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Saturday, September 7, 2013

How do you swagger? Historian, historicize thyself!

[Note:  this is the third of a series on being a jerk in academe.  For the introduction to the series, click here.]

Historians are difficult people to be around and, I imagine, to live with.  We can be jerks in so many ways, it's hard to count.  But one (and only one of many!) of the ways we can be jerks is by calling out irrelevant ahirstoricism.

Ahistoricism is supposedly the cardinal sin for historians, unless we're talking about all the other cardinal sins, such as plagiarism or making up sources.  Unlike academic fraud, but like pride, however, ahistoricism is a sin every historian can plausibly be accused of.  If the historian adopts some sort of founding assumption for his/her study, he/she assumes away certain contingencies and therefore rests on a non-historical foundation.  Simply using the abstraction called language--even though it's a conventional abstraction, constructed socially--he/she must of necessity be at least one remove from the contingencies of the past.  What this boils down to is that if the historian advances an unpopular (in the discipline or to its practitioniers) idea, there's always something ahistorical an opposing historian can detect in it.[1] 

Here's the definition of ahistoricism as far as I can understand it:  It refers to the belief or claim (or assumption) that something is timeless and has not evolved or otherwise been affected by the passage of time.  One way ahistoricism can manifest itself is through an appeal to "tradition" or to the way things used to be, without acknowledging that "tradition" or the way things used to be were in their turn created or informed by historical circumstances.  Usually, this appeal to tradition is made as a counterpoint to a seemingly unprecedented (in degree or kind) present-day change.

There are some conceptual difficulties to the notion of ahistoricism.  For one thing, it feeds a viewpoint that history is about assessing "change over time."  Indeed, if you ask most professionally trained historians if history is about "change over time," at least a solid majority will say yes, assuming they're not being particularly argumentative that day.  "Change over time" is probably the bread and butter of history as it is practiced since the professionalization of the discipline in the late 1800-something.  But it creates a bias toward seeing change and not seeing continuity or persistence.  It's not that historians never see continuity or persistence, but they're challenged to see it as something that must be explained.  That's not a bad thing, just the bias you sign up for when you become a historian.

Another conceptual difficulty is that ahistoricism assumes away important notions of what constitutes truth.  Truth, or that truth which we can know or elucidate, is contingent on time (and place, and social class, etc.).  To be clear, I am not taking the postmodernism of the 1970s through 1990s and projecting backward, forward, and outward to the historical discipline as it has always existed (to do so would be, well, to engage in ahistoricism).  In fact, there have been, are, and always will be (*cough* ahistorical? *cough*) historians who believe in objective truth and in the ability of historians to know or at least get close to that truth.  Rather, what I'm saying is that a burden is placed against that notion of truth that posits the existence of ideal "forms" that determine or are represented by what mere mortals call reality.  In other words, Plato and his mythical Socrates have an uphill battle in convincing a professional historian of anything.[2]  Not that we should all be Platonists, but we should indeed be wary of presumptively shunting aside a huge tradition of thought.

Well, those difficulties are not ones I'm well equipped to elaborate on.  I'm not a philosopher, after all, and I'm not going to publish "Pierre Corneille's Guidebook to the Historical Profession" anytime soon (not the least because the absolutism à la Louis XIV went out of style a long time ago).  I just mention them to suggest that even within the profession, ahistoricism or its opposite (err, historicism) are not without their difficulties, even if they serve as founding assumptions. (To ahistoricism, I'll add historians' supposed aversion to counterfactuals.  It's probably true that we should eschew counterfactuals unless we want to devolve into making up a list of might-have-been's that are never false because they cannot be disproven.  But historians need to realize that whenever they hazard a statement of causality, they are indulging in a counterfactual claim.  To say that X causes Y is to say that if X hadn't happened, then Y wouldn't have happened, or it would have been less likely to have happened.)

Where all this comes into play in our ability to be jerks is the way we sometimes use the "that's ahistorical" card as a club against people who make ahistroical statements where their ahistoricism is either innocuous, or not the whole story.  What I'm saying is, sometimes people make ahistorical claims, and when they do, and even when the making of such claims represents a misunderstanding that needs to be corrected, we shouldn't throw out the amateur historian with the bathwater.  Sometimes even a ahistorical claim has an element of truth in it, or at least an element of something discussable.

To use a not particularly momentous example, I'll note something I often read in self-help books and other pop-psychology or pop-therapy books.  I like reading those books because well, they interest me and every once in a while, I stumble across one that's really thoughtful.  But most of those books, even sometimes the thoughtful ones, dabble at least a little bit in the following type of claim:
Stress [anger, anxiety, narcissism, [3] et cetera, und so weiter] is a challenge many people face.  And in today's ever more complicated world, these challenges are greater than ever.
That isn't a direct quote, but a paraphrased amalgam of the type of statement I see very often in those books.  When I read such phrasing, I turn over uncomfortably, not in my grave (I'm not there yet), but at least on my couch (on which I lounge in the early evening when I get home from work).  Frankly, when people make such statements, they just assume the truth of it.  Our world is ever more complicated, and therefore, the challenges are greater than ever, and therefore you need this book more than your great parents would've.

This phrasing is ahistorical in at least two ways.  First, in these accounts, stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism,[3] et cetera, und so weiter) are fixed, discrete ideas, not something the definition of which might change and has changed over time.

Second, not much or anything is said about stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism, et cetera, und so weiter) in the past, except as illustrations that such have always been with us, but now it's really bad, because with on-demand tv, cell phones, and emails, there are more demands on our time than ever.  I'm not in principle against the notion that modern conveniences (especially cell phones!) come with their own stressors or make life potentially more stressful than in the past.  On the other hand, those of us likely to be stressed out by our access to on-demand tv, cell phones, and emails are likely to belong to that class of people on earth who have avoided the sharper edges of the dire scarcity in basic living essentials that likely was a not unimportant cause of stress for our predecessors and for others in our present-day world not so fortunate. 

This post isn't really a takedown of self-help and pop psychology literature.  In fact, I'm trying to say that the ahistoricism of these works' authors is largely irrelevant.  Stress (anger, anxiety, narcissism, et cetera, und so weiter) can be a problem today even if it (and they) is (are) only as bad, or even not as bad, as in the past.  And even though the notions of what constitutes it (and them) might be socially and historically constructed along some plane, along another plane, it (and they) is (are) instantiation(s) of suffering, and if the book in question offers a way for someone to address or cope with the suffering, then maybe that book is good despite the fact that it's not a work in history.

Don't get me wrong.  The books are often very poorly considered, and maybe in another post I'll advance a deeper criticism of what I see as some of the debilitating assumptions and approaches their authors employ.  But their ahistoricism is not their primary offense.

The self-help industry can take care of itself, with or without my calling attention to its ahistoricism.  (And who knows, maybe some works don't fall into these traps.)  I'm not too afraid that whatever cartel is responsible for printing these books will send their goons to dismantle my blog any time soon.  But I cite this as one way in which historians might make a criticism.

Another way--and one more akin to being a jerk--is in discussions with others when the historian believes that simply calling out those others' ahistoricism is dispositive of the wrongness of their argument and the rightness of his/hers (the historian's).

Over at the Ordinary Times Blog (formerly The League of Ordinary Gentlemen), for example, there is a commenter who frequently criticizes social conservatives as refusing to accept "modernity."  The attitude his language expresses strikes me as akin to "these simple folk need a good dose of federal government--perhaps accompanied by a one- or two-year stay in New York City or San Francisco--to cure them of their provincial benightedness."  (That's actually more of what I read into his comments than anything he's actually said.  So I am putting words into his mouth that he probably would say he didn't intend.)

That, to my mind, oversimplifying and condescending stereotype of a large group of people irritates me.  And I'm tempted to pull out the historians' toolkit and challenge him on his use of "modernity," a word at least a majority of whose users (I'm convinced) haven't a strong idea the meaning of.  (I was introduced to it as a historical concept in my MA program in 1997, and I still haven't figured out what it means.)  I'm tempted to bring to light the argument that so-called anti-modern movements are actually manifestations of modernity and arise because of modernity.

I'll have to admit a few things.  First, that comes very close to the philosopher's almost tu quoque I criticized in my last post. I'm pointing out how the definition of what something is against is so bound up with that something, that those who are against it are in the sense constituted by it.  Technically that's true, but it doesn't really say much.  This commenter would probably point out, rightly, that this group of people overwhelmingly opposes things that he, and I, favor:  legal right to same sex marriage, for example.  I personally believe that invoking their opposition to "modernity" (where modernity, whatever it means, = "good" and anyone who opposes it = "bad") is an extremely poor, even question-begging, way to go about it.  But that's probably closer to what he means than a pedantic rendering of "modernity" and oppositional movements to it.

Second, that pedantic objection of mine does not really express my true objection (and personally, I get annoyed when some historians say "the anti-modernists are actually modernists because they're opposed to the modern"....ugh!).  In fact, I think many of these social conservatives embrace the norms often associated with "modernity" much more than this commenter gives them credit for.  The norms in this case are respect for individual autonomy and limitations placed on the state's ability to intrude into private affairs and a reliance on capital and information networks and the (in some ways) liberating and (in some ways) restrictive effects of that reliance.  (Whether these norms are in fact characteristic of that "thing" called modernity might be open for debate, but I will say they're probably part of the bundle of what a lot of people mean by "modernity.")  Now, when I say that social conservatives are largely already on board with modernity, that doesn't mean they as a group have no objections to it, but I do think that most of them have bought into its basic assumptions, and the commenter I referenced above might find that the ways in which they do object are not consonant with his purported embrace of "new deal" liberalism.

That second point, in fact, is probably closer to what historians mean when they say anti-modern movements are in fact in cahoots with "modernity."  But notice how much more nuanced it is than what I was tempted to say at the beginning, that they can't be anti-modern because (of course!) they're reacting against modernity.

And, for the topic of this already long blog post, that affects the price of tea in China inasmuch as it's very easy for me to call out out that commenter on ahistoricism but not very well engage his principal idea, which in my opinion, deserves to be criticized.

In sum, ahistoricism is often a grave error, but before we historians criticize this "sin," we ought to keep in mind how closely it is aligned with the argument we're engaging.  If someone's argument is not intended to be historical, and commits an ahistoricism as merely a rhetorical or hyperbolic flourish, then maybe we need to let it slide in favor of addressing what the person really (or at least probably) intended.

[1]In my dissertation, for example, some members of my committee were rather critical of my use, in my conclusion, of the term "economic liberty" and my suggestion that it's something we should take seriously when assessing political regulation.  Their criticism was that my use was ahistorical, even though I noted ways in which the concept fell short as a way of helping others and even though I had at least a couple of paragraphs that tried to explain the way some late twentieth century conservatives used the term as a rallying cry for supporting entrenched business interests.  My committee members weren't fully wrong.  I might have looked more closely to how the term, or at least the concept represented by the term, had been used during the time period I studied (I didn't do that at all), and my decision to discuss it only in the conclusion seemed to some of the committee members, quite rightly, as an eleventh hour argument.  Still, I got the sense that even uttering "economic liberty" in the presence of people with certain ideological dispositions was to indulge in fighting words.  Not that I didn't really know that to begin with, so I can't claim to be too shocked.

[2]  This includes, by the way, the proposition that their explorations are anything like a true dialogue in which the interlocutors really have a chance to speak their mind.

[3]As an admittedly irrelevant aside (hence my inclusion of it in a footnote and not the main text), I'll say there are no self-help books for narcissists, or at least I haven't found any yet, even though there are plenty about "dealing with the narcissists in your life."  I can imagine narcissists complaining, "why doesn't anyone write a book for us?"  But it doesn't (necessarily!) stop there.  I think there is a certain kind of self regard that leads some people (e.g., me) who read self-help books to feel themselves particularly aggrieved or in need of special care or attention.  And most of those books I have read have, if one pokes into their implications deeply enough, some variant of the sub-theme "you're a great person, and it's others who are wronging you."  Perhaps a large number of these books are written for narcissists, but the authors don't have the heart (or the financial independence) to admit it.  I'm not claiming any sort of high ground here about this literature's readership.  I intend this speculation is as much as a self-criticism as an accusation about others.