U.S. Intellectual History Blog

One Standard, One Academy

“We have been the thing against which normality, whiteness, and functionality have been defined.” Robin D. G. Kelley

dinkins.guil

1.

In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani ran for mayor of New York City on the campaign slogan: “One Standard, One City.” As Kevin Baker later wrote in a scathing profile of Giuliani’s 2008 bid for the presidency, this motto “implied that somehow black New Yorkers were getting away with something under a black mayor,” Giuliani’s foe, David Dinkins. In other words, Giuliani’s call for universal standards was shot through with racial assumptions.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, racial tensions flared in New York City to a degree unusual even for a city notorious for racial conflict. In 1986, as one of many examples, a group of white teenagers brutally assaulted three black men whose car had broken down in Howard Beach, a white ethnic enclave of Queens. One of the black men, Michael Griffith, was hit by a car and killed while attempting to flee the white mob. Widespread protests even compelled Dinkins’s predecessor Ed Koch—not exactly beloved by black New Yorkers—to compare the incident to a lynching. Such racial violence was captured by Spike Lee’s acclaimed 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. That most of Lee’s characters represented depthless racial stereotypes seemed appropriate, given that late-twentieth-century Americans were conditioned to think about racial identity in zero-sum terms.

But while this “lynching” weighed heavily on the minds of black New Yorkers, white New Yorkers were more likely to believe that racial tensions impinged upon their ability to move about the city freely. In this context, Giuliani’s campaign promise to restore order to the “Ungovernable City,” a phrase popularized by a 1961 Nathan Glazer Commentary article, traded on a collective siege mentality in which white New Yorkers, “already harassed at every turn by squeegee men, trash storms, and peddlers,” as Baker wrote, “were on the verge of losing control of the city entirely—maybe even at the precipice of some sort of apocalyptic racial massacre.” Despite the fact that Dinkins had already begun systematically suppressing low-level crime (or rather, the visible effects of poverty), the narrative of disorder rose to the status of moral panic. As Richard Cohen argued in The Washington Post: “Aside from the deranged, there’s not a single Gothamite who thinks it has gotten better under Dinkins—no matter what his statistics say.” On the watch of a permissive black mayor, blacks had gotten away with murder. It was time to restore “one standard” for “one city” (while apparently ignoring other standards, like “statistics”).

And so it goes in Colorblind America.

2.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because it barred preferential treatment in addition to discrimination, technically forbade affirmative action of the racial quota type. The Civil Rights Act, in this way, enshrined as national policy Martin Luther King’s celebrated words about people being “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” America was to be post-race.

It didn’t work out that way, of course.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, most companies continued their usual practice of exclusively employing whites. They could legally rationalize this practice by virtue of the colorblind principle of “merit,” while conveniently ignoring that merit, like most standards, was highly subjective. They could ignore that merit, in many instances, was embedded in the history of a nation that had enslaved black people as recently as 140 years ago (“two 70 year-old ladies, living and dying back-to-back,” as Louis CK put it to Jay Leno with his usual perceptive wit). Colorblindness rested on the fantasy that we could break from this history; that it did not “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

The urban riots of the sixties startled many Americans out of their colorblind fantasies. In response to the riots, Lyndon Johnson assembled a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which issued an influential report—the Kerner Report—recommending color-conscious affirmative action. Johnson, heeding such advice, ditched the colorblind approach to enforcing Title VII. Since all taxpayers—white, black and everyone else—also funded building projects, the federal government would ensure that all taxpayers be hired to build those projects. Such logic was applied to higher education as well. Since all taxpayers—white, black and everyone else—subsidized American universities, all taxpayers would be given access to them. Such access required race-conscious affirmative action.

3.

Conservatives, of course, were never happy with race-conscious affirmative action. Neoconservatives were the first and most vociferous critics, particularly as affirmative action applied to higher education. In 1968, political scientist John Bunzel authored a critical article for The Public Interest about the newly formed Black Studies program at San Francisco State College, where he taught. Bunzel worried that Black Studies would intensify the groupthink tendencies he believed were inherent to Black Power and other identity-based movements, and that it would “would substitute propaganda for omission,” “new myths for old lies.” But to Bunzel, the worst idea put forward by Black Studies was that high standards codified racial discrimination and would therefore need to be revised or dumped altogether. This premise worked at two levels. First, Black Studies scholars believed that their knowledge must be created from scratch in order to undo the scholarly reproduction of racist norms. Thus, they often, at the outset, eschewed footnotes, peer review, and other traditional practices that, to Bunzel, ensured “one standard” of scholarly excellence. Second, Black Studies advocates desired admission quotas in order to ensure that the majority of the students who majored in Black Studies were in fact black. Nathan Hare, the first director of the San Francisco State College program, even argued that college applicants should provide photos. “How else,” he asked, “are we going to identify the blacks?” In response to this reasoning, Bunzel asked a question of his own, exemplary of the colorblind rhetoric that shaped the conservative critique of affirmative action for decades to come: “Is color the test of competence?”

Throughout the 1970s, conservatives grew increasingly more outspoken in their opposition to affirmative action. They considered it anti-American, or, in Senator Orrin Hatch’s words, an “assault upon America, conceived in lies.” Reagan’s anti-affirmative action rhetoric, though of the kinder sort, carried a lot of weight: “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the U.S. for the purpose of discrimination. And I don’t want to see that happen again.” In his 1975 book, The Morality of Consent, Yale jurist Alexander Bickel wrote: “Discrimination on the basis of race is illegal, immoral, unconstitutional, inherently wrong, and destructive of democratic society. Now this is to be unlearned, and we are told that this is not a matter of fundamental principle but only a matter of whose ox is gored.” This legal defense of colorblindness guided the Reagan administration’s efforts to overturn affirmative action.

Reagan’s civil rights appointments set the tone of his administration’s approach to affirmative action and other civil rights laws. Clarence Thomas was tapped to head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and William Bradford Reynolds was named Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Both were known to disparage “race-conscious affirmative action,” Reynolds especially, calling it “morally wrong.” With Thomas and Reynolds taking the lead, the Reagan administration chipped away at affirmative actions enforcement. For example, it let thousands of firms off the hook by raising the cap on the size—from 50 to 250 employees— that such firms were to be required to comply with federal affirmative action regulations. Under Thomas’s direction, the EEOC quit seeking to identify patterns of discrimination. Instead, Thomas merely pressed a few cases of individual discrimination, including some supposed cases of “reverse discrimination.”

During his second term, Reagan stepped up his assault on affirmative action. The Justice Department ordered 53 cities to shut down their affirmative action policies. In defense of such policies, Reagan invoked Martin Luther King for his vision of a colorblind America, claiming that his administration was committed to “a society where people would be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” Wrapping measures that would limit black employment in King’s rhetoric of racial cooperation was ironic in all sorts of ways, especially since Reagan had a history of racially inflammatory remarks. In August 1980, shortly after winning the Republican nomination, he gave a speech in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been gruesomely murdered in 1964, notoriously pronouncing, “I believe in states’ rights.” Although his supporters claimed such words bespoke of his libertarianism, given the location of the speech, and his choice of words, Reagan’s rhetoric was an obvious if tacit appeal to southern white voters. But in another ironic twist, all but 3 of the 53 cities refused Reagan’s orders to halt affirmative action. Most firms, as well, voluntarily kept their affirmative action hiring policies in place. It turned out that a multicultural workforce was good for business, or, as Gary Gerstle put it: “In ways that Karl Marx would have well understood, the practices of multinational capital constitute the materialist underpinnings of multiculturalist forms of imagining.”

4.

Late twentieth-century American intellectual life had its own history of colorblindness. Saul Bellow’s infamous question—“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—might best be thought of as the literary equivalent of Giuliani’s “One Standard, One City” slogan. “One Standard, One Canon.” “One Standard, One Academy.” Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind made him the nation’s most famous defender of “one standard,” thought the denial of philosophic and aesthetic truth helped “highly ideologized” students marshal identity politics onto campus. Paraphrasing academic doctrine, he rhetorically asked: “Who says that what universities teach is the truth, rather than just the myths necessary to support the system of domination?” Bloom specifically regretted the prominent argument that standards merely offered cover for institutional forms of racism. Such thinking, he contended, validated claims that blacks were less successful on campus due to deeply rooted power structures. “Black students are second-class not because they are academically poor but because they are forced to imitate white culture,” Bloom wrote, with no effort to hide his sarcastic tone.

Bloom’s antipathy to Black Power was informed by his experience while teaching at Cornell University during the campus upheaval of 1969, when militant black students infamously brandished guns to magnify their demands for affirmative action and the implementation of Black Studies. As gadfly writer Christopher Hitchens later wrote: “Chaos, most especially the chaos identified with pissed-off African Americans, was the whole motif of The Closing of the American Mind.” In other words, Bloom was not only concerned about the philosophical anarchy that marked a relativistic culture. He was also anxious about the more tangible disorder that seemingly overwhelmed universities in the wake of sixties liberation movements. Bloom’s Arnoldian view of culture (“the best that has been thought and said”) reflected, as Corey Robin puts it in The Reactionary Mind, “the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse.”

5.

As many readers will no doubt be aware, my muse for writing this essay is the recent controversy sparked by Nils Gilman’s guest post—“What is the Subject of Intellectual History?” For better or worse, I am partly responsible for the hullabaloo. After Nils left a provocative comment on Ben’s post (“Irrational Thought and American Intellectual History”) about how intellectual history should be more narrowly conceived of as the history of “coherent thought,” I asked him to elaborate on this point in the form of a guest post. He obliged with what I thought was a coherent, if polemical, defense of a particular way of thinking about intellectual history. I strongly disagree with Nils’s normative argument about limiting the types of sources intellectual historians use. Like many of you, I have a much more capacious understanding of intellectual history, and besides that, I am not invested in disciplinary boundary work. Along these lines, I expected that our smart commentariat would push back against Nils, and I was not disappointed. However, I did not expect that Nils would be tarred as elitist, sexist, and racist. In retrospect, this was surprisingly naïve of me—I say surprisingly because I am writing a history of the culture wars. Of all people, I should have been more attuned to the larger context into which Nils was inserting his neo-Arnoldian arguments. Upon such reflection, the eloquent response to Nils offered by Edward Blum practically wrote itself.

That said, I don’t think Nils’s approach is necessarily elitist (or racist and sexist). In part, this is because I’ve read his book, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America, which is framed in anti-elitist ways. Perhaps it’s also because I feel that, as academics, we should read each other’s arguments in good faith, however much we might disagree with them. We shouldn’t assume the worst. Of course, Nils didn’t do himself any favors. His gendered examples (Honey Boo Boo, Jenna Jameson) and metaphors (“virgins in a whorehouse”) seemed explicitly designed to enflame. As did his pairing of Kant with illiterate slaves. In attempting to mollify those who labeled him a racist for his Zulu remarks, Saul Bellow also hurt his own cause when he told a reporter that he was merely “speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies.”

For me the saddest part about the debate is that, as Dan Wickberg noted, “the heat has tended to overwhelm the light.” I say this because I think there are serious questions that are far from answered. As I asked in the comments thread: Is there a way to defend distinction, in the Arnoldian sense, without also defending hierarchy (class/race/gender)? Can the canon be diversified? Or can it only be destroyed?

In light of how “one standard”—colorblindness—has made it more difficult to achieve racial equality in practice, these are particularly thorny questions.

6.

The conservative argument against the cultural turn—an argument for “one standard”—often worked as a proxy for a hierarchical vision of society. And yet, even with such an awareness, plenty of historians with leftist (anti-hierarchical) political commitments fretted about a lack of concern for “telling the truth about history,” as Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob titled their 1994 book. These three historians charged relativistic, antinomian cultural historians with neglecting the longstanding purpose of historical craft: shedding light on truth. Eschewing such a position, what Charles Taylor referred to as a “subjectivist, half-baked neo-Nietzscheanism,” Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob 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.”

Significant political stakes were involved in such a fight against epistemological anarchists. “It is as if higher education was opened to us—women, minorities, working people,” worried Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, “at the same time that we lost the philosophical foundation that had underpinned the confidence of educated people.” The struggle for representation was, in part, a struggle for intellectual authority, the very premise of which was undermined by relativistic theories of history and power. With this in mind, the authors of Telling the Truth About History believed a calculated if limited defense of traditional historical practice necessary. “Rather than underlining the impossibility of total objectivity or completely satisfying causal explanation, we are highlighting the need for the most objective possible explanations as the only way to move forward, perhaps not in a straight line of progress into the future, but forward toward a more intellectually alive, democratic community, toward the kind of society in which we would like to live.”

In other words, standards matter. The obliteration of standards will not help obliterate hierarchy. As Toni Morrison put it: “The people who invented the hierarchy of ‘race’ when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist.”

35 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, this is a lovely essay that, I think, very nicely contextualizes the response to Gilman’s brief for a more restrictive definition of intellectual history. I have an urge to trouble your analysis in a couple of places, which I hope you don’t mind me indulging.

    To begin, I find the use of “standards” here is a bit confusing. Since you are not writing about the Great American Songbook, I get the sense that you are asking the “s” that turns the singular “standard” into its plural form to do a lot of work: in particular, to stand in contrast to the notion of a unitary cultural ideal as a more egalitarian way to think about the contributions of previously excluded historical actors.

    I would suggest that we no longer think this way. In its most anodyne, “everyone-is-a-special-butterfly” form, this perspective constituted the easy target against which scholars like Charles Taylor railed (and, as Adolph Reed has argued and as you allude to above, was a very easy mandate for corporate capitalism to endorse without having to come to terms with deeper and more systemic forms of inequality).

    But, as the discussion here has demonstrated, that is not where the anti-elitist project stands today. No one who criticized Gilman would be happy, I think, with a variable standard (which I think is one of the possible meaning of “standards” here) or with a splintering of intellectual history.

    What is at stake in this argument is the commitment of Gilman’s critics (myself included) to the notion that there is ONE thing called “intellectual history,” and that it is this container into which fall both The Phenomenology of Spirit and the ring shout, both The Closing of the American Mind and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Otherwise, what are we fighting about? There are plenty of other places (easier places, we might point out, as Gilman also did, repeatedly) to analyze ring shouts and Her Comes Honey Boo Boo–so why insist that such analysis unfold under the aegis of “intellectual history”?

    So I think we really need to come to terms with what is apparently a new left-wing investment in a kind of monism, but one that is different from that of Appleby, Hunt, et al (whose politics are, frankly, all over the place). It is a monism that insists upon a single “intellectual history,” not to defend and ornament the Enlightenment tradition, but to force the Enlightenment tradition to account for itself, ethically and epistemologically. At the same time, it’s a monism that recognizes, for example, that the personal narrative of almost every subaltern radical intellectual begins with the devouring of the contents of a conventional Western library. It’s this turn away from fracture that we are still struggling to understand, which is part of the reason that arguments such as the one spurred on by Gilman’s essay tend to get so contentious.

    • Kurt: I think this puts it nicely: that there’s a “new left-wing investment in a kind of monism.” I hadn’t exactly thought about it in such terms, but it seems like a reasonable way to explain what seems like a post-multiculturalist moment. But it also seems fraught, given that such monism doesn’t have an epistemological leg to stand on.

      If the culture wars are the continuation of the debates over a normative American identity, as I contend. And if epistemology is more linked than ever to political ideology in how people align themselves, as I also contend. Then where does this leave those on the left who have fairly traditionalist, or even anti-relativist epistemologies–a decent contingent of intellectuals, perhaps Appleby, etc, being examples? This, it seems to me, is one of the historical problems of the culture wars. But your argument re: monism seems like a new dynamic.

  2. Thank you for this measured and very well-argued post, Andrew. I absolutely agree that there should be some productive conversations emerging out of the scrum, unpleasant as their origin might be. And I certainly agree that everyone’s arguments should be read in good faith, although I think “good faith” should not be a talisman protecting reasonable questions about the implicit racial, gendered, or classed assumptions that support the explicit argument. For one thing, “elitist” wasn’t an epithet attached to Gilman by the commentariat–he claimed that one on his own (“[is] the distinction I’m making is a fundamentally elitist, Arnoldian one. The answer is, yes it is.”)

    But a more general point I think it is worth making is that I find your invocation of “standards” pretty slippery–which is entirely your point. But where it slips to is not quite clear, and it seems to me that you’re presuming an identity between a canon and “distinction” (which I’m taking to be your standard) which seems extremely questionable both historically (not all canons have been premised on the criterion of “the best that has been thought and said”) and pedagogically. Are we obligated to think of “the canon” the way that Bloom and Arnold did? That seems to me the first question, and one that peels away canonization from the question of standards.

    What I’m saying is, I don’t see why we can’t discuss canonicity without all the Arnoldian baggage but as an entirely historical phenomenon created by definite social relations, etc. *and* also have separate conversations about what constitutes distinction, holding that term open as wide as possible to a multitude of forms, each distinguished according to a multitude of probably incommensurate standards.

    • I agree that my argument gets slippery when I move from Giuliani’s “One Standard” (colorblindness) to thinking about the canon. These concepts don’t map onto each other as neatly as I implied in my post. I definitely don’t think we’re obligated to think about the canon in Arnoldian terms. As you correctly point out, it’s ahistorical. So I’m agreeing with you, even if it didn’t come across that way in the post.

      What I hint at towards the end–what one Twitter critic called, with some justice, “handwaving”–is that justice requires some sort of political solidarity. And on what basis is this solidarity built? It’s never been less clear, perhaps.

      Fredric Jameson deals with this nicely in “Postmodernism” (the book is from 1990–the original essay 1983). He wrote that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” In the realm of political theory, this entailed that natural rights, which rationalized the classic liberal principle of individual liberty, had scattered. But so too had equally grand narratives that justified more coercive forms of power, such as nationalism. Neither liberty nor coercion, both entailing autonomous agents, drove postmodern social relations. Agreeing with Foucault at the level of description, if not prescription, Jameson argued that postmodern humans were shaped by desires constitutive of late capitalism. The postindustrial displacement of class and national struggle from the urban centers of the developed world, accompanied by the new technologies of imagery that allowed capital to invade the human psyche beneath consciousness, spelled the death of the subject. “In psychological terms,” Jameson observed, “we may say that as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience.” Such a dream-like existence helps explain the prevalence of postmodern anti-epistemologies: “never in any previous civilization have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of being and of the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless.”

      How to we work our way back to fundamental questions?

      • I’m much more in agreement with you than I may sound, but I guess I want to push a little further–does solidarity require that we have “fundamental questions” in common? I feel like, and maybe I’m misreading you, that pushing toward common fundamental questions could be read as a step away from intersectional modes of critique and activism and toward a “let’s settle one thing at a time.” I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the latter approach, either theoretically or practically.

  3. sorry–in the first paragraph a sentence should be “‘good faith’ should not be a talisman protecting anyone from reasonable questions about the implicit racial, gendered, or classed assumptions that support the explicit argument.”

    • Fair point. I guess I felt there was a shift in the conversation. Nils defended his position as elitist in the Arnoldian sense. But then that label became a stand-in for claims about his racist or sexist assumptions. And as I’ve argued on Twitter, an Arnoldian perspective, though I disagree with it, should be allowed in the larger discourse. Calling it racist or sexist removes it from such discourse. It lets us off the hook.

  4. “‘good faith’ should not be a talisman protecting anyone from reasonable questions about the implicit racial, gendered, or classed assumptions that support the explicit argument.”

    Uh oh.

  5. Andrew, thank you for your calming words. I would like to offer a brief explanation (perhaps a defense) of what I will freely admit were provocative set of examples: it is only by using provocative examples that we can get people to disclose from what Charles Taylor I think rightly called “subjectivist, half-baked neo-Nietzschean theories” of identity which subtend much of the heat that conversations about standard(s) produce.

    I would also like to submit a further thought — and possible provocation. Which is: we all in fact have standards of intellectual merit which we apply all the time, probably daily, whether it is in sitting on hiring committees, grading papers, or simply in choosing to read (or assign) some texts as opposed to others. Unless people are willing to admit publicly that their choices in these regards are dictated entirely by the political valences of the texts in question — which I would be surprised to see anyone do, if only because people will recognize the dire implications to their career prospects were they do so — then the onus seems to me to be on all of us to define not only what we think those standards of quality are, but also what the basis for those quality standards are. There needn’t necessarily be a single standard, of course (Newman’s point about monism is well taken), but even if we acknowledge that there are multiple standards that may alas sometimes be in (irreconciliable?) conflict, then it would still be a healthy exercise for all of us to come clean about what our standards are. Otherwise, we really do risk having academia reduce itself to what the DeSouza-style critics say it is, namely a politically correct game of personal favoritism. So my challenge to this entire community is to lay out their own standards for inclusion: how do you decide what to study (or teach, or read), and what not to study (or teach, or read). Likewise, how do you choose what methodologies to apply to which texts (which was the central thrust of my original post)?

    It seems to me that my central sin was to have the bad manners to lay out the basis for my own standards and methods (in an admittedly provocative manner). And while it’s absolutely fair to historicize my claims (readers can judge for themselves whether my views owe anything to phrenology), I feel like my critics owe this forum, and really themselves, the decency to declare their hands on these matters.

    Finally, I think everyone on this forum should think hard about Seal’s closing point that “the personal narrative of almost every subaltern radical intellectual begins with the devouring of the contents of a conventional Western library.” Kant was undoubtedly a racist, but he was also a seminal and indispensable theorist of freedom, of international relations, and of the difference between judgments of taste, moral judgments, and scientific judgments — whose ideas (ironically enough) sit at the root of many of the claims of my critics in this forum. Reducing Kant to a mere theorist of African inferiority isn’t just intellectual malpractice (though it is that too), it’s also a failure to understand a key historical root of virtually all of the theories of emancipation that have been swirling around these threads. It’s not just madmen in positions of authority who are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back — it’s all of us. Forgetting or burying that history emancipates no one.

  6. Andrew, this is a measured post, and it does shed more light than heat. But there are a few parts of this post that, as my granddad would say, you might ought to have measured twice.

    You write: “Along these lines, I expected that our smart commentariat would push back against Nils, and I was not disappointed. However, I did not expect that Nils would be tarred as elitist, sexist, and racist. In retrospect, this was surprisingly naïve of me—I say surprisingly because I am writing a history of the culture wars. Of all people, I should have been more attuned to the larger context into which Nils was inserting his neo-Arnoldian arguments.”

    There are a few things going on here that are problematic.

    First, as Andrew Seal pointed out above, elitism was a label that Nils explicitly embraced in his post.

    Second, as you yourself point out, Nils made some rhetorical choices to frame his argument that Don’t Look Good. He deployed what I might call intentionally transgressive language. The porn star, the whorehouse — these are calculated choices aimed at achieving a particular rhetorical effect. Similarly, the later juxtaposition of the worthy Kant and the illiterate slave was not some (un)happy accidental combination from Nils’s vast mental storehouse of random illustrations, but rather a particular choice to magnify one aspect of his argument.

    Nils very intentionally invoked the analytical frameworks of race (Kant/slave), class (elite/lowbrow), and gender (porn star/whorehouse) in advancing and championing his argument on this blog.

    I am not surprised that people reacted to that deliberate provocation by being provoked. Nor, I would wager, was Nils surprised. That’s the reaction he wanted, and that’s the reaction he got.

    What surprises me is that nobody has yet talked about *why* Nils is looking for that kind of reaction. What does that accomplish for him and his vision of intellectual history? What does Nils get (besides perhaps a fleeting feeling of power) with this intradisciplinary mini-reprise of “the culture wars”?

    He’s not trying to persuade anyone to agree with him. He’s trying for something else. What would that be?

    As far as the end of your essay goes, I have been puzzling it over. I see your Twitter convo going on with GrumpyHistorian, so maybe you are answering my puzzlement there. (I’m guessing not, because Twitter is rarely the place where Questions Get Answered and Problems Get Settled.)

    But it occurs to me that you might be trying to argue for (or argue yourself into) some sympathy for the “other side” in “the culture wars” — for the sake, I suppose, of the argument you will be making in your book, an argument I am most interested in reading.

    But I’m pretty sure that the debate with Nils on the blog today is not a 1980/90s redux. Nils may be trying for the feel of “more of the same” — indeed, in his intent to offend he is almost campy. But the “audience reaction” is not a blast from the past — this is not identity politics or multiculturalism or the special pleading of “subject position” on display, or however else the (for want of a better word) academic “inclusivist/revisionist” position was characterized at the time. We have not stepped through a wrinkle in time to the culture wars in academe of the 80s/90s — though there might be much to be gained for someone who could persuade us that we have.

    That might be part of Nils’s project. At the very least, I think he attempts to deligitimize theoretical challenges to his views by making sure that all those folks who think race, class and gender have been important in shaping the history of thought (and of thought *about* thought) are good and angry for what he wants to pretend are all the wrong reasons.

    So whether or not the “conservative” or old guard academics in the period you are studying were in some way misunderstood or mistreated, I don’t think Nils has been. Not more nor less than any of the rest of us ever are in academe.

    • Hmmm. I guess Nils’s most recent comment went up while I was composing this one. Interesting juxtaposition.

    • L.D. — I’m happy to answer your rhetorical question about why I would adopt an intentionally transgressive strategy. The Honey Boo-Boo and Jenna Jameson examples were traps, that several people fell right into (not Andrew: too bright for that). Since my larger point had literally nothing to do with race class and gender, what the obnoxious examples were designed to reveal was how much the academic culture wars of yesteryear remain unresolved.

      Why is such a revelation necessary? Because it’s only after we lance the boil of name-calling political norm enforcement — a pretty fair description of what @historianness and Blum were engaged in — that we’ll be able to get on with confronting the central challenge facing not just intellectual history but the humanities themselves, which is how to maintain a standard of intellectual rigor and excellence than justifies their existence. Of which more in a moment.

      So, if we’re going to reflexively historicize this conversation, as you suggest, L.D., then we let’s begin with historicizing the multicultural academic agenda itself. That agenda made a certain sense when it emerged in the late 1980s, as it aimed to overcome what had indeed been a (mostly passive) orthodoxy of white-male-elite centricity in both hiring and topics. But that historical moment is long passed: what the trolling nicely revealed — thanks @historianess! — is that if there’s a political-cultural orthodoxy that American humanities departments need to overcome today, it is certainly not an excess of conservatism. (I say this not as a deSouzan, but as someone who counts myself, with a nod to Daniel Bell, as a socialist in my economics and a liberal in my politics.) In other words, validating the historical experience of those who had been ignored by history books was a necessary correction when the social history revolution began with The Making of the English Working Class, but that historical-cum-historiographical battle is not the one we need to be fighting today.

      I believe, rather, that if we really want to challenge the structures of oppression, then what we need most of all to study is those in power: how they develop their ideas, how they promote them, and why so many of the disempowered accept them. (This is why I am grateful to Andrew for bringing up Mandarins of the Future, for that ambition was central to the project of that book: to examine how the ideas of, yes, elite white metropolitan men became the basis for programs of supposed emancipation that were in many cases broadly embraced in the global south even as they often worked precisely the opposite effect.) If we want to challenge power, we need to understand how the powerful operate. Thinking that the litmus test for a good historical topic is whether it validates the historical experiences of the excluded is, I’m sorry, an antiquated political and historiographical project. It may make us feel good, but talking genuflect before categorical orthodoxies (which is what insisting that Honey Boo-Boo and Jenna Jameson are “unfortunate” examples is), doesn’t emancipate anyone. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be studying the lives and experiences of the historically disadvantaged — of course we should — but assessing the role of the powerful is also a crucial agenda. Roll, Jordan, Roll is not enough; we also need The World the Slaveholders Made. And there’s a reason why Genovese wrote the latter first.

      In the meanwhile, my trolling has also exposed to the daylight the central catastrophe of the multiculturalist turn, which has been its steadfast refusal to pose an alternative set of standards for excellence. What we got here was not a reasoned debate but instead the sorry spectacle of highly educated people judging the merits of a theoretical argument on the basis of whether the particular examples chosen ritualistically say nice things about their pet constituencies, while vigorously insisting that such rhetorical quotas are the key to emancipation for said groups. I believe, strongly, that if the academy is to survive, it can only do so on the basis of a rigorous set of standards — and I believe, for good topical reasons, that intellectual history really ought to be at the center of that enterprise. But instead of a reasoned argument (though Andrew has offered one), what I instead got was pushback against the very idea of standards — which has amounted to the rhetorical equivalent of pouring boulders and boiling oil down the side of the castle (wait, is that also “an unfortunate example”?) — reminds me of what Talleyrand said of the ancien regime: “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.”

      So this is the purpose of the trolling: to reveal the underlying political stakes. Either we can keep fighting the already-won historiographic battles of yesteryear and let the academy continue its slide toward oblivion; or we can promote a new and more inclusive set of rigorous intellectual standards that will justify the continued social investment in our enterprise.

      • Nils: Big fan of Mandarins. I’m a bit puzzled, though, by all this talk of standing up for “rigorous intellectual standards.” One might think you were implying that Ed Blum, or others who study race, class, and gender, or those who study graphic novels, TV shows, and movies, or postmodern-influenced scholars aren’t as concerned as you are for producing good scholarship or maintaining the integrity of the profession. Please tell me that I’m wrong.

      • OK, I’m going to try one more time. Nils, you can choose to characterize all the people who were critical of your post and your defense of it as outmoded advocates of a social history vision of inclusion that fails to draw lines, but that’s just not the case, and your failure to engage with those of us who suggested otherwise indicates that you want to reprise a battle that you imagine is going on, but not the one that is right in front of your face. It’s easy to feel aggrieved and righteous when you imagine yourself the victim of the “politically correct” police. And those are your preferred critics, because you can picture them as ideologically intolerant relativists who refuse to acknowledge the very standard they are deploying. Your continuing insistence that we all have standards, but you’re the only one willing to acknowledge them, is indicative of your failure to engage with criticisms that don’t seem to fall conveniently into the category you have predetermined for them. I have said more than once in these threads that the definition of the object of historical study is entirely a separate concern from the question of its aesthetic or moral value. Your very own work on modernization theory chooses as an object a body of thought you are critical of, and your intent is to examine what you regard as the deleterious ideological consequences of that body of thought. Anyone who read Mandarins of the Future and came to the conclusion that you were trying to save Edward Shils and Daniel Lerner from denigration because of the wonderful and profound complexity of their work would be, I would suggest, a bad reader. But the fact that we can have very high standards for what we consider to be valuable historical work and at the same time think that those standards are not the relevant ones for defining the objects of our study seems to escape you. The standard we utilize for choosing an historical object, it seems to me, is a pragmatic one: what kind of question we are asking about the past will determine what texts and sources we study. But you want to insist that the kinds of judgments we make about contemporary debates we are engaged in are exactly the same kinds of judgments that determine the historical merit of the objects we study. These seem like different judgments because we are asking different questions about debates we are engaged in (for instance, who is right and who is wrong, which is the more reasoned argument, which partakes of the widest available evidence, etc.) than the past (what did people think and what are the patterns of thought that framed possible ways of thinking). Why you won’t address this difference is a puzzle to me.

      • Just a couple questions, Nils, and while they may be a little flip, I don’t intend them rhetorically.

        “a (mostly passive) orthodoxy of white-male-elite centricity in both hiring and topics.”

        I’d be really interested in your definition of passivity here. Maybe you have talked to some different people than I have who lived through this period of “passivity,” but the hazing and denigrating of “non-standard” or “non-traditional” topics or ‘topics that don’t have archival sources to support them’ (read: about women, people of color, and gays and lesbians) was by most accounts intense. Or what, straight white men acquired an intellectual hegemony in a fit of absence of mind?

        “validating the historical experience of those who had been ignored by history books was a necessary correction when the social history revolution began with The Making of the English Working Class…”

        Is this all you think that book intended to do? Is this all you think social history does, perform a politics of recognition? If so, I think I understand better where your condescension is coming from, though if it is the case I can’t help but agree with some of the most polemical critiques of your position.

        You say that intellectual history should teach us how the ruling class rules. Very well, I think that’s narrow enough to be brittle, but what you seem to rule out (even while magnanimously allowing that people might write another Roll, Jordan, Roll if they want to badly enough) is that social history can teach us something, too. What Thompson and Genovese teach well was how to survive in truly adverse conditions, how to have character and resiliency and courage in spite of the breaks constantly going the other way. I think that’s useful knowledge, too.

        You ask that we bear our souls or declare our hands for the standards we use to determine quality: there you go, at least for me. Maybe you’ll call that politically-driven or politically-correct, but I’m pretty comfortable in choosing that courage from below as what I hope to teach and what I hope to study.

  7. Not having a career invested in a narrow sub-genre of history, I admit to being somewhat confused by the boundaries that are tossed about in this debate. The fracturing of our discipline over the past half-century has provided knowledge opportunities, but also opens the possibility to the loss of a meta-narrative. For that reason, I think we need to respect the shared methodological core.

    The inclusion of Joyce Appleby at the end of the essay in appropriate. Her argument in “Telling the Truth About History” highlights the problem I mentioned above: how do you write inclusive histories without completely discarding the existing narrative based upon power and privilege? The book’s equivocation tried to walk a thin line but in the end left me unsatisfied. I found James Loewen’s argument for more historiography in “Teaching What Really Happened” to solve more problems of method. We need all types of histories, including ones focused on power and privilege (for how else will we understand them?) What needs to change is how we create the meta-narrative that makes sense of all our work.

  8. Pride and vainglory compel me to point out that it was I, not Seal (nor Heidi Klum) who noted the importance to almost every radical subaltern intellectual of a transformative engagement with the Western canon (in fact, I would be interested if an example that didn’t include such an apprenticeship could be located in the history of the Left).

    There are things that might be said about Gilman’s restatement of his position, but I can’t imagine any progress towards further agreement or synthesis. Doesn’t seem much point in yelling at each other ad infinitum.

    I might suggest that we all take a look at Roderick Ferguson’s recent book The Reorder of Things, which lays out a provocative argument regarding the multicultural moment and the transformation of the corporate university, pivoting around a critique of the discourse of “excellence.” That is the text I will turn to as I try to articulate a rejoinder to Gilman’s arguments here; though I haven’t spent as much time with it yet as I would like, I can certainly recommend it to other participants in this discussion.

  9. Nils: I don’t feel “bright,” rather, quite the opposite, especially since I wrote this: “we should read each other’s arguments in good faith.”

  10. Much of what is at stake seems to revolve around what it means for a text (broadly defined) to have intellectual value. Critics of Gilman seem to think that to say that a text is not part of the intellectual history canon is to deny its worth. I take that to be the objection of those who feel that Gilman’s definition of the subfield excludes the marginalized: excluding them from intellectual history seems to entail denigrating their thoughts, experiences, and beliefs.

    But must it be the case that saying a text isn’t suitable for intellectual history and its method is to deny it or its creators any value? No. There are, of course, many sorts of ways that we can values texts that we don’t think are part of intellectual history. We might say, for instance, that they do an excellent job:
    • articulating the experience, thoughts, etc, of their authors,
    • resisting the dominant culture
    • capturing the social dynamics of their time
    • conveying beauty

    We might even say these texts have great intellectual import, that for instance they questioned or saw through the regnant assumptions of politics in their day, that they dared to question things others didn’t. Illiterate slaves surely got important things right that Kant got dead wrong.

    In short, saying that a text isn’t suitable to intellectual historical method isn’t the same as denying its value. It is instead only to say that it isn’t a sort of text aimed at playing in the sorts of games that make up the intellectual world. Kant was dead wrong on blacks, but his texts very much part of the modern intellectual universe, including the emerging discipline of philosophy. That Kant was playing in the game of philosophy, and crafted texts to play in that game, makes him and his texts suitable material for intellectual history.

    On a side note, I want to thank Gilman for his perseverance in continuing this discussion. I wish I could say the same for those critics of his, who in moments of vociferous objection pen sarcastic and often ad hominem diatribes and then under cover of righteousness retreat either into silence or twitter.

  11. gradstudent, if there is someone on this thread who has not contributed substantially to the discussion, please let us know who you have in mind. We are all adults here, I believe, and generally address each other directly over points of difference. So feel free to name names, and call people to account for their apparently egregious misbehavior.

    Frankly, I can’t think of anything more egregious or insulting to the readership of this blog than for Nils to advance an argument in the most intentionally offensive terms possible, feign bemusement when people object to the terms, mock them for their response while at the same time pointing to it as the chief evidence to prove an argument that really has no internal logic of its own, and then admit when pressed that it was all a clever trick he played, an expose[‘] that allegedly exposes the sad state of the field.

    That’s not how we roll around here.

    It was discourteous to my colleague Andrew and to the rest of us for Nils to abuse the invitation of a guest post in order to troll. Such behavior shows little respect for our readers and little regard for the reputation of this blog as a (the?) leading online forum for U.S. intellectual historians. This blog is also a publication of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, a professional organization. Within the rather broad parameters of internet discourse, replete as it is with informality, snark, the occasional swear word or vulgarity, the waggish one-liner, the personal anecdote, etc., etc., we write as professionals here. Though our posts do not represent the views of the society or its members, they do represent the society itself to the larger public, including scholars and colleagues in other disciplines. Nils represented the field very poorly indeed, and he did so deliberately.

    I am sure there are scholars who would welcome the opportunity to engage our readership via a guest post, and we are *always* looking for guest contributors. Every past guest contributor that I can recall has taken extraordinary care in presenting his or her best argument, best work, best effort at a respectful dialogue. Everybody but Nils, who somehow believes that his condescension proves his (very confused) point.

    As to retreating into silence — when Gilman has anything like a coherent response to the three substantial comments by Dan Wickberg, let us know. Or take a crack at it yourself. So far (unless I missed a stray comment upthread somewhere), neither Nils nor any of his defenders/apologists has addressed Wickberg’s analysis of the chief problem with Nils’s argument.

    I can’t imagine why.

  12. While I agree with most of you that Nils’ vision of intellectual history is too narrow, I think his questions about academic standards are worth pursuing. Many have criticized his exclusion of certain narratives from intellectual history, but have not promoted any positive vision or definition of intellectual history. Realistically, there must be some standards, without them intellectual history has no form and ceases to be a sub-category of history. So in order to promote what (I hope) will be a productive debate about the boundaries of intellectual history, I pose five questions:

    1) What is intellectual history and what isn’t intellectual history?

    2) How does intellectual history differ from the history of ideas and, more broadly, cultural history?

    3) Is intellectual history defined by its method (as Gilman suggests)? If not, what defines it?

    4) If the boundaries are flexible for intellectual history (which it sounds like most people think they are), can we determine there is one discipline of intellectual history?

    5) There has been a lot of debate about the relationship between intellectual history and elitism. I was wondering if we may hold a cultural bias in thinking about “ideas” themselves as an elite cultural construct. Frequently, ideas are employed against emotion to connote seriousness or rigor. Is the study of ideas inherently elitist? Does the history of ideas include the history of emotion and other intangible qualities?

    What I hope these questions will accomplish is a debate about what intellectual history “is” and not only what it is not.

  13. I loved this article, but I have a question and possible correction — my understanding is that the Kerner commission was put together in 1967, and then the report was not released until 1968, leaving Johnson little time to do much about it. Moreover, he was already moving towards affirmative action in 1965 when he gave his Howard University Address arguing for policies that would work towards equality of result. But then Watts happened, and the riots of 1966 happened, and most of the momentum behind that dissipated, at least as a campaign issues Democrats openly embraced and ran on. Or is something in my narrative not in quite the right place here? I’m also more used to the idea that the Kerner Report, while influential amongst liberal policies circles, was fairly dead on arrival in terms of enacting the sweeping reforms it suggested.

    • Wow, a comment about something other than the Big Debate. Thanks, Robin Marie. Of course, now I am embarrassed to say that you are correct. I made a mistake in referring to the Kerner Report as that which instigated affirmative action. I recently read Terry Anderson’s excellent “The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action,” and cribbed from my notes on that book for that section of my essay. I don’t have the book in front of me, but after a little searching, it seems I read Anderson incorrectly (I doubt he got it wrong). LBJ committed to affirmative action in 1965 with Executive Order 11246: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Order_11246 I’m going to return to the Anderson later to make more sense of this. Thanks.

  14. Robin Marie: Here’s what I wrote in my notes on Anderson’s book:

    LBJ’s famous Howard speech was an implicit pitch for affirmative action in one form or another—“equality of result” was the goal. From then on, beginning in 1965, the EEOC began pursuing affirmative action in hiring. Some began advocating quotas as a tactic. Since many companies did not have explicitly discriminatory policies, even non-discrimination policies would not ensure blacks get hired at firms that did not traditionally hire blacks. That said, quotas were not actively enforced until the ghetto riots and the Kerner Report shifted the terrain and the EEOC began requiring businesses to count their minority employees and report such demographic figures. Quotas became more strict, then, with Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan, which mandated that a federally funded project employ the same percentage of blacks as that which inhabited the city where the project was slated to go up. So my notes seem closer to correct than my interpretation of them in the essay. Sloppy on my part. But glad to be corrected now, at the blog. Cheers.

    • Thanks for responding to my inquiry, especially as I had not heard about Anderson’s book before and it sounds like a good read.

  15. According to Wickberg, Gilman thinks it is only appropriate to write about “historical objects” that we evaluate highly. Certainly Gilman isn’t making this claim about history overall. He has said time and again he believes that many forms of history are highly valuable, including histories of the now proverbial illiterate slaves as well as of phenomenon that he has antipathy towards like Glenn Beck. Clearly he does not think that history should only be written about good intellectuals and their texts.

    Gilman is making a claim about what sorts of texts the subfield of intellectual history focuses on and the methodology that is appropriate to it. I take him to be making a claim that what defines intellectual history from other neighboring fields like cultural history is a certain practice of close reading – a methodology best suited to a certain type of text. This is a par-for-the-course argument about defining the subfield’s essence and thus its difference from its neighbors. Gilman is not saying that non-intellectual historical scholarship is any less valuable; he is simply saying it is different, requiring a different methodology because studying a different genre.

    Gilman’s point about evaluative standards, I think, comes up when his critics misread his value-neutral boundary work for judgments about the value of the “historical object” being studied. And to be sure, Gilman muddies this issue in his first post with invocation of the pearls for swine, though the original contexts of such remarks were not claims about people in the past, but examples from the mass media today. Gilman’s value judgments were not about illiterate slaves – and yet they somehow got read as attacks on illiterate slaves. To say, as Gilman presumably would, that illiterate slaves did not produce works that can be read by intellectual historical methods is not to say that these slaves didn’t have their own thoughts and beliefs, that they lacked agency, or that they (or their thoughts) aren’t worth studying. Indeed, as I pointed out in my previous post, we can well hold that illiterate slaves got important things right that Kant got dead wrong and still think that what is recoverable of their thoughts cannot be studied via intellectual historical methods.

    Contra Wickberg, I don’t think it is Gilman who imposes today’s standards on the past. I think, rather, it is his critics who do so. Gilman’s point is that illiterate slaves did not in fact leave works of the kind he thinks makes up intellectual history; that doesn’t mean he thinks that they were any less valuable or worthy people because of it – because to judge and condemn them by today’s standards for intellectual worthiness would be not only anachronistic, but entirely unfair to their plight as slaves. Saying that illiterate slaves did not produce works that can be studied via intellectual historical methods is not to pass judgment upon them, nor is it to invalidate the work of those who are involved in recovering their experiences, thoughts, etc.

    In short, Gilman does exactly what Wickberg calls for. He realizes that it is a mistake to critique illiterate slaves for not comparing favorable with the intellectual production of Kant. And he nonetheless finds them entirely worthy topics of historical study – and probably decent people nobly persevering against impossible circumstances to boot. He isn’t judging the past against today’s standards, and he recognizes that even subjects seemingly devoid of explicit intellectual content (mainstream pornography) could well be important “historical objects” of analysis.

    Let me conclude with an example of Wickberg’s confusion on what Gilman believes. In his original posting, Wickberg asks how, under Gilman’s vision, “What, after all, stops the intellectual historian from deciding that he is only going to study the worthy Kant of categorical universalism and leave aside the unworthy Kant of racial theory?” Gilman well knows, I bet, racial theory has an intellectual history too, and thinks it key subject. The notion that Gilman is advocating a connoisseurial “exercise in appreciation and discrimination” is unfounded. Like the rest of us, he thinks the value of intellectual historical work is what it can tell us about the past – and telling us about the history of racism and how it operates is hugely important. He isn’t asking us to choose between studying the Kant of racial theory and the Kant of the critiques.

    I don’t think Gilman’s postings and tweets have been exemplary, but I appreciate his perseverance in persisting against what has been quite a bit of vitriol. I find Quinn Slobodian’s snarky post on the “AWM” distasteful and distracting, substituting the easy self-congratulations of sarcasm for actual engagement. On twitter, Historianess and Grumphistorian have both substituted ad hominem lob shots for actual engagement with the discussion.

    [Apologies if this got posted twice – I thought I posted it but don’t see it up so I’m trying again.]

    • Grad student: “According to Wickberg, Gilman thinks it is only appropriate to write about “historical objects” that we evaluate highly.” That’s not what I said, nor how I would characterize Gilman’s argument. He has said repeatedly that he is talking about intellectual history, and that various forms of history include a variety of objects, many of the which involve no aesthetic or qualitative assessment at all. And I take him at his word about that. And I indicated that if he had kept his argument to a defense of formal texts containing self-conscious and deliberate arguments as the proper object of intellectual history that it would not have raised such a firestorm of response. I still think that’s too narrow, but I have absolutely no problem with intellectual historians who wish to delimit their objects in this way, as long as they don’t write the rest of us- who also consider ourselves intellectual historians–out of the field by insisting that theirs is the only way. The problem is that Nils can’t seem to resist the desire to define the objects of intellectual historical study in terms of their aesthetic qualities, their profundities, or their “complexity,” all of which are based on invidious distinctions. And insisting that the rest of us really do this too, but our pseudo-democratic posturing prevents us from acknowledging it. And while these might be criteria for appreciating or thinking with, for, or against these objects, I can’t see how they are historical criteria, that is, how they contribute to historical understanding. You are doing yeoman’s work here to defend Gilman’s argument by stripping it of most of what he has piled into it (including his Arnoldian commitments and his sneering tone). The result is that you are defending a way of thinking about intellectual history that is not the one Nils has put forth either in his original post or in his various responses. I will not defend the snarky comments of historianess or grumpy historian, neither of whom I have seen on this site previously, and I have little use for the self-satisfied and smug attitude that their comments represent. (but that, unfortunately, Nils seems to embody as well. I don’t quite see why you’re willing to defend his attitude. I don’t think I see any of the other comments here defending or supporting the drive-by attacks on Nils.) Twitter doesn’t seem to be a place to have any kind of actual discussion, given its limitations, and while I’m sure it has its uses, it does seem to lend itself to sustained reflection.

      Let me try to be clear (at the risk of sounding once again like that frustrated teacher Bill Fine sees me playing here!): Nils and his anti-hierarchical critics seem to me to be playing on the same field—they think that an intellectual historian’s choice of what to study is somehow based on the inherit worth or merit of the object, that you are either denigrating or celebrating the highly literate German philosopher or Dred Scott (to switch things up a bit) by defining him outside or inside of your object of study. I don’t think the merit, dignity, worth, and value of people is somehow dependent upon whether historians choose to study them or not. We’re not doing people long dead any favor by studying them. People will get by fine without our using them for our purposes. If you invoke the notion of merit as the basis of your choice of objects of study, I’m afraid that you end up making distinctions that can’t be helpful for historical study. I used the “good Kant, bad Kant” example not because I think any historian would abstract two Kants in this way, but because it is the same kind of logic by which some texts are considered within intellectual history and some without in Nils’s scheme. In other words, inherent merit cannot be a good criterion to use for distinguishing the boundaries of intellectual history. And yet it is continually invoked by Nils. You may think he’s not saying this, but he says it again and again throughout.

      • I can’t find anything in Gilman’s posts that lends support to your belief that he would place the study of Kant’s racism outside the pale of intellectual history. Indeed, I take your own example of his ambivalent relationship to the protagonists of “Mandarins” to suggest that you’ve misunderstood his point.

        Kant’s racism and its effect on his other intellectual projects is unquestionably a topic for intellectual history, and I see nothing in Gilman that would rule it “outside” the bounds of our subfield. Gilman isn’t going to argue that his Kant’s racist thinking is “meritorious,” though to be sure it may be more complex than garden variety racism. The complexity of the text, that is, is one criterion of many that helps weigh a work as intellectually meritorious or not. Gilman might well acknowledge that Kant’s racial theory, however, though complex, is in many ways lacking and downright wrong – on the whole, not so intellectually worthy. And yet, because it is a complex text, nonetheless available for intellectual historical method.

        I take Gilman to be saying that because only complex texts can profitably be interpreted via a special sort of close reading, they are necessarily texts written by the educationally privileged for at least a “middlebrow” audience or above. In this sense, the study of intellectual history is necessarily a study of the privileged and their works.

        I also take him to be saying that in so far as “complexity” is ONE criterion of what constitutes an intellectually valuable texts, selecting which texts can profit from his certain sort of close reading is necessarily to pass a _partial_ judgment on the text’s worth. But because complexity is but one criterion among several, it is not to pass a complete judgment on it inherent intellectual worth. He does not suggest that the intellectual historian begin, as I believe you imply, by suggesting that we first identify texts that are fully meritorious; he suggests we begin with texts that are complex (which is necessarily to imply an element of merit) and of which we can ask important historical questions.

        Also, I’m a bit unclear why judging intellectual merit of historical texts is an “invidious distinction” – or at least any more than, say, than judging the intellectual merit of modern historical scholarship.

        Finally, I wonder if we can name any examples of scholarships on texts that aren’t complex that are examples of intellectual history proper. (And I don’t mean intellectual history in the big-tent sense of anything related to ideas, thoughts, etc, but in a more specific sense that intellectual history is but one method of many in studying ideas, thoughts, etc.)

  16. An interesting feature of recent bloggian discourse is that what you might call different temporal imaginaries seem to be in play, including different understandings of how particular pasts are implicated in the debates. Temporalities are the topic, but also in a way the medium for discussion, tools in rhetorical moves.

    The many partly-defined terms in play seem to form bundles of connection and contrast, and over and over I hear echoes of Foucault’s “power-knowledge” complex. Often though the relations are unexplicated, and I remain deeply perplexed whether in any given instance we’re dealing [really] with logic and philosophy, cultural resonance, functional consequences, causal connections, identitarian necessities, conscious or unconscious intention, historical conjuncture, contextual holism, political or economic interests, narrative coherence, etc. As Andrew says, “these concepts don’t map onto each other…neatly.” Indeed, but how not?

    He expresses surprise and dismay that a past he had taken as a historical topic has come roaring back. In terms of an earlier post, “History Wars and Detachment,” [12.13.12] perhaps the “culture wars” still animate continuing “history wars.” Yet his dismay at Nils’ lynching aside, he recognizes that “serious questions” persist from that time.

    Perhaps for good reason, Hartman seems fairly haunted — but Appleby, etal, provide some respite in the form of linked ways to “move forward,” as the proper standards can take us beyond “relativistic theories of history and power.” He quotes them —

    “Rather than underlining the impossibility of total objectivity or completely satisfying causal explanation, we are highlighting the need for the most objective possible explanations as the only way to move forward, perhaps not in a straight line of progress into the future, but forward toward a more intellectually alive, democratic community, toward the kind of society in which we would like to live.”

    Forward movement of the field here is synecdochic of democratic social progress, but probably much of it comes out of a felt disciplinary imperative, to do what we need to do to be able to keep doing what we want to be doing, ie, studying the past, something constituted of facts, like a foreign country. Not for us the repetition compulsions of philosophers, the going round and round with perennial questions.

    If Kerwin Klein is right, we can probably rely on historians’ aversion to the philosophy of historiography, to history and theory, to get us over the rough spots, when the progress of inquiry is fractured by intra-disciplinary conflicts which we’re both pleased and dismayed to see reverberate in the wider world. Time moves on, and we get back to business dealing with questions that can be answered empirically.

    LD and Nils go back and forth over who is more caught in the past, and why. For Gilman the past has a spectral presence, and he wants to be the disciplinary shock therapist. His is a past with multiple uses, serving the cause of historical truth, the mission of the universities and some sort of political progressivism.

    Wickberg doesn’t buy Gilman’s self-description, and he’s indignant that he sees his interlocutors as “outmoded advocates of a…vision of inclusion that fails to draw lines.” Turns out it’s Gilman who’s mired in a past that lets him play the victim of identity politics and dodge the live options of the present.

    Like an exasperated teacher whose students just won’t get it, Dan insists on a distinction between fact and values that maps onto a separation of past from present — “the definition of the object of historical study is entirely a separate concern from the question of its aesthetic or moral value” and “we are asking different questions about debates we are engaged in…than [about] the past….”

    In the context, this seems akin to Appleby’s moving forward, a way to put the past behind us, turning divisive debates into historical subject matter. On the other hand, a couple of years ago [USIH – 11.5.10] Dan complained about the rush to pastness that gives the illusion of forward motion — “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.”

    Kurt Newton locates himself in relation to an emergent critical intellectual history monism, yet another turn, “away from fracture.” Yet there’s a recognition that the route to the future leads through the past, as we see that “the personal narrative of almost every subaltern radical intellectual begins with the devouring of the contents of a conventional Western library.”

    This seems hopeful, like Gatsby’s green light. But, Andrew cautions, strategy aside, it’s “fraught, given that such monism doesn’t have an epistemological leg to stand on,” in a world where “epistemology is more linked than ever to political ideology in how people align themselves.”

    • I love this, Bill, mostly because you use Dan Wickberg 2010 against Dan Wickberg 2013, and Andrew Hartman 2012 against Andrew Hartman 2013. When you’re not the official blog philosopher, you’re the blog’s house historian.

    • Newton! I do have certain affinities with Juice, less so with Isaac, not at all with John.

  17. I have only skimmed the comments for all three (four?) of these related posts, because they all seem to me to turn on an essentialist reading of terms such as “complex,” “elitism,” “hierachy” and, indeed, “intellectual.” I don’t really have a dog in the fight regarding the meaning of these terms, so I have a hard time seeing what is at stake in this debate.

    The point that intellectual history generally proceeds by close textual reading seems uncontroversial enough (at least to me). But as for what texts are appropriate for that particular treatment, I don’t see what is lost by taking the Rortyan line and just letting historians do their work. Close readings of certain kinds of texts will succeed or fail based upon the ability of the writers to convince readers that such analyses reveal something interesting or important about the texts themselves. If close readings of the phone book don’t reward such analyses, then no one will read them. (Or, perhaps, no one will even write them.)

    Additionally, writers in the future might very well come up with novel and inventive ways to interpret texts. “Close reading,” after all, is a fairly broad category. A specific cultural product might not seem appropriate for a close reading today, but it might be viewed differently in the future. (The process works in the other direction as well, as texts are “written out” of the canon.) If that were to happen, intellectual history itself might come to look different from how it looks now. (Indeed, today it bears little resemblance to past incarnations. Few in the modern era express much of an interest in analyzing texts to discern what they reveal about the American character.) It seems to me that little is gained from trying to define in advance which texts are likely to be compatible with which analyses.

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