U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Sensibility of Agency

In one of my graduate seminars this week,* we discussed Thomas Sugrue’s brilliant Origins of the Urban Crisis, a case-study of post-war Detroit that challenges various familiar narratives about “urban decay.”  Alongside Sugrue’s work we read Kevin Boyle’s article, “The Kiss: Racial and Gender Conflict in a 1950s Automobile Factory” (Journal of American History, vol. 84, no. 2, Sep. 1997).  These are works of social history — and very good ones at that.  But any and every work of history is always already a philosophy of history instantiated on the page.  So all history belongs to intellectual history.

There. I’ve solved the border disputes of the discipline. You’re welcome.

Now let’s move on to explore our vast territory…

In Sugrue, I struck historiographic gold in a single passage in his chapter on deindustrialization.    Here’s the passage:

Yet it was not foreordained that the auto companies would construct single-story automobile plants and downsize or abandon their older multi-story factory complexes, nor was it inevitable that smaller machine tool and parts firms would prefer plants in outlying areas.  The assumption that companies in the postwar period had no choice but to move to sprawling suburban and rural sites, surrounded by acres of parking lots and manicured lawns, is wrongly based in an ahistorical argument about the inevitability and neutrality of technological decisions.  Industrial location policy was not a neutral response to market forces or an inexorable consequence of economic progress.  Corporations made decisions about plant location and employment policy in a specific political, cultural, and institutional context, in the case of postwar Detroit in the aftermath of the rise of a powerful union movement and in the midst of a shop-floor struggle over work rules and worker control. (129-130, emphasis mine)

This is a crucial assertion about agency, causality, contingency, historical change.  In this passage Sugrue deftly de-automates the invisible hand of the market.  Behind the seemingly mechanical entropy of Rust Belt ruination lies a series of human decisions. True, we see here in Sugrue the depersonalized language of Leach — “corporations made decisions,” he says, meaning, I take it, the members of boards of directors.  But even if the face of the agency is impersonal — the corporations — Sugrue gestures toward personal responsibility, though the persons are not always named.  The flight of manufacturing from the urban centers of the midwest, and the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs, did not just “happen”; someone (lots of someones) decided to make it happen, or let it happen, or accept its happening as inevitable rather than working for something else to happen.  However, if the sense of historical inevitability is undermined by Sugrue’s account, a sense of individual empowerment is not greatly elevated.  Persons participate in creating and upholding, or challenging and resisting, systemic structures of inequality — or they manage to do both things at once.  But pressing down upon Sugrue’s crucial reminder that nothing had to happen as it did, that nothing has to be as it is, is the sheer inertial weight of the system itself.  Reading Sugrue, it is difficult to envision how an individual’s choices could have — or can — make any dent in The Way Things Are.

This is also the case, though to a lesser degree, with the petit histoire that Kevin Boyle analyzes in his article as a way of interrogating how race and gender shaped the workplace in the postwar automotive industry.  He is looking at a single incident: an interracial kiss between a black male and a white female, coworkers on the assembly line at Chrysler’s plant in Hamtramck, Michigan.  “The kiss” took place at an ad hoc Christmas party thrown by the workers during their shift.  “Alcohol flowed freely,” Boyle writes, but the assembly-line kept moving and the workers kept installing the instrument panels, interior trim, roofs.  (As I recall, my grandfather had at one point owned a Dodge and swore he’d never buy another one.  Perhaps he was the proud owner of one of these “Christmas party specials.”)  The alcohol, the conviviality of a party, the fact that foremen themselves were joining in the festivities — these factors contributed to, or at least allowed for, a momentary blurring of lines that were usually more sharply drawn in this inter-gender and inter-racial workspace.  The worker and his co-worker shared a kiss — though her agency in the incident was later called into question, his never was.  If you want to know where the story went from there, read the article.

But one of my takeaways from the juxtaposition of the Boyle article and the Sugrue book — and this probably won’t be a newsflash to anybody, though it was an epiphany for me — was the correlative relationship between the “zoom level” of the historian’s lens and the visibility of personal and individual agency.  The tighter the closeup, the greater the magnification of personal agency.  I do not mean “magnification” in the sense of disproportionate distortion.  At the same time, though, one could argue that the choice to work via the petit histoire is a choice to reapportion the powers that shaped the past, or to recover a sense of humane hope that each person’s choices can matter.  Rosalind Rosenberg’s recent tour-de-force deployment of the microhistory in her analysis of the 1940 arrest of Pauli Murray could be seen as participating in this restorative project.

In any case, both Sugrue’s “case study” of Detroit’s long decline and Boyle’s microhistory of a single emblematic moment in the inter-racial and re-gendered workplace of postwar industrial America confirm in many ways the vision of the Pragmatists (and the Geertzians and the Gramscians and the Foucauldians) about the extraordinary weight and pressure and limitation that social situations place around the possibilities for individual action to (re)direct the currents of the time, place, and circumstances.

The heyday of microhistory and of the social-history case study have also been the heyday of agency. But would the converse be true?  Would a move away from microhistory and case studies mean a move away from agency?  Is the rise of Big History — or perhaps even the renewed respectability of the synthesis, or at least the sense (dare I say the consensus?) that synthesis is what we need right now — is such a historiographic turn a means of reapportioning the distribution power and agency, or would that reapportionment be simply an effect of re-envisioning the past?

And what of the history of sensibilities?  In theory, it seems like this widest of wide-angle humanistic lenses might simply function to reaffirm or reassert the power of the social over the individual.  But in practice — say, for example, in Susan J. Pearson’s award-winning Rights of the Defenseless — what we have instead (or, perhaps more properly, in addition) is a new understanding of how the cumulative, if not collaborative, efforts of innumerable ordinary persons who believe in their own agency have effectively reshaped the conceptual language of an entire culture, calling into being and putting into cultivation new epistemic territory, new realms of sensibility that the (presumed?) agents themselves could not have envisioned, because they were seeing and saying the change from the inside.

People act in ways conditioned and constrained by all the layered and entangled strands of the social fabric(s) in which we are embedded.  We have but little individual power to affect the design of the whole cloth.  And yet in that constant  (or is it simply “that modern”) human struggle to assert personal will and free choice over impersonal fate and the forces of inertia — without knowing how we do it, without even knowing for certain that we do it — with the conceptual materiel we have at hand, we weave our own strata of significance, registers of  meaning that will harbor or hem in or spur on those who follow after us.  And if by chance they are indeed spurred, by what failure (or success) of our own vision we will never know, so that they too go kicking against the goads, then perhaps they too will manage to fashion new ways of bringing a world into view, including new ways of seeing the shape of this world we are so undesignedly making.


*I didn’t describe the discussion itself in much detail, for purely ethical reasons:  I don’t mind reporting on what I say in a seminar, but I feel like if other grad students want their still-not-quite-settled ideas out on the internet, they’ll put them out there without my help.  I think the seminar room is the closest thing the academy has to a “sacred” space — it should, at the very least, be a space where grad students who are still learning their trade can wrestle with ideas and learn to contend with the commentary and critique of peers, without having to worry about having their every tentative thought scrutinized and criticized by people hearing it second-hand.  It’s daunting enough to advance an argument under the eyes of an intellectually intimidating prof and intellectually challenging classmates — no need to feel like your every word will be subjected to the collective judgment of the blogosphere.  (And that, by the way, is why I would recommend pseudonymity to grad students who are thinking about starting a blog, at least until you get your bearings.)

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Y’all are probably tired of hearing me mention the book, but Andrew Preston’s award-wining SWORD OF THE SPIRIT, SHIELD OF FAITH does a remarkable job at balancing broad overview with attention to the many ways that many religious persons and groups have shaped national policy. To me, it is macrohistory that embraces rather than flees from the discoveries of social history.

  2. Questions of agency are why anecdotes about individuals are so important to “wide-lens” histories. Two early America books I think employ personal anecdotes to humanize large temporal and geographical scopes are Maya Jasanoff’s “Empire of Liberty” and Andrew J. O’Shaugnessy’s “An Empire Divided”. Both tackle massive spaces, but are able to personalize them through biography and microhistory so as to make the spaces less cold and imposing. I think wide-lens histories can function without compelling anecdotes (I’m thinking of Pekka Haemaelaeinen’s masterful “The Comanche Empire”), though these histories often substitute other non-historical methods like ethnography to examine habitus and other everyday events.

  3. “The Kiss: Racial and Gender Conflict in a 1950s Automobile Factory”

    A black dude kissed a white gal during a Christmas party on the assembly line while they kept the assembly line open while they were getting agreeably wasted.

    The worker and his co-worker shared a kiss — though her agency in the incident was later called into question, his never was. If you want to know where the story went from there, read the article.

    Since this is already a 1500-word piece, and this is a linchpin of what its point is, would it be OK to ask where the story went from there, or is that irrelevant?

    Just not following the thesis here, LDB, A>B how The Kiss turned into Detroit becoming a complete economic and social desert. Pls advise.

  4. I am very curious about your claim that there exists a “rise of Big History,” a “renewed respectability of the synthesis,” and/or a “sense (dare I say [a] consensus?) that synthesis is what we need right now.”

    I am not aware of these phenomena. It is difficult for me to imagine that a substantial proportion of professors are training their graduate students to write accessible, synthetic works that span broad time periods, nor can I envision even the possibility of someone becoming an assistant professor with a project along those lines.

    Academic historians who write such works generally wait until securing tenure. Given that the purpose of tenure is to protect scholars from negative repercussions of voicing unpopular opinions, this fact alone suggests that “big history” is not welcome among academic historians. Those who see their vocational mission as writing books along those lines (i.e., those unable or unwilling to spend a decade writing a scholarly monograph just so they can write a different type of book later), must either self-subsidize them or give up. The academy, in my view, manifests a great deal of hand-writing lip service, but no real commitment, to the production of historical writing that is rigorous yet accessible, “big history” if you will.

    There is nothing I would like better, L.D., than to be wrong about this. I’d love to be enlightened and encouraged by some overlooked phenomenon. So can you tell us what gives you this sense?

  5. Mike, thanks for the comment/challenge. On the rise of “Big History,” my sense that it is gaining legitimacy as a subfield (or maybe it’s better to call it a set of methods, or an epistemic orientation?) derives from both discussion of it (viz. 2012 AHA program) and some of its tools (for example, discussions of “Big Data” and how it can be employed/deployed by historians), as well as reaction against it. The latter was the substance of a fascinating paper proposal submitted to me for a panel I was trying to put together for this year’s OAH — I didn’t see at that point how it fit with my panel [though I can now to some extent], but it seems that the proposed paper would have challenged “Big History” as a kind of “cover” for history that simply reinscribes predominant power relationships. I don’t think I can say more than that — not my scholarship, and the paper wasn’t part of the panel I sent.

    (Also, on “Big History” in a technical sense, I would say that to the extent that they are invoking providential explanatory schemes, the “Confessing Historians” are calling for a kind of “Big History.”)

    Within our field, I suppose, a rough corollary to “Big History” would be “Big Idea” history, as discussed by Kloppenberg, Armitage, et. al. at AHA — the longue duree history of ideas.

    As to my joking aside about sense/consensus about synthesis, isn’t it fair to say that the kind of work Rodgers does in _Age of Fracture_ is “synthetic,” not in the usual sense of pulling together the research of several historians and constructing a coherent narrative out of that, but in the sense of pulling together seemingly disparate texts/ideas, often presumably unrelated, and just as often presumably sharply opposed, and making of them a coherent whole? Rodgers has identified “the sensibility” of an age, has found a unifying set of ideas underlying what the historical actors themselves perceived as a fundamental disunity.

    However, the history of ideas/sensibilities often comes under criticism — at least on this blog — for obfuscating / eliding “real” differences. So it’s not as if this is a settled matter or a done deal or the profession is now “moving on” from the case study to the broad or wide-ranging account.

    At the Rice symposium honoring Thomas Haskell a few weeks ago, James Kloppenberg regaled the audience with the advice he gives his grad students on how to construct a dissertation. I think I ought to ask him before posting it here (though I did share it with my own classmates in a grad seminar this past week!), but I can summarize it by saying that in his view a dissertation requires both sharp focus and wide-angle vision. No secret, no surprise to some, perhaps. What was new to me — and most helpful — was how he suggesting going about achieving this perfect balance.

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