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Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity

By Kelly Devine Thomas Published 2009

Cliff Moore

Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science, pays close attention to how, in her words, “meanings are always sliding even as they are being declared inviolate.”

The phrase “fantasy echo” has its origins in a mistake made by a student in George Mosse’s class at the University of Wisconsin in 1964 who had failed to understand the heavily accented pronunciation of fin de siècle by his German-born professor of history. The error, which the student had used in his final exam, stuck with Joan Wallach Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science, who was a teaching assistant for Mosse at the time.

Nearly forty years later, Scott published “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,” in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2001), which used the phrase to articulate how historical identity is established in the context of feminism, while suggesting much wider applications to other historical categories of personal, social, and national identity.

According to Scott, by extracting coherence from confusion and reducing multiplicity to singularity, fantasy “enables individuals and groups to give themselves histories.” It can be seen as “a formal mechanism for the articulation of scenarios that are at once historically specific in their representation and detail and transcendent of historical specificity.” Echo, meanwhile, raises issues of distinction between origination and resonance. “Where does an identity originate? Does the sound issue forth from past to present, or do answering calls echo to the present from the past? If we are not the source of the sound, how can we locate that source? If all we have is the echo, can we ever discern the original? Is there any point in trying, or can we be content with thinking about identity as a series of repeated transformations?”

For the past three decades, Scott has paid close attention to language, its figures of speech, its allusions and symbolism, and how, in her words, “meanings are always sliding even as they are being declared inviolate.” In doing so, she 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. The American Historical Association, when presenting a 2009 Award for Scholarly Distinction to Scott, noted, “Few historians have had a greater impact on the field of history, and through it, on the ways in which society understands and acts on its framing of fundamental issues like the nature of social relations between the sexes, the concepts of gender and experience, and the role of the historian in shaping our understanding of who we are and how a just society might be framed.”

In a recent interview, Scott explained the critical perspective that has informed her work on gender, questions of difference, and underlying ideological systems. “It is about unpacking the premises that seem to be taken for granted,” says Scott. “It is about always being in the position of a critic who won’t accept an explanation without asking what the words that are being used actually mean, because they don’t always mean the same thing, and they need to be given a history themselves.”

A collection of three of Scott’s essays on critical history––“Fantasy Echo,” “The Evidence of Experience” (University of Chicago Press, 1991), and “Manifestos for History” (Routledge, 2007)––was recently published in France under the title Théorie Critique de l’Histoire: Identités, Expériences, Politiques (Fayard, 2009). In the essays, Scott describes organizing categories of difference––among them class, gender, sexuality, race––as reliant on attempts at universality and continuity and argues for a vigorous analysis of the foundational premises upon which ideas of “experience” rest.

“When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built,” Scott writes. “The evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.” In other words, it is not individuals who have experience, notes Scott, but subjects who are constituted through experience. Rather than accepting experience as uncontestable evidence, Scott advocates for a historical approach that investigates the emergence of concepts and identities as events in need of explanation.

As a labor historian drawn to French history and later French poststructuralism––her dissertation (and first book) was about the political and social effects of industrialization on the glassworkers of Carmaux––Scott was accustomed to looking at constructed categories like “class” when she began tackling women’s history in the 1970s. In Women, Work, and Family (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978) she began to insist with her co-author Louise Tilly that the category of “woman” needed to be historicized. 

A year after joining the Faculty of the School of Social Science in 1985, Scott published her groundbreaking essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” in the American Historical Review (December 1986). In the essay, Scott examined the ways feminists had begun to use “gender” as a category of analysis, while providing a history of its usage, its pitfalls, and a framework moving forward. “Gender is a useful category only if differences are the question, not the answer,” Scott observed, “only if we ask what ‘men’ and ‘women’ are taken to mean wherever and whenever we are looking at them, rather than assuming we already know who and what they are.” Last December, the American Historical Review published a forum about the enduring influence of the essay, calling it “undoubtedly one of the most widely read and cited articles in this journal’s history.”

Throughout her work, which is currently focused on the ways in which difference poses problems for democratic practice, Scott says she is most interested in the discontinuities of history rather than illusions of continuity. “Like an echo, things that seem familiar in fact are only impartial returns of sound,” says Scott. “In exposing the underlying premises that organize our ways of seeing things as if they were natural, as if they were eternal, the possibility for thinking differently exists. If constructed categories can be seen as working for a certain end and having effects that we may not like, if they can be seen as products of history—if history is what is producing them––then we can imagine that they can be changed.”

Kelly Devine Thomas is Editorial Director at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2009