foci of history

February 2, 2006

Eric Rauchway has responded to my call for someone to make a case for an “increased focus on political history” with a nice post on the development of a synthetic understanding of the past that demonstrates both the relevance of political to social and cultural history, and the relevance of social and cultural to political history: “history from below — and above, and below”. Who knew you could say so much about Wyoming? (I kid, I kid.)

I don’t have anything to add to Rauchway’s main points – I’m not yet ready to jump into the “debate over political history” fray to that extent – but I do want to respond to the initial way he frames his response to my post by talking about the focus of history (if there be any) and presentism.

Foci of history

Here’s what I wrote (which he quotes):

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.

On the question of focus, Rauchway writes:

Let me note two things: first, I see that this is about an increased focus on political history, which is to say increased presumably over the present focus of the profession (stipulating that the profession has a focus, which I doubt, but anyway, let’s stipulate! it’s fun to say); second that it is about an increased focus, which is to say we’re not talking about increased quantity of political history being done, but about a sharper synthetic focus on the political in the broader view of the profession.

This may seem like a minor point at first, but it is an important one: I don’t think the profession has a focus. It has foci: political, social, cultural, geographical, etc. A good synthetic understanding of history will be built around these various foci.

(Incidentally, no, I didn’t have this particular image in mind when I used the word “focus” in my earlier post; however, as it expresses something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time with respect to historical synthesis, and which is relevant to this discussion, I’m employing it now. In retrospect, I should have been more careful with the word “focus”, as I do not intend for one to be imposed upon the profession.)

So by “a case for an increased focus on political history” I don’t mean a case that says, or implies, or is taken to mean, “Hey everybody! Stop what you’re doing and go focus on something else!” This is a danger that I’m hoping to avoid: I want to get away from the “x approach is tired and stale, let’s all try something completely new” rhetorical strategy. Rauchway is correct to note that I am thinking in synthetic terms.

At the same time, I do in fact also mean: an “increased quantity of political history being done.” This does not, I should emphasize, mean “political history for political history’s sake”; it simply means that if we’re going to move towards a broader, newer synthetic understanding of the past we’re going to have to know more about political history – and that’s going to require a fair amount of specialized work. Just as it will require continued work in social history, cultural history, and other specializations that are sometimes placed in opposition to political history. I hope that’s not controversial, but it may well be.

(How important one thinks this is may depend on whether or not one thinks that the shapes of our historical syntheses have taken on the correct forms relative to the various historical foci, so to speak. Is the history profession well-rounded enough? Is this image too elliptical? Sorry, most of what I remember of geometry has been obscured by bad puns. But I prefer this image to ones that refer to changes in scholarship in terms of cycles or fashions. Such images imply huge swings over time; I’m trying to think in terms of a shape that can endure over time.)

In other words, I’d like to see a case for political history that appeals to the broader profession, but which does not entail the precipitous decline or marginalization of other specializations. It may not be possible to create an increased focus on political history without leading to the kind of heavy institutionalization that came along with social history, for example, but one can hope for balance, even if the history of the profession suggests otherwise.

Partisan politics is not presentism

After discussing the meaning of focus, Rauchway writes:

Also, one has to argue for this without invoking what we usually call “presentist” concerns.

To a certain extent this anticipates the way I’d make my own case for political history: I’d probably steer away from particularly presentist arguments, not least because I’d want my case to be applicable to pre-20th century periods, as well as to histories written 20 or more years from now (one can dream). At the same time, I’m not against presentism and what I wrote:

one [a case for political history] 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

does not rule out all presentist concerns. It mainly rules out ones that rely on arguments such as “We need to understand why party A keeps winning elections” or “why party B keeps losing elections”, as if the importance of political history depends on which party is in power: “Party B won? Then it’s back to politics, we need to understand this!” “Party A won? Cultural issues are key now!” These are caricatures, of course, but not entirely far-fetched. One could appeal to historians with Democratic affiliations by saying that a deeper historical understanding of politics could help them understand why the Democrats lost the last two presidential elections, but according to this logic a Democratic victory would make political history less important: this would not be a case for the enduring importance of political history.

On the other hand, a case for political history that said “we need to know more about the Constitution and executive power” or “about federalism” could easily be made according to presentist terms, but it would have an enduring relevance because the existence of the Constitution, the executive branch, and federalism do not depend on who won the last election (however tilted towards one party one’s current concerns may be). Presentist concerns will affect the nature of the political history being written but should have less of an influence over whether political history is written.

More specific to the context of the Cliopatria discussion* this is a way of trying to detach the debate over partisan diversity – generally referred to by the vague phrase “ideological diversity”, but often meaning “the distribution of faculty according to party registration data” – from the academic debate over methodological and pedagogical approaches to history. This is not to say that the two debates are unrelated, but the partisan debate has drawn so much attention already that it’s in danger of obscuring the academic one.

*I should note that the Timothy Burke comment I quoted in my first post is actually in reference to a different Cliopatria post, by Ralph Luker.

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