U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What the Hell

A few weeks ago, this blog published Jim Livingston’s savage critique of Paul Murphy’s new book.  The critique was part of a roundtable organized by Tim Lacy, our outgoing book review editor.  I am our current book review editor.  When I read Livingston’s piece, I thought, What the hell have I gotten myself into?

I wasn’t just wondering about the book review editing gig, or doubting the wisdom of the blogging gig (from which I was taking a working break).  What I really had in mind was the entire field and practice of U.S. intellectual history. 

That review scared me to death.  It was a hit job; I mean, it was a frickin’ crime scene.  I was stunned, shocked into silence — sure that I had witnessed something awful and wrong, but afraid to say a thing about it publicly.  I did write Jim Livingston privately about it, but I didn’t say a thing on this blog. 

Nobody did.  The whole day that review just sat there, drawing traffic like crazy, and generating who knows what back-channel conversations — but eliciting not a single remark from any of us, all day long.  Then at three in the morning on the day after the essay went up, a blog commenter I hadn’t seen in this space before remarked (in a way) on our collective spectatorial silence, but said nothing about the spectacle itself:  a senior historian practically eviscerating a junior scholar.

Finally, the day after the review went up, Dan Wickberg took Livingston on.  I saw Wickberg’s name in the sidebar, and I thought, “Thank God; we’re off the hook.  The Cavalry has arrived.”  If anybody exemplifies both intellectual rigor and professional comity, it is Dan Wickberg. If anybody were to speak with unquestionable authority and unwavering collegiality, I knew that Dan would be the one to do it.

Then I came to the closing lines of his comment:

“Instead of farting in the museum, give us a careful and considered argument. We’re all adults here; I think we can handle it.”

I could not believe my eyes.  Farting in the museum?  Dan Wickberg wrote this?

What the hell!


But of course, when I re-read the whole comment, it made perfect sense, and I could see exactly what Wickberg was trying to do.  He was basically asserting that Livingston’s critique amounted to a bit of adolescent behavior meant to shock the priggish, stuffy, dusty old traditional profession of intellectual history.  By starting his comment with an offhanded “oh, hell,” and ending it with a nonchalant reference to “farting in the museum” (something, alas, I will never be able to un-read), Wickberg was attempting to demonstrate that if Livingston’s “screed” is falling on deaf ears, it’s not because historians are scandalized by his potty-mouthed language.  It’s because he’s not making a convincing argument.

But if you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, I guess you don’t bring a fart to a shit-slinging contest.  Livingston’s reply to Wickberg’s charge of “farting in the museum” was an affectionate and admiring “fuck you.”

“What the hell,” I thought.  “He did NOT just say that.”

It’s not that I was scandalized or even surprised by Livingston’s reply.  (It’s not that I wasn’t ever so slightly amused by it, either.)  Instead, I was disappointed. I wanted to hear the argument that Dan had invited him to make.

So I wrote Jim and told him that he blew it; he missed an opportunity to make his case to someone who represents the profession in a way that is open to critique and willing to take Livingston’s ideas seriously. 

“You have to admit,” I wrote, “he rolled out the red carpet for you to deliver a damning indictment of the whole discipline.  A scathing Jeremiad.  But you have too much of the Prophet Ezekiel about you today.  But whenever you’re ready to write a guest post, let me know.”

I am very pleased to say that Jim Livingston took me up on my offer.  He has written a thoughtful essay that is predictably provocative, but perhaps profitably so as well. 

It’s not a scathing jeremiad, nor is it the cryptic musing of a prophet too easily mistaken for a madman.  In this essay, which will be published here on the blog on Thursday, Livingston revisits and to a certain extent revises his earlier critique of Paul Murphy’s book.  He does so as part of an insightful meditation on the practice and purpose of doing history.  Indeed, to call this piece a “historiographic essay” doesn’t quite do it justice.  Such a description gets at the genre but not the gist, the type but not the tone.  Livingston’s essay is historiographical, and then some — it is an inescapably elegiac homage to the historical profession, a profession that must not be content with writing elegies.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m looking forward to Jim’s considered reply to Dan’s provocation.

    I didn’t respond to Jim’s original review of Paul’s book because, well, I knew that Paul had plans to do so.

    FWIW: I also took Jim’s “review” as less a complaint about Paul’s book than an opportunity for Jim to complain about history’s apparent uselessness in the face of present crises. Jim’s concerns range far and wide, and I read his review to be as much about *his* nervousness about the effectiveness of our field—i.e. what can the past, let alone U.S. intellectual history, tell us about our deep political and economic problems? In other words, Jim’s was a savage attack on the field, not Paul’s book.

    But maybe my memory of the review is faulty? It may be, as I’ve been dealing with lots of “distractions” over the past month. – TL

  2. Dan’s provocation? Surely you can’t be serious!

    But it is a considered reply — and I should have mentioned in this preview that in addition to revisiting his critique of Murphy’s book, Livingston also engages Jackson Lears’s thinking from a recent essay in The Hedgehog Review.

    It’s a good read.

    As far as Wickberg’s infamous comment…I think it would make a great slogan for the masthead of the blog. Or maybe we could put it on a T-shirt for the conference. It’s really a fine motto for intellectual historians:

    “Instead of farting in the museum, give us a careful and considered argument.”

  3. I love this post LD. Dwelling as I am outside the world of academia I’m not always sure that some of these comments aren’t a little loaded with personal relationships gone awry. I can’t emphasize enough that the more I read these posts and comments that clarity of intent and of interpretation is so vitally important to understanding.

    I have to say I vacilliated between approving Wickberg’s response but appreciating Livingston’s man of the street challenge only because, as Livingston has a penchant for doing, he makes you reconsider your suppositions. Of course, it’s a question that every student that has to take a survey course asks but when a noted historian makes the observation it matters.

    I very much look forward to Livingston’s response and really appreciate you going the extra mile to facilitate it.

  4. I think there are some slightly crossed wires in this recap of events. Wickberg framed Livingston’s provocation as an instance of “Épater la bourgeoisie,” a characterization with which you seem to agree. I did not read it that way, and from Livingston’s response, I don’t think he intended it that way, either. As I understand it, the proper analogy might be to the response of heterodox economists to the continued self-satisfaction of mainstream economists in the wake of the financial meltdown. If a new textbook in the Mankiw-ian vein was treated in a manner similar to Livingston’s review of Murphy, would we assume that the author was being a flamboyant maverick, indulging a childish impulse to befoul the bourgeois citadel? I don’t think so. In fact, such a description seems a dodge, a way to protest that social conventions have been breached without taking on the content of the critique. Perhaps we might more productively see an intervention such as Livingston’s as a healthy response to the profession’s commitments to the old ways of doing things, its susceptibility to the syndrome that Lacan called “ostrichism.”

    If “senior” scholars aren’t jumping into the fray–and by the way, this whole “senior” and “junior” scholar thing seems really hierarchical and old-fashioned–that does not mean that Livingston failed to ask the right questions. Couldn’t it also mean that secure professionals are merely choosing to ignore questions that they don’t want to answer? Does the fact that historians are more concerned, by and large, with how long the sixties lasted than with the fate of the “history professor” as a social actor (a conclusion we would have to reach if we were to measure how much discussion is generated by different questions) really mean that Livingston hasn’t posed his question effectively?

  5. Paul, thank you for your kind words about this post. I felt it was important to explain my reasons for inviting Jim to formulate a more articulate and substantial response to Dan’s critique.

    As to whether or not Dan’s insistence on an argument rather than a “screed” was fair (responding to Sadbillionaire now)…

    Livingston seemed to think so, since he went ahead and wrote the follow-up post. Moreover, he said as much on his own blog.

    As to my crossed wires…I didn’t offer any theories as to why the original review received no comments for almost a day; I simply gave the reason for my own silence. Perhaps you are right — perhaps most of the senior intellectual historians who read this blog (all five of them?) stayed out of it because they were just so distracted by trivialities or so lost in the hierarchical formalities of academe or so overwhelmed by the damning truth of Livingston’s charges that they dared not attempt an answer.

    Or maybe they didn’t see the post.

    Or maybe, as Wickberg suggested, they saw nothing new in it.

    In any case, I was really glad to publish the follow-up post, in which Livingston made an intriguing argument for a particular understanding of the historian’s dilemma and suggested a possible solution. That post in turn elicited some smart, sharp, but very civil and substantial responses.

    That’s how we roll here at the USIH blog. Most of the time.

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