We’ve all experienced that lightning-bolt moment when we read something that inspires us to see the past in new ways, or propels us on a whole new intellectual trajectory. In our new series, The Book That Changed My Life, historians discuss a piece of writing, large or small, fiction or non-fiction, that has shaped the way they approach their craft. This month Zora Simic reflects on her love of history articles, and considers two in particular, that have changed the way she sees the world.
I am often surprised when friends and colleagues who teach English literature confess that they rarely read whole books, and especially novels. It’s not their thing, they say, before expressing a preference for reading theory and criticism and maybe some poetry. Yet I shouldn’t be surprised because I’m a historian who rarely reads a whole history book for pleasure (I prefer novels), unless I’m reviewing them or somehow accidentally finish them in piece meal fashion over the years. No, articles are much more my bag, both to read and to write, and the historian who most inspires me in this genre is feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott. A predictable choice perhaps, but it has been an enduring appreciation both because I regularly teach her work and because hers has been a fascinating intellectual trajectory.
I first encountered Scott’s work as an undergraduate in the history honours stream at the University of Sydney sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. I can’t remember what I read first – ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, first published in the American Historical Review in 1986, or the ‘Evidence of Experience’, published in Critical Inquiry in 1991 – but I can recall that both opened up new pathways in my brain almost immediately (hence life-changing). With ‘Gender’ – an article I now teach to first year gender studies students, aided by visual flow charts that hopefully capture the multiple levels on which this extraordinary piece of scholarship and thinking operates – I was struck first by her challenge to socialist feminism or Marxism as offering an insufficient theory of gender. Now she was hardly the first to do this, but the methodical and thoroughly convincing manner in which she demolished my paradigm of choice, followed by Freudianism (fair enough) and radical feminism or patriarchal theory was somehow invigorating. It also taught me more about those three theoretical and political paradigms in a few pages than I had learnt during my degree thus far. And this was before she moved on to posit her own theory, dismissed by one of my teachers as ‘deconstructionist post-modern nonsense’, a sledge that made Scott even more appealing, despite my own (by now rapidly diminishing) aversion to ‘po-mo’ theory.
In ‘The Evidence of Experience’ Scott argued that subjects are constituted not ‘recovered’ through various forms of personal testimony, which had by then acquired ‘foundational’ status as a form of evidence by feminist and social historians in particular. In my own understanding of my development as a scholar, this argument directly inspired my honours thesis, a comparative study of the autobiographies of Aboriginal and African-American women. Yet when I took my thesis off the shelf to test this recollection, I note I did not cite her once. If I could bear to re-read it, I would be curious to know whether I observed her lessons in my own analysis in a more implicit fashion (probably not).
My PhD, on the other hand, a history of feminisms in Australia between 1919-1969, was practically a tribute to Scott. In publishing ‘Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity’ in Critical Inquiry in 2001, she also conveniently for me provided a theoretical framework for hanging together my hitherto disparate arguments. And rather sensationally, she had turned to Freud, among others, to account for ‘fantasies’ of political and other identifications across time. Discourse analysis was no longer cutting it, she needed to look elsewhere and in doing so, she once again helped me answer some questions I did not even know I had.
Zora Simic is a Lecturer in History and Women’s and Gender Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. She has written articles (not books) on various aspects of Australian and international feminism, the history of teenage pregnancy, the western suburbs of Sydney, migration and marriage, female orgasms and other topics, as well as The Great Feminist Denial, co-authored with Monica Dux (MUP: 2008).