politics by other ends

January 24, 2006

I would like to see someone lay out, post by post, a case for an increased focus on political history, one that makes no reference to current political representation or affiliation, partisan or otherwise, but which demonstrates the continued and future relevancy of the subject no matter which way the electorate turns. Quite a strong case can be made for this, and indeed Timothy Burke even showed one way to do so during his recent comments at Cliopatria, but so far such a post or series of posts has not appeared.

Burke’s comment deserves to be highlighted, however, so I will excerpt it here:

If what you expect from political history is instead the antithesis of social history (as opposed to a new hybrid form) then I think you’re actually retarding the improvement of knowledge over time. I’m actually somewhat whiggish in this respect, that we know more and know better over time, that if you want to work on American constitutional history, yes, you also have to think about the social history which interrelates to it. What you’re right about is that the obligation has not been felt in the opposite direction by many of the orthodox figures of a certain generation of social and cultural historians–some of them felt safe writing out “dead white men”, and so on. But I think that’s changing, quite noticeably in many respects. The product of that change should not be a reversion to formal separations between rigidly maintained specializations, it should be a new hybrid practice which then generates new research projects and problems for discussion.

In that respect, if a given department (like UCLA) says, “We want to hire in cultural history”, I can well imagine that the person they hire might actually also end up being in a meaningful sense a political historian. For example, a historian who works on memoralization and public memory might well become someone interested in the state, in governance, in laws. A social historian might become someone interested in political elites, and from that interest increasingly move into sounding more and more like a traditional “political historian”. A cultural historian who researches the history of passports and cross-border travel in Europe might turn into a a scholar resembling diplomatic history, studying the formal relations between states and the inter-state institutions. And so on.

The pressure you need to bring to bear to allow those kinds of evolutions is not the kind you’ve conventionally hammered on, I think. It’s not, “Hire more formal specialists in a certain field”. It’s more in the cut-and-thrust of substantive criticism of what people actually write and teach. I think you affect scholars far more when you ask, “When you wrote about yeoman farmers, why did you rigorously leave out any discussion of gentry?” or “When you write about customary law in colonial Africa, why don’t you write about the political history of imperial governance?” When you complain about syllabi, I think the complaint is powerful only if you register it in tangibly canonical terms. Like, “How can you justify teaching a class on this subject without teaching X or Y book?”

Those are the complaints that sting scholars, and often spur them to change their pedagogy and their publication–or to feel a need to hire or solicit specialists who can address those oversights and absences. Or at the least, they spur the kinds of statements of refusal where you really can argue strongly against the close-mindedness and narrow ideological premises embodied in such refusals. That’s where you sort out people of good faith and people who really are out to reproduce a narrow orthodoxy: when you go to a specific point of exclusion in their work or their teaching and ask, “Is that deliberate? Why are you doing that?”

This is a case I may soon be making myself, if, contrary to what I thought I would do half a year ago, I decide to go back and write my dissertation.

The first task, however, will be to work out a viable plan for finishing the Ph. D. and then moving into a non-professorial position. It would be irresponsible for me to go back without preparing to make that transition – this is one of the many things I learned from reading the Invisible Adjunct’s archives – but if I can find a way, that’s what I hope to try to do. And if not, that’s okay, too; I’m ready to move on, if need be. Either way, I’ll know more in a few months.

And now I really must step back a bit from the blogosphere.

Update (2/2): See Eric Rauchway’s response here. And now there’s more from me here.

%d bloggers like this: