Theory in Revolt Now Thunders

Reading "Theses on Theory and History" -- a manifesto decrying the state of history as a discipline -- left Scott McLemee feeling, in Yogi Berra's haunting words, "déjà vu all over again."

June 1, 2018

Around the turn of the millennium, Jean Baudrillard speculated that the destiny of the 20th century would be for it to be repeated endlessly. All the problems, ideas, movements, problems, conflicts, illusions, breakthroughs, retreats and disasters would eventually return -- and would keep returning: recycled, re-enacted, spliced together in grotesque yet no less repetitive ways. What came after the End of History was post-postmodernity: social reality as tape loop, life as an eternity of reruns.

By then Baudrillard himself was prone to saying the same thing over and over, and it was easy to dismiss his vision of the future as a rationalization of sorts, or perhaps as a sign of exhaustion. But now, a couple of decades later, it often feels like he got it right. The Cold War is being renewed for another season. The filmstrip of globalization rewinds, as it did roughly a century ago. The Columbine massacre of 1999 is on auto-repeat. The son of one American president from the final decade of the 20th century moved into the White House; the spouse of another almost did. Even its seemingly unprecedented occupant now is mash-up: a recombinant synthesis of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, with rather a lot of George Wallace in the mix.

How can you feel nostalgia when the past won't go away?

Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed ran a short item about "Theses on Theory and History" -- a manifesto decrying the state of history as a discipline and nailing a set of urgent if largely implicit demands to the profession's door. As a field of study, the charges run, history is dominated by an unreflective and self-perpetuating combination of empiricism, positivism and "an unquestioned allegiance to ‘ontological realism’" -- not to mention "the practice of multiple anonymous reviewers [of journal articles] policing their disciplinary turf and then congratulating themselves and their authors for their scientific objectivity and resultant meritocracy." You will find other and related complaints spelled out here.

Reading "Theses on Theory and History" left me feeling -- in Yogi Berra's haunting words -- "déjà vu all over again." It is not the first time these cobblestones have been torn up to make a barricade. Stock gestures of what might be called theoreticist militance can be made in almost any field of the humanities or the social sciences: all the differences or conflicts within a field are dismissed as so many manifestations of a unitary and dominant logic that takes as given the existence (and almost self-evident availability) of hard, nugget-like little units of reality. No challenge to the discipline's de facto ensnarement by this faith is now possible. Or if it is possible, the challenge hasn't had an impact. Or if the challengers have in fact made the syllabus, they are misunderstood. Or … In any event, the moment of critique has now arrived, and a certain apocalyptic tone is to be expected.

What impresses me about the theses is not that it follows that protocol to the letter but that it does so in terms laid out by Hayden White, Joan Scott and Dominick LaCapra -- to make the list no longer than that -- 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. And in fact, one of the manifesto's authors is Joan Scott herself, whose "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" and "The Evidence of Experience" are surely among the most-assigned papers by a living historian. Another author, Ethan Kleinberg, is editor in chief of the journal History and Theory, which has been smoking Joe Friday-style bonehead empiricism out of the historiographical woodwork for more than half a century now. And it would be very surprising if it turned out that Gary Wilder, the manifesto's third signatory, actually thinks that historical scholarship on Afro-Caribbean politics and culture is "stunningly homogenous in terms of [its] theoretical and methodological approach."

Even after two or three readings, I could not shake a sense that the only thing really new about "Theses on Theory and History" is that it comes with a hashtag.

That's not an objection as such. Contestation is the lifeblood of any intellectual enterprise, and it often takes the form of a return to unfinished business. Yet the manifesto makes its case through a combination of amnesia and hype, and to present the field of history as aspiring to some Vienna Circle's conception of scientific rigor doesn't even work as caricature, which requires some degree of resemblance to the original.

I took some of my impressions to Kleinberg by email and he, with input from his co-authors, replied with a defense of their effort: "There are a number of responses to the 'haven’t we done this before' charge, though the first is to point out that this is a common strategy to dismiss the criticisms and provocations presented in the theses without actually engaging with them … To provide an extreme example, would it be fair to dismiss arguments about economic inequality because Marx already did so in the 19th century?"

A fair point, in itself. But to expand upon the comparison, the theses are akin to mounting a social media campaign to denounce Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. However necessary the polemic once was, making it a priority now does not seem an urgent task. One would need persuading.

"The issue," he went on, "is not whether the critique is new but why it is that disciplinary history can both claim to have worked through the issues raised and not change its practices (system of training doctoral students, reward structures, publishing and hiring criteria, etc.) after all these decades in any meaningful way, even as the range of topics and approaches has vastly expanded. The proof is in the pudding -- if things had changed then it would not need to be said again." Kleinberg points to "the massive backlash against theory that has occurred since the high-water mark of the 'linguistic turn' and the retreat to history in its most conservative forms."

Complicating this narrative of a return to history's bad old days is Kleinberg's remark that "there have been a set of important moves to other scales, regions, non-European parts of the world" -- but in forms "curtailing epistemological questions about doing history and analyzing society." The manifesto warns that the reactionary trend is to treat "doing history" as a "self-evident technical undertaking and students need simply to develop the methodological habit of gathering factual evidence to be contextualized and narrated."

Now, it would be a very bad history program indeed that treated research as "a self-evident technical undertaking" in which you find and type up data, then put it in order. Likewise, there is very little to recommend the study of (say) anthropogenic climate change on a global scale over extremely long periods without framing "epistemological questions about doing history and analyzing society." I find that difficult to imagine, and hope it is not happening.

A more plausible scenario is that the theoreticist militancy mentioned earlier has gotten the better of the authors of the manifesto, who rely on the old tropes to rally new forces without getting too specific about what weapons must be brought to the battle. The theses never quite get around to defining an orientation beyond calling for more critical thinking in history. And the material forces pressing on the discipline -- the inequalities that discourses of professionalism sidestep, often without interruption -- don't enter the frame of the analysis at all. "Critical history," reads the manifesto, "reflects on its own conditions of social and historical possibility … It elaborates the worldly stakes of its intervention." Well, in principle.


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