August 21, 2022

Miscellaneous thoughts on history, objectivity, activism, and useable pasts

 I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about history and the historical profession from the vantage point of my own (limited) experience. Maybe it will be beneficial in clarifying what is at stake in the current US debates about "presentism" in history.

Coming from a grassroots activist before I entered a History Ph.D. program, I have been steeped in leftist and activist versions of history as "useable past". The relevant political question was always, "what is to be done?"

Gradually as I went through graduate school, I became interested in holding that question in abeyance, so as to ask another question: "what happened/what is happening?" Doing so meant 'unlearning' or complicating some common activist shibboleths.

I came to appreciate the notion of objectivity as incredibly relevant, urgent and necessary to this work. I came to the gradual conviction that characterizations of objectivity as an outdated idea in service to the status quo, err mightily and consequentially. In fact, I concluded the opposite: that embrace of objectivity's irrelevance leads to the gradual hollowing out of an ability to say much of anything of substance. I came to this conviction through a period of soul-searching and encounter with post-modernism, which at the time I was in graduate school, was being treated by many graduate students in diverse disciplines as a kind of academic activism, the path to liberation from the tyranny of reason.

In short, I have become more and more convinced of the value of objectivity, problematic as it may be, for appreciating the strangeness of the past. We are still in the infancy of a comprehensive understanding the evolution and development of ourselves as a human species and civilization; enormous realms of human activity in the past, stretching over hundreds of thousands of years, continue to remain opaque to us in the present. History's relevance goes well beyond present political concerns.

Now what I've observed of the discipline is that a significant number of my senior colleagues came through opposite routes, privileging methodological mastery and academic professionalism all along. For them, I gather, politicizing history and questioning objectivity can feel like a fresh and necessary break from what may have become a stale 'academic' pursuit. The idea that the study of history can and ought to reflect presentist concerns, is liberating for them. While I respect the efforts of colleagues to combat the hide-bound conservatism of the academy, and remain fully committed to the idea of reading history to inform one's activism, I am starting to embrace the reality that my unique past experiences have led me to very different conclusions about the relationship between the academy and activism.

For one, from what I can see, a good deal of those I've observed pushing this direction, are taking their cues from a professional class of media-anointed activists and personalities, rather than the 'grassroots' as such. In my opinion, well-meaning efforts to push the historical discipline to embrace as axiomatic a form of "usable past" activism, has and will continue to contribute to undermining the broader societal relevance of historical thought, rather than contributing to its revival. There are more than a few people I've met over the years under the impression that by criticizing more conservative interpreters in the discipline they are combatting actual Nazis. This lack of perspective is a direct consequence of the lack of contact they have with the grassroots they claim to be producing a usable past for.

Useable pasts are necessary (and unavoidable in politics), but in my opinion historians ought to beware of making their production central to the discipline. In doing so, they undermine the very thing that makes the discipline unique. For me, at this juncture, a historical study conducted with methodological rigor and a commitment to objectivity, is something thousands of times more valuable, enduring, and interesting to read, than a study written to resonate with contemporary orthodoxies, often by those who fatuously claim to have transcended or outgrown the notion of objectivity.

And this brings me to my last notion. A certain dynamic ideological tension is necessary and good for the discipline and for the academy at large. I prefer to inhabit a university where the ideological landscape actually reflects the full and splendid ideological anarchy of the grassroots, not an ideologically purified sanctum. I have no truck for scholars who are serial abusers and do actual material harm. But the problem with mid-career historians embracing activism to go with the times, is that most of that energy is (naturally) turned inward, on others in the discipline who express IDEAS or OPINIONS deemed problematic or even harmful. These sort of efforts alienate me, as I find them highly myopic and often cloyingly self-righteous. In short, while I remain on the left, I find the push towards liberal ideological conformity within the discipline (reflected in the belief that bad ideas are equivalent to harm) incredibly dull and reflective of the alienation of historians from the grassroots. Some of my most interesting presentations have been to an audience of people who sharpened my thinking through vigorous disagreement. This sort of low-level 'conflict' sharpens faculties, increases acuity, and improves my thinking. In my experience, academic aversion to this sort of conflict is also reflective of kind of an alienation from the necessary life experience of encountering frank unvarnished disagreement. I'm grateful for my time as a grassroots activist because of what it taught me about the importance of this kind of contained conflict for a healthy civic life. It is my conviction that such disagreement is normal and necessary to human flourishing, and that it helps, not hurts, the 'left' and the project of studying the past from a 'left' perspective. Demands that historians apologize for the expression of ideas, and the apology for "offensive" ideas, are both symptoms of a more general malaise of bourgeois alienation from the grassroots.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP