U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Home-Grown Crisis of Secularism

A Home-Grown Crisis of Secularism

by Ben Alpers

[Editor’s note: this is the first in a series of roundtable essays on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011). — LDB]

Kerwin Klein’s From History to Theory is a brilliant, idiosyncratic, and argumentative book.  Klein spends a good deal of time in his introduction explaining to his reader what he is — and isn’t — up to. Too long, perhaps. It’s in the nature of projects like this that the real proof of the pudding is in the eating.  In his most succinct introductory description, Klein writes that his book is “a series of interwoven accounts of particular episodes in modern philosophy of history, mostly in the United States and largely concerned with academic rather than popular discourse” (p. 5).  He adds that his concern is more with words than with institutions or individuals. Such a description, while accurate, doesn’t actually tell us much about what follows.  I mention all of this as a kind of apology of my own.  Just as the only way to really get what Klein is up to in From History to Theory is to read it, the only way I feel I can do it justice is to begin by describing it, chapter by chapter.KLK

The book opens with a fascinating essay on the idea of historiography and its evolving place in the professional study of history.  This is followed by a rich chapter on the brief flourishing of the idea of the philosophy of history in the U.S. during the middle decades of the twentieth-century and the founding of the journal History and Theory in 1960, at the moment when the philosophy of history was beginning to run aground.  Klein’s focus here—largely mid-twentieth-century analytic philosophy and theory before “French theory”— very nicely sets up the third chapter, which concerns the linguistic turn…or really linguistic turns. Klein notes that, prior to the linguistic turn taken by the new cultural history in the 1980s, the term was in vogue to describe logical positivism in the 1950s.  In this and the following chapter, Klein does a terrific job of showing some important American roots for ideas commonly associated with the flood of French thought after 1968. In chapter three, Klein notes the importance of mid-20th-century Anglo-American philosophy to Clifford Geertz, who took the phrase “thick description” from Gilbert Ryle and approvingly cited Susanne Langer. In chapter four, Klein traces the evolving meanings of metanarrative in the works of both French and American thinkers, who sought to locate essential differences between Western and non-Western discourses, and concludes with a strongly argued objection to this project: “The search for eternal principles separating the discursive modes of the West and the rest has reproduced the sort of metaphysics that so many of us wish to escape . . . We would be better off recognizing that narrative mastery comes not from ‘meta’ form but from social situation” (p. 110).

Taken together, the book’s first four chapters form a very satisfying, coherent whole. Though they focus on rather different material from each other, each follows roughly chronologically from its predecessor. More importantly, while each chapter stands alone on its own terms, Klein builds arguments over the course of them.  Two of the most significant concern the vital (and under-appreciated) importance of American philosophy of the 1940s-1960s to the understanding American thought in the 1970s and beyond and the changing ways in which American thinkers — inside and outside the field of history — thought about historical narrative in the second half of the last century. In recent years, the 1970s and 1980s have emerged as important objects of study in U.S. history…including intellectual history (as readers of this blog are well aware).  But very often, we frame the stories we tell about the ’70s and ’80s in terms of continuations of, or reactions to, changes that took place in the 1960s, which is still (for good reason) seen as a watershed decade.  Without in any way underplaying the importance of the 1960s, the first four chapters of Klein’s book are an important reminder that the intellectual history of the ’40s and ’50s remains important to understanding the intellectual history of the ’70s and ’80s. The world did not begin anew, intellectually or otherwise, in 1968.  These chapters of Klein’s book also form a kind of object lesson in how to construct a collection of essays that is greater than the (already considerable) sum of its parts.

From History to Theory’s final two chapters concern the category of memory in late-twentieth-century historical discourse and its potentially disturbing similarity to the memory-discourse of the Christian Right.  The concerns of these chapters are connected to those of the first four chapters of the book in a variety of ways, most notably Klein’s interest in how U.S. intellectuals conceive of the task of understanding the past, his effort to make potentially surprising connections between these understandings and those of other thinkers, and finally, his skepticism about unspoken metaphysical commitments implied by these attempts to understand the past.  Yet these two chapters nevertheless seem to stand somewhat apart from the first four, in focus and perhaps in tone, a fact signaled by the opening sentence of chapter five, which seems to announce a new beginning: “Welcome to the memory industry.” Chapter five explores the sudden explosion of memory talk in American scholarship that began in the 1980s, offering both a critique of its categories and a series of possible explanations for its rise, none of which he finds entirely satisfying.  Klein clearly doesn’t like the category of memory and sees its rise as intellectually problematic.  Though more polemical in tone than the book’s earlier chapters, chapter five in a sense continues the defense of historical discourse with which chapter four ended.  Klein concludes his survey of the “memory industry” by noting that “[o]ur use of memory as a supplement, or more frequently as a replacement, for history reflects both an increasing discontent with historical discourse and a desire to draw upon some of the oldest patterns of linguistic practice . . . It is no accident that our sudden fascination with memory goes hand in hand with postmodern reckonings of history as the marching black boot and of historical consciousness as an oppressive fiction.  Memory can come to the fore in an age of historiographic crisis precisely because it figures as a therapeutic alternative to historical discourse” (p. 137).

Klein’s critique of a certain strand of memory discourse is pointed and effective.  But I find chapter five somewhat dissatisfying. As Klein notes in passing early in chapter six “secular academics developed two broad streams of memory studies—those focused on trauma and repression, and those devoted to commemorative practice” (p. 141).  Yet chapter five’s discussion of memory discourse is overwhelmingly devoted to the former. And those studies of commemorative practice that Klein does mention, such as James Young’s important book on Holocaust memorialization, The Texture of Memory, tend, like those devoted to trauma and repression, to treat memory as a hypostatized historical force.  What’s lost in the flood of ’80s and ’90s memory talk that Klein discusses in chapter five is the work of the many historians who treated commemorative practice, and public memory more generally, as objects of more-or-less conventional historical analysis, such as David Blight in Race and Reunion or Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life.

Indeed, the historiographic crisis that Klein describes in chapter five (and, to a certain extent, chapter four) largely took place outside of the field of history.  Certainly the 1980s and 1990s were unsettled times in history departments in the U.S., both because of the new subjects and objects of historical study brought into the mix in the 1970s and because of the methodological instability ushered in by the partial collapse of the new social history of the 1970s and the arrival of the “linguistic turn” and the new cultural history of the 1980s.  Many, perhaps most, younger historians saw these developments as liberating…as did some of our elders, as reflected, for example, in the tone of the conclusion of Peter Novick’s earlier book, That Noble Dream.  Others, feeling that the sky was falling, lamented these changes and attempted to reconstruct historical scholarship as they understood it (hence the creation of the Historical Society).  But, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly absent from history departments—and especially from the still-dominant subfields in those departments devoted to the study of the United States and Europe— was the sort of questioning of historical discourse itself that forms the context for Klein’s discussion of memory in chapter five.   It is significant, for example, that James Young is, by training, a literary scholar, not an historian.  Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s, a fairly sharp divide in Holocaust Studies opened between the work of historians and of other humanists, with the latter much more willing to suggest that the Holocaust stands beyond history and, indeed, suggests the metaphysical limits of history.  This disagreement about the Holocaust was indicative of a larger division among the humanistic disciplines.  The literary fields’ nearly simultaneous (re)embrace of history and questioning of historical discourse in the 1980s certainly had an impact in history departments. But historians, or at least historians of the “Western world,” overwhelmingly retained a devotion to history as such, even if many of us were willing to admit some of its traditional theoretical foundations had been kicked away.

Following from chapter five, chapter six details the often disturbing (at least to us secular academics) ways in which memory discourse was central to the Christian Right during the very years in which it was on the rise in academia. Klein starts with a discussion of what he appropriately calls the “Satanic-abuse industry” that “discovered” ever more elaborate recovered memories of childhood trauma during the late 1980s and early 1990s, befre collapsing in the wake of revelations that few of those memories were grounded in reality.  He then traces the history of conservative Christian efforts to rework the story of the American past, from Rousas Rushdoony to David Barton.  But the burden of this chapter is Klein’s suggestion that this history of Christian Right memory talk reveals the underpinnings of the secular academic memory talk that he discussed in chapter five:  “Despite good academic intentions, memory talk in the academy of the late twentieth century was more nearly a symptom than an analysis of the resacralization of public life in the United States” (p. 159).  This is a provocative suggestion. And I’m willing to be convinced of its validity. But Klein does not quite manage to convince me here.  Chapter five manages to paint a convincing critique of the quasi-religious character of (some of) the secular academic memory talk that blossomed in the 1980s.  Chapter six paints a parallel portrait of the Christian Right’s use of memory. But what, in fact, is the relationship between these uses of memory?  Two dimensions of the story that Klein tries to tell in chapters five and six seem to me to be missing.  I’ve already mentioned the first: the more traditionally historical accounts of memory that academic historians produced in the 1980s and beyond. The second is the explicit attitude of secular academics during these years to religion and the sacred. Because I think a case can be made that secular, academic humanists, in this case including historians, have shown a willingness to countenance not just quasi-religious arguments, but explicitly religious ones.  I’m thinking of the often positive reception by secular academics of such frankly religious thinkers as legal scholar Stephen L. Carter or historians Brad Gregory and Chris Shannon (the latter of whom has guest-posted on this blog).  There’s still, of course, a huge gap between the work of a Gregory or a Shannon and the essentially false history propounded by a David Barton.  But if one wants to draw connections between the sacred talk of the Christian Right and the quasi-sacred talk of the academic scholars of memory, the growing presence of openly religious arguments in academic discourse itself is an important part of the story.

The Conclusion of From History to Theory returns to Klein’s polemic against sacralization, a theme that, in effect, links the first four chapters of From History and Theory to the last two. The U.S., he suggests, has experienced a latter-day crisis of historicism. And the roots of the crisis are not to be found in post-1918 Germany or post-1968 France. “It is indeed ironic,” Klein notes, “that discourses known for criticizing historiography as a form of metaphysics could become associated with languages far murkier than those of logical positivism, but the occasionally nihilistic or even mystical trajectories that developed in academia could scarcely be described as a result of some French academic bohemians unleashing the dark forces of the American id. Americans could manage that feat on their own” (p. 163).  But I think there is more than irony at work here.  Klein’s book is an unusually robust plea for what now seems like old-fashioned academic secularism (a plea with which I’m largely sympathetic). But the secular academics against whom he writes have not merely stumbled their way into language that sounds like religious discourse. They have also frequently been unwilling to frankly confront and firmly disagree with religious discourse. Perhaps the crisis here is not merely of historicism but of secularism as such.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this valuable introduction to Klein’s book. I’m wondering if you could unpack your conclusion a bit:

    “But the secular academics against whom he [Klein] writes have not merely stumbled their way into language that sounds like religious discourse. They have also frequently been unwilling to frankly confront and firmly disagree with religious discourse. Perhaps the crisis here is not merely of historicism but of secularism as such.”

    Do you mean we should tell David Barton (and Chris Shannon?) to go to hell?

    • I think Barton and Shannon are entirely separate cases.

      Barton and other Christian Right mythmakers posing as US historians should, indeed, be told to go to hell. And, since most actual US historians belated noticed their existence in the last decade or so, we largely have. Barton’s work is a combination of incompetence and bad faith. It deserves to be simply stigmatized and debunked.

      Shannon and other actual scholars who write from a religious perspective should, on the other hand, be engaged by secular scholars. But we secular scholars have been, in my experience, too unwilling to argue against their religious perspectives as vigorously as they have argued against our secular ones.

      (I’m writing quickly, as I’m about to leave on a day of air travel, which won’t end until this evening. Let me apologize both for dashing off this response and for not being able to again take part in this conversation until much later in the day.)

  2. Mark, I do indeed have something in mind along these lines. I’m grateful to those who have expressed interest in directly engaging Shannon’s essay here. (I would add that it’s also necessary, in my view, to engage Eric Miller’s intro essay to the “Confessing History” project.) I hope to make some progress on this project soon.

    I may host the project as a series of guest posts on my blogging day, but may not actually participate in it myself — it all depends on whether I can manage that whole “objectivity is not neutrality” bit. As I wrote in the comments here, this may come down to how (or whether) I can effectively modulate my voice. Thundering like a prophet has its place; mere thundering, not so much. Not that I haven’t indulged in a blogospheric barbaric yawp on occasion. We all have our moments.

  3. Ben: Thanks for this nuts-and-bolts description and the bigger questions at the end of your review. I wasn’t aware of Klein’s book until LD mentioned it a few months back. So this a great introduction to the round table—I’m jonesing for more.

    Apropos of your point about the two strains of memory study—i.e. repression/trauma and commemorative practice—I recently reviewed a book that may be of interest to USIH readers who are into the latter strain. The book’s title is DEMOCRATIC NARRATIVE, HISTORY, & MEMORY, eds. Carole A. Barbato and Laura L. Davis (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2012).

    This collection is primarily focused on memory and history in relation to the Kent State Tragedy/Massacre/Shootings. But it has pieces that veer off in interesting directions. For instance, the collection contains a philosophical piece by Jay Winter on the virtues and vices of socially-constructed silence. Apparently Winter is important to the memory theory crowd (though I wasn’t aware of his work before reviewing this collection).

    But, returning to your two broad streams, this collection also introduces another tributary, or potentially another stream altogether: the use of memory and contested history to construct truth and reconciliation commissions. I suppose this goes toward trauma and public history, but I thought I’d mention it as another are of concern. – TL

  4. Dear Ben,
    Thanks for the introduction to Klein’s book, and thanks for bringing my work into the mix. I know you are traveling now and may not be able to respond, but here are a couple of thoughts.

    First, on the link between Christian Right memory and academic history in the 1980s. Klein may not make a clear case for the connection, but as I have argued elsewhere, the neo-consensus perspective that dominates U.S. history these days seems to me a perfect example of memory (and forgetting), fueled largely by fears of the political power of the Right (both Christian and non-Christian). The rise of Reagan led liberals and radicals to link arms in a new, and somewhat mushy, “progressive” consensus. Alan Brinkley began his career looking for an alternative to the New Deal in the likes of Coughlin and Long; since the late 80s he has shifted focus back to the New Deal and the State, which, for all its limitations, is where the action is. Eric Foner begins his career as a radical labor historian and now writes sweeping surveys with patriotic titles like “The Story of American Freedom.” I am not criticizing the technical scholarship of either of these figures, but “memory work” isn’t just about distorting the facts, it is about narrative, the real “n” word among historians.

    On the failure of secular historians to challenge religious believers on their beliefs, I’d say you make a fair criticism. Of course, at one level there simply have not been too many opportunities for exchanges that would allow for such criticisms, but I do recall Tim Lacy commenting that he thought the respondents in the “Histories to Traditions” roundtable let me off easy. While the exchange on Self’s “All in the Family” did for the most part avoid getting involved in debating the substantive issues raised by the book (legitimacy of abortion, gay marriage, etc.), it was hard to debate more historical issues such as the relation between attitudes toward sex and the changing meaning of “public” life without getting into the substantive issue of what we mean by “public.”

    I don’t know where this might go, but I am happy to participate in any discussion that might follow. L.D. and Mark, if you think the “After Monographs” piece could be a helpful conversation aid, I would be happy to respond to criticisms or objections–or even approval!


    • Did I say that? My memory of that exchange, actually, is that for some reason I never found the time to make even a single comment (to my regret—because I like thinking about religious assumptions and history!). – TL

  5. I was the one who said that, Tim. Indeed, I believe that was my very first comment on this blog. And not only do I stand by it, but I’ll double down on it.

    Chris, don’t drop little race-baiting asides in the middle of your comments and then feign dismay when discussions fail to revolve around substantive issues. That’s trolling, and it should be beneath you. If you want to make a substantive argument that doesn’t invoke identitarian subject position — yours or anyone else’s — then make one.

    • Dear Tim and L.D.
      Sorry for misattribution.

      Tim, I think your comment was more one of general disappoiontment, expressing your interest in MacIntyre but hoping for something more.

      L.D., I’m not sure what you mean. I was referring to my exchanges with Robin Marie, in which she cautioned that we avoid getting into the substantive issues relating to abortion, for fear that it would just become a shouting match between two incommensurable positions. I was not dismayed by this. I think it helped us focus on other issues that are less contentious and at this moment easier to discuss across confessional lines. I was simply saying that even though we suspended judgment on abortion, we got into a similarly substantive debate about the meaning of “public.” Defining the “public” is no more neutral than defining the human person, it is simply less contentious at this point in time, and Robin Marie and I share a common concern that public mean something more than liberal individualism write large, so we were able to have a more fruitful discussion on that issue.
      Any substantive argument that I could make would in some sense be rooted in my understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition, but one does not have to be a Catholic to appreciate and even accept certain aspects of that tradition–e.g., Robin Marie and I share an antipathy to liberal individualism. That doesn’t mean that these aspects are the universal, rational side of Catholicism and the parts that Robin Marie can’t accept–e.g., the teaching on abortion–are particular and religious. A secular libertarian would see the Catholic antipathy to individualism as the root of all the evil of Catholicism.
      Catholicism has an intellectual tradition, not an “identitarian subject position.” That phrase makes it all sound subjective and arbitrary–“its a Catholic thing, you wouldn’t understand.” That’s the type of irrationalism I am trying to avoid, all the while realizing there is no neutral position from which to make a substantive argument.

  6. “identitarian subject position”

    Is that the lingo that’s popular with the kids in grad school these days?

  7. At first pass, I find it remarkable that in my discussions with the confessing historians — whether it’s with you here, Chris, or with John Fea at his blog — a common response to a rather sharp point of critique is, “I’m not sure what you mean” — as if all of the sudden, these able and talented historians don’t know how to interpret a text.

    But in thinking more about it, I realize that this response is a common feature of online disputation in academe — I think I have seen it deployed on this blog before in various situations, by various people who would otherwise never dream of suggesting that they are bewildered by a text. (And, come to think of it, I would guess that one hears it at conferences too.)

    This disavowal of comprehension serves several rhetorical functions, but the two main ones (at least here) are these: to cast doubt on the rationality of one’s interlocutor, and to claim innocence regarding one’s own clear meanings.

    However, no one who came across the assertion in your comment above that narrative is “the real ‘n’ word among historians” could miss your intent: to provoke, to throw people off balance, to elicit subjective responses, in order that you might then seize the high ground of serene reason and be “the rational one” in the debate. Moreover, anyone who is familiar with your recent oeuvre on this blog — the dismissive assessment of a book you hadn’t yet read, followed by inaccurate characterizations of the book after you read it (as evidenced by your concessions to Robert Self on those points), topped off with your assertion that your errors and misrepresentations are nonetheless irrelevant to your overall argument — will be able to see the same pattern of disputation deployed in your entry into the conversation here.

    And if they couldn’t see it before, I trust the above explanation has made it clear.

    As to how read this comment, I’d suggest considering it as something like a ringside analyst’s pre-bout assessment of your boxing style. Maybe you can adjust, maybe you can’t. Maybe you think you don’t need to. But once the bell rings (and it hasn’t yet — I’m still jawing here in my corner, but check back with me on Saturday), you might want to show me something I haven’t seen before.

  8. L.D.

    First, while my “n-word” comment was diliberately provocative in some of the ways that you indicate, I apologize if it was offensively provocative. At first I really thought you were referring to my raising and then dropping the abortion issue, as a kind of moral/rhetorical equivalent of race-baiting.

    I intended my analogy to point to a similar taboo among those in the profession, those in the Hollinger/Haskell/Kloppenberg school who imply that any fundamental questioning of the conventions of the profession is the moral equivalent of racism in that it entails a fundamental questioning of liberalism which is the last best hope of mankind. I’m all for taboos, but then that’s because I believe that some things are sacred. I believe in taboos on racist slurs because it undermines the dignity of the human person. I just don’t believe that the conventions of the profession, little over a hundred years old and constructed by people who in certain contexts were quick to deny there there is any essential human nature or timeless truth, deserve such reverence. I am happy that the moderators at S-USIH support open conversation on these issues, because the AHA certainly doesn’t.

    I am not questioning your rationality. I am disagreeing with your distinction between “substantive argument” plain and simple, and “substantive argument” based on an “identitarian subject position.” Hollinger et. al. clearly have a subject position. It just happens to be the dominant one in the profession, so appears natural, neutral, placeless, etc.

  9. Chris, I’m tempted to write “Q.E.D.” and call it a day. I mean, it’s all here: the initial sweeping claim, the apologetic walkback, and then the scholastic hairsplitting about how even though you were wrong, you were really right, because you meant to be “deliberately provocative” instead of “offensively provocative.” Then, in the very next sentence, comes yet another shift: I really did think you were reacting to previous things I’ve said that might be analogous to race-baiting, instead of to my actual, recent, intentionally provocative race-baiting to which I hoped readers would react.

    And after all this sophistry, I am supposed to engage the rest of your comment as if it were delivered in sincerity? Perhaps invest some time in showing how Hollinger / Haskell / Kloppenberg are not, in fact, a “school,” only to be told in a subsequent post that this wasn’t your main point anyway? Or shall I take the bait on your juxtaposition of “conventions” versus “timeless truths” and try to out-historicize your historicizing, only to be told that you concede the historical nature of your own values, but you take your stand on something else? Then there’s your concluding sentence, where you use the verb “appears” without indicating an indirect object (i.e., to whom does this subject position appear neutral?), so that I am left to assume one meaning or another, which I might very easily refute, only to be told on a subsequent comment that, well, that’s not what you meant at all.

    In short, exactly how much of this non-argument are you willing to disown in the next comment, just to keep shifting the grounds of the debate until you find a place to make a stand?

    By contrast, here is a first pass at explaining what I think is important, the ground I’m defending.

    I am still learning to write about it with clarity, but I’ll be damned if I ever stoop to sensationalism, sophistry, or insincerity. I’ll take my stand, and no reader will have to wonder whether there’s trolling or trickery afoot.

    Go and do thou likewise.

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