U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"There was no United States": Bender On Historians And Their Publics

In honor of our USIH 3.0 conference program release, I offer this related essay by Thomas Bender on the role of historians as public intellectuals. Titled “Historians in Public,” Bender uses the article to think about the audiences of historians in relation to both historians’ particular kinds of expertise and their means of communication. I found this reminder from Bender, appearing early in the essay, to be most worthy (underlining mine):

As Émile Zola declaimed, the intellectual is by definition a public actor; moreover, all professions, including the academic ones, claim a public aspect by definition to justify their privileges of incorporation and self-regulation.

If we follow Zola’s prompt, the distinction between an ‘intellectual’ and a ‘scholar’ is the starting point for thinking about audiences for intellectuals (their ‘publics’) in the twentieth century. Words to ponder as we begin thinking through our manuscripts for the fall program.

And here’s another passage—with no small implications for USIH as a subfield and its conference (this fall and beyond, underlining mine):

At the time the AHA was founded the overriding cultural and political project was restoring the union. The price of reconciliation was accepting a regime of white terror imposed on black Americans in the former Confederate states. One of the great accomplishments of recent scholarship has been to make this clear.[13] In fact the scholarship of the past two or three decades has focused on a variety of exclusions—many people who were previously excluded from the American narrative—and by implication—the American public. Now race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have been written into history and public life. This was obviously a good thing, and it had a large impact in schools, the media, and the law, among other dimensions of our lives.

Yet something was lost—the nation and the state. The recovered persons were incorporated into society, not into a narrative of the nation or the state, into identity politics, not citizenship. In the 1980s and 1990s instead of talk about and inquiry into “the public,” there was talk of publics, alternative publics, counter-publics, a black public sphere, and more. The list got pretty long, but the public dissolved in this otherwise invaluable historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. There was no United States. History was all parts, no whole.

Wow. But Bender’s essay contains much more. Indeed, we could mine this piece for days. I won’t reproduce the rest here, but would be happy to converse about his other points—large and small—in the comments below. – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What do you think of those he holds out as best integrating the state and the publics — Tom Sugrue and Lizabeth Cohen. Should all history proceed in that realm? Are there other equally good examples we should add? And what should it all mean for dissertation topics and the future of history?

  2. Adam,

    I thought those were curious selections. I’ve read two of them: Sugrue’s *The Origins of the Urban Crisis* and Cohen’s *Making a New Deal*. I do not profess to have a perfect memory, and one’s reading is often directed by an immediate question (or set of questions), but I don’t recall either of those books explicitly arguing for the use of citizenship over identity as a way to write for a broader public.

    I do see the state-public relationship dealt with in both, but neither—to me at least—sought to supersede “difference” as a normative theme in history. Indeed, both books related to subsets: Detroit African Americans in Sugrue, and Chicago industrial workers in Cohen.

    But perhaps I’m forgetting the main reasons why those books were so well-received. I only read both once, in graduate school, some 8-10 years ago.

    When I saw Bender make that reference to citizenship, I thought his footnote would focus on the work of Linda K. Kerber (who has also done work on intellectual history) or someone similar.

    – Tim

  3. Tim (and Adam): Thanks for the pointer to Bender’s essay.

    On Cohen and Sugrue, I think what Bender is saying is that both are interested in the politics of difference rather than simply difference, or in how identity and citizenship interact rather than simply identity. They’re not abandoning the history of identity, difference, etc., but reconnecting it to an older political history tradition.

    They can both be held up as models of “the new sociocultural political history” or “bottom-up political history,” work that rejuvenates political history with the methods (and sympathies?) of 1980s and 1990s social history.

    And in each case they followed up the local study you cite (Urban Crisis, Making New Deal) with bigger synthetic works (Consumers Republic, Sweet Land of Liberty).

    Sorry – as a fan of yours and a former student of Liz Cohen’s I couldn’t resist jumping in.

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for dropping in!

    Fair enough on Cohen and Sugrue. I need to reread Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, but my memory was that it was more about structures that work to manipulate citizens rather than the “citizenship”—Bender’s topic—of actors working in/with larger systems. It’s a fine point, I know. I mean, riots are about disempowerment—citizenship gone wrong. To me that narrative helped explain the rise of identity politics rather than what Bender seems to want—i.e. historians who would narrate us into better, more holistic relationship with “the state.” Bender’s essay implied, to me at least, the need for histories that help citizens—“the public”—actively navigate their relationship to bigger entities: state and national governments. So maybe Bender should’ve noted the next books you cited by each scholar for their greater synthesis?

    But thinking largely, specialization—or rather over-specialization—is clearly the enemy of historians being better activists (and actors) in the public sphere. First, few news orgs think to connect the dots between specialization and larger public issues of concern. Second, sometimes the specialists themselves ignore, or downplay, those connections out of fear of being seen as partial or lacking in objectivity. – TL

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