Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Privilege and Polemic

At the Society of Fellows I worked every day surrounded by intense privilege, privileges few other scholars enjoy in the length of their career as scholars: the privilege of dining amidst Nobel laureates; the privilege of not teaching, and that of enjoying research grants free to pursue any turn of inquiry.

It made me restless, and it made me impatient with the academy, even more impatient than I was already, which was plenty.  I stated working on bigger projects, a long history of land reform. I started working on bigger methodologies — not merely toying around with digital maps but asking questions about how topic modeling could be turned to archives at scale.  I started talking to historians about what I was doing; many were resistant, some were supportive.  Armitage liked the ideas and encouraged them.  We talked more. 

Occupy erupted while we were there.  Occupy started a tent village in Boston.  My friends were all occupy-ers, there and in Chicago and New York.  I visited and talked with folks.  We talked about history and its public uses.  A group of graduate students and post-docs was leading walking tours of privately-owned public spaces fit for future occupations; I had been writing about the radical history of the walking tour and I offered to share some history that might help to orient them.

Orientation to time and place, I tell my undergraduates, is what they can seek from history as a profession.  They should know something about the history of the institutions that they engage; they should be able to tell something about the history of practices of democracy and capitalism; and these skills will help them to know when something is changing around them. 

Much of the critique of the book that I subsequently wrote with David Armitage about history has been disorienting — for us as authors and likely for others as readers.  Dueling in the footnotes has been inflated, by a few critics, into the charge of being bad historians, of not having understood what we read, of misapplying big data, and even of breaching professional ethics by hiding our corrections to the text in a series of open-access releases online.  The open-access release and website were originally designed to promote accessibility to all readers regardless of their ability to pay.  

Thus critics who don’t like the book have gone after our professional credentials as historians.  I suppose they think we either should not have written it, or that we should have written it in a different way, treating every footnote and datum with the care of a monograph.  But a manifesto is not a monograph.  A polemic’s job is to compare vastly different points of view — in our case, the economic with social history; and social histories past with political economy in the present, and earlier methods in the archives with new methods of digital history. 

We took on more than an entire discipline; we wrote a short book about the university as a whole and about the role of historians inside it.  We didn’t make up our picture of the university; the portrait of public intellectuals engaged with national and international governance in the 1950s making way for professional historians sometimes motivated by peoples’ struggles in the 1970s is a story that has been told by professional historians of the public intellectual, as well as recited in the memoirs of historians who lived through those periods.  We painted with a broad brush about the discipline of economics and its engagement with climate change, but it is no exaggeration to say that scholars in economics have proposed, over the last twenty years, that the free market will spontaneously take care of climate, while many a historian has worked over the same period to reveal how much our relationship with the environment has been harmed by centuries of growth-oriented economics. 

For a great many readers, who have spoken to us in our travels and contacted us personally, that orientation has been useful beyond measure.  What we hear again and again from our colleagues and graduate students is this: there has not been a healthy debate about why social science academics do what they do, about the appropriate methods of turning the social sciences to critically inspect one’s own political climate or culture.   We heard from a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who appreciated our call to use history to measure possibilities for reform and utopianism in our own time.

For us, an orientation to the university as a changing institution was more important, and we painted the picture that made sense to us: a world where the humanities have been ill-able to defend themselves against budget cuts, closing, and adjunctification, but a world with much promise where new methods of modeling text with digital tools may have applications far beyond the humanities projects where they were born.  Much of what we said about the succession of the disciplines — the way that economics rose to power in the 1970s, outstripping not only history but also sociology and anthropology — was relatively new to public debate and sparked important questions that will lead other scholars to examine the story of 1968 in more detail.  Much of what we said about the possibilities for using digital tools was also new, if not to debates in the digital humanities, then new to the history graduate classroom.  Those are professional contributions to our understanding of how the university is changing, and they come not out of laziness, but out of a rapt and ongoing curiosity about how the institution is changing in our own time, and what exciting possibilities our friends and colleagues are working on. 

Ultimately these questions — both of how we understand the university past and how we release our texts to the public online — are crucial for making sense of the role of the social sciences in the university to come.  The reasons for which we raise these questions extend well past debates about the meaning of 1968 or bureaucratic decisions about when particular revisions to an electronic text are released and how. 

It seemed important to me when I was sipping moselle at the Society of Fellows while Occupy was formed a few miles away, as it does now, that historians should work for the cause of a broader public.  It seems to me that we had many exemplary stories of historians past who had done exactly that, and for those reasons, it was worth writing a first pass at a history, even if the subject was outside of my specialization, even if others would revise it later.  It is still better to orient ourselves, and to keep in dialogue as we undertake the process of revision, than to simply never open up these questions in the first place.