A Few Preliminary Thoughts on #TheoryRevolt
Let me make it clear that I am definitely for theory in history, (as well as an historicist approach to theory). Good on these good folk for reigniting interest in what to me seems like an ongoing field of endeavour. I have a few quibbles, and I’ve decided to write a blog piece on them. As will become clear, I’m not a philosopher by trade, but I’ve always looked for ways to offer a theoretical perspective to that which I’m doing. So, hopefully the following will be taken in the spirit it is meant, as friendly, immanent critique of theoryrevolt.com And it will make most sense when read in conjunction with this.
Prologue: There is a delicious irony in beginning this call to ‘decolonised history’ with an appeal to Greek history. I will take It in the spirit of a joke, a prolegomenon against itself. As someone interested in the classical world, and who feels that (like someone else once said somewhere) anyone who isn’t applying the study of the premodern world to their life and work is essentially living hand to mouth, I enjoy a good classical allusion as well as the next person. But I wonder if it was the most deft choice here…
But to the content.
I.1 – Superficially, this looks like Hayden White and Keith Jenkins, but it’s actually a different challenge to theirs, one that I’m not sure I can accept as solving a disciplinary problem. I am unsure what the difficulty with empiricism an sich is, given that its opposite, rationalism (the opposite of empiricism is not theory), is equally problematic as a basis for history. Rationalism, and its assumption that reason (not observation) can be applied to the world to divine its fundamentally true nature, gets us no further. For mine, the problem is neither empiricism nor rationalism, but the fact that both are traditionally epistemological positions that purport to offer access to truth. History might deal with what Jenkins called ‘the traces of the before now’. But the weaving together of these might not necessarily offer a ‘true’ account, but rather a preliminary position (not quite a paradigm) that is open to endless contestation from other researchers creating their own accounts from the traces of the before now. In some ways, then, the attack on empiricism avoids the broader question of the epistemological limits of historical analysis, even if it gestures towards it.
I.2 - The first part of this is not entirely true, particularly given the recent spate of articles and books problematising of the archive. As the Dothraki say, it is known that the state archive is a suspect receptacle of the privileged but partial exchanges of the powerful. Even the archives of the most friendly, welcoming and harmless local club or association offers a partial version of the past that accords with their unique perspective on the world, which is not the same as offering ‘evidence’ of the truth of a particular position. We read archival accounts not to patch together a functioning version of the complete truth about the past. It is impossible to create a complete map of the past on a scale of 1:1 (or indeed any other scale), just as it is impossible to retrieve the rich diversity of human experiences of ‘the past’ (their present). Instead we read archives out of a desire to become acquainted with how those in the past represented themselves, their experiences and their priorities. These perceptions can be theorised (or not) according to the methodological preferences of the historian. But no-one I know sees the archival unproblematically as the domain of the real and the home of the truth of social relations. They do see it, however, as a useful place to find out what people in the past were talking about and what notes they made about functioning within a set of social relations. The archive, as has been long known, offers us doxa, not episteme.
The 2nd part, which suggests that being a historian is performative (a strange adaptation of Butlerian ontology), might be the case elsewhere, but wherever I am, historians are thinkers. They are always concerned with the wider ramifications of that which they discuss, and I’m yet to meet someone who simply views history and the writing of history as techne. I’m surprised to see the concern about historians writing for other historians, which is far from monolithically the case. In some ways the demand that historians write for others (How often? Always? Do all physicists and mathematicians have to write for us too?) actually militates against a theoretically rooted perspective which requires some assumed knowledge and is less likely to be immediately accessible than a narrative history, which is arguably far more open to all comers.
I.3 – Pushing at an open door here. And, far from constrained, I honestly often feel overwhelmed by the choices I have to make about how to express my ideas. The discipline is really quite open. Naturally journals, book series and even whole presses may decide for any number of reasons to specialise in one approach or another. This can facilitate methodological plurality or ghettoise research into small discourse communities furiously agreeing with each other and patrolling their borders. But the answer to this is to read more broadly and facilitate cross fertilisation. Being cognisant of methodology is important for other reasons too – it shows that a researcher is aware of the intellectual heritage of their approach, and has not simply assumed that it is the only way to discuss a particular problem.
I.4 The most famous (and possibly the last) person seriously and consistently against ontological realism was George Berkeley. I don’t think Berkeley’s anti materialism is philosophically sustainable. At first I thought this was about Baudrillard, the simulacrum and the desert of the real – good stuff for historians to keep in mind when it comes to assessing the veracity of our versions of the past. But in fact we’re back to the idiosyncratic crankiness about empirical data and its supposed epistemological bankruptcy. The ‘tautology’ (not a tautology) is in fact a syllogistic fallacy. Proceeding via an empiricist epistemology neither validates nor invalidates a particular ontology. It doesn’t even require an acceptance of overarching truth claims.
I.5 – I haven’t experienced this (which of course is only an anecdotal experience). My most theoretically ambitious works found the ‘highest profile’ journals for homes (according to flawed but widely used metrics like ScImago). Reviewers are not always fans of what they might call ‘clotted theory’, but they generally applaud a theoretically informed history. I think this point confuses history as a discipline with the neoliberal university, which certainly seeks to regulate the work practices of its historians. To take a rough example, the ‘discipline’ would probably welcome a theoretically informed, 12 volume work that was published all at once after 25 years of work. But no university in the world would tolerate a ‘non-productive’ unit working on such a project. Hence the constant dribble of results via journal articles.
As an outsider to the US, I can’t comment on the position of the AHR, except to see that it seems like a large, slow moving target that is easy to shoot at but hard to bring down. I have no real interest in attacking or defending it, but I will say that its mandate seems to be to publish material of general interest to all historians. In some ways this might condemn it to offering the very best of the lowest common denominator.
As for peer review, I can only speak from my experience, but as the editor of a journal, I can honestly say that all of our reviewers have worked in good faith to improve the work of their colleagues. Many go well beyond what is required. Their major complaint is generally that research is undercooked (ie hurried out because of the pressure to publish – see my remark about the neo-liberal university), not that it doesn’t fit an abstract template. If its scholarly, intelligible and offers a new contribution, it will generally pass muster. Personally, having been on the receiving end of dozens of reviews I can remember only one that was calibrated to hurt. The others had intellectual and/or evidentiary differences that they wanted to note, but which were not terminal for the research in the article. I’ve also seen how the other systems work (hello Germany), where, at their worst (and again this is not monolithically the case), leading lights are able to offer patronage to client junior academics and help them get published. Those without a powerful patron can end up relegated – or seeking refuge in the anonymity of peer review in the Anglosphere, where their ideas might be treated seriously without anyone prejudging their seniority.
I.6 – I’m all for ‘rethinking the scholarly norms and forms of knowledge’ that enable exclusions, but although ‘radically reimagining the use and applicability of theory for history’ might be a Good Thing, it is not decolonisation. Decolonisation is, (following Tuck and Yang) centred on the material struggle for indigenous sovereignty and/or territorial autonomy or it is being used metaphorically. And I tend to agree with them that ‘decolonisation is not a metaphor’. Anyone who seriously believes that the AHR or any other journal can decolonise society by being friendlier to theoretical approaches is at heart an idealist. On the other side of this, I can imagine a strongly empiricist piece, chock full of archival materials, that could very successfully challenge the claims of Europeans to territorial sovereignty. Theory is not an intrinsically decolonising force.
Correctly, the authors say that the two distinct drives towards diversity and decolonisation should not be confused. But again, as I’ve just indicated, empiricism is neither intrinsically for or against decolonisation (or diversity for that matter). More broadly, given the struggle for intellectual (and actual) space by indigenous scholars around the world seeking legal and land justice, I’d be more comfortable if Euro scholars stopped trying to demonstrate their decolonising credibility, and in so doing crowding the field. Too often it comes across as what has justly been called ‘settler moves to innocence.’ Being seen as an ally in the struggle to decolonise seems like something that is better bestowed than asserted.
I.7 – At least where I’m from, the authors are pushing on an open door here. Integral to any decent graduate training programme is exposure to and use of differing theoretical approaches. It certainly is the bread and butter of Australian history honours programmes. At Flinders University, for example, all of those things mentioned by the authors are not only tolerated but explicitly taught as possible approaches to our 4th year students looking to write new histories. We are by now means exceptional in this regard.
I.8 – As with I.7, this must be a US thing, as it is simply unrecognisable to me. The first essay my honours students write (via White, Jenkins, Spivak, Said, Evans and others) is to answer the question ‘can historians tell the truth about the past?’ And my PhD students are all, to a greater or lesser degree grappling with figures like Agamben, Foucault, Marx, Spivak, Baudrillard, plus more localised theorists that speak to their immediate fields. They eschew neither the theoretical nor the empirical (itself a false dichotomy).
By the way, what students generally notice is that these theoreticians don’t just drop out of the sky, but also need to be understood historically. At the risk of being somewhat reductive, much of the theory of the past four decades, for example, is a result of the ‘crisis of faith’ in the epistemic status of the truth claims of the Marxist metanarrative, a development which has been in its own way a type of intellectual Reformation of the Left. With intellectuals (including historians) still trying to get their bearings, much is up for grabs.
Not only is history approached by many programmes that I’m familiar with in a metahistorical fashion, the inclusion of theory in a dissertation is generally seen as a sign of intellectual maturity, or at the least historiographical self-awareness.
I.9 – Not only is this not my experience, but it also negates the earlier point made by the authors, that lamented the obsession with methodology. And the separation of data from theory is not a necessary condition of historiography. As a general observation, I would say that many historians prefer to offer an overtly theoretical orientation before dealing with the matter/s at hand – which may be intellectual or material matters (or both). But this is not to stay that once this orientation is offered the theory has vanished. Often, it provides the underlying grammar and sense of every sentence written thereafter. In that sense, theory is not simply a fancy introduction, nor is it simply a strainer through which ‘facts’ are poured to capture the chunky bits. Rather, theory is a structuring condition of all utterance in a work of history, guiding how material and topoi are chosen and arranged to offer a verisimilar (but not true) narrative of the past.
I.10 – It is not necessarily a negative thing that there are specialist journals, conferences and presses which deal with deeply theoretical issues, in the same way that, while many foreground or include class, gender, economics, psychology or sport in their histories elsewhere, there are places where scholars more deeply committed to these approaches and themes can congregate and debate the finer points. On the substantive point that ‘intellectual history is no more likely to raise reflexive questions about historical epistemology and historiographic norms than other professional subfields’, I’m not sure that this is borne out by the differences between scholars who have really tussled with the epistemological implications of, for example, Derrida, Lyotard or White and those who haven’t. If the point is that even those who have aren’t clustered in the narrow field of intellectual history still deal with epistemic issues, then this seems right – see for example Gabrielle Spiegel. But I suspect that on a per capita basis, historians dealing day in and day out with the history of ideas and intellectual history are probably more aware of their position in the epistemic conundrums of the postmodern challenge (for example) than others. But it is self-evidently the case that some of the most interesting theorisations of historical problems come from those who don’t work in the field of intellectual history. In my own (far more modest) case, although most of my work bears the traces of having visited archives, it is still a product of ruthless, theoretically informed self-interrogation aimed at clarifying where I stand intellectually (which, incidentally, might loosely be described as phenomenological materialism).
I.11 ‘Time and place, intention and agency, proximity and causality, context and chronology’. There exists enormous disagreement about all of these things in the works of history I read. Not because of any theoretical assumptions that have remained unexamined. But because how to approach and present these things is up for grabs. I note too the tendentious nature of the phraseology here: ‘History’s anti-theoretical preoccupation with empirical facts and realist argument nevertheless entails a set of uninterrogated theoretical assumptions’. The statement is partially correct, in the sense that refusing to directly address theoretical conundrums can be a theory of history of its own. When pressed, this theory can come to the fore, as perhaps best exemplified by Richard Evans’ In Defence of History. But sometimes (particularly in short journal articles) it is a question of having other fish to fry or simply relying on the reader’s ability to sense the theoretical orientation of the author through word choice, historiographical engagements and the bibliographical / footnote trail. It’s not always a fanatical ‘anti-theoretical preoccupation’. Equally, however, it is not a single-minded obsession with matters theoretical alone that drives a historian.
II.1 – This can be dealt with quickly. Anyone who derides theory in this way cannot be taken seriously. It is true that there is a debate between philosophy and rhetoric on the question of truth dating back to Plato and the sophists. I’ve more or less been on the side of the sophists since 1995 when I first learned about this long conversation. No matter what the wilder eyed fringe dwellers of the ‘digital humanities’ might say, history is not remotely a science, arguably not even a social science. The ‘noble dream of a pure science’ has well and truly left the building. Most historians are perfectly content to offer their best understanding of the past and welcome the cut and thrust of debate to try and adjudicate on the uncertainty. Our best hopes are of verisimilitude, not Truth.
II.2 – There is nothing to dispute here. The past in its entirety is irretrievable because it never existed as a coherent whole. The narratives we create as historians can cleave to old narratives or can represent the unfolding of new ways of understanding ourselves and that which has come before us. But they are narratives that offer our best reflections on privileged (by us) elements of the before now. As Croce and a thousand others have said, just what we privilege as worthy of investigation reflects both our social coordinates and theoretical / philosophical priorities.
II.3 – I’m not sure that theory was really seen as aberrant, even in the 1990s, by practitioners of history as a whole. Troubling, yes and dismissed out of hand by some who just weren’t up for the challenge. But mostly, ‘high theory’ settled back into the pack in the same way that social history, microhistory, diplomatic history, gender history, or transnational history has. If pushed, most would admit that the long dark night of the soul visited upon the discipline between the 1970s and 2000s were of enormous benefit to the discipline, rather than a wrong turn. In the end, however, a stalemate emerged, (a bit like the Sonderweg debate in German history) where either the insights were accepted or not. If accepted, they were worked into new approaches. And the recalcitrants went about their business, secure in their self-understanding of their work.
II.4 – I think that the least often use of Foucault is as an empirical study of penology.
II.5 – This seems unrepresentative of how theory is used. Particularly of Marxism and gender, which are theoretical orientations that tend to permeate every fibre of a work written by historians committed to these positions. Take gender for example. Almost every work I’ve read grappling with gender issues has implicitly or explicitly tackled the challenge of Butlerian notions of performativity in a way that deeply problematises ‘the sex/gender distinction or the fixity of the m/f opposition’. Not necessarily to agree with Butler, but to tackle it as an intellectual proposition to be discussed historically.
II.6 – I presume the authors are talking about Richard Evans here. It’s fair to say that some came to an intellectually honest, deeply considered position that the epistemological challenge of the 90s was wrong headed. This was the case for historians on both left and right, both of which were heavily invested in maintaining the epistemic integrity of their guiding metanarratives. If there was no Truth to be recuperated historically, if the Truth of their position was not universally applicable, then what were they to do? For many, Lyotard’s incredulity towards metanarratives invalidated their strongly held conviction that they were able to reveal the True nature (and trajectory of history). The spectre of history stripped of its guiding teleology stopped many from staring for too long into the abyss. This to me doesn’t look like a dismissal of theory. It looks like an intellectual commitment to a theory of history that sought to salvage the possibility of a traditional approach to epistemology – that is, to establish the best way to ascertain Truth, rather than to place the access (or existence) of Truth (and therefore the knowledge of Truth) in question.
II.7 – As the immediate above argues, the worry was not about the distorting imposition of fixed ideological categories, but rather a desire to maintain them that prompted many to reject the radical epistemic challenge of post modernity.
II.8 – OK so this looks like an oblique reference to Derrida. To be sure, there were those that simply maintained that the command ‘pass the salt’ generally ended up with a result that was not the passing of pepper. It is probably fair criticism that Derrida (unlike Foucault, Butler, Spivak, and numerous others) found little long-term purchase in history – partly because deconstruction was partially disarmed by thoughtful (by no means dismissive) responses by historians such as Gabrielle Spiegel, who pointed us to the ‘social logic of a text’ and how meaning might be tentatively imputed by careful excavation of the social conditions enabling all utterance. Said too reminded us in his underread World ,Text and the Critic that textual production is also a material act, not simply rarefied utterance. I’m not a committed fan of Derrida, but this is not due to a ‘disregard for the vagaries of language’, which are all too evident when transposing concepts and terms across time and space. Rather, I do think that a deep immersion in the texts of the past can offer a guiding sense of the prevailing concerns and discursive norms of discourse communities located in previous times. Understandings garnered through this deep immersion are always tentative and preliminary. But they probably amount to more than language games. They have some purchase, but do not reveal a lost True Past.
III.1 – I agree, but think the authors are pushing at an open door here. Everywhere I look I see ‘serious engagement with critical theories of self, society and history.’ Who are these unthinking historians, mindlessly assembling facts in the belief that they are reconstructing the Truth about the past? I just don’t know them. ‘The guild’ (more a loose agglomeration than a closed shop) endlessly interrogates its claims to knowledge and to Truth, critiques the nature and useability of facts as evidence, quarrels incessantly over causal connections and chronology. Sometimes this occurs in the context of positing overtly a theory of the operation of social relations and of the emergence of different permutations of the experience of life over time and space. Sometimes, the assumptions are implicit and not expounded at length. Both might well be critical histories, but only one would probably be recognised as therorised history.
III.2 – I am certainly all for elaborating the ‘worldly stakes of an historiographical intervention’. Quite often this is done overtly in theoretically informed history, but more accurately ‘theoretically informed history’ that elaborates the worldly stakes of its concerns is often produced by historians that, in the face of the radical epistemic challenge of postmodernity, have maintained a guiding teleological understanding of the nature of history and its True direction. Arguably, the desire to link ‘non-contiguous, non-proximate arrangements, processes, and forces that may be separated by continents or centuries’ can be explained as a desire to maintain the theoretical coherence of a metanarrative of the past that is required to support teleological presuppositions. Those not sharing the same assumptions might dismiss these tenuous causal chains as leaps of faith. Those sharing the same telos, however, might find themselves convinced by the eloquent solution it offers to a paradigmatic contradiction that troubles their understanding of the True nature of societies, both past and present.
III.3 – The first sentence neatly outlines the epistemic challenge of postmodernity. However the last sentence remains elusive, in that it does not point to a solution or even a method to deal with that challenge beyond ‘do theory’. In saying that ‘critical history points beyond the false opposition between empiricist induction and rationalist deduction, and historicist description and transhistorical abstraction’, what is not said is what it points to. Does it point to a better way of ascertaining the True direction / nature of history? Or does it point to the illegitimacy / inability / futility of empiricist and rationalist attempts to find an underlying True pattern or trajectory of past events? Or do the authors believe that an ultimate answer to this question doesn’t matter, providing it is derived critically?
III.4 – I was wondering when they would get around to tackling the relationship between facts and Truth. Incidentally, I don’t think that the equation of facts with truth implies a logical contradiction created by an inability to account for change over time. Even Hegel all those years ago differentiated between the slaughterbench of history (facts) and the Truth of the Weltgeist, to offer a neat way to account for the way in which individual facts need not align with a posited narration of history’s True direction.
But to deal with the more substantive point, I can’t recall any historian who has claimed that facts were not socially mediated or that modes of thought, categories of analysis and explanations of the nature of reality were not products of a particular historical moment. Admittedly, this is easier to spot in works dealing with periods or places that are not close to the present era / proximate region of the historian, where the social assumptions of historical actors are still shared by the jobbing historian who profess to analyse them. But when push comes to shove, historians are more apt to say ‘that an historical actor (or less accurately a whole society) believed something to be the case, than immediately agreeing with this view. This was all dealt with so long ago by those protesting about Whiggish history and the imputing of social values to facts.
The bolder point about facts and Truth to my mind is that factoids remain indispensable to history, in the sense that driving towards a verisimilar account of the before now must draw on the traces of the before now and seek to assess what they can tell us. Not what they can tell us about the underlying nature of reality (an underlying nature which may not exist but is at the very least irretrievable), however, but, what they can reveal about how people have experienced the material fact of their existence and their immersion in a particular social context. Again, how we choose, arrange and interpret the these ‘facts’ is open to contestation by others who see different explanations of how people negotiated the world. Assuming that rival accounts take the available ‘facts’ seriously in their attempt to create a verisimilar account of the past, there are few grounds to falsify rival accounts. But it is equally probable that these accounts will become less and less satisfactory to historians as the social conditions and concomitant assumptions enabling the material fact of literary production change.
II.5 – Only furious agreement here. ‘Context’ is always short hand for something more unwieldy with specific temporal and spatial coordinates, as it seems to me most historians understand. To my mind, elaborating context requires the kind of reading of the social logic of texts championed by Spiegel.
III.6 – I can only assume that all historians are self-reflexive, in the sense that they take inordinate care to say that which they intend to say (notwithstanding the difficulty of unintentional seepages that can be uncovered through contrapuntal readings of historiographical texts, and the Derridean challenge, death of the author etc). Confession time for me – I’m not a fan of gonzo history, in which the valiant struggle of the historian to overcome their baser self through their interaction with their object of study is foregrounded. Such performative sublation leaves me cold. I prefer my history without long passages agonising over subject position, because generally I take it as read that everyone comes from somewhere and brings their own unique personal engagements and commitments to their analysis and writing. If I can spot it, so much the better. But if I can’t, then that’s OK too. There are obvious moments where caveats, disclaimers, declarations and even self-disqualifications are necessary (see, for example, my above doubts about settler historians claiming to be decolonising), but these don’t extend so far that they should go much beyond the preface (or perhaps introduction) of a monograph or the first footnote of an article.
Note though that is a stylistic preference. I entirely accept that historians must be cognisant of their subject position, their epistemic and political assumptions and what implications these have for their work. Others will of course disagree and prefer to see the cogito at the centre of the narrative. For me, however, if I want Hunter S Thompson, I’ll read Hunter S Thompson.
II.7. Good old Croce. This is of course entirely acceptable, yet how it is framed or emplotted is a matter of both tactics and intent. As this is my blog, I will use my own work to explain what I mean here.
My last book was about expulsions of unwanted populations from Germany between 1871 and 1914. The first draft had a long preamble in which I discussed the ‘uncanny returns, haunting traces and spectral forces’ of such expulsions, given the current processes of 'cleansing' nation-states of ostensibly unauthorised arrivals and other marginalised groups; not least in Australia, where asylum seekers arriving by boat where / are being housed in concentration camps in the Pacific, to ensure their definitive and very public removal from Australia. It was a long, angry, densely footnoted preamble with scandalous examples from the 21st century and it arguably shed contemporary light on my research. Before I submitted the manuscript, I deleted it. Why? Not because I had suddenly become less interested or angered by these contemporaneous atrocities of the liberal Rechtsstaat, but because I didn’t want the book to be read as an extended allegory, even thought the parallels more or less worked at a superficial level. I also have real problems with forced transtemporal comparisons which I think are usually metaphorical, and generally not structural. That’s not to say that I don’t think history can be described structurally, only that the epiphenomena produced by any given structure is particular to its context, and thus not likely to repeat itself.
In fact, I didn’t have to include my angry prologue, because almost every reviewer noted the loose current parallels, but also treated the book for what it primarily was, namely an attempt to find out how a different society had dealt with a set of problems that were recognisable to a contemporary audience.
III.8 – Given what I’ve just said, I’m not sure I agree with the goal of disabling ‘the very logic of past and present, now and then, here and there, us and them. I assume that this is meant as an anti-Manichaean gesture, an attempt to break down false binaries, rather than the application of some kind of metaphysical embrace of multiverse theory. I’m all for getting ridding of unhelpful categories of analysis. But collapsing the differences between the before now and the present seems to be unhelpful. Because as the authors say elsewhere, this would refuse the possibility for accounting for changes over time (changes occur, just how they are emplotted teleologically by historians and the possibility of establishing the epistemic grounds for understanding these changes is of course up for grabs).
Far from denaturalising existing arrangements, breaking down the distinctions between then and now actually naturalises the current order by incorporating it into a more amorphous ‘always and everywhere’. The ‘actual social order’ described in this point might better be seen as the ‘current social order’ – different to other social orders (and future ones). Giving up the tools we have to distinguish between them disarms us.
III.9 – I agree that intervening in public debates and political struggles is important – even core business for intellectuals. There might arguably be a moral responsibility to offer back to the community a tangible return for the enormous investment made in our research. This does not, of course, mean that those who pay the piper get to call the tune. The precise nature of our interventions should ideally reflect our understanding of the nature of things. We have no responsibility, that is, to support the interests of social, economic and political power.
That said, we should understand that unless we want to create Plato’s Republic, (which I absolutely would not recommend), we want to pause before imposing ourselves by fiat on political debate. My expertise on the Kaiserreich, for example, may mean that I am no better placed to analyse our current desperate state than others who share my curiosity in the present world. I have a fairly elaborate understanding of how I think the world works, and I even try to convince people that I’m right through political action sometimes. But I was always impressed when Noam Chomsky admitted that he could find no grounds to link his linguistics with his politics. History is not the same thing as linguistics, but as I’ve already said, I am suspicious of transtemporal analogies reliant on a shallow historical comparisons. Particularly when they make us deaf to contemporary exigencies.
One caveat here: this is less true of those working in the field of contemporary history, where the links between past and present are demonstrable.
While we’re talking about what a contribution might look like, we might, for that matter, also think twice before using our training to exclude or deride those that do not share our vocabulary or frame of intellectual reference. Interventions that amount to nothing more than patrolling the language used to describe the nature of things by those who haven’t been inculcated in the finer points of intellectual etiquette are (for my money) counterproductive Besserwisserei. For mine, an intervention looks for ways to build bridges and new forms of social collaboration, not ever more exhaustive lines of demarcation.
III.10 – Yes, understanding the existing (and perhaps exiting) world is useful, even important, however, I’m also happy to see a more focused immersion in the traces of the before now (ie old stuff) and the relics of the period of our particular specialisation. And what if a historian just feels unqualified to enter into nuanced debate about contemporary fiscal policy in Latin America, because they work on art history of ninth century somewhere or other? It would be wrongheaded to assume they had a unique insight into the contemporary world.
The committed intellectual, au fait with the intricacies of the present and ready to comment or act on them, is a treasure to be sure, however, it’s not compulsory to be both scholar and political pundit, policy wonk or vanguard of the revolution. As I’ve already said, even though I’m not dismissive of all historical accounts that assert enduring historical structures, I’m not a fan of historiography that is simple politico-moral allegory. It would be a poor use of theory to use it as a sophisticated mystification of the differing structural and epiphenomenonal features of discrete historical contexts. And given my doubts about the epistemic basis of metanarratives that posit an underlying directionality to history, I find it hard to extrapolate that which I have studied about the past to prophesise about the future. I have my convictions and largely act in accordance with them, but I rarely argue that they stem from my study of the past.
Coda: Yeah, nah. Historians are not like interpreters of dreams, because (and I say this with the full conviction of someone who once worked in an esoteric bookshop), analysing dreams is a complete and utter waste of time. And the metaphor doesn’t even make sense. The dream interpreters that prosper are the Delphic oracles, deliberately vague enough for everyone to impute their own meaning. Trust me, I watched a tarot card reader do it for 4 hours a day. The interpretation of the dream must not make sense, so that the dreamer has room to assume that their assumptions are right (and that the interpreter really does have access to a higher order skill). The historian works in the other direction. If we can’t move beyond the Delphic and empty turn of phrase, then we’re not really doing anything of social value. We're just pretending to be Zizek. And how many Zizeks do we actually need?
This does not mean that theoretically driven history must be conventional. At its best it is daring, innovative, and profoundly unsettling. To that extent, I gladly accept the invitation to interpretative and political innovation. Hooray for theory! And hooray for this renewed call to embrace it! But not at the expense of a false dichotomy between empiricism and theory or at the cost of coherence and intelligibility.