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Rise of the Academic ‘Identitarians’

Perhaps I’ve been away too long. But as I tentatively grope my way back into the hallowed gloom of the Ivory Tower (pursuing a doctorate in history), I see that I have picked up a jaded impatience with the effete posturing of the professoriate. Not scholars, mind you, but rather that class which is busily employed in self-aggrandizing instead of innovative inquiry, job security instead of meaningful synthesis.

Granted, this may be unfair. Coming back to academic study after an interlude of national service and entrepreneurship—honing a capitalist worldview in the blazing light of the real world—I may have become insensitive to historical-political nuance. Perhaps further study will reveal that history as a profession is producing magnificent, valuable work that I am still too blinded to see. I doubt it, though.

It appears that history is a profession in crisis, a victim of its own brand of 1960s vintage radicalism. History departments today seem to be defined by an unapologetic political activism, a Leftist legacy that is manifested again and again in increasingly granular, increasingly useless “identitarian” analyses.  From gender studies to environmental justice to vegan-centered “histories,” the lens of modern historians seems to be clouded by political expediency.

Case in point: In A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society, Geoff Eley shows us how this all happened. The Oxford-trained, British historian of Germany makes clear (though he doesn’t intend to) just how far the profession of history has sunk. Intended, no doubt, as a panegyric retrospective, his “narrative” instead chronicles the sluggish suicide of a once-vital discipline. After reading Eley, one can’t help feeling like the boy who has been shown behind the performance curtain: the formerly believable scene is now quite punctured.

Call it hopelessly naïve, but I imagined historians would be a fairly tweedy lot—dust in the hair and coffee-stained piles of books in the corners, perhaps a vague look in the eye and a general distaste for the present hurly-burly. I imagined them quietly reviewing our past, patiently unearthing evidence that will refine and correct the story of where we’ve been. Eley makes perfectly clear, however, that this isn’t what the historians are up to. In detailing “the complicated intellectual history of the shifting interests of historians between the 1960s and now,” he makes explicit that the profession is less science than advocacy A community I once revered as careful (if never fully objective) seems rather to be a sordid, Leftist-only business. I had, perhaps unreasonably, expected more.

Eley tours his readers past the smoldering hulks of once-great epistemologies: Marxist structuralism, the Histoire Totale of the Annales School, the rise and fall of Social History, the “staggering unimportance” of the nuclear family debate, the internecine debates over Subaltern Historiography and a hundred other variations on a larger theme. As he documents this shifting scene, he makes a dishearteningly glib defense of politically motivated historical inquiry. While he tries to show us (and succeeds, perhaps) the “genealogies” of historical understanding—the main forms of inquiry—we are left wondering what happened to professional etiquette–a sense of duty to the facts. (My professor raised an eyebrow when I brought this up in class; asking about historical “facts” is like bringing up the Tooth Fairy.)

The facts, it turns out, are really not the point, as modern historians turn their enthusiasm to mapping various forms of inquiry against the prevailing sentiments and politics of the day. Whether it is British Marxist historians leading labor pickets in the 1960s, or modern cultural historians documenting the oh-so-vital minutiae of animal-rights-informed “agency” today, Eley gleefully embraces the idea that historians should be frontline political agitators. In an “ever-present cultural milieu,” there is no “truth” worth seeking. He quotes Joan Wallach Scott (a leading luminary in “gendered” historiography), who effusively praises the work of the 1960s Marxist academic icon E.P. Thompson for breaking the old molds of historical work and introducing a vehement political agenda:

Much of its excitement lies in its avowedly political purpose. In 1963 it provided historians like myself with a model for writing socially relevant history. For us, [Thompson] embodied a scholarship that fit a New Left purpose: it exposed the workings of capitalist political economy and demonstrated (what Thompson had elsewhere described as) the virtues of “purposive historical commitment” and the possibilities for the “the redemption of man through political action.”

And there you have it. History going off the rails. No longer content with stodgy old traditions, the history community was now gushing with the “excitement” of radical politics. What fun!

Now, to be fair, history has never been free of politics of course. Triumphalist histories that pretend to be “objective” are a clearly facile and antiquated way of doing history. What we call “history” has always been produced by mere political animals—it isn’t solitary detective work, but construction (and often deconstruction) by committee, with all the attendant advantages and drawbacks that come with collective endeavor. Eley later makes a point that is worth noting: that “political purposes exert a constant pressure” on the interests of historians. These purposes “always structure and inform the questions we ask—indeed, the very questions that occur to us in the first place.”

This seems right. Nevertheless, Eley misses something. In his eagerness to declare that historians are political, he denies that they can at least try to look beyond their own bias. Certainly no student of history can (or should) pretend to be uninterested in the political landscape around him, but it is striking just how far the profession appears to have let this reality excuse a disheveled slide into naked activism, a wholesale surrender to vagary. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz captured this when he wrote:

I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete objectivity is impossible (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose. As Robert Solow has remarked, that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well perform surgery in a sewer.

“Loose sentiments” seems a fair description of much of the work of these activist historians. “The radical politics of the sixties,” writes Eley, “were inseparable from the historiographical story.” He adds: “For me, at least, . . . [g]ood history meant good politics, just as bad politics produced bad history.” This summary, perhaps, may be the key to discerning the profession’s self-image problem. History, as a field, has suffered from an inferiority complex, experiencing periodic bouts of self-doubt, such as the “loss of confidence in historical materialism, [which] exactly paralleled the uncertainties building up among British and North American social historians in the 1970s.”

These doubts were not about data or even about theory per se, but about whether the right questions were being asked. These doubts continually rock the foundations of the field, calling into question the very point of historical inquiry. I submit that this is the result of too ardently embracing the discipline’s all-too-evident epistemological weaknesses. It is as if, from 1968 onward, historians fell prey to a belief that since history was messy and subjective, they might as well build a messy and subjective normative field rather than a descriptive one—entering the fray, as it were, from the activists’ armchair.

It certainly remains true that politics and history remain locked together, but such truth hardly warrants wholesale acceptance of political crusading. Awareness of bias should inform historical pursuits, but it should not derail those pursuits. If it does, then the entire  profession becomes what Bryan D. Palmer calls a “hedonistic descent into a plurality of discourses that decenter the world in a chaotic denial of any acknowledgement of tangible structures of power and comprehensions of meaning.”

I share Eley’s “belief in knowledge” and his desire “to make the world knowable through history.” But we differ substantially over what this means. For Eley, making the world “knowable” suggests that historical knowledge is sought and gained under the banner of Good Politics, and that the old Marxist agenda of history-backed “relevance” be accepted without question. I politely demur. Making the world “knowable through history” ought to entail a thorough attempt to excavate historical reality (while granting, but not embracing, bias), even if it flies against the prevailing political norms of the present. Eley’s preference should be turned on its head: instead of seeking to distinguish “good” from “bad” history, I propose a disciplined reckoning with the past; letting the conclusions speak for themselves in the current political debate.

The irony is that Eley harbors a surprisingly conservative yen for “grand narratives” and new “histories of society.” As one of those scholars “in their own beginning stage” of becoming a historian, I find myself missing the pre-radical days as he describes them, a time when:

History literally ‘disciplined’ memory . . . it shaped and educated the raw and unreliable rememberings of individuals as it called into action the superior languages of objectivity, facing their partial and subjective accounts with the truth of the archive, the “reality” of the historical record, and the “facts.”

Clearly many modern historians (God forbid, most) will have none of that kind of vigorous histori-fying, and obviously, “facts” must be safely fenced within quotation marks in the modern canon, but something deep within me pushes back. We ought not be arch Victorians about history, but we shouldn’t be Bohemians about it either.

Reader Discussion

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on November 13, 2015 at 14:16:47 pm

Paul--

I am curious whether you have read Tony Judt's essay "A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians," History Workshop 7 (Spring, 1979), pp. 66-94. (It is now available via JSTOR, and is worth reading if you can spare the time.) I rather suspect you dislike Judt's politics--but I find it intriguing that he was making many of the same points you make here, 36 years ago.

It also seems to me that we must draw a distinction between the substantial body of historical scholarship produced each year which I suspect you find utterly unobjectionable, and the politics of typical teachers in American history departments.

There simply is no shortage of excellent scholarship, of the kind I suspect you will find responsible. For example--would you want to include Liaquat Ahamed's LORDS OF FINANCE in the list of works you find distasteful? That one won a Pulitzer prize, so one can not argue that it is an inconsequential book. How about Mark Noll, AMERICA'S GOD--a work written by a superb historian of American religion, and well respected? Or the more technical work by Brooks Holifield, THEOLOGY IN AMERICA? How about Daniel Walker Howe's WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT--his terrific and prize-winning contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, covering the period 1815-1848? Or Erskine Clarke's composite biography DWELLING PLACE? That complex book is about identity--but would you want to reject it as irresponsible? How about Richard Dunn's recent A TALE OF TWO PLANTATIONS? Or the several recent books by David Brion Davis? Or J.H. Eliott's EMPIRES OF THE ATLANTIC WORLD? Or Bernard Bailyn's THE BARBAROUS YEARS? One can quibble with all of these--none of them are immune from legitimate criticism. But I think, if you take the time to read them, you will find much to admire in all of them too.

There is no question that identity politics plays a major role within academic history departments, and that it informs much (but hardly all) of what is taught today's undergraduates. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. I can rattle off dozens of titles of works of responsible history, just off the top of my head, written in recent years. Much of it is well respected in the profession. So can you, if your graduate training has been at all decent.

Much of this is argument from anecdote. But even so--I am confident I can match you anecdote for anecdote--name a crappy book, and I will give you a good one, responsibly done.

At least since the 1940s, you can find pieces like that written by Judt, decrying the popular and in retrospect ridiculous fads of the day. One of the things I find interesting however is to look at works that stand the test of time. How much of that corpus of work that Judt quite properly condemned in 1979 show up in your graduate reading lists now? My guess is precious little--just enough to document the historiography. On the other hand, we are still reading books like R.R. Palmer, THE AGE OF DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION.

Come the end of the day, the situation, bad as it is, is not any worse than it was when Judt wrote. And just as in 1979, so too today there are considerable numbers of good historians producing responsible work that the rest of the profession acknowledges as responsible and that non-historians can read profitably. The glass may indeed be half empty. But it is also half full.

All best wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 13, 2015 at 14:29:21 pm

Paul--

A followup, offered I hope with humility. An essay I have found useful when teaching historiography to my own graduate students is the first chapter of Bernard Bailyn's ATLANTIC HISTORY: CONCEPT AND CONTOURS. Bailyn, one of the great historians of our day, and one of the great teachers too, described his purpose in writing the history of the emerging field of "Atlantic history": "Its origins and development may illustrate something of the general process by which covering ideas in historical study, framing notions, emerge, and something of the forces that impel and shape them." (p. 4) I find Bailyn's account insightful--not just for understanding that particular line of inquiry, but for understanding the historical conversation more broadly.

I wish you well in your studies.

Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 13, 2015 at 18:11:00 pm

[It is error] to suppose that the observer can confront a fact face-to-face without any theoretical interpretation imposing itself.

That this was an error, although a pertinacious and long-lived one, is now largely agreed upon by philosophers of science. The twentieth-century observer looks into the night sky and sees stars and planets; some earlier observes saw instead chinks in a sphere through which the light beyond could be observed. What each observer takes himself or herself to perceive is identified and has to be identified by theory-laden concepts. Perceivers without concepts, as Kant almost said, are blind…. [I]f all of our experience were to be characterized exclusively in terms of this bare sensory type of description – a type of description which is certainly useful for a variety of special purposes to resort to from time to time – we would be confronted with not only an uninterpreted, but an uninterpretable world, with not merely a world not yet comprehended by theory, but with a world that never could be comprehended by theory. A world of textures, shapes, smells, sensations, sounds and nothing more invites no questions and gives no grounds for furnishing any answers.

The empiricist concept of experience was a cultural invention of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…. [I]t was invented as a panacea for the epistemological crises of the seventeenth century; it was intended as a device to close the gap between seems and is, between appearance and reality.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Chap. 7, “’Fact,’ Explanation and Expertise” at 93-94 (emphasis added).

Schwennesen may well have a point -- but he doesn't really give me anything to evaluate. He doesn't offer even a single quote of text that he can say is demonstrably false. Thus, his essay sounds like someone bemoaning the task of confronting the shaky nature of his most revered historical conclusions.

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nobody.really
on November 13, 2015 at 20:36:43 pm

Nobody--

My reading of his essay is that he is more concerned with the kinds of questions asked, rather than with facts per se.

There are really several issues here. All knowledge starts with getting curious about something and asking questions. Good questions have two features to them--first, there exists some set of data--an "archives"--from which to induce an answer. There are lots of good questions for which no archives exists--and interesting as it is to pose them, no historical knowledge will arise from them.

Second-and here is where it gets trickier--whatever question you pose, it has to be something that someone else wants to know the answer. In other words, academic history is a conversation. It is not practised in isolation. So some questions are clearly about the past but are not of much interest to anyone else. For example, I doubt you have all that much interest in who my great-grand father's second wife was, or where and when they got married.

Because academic history is a conversation, for me to pose a good question, I need to be able to make the case that it ought to matter to you. So there is a kind of herd instinct to the academic conversation--if I want my work to be published, I need to persuade publishers that it is of interest to other people in the conversation, and that exercises a kind of coercion over me and everyone else in the conversation. There are limits to the kinds of questions I can ask, in other words, if I want anyone to pay attention to the answers I propose. It is in other words the kind of thing that people who inhabit other conversations term a "discourse."

This also means that contemporary events exercise a fair bit of influence on the kinds of questions others find compelling. So, just to pick one example, there has been a lot of interest over the last decade in violence perpetrated by non-state actors. The events of 9-11 rather predictably have shaped the contemporary conversation. When R.R. Palmer wrote his great work, the cold war influenced scholarship. Now, in the absence of that particular threat, people are finding other kinds of value in Palmer's work--they are quite literally reading it differently.

Part of what I find valuable in Bailyn's exploration of the idea of Atlantic history--a big deal in my corner of the academic universe--is that he shows not only how contemporary events shape the questions we ask, but also how the internal dynamics of a conversation also generate questions. Sometimes that can lead a conversation in esoteric directions, as, for example, the intellectual descendants of Perry Miller (whose work is often impenetrable to people outside the narrow sphere of Puritan studies) often remind us.

So--because there is a degree of both herd instinct and coercion involved, people have been chaffing at these constraints pretty much from the beginning of the conversation. In that sense, the kinds of criticism that we are discussing here is both predictable and (pretty much) inevitable.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 14, 2015 at 09:06:21 am

Thank you Kevin, I'm humbled your optimism (usually MY position!). I will look into your leads, I appreciate your sending them...

Was it E.P. Thompson who said you can't appease an inattentive reader? I certainly hope I'm not that...

My argument wasn't that good history isn't being done, but rather that historians are being TAUGHT to embrace activist history; and I find it a pernicious pedagogy.

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Paul
on November 15, 2015 at 00:26:23 am

Paul--

I can not argue with that. In my day, some of the other graduate students were certainly activist, but it was not intrinsic to the pedagogy of the seminars we took.

There is a fine line here, and one with which I struggle. On the one hand, history does have to have some relationship with the present. Otherwise it is antiquarian. Good history teaches us something of value about ourselves, or it sheds light on how we came to be the way we are. (The best history, in my view, invites moral reflection; two of the best biographies I have read, Bailyn's biography of Francis Hutcheson, and Rhys Isaac's biography of Landon Carter, invite us to see ourselves in the character of two not altogether attractive men.)

So, at least when framing courses for undergraduates, I think some degree of teleology is necessary. I need to be able to make a persuasive case to my students that what we study together matters. I need to know with some clarity why it is that I think my students--our students!--ought to study history.

But on the other hand, teleology is the enemy of honest narrative, and narrative is fundamental to historical method. Too strong an emphasis on telos leads one to minimize contingency, to forget that things might have happened differently, that other meaningful choices were there to be made. Determinism, it seems to me, undercuts any meaningful narrative.

So even if teleology is to some degree a necessary ingredient of a successful pedagogy, it also is damaging to the endeavor of constructing honest history.

I wonder to what degree the disturbing trends to which you bear witness emerge out of this tension?

I would value your thoughts here, if you have time and inclination to share them.

Well wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 16, 2015 at 10:08:51 am

My reading of his essay is that he is more concerned with the kinds of questions asked, rather than with facts per se.

* * *

Because academic history is a conversation, for me to pose a good question, I need to be able to make the case that it ought to matter to you. So there is a kind of herd instinct to the academic conversation–if I want my work to be published, I need to persuade publishers that it is of interest to other people in the conversation, and that exercises a kind of coercion over me and everyone else in the conversation. There are limits to the kinds of questions I can ask, in other words, if I want anyone to pay attention to the answers I propose.

* * *

So–because there is a degree of both herd instinct and coercion involved, people have been chaffing at these constraints pretty much from the beginning of the conversation. In that sense, the kinds of criticism that we are discussing here is both predictable and (pretty much) inevitable.

This reflects my understanding as well – which makes me wonder at Schwennesen’s critique. I suggested that he cite factual error as a foundation for a criticism because, short of that, I have difficulty identifying a foundation for criticizing.

As Hardwick suggests, Schwennesen’s objection seems to be more in the nature of arguing that certain historian’s works fail to address questions that Schwennesen finds "relevant." But the fact that those works have been published would suggest that somebody found those works relevant. So we’re left with the question, why should we prioritize Schwennesen’s sense of relevance over other people’s?

In short, Schwennesen’s critique seems wholly subjective. I don’t mean to disparage Schwennesen’s sensibilities; I might well share them. But I don’t generally regard my subjective preferences as a basis to criticize others. There’s no accounting for taste.

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nobody.really
on November 16, 2015 at 14:38:20 pm

With all due respect, I think you're both slightly misreading the essay (I blame the author, of course!). I am INDEED interested in the facts "per se." My main point of criticism is precisely that facts (such as they are) have taken a back seat to "activist" narratives. Even to suggest a fact-based excavation is to reduce yourself to the ranks of "triumphalist/historicist"n'er-do-wells.
Witness the strange and convoluted Marxian histories of the Subaltern Studies Group (Chakrabarty, Spivak, et. al.). They are considerably more interested in taking an anti-colonial "oppressed" perspective (while ironically projecting elitism of their own in their writing) than in bringing in new "facts" to hone or redefine the existing understanding.

So you're both right, I am interested in the "kinds of questions being asked" but I would like the discipline to emphasize (once again) that the best kinds of questions are ones influenced and informed by a conscientious effort to discern past events. Much better this than attempting to alter the present with subjective and unfounded history...

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Paul
on November 16, 2015 at 17:44:36 pm

Paul--

My apologies--I hope much that my comments are not leading you to feel beleaguered! I often write to work out what I think about an issue that matters to me, and this one certainly does, much. If I like what I wrote, and if its a good day and I possess the requisite self discipline, I will then most often review it again and decide whether or not to post it. (On a bad, undisciplined day, sadly I just post, which on occasion produces intemperate and less useful commentaries.) But its not entirely fair to you to read and think out loud about your writing for my own purposes, rather than engaging closely with what you actually say.

Anyway, I think one of my points of departure is your inclusive use of the word "history," with the implication that you are critiquing all contemporary historiography, rather than just some. I mostly ignore historiogrphies like the Subaltern Studies Group, since from what I have read of their work, I find it boring and uninformative. But, and this is the key, it seems to me--the scholars whose work is self-consciously and unapologetically teleologically inflected are hardly the whole. So I share many of your misgivings about this particular group of scholars, right up until they become a synecdoche in a larger argument.

Consider. Some of the work on the fringes of the Subaltern studies scholars you mention speaks to questions I find interesting--and I would bet you do too. There is, for example, a thoughtful conversation taking place among Asian/world historians over the nature and timing of what Kenneth Pomeranz terms "the great divergence" or what Andre Gunder Frank captures in his insistence that we "reorient" our perspective on world history in the 18th and 19th centuries. Others asking similar, broad questions include guys like C.A.Bayley, whose Birth of the Modern World is really quite impressive. All three of these guys are pretty careful scholars, who expend some care adducing evidence to support their arguments. Even when a polemical edge creeps into their writing, I think you will have to agree that we must take their work seriously, as emerging out of a properly historical effort to get the history right on its own terms.

My deeper point--and one I suspect you find unobjectionable--is that there is lots of scholarship being produced--and lots of teaching too--that is not as infected with overt teleology as the stuff you are being asked to read. You can take some solace from the fact that as a rule, we sometimes learn more from engaging with bad scholarship, and figuring out why we think it is bad, than from good. I always include at least one bad book in every course I teach, for precisely this reason. They can be pedagogically useful.

Drop me a line, if you think I can be useful to you? I can fully appreciate what it is like to be a grad student surrounded by ideologically aggressive colleagues with whom one viscerally disagrees. It can be good to be reminded that those people are not in fact the whole profession, even if it can sometimes feel that way. And if nothing else, I can point you to some really fine, and fun, historical literature that you may not yet have found.

Keep the faith . . . .

Well wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 17, 2015 at 02:02:05 am

I am INDEED interested in the facts “per se.” My main point of criticism is precisely that facts (such as they are) have taken a back seat to “activist” narratives. Even to suggest a fact-based excavation is to reduce yourself to the ranks of “triumphalist/historicist”n’er-do-wells.

Witness the strange and convoluted Marxian histories of the Subaltern Studies Group….

I would like the discipline to emphasize (once again) that the best kinds of questions are ones influenced and informed by a conscientious effort to discern past events.

I am not a historian, and I have no acquaintance with the Subaltern Studies Group. Thus, while this reference may clarify the argument for Hardwick, I really can’t evaluate it.

My practice is law. In my limited experience, facts rarely “speak for themselves.” A record may contain many uncontested facts, yet support more than one story -- just as a series of regular dots may be connected by a line, or a sine wave. And while there is no substitute for someone evaluating the record contentiously and in good faith, mere contentiousness and good faith are not necessarily sufficient to overcome predisposition. Arguably the best way to overcome predisposition is to present people with multiple hypotheses.

But let me suggest a variable we haven’t discussed yet: temperament.

I can accept with equanimity that I will rarely know “the truth.” I will know the record, and I will know a few versions of the truth that are consistent with the record. Many people find this lack of resolution unsettling. As Richard Feynman remarked noted, “Some people say, How can you live without knowing? I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.”

So I can understand Schwennesen’s critique in three ways. Perhaps these other historians are making factual errors. Alternatively, perhaps they aren’t, but their theories strike Schwennesen as so absurd as to strain credulity. Alternatively, perhaps Schwennesen simply shares a common trait of seeking closure even when the record supports multiple, competing hypotheses, because he’s uncomfortable with the ambiguity. I hope he doesn’t suffer from this temperament; it would seem to pose quite a liability for a historian (as for a lawyer).

In any event, good luck!

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nobody.really
on November 17, 2015 at 09:42:59 am

Paul--

Chakarabty is a scholar with whose work I am unfamiliar. Here is how he describes his questions, from the inside flap of an essay collection:

"The questions that motivate Chakrabarty are shared by all postcolonial historians and anthropologists: How do we think about the legacy of the European Enlightenment in lands far from Europe in geography or history? How can we envision ways of being modern that speak to what is shared around the world, as well as to cultural diversity? How do we resist the tendency to justify the violence accompanying triumphalist moments of modernity?"

Obviously, the devil here is in the execution of the analysis. (One of the legacies of the enlightenment is liberalism, which I take to be the center of the conversation here. So there is a degree of relevance here.) But prima facie, these do not strike me as illegitimate questions. Do they to you--and if so, can you help me understand why?

Thanks!

Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 17, 2015 at 21:18:55 pm

Thank you Gents!, your comments are lucid and invigorating, and I thank you. I'm sorry I'm slow to respond, but I'm operating a ranch and am stretched thin...

Kevin: I think we are of like minds. I certainly do not mean to critique an entire profession, but simply to call attention to a particularly virulent strain of pedagogy that is currently being pushed toward History graduate students (at least at University of Arizona, which I doubt is a particularly leftist hot house). Good history, if I can sum up my argument, means being very very careful and trying to check the natural impulse to editorialize the past. Almost everything I'm being asked to read is coming from a Marxist/Cultural Turn foundation; it's a grumpy capitalist who has to swallow this pap... I imagine I will gravitate to a community of historians more to my style eventually (Kevin, where are you?). And to reaffirm that I'm not just complaining, I've found a very good model of history ("forensic history" I'm calling it) in Carlo Ginzburg. Though Marxist/Gramschiite himself, he admits it and takes the time to do a very careful reckoning/contextualizing of the evidence. His "Cheese and the Worms" is a really powerful book and I've enjoyed it very much.

Nobody: I hear you. Yes, we must be comfortable with the unavoidable ambiguity of past events. The grey doesn't bother me. What bothers me is the pervasive sense that facts are unattainable and therefore irrelevant. The historians I'm talking about are absenting themselves from the excavation in the belief that "facts" are all relative. To a degree they are right, but as I said in the essay, that is like "doing surgery in a sewer." God forbid the legal profession slides into such decay! I actually think the legal methodology is one that historians could learn something from. The Discovery process, the pitting of competing views, the "forensic" approach are all excellent ways to approximate what actually happened.
I'm afraid I must have done a poor job writing my mind, as none of the 3 ways you understand my critique seem to be close to what I'm trying to say.

But it's a good exercise, and thank you for taking it seriously!

Paul

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Paul Schwennesen

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