I was reading a dissertation on the history of discourse on youth during the colonial period from Seoul National University the other day. This is my third time reading it over years as it is very relevant to my topic. I have to admit that it is informative and useful, and it is a nice synthetic work. Every time I read it, however, I feel frustrated. At first I thought that I grew out of discursive analyses. I became skeptical of subtle shifts that authors discuss in this type of history. From my own experiences of making a narrative about changes in discourse, I learned that I can find pretty much anything in the discourse if I look for it long enough, and I can connect dots as freely as I wish. Think of how historians in the future would discuss today’s discourse on “democracy,” for example. Would it be a value that gained almost perfect consensus? Would it mean liberation? Or a convenient concept to hide oppression? From the viewpoint of contemporary people (us), what would be the most meaningful way of analyzing it — or does that analysis even matter to us?
I presume everyone’s answer is, IT DEPENDS. The meaning of “democracy” totally depends on the local context. It could be a rebellious, or conservative, concept depending on who uses it for what reason. The importance of such discursive analyses also depends on the context — would it trigger a new political phase like the one in the 1990s Taiwan and South Korea, or just another speech by the US president? Thinking this way, I thought I did not like discursive analyses no matter how elaborate they are. Because it is the background that mattered, not the discourse itself.
I was wrong. Besides the fact that I have encountered wonderful discursive analyses, I felt the same frustration when the book was so strictly empirical. I do social history and I like detailed facts, but people have hearts and brains. I want to know what they were thinking and feeling. Ultimately, without that imagination, history is boring.
And I realized a very simple fact. Even if you are interested in one kind of analysis, you need to add information from a different point of view. I remember the best feedbacks from professors to speakers are usually asking to add another dimension. “Who are these people in the committee that you are talking about? Did they get along?” “Why did they advocate the policy in such a way?” are good questions to ponder if you are doing political history, for example. The question of “how did they feel, or how did the other people feel, when soldiers came back from war?” requires both social and discursive research in addition to the issue of compensation. And for those who do discursive analyses, “to what extent did people care or know about these things? what impact did it make?” is always a challenging but worthwhile question to keep in mind. Exciting histories I have read address all-round questions like these. They make our imagination rich and expansive.
…. Sigh. (feels like I’m raising the bar by myself.)