U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Agency Part 4, Conclusion

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, the paradigm of agency overtook the history of slavery and Native American history all too quickly. For decades American historians had skewed the histories of slavery and Native American peoples in ways that complemented national self-gratification projects before historians started consistently producing histories of real merit and value in these fields. In the case of slavery, despite Du Bois’ early work on reconstruction and C. Vann Woodward’s ambivalent book about Tom Watson, only during the 1950s can we start talking about a historiography worth its salt—that cast slaves as victims of an atrocious labor system and slaveholders as violent oppressors. Nonetheless, by the 1960s historians seemed to suggest that portraying slaves as victims was becoming tiresome. Likewise, in the field of Native American history only in the 1970s did historians start publishing studies that seriously wrestled with this dark underbelly of American history. In a similar vein, however, within a decade, by the late 1980s, historians grew tired of “simple” declension narratives. Not incidentally, this also coincided with the publicly acclaimed rise of grand historical analyses that laid the blame for the demise of Native American peoples and civilizations at the doorstep of geography and larger environmental forces—namely, Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Although I don’t have any “smoking-gun” evidence for this at my disposal, I am quite convinced that a combination of two impulses best explain these developments: 1) the attraction of more sanguine and less somber ways of rendering the past and 2) the overzealous search for field-defining historiographical interventions, which I think is particularly a factor in the saturated field of American historiography.

To a certain extent the first point I raised—the tacit commitment to more positive, or shall we say “sunny,” accounts of the past—overlaps with the notion of romanticism that I explored in the previous post in this series. But I do think that there is something else here at work, which I have hinted at over these last several posts—the inclination of the predominantly white academic establishment to deliver disturbing histories of violence and oppression in more palatable servings. Perhaps there is also a sense that the American audience would be more open to learn about a dark past when couched in more satisfying narrative trajectories that highlight agency.

As for the second point, although the larger readership is always on the minds of historians—as it should be—the academic readership often looms larger in historians minds. It is well known within academic circles that as historians jockey for prominence within a quite limited academic field, they often seek ways to spruce up their argument by contriving historiographical interventions that upon more scrutiny do not always hold up. Together with the healthy thrill of constructing cutting edge analyses of the past that promote new ways of understanding, to which all good intellectuals are prone, we have on our hands an academic historiographic gristmill that churns out new perspectives whether or not they are warranted historically or that trumps up small nuances as major shifts. I think we all participate in that. I certainly remember my delight at reading histories of agency for the first time. I also recall reading about how historians of the new cultural history back in the 1970s experienced their participation in a paradigm changing movement with an almost religious zeal towards their new historiographical projects. I too felt that zeal when Natalie Zemon Davis and Lynn Hunt introduced me to early modern European cultural history from this refreshing new angle. To be sure, I am as indebted as anyone to this historiographical tradition, but at times its postmodern premises went overboard–and I with them.

Indeed, to a certain extent this drive to refresh the historiography is also productive of better histories. While in retrospect we often recognize that certain “turns” were overwrought and somewhat contrived, an impetus that stressed critical thinking and innovation had provided us with the new history of slavery and of Native American history in the first place. I do feel, however, that the moment has come for us to reevaluate the agency paradigm in American historiography.

Several developments in the field lead me to believe that though we have not—and indeed should not—rejected the category of agency, we are increasingly relegating it to its due place. First and foremost, in this regard, is the new history of capitalism (do we capitalize this yet?). Incorporating slavery into larger narratives of colonialism and world systems analysis, Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson, and others have revived our view of slavery as, above all else, an economic labor system. In the words Clarence Walker used to express his critique of agency a few weeks ago, though Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, for instance, examines such subject matter as “singing and dancing,” he and others reserve a more prominent place for “the gun and the whip.” “[E]ven after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multiculturalism eras rewrote segregationists’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies,” stresses Baptist, “historians were still telling the half that has ever been told.” By contrast, “the half that has never been told,” according to Baptist, was the story of labor and exploitation—that “commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich.”(1)

In Native American history too, I believe we’re heading in that direction. The two most significant books in this regard in the past several decades, I think, are Jill Lepore’s The Name of War and Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors. Though like The Middle Ground both examine cultural encounters on the borderlands, they highlight broader trajectories of colonialism and genocide. Indeed, I think that as we are inching towards regarding cultural encounters in North America from the perspective of settler-colonialism as a structural category of analysis that recognizes the significance of race—and increasingly gender as well—within broader narratives of violence and genocide, agency seems to figure less front and center in the historiography.

[1] Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (N.Y, 2014), xviii, xxi.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think the stress on structural issues pertaining to labor, capital, and subjection is always essential. But one thing I do not understand at all is either/or logic that drives some analyses that stress the former, downplaying, ignoring or even erasing genealogies of agency in the process. As stated in this blog, Clarence Walker’s polemical dichotomy exemplifies the dangers of this type of logic. Scholars and intellectuals who focus on the “singing and dancing” he dismisses have for years been engaging with the limits of agency, cultural or otherwise, and how to think it as a process linked to the very issues that Walker is rightfully interested in. And let’s not forget that there are many cases of such “singing and dancing” that operated not only as tactics of survival but of emancipation, the Haitian Revolution being a key instance.

    • Thanks for this push back, since I certainly went overboard a few times, as any polemical intervention is prone to do. I think we agree more than we disagree. I think for instance that Baptist does a good job of synthesizing the agency of slave holders with the agency of slaves, while stressing the power disparity that makes the agency and resistance of slaves secondary to their subjugation and exploitation. My issue is not with agency per se but with its dominance in the historiography.
      As for the Haitian Revolution don’t you think that the use of violence by the slaves was more fundamental than their singing and dancing?

      • I simply alluded to cultural practices as tactics of emancipation, which has nothing to do about arguing if x is more fundamental than y. Of course, the mere act of “singing and dancing” or any other cultural / social practices pales in comparison to the force of actual violent manifestations against slavery and the plantation system. But the so-called “singing and dancing”–in this case we are are of course talking about the religious practice of vodún–paved the way for insurrection.

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