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.
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.