U.S. Intellectual History Blog

James Livingston’s Comedy of History

[Today I offer you a guest post from long-time USIH blog and conference participant, William “Bill” Fine. Enjoy! – TL]

In reviewing Jim Livingston’s recent USIH articles and a few posts in his Politics and Letters blog* I’m persuaded that he speaks out of a deeply personal desire to advance a view of history that supports present and future hopes—in spite of his assertion that the priority must be on “going back” to recover historical contexts. [“Museum”]

Livingston might be seen to contradict himself in declaring that the past both exists and does not exist, or that history can be a guide and yet be open to whatever meanings we might project onto it. For him, knowledge of reality is mediated by language and other cultural forms, it’s “what we can act upon,” so “the past as such [is] indistinguishable from what we have said about it.” At the same time, he makes numerous truth-claims. For example, he’s annoyed that Paul Murphy allegedly didn’t practice sufficient “estrangement” from the ‘20s context, on the assumption that it’s a foreign world. But the warrant for that truism isn’t obvious. It’s not that Murphy draws lessons from the past, it’s that he misunderstands its relation to our “different” historical moment, and so draws the wrong lessons. Maybe we can’t understand ‘20s intellectuals without “going back,” but we have to understand them before we can assume the need to do so. [“Museum”]

Both Livingston and his interlocutors soften contradictions into paradoxes that seem to capture the multi-dimensional character of historical practice. Two of Livingston’s best are: “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”; and “the past is both real and artificial. Like God, it’s consequential because we created it. The past is what we make of it…but we make it from these raw materials, and meanwhile they make us.” [“Museum”]

Ray Haberski generously finds in the latter a way “around” the either/or of determinism versus freedom, while Dan Wickberg opines that inconsistency is a matter of perception, and at least our modern critical tools protect us from the temptations of totalism. [“Museum”] Along similar lines, William Cronon, in “Loving History,” in Perspectives on History, sees “two fundamentally competing orientations for approaching history”—summarized as “how did things get to be this way?” and “the past is a foreign country.” But he concludes that, if history is to retain its attraction for professionals and others, “we need them both.” What Livingston said of the Rutgers conference on W.A. Williams into might apply here: “there was too much consensus, too little conflict.”

We could shift from logic to rhetoric, to see where and how Livingston deploys points that otherwise might be thought irreconcilable. Sometimes, in criticizing another historian, such as Paul Murphy, or advancing his own positions, he implies a fairly certain knowledge, saying that some views “deny reality,” while others accord with “the world as it actually exists.” There is no particular reason not to take him at his word, as others do in responding to his truth-claims. But at other junctures, to defend against the charge he isn’t a proper historian, he adopts a different rhetoric, asserting at one point that there’s no “practical difference between history, the past as such, and historiography, our interpretations of the past, because all we actually know about the past is contained in those interpretations.” [“Williams”]

The past has a number of discrete though related meanings in his work. Sometimes it’s the almost infinitely plastic material we shape in acts of knowing, as if the very idea of representation implies a closed reality. At other times the past possesses “legibility,” a metaphor he uses repeatedly. The term implies something pre-constituted as text-like, decipherable by historical actors and historians. So, for ‘20s intellectuals, the divide between traditional and modern “became legible…as fundamental change in the meanings of work, labor, and necessity.” [“Museum”] In his article on W.A. Williams, “historical circumstances” themselves are described as directly legible, as are both the “original intent” of the Open Door and the immanence of our “ethical principles” in that setting.

On the other hand, the past is presented as virtually created and cumulatively enriched through narrativizing. In his blog, discussing Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” novels dealing with the trauma of a main character raped by his father, Livingston criticizes those who say it’s a denial of real suffering to read such events as only “fantasy,” since in themselves they are “meaningless.” [“Pol and Letters” – 5.2.12]. Some might insist instead that human events are by definition meaningful, though it’s not clear how much difference it makes — to the traumatized, for instance—whether stories recount things that actually occurred. Still, if events lack their own legibility, in what sense can they be “falsified” by narratives, except by contrast to some other unnamed device? In any case, here narratives produced over time by different actors accumulate richer meanings, redeeming traumatic pasts, rendering events “significant…as moments in a meaningful sequence,” a story that can be retold. [“Politics and Letters” – 5.18.12]

Livingston’s freewheeling constructionism implies an ontological and epistemological pluralism that stands over against what he calls “metaphysical” accounts that presume an objective, realist history, a “Totalism” or “Absolute”; monolithic, deterministic, and typically declensionist. As he puts it at one point, “the truth of historical reality is always plural. The rhetorics are the reality.” [“Museum”] Perhaps he tends to universalize the interpretive chaos of our historical moment; either way, that wouldn’t prove we don’t live in a block universe after all.

Sometimes he goes further, insisting that good history confirms an emancipatory potential immanent in the historical process, and that history tends toward the good—or will if we think and act properly. For example, in his article on Williams, Livingston writes approvingly that:

“Williams assumed that a post-imperialist future was legible in the original intent of what he called the “imperialism of idealism” and in the real differences over diplomatic means and ends…. Without that assumption,…his critique…stops making sense because its fulfillment would then require the evasion of the world as it actually exists [which] would not allow for history as a way of learning. If the ethical principles of a post-imperialist future do not reside in the historical circumstances…then our only honorable recourse is to repudiate and escape those circumstances….”

Later, in the same essay, he generalizes what’s at stake:

“When people start wishing that things were better and assuring you that they won’t be, largely because nothing has ever changed except for the worse, you know that you’re in the presence of Kantian radicals who lack, or despise, historical consciousness—you’re in the presence of metaphysicians who know the past cannot be a guide to the present because it is the repository of myths, lies, deceptions, and their attendant moral atrocities.”

Livingston is fond of drawing a contrast between Kant and Hegel [though he seems to mention the former by name more than the latter], which he understands in part as the contrast between a morality that stands apart from and tries to impose itself on the world, and one that sees morality to “reside in and flow from historical circumstances,” as he wrote in his “Response to Cotkin.” [JHI 69, 1, April 2008] This may be taken as a descriptive sociological point—and Livingston among others have shown how “the social self” developed out of the interaction of Hegelian idealism and pragmatism, along with feminism. But to me this is quite different than using it to build a philosophy of history.

In “Socialism Without Socialists” [“Politics and Letters” – 7.25.12] Livingston challenges the pessimists of the left, using the terms of Kant vs Hegel to frame a stark choice: one embraces the present, recognizes that the left is everywhere, and “sees the ethical principles of socialism residing in and flowing from historical circumstances…not as ideas imposed from elsewhere,” partly because cultural has replaced political change. The other, from a fixed point of moralistic purity, gives up on a hopeless world, taking refuge in a saving remnant with no one to save, “leading us away from the world as it is.”

Whatever case might be made for Livingston’s argument that the left has been victorious, here he gives full-out expression to a historical teleology almost beyond intention or agency, a progressive conductorless orchestration that “recognize[s] what we ought to be doing in what we’re already doing.” [cf. his quotation of an early, still very Hegelian Dewey in the Williams article] Unless we accept these ideas, we’re denying reality and destroying all hope and possibility; the study of the past must affirm what present circumstances demand.

At the outset I speculated that Livingston is motivated by “deeply personal desire,” which of course goes far beyond what I could know, much less demonstrate, and it’s not terribly relevant anyway in assessing his work. I’m not sure how much is accountable as an act of will in depressing times, and how much flows from a secure confidence in his comic-religious, metaphysical vision. Because he so often frames his arguments in terms of the either/or of hope vs. despair, my guess is that there’s a good bit of trying in his believing. His efforts to show empirically that left-liberalism has “won” notwithstanding, my guess is that most people will see it as a framework brought to history—a leap of sorts—rather than supported by it. Indeed, if he is as much of a Hegelian as I think, it’s not easy to see how it ever could be, partly because we’re not done yet.

Anyway, seeing what comedy sometimes makes of irony, I miss a sense of the obdurate, of difficult trade-offs, the complexities of unintended consequences, the limitations of narrative—-and a sense of the past as/in the present, the world to which we accommodate ourselves. I’m inclined to read his comic teleology as more a reflex of its historical moment than a way beyond.

 * I draw on the following sources and indicate them following quotations:


“Near Dark at the Museum,” 7/12/12; and
“William Appleman Williams: Fifty Years After His Book on the Tragedy of American Diplomacy,” 7/19/12.

Politics and Letters

a. “The Weight of the Past,” Part 1 (4/22/12), Part 2 (5/2/12), and Part 3 (5/18/12);

b.  “Socialism Without Socialists, or, What’s the Matter With Leftists?” 7/25/12.