Peter Toohey. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.
Periodization is seductive. At its simplest it comforts. Regularizing, packaging and calibrating the apparent disorder of historical record, positing chronological or intellectual blocks, it creates a type of order. In doing so it simplifies memorization, assists instruction and cheers the schoolmaster. It renders the annalistic record both manageable and communicable. Through scholarly control comes intellectual comfort.
Periodization is also romantic. At its more complex, it imagines—by linear division and subdivision, and ultimately by exclusion cultures (as superficially familiar as the Greeks and the Romans) that can become completely ‘other.’ In doing so it renders these cultures mysterious, and more startlingly attractive. They become terrae incognitae, the object of a type of anthropological travel literature, and they beckon, as it were, the attentions of the intrepid intellectual fieldworker.
Such a form of periodization can reflect on our own culture. It can render our own apparent predictability, our own seeming normality and our own undoubtedly quotidian tediousness surprisingly, but gratifyingly, unique. Who would not wish that epithet to be applicable to themselves and to the cultures in which they have been, without choice, nurtured? That can provide a cause for self-flattery and self-congratulation. Or—and this has become common in the humanities and social sciences since the 1960s—it can provide grounds for self-reproach and self-castigation. The merest hint of uniqueness within a culture is again and again seen as grounds for an accusation of being an aberration from the norm of a more generous-minded and, of course, unverifiable previous history.
Periodization, alas, can also be profoundly deceptive. The great British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley (1835-1928) offered a warning to fellow practitioners and their schematizing of the various types of insanity. His warning could be applied as readily to the periodizations of historians and sociologists. Maudsley spoke out as follows:
[There is in the human mind] a sufficiently strong propensity not only to make divisions in knowledge where there are none in nature, and then to impose the divisions upon nature, making the reality thus conformable to the idea, but to go further, and to convert the generalizations made from observation into positive entities, permitting for the future of these artificial creations to tyrannize over understanding. (1867: 323-4, quoted in Radden, 2000: 27)
Periods as Relative
To make any sense of this phenomenon requires usually that one speak not of the process in its entirety (who could have such encyclopaedic prowess?), but of that small area in which one has competence. That small area, then, can be allowed to speak for this process as a whole. Such, for example, was Foucault’s technique in his The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972). His theorizing on periodization in that book rested on the field studies that he had carried out in the medicine, biology and economics of the eighteenth century. He had already published these researches as Madness and Civilization (1967) and The Order of Things (1970). This process of generalizing from limited evidence, though both practical and completely understandable, is none the less to be regarded with suspicion. It is based of necessity on a relativism (individual as much as cultural) in the establishment of periodizations. The chronological segments and stratigraphies are as valid as is the breadth and inclusiveness of the researcher’s knowledge and geographic sympathy. That, of course, is limited by gender, by birth, by race, by training, by income, by social standing, by self-confidence and by brain power. Academic and social insiders as well as outsiders will form, so it follows, radically different periodizations.
I can best illustrate such difficulties with personal recollection. For those of us who were raised outside the northern hemisphere, the concept of the Enlightenment—to take just one example, but a crucially important one, of a periodization—can be a very hard thing to comprehend. Australians were taught in high school that the secularizing strands of the Enlightenment prefigured a series of popular revolutions: the French, the American and even, in contributory fashion, the Industrial. All of these, but especially the Enlightenment, so it was taught, did much to dethrone the aristocratic and religious stranglehold that had existed, since the Middle Ages, over free thought, expression and the liberated social flow of capital. The Enlightenment, so goes the cliche, opened up in some manner the route to democracy.
These popular revolutions may have in this manner benefited many Europeans and North Americans. But they coincide, accidentally for all I know, with the white settlement of Australia. This settlement is generally agreed to have involved two misfortunes. The first, of course, relates to the savage dispossession of the continent’s native people (see Atkinson, 1997). The second, as famously, relates to the settlement of the country as a dumping ground for the criminal dispossessed of the British Isles (see Hughes, 1987). Those many white Australians whose roots go back to early forced immigration see very little to admire in Europe or indeed the northern hemisphere of 1788.
The Enlightenment and its subsequent popular revolutions may not have caused the inception of convict transportation, but they do eventually coincide with it. My point here is not, in the manner of a Foucault, to attempt to highlight and at the same time to vilify the Enlightenment. Rather, it is to stress that for many, the Enlightenment is something to which they react with no feeling, affection, admiration or empathetic comprehension. For Australians, it is only the school books that insist on the importance of this northern periodization. So it is that there exists an Australian bewilderment in the face of this mysterious periodization represented by the Enlightenment.
Periodization is a procedure that is rooted within specific cultures. It is not easily universalized. The profound relevance and liberating effect of the Enlightenment for particular Frenchmen or, especially, a particular American is matched historically by incarceration for Australians. To insist that the Enlightenment speaks to and for all of us is as procrustean as it is ultimately offensive. But the important point here is not in fact the colonial nature of the act of periodization. Rather it is the sheer variety of the manners by which periodizations can be established and coloured. Each nation, each region, even each individual, can have its own. Their periodizations, utterly relative constructs, reflect their own sense of the ‘style’ of their historical past.
The Problem of the Enlightenment
I have deliberately stressed the Enlightenment. My interest is not merely anecdotal nor is it merely personal. The Enlightenment remains the bugbear of the contemporary periodization of historical process, whether we are dealing with the chronological or with the style-driven forms of periodization. I could, and ought to, illustrate in detail. This illustration, however, requires a catalogue of sorts, and concomitant readerly patience.
Svetlana Boym (2001), in what is a fascinating book on the history of the concept of nostalgia, dismisses the antiquity of the emotion. It was invented after the Age of Revolution, she insists, no doubt aided by societal dislocation and its increased ‘medicalization.’ There is no sense of nostalgia in the literature of antiquity nor, presumably, of the medieval period, she argues. Nostalgia, a banal emotion for most people, is a late-comer to the affective realm. It has a periodization that begins, approximately, with the Enlightenment. Or does it? I could counter with unambiguous ancient Greek red figure representations of a nostalgic Odysseus, or with passages from Homer’s Odyssey that describe the emotion. Boym is a specialist in Russian literature. It is perfectly understandable that her familiarity with classical literary and material culture is limited. It is all the more predictable, therefore, that her periodization is vitiated by its being based on too limited a sample. Her guess, however, is in line with those of many other researchers, as we shall see.
The nature of that guess can be seen again with Patricia Meyer Spacks (1995), in a literary study of boredom as it is depicted in the English novel of the nineteenth century. Spacks allows that dogs can become bored (basing this on the observations of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 1993), but not humans. Not, at any rate, before the Enlightenment provided a conceptual basis for such passive and intellectualized emotions. This is because, I imagine, she can find no term for the spiritualized condition before then. If that is the case, then what can the Roman poet Horace (65-8 bce), have meant by his term for boredom, veternus? Or what can the imperial Roman writer Seneca (5/4-65 ce) have meant by taedium vitae?
The difficulty apparent in both of these perfectly reasonable, but incorrect, assumptions on the periodization of affectivities is apparent. The Enlightenment, as a starting point for passive, ‘spiritualized’ emotions, is over-privileged. Henry Maudsley’s warning could be brought back into play: observation establishes generalizations that, having become positive entities, come to tyrannize subsequent observation and understanding.
This propensity for periodization can be seen again and again in relation to the Enlightenment. A full list would be tedious. But a few more illustrations will be helpful. There is Peter Burke (1995). He believes that the modern origins of our passive concept of leisure go back only as far as the Enlightenment. A change in the availability of free time, its compartmentalization due to the nascent needs of industrialization (to map out, control and allocate the use of free time), lead to its instrumentalization. A once amorphous agrarian time became split into personal time (free or leisure time) and the employer’s time (work time). Clocks come to dominate time. Free time (leisure time as it becomes) is measured against the irrevocable temporal flight. Leisure becomes a means for assuaging the asperities of work time and the fear of its flight. It comes as little surprise that such modern theorizing displays scant acquaintance with the writings of classical antiquity, in particular with those of Seneca and Petronius (d. 65 ce), where a comparable conceptualizing of the course of time, and thus of leisure, is evident.
Even the ‘self can be drawn into this periodized web.’ A greater familiarity with the writings of St Augustine (354-430 ce) (see Stock, 1994, 2000; Westra, 2001) or with those of Seneca would give pause to those who see the concept of the self (not the persona, but genuine self-reflexivity) as in some way or another a peculiarly post-Enlightenment phenomenon (see Porter, 1997).
This privileging of the Enlightenment is particularly to be observed in the work of Michel Foucault. Indeed, this popular, as we have seen, periodization may result from his work. Foucault has argued powerfully that, beginning in this revolutionary period, the modern concepts of madness (Foucault, 1973), eros (Foucault, 1978) and time (Foucault, 1977: 149ff.) first emerged. (Burke’s take on leisure seems dependent on this view of time.) Of madness he has argued that, because of the development of a more sophisticated form of mercantile economy, there emerged for the first time concepts of mental illness matched by institutions to incarcerate the mentally ill, and medical systems to legitimize such ‘clinics.’ Foucault believes that these forces were designed to guarantee popular adherence to the productive goals of capitalism (Foucault, 1987: 68; 1973; but Porter, 1987: 6-10). Time too was reconceptualized by a money-making class bent on extracting the maximum financial gain not just from the physical commodities of trade, but also from their workers. Time was linked to money. Everything is organized by the clock (Foucault, 1977: 174). Producers, like products, required quantification. The regulation of time into easily recognizable periods apportionable to one’s workers became one means of regulating production and controlling its producers (Foucault, 1977: 160). Thus time, requiring monitoring and instrumentalization, assumed the linear, evolutive, serial, cumulative, progressive and compartmentalized shape it has today.
Eros and sexuality are influenced in comparable fashion (Foucault, 1978; Laqueur, 1990). There emerged a new way of speaking of the body. (Compare Halperin’s challenging formulation of the emergence of the genus ‘homosexual,’ discussed below.) The body was understood (to paraphrase Foucault’s argument), up until the Enlightenment, from the effects ‘of a system of production in which labour power, and therefore the human body, has neither the utility nor the commercial value that are conferred on them in an economy of an industrial type.’ Thus there existed a contempt for the body which was reinforced by the demographical and biographical situation of the day: people died younger and more often through the ‘ravages of disease and hunger, the periodic massacres of the epidemic, the formidable child mortality rates’ (Foucault, 1973: 54-5). Capitalism, industrialism, the inchoate medical control of disease, introduce a new regime of bodily treatment and hygiene. For the new industrial state to prosper, the body must be controlled and husbanded: medicine, sex, sexuality, are all aimed towards the industrially productive practice of reproduction, an eros that is controlled and channelled accordingly, a use and application of time that encourages such profitable ‘health.’ All of these factors encourage a new vision which manifests itself in the segregation and removal of those qualities or folk deemed unsuitable to the new commercial worlds. Eros and sexuality, according to Foucault, are channelled along with madness and time into more efficacious modes.
Not everyone follows this Foucauldian approach. For some the philosophical basis inherent in the theorizing to be associated with the Enlightenment is unappealing. Plus ‘a change’… They move forward in time for the establishment of periodic caesurae and for a vindication of a claim to originality. So, a sociologist such as Pierre Bourdieu moves his periodical focus, emulously we might guess, away from the Enlightenment and on into the period of bourgeois consolidation following the era of revolution. In a book such as The Rules of Art (1995), Bourdieu links the development of the concept of the French writer and the type of art that he or she produced (above all he is thinking of Flaubert and his withdrawal from social realism into an art for art’s sake) in the nineteenth century to the forces of genre and its constituents (‘the whole structure and history of the field of production,’ as he puts it) as well as the historical, social and economic forces shaping and defining the artist’s choices (‘in the whole structure and history of the social world under ‘consideration’). At any rate Bourdieu sees the beginning of the modern concept of the artist/writer (that of the apparently self-contained solitary genius, the independent rebel against societal, especially bourgeois, values—a Baudelaire or Mallarm or Rimbaud as much as a Flaubert) as stemming from this period and as driven by ‘the social and the collective’ as were the more generically and socially substantiated writers (Balzac, for example, or Zola). His point is well taken. I suppose, however, that how important it is that you view the role of this type of a (French) conception of literature and of the writer (as a Romantic transferred to the metropolis) will define how important it is that you see his theorizing as being.
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 (it is rarely the other way around). The ancients, for example, may be seen to have got it right, while we have got it completely wrong. Periodization as a means for contemporary self-reproach and castigation has been particularly to the fore in the matter of gender and sexuality. Once again, Michel Foucault provides the impetus.
In 1976, Foucault published the first of six projected volumes of his history of sexuality (Foucault 1976; English edition 1978). Here he argued that sexuality, as we have just seen, is not a historical constant but an invention of the eighteenth century. Sexuality, again as we have just seen, imposes itself on bodies, as a means to force individuals into predetermined categories in order to control them. The body parts, sensory phenomena and moral issues which make up sexuality for us today belong, in different places and times, to other, often quite different, discourses, which may combine sex with apparently unconnected areas of life. For the Greeks and Romans, for example, sex posed problems like those linked to hunger, thirst and a desire to sleep. Foucault argued (basing himself on the work of the great classical scholar Kenneth Dover) that homosexual and heterosexual desire were identical in kind (so that the use of this modern terminology can only mislead), and that excess (lack of self-control) and passivity (falling under another’s control) were the main forms of sexual immorality for men (Foucault, 1988). For their part, the Romans of the Empire were troubled by romantic attachment with citizen boys, and so elevated the reciprocal relationship of the married couple (Foucault, 1988). (Here, Foucault is often said to have owed much to his colleague at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne 1978, 1982).
Foucault’s periodizations of sexuality and gender were in turn taken over and transmitted by remarkably gifted classical scholars such as David Halperin (1990) and Jack Winkler (1990). Dominance and submission were now the marks of gender; and behaviours, real or imagined, in what was once regarded as private life were seen to mirror or establish public position. Sexual intercourse, then, took on a new significance as a guide to gender definition in antiquity. Men and women were no longer self-evidently distinct; they were created and confirmed through intimate interactions. A boy or even an adult male could be feminized by penetration; and too much virility—Heracles,’ Mark Antony’s could pass over into its opposite, service to women’s strength (Loraux, 1990; Russell, 1998). Behaviour might traduce biology. But above all biology might be the determinant of sexuality. Antiquity, for Halperin and Winkler, seemed to provide a more capacious and even tolerant conceptualization of sexuality.
David Halperin (1990) has provided the most clear and compelling articulation of Foucault’s periodization of sexuality and how it is that this provides a basis for the castigation for apparent contemporary prejudice. Halperin has argued that homosexuality was ‘invented’ a mere century ago. Current-day prejudice was therefore not as marked over one hundred years ago. It was especially less marked in classical antiquity. Halperin is above all concerned to demonstrate that the genus ‘homosexual’ is not an immutable fact of history and that it is a recent invention.
Two things are needed for this genus to be established, he argues. First, there is required a homosexual ‘morphology’: an exterior mode or dress of behaviour that is identifiably non-heterosexual (perhaps feminine). Second, there is required a homosexual subjectivity: a conscious recognition that one has a sexuality and that this is directed in a same-sex mode. (In antiquity, sexuality, such as it was, displayed and conceptualized itself in terms of dominance and submission, excess and lack of it.) When these two are combined (and, he believes, this does not happen until the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries) the genus ‘homosexual’ comes into being. Halperin believes that because sexuality was, according to Foucault, based on power, a true homosexual subjectivity was impossible in the classical era and later. Hence the apparent absence of descriptions of the genus in ancient and medieval literature. The invention of homosexuality one hundred years ago, however, has provided a means for the marking out and persecution of gay people. The ancient world harboured, Halperin believed, no such prejudice. They looked down not on the queer, but on the dominated, the feminized, the slavish.
Are these periodized arguments of Foucault, Winkler and Halperin correct? They have come under considerable criticism during the last decade. Foucault ignored women, Rome and was selective in his use of evidence. Halperin, some scholars argue, may have exaggerated the absence of the genus ‘homosexual’ within ancient life, and certainly of a homosexual subjectivity. And, like Foucault, he may have overestimated the role of domination and submission in ancient sexual relations. Above all many have suspected that this periodization of sexuality was driven more by political affiliation and by a completely justifiable sense of personal outrage (Halperin admirably makes no bones about his sexual orientation) than by archival evidence. The jury remains out on this matter.
Periodization as Nostalgia
The various periodizations that have been associated with the concept of literacy betray a remarkable attachment to an era that is not our own. If the periodization of sexuality championed by Foucault and others spilled over into a politics of reproach, then the periodizations to which the idea of literacy has been subject spill over into a romantic nostalgia. Classical antiquity is the usual beneficiary of such nostalgia. The unease displayed by many classicists with this attention, however, is seldom noted. It should be. The unease is precisely that which we have seen directed towards those who place an affective caesura within the Enlightenment. The revaluation of the importance of illiteracy for ‘literature’ was inaugurated by a young American- and French-educated Hellenist, Milman Parry (1902-35). Parry noted the ‘formulaic’ nature of Homeric verse and, from this, was able to formulate a variety of rules for oral, that is to say, illiterate, poetic composition. Some of the compositional characteristics that Parry isolated in Homer’s poetry were, he and his colleague Albert Lord discovered, applicable also in the oral, illiterate poetry of Yugoslavia (Lord, 1960; Parry, 1971).
That Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for many readers the high-points of Western literature, could have been composed without the assistance of pen and paper seemed to be a revelation. This revelation came, what is more, in the very period when so much (probably loose) linguistic discussion was being made of the purported disjunction, of the gap, between words and things, between signifiers and the signified (something of which the ancients, with their interest in puns and mixed metaphors, were quite conscious). It was almost as if Homer, the blind and illiterate genius, represented an era before the lapsus, before signifiers had irrevocably slipped away from the signified, and before words had slipped the moorings of real things, as it were, to float off on the sea of meaning and difference. This was before we had been expelled from childhood and Eden and the possibility of the internalized signifier. Greek scholars, such as Havelock (1963), developed these insights and demonstrated how much of the literature of the ‘Greek miracle’ was composed within a mindset that was as illiterate as literate, if such a paradox is possible.
It is remarkable that Parry’s work coincides with the romantic and transcendental interpretations of early Greek culture proposed by the German philosopher Heidegger. For him the writing (or illiterate compositions) of a figure such as the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides (fl. c.450 bce) reflects an era when words embodied the essence of things. The being of the Greek man in the world, his Dasein, was in touch with Being itself, thanks to the primal virtues of the Greek language, in which, uniquely before German, words revealed the primordial nature of Being. It is as if humans were etymologically related to a higher reality. For such lucky Greeks the word was the thing: it unfolded the thing it denoted. Signifier and signified, word and concept, were intimately related to the world of objects and the experience of being here. As is will known, Jacques Derrida (composing at approximately the same time as Havelock) built on the work of Heidegger and attacked the ‘logocentric’ tradition embodied in and beginning with Plato, a tradition on which words, the medium (the signifier), corrupted, as it were, the message (the signified). The task of the deconstructionist, thus, should be to unmask the mendaciousness of signifiers and to restore to us the prelapsarian wholeness of the signified and signifier. Put rather crudely, this is to say that literacy, embodied in the writings of the logocentric Plato, seems to have destroyed the purity of perception and communication, of the transcendental signified. The nostalgia evident in these romantic periodizations is striking. It would be a very credulous individual who believed there ever existed a time when the relationship between words and things was ever anything but random.
This romantic mode of interpretation is evident, though more simplified, or at least less elaborated, in the writings of Walter Ong (1982), Jack Goody (1977, 1987) and, unexpectedly, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1961). Here we register a positive preference for the culture of illiteracy. Ong (1982) and Goody (1977, 1987), writing at the same time as Derrida, and at the same time as Heidegger was being translated first into English, both set a series of judgemental and schematic contacts between the cultures of the illiterate and the literate. From this they aim to characterize and periodize these realms. Their contrasts are between, respectively, timelessness, the cyclical, the non-urban, between myth, verse and permanence, between the public and the ‘outer,’ in contrast with the timed (hence clocks and calendars), the linear, the urban, between history and science (contrasting with myth), prose, the provisional, the private and the ‘inner.’ This list could be continued at considerable length, but the idea, I think, ought to be apparent. The Greece of Homer and Hesiod (c.750 bce) embodies these preferred illiterate qualities. These are the characteristics, Ong and Goody imply, of the pre-modern world. This was a world for which they clearly feel considerable attachment: the Jesuit Ong’s Garden of Eden, the anthropologist Goody’s never-ending field research location. Their broad periodization—between the pre-modern and the industrial no less does reflect badly on the contemporary world. Its over-schematicization, however, omits the process of evolution of nearly three thousand years from Homer to the twenty-first century, during which millennia such schematic contrasts must surely blend.
Occasionally these periodizations of nostalgia and reproach come together to form a most depressing and predictable casserole. This has been markedly so in the last decade. I will limit myself to only one recent and very popular example. This is Florence Dupont’s The Invention of Literature: From Greek Intoxication to the Latin Book (1999). The title gives the game away. The illiterate Greeks are good for embodying in their early poetry all of the qualities mentioned on the ‘left’ above. The Romans are bad for embodying the right-hand qualities. The surprise (and here comes the reproach) is that we, like the Romans, have been trapped into the literate world. Dupont sees in the semi-literate Third World a return to the Heideggerian state of unity between signifier and signified (read ‘intoxication’): ‘[T]he future belongs to the recycling of written texts within a framework of festivity…. Our own postmodern culture might… take over all the ‘masterpieces of literature,’ as is being done today in Francophone Africa, and reinvent them in music, dance, rap….’ (1999). The predictability of ideational substructure of this material shows just how troubling the act of periodization really can be.
Periodization as Genre
It is very difficult to be persuaded by most of the stylistic models and methodologies of periodization that we have encountered so far. The most broad are perhaps the most persuasive. So when Aldo Schiavone in The End of the Past (2000) 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. When Ernest Gellner in Plough, Sword, and Book (1988: 1-100) sees the big periodization as that between modern (above all self-reflexive) and pre-modern-agricultural (thick, polyvalent logics of the ‘primitive’ mind) and places the ‘caesura’ with Descartes and his cogito, we are getting more of the same. The difficulty is that such periodizations are so obvious as to represent truisms. And, unfortunately, in their broad brushstrokes, they do miss the nuance.
It is the intermediary phases, between modern and pre-modern, between literate and pre-literate, that so test and so often overturn these broad periodizations. To do justice to these intermediary phases is to provide the nuance. I could illustrate from antiquity. It has been argued, with considerable justification, that ancient understandings of manic depression emerge first in the texts of the Greek medical writer Aretaeus of Cappadocia (fl. 150 ce). These coincide with a marked change particularly in Roman but also in Greek literature. In the literature contemporary with Aretaeus, there is an inward turn, a greater interest in the ‘self, and in psychological states. There is a tendency to privilege passive (depressive states), where hitherto privilege had been granted to active ones (manic states, we would say). Aretaeus’ formulation reflects a ‘discourse’ or ‘habitus’ or ‘episteme’ or mentality. It is even part of a Zeitgeist, we could say.
Such a conclusion, however, becomes much more difficult to sustain if you look outside the literary tradition. I have noticed, for example, an otherwise very well known depiction of Orestes being assailed by the Furies after he had murdered his mother, Clytaemnestra. Orestes’ representation is remarkable. He seems sunk into a deep and melancholy reverie, deep enough in fact that it resembles what we would term depression. His mood seems to suffuse the picture. Its other main actors, the Furies, Apollo and Artemis, have the same doleful expression. The depression, however, is explosive. We know from the tradition that it was interspersed with wild fits of mania. This painting of Orestes, now housed in the Louvre, dates to the fourth century before our era. Aretaeus’ description of the illness dates to the second century of our era. The visual tradition seems to register Aretaeus’ bipolar insight several hundred years in advance. Perhaps it is easier to see these sorts of problems than it is to say them. But that is beside the point. It appears that the traditions of the visual are well out of synchronization with those of the written tradition, which is apparently much more conservative. Where does this leave us with periodization? Completely at sea? Periodization, it appears, may be genre-specific. Does one generalize, therefore, at one’s own risk?
To render a comprehensive survey of the variety of periodizations that have been and are popular would be a vast and ultimately unrewarding task. Not unlike the periodizers themselves, I have attempted to adjudicate from a mere sampling. It is my hope that this limited survey has offered, however, some conclusions of general validity. My survey has concentrated on three aspects of periodization that, at present, seem to me to be of considerable importance: that relating to the Enlightenment and, following more or less from this, those relating to sexuality and the body, and those relating to the constraints of language. The style-driven periodical schemas associated with these, I have suggested, are of limited (if unavoidable) use. They are based, in the main, on limited or selective surveys of the evidence and sometimes on self-serving ideas and prejudices. This matter of evidence, I have also attempted to demonstrate, is of especial importance. Many periodical schemas are vitiated by a poor sense of history, above all as this relates to what used to be called classical antiquity.
When looking back to the intellectual history of the second half of the twentieth century, some future historian may well characterize it as the Age of Conceptual Rupture. That it was one in which the nineteenth-century model of temporal continuities was replaced with a preference not only for ‘periodization,’ but even for ‘dramatic periodization.’ That it was a period in which a theory of periodization represented an arrow in the conceptual quiver belonging to every respectable historian. Were such a historian pressed to offer an explanation for the emergence of this Age of Conceptual Rupture and its eschewing of the continuities of ‘la longue durée,’ he or she might point to rapid change, personal migration and the changing identities that so characterized the half-century. He or she might stress that, while the alleged condition of ‘postmodernity’ imposed itself on how history was read, real-life history was in all probability more sluggish, less ‘periodized’ than was claimed. Such a future historian might stress that a half-century producing its 68ers, its X-Generations, its existentialists, structuralists, poststructuralists and deconstructionists (who were all tumbling frantically over each other in a desperate bid to ‘make it new, and different’) could not have conceived of history in any other way.
Is there, after saying all of this, anything that can be said in favour of the practice of periodization? The answer to this is a simple, if agnostic, one. Periodizations of the stylistic sorts that I have been looking at are at best heuristic tools. While they are of the greatest use in helping us to organize and reorganize information, they are most frequently mendacious and misleading. They can be driven by fads (witness the popularity of the Enlightenment as a cure-all for any chronological confusion), by the preachy and moralistic (Dupont or the Jesuits), by the political activist (Foucault), by the urban academic longing for the sites of his or her youth (Lévi-Strauss), and by the career academic bent on novelty (Bourdieu). So it is that we invent new periodizations to cast into relief issues otherwise obscured by the discourse on a subject that has hitherto held centre-stage. Reconceptualizations, such as those brought on by feminism, for example, or by the social historians with their ‘bottom-up’ narratives and their sensitivity to the abuse of power, expand for a time our comprehensive perspectives. They break down the apparent narrowness of the preceding periodic clichés. But once their work of refocusing has been done, they in turn must be readjusted. They must take a lesser position. They must make room for newly helpful, but equally inadequate paradigms to take over. For their brief period.