion of her work. We can now see in fact that she offers advice at the outset of the article to another because she herself cannot be that other. We must assume her not to be "quite young," a man, strong, and affluent. Her employment of the first person pronoun "I" carries weight, but the obstacles to its active engagement seem considerable. 

In the end, any notion that Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer might contribute at all to the project at hand requires a strange, strained twisting of identity. Having projected her desire/need to be a man for the sake of this project, while admitting the impossibility of such a transformation, she takes the liberty of retaining the identity shift momentarily. She claims her only strategy to be that of assuming the guise of the sower, casting aspirations at the discipline of architectural history, the ground or base, the receiver or receptacle of "seed." next page 

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | notes
appendx inc.©1997