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A Review: Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience”

I’m thinking about memories and what constitutes experience after reading Joan Scott’s 1991 article called “The Evidence of Experience.” Scott’s article asks critical questions about the role of experience as a source of knowledge in the production of history, arguing that experience should be assessed as a product of socio-cultural processes rather than accepted at face value. Joan Scott is a historian whose contributions to her discipline have challenged the ways in which scholars have thought about “historical evidence and historical experience,” resulting in critical re-imaginings of conventional historical methods. In “The Evidence of Experience,” she claims that historicizing experience is a way of authorizing experience, which in turn, reconstitutes the existing historical discourse even if those shared experiences are markers of “difference.” When experiences of difference are authorized as sources of knowledge, it ensures that the commonsense assumptions that we have about reality are perceived as objective and true, justifying the present, and in turn, we “lose the possibility of examining those assumptions and practices that excluded considerations of difference in the first place” (777).

Scott criticizes experience as the origin of knowledge because experience itself is constructed from the stones of history: “it is not individuals who have experience, but subjects who are constituted through experience” (779). In other words, experience is not the origin of knowledge, nor “the authoritative (because seen or felt) evidence that grounds what is known, but rather that which we seek to explain, that about which knowledge is produced” (780; emphasis added). For this reason, Scott is critical of historians who use experience as a source of knowledge because experience always exists in relation to a largely foundationalist discourse, and the foundationalist discourse is that which she believes we must challenge. Rather than asking questions “about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, [or] about how one’s vision is structured,” (777) historical accounts take for granted that the world is the way it is, when in fact, it could be constructed differently if it had been written by someone else. Rather than questioning the assumptions we have about reality, we incorporate them into the historical process, and experience becomes a marker of difference, reinforcing the dominant discourse.

For example, Scott describes how feminist historians have changed the historical account of women by collecting and publishing women’s voices and experiences, but rather than challenging the dominant ideology and how it has come into existence, the effect of these experiences has been a marker of “difference.” Women have deviated from the norm rather than reconstructing the norm. Scott writes that “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” (777).

I think this has two primary purposes for the culture: 1.) feminism (or any other marker of difference) can be dismissed because the only basis for the existence of oppression comes from the voices of those who are oppressed, and based on the way in which the world is structured (i.e. the fact that oppression exists in the first place), those voices are not the dominant voices, and so they can only exist in relation to what is “objective,” and not be objective themselves. 2.) The existence of this system (a system in which only the dominant perspective is objective) ensures that this system will never change, unless, according to Scott, historians critically analyze the historical origin of objectivity itself. In a succinct description from Masculine Domination, Pierre Bourdieu, an influential relational sociologist, explicates the paradox:

“One is inevitably trapped in one of the most tragic antimonies of symbolic domination: how can people revolt against a socially imposed categorization except by organizing themselves as a category constructed according to that categorization, and so implementing the classifications and restrictions that it seeks to resist?” (120)

If “objectivity” itself is a flawed, dominant system that actually gets reinforced by criticism, how do we historicize or understand anything? The problem, as Scott addresses in her article, is that the historical method has gained its credibility from the same reality that it represents, meaning that there’s a complication between subjectivity and objectivity, and the “authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it” (777). The historical method is both the reality it represents and the authorized interpretation of that reality, which means that the subjectivity of the process is masked by its objective appearance, preventing the subjectivity from being seen. Or, as Bourdieu would describe it: “the main shortcomings of objectivism is that, by failing to reflect rigorously on its own conditions of possibility…it cannot grasp the link between the objective relations and structures it elucidates, on the one hand, and the practical activities of the individuals who make up the social world, on the other” (Thompson 12), meaning that the agents or researchers who execute “objectivism” fail to recognize the normalized role their own social constructs play in the production of “universal” knowledge. The standardized perspective inhabited by the “objective” researcher perpetuates a cycle that reconstitutes itself based on its reuse of structures that always already are “normal.”

It is necessary for historians to pursue objectivity while analyzing and dictating the facts of the past, but despite the best effort of the historian, not only will the facts be filtered through her subjective experience but they’ll also be relegated to relativity by the historical method itself.

After finishing the article, my two main questions are: 1.) why have we collectively constructed a foolproof system that unremittingly reinforces itself, preventing us from expanding the nature of perspective? And 2.) if we’re aware that this system exists, why do people fight to maintain it when it’s understood to be oppressive, limiting, controlling, and destructive? Personally, and to continue with the theme of my recent blog posts, I think the answer is trust. When there’s an established way of viewing the world that’s considered “objective” and “truthful,” it’s easier to feel okay and safe because we know that there exists a verifiable objectivity that we get to compare ourselves to. When there’s something to strive for, we have something to do; we have a purpose. But if that voice is brought under siege, if it is questioned, undermined, or attacked, who will we be? What will become of us if we don’t have the structure of “truth” guarding us from failure, worthlessness, and torment?

Works cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Masculine Domination, translated by Richard Nice. Stanford University Press, 2001.

Scott, Joan. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1991, pp. 773-797.

Thompson, John B. Editor’s Introduction. Language and Symbolic Power by Pierre Bourdieu. Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 1-31.

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