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.