Dear USIH Readers: The compelling interview that Cara Burnidge did with Kathryn Lofton, who will give the keynote at the 2014 S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, relates to some of the central, long-running debates about intellectual history. I would like to draw your attention to two points that Lofton made in particular:
1) “It is only if Intellectual History proves that the intellectual is not an exclusive category — that is, if it proves that its premise is not a mere matter of expertise, but a practice of life shared by all — that it gains significance.”
2) “The cultural turn included, as one of its worst habits, a kind of reflexive populist snobbery toward Intellectual History, and this diminished enormously the intellectual consequence of many works that could have been better if only they hadn’t been so frightened of being associated with ideas (as opposed to movements, practices, habits, affects, or modalities).”
I posted the interview at my Facebook page, which then led to an interesting and friendly debate about the purpose of intellectual history. A few of us decided it would be better to carry this debate over to the blog, where more readers, including hopefully Lofton, can respond. I have asked those who participated in the Facebook debate to replicate and add to their responses here. But by all means everyone is welcome to chime in. I’d like this to be an open forum on Lofton’s interview, a discussion that will hopefully carry over to her keynote in October.
Lofton’s interview was fairly representative of the type of intellectual history I do. Which is not to say I would exclude other types that are equally valuable. I originally thought the two passages that I quoted above were contradictory, but the more I thought about it, I decided the two points are only incompatible if we don’t think ideas, even at their most sophisticated, are something everybody can relate to in some fashion. I’m interested in the way intellectual discourses loop in and out of more popular, political discourses, and how each set of discourses is changed by such interactions. This seems consistent with Lofton’s approach, as she articulated it in this interview. This is not to obliterate all distinction, but to recognize the blurriness of such distinctions, particularly in late-twentieth-century American culture, when it was less and less possible to hold onto “high,” “middle,” and “low” cultural and intellectual distinctions, and when academia was more and more intertwined with popular and political culture.
Your thoughts? Let’s go.