The History Manifesto

A new book challenges historians to quit studying the past through a microscope. Scott McLemee takes a look through the binoculars.

September 17, 2014
 

When young sociologists would consult with C. Wright Mills, it’s said, he would end his recommendations with what was clearly a personal motto: “Take it big!” It was the concentrated expression of an ethos: Tackle major issues. Ask wide-ranging questions. Use the tools of your profession, but be careful not to let them dig a mental rut you can’t escape.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage give much the same advice to their colleagues, and especially their colleagues-to-be, in The History Manifesto, a new book from Cambridge University Press. (Guldi is an assistant professor of history at Brown University, while Armitage is chair of the history department at Harvard.) Only by “taking it big” can their field regain the power and influence it once had in public life – and lost, somewhere along the line, to economics, with its faith in quantification and the seeming rigor of its concepts.

But issues such as climate change and growing economic inequality must be understood in terms of decades and centuries. The role of economists as counselors to the powerful has certainly been up for question over the past six years. Meanwhile, the world’s financial system continues to be shaped by computerized transactions conducted at speeds only a little slower than the decay of subatomic particles. And so, with their manifesto, the authors raise the call: Now is the time for all good historians to come to the aid of their planet.

But first, the discipline needs some major recalibration. “In 1900,” Guldi and Armitage write, “the average number of years covered [by the subject matter of] doctoral dissertations in history in the United States was about 75 years; by 1975, it was closer to 30.” The span covered in a given study is not the only thing that’s narrowed over the intervening four decades. Dissertations have “concentrated on the local and the specific as an arena in which the historian can exercise her skills of biography, archival reading, and periodization within the petri-dish of a handful of years.”

The problem isn’t with the monographs themselves, which are often virtuoso analyses by scholars exhibiting an almost athletic stamina for archival research. Guldi and Armitage recognize the need for highly focused and exhaustively documented studies in recovering the history of labor, racial and religious minorities, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and so forth.

But after two or three generations, the “ever narrower yet ever deeper” mode has become normative. The authors complain that it "determines how we write our studies, where we look for sources, and which debates we engage. It also determines where we break off the conversation.”

Or, indeed, whether the conversation includes a historical perspective at all. “As students in classrooms were told to narrow and to focus” their research interests, “the professionals who deal with past and future began to restrict not only their sources and their data, but sometimes also their ideas.”

In referring to “professionals who deal with past and future,” the authors do not mean historians themselves -- at least not exclusively -- but rather leaders active at all levels of society. The relevance of historical knowledge to public affairs (and vice versa) once seemed obvious. Guldi and Armitage point to Machiavelli’s commentary on Livy as one example of a political figure practicing history, while Eric Williams, who wrote Capitalism and Slavery for his doctoral dissertation, went on to serve as Trinidad’s first prime minister after it became independent.

Between extreme specialization by historians and politicians whose temporal horizons are defined by the election cycle, things look bad. That understanding the past might have some bearing on actions in the present may not seem all that difficult to grasp. But consider the recent American president who invaded a Middle Eastern country without knowing that its population consisted of two religious groups who, over the past millennium or so, have been less than friendly toward one another. (For some reason, I thought of that a couple of times while reading Guldi and Armitage.) Anyway, it did turn out to be kind of an issue.

A manifesto requires more than complaint. It must also offer a program and, as much as possible, rally some forces for realizing its demands. The cure for short-term thinking in politics that Guldi and Armitage propose is the systematic cultivation of long-term thinking in history.

And to begin with, that means putting the norms of what they call “microhistory” in context – keeping in mind that it is really a fairly recent development within the profession. (Not so many decades ago, a historical study covering no more than a hundred years ran the risk of being dismissed as a bit of a lightweight.) The authors call for a revival of the great Ferdinand Braudel’s commitment to study historical processes “of long, even of very long, duration,” as he said in the late 1950s.

Braudel’s longue-durée was the scale on which developments such as the consolidation of trade routes or the growth of a world religion took place: centuries, or millennia. These phenomena “lasted longer than economic cycles, to be sure,” Guldi and Armitage write, but “were significantly shorter than the imperceptibly shifting shapes of mountains or seas, or the rhythms of nomadism or transhumance.”

Braudel counterposed the longue-durée to “the history of events,” which documented ephemeral matters such as wars, political upheaval, and whatnot. The History Manifesto is not nearly so Olympian as that. The aim is not to obliterate what the authors call “the Short Past” but rather to encourage research that would put “events” in the perspective of rhythms of change extending beyond a single human lifetime.

The tools are available. Guldi and Armiutage’s proposed course seems inspired by Big Data as much as by Braudel. Drawing on pools of scattered information about “weather, trade, agricultural production, food consumption, and other material realities,” historians could create broad but detailed accounts of how the social and environmental conditions change over long periods.

“Layering known patterns of reality upon each other,” the authors say, “produces startling indicators of how the world has changed – for instance the concentration of aerosols identified from the mid-twentieth century in parts of India have proven to have disrupted the pattern of the monsoon…. By placing government data about farms next to data on the weather, history allows us to see the interplay of material change with human experience, and how a changing climate has already been creating different sets of winners and losers over decades.”

Any number of questions come to mind about causality, the adequacy of available documents, and whether one’s methodology identifies patterns or creates them. But that’s always the case, whatever the scale a historian is working on.

The History Manifesto is exactly as tendentious as the title would suggest -- and if the authors find it easier to make their case against “microhistory” by ignoring the work of contemporary “macrohistorians” …. well, that’s the nature of the genre. A few examples off the top of my head: Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, Michael Mann’s multivolume study of social power over the past five thousand years, and the essays by Gopal Balakrishnan’s collected in Antagonistics, which grapple with the longue-duré in terms both cosmopolitan and stratospheric. They also shuffle quietly past the work of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Carroll Quigley – an understandable oversight, given the questions that would come up about where megahistory ends and megalomania takes over.

Moments of discretion aside, The History Manifesto is a feisty and suggestive little book, and it should be interesting to see whether much of the next generation of historians will gather beneath its banner.

 

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