Discussing how notions of racial difference and hierarchy were pressed into him from childhood to graduate school, W. E. B. Du Bois recalled during his college years being “once in a museum” where he came “face to face with a demonstration: a series of skeletons arranged from a little monkey to a tall well-developed white man, with a Negro barely outranking a chimpanzee.” From there, classes at Harvard stressed “brain weight and brain capacity” as evidence of higher intellect. Then in graduate school at Harvard and beyond in Germany, he learned which race was “superior” by the histories taught. The “white race” had a history, but there was “no course in Chinese or Indian history or culture … and quite unanimously in America and Germany, Africa was left without culture and without history.” The message was clear, even though it came in different forms: certain people mattered more than others – whether they were represented at the skeletal, cerebral, or cultural-historical level.
I could not help but think of Du Bois’s reflections after reading Nils Gilman’s essay on “What is the Subject of Intellectual History?”, the comments following it, and the twitter discussion that raged into the afternoon on Friday. It seemed to me that as Gilman was making one point – for the high value of his brand of intellectual history – there was such a clear and obvious demeaning of others that it calls for some explication.
Gilman’s article makes a simple claim: “the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading*.” He explains that he has a broad view of text to include “music, art, etc.” (as if we all know what “etc.” entails) And Gilman recognizes that in some ways all historians do this. We all offer close analysis of evidence. So far, there seems nothing with which to quibble except for the unfortunate “etc.”
But when Gilman moves to specify his rather broad definition of “intellectual history,” he shifted from an open approach to the discipline to a closed one. The text must be “carefully wrought … something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care.” And even more, the text “needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts.”
At this point, Gilman has shifted from an interpretative approach “close textual reading” to a specified body of texts – ones that are self-consciously produced to be read with care and ones that speak within previous traditions. This shift is the transformative move from an open intellectual history to an elitist one. In fact, the definition at this point borders on the un-, even anti-, intellectual in the realm of history because of its lack of recognition for historical factors.
By closed, elitist, and anti-intellectual, I mean that the definitional circumstances Gilman sets up are so clearly contingent upon economic, social, and political factors that it appears disingenuous to build that into the definition of “intellectual history” and call it solely “intellectual.” Basically, the definition establishes a closed loop by which elite white men set the parameters of the game and then adjudicate who is allowed to play and how. To be blunt, and I think Gilman would agree, only a small set of individuals could participate in this type of realm – traditionally men of privilege.
But herein lies the problem. These are exactly the people who in the past used their claims about intellect (skeletal, cerebral, and cultural-historical) to keep others out or demeaned. Scientific racism of the nineteenth century linked hands with its romantic racialism opponents to render people of African descent somehow unintellectual, and they did so with similar assumptions about what the “intellectual” meant to Gilman. It was Kant, in fact, who claimed of the “Negroes of Africa” and the “many of them who have even been set free” that “not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality. … So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” Did Kant base this assessment on an in-depth, close textual reading of Africans and African history? Perhaps he did with the types of “intellectual history” that surrounded him, and hence his conclusions.
Of course, I’m not the first one to point this out – as the internet academic community jumped on Gilman for this position. But then, rather than tweak or adjust his definition, Gilman doubled down. “We can rightly lament the fact that 18th century slaves were not given the educational opportunities Immanuel Kant was,” he explains in response to some comments, “but we shouldn’t allow that normative lament to obscure the fact that Kant wrote deeper, more interesting, and more influential things than anything that the illiterate slaves did.” When we closely analyze Gilman’s response, we may find more confusion that clarity. First, how does one assess “deeper, more interesting” work? These strike me as highly subjective assessments. I, for one, admire and ruminate regularly on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Her tricky plays with language and ventriloquism (placing the words of Jesus into mouth of George Whitefield into poetry by her hand that presents Christian nobility for people of Africa, for instance) are some of the boldest poetic maneuvers in American history – to me – and they necessitate close scrutiny. Of course, she was not “illiterate,” but she certainly was a slave. Then we turn to “more influential” and this becomes a question of where, how, and when. No doubt, certain texts have more influence than others. But those too are contingent on racialized and gendered factors. Thomas Jefferson hated Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, not because it wasn’t deep or interesting, but because she represented everything he hoped to hold back.
Even more, Gilman exposes in his response that his approach to “texts” is not as broad as he originally suggested. When he invokes “illiteracy,” he is clearly referring to the ability to read and write. Again, the Euro-American elite centeredness of this is evident, especially when we take into account the slew of laws that made the teaching of slaves illegal in the years following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Why, to be blunt, would anyone want to define a field with the very tools that had been used in the past to disempower, disfranchise, and brutalize other people? Past men of privilege established paradigms by which they were the only ones who could produce “carefully wrought” texts that were in conversation with other like texts. And now we are encouraged to define a field that way?
But also what about the other kinds of literacy Gilman’s assumption leaves out: the ability to speak in a language; the knowledge of religious traditions and stories; the recognition of how to work with particular lands and environments; the ability to use clay or paints to produce objects. There are many forms of literacy and illiteracy that Gilman ignores. White missionaries to African Americans during the 1860s, for instance, routinely had no idea how to join with them in ring shouts. They lacked the bodily and ceremonial literacy to participate. But for Gilman, this would be where cultural history masquerades as intellectual history by rendering all things “intellectual.” And this may be the real villain behind Gilman’s criticism – the cultural turn that found in various groups of people customs, actions, movements, writing, and art that could be read closely.
Where Gilman fails, to me, is not only in the ways his developing definition of “intellectual history” traffics so blatantly in racialized trajectories of the past, but also in the ways he casts off those beyond his established paradigm with subjective judgments. For an essay supposedly trying to define “intellectual” history, there is a significant amount of emotional and affective judgment. Words like “worthy”, “deserve”, and “silly” punctuate the text. We are told that we are “full of it” at one point if we think a certain way.
I appreciate Gilman’s effort at boundary definition and clarity. Scholars in my primary field of study – American religious history – have had similar debates: is religious studies a methodology with tools that can be applied to anything, anywhere or does it only encompass specific and particular beliefs, values, rituals, or concepts? Some scholars shake their heads when they read of “religious studies” of baseball or hygiene rituals. Others feel pigeonholed when it is assumed they study theology or churches or belief in God when expressing their interest in “religion.” In our discipline, there is vitality in the fact that neither side wins or claims the other is “silly” or “full of it.”
Rather than replicate the ways intellectual history of the past replicated structures of oppression, would it not be better to find a way to consider close textual reading of Kant and ring shouts? Is it not possible to think beyond Euro-American assumptions about text and literacy (that somehow all must be rendered into words on paper … or a screen)? I think many of us can support and enjoy an intellectual history that does more to shake old bones than arrange them in a hierarchical order, to trouble the notion of the cerebral than weighing texts as “worthy” or “silly”, and to include more histories and cultures than we exclude.
Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of several works on race and religion in U.S. history, including W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet and most recently co-authored with Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. His twitter handle is @edwardjblum