U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Advertisements for Myself (and my group?)

In the essay that opened his notorious book, “Advertisements for Myself,” an irrepressible 36-year-old Norman Mailer admitted that he had been running for president (in his mind) for ten years and his evident failure to win had left him “with the bitter exhaustions of an old man, and the cocky arguments of a bright boy.” Such a description sounds apt for our collective efforts at this blog, especially in light of the reception of Jim Livingston’s recent book, Dan Wickberg’s critique of MIH’s forum on the state and future of U.S. intellectual history, and the plight of many of my colleagues whose work should have earned them employment in the academy and in positions of greater consequence. Yes, I too probably sound a bit cynical (is it any great secret that many of us feel this way?), but I have also found great satisfaction in being part of an undeniably bright intellectual community here.

Dan Wickberg’s essay on the MIH forum stands on its own as a fine critical work–it is worth reading just as the essays in MIH are worth reading; just as Jim Livingston’s work is worth engaging and the critics of his work (well, some of them) are worth hearing out. It seems to me that among the most interesting insights gleaned from the exchanges posted by Wickberg and Livingston is that by appearing on this blog and, by direct extension, I think, at the annual conference sponsored by this group, they have proposed an outlet for thinking about the community of intellectual historians that exists, at times, in contrast to, and at other times, in partnership with, the kind of community organized in the MIH forum.

But what if this particular blog did not exist? Would we get an adequate chance to consider Wickberg’s critique?

Wickberg observes that the MIH forum itself suggests an example of intellectual community that serves as a model for how to do intellectual history–fusion is the model. The posting of his essay on this blog suggests another model. This blog is also a fusion, but not of historical fields but between the virtual and the real. This is a place where intellectual historians (emerging and emerged) offer a body of work to be discussed by graduate students and senior scholars without pretense that they serve as an official organ for the field. This blog is another intellectual community that stands in contrast (but not necessarily in opposition) to the traditional way of demonstrating how intellectual history is done and is relevant.

To state this as fact requires recognizing an essay that I find reminiscent of Mailer’s in the best possible way. In January 2007, Tim Lacy offered: “US Intellectual History: A Call to Action.” This blog has been a surprising consequence of that charge.

Tim understood that there would be a tension between the bright hopes of rejuvenating intellectual history and the Quixotic nature of the campaign itself. But his idea has succeeded in a somewhat unorthodox way. In a world where academic status and the reception of publications can make one’s career, we cultivated a virtual world out of necessity. After all, there is an undeniable connection between those intellectual historians who are prominent and the prominence of the models those intellectual historians offer. The contrast between the virtual world of this blog and the world represented by the MIH forum echoes a key passage from Wickberg’s critique. In the paragraph that demonstrates Wickberg’s central concern, he argues:
“While all of these historians are open to thinking in terms of intellectual contexts, the general emphasis is on institutional, social, and public life as the forum in which ideas count; the historian is less concerned with showing how ideas shape one another, and more with the actions of specific persons who use ideas as tools to achieved [sic] various ends. The conscious public use of ideas, for instance, for these historians is much more important than the shared and under-articulated common assumptions of a body of discourse. Sometimes the question is not an either/or question, but more a matter of emphasis—and the emphasis falls squarely on the kind of intellectual history that has been front and center since Wingspread.”
Without this blog, how do we articulate in an effective way this issue of emphasis? What I find especially revealing in posts from Wickberg and Livingston, not to mention the regular bloggers here, is that a new context for the operation of U.S. intellectual history has grown fully conscious of, though not in devotion to, the institutional, social, and public life of U.S. intellectual history as produced by a forum like that in the MIH.
Again, Wickberg’s critique stands on its own merits as a statement in response to the ideas in the MIH forum. But the posting of Wickberg’s piece here provides an occasion to consider how the practice of U.S. intellectual history understands itself. I thank Tim Lacy for getting that conversation started, and I look forward to development of that conversation as posts like Wickberg’s continue to appear.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: Let me offer my own experience as an older graduate student who entered the field with an already defined understanding of ideas and their role in the world. It was a shock to discover that the study of ideas in intellectual history was often reduced to their political effects rather than for how ideas emerged and are widely diffused. In order to understand ideas in this broader sense, I think that graduate education has be different, going from concentrating on monographs of singular historical moments to a deeper and fuller understanding of the major schools of thought. Only when you have a broad understanding of, for example, Romanticism or Pragmatism and their origins do you have the skills to find the ideas that are not politically or socially visible. Then I think we can begin to approximate what Dan Wickberg is suggesting – a reimagining of what was once called the history of ideas.

  2. For whatever reason, on the main page I can’t see the title of this entry or the comments link. It’s as though the HTML has been stripped out. All the other entries are fine. I can’t tell if it’s just me or not.

  3. Ray – What connection exactly do you mean to propose between the blog medium and Wickberg’s deviation from what is characterized as “the” MIH view?

    In following it now for several years, it seems to me the blog is much more a forum for historians to debate recognizably “classic” — I didn’t say “perennial” — issues of intellectual history than a medium generative of innovative ideas and methods. This is pointedly shown by the fact that the intertextual approach advanced by Dan Wickberg is, by his own account, reminiscent of Lovejoy’s “history of ideas,” originally put forward at the time of world war 1; not to mention the fact that he — Wickberg — didn’t articulate it first in cyberspace. The social base for Lovejoy was a club designed as an interdisciplinary conjuncture, not a group of historians talking among themselves.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I think the blog has been a wonderful innovation in many ways; I just don’t think it’s smart to get caught up in the premise that a medium is more than contingently associated with a particular message. In any case, hypotheses, not faith-based claims, are at stake, though the former can only be tested in the future.

    I don’t find in Wickberg’s essay any indication he thinks the blog medium is somehow essential to, or even necessarily fosterative of, the alternate views he puts forward. [True, in “Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study?” Historically Speaking, 2009, he refers to the young bloggers as an indicator of a possibly resurgent intellectual history.] Perhaps he will clarify his position.

    You say that the “blog is another intellectual community that stands in contrast” to the standard intellectual history associated with the MIH forum. What’s the nature of the contrast, and is it a matter of its social character, the tenor and tone of its intellectual content, or some relationship between them?

    You ask, I take it rhetorically, “What if this particular blog did not exist? Would we get an adequate chance to consider Wickberg’s critique?” How about a different blog — or is the contrast with being blogless? What’s an “adequate chance?” Who’s the “we?” People aiming to be tenured paradigm-breakers are outsiders only in a very qualified sense.

    [Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t set myself “above” the rebel-professional sort of thing, just “beyond” it in an existential sense.]

    If the implication is that an enhanced concern with “ideas
    themselves” is associated with the virtuality of the blog, I’m reminded of Erik Davis’ notion of an emerging “techgnosis” — an expression of the old and ever-new American idea that technological progress confirms philosophical idealism. This will always seem a blatant contradiction, however virtualized we may become.

    Finally, if you intend the analogy: old [techno-social] medium: new medium = old ideas: new ideas — doesn’t that confirm the putative MIH consensus?

    There’s no machine that can carry us from “the social history of intellectuals” to “the history of ideas,” if that’s where we think we ought to be going.

  4. Bill, can’t speak for Ray, but I have been thinking about his post (and not just so I could plunder it to write my own!)

    Ray poses the question, “But what if this particular blog did not exist? Would we get an adequate chance to consider Wickberg’s critique?” By implication, at least, he is raising the same question about Livingston’s response to his critics.

    I think the key to understanding who “we” are might be lie in understanding all that might be implied in what it means to “consider” these authors’ critiques.

    Ray is not asking, “Would these two scholars have a venue to air their views if it weren’t for this blog?” Between Wickberg and Livingston, I think they have taken up quite a few pages in the AHR, the JAH, MIH, the JHI, etc. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt either one would complain that he can’t find a forum to publish his work.

    But by agreeing to write those essays for this blog, these scholars are addressing a much wider (potential) audience. They are bringing their academic discourse outside the (pay)walls of the academy, and making their scholarship accessible to readers without institutional affiliation. And because of the “comment” feature, they — or the blog editors — are inviting readers to respond not just to the authors themselves but to each other. Sometimes someone else will take up the thread and talk it through, and sometimes not — that’s the nature of blogging.

    It seems that most of the people who regularly engage in conversation here are/were/are becoming practicing intellectual historians — though, as Ray points out, the conversation pulls from a much broader range of professional strata than one might expect to find in the pages of MIH. Manifestly, we are not all senior scholars here, though senior scholars do participate in this discourse, often in response to the comments/questions of very junior scholars, or even undergrads.

    This dialogue, it seems to me, is part of what Ray (probably) means by “an adequate chance to consider” these kinds of views.

    I agree that the medium itself, the technology itself, isn’t implicitly “transformational.” It’s all in how you use it. We could make this blog a subscribers-only community, or we could set the comments feature to allow only registered users, or whatever. But as we’re using the technology now, the platform is pretty open. As long as you’re not peddling Viagra or Russian porn sites, you can express your views.

    And now, thanks to this comment, when someone is googling Viagra and Russian porn, USIH will show up in the results. So who knows what audience these essays will reach.

    You’re welcome.

  5. Thanks to LD and Bill for their thoughtful responses and exchange. I’m tempted to be real brief and say, this kind of exchange is precisely what I tried to get at in my post. But Bill raised an issue that I am glad to I get a chance to address.

    I understand that my post can suggest that new medium = new ideas and therefore more interesting community of intellectual historians. That would underestimate everyone involved in these communities. Many of the folks in the MIH forum have been great supporters of this blog and of the conference associated with it. Moreover, many of us who write for this blog are quite driven to produce work that responds to and falls with the parameters staked out by the MIH contributors.

    I wanted to take a moment to recognize that two really interesting exchanges had taken place in the span of a week that made the field of intellectual history richer for their existence. Both Livingston and Wickberg stand as established figures in this field, so the fact that their posts attracted attention is not surprising. But the exchanges involving their work happened on this blog with an immediacy that has significance that goes beyond the technology that allows such immediacy. My point is this: the MIH forum represents one way we–those of us who do and are interested in US intellectual history–know where the field is and this blog has suggested another way that we know that same landscape. But that landscape looks different if you see it from these two different vantage points. I think that matters. And when I asked, what if this blog didn’t exist, I was asking if knowing what we do about the blog, what might we understand about its place in the field and the field itself in light of that recognition.

    When I have done research on the exchanges between intellectuals and among the public about ideas championed by those intellectuals, the technological web in which these exchanges took place mattered. In mid-twentieth century America, it mattered that people published and were read in many different journals, newspapers, and magazines. If it mattered then, it matters now that intellectual historians publish in an established and important journal such as MIH and it matters that they write posts and respond to comments on this blog. Community matters, and so I wondered in my post what kind of community this blog has contributed to building.

  6. Ray – Thanks for your response, and I mostly agree. Sure, no one wants to take a simplistic “new medium = new ideas” position, and I was probably unfair to detect a reprise of McLuhan. What I perhaps should have done was address the slippery and sometimes vacuous term “community,” used to describe both the social entities that technologies are supposed to generate, and others things such as professional groups.

    You say, “Community matters, and so I wondered in my post what kind of community this blog has contributed to building.” I wonder too, and only time will tell whether intellectual history develops more into distinct, perhaps partially congruent communities, or a single, larger one; whether consensus or contest is more the norm; etc. All a part of the social history of intellectuals.

    Few would disagree that the blog provides at least the potential for broad, vigorous debate, though whether it’s exceptional in that regard isn’t yet clear. I’ll stand by my earlier observation about the blog to this point.

    One doesn’t need to be technophobe or rank traditionalist to point out that “new” shouldn’t be equated with “better”, spontaneity and “immediacy” confused with intellectual innovation, or traditional institutions dismissed as necessarily hide-bound defenders of exhausted paradigms. Don’t most scientific revolutions come from within?

    It seems that Wickberg intended to suggest that the MIH forum, representing an intellectual community of professional gatekeepers fused into the broader historical discipline, is mirrored in — and enforces — a particular view of intellectual history.

    A connection between social and ideational is implied by his notion of the “slippage” he detects in Leslie Butler’s essay. The distinction between “history” — the ding an sich — and “history” the discipline, is elided, and the dicta of the latter are taken as guide to the “real” of the former, which in turn instrumentalizes ideas, rendering intellectual history “a handmaiden to the dominant or mainstream narrative of political, economic, and social change.”

    Wickberg doesn’t make the connection, but I thought you were suggesting that the atmosphere of vigorous debate he looks for is strongly associated with the blog medium. You did say that

    in a world where academic status and the reception of publications can make one’s career, we cultivated a virtual world out of necessity. After all, there is an undeniable connection between those intellectual historians who are prominent and the prominence of the models [they] offer.

    Wickberg says that the substantive position represented in the forum emphasizes “institutional, social, and public life as the forum in which ideas count,” and you used the same terms to characterize the “life of US intellectual history as produced by a forum like that in the MIH.” Perhaps that’s what led me to think you were paralleling the “world” of the forum and its view of intellectual history, and implying an analogous strong connection between the blog and Wickberg’s “idealist” approach.

    Hopefully, as people read the MIH essays and Wickberg’s response, we’ll have more discussion.

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