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Historical Periodization: A Defence
There has been significant and often legitimate concern among historians, literary critics, social scientists and others over the past century with periodization. This has consisted of a frequent rethinking of particular historical periods, their coherence, the process of transition between them, and their duration, and also of a more general questioning of the purpose and intellectual value of periodization (for instance in the late Jacques Le Goff’s final book Must we Divide History into Periods?). The concern is legitimate, and there is no doubt that periodizations, wrongly or too rigidly applied, can be reified to a degree that the periods which they create become historical essences, bringing with them a loss of perspective, a sometimes crude explaining-away or twisting of phenomena to fit an era-specific context, a teleological march toward a singular Western-defined modernity, and an assignment of winner and loser status to those respectively who “anticipate” such modernity or are “backward facing”. Beginning with a brief analysis of periodization strategies in two classic early examples of cultural history by Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga, the lecture will explore some of the critiques of periodization; it will then argue that much of the criticism is derived from terminological confusion between distinctive periodization schemes and the cognitive process of periodizing. While there are traps and risks in any division of history into chunks, the intellectual activity of periodizing, unperiodizing, and reperiodizing remains essential to understanding history. And beyond simply rescaling time (moving our metaphorical lens backward or further to include longer or shorter spans), it is the very multiplicity and permeability of period definitions and sequences that lend meaning and order to an otherwise chaotic past.