Quotational Quarantines

As historians, we often engage in the liberal use of quotations to sanitize and quarantine distasteful terms or phrases that lend legitimacy to a category or a way of referring to an institution or other body. The use of these quotes, which I confess to frequently using, presumably robs such terms of their nomenclatural power and further serves to establish distance between us and the ideas and terms we enlist to talk about the past.

Finally, use of these quotation marks excuses us from having to spend time analyzing the terms themselves, putting them aside as if to say, “Yes, yes, this is a very inappropriate term that needs careful and sensitive discussion, but since I’ve a lot to do in this essay, I just can’t be bothered at the moment to deal with it.”

Some people seem to feel that the aesthetic impact on one’s work is such that the frequent use of quotations is just not worth it, or perhaps feel that we simply aren’t accomplishing anything useful by using them for direct translations or referrals to terms as they were used decades or centuries ago. However, not using quotations or confronting problematic terms can earn the ire of book reviewers, as I discussed in a response to a review of the book Collaboration by Timothy Brooks. Brooks was criticized for used the term “pacification teams” to refer to the units the Japanese called “pacification teams” in occupied China during the war even if he is anything but sympathetic to the Japanese in his book.

One strategy is to use quotations once, and then announce that you won’t be using them anymore. I came across this tactic today when reading a Chinese translation of an essay by Matsuda Toshihiko, called 日本帝國在殖民地的憲兵警察制度:從朝鮮,關東州致滿洲國的統治樣式遷移 (English title was listed as “The ‘Gendarme-oriented’ Police System in the Japanese Colonial Empire: The Transfer of Models of Rule Used in Colonial Korea to Kwantung Province and Manchukuo”) After putting Japan’s 內地 (the interior of Japan = Japan proper excluding its colonies) and terms like 滿洲 (Manchuria, 滿洲國 Manchukuo, the largely Japanese controlled Manchurian state from 1932-1945, often called 僞滿州 or the “puppet Manchukuo”) in quotations, he follows each with “一下省略括號” (“Brackets left out below”).

Another strategy that can sometimes be used, which is one I follow for some words like “traitors,” is to embrace a word and use it quite shamelessly in order to deliberately provoke the reader. In English, the word traitor has lost much of its punch of late – a good thing in my opinion – but still holds great power in many other places and languages. The discomfort generated by the word and the way it forces readers to think about what it really means is part of what I aim to achieve when I use the term. Far from wanting to contribute to the term’s legitimacy, my deliberate use of it is partly out of a kind of mockery, but more importantly out of a desire to help set the scene of the politically charged context in which it was used.

Though I can’t speak for them, I suspect something similar is being done in some other famous cases of this. Some scholars of Korean history have been strongly criticized for using words like “terrorist” to describe Korea’s national tragic hero Kim Koo. I suspect these same critics would have much less opposition to him be referred to by his popular nickname, “the assassin.” I really don’t have strong feelings on this issue and I don’t think it is as straightforward as my own case, but it raises some interesting questions. What if these scholars are also engaging in a dual process of linguistic mockery and deliberate attempt at reviving a historical scene? Should the word be off limits entirely, should it necessarily be accompanied with quotations, or are there alternatives? What I think escapes some critics of such scholars is that I believe at least some of them are using the word terrorist not as a way to conjure images of Kim Koo as a suicide bomber in a crowded market but, on the contrary, to show how the word terrorist has itself a history and potentially embraces a wide range of figures we might be less willing to unconditionally condemn. In doing so, they potentially open a space in which to critique the way the word has come to be used and what it now narrowly represents, as well as the wide range of activities and contexts it covered both in the past and now. Can we only engage in such a rhetorical technique through the use of quotations?

I’d be interested in hearing from other students and scholars about this. What strategies do others take when they are faced with the need or potential need to establish quotational quarantines? What conventions do you follow?