“History” versus…whatever else you call it

I really enjoyed Gaddis’s The Landscape of History; it spoke to a number of issues I’d never properly articulated.* My general approval of that book informs my reaction to early bits in Memorial Mania, as well as The Presence of the Past.

Rosenzweig and Thelen were doing social science, no question: it was all about data, collecting it in a systematic manner. Analyzing the dataset was necessarily squishy, and there was certainly art (or at least craft) to the interview process, but the goal of compiling all the qualitative data was to boil it down into quantitative results. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I still really like the way they went about it, and I think it is worthwhile to undertake such studies in the future…but it is a very different thing from the sort of history Gaddis discusses, and his book provides fodder for an alternate (or additional) reading of the rise of public history in the 1970s. Left-leaning, socially-conscious practitioners who wanted to make a difference, in a contracting academic job market…in a Cold War environment where the impact of Science and Math (especially the hard stuff) were privileged, and the temptation to retrofit fields abounded…. It doesn’t contradict the somewhat celebratory (if self-reflexive) narrative I’ve encountered several times this semester, but it does complicate it.

When Rosenzweig and Thelen eschewed the word “history” in favor of alternatives (if not synonyms) like “the past,” they uncovered their respondents’ active engagement. Doss puts it more bluntly, citing the postmodernists’ “perception of history’s repugnance” as a reason for the boom in “memory studies.” It makes me a little uneasy. I am very used to the idea that one criticizes things, even (or especially) if they are worthwhile. Renaming a thing can be useful, can describe it more precisely…or it can be outright Orwellian. Catering to one’s audience can also be a very useful thing…unless it turns into pandering. And so the repackaging that seemed like a shrewd tactic in The Presence of the Past now reads more like an indicator of a troubling trend. “History” as a discipline is subject to trends, some works are crap or evil…but it’s been around a while, and IMHO the word itself is important, in part because of all the concepts that have accreted over the years. It’s weighted, nuanced, complicated…appropriately so. This is not to say that “memory” and “the past” are devoid of nuance; they’re just different. I like using them “in addition to” (or even “in opposition to”); but using them “instead of,” quietly shunting “history” aside because it’s somehow too hard, is a different situation entirely.


* E.g. anxieties about methodological choices, most specifically my reluctance to commit. I rather like what my former co-worker said about postmodernism: it’s a useful tool for generating questions, even if it’s less satisfactory at answering them. I had a little “Yes!” moment when he said that, and reading Gaddis was kind of like a rolling version of that conversation.

I suppose in a Gaddis-approved shuffle, the public historians (rather than trying to convince the other historians that they were doing history, too—emphasis on “doing”) would take their balls and databases and go hang out with the social scientists, the rest of the historians (rather than trying to argue their discipline’s rigor and relevance) would go hang out with the physicists, and I suppose the postmodernists would sit in a corner and critique everybody. And they’d all pretty much do what they’ve been doing; they just might change the departmental codes for their classes or their tables in the cafeteria.

I am sometimes accused of not liking movies for this reason. Not just the specific movie I’m talking about, but movies in general. Oddly enough, those friends don’t accuse me of not liking, say, the U.S., or Western democracies in general. I guess they’re just less touchy about criticism of politicians than screenwriters.

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