U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fatalism and the Age of Fracture

Last week I blogged about a little experiment I performed on the annals of the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History. Inspired by the word’s prominent occurrence in a debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates about the “culture of poverty” thesis, I decided to compile all the uses of the word “fatalism” (or any of its inflections: fatalist, fatalists, fatalistic, fatalistically) in the back issues of these two journals and see what kinds of patterns, if any, emerged.

The first and most obvious one I reported on last week: there is a huge absolute increase in the number of incidences of “fatalism” after 1970, with each decade from 1970 through 2010 ticking upward incrementally—44 (1970s); 46 (1980s); 58 (1990s); 61 (2000s).[1]

Now, this is an interesting trend because it seems as if it may partially confirm an argument made by Tressie McMillan Cottom, that attributions of “fatalism” have been used repeatedly to rule out of bounds many of the political and moral critiques of African-American intellectuals. The coincidence of this massive increase in the usage of “fatalism” after 1970 strongly suggests that it was in part a response to a new sense of crisis in the discipline based on the emergence of new histories from below—the new labor history and women’s history, among others—as well as the establishment of African-American and ethnic studies programs and the growing power of revisionism in core subfields such as the history of foreign relations and intellectual history.

But what kind of response was it? Was it simply a way to deprecate the new scholarship as pessimistic?

Dan Wickberg (whose article “What Is the History of Sensibilities?” actually appears on the list!) pointed out in a comment that not all historians employ the term as an indication of a negative judgment, that for some, “fatalism” doesn’t equate to “cynicism.” That is very true, and I would argue it actually makes searching through these instances of “fatalism” even more useful—it doesn’t track the history of an insult, but illuminates the lines of stress in the discipline, the places where historians reach for a large and contested concept to explain what’s on their mind—and how they feel about it, or how they feel about how someone else feels about it.

Looking for instances of “fatalism” doesn’t so much tell us who historians as a group have thought were fatalists, or what in the past they collectively thought was fatalistic. It tells us where they thought about fatalism and how often they thought with it.

“How often?” is an interesting question. Beyond the large rise post-1970, there is another striking finding: if we break down the years post-1970 not by decade but by half-decade, we get the table at the bottom of this post: a pretty gradual rise, not a sharp “backlash” (or reaction to a backlash) followed by a softening of passions as we move further away from the cultural “civil war” of the 1960s.[2] The fever may have broken this half-decade (we are on pace for 17.5), but if I’m right and incidences of “fatalism” in historical articles are a sort of stress test for divergence in the discipline, we may be coming back to some kind of weak consensus or “comity,” using Peter Novick’s term.The emphasis on chronic rather than acute crises—and its consequent rejection of simplistic backlash narratives—is, as I see it, one of the great virtues of Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture. What the table above looks like to me is the Age of Fracture—not the volatility of periodic moods of defensiveness and uncertainty, but the persistence of a conjuncture.

Rodgers’s book’s other great virtue is, of course, its scope, and the data for the post-1970 period shows, I think, how much scope is really required to make sense of the breadth of crisis-mindedness. Rather than reproduce it here, I’ll ask you to consult the tab labeled “By Topic” in the Google Docs spreadsheet I created and shared. What I’ve done here is break down all the “tags” I used to label the articles and reviews which use “fatalism.” I noted how many used each tag, then further broke that down by the usages pre-1970 and post-1970.[3]

A few things jump right out: France, as a topic, falls off the map—it appears only once after 1970 but 15 times before. Other big declines are: intellectual history; the 19th century; historiography; and the US.

Big gainers include: the 20th century, empire/imperialism; Germany; African-American history; what I shorthanded as “Clash of Civilizations” (European-Islamic conflict); medieval history; immigration; women’s history; and the US South.

Some of these increases can be easily explained. Post-1970 historians are beginning to talk about WWII more often, and therefore we have spikes in the 20th century and Germany. They also are beginning to react to and talk about the US civil rights struggle and that provides the rises in the US South and African-American history.

Some look obvious, but in fact aren’t. For example, one might think that the appearance of “Clash of Civilizations”-type pieces are post-9/11, or at least post-Huntington (1993). But in fact, half of the articles/reviews I’ve marked with that appear before 1993, and another quarter appear in the mid-1990s.

The disappearance of France as a topic in which to talk about “fatalism” is very fascinating. What really drops off after 1970 is discussion of 18th century France. This may say a great deal about the changing historiography of the French Revolution, but I think it also says something about the displacement of the Revolution as the test or limit case for ideas about how history moves—fatalism is, after all, inseparable from “fate,” and so when we talk about “fatalism” we are always also talking about what, if anything, determines the path of history. For much of the 20th century (as for the 19th), it looks like to me, the French Revolution was the key event with which to have that discussion, but after 1970 we may see a replacement: the Second World War.

But what is probably most interesting to this crowd is the sizeable decline of intellectual history and historiography as topics for discussions of “fatalism.” Some of that may be due simply to the shifting of energies away from intellectual history—there are simply fewer articles published and books to review about intellectual history after 1970. But historiography, which I distinguished from methodology in the sense that historiography is how history has been written and methodology is how history should now be written, also declines, as does methodology, though to a lesser degree.

What I see—and I apologize for the length of this post, so this will be my last point—is that debates about the big questions of writing history—is it a single and unified project, capable of a higher synthesis, or plural and fragmented? What force(s) drive it? How do we validate our sources? Can we grasp historical truth or are we just telling stories?—are given an expanded field of conflict. Methodenstreiten proper no longer contain these debates as much as they did pre-1970.In other words, historians are more generally self-conscious of the problems with answering these kinds of questions—not just  when they sit down to think about historiography but when they sit down to write about… virtually anything. What these data show, I think, is not just a culture war within the historical profession but rather an elimination of the distribution of labor between theorizers and researchers—between those who think in the abstract and those who do in the empirical.

Not just everyman his own historian, perhaps, but every historian her own methodologist. Not a retreat from the Big Questions, but a diffusion.


[1] I know not everyone is a fan of footnotes in blog posts, but I want to keep the body of the text relatively smooth but still provide some precision and nuance, so I’ll put a few notes here. As I noted last week, there was a small possibility that part of the increase post-1970 in uses of “fatalism” was due simply to an expanding page count. But I compared the rate at which the number of “fatalism”s increased over the previous decade against the rate of page-count increase and found that, except in the 1990s and so far this decade, the increase of “fatalism” far outstripped the expansion of page counts from the 70s on.

[2] Although interestingly, 4 reviews or articles using “fatalism” were about the Sixties themselves—a relatively small number, but a notable one.

[3] So we can compare them a little more evenly, I calculated the percentage of articles/reviews using a given tag—so, for instance, for all years (over 292 combined articles/reviews), there were 16 instances of “fatalism” in a piece I categorized as being about “labor”—5.48%. 13 of those came after 1970, which comes out as 5.83% of the total after that date (and, thus, 3 come before, counting as 4.35% of all those pre-1970).

Year#
1970-197421
1975-197923
1980-198422
1985-198924
1990-199427
1995-199931
2000-200434
2005-200927
2010-201314

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Regarding fatalism, it echoes a more common word in both political and academic discourse: pessimism. Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” always come to mind in this regard as a self-reflexive approach to intellectual endeavor. But this goes of course against the deterministic definition of fatalism pointed out here: history driven by the logic of fate. I am interested in this historical / critical philology that these blog posts are pointed to, and what they tell us about our different fatalisms.

  2. Thanks so much for the question, Kahlil. I should have addressed this issue of philology explicitly, or at least stated why I didn’t want to define the term myself.

    I didn’t try to set a meaning for what I think “fatalism” means because I didn’t want to presume–without reading each of these articles and reviews carefully–that I could adjudicate which were correct applications of the term and which were merely polemical. But that presumes, as I should have admitted, that we can define some usages of “fatalism” as “merely polemical”–i.e., that sometimes when we call someone “fatalistic” all we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to have to think about the problems you raise, so I’ll pretend our differences are simply temperamental rather than analytical.”

    That’s not really a philological argument, though, but it seems to me that philology itself is of less help than it might be because of the complexity of the word “fate” in contemporary and recent usage. There seems to be a whole host of concepts introduced over the past century or even just since WWII that have in many ways sidelined centuries of debates on the nature of fate and free will. Concepts like Murphy’s Law tend to emphasize merely a perversity of fate–if something bad can happen it will happen–an emphasis which brings “fatalism” closer to being synonymous with either “pessimism” or “cynicism” (and the fact that these two words are themselves virtually interchangeable suggests an extraordinary degree of slippage).

    That said, I do think that “fatalism” has a weight that pessimism and cynicism lack. It has a holistic sense, whereas pessimism and cynicism can be used more situationally: we can say more easily that person is cynical about x or y, while we tend to say so-and-so is fatalistic, full stop. So tracking “fatalism” gets closer, I think, to the nub of basic philosophical disagreements in a given discourse. Or at least that was my wager.

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