U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Livingston: The Assumptions That Drive Our Discipline

by James Livingston

[Editor’s note: this guest post by James Livingston is a response to the conversation initiated by Ben Alpers’s post from yesterday, “An Unusable Past.” –LDB]

Ben, Tim, and Kurt are right, I have been unconsciously questioning the assumptions that drive our discipline, at least as it’s presently constituted in the universities of the USA.

My unkind “review” of Paul Murphy’s book was a symptom of my frustration with what I see as historians’ unwarranted complacence in view of epistemic revolutions all around.  American historians tend to focus on the “good guys”—the exceptions to the rule of capital—and thus reduce the past to the heroic moments of “resistance.”  This usable past becomes the exception to the exception, a miracle that can’t be reproduced.  So it becomes an icon rather than a text, something to be worshipped rather than parsed.  The Pops, the Communists, SDS, those were the days.  Enter, stage left, Howard Zinn.

So anyway, here’s how I opened my address to the titans of finance who invited me to speak at their Economic Summit in January 2012:

“We’re here to take the long view. We want to know how we got here, to a place where economic crisis has been compounded by political impasse, on the one hand, and intellectual exhaustion, on the other—except from the fringes, where energy seems abundant and renewable, but ugly all the same.  Once we know how we got here, we can see where we’re headed, and why we might want to choose another destination.

“In interesting times like these, though, when novel facts collide with previous truths, prudence based on custom could prove useless: the past can tell us where we’ve been, but not necessarily where we’re headed.  I’m sure this dictum sounds odd coming from a history professor, especially one who reveres Lincoln, the so-called conservative who led the Second American Revolution.  But we’ve now reached the limits of what our history can teach us.”

Alperovitz, Ludlow, me, yeah, we’re symptoms—probably not cures—of some dis-ease, some real concern that the Past cannot speak to us in the ways we have come to expect, which means in the ways produced by conventional approaches to History.  Notice, my complaint about Murphy came after my address to the hedge fund managers.

Think of James Madison’s predicament.  Am I invoking History?  Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then.  He’s worried in 1786 about the survival rate of republics, so he engages in a deep study of them, and decides, on that studious basis, that the Past is no guide in the Present or to the Future.  He learns that both ancient and modern republics “sacrificed the poor to the rich” because the rights of property always outweighed the rights of persons—these were the “two cardinal objects of Government”—and thus undermined popular government as such.

So Madison asks, What then is to be done?  His singular, monumental answer was what we call the Constitution, which balanced those two “cardinal objects” until 2010, when the Federalist Society won its war of position and the Supreme Court decided that the rights of property must outweigh all others, or rather that the distinction between the rights of persons and the rights of property is moot.  Madison’s unpublished answers are more interesting, particularly the long letter he wrote to Jefferson about his friend’s draft of a constitution for the state of Virginia.

“In the existing state of American population and American property,” he wrote, referring to the revolutionary coalition of the 1770s, “the two classes of rights were so little discriminated that a provision for the rights of persons was to include of itself those of property, and it was natural to infer from the tendency of republican laws that these different interests would be more and more identified.”

By the late 1780s, having done the research and seen the results of state-building at the local level, Madison understood that this identification of interests was impossible:

“Experience and investigation have however produced more correct ideas on this subject.  It is now observed that the smaller part only can be interested in preserving the rights of property.  It must be foreseen that America and Kentucky itself [shorthand for the Garden of Eden in late-18th century parlance] will by degrees arrive at this State of Society.”

What then?  Limit the rights of that “smaller part”?  Make sure the proles couldn’t ever touch the rights of property?  Gradually sacrifice the poor to the rich, as every preceding republic had?

That was the Past, that was the lesson of History.  Republics were finite organisms—insofar as they entered the corrupting medium of historical time and thus experienced a division between the “Class with and the Class without Property,” as Madison put it, they would decay, and they would finally expire, according to Aristotle, Polybius, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu.  But he refused the received wisdom, the lesson of History.  He proposed a radical break from the Past, in both theory and practice.  The Constitution was the result.

That is what I guess I’ve been getting at.  When Paul Murphy calls his book “The New Era,” he’s merely reproducing the slogans of the Twenties rather than asking whether and how the cultural-intellectual practices of the decade were, in fact, new.

The Past is no guide in the Present or to the Future, not if we just reproduce its obvious wisdom.  Faulkner was a holy fool, in this regard as many others, because the Past is, in fact, behind us, and our task as human beings is to understand the relation between our fleeting remembrance and our abiding concerns.  We want to measure the weight of the past but not let it drag us back into its gravitational field.

I think we’re at a turning point in American history—a place where we decide what the republic will look like for another century, or where we decide, willy-nilly, that it’s no longer a republic.  I’m worried that we’re not equipped, as historians, to offer our fellow citizens any guidance as they make their decisions on this Future.

I want History to matter.  I just don’t think it can as we write it these days.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Jim, thanks for sending this post.

    There are a few things I would like to say in reply, but some of those will have to wait until I finish my orals next week.

    But just as a broad, general observation, I’d say that in a disenchanted era, secular historians have yet to figure out what to do with the problem of mortality. They either don’t hear the bell tolling, or don’t know what it means. When I write about “the pastoral work of secular historians” this is generally what I have in mind. Historians are marginal men who handle the dead, resurrection men who bring them to life. We feel that we ought to — we can hardly help ourselves — but we can’t always say why.

    I am working on saying why. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, thank you for being a watchman on the wall.

  2. This post and the preceding one by Ben, read together, should set off a major discussion on the subject of whether or not there are major enduring lessons to be learned from the late 19th/early 20th century debates, social movements, political conflicts focused on the wider unintended consequences of capital’s reckless, criminally negligent pursuit of industrialization — and how and why social democracy and progressive liberalism both fell short as a response — lessons that are in some sense relevant to the radically new and unprecedented situation that we now find ourselves in, which amounts to those side-effects on steroids, threatening to bury us.

  3. “I want History to matter. I just don’t think it can as we write it these days.”

    To what extent does Jim or anyone think that Bethany Moreton’s rejection of Thomas Frank in To Serve God and Wal-Mart–her demand that historians begin to take seriously America’s service economy and workers instead of endlessly waiting for Lefty–represent an effort to “write it” differently?

  4. I think Moreton’s book is very valuable. Don’t see it as paradigm-shifting.

    A better case, I think, could be made for something like the work of George Chauncey, Kevin Mumford, Shane Vogel, Samuel Delany on sexual/race politics and the city. They force us to stop looking at history in the way we usually look at it, and scramble our usual sense of Right and Left. On the level of real politics, that’s true also of theorists like Lee Edelman and sex workers’ rights activists. That’s the world I look to for inspiration when “waiting for Lefty” starts to seem like a suicide mission.

  5. What James Livingston writes above reminds me of Karl Marx’s statement in the opening pages of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Just as people can make history only under contingent circumstances, so too do historians interpret the world by borrowing or rehabilitating old concepts. They are as much a historical object as their subjects of study.

    Therein lies the tension implied by Livingston’s blog post, the tension between rehabilitating old concepts/paradigms and extending concepts/creating new paradigms. A political impasse cannot be separated from its theoretical counterpart. The paradigm-shifts that, for example, the 1960s generation produced in the realm of culture and politics were part and parcel of the general social transformations happening in society at large. In that sense, theoretical exhaustion is little more than a confession of a generalized ideological and social decline. History will matter when social transformation matters, again. For historical work doesn’t stand outside the present moment, peering in.

    Yet in these inauspicious times, historical understanding can offer negative lessons. But these lessons in turn cannot be applied as mathematical principles but can be entertained for the sake of greater historical consciousness and clarity. It seems to me that the unstated assumption of partisans of the”usable past” is the notion that history repeats itself, which it does not. This realization that history is undergoing constant transformation, even if appears under time-honored guises, can produce a certain amount of anxiety because this view of history breaks out of the neat confines of historical utility, which interprets the historical past as prologue to the present.

  6. I’m still mulling over this fascinating post. Thanks for weighing in with it, Jim! You raise some really important issues about historical practice in the early 21st century.

    But, while I think about this post, I wanted to quickly note that when I wrote at the end of my post that the confluence I noted among Alperovitz, Ludlow, and Livingston might suggest “something broader about our cultural and intellectual moment” I had in mind things beyond history and even the academy (as Luis Feliz suggests upthread). Indeed, I almost wrote a concluding paragraph about the Broadway revival of Pippin, but then I decided that that thought deserved a future post of its own…if it deserved to be aired at all 😉

    • Ben, I hope you do post about Pippin! I used Pippin to teach the 1970s a little bit last semester, and am thinking of how to use it more extensively!

  7. Sticking with Livingston’s use of Madison…

    Madison studied the Past and saw flaws with its wisdom. To me this is an example of History aiding someone to envision the future. Did Madison not engage in an education about past republics, learned what he felt was useful, dropped the rest, and formed a new vision of the republic? Is that not what History’s (in a very quaint, overly-simplistic/truncated view) purpose is as an educable tool for the masses–these proles? Was it really History’s responsibility to tell Madison what republics he should study to base the new nation on, especially if no republics ever existed in the first place? Is it really that fair to judge History on its obvious disadvantage (i.e. it only has the Past to draw from)? How can historians be possibly expected to guide citizens into the Future if they don’t have any material to work off of? Are historians expected to know what moon colonies should look like when Gingrich is President–if so, what moon colonies do we have as references, are they primary sources or secondary? (I’m being a dick. I’ll move on.)

    Another quaint way of putting it: History allows people to study the Past (not all of it, mind you, just the stuff we know exists and think matters), and then build upon that understanding (if we so choose) for the Future. Circling back to Madison, based off his criticism of early republics, he formed a better understanding of government and created the Constitution. Maybe this a stretch, I don’t know, but seems like the guy was using History.

    That may not be satisfying for everyone, I understand.

    So I’m all for shaking things up a bit in the field, trying to find the better wisdom in history, and ultimately being better equipped to offer guidance. I do think there is a huge issue with complacency that has yet to be dealt with (which is why Livingston’s New Era post was needed). And I’m all for improving History and making it “matter” (whatever the hell that means in coeval society–wink, wink), but let’s step back from the edge, people. Let’s not make the mistake in calling this “The End of History” or more precisely its usefulness.

    Anyone care to confute?

  8. I’m worried that we’re not equipped, as historians, to offer our fellow citizens any guidance as they make their decisions on this Future.

    I want History to matter. I just don’t think it can as we write it these days.

    True. Critics want to be “intellectuals.” Or worse, poets.

    There’s nothing wrong with being a historian, though. All it takes is effort and honesty. First things first. The rest follows.

  9. Iaiain, the point you’re making — that historians by definition have to make use of history — runs along the same lines, I think, as a comment made last year on the post Livingston wrote in response to the response to his review of Murphy’s book (and I should link to the Murphy review etc. in this post, so people can pick up the longer conversation).

    Anyway, here is the last part of the comment Dan Wickberg left in response to Livingston’s lament:

    All we’ve got are the tools we’ve got; critique is a modernist, historicist form. This seems hardly a reason for despair–it just means that the chastened and humble form of modernism is a better one for living than the totalizing and assertive form of endless revolution and dynamic progress. Maybe we need a new Stoicism– stop thinking you’re stuck, and you’re not. But don’t jump off a moving train–the results can’t be pretty.

    I’m not too sure that “Stoicism” is the right word there. I don’t think that’s what got William James out of his mess, anyhow. It wasn’t that he stopped believing something, but that he started believing something.

    So I think Jim Livingston is close to the kingdom — “I want History to matter,” he writes. If that’s not a true convert’s faith, I don’t know what is. And I do know something about converts and faith. The problem, I think, is the mismatch between faith and its institutionalization. The last place a twice-born sick soul needs to be is inside a church — nothing more cloying or annoying.

    It seems to me that what a lot of academics do is believe that they’re on the outside but write like they’re on the inside. So maybe Jim needs to switch those terms. Or maybe, if that’s what he feels his been doing for his career — believing he’s on the inside but writing from outside — then he needs to take a Looking-Glass Land approach to the problem and aim to write from the inside as an insider. I would surmise that history — and maybe History — would be transformed utterly as the very words strike the page.

  10. History is communicated via the written word. The source material used to construct our knowledge of the past is overwhelmingly written text. While reading Professor Livingston’s plea that he wants “History to matter,” the profession needs to ask itself “for whom?” Who is the audience for which we write? Is history a series of narrow technically written research topics by graduates of a few elite universities written for a few hundred specialists from the same institutions, and the importance of which is another line on the author’s CV or maybe some change in the lecture notes of the readers?

    Is there an inherent bias within the groupthink of the high priests who are the gatekeepers of historical truth? Do authors self censor while writing a piece for fear that the referees might brand their work “partisan,” “polemical,” or gasp, “presentist?”

    When we teach of environmental degradation such as hydraulic mining in the American West, or about the “Wages of Whiteness,” do our lessons stay in the minds of our students to be applied in their adult life? Or are they flushed from the memory banks as they walk out the classroom door for the last time after turning in their final exam? Do they exercise their critical thinking skills about symbols and history when they see Barack Obama take the oath of office on Martin Luther King’s Bible, or do they accept the obvious wisdom that his presidency is the culmination of Martin Luther King’s philosophy.

    Twenty-five years ago when I was in graduate school, I would have answered “Hell yeah! History matters.” I probably could have written several pages to support my assertion, but now I have to agree with Professor Livingston. I haven’t read anything from those opposed to his position to convince me otherwise.

  11. Brian, who are “those opposed to [Livingston’s] position”? Do you mean in the comment thread, or in the historiography?

    As far as I can tell, Livingston’s position at this point is diagnostic — things aren’t working. But that seems to be a widely held sentiment. I guess what makes Livingston’s take idiosyncratic is that he is locating the cause (or at least the source) of the dis-ease as lying within the historian’s eye. (But is it a mote or a beam?)

    I don’t mean to sound nit-picky by asking you to name names; I’m genuinely curious. I read this post as Livingston thinking out loud, and very open-ended in terms of taking a stance. But if there is someone who has identified Livingston’s stance and (unsuccessfully?) attempted to argue against it, point us in that direction. That would be an interesting conversation to follow, I think.

    • I do not think Professor Livingston created a strawman in his essay. To question the assumptions means that some adhere to them.

      The only example I can come up with concerning the “stories” or “master narrative” tradition which Livingston is critiquing is a sample copy of a documentary sourcebook. Within this compilation, there was a lesson plan on industrialization. Like many such works it uses a debate format. “Were they Robber Barons or Captains of industry?” Talk about good guys v. bad guys and exceptions to the rule of capital. No talk about the “organizational synthesis.” Like the economics profession, the profession like to stick to tried and true formulaic patterns.

      I hope this helps you understand my comment. I have to get back to butchering, I mean editing, a narrowly focused technical manuscript down to 9000 words while listening to the soothing sounds of my two youngest battle at Mario Kart.

  12. Sometimes an analogy is helpful. How about a look at academic music?

    In 1958, Milton Babbitt famously wrote an article called “Who Cares If You Listen?” for High Fidelity magazine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Cares_if_You_Listen Only twenty years earlier, Popular Front composers like Ruth Crawford Seeger were forming clubs to try to wed academic musicology, modernist composition, and political struggle. Mainstream musicology was deeply embedded in nationalist conversations about national character. Appreciation of classical music–including the ability to respond thoughtfully to new music– was seen as a necessary part of a liberal education.

    Babbitt was part of a generation of composers who saw developments in music toward pure abstraction–away from melody, harmony, delayed gratification and the eventual rewards of cadential closure– as music’s future. With the addition of computers and electronics to the composer’s arsenal–funded, to a large degree, by the growing military-industrial-advertising complex– a new kind of “pure” music could now be created, taught, and discussed in academic departments without any relation of any sort to a “public.” Whether anyone liked it was beside the point.

    And, to a large degree, that’s how music has gone. There are still music departments. They are still integrally connected to the real world in myriad ways–they train many of the high school teachers, marching band conductors, symphony orchestra musicians, and rock and jazz jobbers–but academic musicology is no longer very much connected with the ways in which music is used and lived. No one calls a musicologist for a news story, unless it is for some breathless cognitive science pop-psychology breakthrough story. And even then, they really want to talk to the cognitive scientist.

    Music didn’t go anywhere. It’s just that the brief intimacy between academics and the musical culture of the West, between 1800 and 1950, say, ended. There are scholars of popular music, of course, but the useful things they have to say are rooted in sociology, history, gender studies, media studies, etc. Not mathematical analysis of notes on stave paper.

    If academic history has not had a traumatic moment like Babbitt’s article–with its crazy title and its very arrogant and hostile subtext–I think the question is: could it? Will it? Might it?

    Is this useful?

  13. Hmmm. It is a helpful analogy, Kurt — made better sense of both Livingston’s post and Brian’s comment.

    I’m not sure that anybody is arguing or has argued that history as currently written/practiced is very much connected with the lived experience of non-historians. This is a problem that goes beyond calls for a plain-speech/accessible style (though that’s certainly a part of it).

    The problem — or a problem, anyway — is the temptation to take some kind of shortcut to relevance or usefulness. You might end up with something useful, but what you end up with may not be history. And that matters because history provides another perspective, another lens, through which to view the past. If history becomes something else — political science, politics, Sunday school lesson, propaganda, memory [yeah, I said that] — then we lose the perspective that history can provide by not looking through those other lenses.

  14. While reading Professor Livingston’s plea that he wants “History to matter,” the profession needs to ask itself “for whom?” Who is the audience for which we write? Is history a series of narrow technically written research topics by graduates of a few elite universities written for a few hundred specialists from the same institutions, and the importance of which is another line on the author’s CV or maybe some change in the lecture notes of the readers?
    Is there an inherent bias within the groupthink of the high priests who are the gatekeepers of historical truth?


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