U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Near Dark at the Museum

by James Livingston

Five years ago I wrote a piece on Richard Hofstadter for boundary 2, the literary journal edited by Paul Bove out of the University of Pittsburgh.  The occasion was David S. Brown’s strangely reductive biography. Here’s how the thing began in draft.

The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances (and these circumstances include the range of ideological commitments they can profess with plausibility).  We “go back” to the people of the past in the hope of changing our perspectives on the present and thus multiplying our choices about the future. 

But these people with whom we differ, and from whom we must learn, are, to begin with, other historians; for we can’t peek around our corner of the present as if they aren’t there, standing between us and the archive, telling us how to approach it.

No one gets to the “primary sources,” whether they’re constituted as the historical record or the literary canon, without going through the priests, scribes, librarians, professors, critics—the professionals—who created them in retrospect, in view of their own intellectual obligations and political purposes.  In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it’s the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch.  It’s the endless argument about what the future holds; for the form and content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.

Richard Hofstadter understood these obvious yet awkward facts better than anyone of his generation, even better, I think, than William Appleman Williams or Eugene D. Genovese or C. Vann Woodward, three great scholars whose published works had improbably profound political consequences in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  “Historians do not have direct access to their subjects,” as he put it in 1956.  So we don’t have to “go back” very far to appreciate Hofstadter’s lasting effects on American intellectual life.  Indeed I would suggest that we’re just now catching up with him. 

I borrowed these metaphors of going back and catching up from Lewis Mumford’s book on Herman Melville, which was published in 1929.  It’s not actually a biography: the author consciously omitted quotation marks around his subject’s utterance, so there’s no way to tell where Mumford leaves off and Melville begins.  You could of course read this book as a therapeutic answer to Van Wyck Brooks’s unfinished biography of Emerson—the writing of which drove Brooks mad.  But no matter how you read it, these metaphors are unequally useful.  You can’t “go back” to the past without the conviction that it’s always already different from the present, but when you feel you’re just catching up with something from the past, that difference is erased. 

The historian’s obligations, as I understand them, are unequal in the same sense.  I can demonstrate to you how we finally caught up to Hofstadter—I can show you how fresh and immediate his methods and insights remain—but my prior task is to lead you across the historical gap that separates us from him, regardless of how close he might appear to us in chronological time or in political sensibility.  If I don’t get this (hermeneutical) priority straight, if I don’t explain why and how we have to “go back,” I’m ignoring or denying the difference between the past and the present, not to mention our more local differences with Hofstadter as historians—I’m treating him as Mumford treated Melville, as a contemporary.  In doing so, I might be producing extraordinary insights, as Mumford did in ventriloquizing Melville, but I’m not doing History, because I’m overlooking the distinction between meaning and significance (Skinner), meanwhile assuming that understanding and explanation are equivalents (White).  Or put it this way: I’m doing History in the antiquarian mode, acting as if the continuity between past and present is a given—it’s normal or natural—rather than a mere possibility that has to be both produced and proven (Nietzsche, Foucault).

So what?  For many years now, my colleagues have told me that I’m not doing History, anyway—not even the history of ideas.  Their definition of my deviance takes two venerable forms.  On the one hand, they say that I’m doing Theory or Philosophy (of History?), on the grounds, as I understand them, that feminist theory or pragmatist philosophy can’t be both the method and the object, the means and the ends, of intellectual enterprise; or rather, they can be, but the result won’t be History.  On the other hand, they say that what I’ve written about pragmatism, particularly William James and John Dewey, is “fanciful” and “imaginative,” which means either that it lacks a known referent—admissible textual evidence—or that it exceeds the permissible, disciplinary boundaries of historical interpretation by favoring the sublime over the beautiful (Kloppenberg, Westbrook). 

Either way, the colleagues are saying that what I’ve written isn’t based on the facts, documents, and events that they know are relevant to the understanding (not explanation) of the subject at hand, whether that is pragmatism or feminism or corporate capitalism.  It’s instead overdetermined by an unseemly politics of interpretation which allows me to say that pragmatism and feminism were crucial ways of comprehending the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism as a social, political, and intellectual opportunity—as the opening act of a comedy, not the final scene of a tragedy (White, Burke).


Why, then, do I insist that I’ve been doing History all along?  Because I don’t see any practical difference between the past as such and what historians (and others) have said about it.  You know the refrain: “Of course interpretations of the past have changed, but not the past itself.”  (E. H. Carr naturalized this notion with his metaphor of the mountain that can be approached from many angles but never changes its shape.)   To which I say, really?  How would you know?  How would anybody?

Yes, there must be unknown moments from the past that still affect us—but again, how would we know without hiring a metahistorical psychoanalyst who was prepared to reveal this dreamwork to us?  The content of our thinking, no matter the object of our scrutiny, is not determined and cannot be known until it takes concrete social form, in language (signs) of some kind.  The content of our thinking about the past is no exception to this rule.  So why would we insist that the past exists apart from our thinking, writing, and teaching about it?

You might answer by saying that even before historians of class, gender, race, and sexuality built out the archive with new documents dredged from abandoned grottoes, subaltern groups were shaping the past from below, always already making history: workers did this, women did that, slaves and freedmen did it too, and eventually homosexuals got in the act.  The relevant facts were always there, right in front of us, we just didn’t notice them.  In short, the past didn’t change, our interpretations did.

Bullshit.  The past changed because the facts changed because the world changed.  You can put these nouns in any sequence you like.  The past in question here began changing for good in the 1950s, when the whole history of Reconstruction had to be revisited (“revised”) because the NAACP got the attention of the Supreme Court and the Montgomery Improvement Association meanwhile got the attention of everybody else.  When black folk became visible historical agents by organizing consumer boycotts, denouncing apartheid, and demanding the right to vote, the political past looked different, and so did the future, or rather the past looked different because the political future did.  In fact, the past was, suddenly, different.

Now the past I invoke is like any other reality, it’s what we can act upon—it’s what we can take for granted because we have decided on its scope and limits, or it’s what we have accepted without thinking, as an unspoken but effective grammar.  When we say that the reality has changed, however, we typically mean that we have changed it, and we mean this because we’re modern individuals.  The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries taught us what the Reformation did, that the condition of certainty in knowledge was experiment, in the sense that you had to manipulate objects in a purposeful manner if you were to produce the truth.  You couldn’t posit a prime mover and proceed logically from that premise to your conclusion about, say, planetary motion or salvation, you had instead to approximate the motion of bodies in space by miniaturizing and measuring them in a laboratory—or you had to claim that the Kingdom of God could be established here and now, on this earth and in these times.  Philosophers had interpreted the world differently.  Scientists and Protestants changed it.

I’m neither a scientist nor a Protestant, not anymore, and I can’t imagine how anybody would teach History as a science—actually, I can, because I served as Paul Kleppner’s TA for a year—but the point remains: and yet it moves.  The past as such, being indistinguishable from what we have said about it, changes to the precise extent that what we say about it changes.  This actionable object of knowledge—this reality—is as malleable as the mountains of West Virginia.


It follows, I think, that we cannot reproduce the past in any meaningful sense, at least not in good faith.  As both Werner Heisenberg and Elton Mayo discovered in the 1920s, observation is participation.  We’re acting on the past, changing the reality, whenever and however we write it up, because we enter from a world elsewhere—either we “go back”  in time or we acknowledge our separation in social space.

Paul Murphy’s book mystified and irritated me, then, because the writing exhibits no temporal or any other kind of estrangement from the historical moment we call the 1920s.  We don’t have to “go back” to understand this decade (and why do we follow the US Census in deciding on credible historical periods?), he assumes, because we’re in the same place—us intellectuals are unduly alienated from the masses, just like Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty and Nelson Lichtenstein said we were!  Once upon a time, before and after the 1920s, we weren’t, but our fallen state is not permanent.  We don’t have to stay all modernist, we too can make an “organic” connection to a usable past!

In this excruciating, exhortative respect, Murphy’s book reads like a reproduction of the present—in exactly the same way Mumford’s “biography” of Melville did.  But these writers, artists, and intellectuals of the 1920s are not our contemporaries, no matter how close they might feel and sound.  For every one of them, the novelty of the New Era was determined by its radical break from the past, and this break became legible, for every one of them, as fundamental change in the meanings of work, labor, and necessity.  They created new connections to the past, which is to say they recreated the past as such, because they knew it had been whirled away.  Unlike them, we can take that fundamental change for granted, so an explanation of it is in order—we’ll never understand them, or for that matter ourselves, without such an explanation, without “going back” to where they stood.


My colleague Jackson Lears has recently written an important historiographical intervention that intersects with what I’ve been arguing here.  The piece is called “The Trigger of History”; it was published in the Spring 2012 issue of The Hedgehog Review

Lears wants out of the “master narrative of modernity” because he insists we can claim the future by extricating ourselves from the story told there—it is only by changing the very idea of the past, he explains, that we can hope to make a future worth inhabiting.

That master narrative was of course codified by Marx, Weber, and Freud, who were able to show, sometimes without intending to, that capitalism and modernity are pretty much the same thing, because they share a “common future orientation and a common commitment to endless dynamism.”  In explaining this affinity or linkage, the masters sought a trigger of history, “a prime mover that would explain that quickening pace, that forward thrust, wherever it occurred”—something that expelled pre-modern people from their supposedly idyllic, naturally static lives, and that meanwhile started the train of “linear progress” toward the neoliberal wreck of our time.

Lears deftly criticizes all three of the masters, but he doesn’t blame them for the bleak techno-determinism their clerical epigoni have drawn from the original texts.  In fact, he suggests that the trigger metaphor can be “a weapon in the fight against determinism” because it lets us identify who pulls it under real historical circumstances, when genuine choices are available to real human beings.  And he evades the charge of nostalgia by insisting that longing for the good old days is like boarding the train of linear progress on its return trip—it puts you back on the same track first laid by the master narrative of modernity.

Get off the train, Lears urges us.  To do so, he says, is to develop a “politics of place,” which avoids an “oppressive linearity” by sidestepping not the condition of modernity but the master narratives that have convinced us of its ubiquity and inevitability.  Practically speaking, however, the necessary move is rhetorical, because the future changes only insofar as we are able to change the past, rewrite the story, and act upon it accordingly.  Our ability in this regard depends, though, on how seriously we can take the exiles and “off-modernists” among us, mainly artists like Bruno Schulz, Joseph Cornell, Walter Benjamin, Vladimir Nabokov, but then again the small farmers of Egypt who opted out of the increasingly neoliberal agricultural regime of the late 20th-century—all of them experts in getting out of the way of History.

My only objection to the argument is the how part, and this is where I’ll try, finally, to get myself in some trouble.  I agree, we have to change the past if we expect to change the future—and vice versa—but, speaking of the people with their fingers on the triggers, who can afford to ignore both by evacuating the present?  Apart from the 1%, who has enough resources to give up the gun and step off the train?  OK, those small Egyptian farmers did because they could feed themselves.  Can a working stiff, an administrative assistant, or a middle manager in the US do that?

“Determinism, in short, denies history,” Lears declares.  Really?  Are you are now free to choose your destiny because today is the first day of the rest of your life?  Or does the sequence work rather differently, like this: either we acknowledge that the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, shaping and determining us in the present, forcing us back to the primal scene of our crimes, making us change our stories, or we pretend that we’re weightless, free of all ties and obligations to this hollow shell we call the past, able to sample it at our leisure as if it’s a song on the iPod? 

Isn’t the question we’re asking as historians more difficult, more basic: how to refuse this either/or choice?

The past is both real and artificial.  Like God, it’s consequential because we created it.  The past is what we make of it—it’s narratives all the way down—but we make it from these raw materials, and meanwhile they make us. 

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Professor Livingston,

    Thanks for starting my day off on the right foot. Your intellectual tour de force about the uses of history is simply one of the best pieces I have digested in quite some time, and I hope it is read by a wide readership. I am also curious to see how many comments this post generates and the tenor and tone of the criticisms or congratulations. Since this essay builds upon some of the themes of Against Thrift, I know I should end my day with a decadent Kobe beef burger, but since I live in central Illinois I’ll have to choose between Culver’s and Steak n Shake.

  2. I take Jim’s point that as our understanding of the past changes so does the past itself. Perhaps the term “the past” is so woefully inadequate because it tries to describe a collection of everything from events (Carr’s mountains) to ideas (the inscrutable thinking about those mountains); and unlike the present and the future, the past is the only one of these temporal subjects that we actually try to define because it creates the other two.

    But let’s consider the part Jim thinks will get him in trouble. He concludes: “Or does the sequence work rather differently, like this: either we acknowledge that the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, shaping and determining us in the present, forcing us back to the primal scene of our crimes, making us change our stories, or we pretend that we’re weightless, free of all ties and obligations to this hollow shell we call the past, able to sample it at our leisure as if it’s a song on the iPod?”

    I thought one of the most intriguing features of Jim’s recent work was to offer a way around this either/or question. The ubiquity of the master narrative of modernity must relate directly to the saturation of conditions created by modernity. But ubiquity and saturation describe two significantly different problems for us to address. Ubiquity describes an acceptance of the narrative, as Jim contends, but saturation states the conditions in which most of us live—in Jim’s words, the working stiffs who don’t have the means “give up the gun and step off the train.” So to sidestep the master narrative of modernity it appears we need to use the conditions of modernity.

    What provides enough perspective on our collective condition to help us use those conditions of modernity? Well, what about writers like Jim and the many of us who try, like Paul’s intellectuals from the 1920s, to act within our moment but in from a position of some estrangement?

    The situation Jim sets up reminds me of the last seen in Christopher Nolan’s move Memento. The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, has killed a drug dealer and his friend Teddy has made that fact apparent to him. But Leonard doesn’t like to face that fact and lucky for him he has a memory problem that will allow him to forget it—to forget he is a serial killer—and, instead, create a new past in which his friend Teddy becomes his next victim. This scene comes at the end of the film because it demonstrates the moral of the story—Teddy is the prophetic voice in Leonard’s life because he stood in between Leonard’s present/future and his ability to influence both by recreating his past. If we are to return to the “primal scene of our crimes” what are we supposed to realize? Who or what serves as that prophetic voice speaking both within and outside the temporal scene that gave rise to the “nightmare…of the living”? I do think historians play this role; it’s why we write but it should also be why we speak to communities from hedge fund investors to religious congregations to readers of everything from Jacobin to the Huff Post.

  3. I find myself pulled into the foreboding darkness of Jim Livingston’s broader critical project, and I wish very much to escape. It is fine for Livingston to dislike the book, but please spare me my assigned role in his critical project as the latest naïve and simplistic prelapsarian historian who does not get what academics should have known since Hofstadter, that the “past” is not something that “exists apart from our thinking, writing, and teaching about it,” and whom therefore must move the mystified and irritated mind of Livingston to take keyboard in hand and dutifully savage and eviscerate it, to the reading pleasure of his many acolytes.

    Livingston dislikes the book I wrote because it “exhibits no temporal or any other kind of estrangement from the historical moment we call the 1920s,” which I take to mean, because it presents its subjects as relevant, takes them at face value, and misses the opportunity to deconstruct them. To paraphrase previous remarks, it is all just reporting of what happened. Given today’s post, there is also a covert endorsement of their diagnosis of the alienated condition of modern intellectuals that must be refuted. I fail the basic Hofstadterian test: I do not see the distance between their world and mine, I do not “go back,” but rather reproduce our concerns as theirs.

    This is not actually the case. In fact, I point out in the final paragraph of the book that the generation of mid-century intellectuals whom I identify as “modernist liberals” were increasingly irrelevant by the 1970s, which “marked the end of their era.” “As the liberal consensus collapsed and the American economy faltered, the cultural authority of modernist liberals dissipated as well” (210). Both neoconservatives and leftists dismissed them as overbearing elites, which is ironic, as the critics Right and Left were using the assumptions of liberal modernism itself to undercut the modernists’ authority. The book presents the modernist intellectuals of the 1920s as a class newly conscious of itself and adept at creating various tropes, “myths,” “symbols,” and “images” by which to claim social authority. They envisioned culture as a tool by which to seize power. Livingston declares that the intellectuals of the 1920s were focused on the “radical break from the past” that they thought their “New Era” presented, that they wanted to make this break “legible,” and that they saw “fundamental change in the meanings of work, labor, and necessity.” Right, I said that. Here is the first line of the book: “In the 1920s, Americans talked of their times as ‘modern,’ which is to say, fundamentally different, in pace and texture, from what went before—a new era” (1). More follows in the book.

    Livingston wants to have it both ways—insisting that the past is only what we write about it but chiding me for not “going back” and recording what really happened then as opposed to merely reproducing what is happening now. If the critique is postmodernist, it is fair for Livingston to be irritated with the book because he does not like the story. How do I then come in for criticism as ahistorical and inaccurate?

    Livingston places me in the company of Lasch, Rorty, Lichtenstein, and Mumford, which is the nicest thing he has to say, and it is flattering company. However, the book is not actually a modernist or antimodernist screed. I present the modernist worldview of these individuals as an intellectual construction created at a particular time that no longer holds sway in our culture. Their work and ideas may well be relevant all the same, and hopefully that will be the subject of many discussions among the students who read it. Livingston’s concerns go far beyond my work but it is—to quote the master—irritating to be slotted for a role in his narrative that does not fit.

  4. I’m a little wary about wading back in after I got “fuck youed” last time around, but I’ll try to get past it.

    I will say, this is more like it–less a drive-by shooting and more a sustained piece of critical thought. And I’m sympathetic, in general, to the critique of some of the dominant epistemological and metaphysical commitments of the profession. But Jim, you fall back into the same patterns you criticize, I think because we can’t do without them–there’s no getting off the train. That is, you tell us that there is no past independent of what we say about it, but you then seek to explain that conclusion as an extension of a modernism that changes because of external pressure upon intellectuals. Here, for instance:
    “The past in question here began changing for good in the 1950s, when the whole history of Reconstruction had to be revisited (“revised”) because the NAACP got the attention of the Supreme Court and the Montgomery Improvement Association meanwhile got the attention of everybody else. When black folk became visible historical agents by organizing consumer boycotts, denouncing apartheid, and demanding the right to vote, the political past looked different, and so did the future, or rather the past looked different because the political future did. In fact, the past was, suddenly, different.”

    Now, we could read this as just you saying something without any commitment to some real independent NAACP, Supreme Court, Montgomery Improvement Association, which are just signs to stand in for some version of “the 1950s,” but in fact, you fall into an historical explanation of a rather conventional kind in explaining why our ideas changed. And almost anyone reading this would see it as a rather conventional explanation of the kind historians have routinely put forward; political and social contexts and movements change, and the way we think about history changes in response to those external pressures. In explaining how we got into the cultural and intellectual conundrum we’re in, then, you rely pretty heavily on the conventions of historical writing–and, I don’t think, in fact, we can think and talk about modernism without those conventions. If Lears wants to find a way off the train, it strikes me that he’s simply reproducing the modernist conventions of freedom vs. determinism, agency vs. structure, gemeinschaft vs. gesellschaft, while acting as if modernity is just one side of those dualisms.

    All we’ve got are the tools we’ve got; critique is a modernist, historicist form. This seems hardly a reason for despair–it just means that the chastened and humble form of modernism is a better one for living than the totalizing and assertive form of endless revolution and dynamic progress. Maybe we need a new Stoicism– stop thinking you’re stuck, and you’re not. But don’t jump off a moving train–the results can’t be pretty.

  5. * Pithy too late (and written by an intellectual nobody) to be read comment*
    I wonder what the historians of the future did today to manipulate my life today?

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