U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The History Wars and Detachment

In her post, “A Canon Canon,” L.D. asks readers to suggest books related to the canon debates of the 1980s, which crystallized with the Stanford “Great Books” debate, L.D.’s dissertation topic. L.D. seems both excited and worried about her topic’s continued relevance, about how such relevance should or should not inform her approach. As she writes: “At some point—and I haven’t quite identified that point yet—the debate about canons and canonicity shifts from a historic moment that I am examining to a current critical discourse into which I am, as the argot of academe has it, ‘making an intervention.’ This is one of the (many!) tricky methodological challenges of my dissertation.”
In the comments section, I posted the bibliography of the most important books I used and/or analyzed in my chapter on the topic of the canon wars (one chapter of nine on the history of the culture wars). My list of books provoked this response from L.D.: “This is both informative and illustrative. Your list instantiates exactly the oscillation I see ahead—a toggling between immediacy and remove, a scholarly debate as a historic ‘event’ and ‘detached’ scholarship about the event.”
Does writing about topics in such close proximity to our lives—temporally, professionally, epistemologically, politically, perhaps even psychologically—change our approach? Are we more likely to engage our subjects as contemporaries? Are we more likely to enter into the struggles that we are seeking to understand and analyze? I find these methodological questions fascinating.

I admit that when I first chose the culture wars as the topic of my second book, I had similar concerns. I had a dog in the race, so to speak. But I did not want to write yet another culture wars polemic, yet another missive against all that is wrong in the world. To my happy surprise, once I began my research I felt less of a subjective pull. I started seeing historical subjects worthy of historical analysis. Yes, I disagree with many culture warriors (and I even agree with a few). But I also feel detached from them. I suppose this is as it should be (although my former self would be surprised not only by my detachment but also by my comfort with such detachment).
None of this is an endorsement of detachment in and of itself. Sometimes, I think, a full-throttle polemic is in order (as I hoped to make evident by the example of my very un-detached essay on Teach for America). But I also think learning how to be detached from the culture wars has improved my ability to understand them. In writing my chapter on the canon wars, I felt like a distant observer, much as I would if I had written a chapter on the Constitutional Convention. I held no more affinity for a poststructuralist obliterator of canons like Stanley Fish than I did for a traditionalist defender of them like Allan Bloom. I identified no more with Richard Rorty than with Dinesh D’Souza (this definitely came as a surprise). Of course, this does not mean I sought faux “objectivity” in the fashion of some half-wit television host like David Gregory: “Let both sides present their case, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle; or, at least we won’t be accused of bias, the ultimate sin of political reporting).” No, in writing my canon wars chapter, detachment meant I had the freedom to point out the contradictions that inevitably formed the arguments of all of my subjects, such an approach being a means to a better historical understanding.
In sum, L.D.’s “tricky methodological challenge” is not necessarily mine. For the most part. I am currently writing a chapter on a topic from which detachment is proving more difficult. The topic is the “history wars” and the chapter deals with some of the infamous controversies about public history from the 1990s, especially the brouhahas over the Enola Gay and National History Standards. It also is an intellectual history of the methodological debates about the historical discipline that were embedded in these larger public history struggles. Historians are the main subjects; historiography is the central content. In other words, this chapter hits close to home. The reason for this is not because I want to take sides, although I am more tempted here than in my other chapters. Rather, I am finding detachment more difficult because the explanations and arguments offered by historians are my own. I have been trained to think like my subjects. More than that, given that my subjects are some of the most influential historians of the last few decades, given that their books have often been de rigueur in graduate historiography seminars, it’s not too far fetched to claim that I have been trained to think like my subjects by my subjects.
By the early 1990s, a debate had ensued about the proper approach historians should take to the past. On the one hand were traditionalists, who caustically criticized the hold social and cultural history had taken on the larger discipline, to the demise of traditional political and, yes, intellectual history. They charged that New Historians were relativists who no longer believed in the longstanding purpose of the historical craft, to shed light on the truth. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, one such traditionalist, maintained that privileging the “holy trinity” of race-class-gender was an ahistorical imposition of present concerns on the past. On the other hand were postmodernists on the order of Hayden White, who provocatively claimed that the work of the historian was no more than “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse.” The contours of this debate were not new, but the political urgency of it was unique, given the larger context.
Most professional historians sought to carve out a middle ground in these historiography wars. In their 1994 book, Telling the Truth About History, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob sought to “take on both the relativists on the left and the defenders of the status quo ante on the right.” Eschewing both epistemological (if not political) extremes, they argued in favor of “a democratic practice of history [that] encourages skepticism about dominant views, but at the same time trusts in the reality of the past and its knowability.” But, while charting this middle ground, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob offered a compelling analytical framework that explained how historiographical developments had contributed to a traditionalist-postmodernist binary that seemed false. Social historians, who came of age in the 1970s on the heels of the sixties liberation movements, wrote histories of marginalized groups, predominantly blacks, women, and workers, that complicated traditional, often triumphalist narratives of the United States. But they accomplished this with traditional methodologies and epistemologies. “Social historians did not oppose the standards of objectivity or the codes of professional discipline; they used those very standards to challenge the traditional interpretations which had excluded marginal or nonconforming historical groups.” That said, no matter their objective intentions, social historians undermined the premise of historical objectivity by revealing that historical narratives were always partial, always political. “It is as if the social historians with their passion for breaking apart the historical record had dug a potentially fatal hole into which history as a discipline might disappear altogether.”
I can’t detach from these subjects because their analysis seems, well, truthful. As such, I see Telling the Truth as both a primary and secondary source. (The same goes for a few other sources, especially Peter Novick’s brilliant That Noble Dream, which emerged from the same historiographical crisis about the “objectivity question.”)

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Some off-the-cuff thoughts:

    Like many (hopefully most) professional historians, I’ve thought a lot about detachment. I’ve always admired engaged intellectuals (historians and otherwise) in the existential tradition. But, to me, some degree of remove, of detachment, is necessary before one can get to that point. The engagement is about learning and knowing something that matters, still, in the present. The “matters” should involve some channeled passion. I see it as a passion for bigger ideas and deeper currents of thought, which allows for some remove from the actors themselves.

    This approach has mattered in relation to Mortimer J. Adler and the great books idea. It was Adler who introduced me to philosophy and the great books idea, so I have a soft spot in my heart for popularizers. They matter, now and in the past. So I’m with the spirit that guided Adler. But I found it easy to feel detached from the particular circumstances of his life. I felt no need to defend him or his brand of popularization. It was easy, in my own book project, to see his weaknesses and underscore them for the reader.

    Now, on the great books idea, it’s both harder and easier to be removed. It is easier in the sense that Adler introduced me to the great books idea, and I have that remove from the person. And it’s easy to be removed from particular incarnations of the great books idea. But I still have a deep belief in reading challenging books, new and old, that illustrate big ideas, that talk philosophy. So on that score I like to think of myself as an engaged scholar–aware of my position, aware of the position of the great books idea over time, and aware of its promoters. But I’m ultimately a fan of pushing readers to read all sorts of “great books,” to attend to the great books idea. It’s a liberal arts/humanities thing.
    I’m addicted and am a pusher.

    So detachment matters, but so does hard core engagement. Now to your questions:

    1. “Does writing about topics in such close proximity to our lives—temporally, professionally, epistemologically, politically, perhaps even psychologically—change our approach?”

    ME: Yes, it does. One has to be more aware of the perceptions of readers, and hence more careful in argument. We have to prove to our readers that we can be emotionally detached from the circumstances in which we lived.

    2. “Are we more likely to engage our subjects as contemporaries?”

    ME: It depends. There’s room for historical thinking and present analysis, so long as due/thorough attention has been given to the former. But I’d rather read the writings of someone who sees her/his subject as of consequence than otherwise.

    3. “Are we more likely to enter into the struggles that we are seeking to understand and analyze?”

    ME: Yes, I think we are—if we’ve chosen a subject to study about which we care deeply and which struggles still remain (e.g. great books idea). We can be both removed and engaged in the/a text. Or we can be removed more in the text and save our engagement for other writings. But if we were engaged, thinking beings during a time of struggle over a cultural event/topic/person, then it may be difficult to get over that struggle later. For my part, though I came to care about the great books idea in the early/mid-1990s, I just missed those titanic struggles of the late 1980s. So I can explore that territory from the 1980s with some emotional and intellectual safety.

    Anyway, good stuff! Thanks for bringing it up here. – TL

  2. I agree that the methodological issues here are fascinating. In commenting on LD’s observations [USIH – 12.1.12] about the “point” at which, so to speak, primary works become secondary works, I suggested instead a fluid space in which boundaries of past and present are mutually and repeatedly negotiated, bound up with understandings of temporality and the nature of historical investigation.

    Your reflections provide helpful insights and raise some questions for me about the devices used to arrive at a sense of what’s close and what’s distant. But it would be interesting to know more about how you came to the self-description of “distant observer” of the culture wars; how, partly by conscious choice and partly by surprise, you came to feel “less of a subjective pull [and] started seeing historical subjects worthy of historical analysis.” What sort of distance is it that creates such worthiness?

    Maybe part of the perceived difference between your relation to the culture wars and the history wars has to do with the idea they have somewhat different temporalities — at least as viewed through the lens of your experience and sense of what’s close to home. I’m not sure whether you’d say greater detachment from the culture wars is partly a matter of their being more of the past than the present, but clearly you think the history wars in a real way live on, having framed the way in which you — and implied others of your generation — think as historians.

    But, if debates within the discipline “were embedded in…larger public history struggles,” it seems reasonable to think both were in turn embedded in the culture wars. How is it possible then to be detached from the one and not the other? You might be less distanced from the culture wars — and/or more from the history wars — than you suppose.

    The “detachment” that provides “freedom” to adopt a critical perspective toward the culture wars doesn’t come as readily with the history wars, since you were taught by historians who participated in them. Is it that you can’t detach because “their analysis seems, well, truthful,” or that it seems truthful because you can’t detach? I thought that with your emphasis on “training” and inability to gain much distance, you come across as too-passive a product of your historically specific disciplinary enculturation [to use some words].

    Detachment from at least some subject matters may be possible, but never from your professional training. But maybe there’s a false choice at work — or do only false ideas have histories and social bases?

  3. continued …

    In any case, this all seems too grim. For one thing, you and the discipline will likely make all sorts of turns and re-turns in coming decades. And you’ve already gained some detachment from the history wars, by very act of reflecting on how they’ve shaped you — even if you’re not a comfortably “distant observer.”

    In the meantime, it might be good to keep alive a sense of varied live options, instead of opting for Appleby’s “middle ground” — particularly since today there’s so much relevant discussion, such as the recent forum on “Historiographic ‘Turns’ in Critical Perspective,” AHR, June 2012.

    Interestingly, while you feature the difficulty of detaching from the history wars, some call attention to an excessive, or the wrong kind of distancing. Judith Surkis, for example, criticizes overly coherent, homogenized treatments of the linguistic turn, especially those linked with a generational account. Here historicizing can involve a distancing that consigns important but divisive issues to the past, neutralizing their challenge, restoring a shared identity to the discipline and providing the current generation with space for new beginnings. [By the way, Surkis criticizes Joyce Appleby, etal, eg, in n.45]

    A couple of years ago Dan Wickberg [USIH – 11.5.10] made some of these same points — and also criticized Appleby, along with Gabrielle Spiegel — writing that “for the past decade we have heard that we need to get ‘beyond’ the linguistic and cultural turns — which, as far as I can tell, means we need to pretend that they never happened and reaffirm our old epistemic practices with all their unquestioned assumptions.”

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