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.