Carrie Schwelb and Earl Jackson, Jr.

on „Historicity“ and the Language/Concept Debate

Date: Friday, February 14, 1997 9:04:34
From: Carrie S.
Subj: No Subject
To: Earl Jackson, Jr.

Hello Earl. My name is Carrie S.; I am currently taking your
science fiction class, and the issue of language raised its ugly
head among all the characters, issues of self, and pretty astronomy
pictures that come to my mind when I read or write SF.
This is a question, not necessarily a criticism. I imagine you have
thought about the language enough to answer some of my questions. I
also really enjoyed your lecture on Tuesday; I found it clear and
accessable, which is why I would like to discuss this with you in
It started when Jonathan Hunt used the word „historicity“ when
answering someone’s question in lecture. (Unfortunately I do not re-
member the answer or the question.) My first reaction was that the word
had three meaningless syllables and should be pruned with a rusty
chainsaw. I said so to my friend Eric Sternberg. More specifically,
I asked him „What the FUCK is ‚historicity?'“ He promptly gave me
a definition and said „I find it quite useful.“ Nothing would have
given me greater pleasure at that moment than to find that the word
did not exist. I looked it up in Webster’s, and to my chagrin
it had a definition.
Earl: I always laugh when I hear the word „historicity“ after not hearing it for a while.But this is only because I first encountered it in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Click HERE to read the passage in which he introduces the term.

More specifically,Eric placed „historicity“ with respect to „history“
in English grammar. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete in an
important way. If I recall, the first definition, the ‚of or related
to‘ one, also specified history _as_opposed_to_ mythology, etc.
The second, the ‚placing or positioning‘ one, said especially the
_consequences_ of this placement.

None of this seems to justify the existence of that word. If one means
the fact that something was an actual event, why not just say so? Or
if there are consequences to a sequence of events that are relevant
to a discussion, why not mention them? (Forgive me; here I will
probably get sloppy, especially with the word „abstraction.“ If I can
qualify that one later I will.) It seems that by substituting the
abstraction, „historicity,“ from the concepts of „factuality“ or
„consequences,“ the issues the argument, or answer, was supposed to
raise are avoided.

Okay, this is probably going to get really hairy, so if I am obscure
or inconsistent with anything please ask me to clarify. The first
problem I have with this kind of abstraction is that it shifts power
from the concept to the word.
A concept has its own name; it
can be summoned by its _use_, but not always by its _implication_.
(This is related to „naming magic,“ which I know very little about.
Do you know if part of the reason some people guard their name is so
they cannot be summoned against their will?) I feel the abstraction
simply does not force the issue as it ought to. If most of the class
just grammar-zapped the word and went on, it specifically failed in
its function.

Earl: Carrie! „shifts the power from the concept to the word?“ Name me a concept that isn’t named with a word. Failing that, name a concept, and separate its name from the word, and the word from the concept. Can’t be done. You say yourself „A concept has its own name.“ But the name can be summoned by use? Let’s break these things down into their components. But a concept is a product/production of sociohistorical discursives practices – it isn’t merely the „content“ of a word, I’ll grant you, but it doesn’t lounge around in a Platonic World of Forms basking in its own autotelic radiance awaiting the word that will metaxu it into one of several imperfect manifestations on a lesser plane of cognitively accessible reality. Nope. Doesn’t happen. Also be careful to distinguish among: grammar; morphology; and semantics. Three different things. Check out the lexicon of lingusitics or any of the other glossary helpers we’ve placed on the site for just such contingencies.

Click HERE to go to the second part.