U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Muddled Thoughts* on Truth, Non-Fiction, History, and Objectivity

When Peter Novick passed away recently, I immediately thought of the enormous impact that That Noble Dream had on my generation of graduate students.  The book was published in September, 1988, the very month that I began graduate school. The book’s importance to many of my fellow graduate students and myself rested on at least three factors: first, it immediately became a centerpiece of the reading list for the historiography / methods course that we all took in our first semester of grad school (i.e. it was going to be “on the test”); second, it provided a historical narrative of the professional identity as historians that we had all recently decided to assume; finally, as Jim Harrison commented at the time (and, more recently, on this blog), the book was a “serious meditation about the state of things in the late 80s,” and thus very much spoke to the particular world of historical practice that we were all entering at the time.**

I was going to write something to this effect in response to Tim’s invitation to comment on Novick’s passing (I would have liked to say something, too, about The Holocaust in American Life, which was also a book of enormous importance to me), but I never got around to doing so. And the moment passed.

In part, I hesitated to write my memories of That Noble Dream in the late 1980s because I felt that the whole question of objectivity was less front-and-center in the profession today, that the book, while still a fine piece of scholarship, had (not surprisingly) lost its immediate currency. But I couldn’t manage to formulate exactly what had changed in this regard.***

Then, late last week, This American Life announced that, for the first time, they were retracting a story.   “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an episode-long exploration of conditions in a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, that manufactures products for Apple, originally aired back in January and was an excerpt from a longer staged monologue by Mike Daisey who traveled to Shenzhen to investigate working conditions there.  It turns out that many of the details of Daisey’s story were fabricated.  Though it’s worth listening to the entire TAL story devoted to the retraction, the executive summary is that Daisey successfully, if temporarily, hid his fabrications from the show’s producers by lying to them about, among other things, the name of his translator, thus essentially making fact-checking the details of the story impossible. When the translator was later located, the fabrications became obvious and Daisey fell back on pseudo-defending himself by insisting that, since he is not a journalist, it’s wrong to hold him to the standards of journalism.

When this story broke, I commented on Facebook that “I’ve grown increasingly tired of people who try to pass fiction off as nonfiction. The issue of working conditions in China is a serious one, but fabricating stories about bad working conditions there does not help the cause. And simply saying ‘I’m not a journalist,’ as Mike Daisey does, won’t do. Nonfiction storytelling needs to be not fictional, whether or not one calls it journalism.”

In a variety of interesting ways, this is not quite Novick’s “objectivity question.” But it’s a cousin of it. And, like Novick’s book was in the 1980s, the Daisey scandal is very much of its time.  From the controversy over James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces to the recent publication of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact, which anticipates the controversy and undoes the scandal by making the nature of truth the very topic of the book itself, we find ourselves in a moment that both has an unusually high regard for non-fiction storytelling, yet is very unclear on how to define the boundary between fiction and non-fiction.

Then, just today, Aaron Bady published a really smart and interesting post over at The New Inquiry**** entitled “The McNulty Gambit.”*****  Starting with the subplot from Season 5 of The Wire in which Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) invents a (media friendly) serial killer in an effort to attract public concern to crimes that would otherwise be ignored, Bady mounts a semi-defense of fabricating evidence, with reference to the Daisey case, the recent Kony viral video, the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, and the Gay Girl in Damascus blog.  It’s an interesting effort.  Rather than summarize Bady’s post in detail, I’ll just suggest you go read it.

I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let me note a couple things about Bady’s piece that bothered me.

Here is what I think are the nut ‘graphs of Bady’s post:

what these fiction writers also have in common is a certain objective sense in which they are right, in which the story they are telling is true. While their subjective accounts tend to be the least true part of it (the most damning lies have to do with Daisey’s description of his personal experiences, for example), but behind those subjective untruths, we also find a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer. 

This is not a defense, of course, but it is worth saying: if we only emphasize the lies in these accounts, we thereby overlook the extent to which they were saying true things. And it is also worth remembering that truth is not an either/or. One can easily deceive by telling nothing but the truth – telling it selectively, misframed, etc – and one can also tell a kind of truth by using statements which are, on their own, untrue. This is why fiction matters, and why journalism never rests onquite the firm bedrock of objectivity that it needs to pretend it does. But again, this is not a defense, just an attempt to describe a problem that we often have vested interests in failing to acknowledge, the blurriness of the line that separates fact from fiction.

What bothers me here is the slippage in Bady’s post between right and true.  Bady seems to want to argue that, though not true in one sense, the falsehoods in these stories are true in some other sense.

But this seems like a wholly unnecessary bit of water-muddying.  Certainly Daisey, Frey, Tom MacMaster (“Gay Girl in Damascus”), and (the fictional) McNulty absolutely understood that they were telling falsehoods and did what they could to cover up that fact. What each was interested in wasn’t arriving at some higher truth, but rather compelling action, which each felt couldn’t be done by simply sticking to the facts.

Bady understands this. And most of the rest of his post concerns precisely what one needs to do to compel action (more about this later).  But for some reason Bady starts the discussion by attempting to reframe the it in terms of the complexity of truth, almost suggesting that a lie that compels good action might be another form of truth.

Sorry. I’m not buying.

There is, of course, a tradition stretching at least back to Plato that argues in favor of “noble lies” or socially necessary falsehoods.  It is a tradition that, at least today, is largely associated with the political right.  I can’t say I find this tradition very attractive. But speaking of noble lies seems to me a good deal clearer and, in a certain sense, more honest, than attempts to rebrand putatively socially necessary falsehoods as some other form of truth.  The story of the McNulty Gambit is, in fact, a story about noble lying.  We will be clearer about the virtues and vices associated with this strategy if we are honest about what it entails.

My other dissent from Bady concerns his post’s concluding thoughts about the seemingly futile reformism of many of the efforts that he discusses.  In situations that require fundamental structural changes–the political situation in central Africa, crime in Baltimore, working conditions in China–Bady’s protagonists spin yarns that seem to instead point to inadequate and local changes–killing Joseph Kony, capturing Marlo, boycotting Apple products.  This flawed reformism, Bady argues, is intimately linked to the limitations of narrative:

[B]ecause such stories are derived from their audience – and its imaginative capabilities – they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality. Kony is bad and so he must be killed by the military, because that’s something we can picture, can visualize; fundamentally restructuring the Central African system of political economy and governance is impossibly and unthinkably remote. Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable). And MacMasters later admitted that he had given his story an ending, an ending that is striking by its plausible realism: “I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story.” But this ending is necessary precisely because individual escapes happen every day (while a real solution to the Syrian crisis is unthinkably complicated).  

Each of these outcomes are imaginable, in part, as a direct consequence of the fact that they do not trouble the status quo. We can imagine those reforms, because they are essentially superficial adjustments of a system that not only remains intact, but which we – in our thinking about what is and isn’t possible – rely on and presume. 

All of which is simply to say: it’s in the nature of grand structural transformations that we will always have great difficulty picturing what the end-state would look like. And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better. 

I think, in principle, quite the opposite is the case. Our ability to imagine fundamental structural change is, if anything, more dependent upon, and more helped by, fictional narratives, than is the reformism of these particular efforts.  Our culture–and most other cultures of which I’m aware–is full of stories that imagine vast, fundamental changes in the world:  from the Book of Revelation to the entire genre of secular utopian (and dystopian) fiction.  The world’s great revolutionary and reactionary movements have compelled transformative action–for good and ill–precisely by substituting fantastic tales for quotidian truth, often labeling the fiction a kind of higher truth (Stalinist Socialist Realism comes most immediately to mind, but just about any millenarian religious movement or radical political movement has similar structures).  Bady is right that the reformism of these efforts is worth noting. But that reformism is accidental; it does not reflect any limits of the McNulty Gambit.

Let me conclude by pointing this discussion back in the direction of historical practice (without ever quite getting there).  None of the figures that Bady discusses are historians. Despite historians occasionally playing with narrative and fiction, even the most postmodern of us tend to go no further than knowingly making stuff up that we simply cannot know and admitting as much (and even that is a bold, and IMO rarely entirely successful, maneuver).  To the best of my knowledge, the canons of historical practice still explicitly forbid passing on knowing falsehoods as the truth.

And yet the “objectivity question,” to the extent that it still exists, revolves around similar issues.  The quest for a “usable past” is not entirely dissimilar from the desire to tell stories that will compel action.

So I’m back where I was when I didn’t write about That Noble Dream the week before last, wondering how exactly this moment of our culture’s continuing struggle to reconcile narrative and truth is reflected in my own profession.  And wishing, I suppose, that I had a guide as good as Novick around to help clarify these issues for me.

* What is blogging for if it is not, occasionally, for muddled thoughts?

** This was particularly the case in the Princeton History Department, which played a starring role of sorts in Novick’s final chapter on the David Abraham controversy, which had occurred just a few short years earlier.  Several years later, I’d actually become friends with David. Though he was teaching at the University of Miami’s law school, he continued to live in Princeton, NJ. And, during summers, he played softball with me on the History Department’s B-league softball team, the Revolting Masses (fwiw, the more serious / skilled A-league History Department squad was called the Machiavellian Moment). But in the fall of 1988, David was very much an historical actor and, as of yet, unknown to me personally.

*** One way or another, I would have asked younger readers of this blog whether this book mattered to them at all.  So I might as well do so here.  Does it?

**** The New Inquiry’s format, like that of the sports-and-culture blog Grantland, incorporates marginal notes, a marvelous (and marvelously old-fashioned) way of presenting additional information that turns out to be particularly well-suited to the web.  Certainly it beats the crap out of these jerry-rigged footnotes. Memo to myself: when this blog finally migrates to WordPress, let’s see if we can incorporate marginal notes in our new design!

***** The piece is apparently partly inspired by Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk on The Wire, which I have yet to listen to.  Bady’s description of that talk as “usefully wrong about lots of things, and strikingly insightful about a few,” however, seems to me one of the best general descriptions of Žižek’s work that I’ve ever read.

29 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ben,

    Great post. We’ve been dealing with these narrative problems, explicitly, for more than 50 years, I think—since Capote’s “non-fiction novel.”

    How do you fit the trend toward historical fiction in these reflections? Is there something in us that wants the story more than the Truth? Is that desire for story part of the postmodern condition? We like tidy tales because the world is even more messy, complicated, and incomprehensible than it has been in the past—or it feels that way because we theoretically have so much more information about the world?

    – TL

  2. “One way or another, I would have asked younger readers of this blog whether this book mattered to them at all. So I might as well do so here. Does it?”

    Never read it. Never saw it on a syllabus, never had it recommended for an exam list, nothing, in many, many years of grad school; years which began probably right as you were finishing grad school. The one I did read because it was assigned, was Hunt, Jacobs, and Appleby’s Telling the Truth about History, which I understand covers some of the same ground as Novick. I was not particularly impressed by it. That was in 1997, and the book was published not long before that. Even then it seemed the book was very much a valedictory for that whole tumultuous period known as the linguistic turn, at least for history. A Minerva’s owl at dusk kind of book. I have to admit I feel myself quite fortunate to have gone to grad school after the postmodern moment had pretty much burned itself out. I don’t think I could have stood it going when Derrida and Foucault really were all the rage in history departments.

  3. I’m not a historian; but at the time I read That Noble Dream I was well aware of the David Anderson case because many of many friends are historians and had discussed it with me. David Anderson had been accused of fraudulent scholarship by Henry Turner, who not only pilloried Anderson in print but tried to make sure he couldn’t get hired and even made an effort to have his PhD rescinded. I thought at the time, and still think, that Henry’s real beef was with Anderson’s version of Marxist thinking; but making war on his footnotes proved to be a more effective weapon than attacking his arguments in the Collapse of the Weimar Republic even though it turned out that correcting the errors in the references–and there were plenty of ’em as turned out–didn’t adversely affect Anderson’s main points.

    When I read Novick’s extensive account of this affair, I was reminded of the way that prosecutors bring down people they don’t like by selective enforcement of the law. Is it OK to make mistakes in the footnotes? No, but how often do the footnotes get carefully vetted by vindictive and ideologically motivated critics? Anyhow, as somebody who works with scientists and has absorbed some of their instincts, I’d want to have baseline stats on the average accuracy of references in historical books and papers before I decided that the sloppiness of a particular work mattered very much. I expect that systematically gathering the necessary data to make this sort of judgment would usher in a reign of terror in the history departments of the world…

    My point is that destroying theories and narratives by irrelevant nitpicking is just as problematic as making a point by inventing facts. Errors of fact matter when they matter, obviously; but the gravamen of history is selection and pattern recognition, not admirably accurate stenography. It has been pointed out that a nation is already in decline if it can be destroyed by the loss of a single battle. By the same token, a historical thesis is pretty feeble if its validity depends on the absence of a few errors.

  4. Good post. As a young reader, I have not come across Novick’s work before. I did however hear Zizek’s recent lecture on “The Wire” and I think that even Bady’s description of it was too kind. He admits about an hour in that he hasn’t even seen the show, he’d just read about it from those who had. I was actually a bit surprised to hear him admit this. (Is it too much to ask of our philosopher rockstars that they actually view the pop culture references that they trade in? Is it completely silly of me to feel slightly betrayed? Does it even matter? I don’t know.)

    At any rate, this post got me thinking about another of Zizek’s pop culture examples that explores some similar terrain regarding the Truth and “noble lies” that I think is worth checking out, if you haven’t already. It’s a piece he wrote last year in the London Review of Books on WikiLeaks via Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”:http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n02/slavoj-zizek/good-manners-in-the-age-of-wikileaks

    He argued that the take home message of the film was that “lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us.” Naturally, Zizek rejects this claim and sides with the Joker.

  5. I read Novick’s magnificent book last year, as a first-year PhD student, in my historiography seminar. It is on my short list of Best Books Ever in American history, right up there with David Blight’s _Race and Reunion_.

    _That Noble Dream_ has been a big part of helping me that to be a historian is, among other things, to be part of a profession, to take part in a particular kind of intellectual discourse, to join a tradition, and to both confess and exemplify a kind of faith. When I say, “I’m a historian,” it’s not just describing my (hoped for) job or the kind of academic work I do; it’s a claim — or a promise — to uphold a set of principles and commitments I believe are worth affirming.

    So for me, Novick’s book was not hagiographical, but it was inspiring in the sense that it helped me to get a clearer understanding of what that has been like — what that can be like — to be a historian.

  6. I agree that That Noble Dream seems to be less obligatory for current grad students (I read it for my orals, but I put it on the list myself). I also agree that the “objectivity question” seems less pressing as a question of professionalization (and, to a possibly greater extent, of vocation) today. I feel, though, as L.D. does, that the book nevertheless still gives a reader today a very strong sense of what “being a historian” means–in part, I think, simply because of the near perfection of method that Novick himself demonstrates, a truly inspiring example of the historian’s craft.

    Two other books that I think may be germane to this discussion and which in some respects could be read as attempts to update Novick are Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (2005) and Kerwin Klein’s Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of Native America, 1890-1990 (1997). Both are, I feel, amazing works of historical skill and vision, and deeply useful at puzzling through some of these historiographical problems. Klein also has a new book, From History to Theory, which I haven’t read but am very eager to.

  7. Fun post, Ben. Great stuff. I was assigned to read Novick in two separate graduate seminars in 2001 and 2002. Which makes it weird that Varad has never read it since we are products of the same graduate program. I still think it’s simply a fantastic book.

  8. Nearing the end of my Ph.D experience, my perception of That Noble Dream is that it is still widely read and little absorbed/discussed. It is a dense and difficult text. Having read David W. Noble’s works on US historiography several years after I read Novick, in retrospect I wish that I had read them together. Ultimately, Noble’s take on the politics of history seems much more current and relevant than Novick’s, although it is hard to deny the breadth and thoroughness of That Noble Dream. The value of reading both Noble and Novick together lies in the way their texts mutually illuminate the deep complicity of the American historical profession with a whole series of nasty nationalist projects, going back to Bancroft and continuing, alas, to this day.

    Ben: I love the encounter with questions of objectivity and historiographical ethics in this post, by the way. It is, in fact, precisely a decline in interest in these topics that accounts for the receding significance of That Noble Dream. Among younger US historians and historians-in- training (and here I am speaking mostly of left-of-center historians, but I think the generalization is even more accurate regarding moderates and right-of-center types) there seems to be a uniform pragmatic/professionalist rejection of the validity of deep philosophical inquiry into how we do history.

    I get the sense that this might be well-trod ground on this site, but I will throw in my two cents with apologies for any tedium this might inspire: I think the lack of interest in the philosophy of history and the waning of the “objectivity” question spring from the recent depoliticization of large swaths of the history professoriate and of those who hope to join its ranks. This depoliticization is, of course, not necessarily reflected in extra-academic commitments (historians are often dependably heroic in the service of social movements and against attacks on higher education)–but it is evident in complacency and aloofness regarding the ideological content of historiography. Beyond shop talk, folks are just not much interested in what it might mean to write, research, or teach in one way or another. Quite striking in contrast to younger (radical or activist) social scientists, who are much more hip to the old questions of “speaking for the other” and the politics of representation, and far more open, in my experience, to methodological self-scrutiny and experimentation.

  9. Now hang on just a minute! I’m not sure how we got from “a small sampling of USIH blog readers weren’t assigned Novick’s book” to “the lack of interest in the philosophy of history and the waning of the ‘objectivity’ question.” That’s a pretty big leap. And the charge of “complacency and aloofness regarding the ideological content of historiography” doesn’t coincide with anything that I know about grad programs in history, or anything I know about historians.

    Indeed, if there’s any well-trodden ground on this blog, it’s a passionate interest in the commitments that undergird historical thinking and historical writing. Same goes for methodological self-scrutiny. You might have us dead to rights on experimentation — the nature of the profession is methodologically conservative. But if you mean “experimentation” in the sense of a pluralistic openness to the possibility of other interpretations for any given tangle of contingencies in the past, and a humble acknowledgment of the same in forwarding our own, I think historians pretty much take the cake for disciplinary humility in that regard.

    One reason that “philosophy of history” might be fading from some programs and some syllabi — and we haven’t established that it is, though I would certainly concede that it might be — is that it draws upon a literature and a vocabulary with which many incoming grad students might be unfamiliar. For example, it’s a lot of spadework to excavate the epistemic ground for historical thinking if you have to include a crash course in epistemology. Not to say that it can’t be done. But it takes extra time and work. And, contrary to what you’ve suggested above, it might be precisely because so many are concerned with “the politics of representation” and politically committed history that talking about “history in the abstract” seems like a tough sell.

  10. And how rude am I to just launch in to a counter-argument taking issue with points that “you” made in a comment? My apologies, Kurt. Welcome to the jungle!

  11. I think you’re right, L.D., when you say that one of the problems with teaching the philosophy of history is that “it draws upon a literature and a vocabulary with which many incoming grad students might be unfamiliar.” This has certainly been the case in my program. Our department’s been trying for several years to construct a required course (or two – no one really agrees on the content) in the philosophy of history, but it’s difficult to structure a seminar that works for precisely the reasons you mention – because of the relatively small size of the program, the discussion has to encompass everyone from medievalists entering with an M.A. to U.S. labor historians fresh out of undergrad. This has its advantages, to be sure, in fostering intradisciplinary interaction, but it does make things more difficult.

    Regarding younger readers and Novick: for Americanists in my department, at least, the book is still quasi-mandatory for exams, and I had to read either all or part of it for two or three different seminars. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I found it most useful for the birds-eye view of the personal history of the profession it offered: who argued with whom, who taught where when, and so on. The “objectivity question” was less interesting, although, as I recall, some members of my cohort were more concerned with it than I was.

  12. “Now hang on just a minute! I’m not sure how we got from ‘a small sampling of USIH blog readers weren’t assigned Novick’s book’ to ‘the lack of interest in the philosophy of history and the waning of the “objectivity” question.'”

    I’m pretty sure that small sample of USIH blog readers who weren’t assigned Novick consists of me and, well, me. A small sample indeed. And there’s no logical relationship between my not reading Novick to a lack of interest in the philosophy of history; not correlation, let alone causation.

    That said, I kind of agree with the second proposition. Andrew and I did come out of the same program, as he notes. Moreover, we were contemporaries, it’s not like he was finishing while I was starting or vice versa. Hence is puzzlement that I never encountered Novick while he had it twice. But for the most part I never saw much attention being paid to these sorts of historical metaphysical questions, as I like to call them. I saw plenty of syllabi for the historiography seminar, which all first-year PhD students have to take (I was exempt because I’d done similar courses already), since lots of my friends had to take it over the years. And lots of attention was paid to various historiographical issues, depending on who taught the course: modernization, environmental history, postmodernism, gender, race, class, Clifford Geertz, the rise of scientific history, profesionalization, postcolonialism, Marx, Annales, microhistory, social history, cultural history, whatever.

    But anything smacking, however mildly, of actual philosophy of history few and far between. I remember one time towards the end of my tenure, I found a historiography grad seminar syllabus online and it had something philosophical on it, and I suggested to my peers, Hey, this should be on your syllabus. And except for one they looked at me funny. Perhaps this confirms Lora’s point that contemporary history grad students simply aren’t acculturated or prepared to think about these issues. At the same time, though, isn’t that what grad school is for, to prepare you to think about them? Personally, I don’t see how one can be a historian without thinking about them, but I’m in the minority. Heck, my first week would have something by Collingwood and Koselleck; or maybe I’d start with time and then do Collingwood the next week.

    I understand the imperatives that shape the historiography seminar in a way that the stuff I’d begin with gets omitted entirely. Its purpose is to start grad students on the path to professionalization, and you can argue that the philosophy of history really isn’t essential to that task. My view, though, is that a true historian not only thinks about the past, but also thinks about what the past is and how we know anything at all about it in the first place. My interest in these matters was certainly not discouraged by my doctoral program. But it wasn’t encouraged by it, either. Benign neglect has its benefits.

  13. Thanks, everyone, for such fascinating comments and discussion! I’m especially interested in the reports on the (apparently continuing, if changed) relevance of Novick’s book for younger historians-in-training (and thanks, Andrew Seal, for reminding me that I have to get around to reading Kerwin Klein one of these days).

    Two little threads from this conversation I wanted to pull: the question of the relationship of the historical profession to “a whole series of nasty nationalist projects” and historians’ engagement with (or resistance to) theory / “philosophy of history.”

    The first is hardly an exclusively American phenomenon. Indeed, the Germans, who in many ways invented modern history-making, also–at least through WWII–excelled at putting it in the service of nasty nationalist projects. Our discipline, with its foundation in the study of war and politics and its basic organization around individual nation-states in particular periods of their development, was built to do this. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are fated to continue to put ourselves in the service of nationalist projects. But a reminder that that is where we come from never hurts (hence one of the values of good synoptic works of historiography). (I’d add that the attempt to mask this service to the nation-state as well as the competing desire to simply reject that service are both, I think, among the reasons that the default rhetorical stance of contemporary historical practice in this country tends to be apolitical.)

    On theory / “philosophy of history”: at least in my professional experience (and writing at the risk of over-generalizing wildly from very local anecdata), most historians tend to shy away from thinking and talking in explicitly theoretical fashion. We do value contingency and polyvocality. And I do think most historians are interested (and invested) in a kind of pragmatic exploration of the possibilities for studying the past. We often read beyond our immediate subfield in order to learn from the practice of others. But most of us are, in a sense, more committed to thinking methodologically than thinking theoretically. To speak again from my own graduate school experience: Novick’s book, which is a work of history, though one with strong methodological and even theoretical implications, fit much more easily into the intellectual world of my cohort of graduate students than, say, Hayden White’s Metahistory, a more theoretically oriented piece of historiography which was also widely read, but much less digested by us.

    I’ve always felt that a willingness to think theoretically is a good thing. Among historians that I know, European intellectual historian historians seem to do it more than just about anyone else (with the possible exception of some Marxist social and labor historians). But just as it’s worth acknowledging our roots in various nasty nationalist projects, it’s worth recognizing how much thinking theoretically cuts against the grain of our practice (at least for most of us).

    One last note: the term “philosophy of history” always creates problems because it has two quite distinct meanings: a) philosophical reflections on the practice of history (the way it’s being used in this thread); b) a philosophical understanding of the way human society changes over time (e.g. Hegel). My sense is that when non-historians use the term, they are almost always referring to the latter meaning.

  14. “But most of us are, in a sense, more committed to thinking methodologically than thinking theoretically.”

    That’s a crucial distinction, I think. All the syllabi for the historiography seminar that I saw were methodologically oriented. Or to put it another way, they all focused on the various “approaches” to history I enumerated in my previous comment. Those are all various methods or ways of doing history.

    As for historians not being theoretically inclined, it depends on what that term means. Lots of historians are theoretically inclined in that they use “theory” in the literary critical, postmodern, English department, etc. sense of the term: Marx, postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc. But theoretically inclined in the sense that they think about the theoretical underpinnings of history or the nature of history itself, not so much. Apart from those exceptions Ben notes, European intellectual historians whose work pushes them in that direction to begin with.

  15. “But theoretically inclined in the sense that they think about the theoretical underpinnings of history or the nature of history itself, not so much.”

    If this is the case, then I totally lucked out in terms of my program/professors. If I couldn’t get into a bracing intellectual ruckus now and then about the theoretical underpinnings of history, I’d die of boredom.

  16. But your program is in the history of ideas, right? And as we’ve established here frequently, history of ideas/intellectual history often subsumes the theoretical historical stuff. So in that sense your choice of program is really not so much fortuitous as it is a case of self-selection.

    Of course, my speculation may be wholly unfounded. Maybe you applied to the program because it had strengths in areas you had already studied or were interested in, and then when you got there you discovered its strengths in the “theoretical underpinnings of history.” After a few “bracing intellectual ruckus[es]” you realized, Hey, I like this theoeretical stuff, I should do something about it. So you did.

  17. L.D.– I appreciate your take on these issues from the other side. I should point out that in my grad experience, I have had wonderful conversations with heterodox historians about, for example Hayden White and questions of emplotmenti. Similarly, I have profited greatly from conversations with historians of race who have highlighted the historiographical challenge to established conventions that grew out of the interventions of Fanon and Said. But it is safe to say that these discussions were more or less yawn-inducing for most of my grad school colleagues, and that, in office hours chats, my professors lamented the very limited interest in critical historiographical conversation within the profession.

    An illustration: it seems to me that one of the reasons that James Livingston’s recent provocative engagement with meta-historiographical questions have been met with less conversation than might have been predicted: I’m not sure how interested (nor how well-prepared) historians are to debate him Livingston on his own terms.

    Ben–I think that the point re: the un-exceptional character of US historiography re: “nasty nationalist projects” is crucial. This should be one of the key insights to be gleaned from Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the Hobsbawm/Ranger lit. And as David Noble points out, nationalist history almost always insists on the exceptional character of the given nation. But, of course, to say that nationalist-exceptionalist historiography has contributed to the self-invention of most modern nations only gets us so far in the task of thinking through how we should position ourselves in relation to our historiographical heritage (and in relation to the US of today and the future). I think that most historians (myself included) have a deeply uneasy and contradictory engagement with these questions, which might be a reason why real, sustained meta-theoretical reflection is so rare. But, of course, as this blog illustrates, it remains a lively topic in certain corners of the profession. Thank goodness.

  18. @Kurt — It is possibly the case that only a subset of professional historians have ever been profoundly interested in the epistemology of history. Since he is writing a history of “the objectivity question,” Novick’s book naturally foregrounds that sort of inquiry. Just think: Hayden White’s grad school classmates may have yawned in his presence as well!

    @Varad — Interesting conundrum. Yes, thinking about thinking is practically a congenital condition for me. However, I chose my program for its interdisciplinarity. But I think that interdisciplinarity done right has to foreground epistemology — so in choosing “interdisciplinarity,” I was implicitly (if perhaps unknowingly) choosing a program where I could do “philosophy of history.”

  19. L.D.– Probably true that “only a subset of professional historians have ever been profoundly interested in the epistemology of history.” And apologies for multiple typos. Yikes!

  20. It’s always seemed to me that there are at least a couple of ways one could read That Noble Dream: as a work of history, as an extended argument. A strict definition of truth compels me to admit that I’ve done neither. I have, however, read sections of it for the argument, and I’ve read fairly widely in the debates that took place in reviews and review essays that were published after the book came out. I consider Haskell’s “Objectivity is not Neutrality” one of the formative pieces I read during my early years as a graduate student.*

    I was not assigned That Noble Dream and I don’t think I was ever assigned Haskell’s essay. I think this was just an accident of when I did my coursework, however. Students just a year after me read both for classes. In many ways I’m glad that I came to it later on, as I’ve found historiography to make a lot more sense after reading a core selection of the works under discussion. (I had also just read Higham’s history of history in the U.S. not long before I started Novick.)

    But I was also on my way out of being a full-time historian by the time I picked up That Noble Dream for the first time – this was after reading Haskell’s essay at least once, possibly twice – and that goes a long way towards explaining why I never finished it. Had I been assigned it at the beginning of grad school, I’m sure I’d have read it all, as I tended to do that. I’m not sure I’d have gotten much more out of it as argument than I did by reading about the argument, but I got into history at least as much for details as for arguments, so I’d have been ok with that.

    Lately, as I’ve semi-rejoined the history community, I’ve wanted to finally sit down and read it, but I haven’t found the time. There’s been an off and on again debate within the archival profession about objectivity, and Randall Jimerson has explicitly drawn on the Haskell/Novick debate in his discussion of archives, ethics, and power. I just had to return Archives Power to the library in response to a recall request, or I’d look up what he says.

    *I’m referring here to Haskell’s review of Novick’s book, but I’d say the same thing about the collection that bears that title.

  21. “One way or another, I would have asked younger readers of this blog whether this book mattered to them at all. So I might as well do so here. Does it?”

    I’m a PhD candidate in my fourth year of a History graduate program. Novick’s book was on two of my preliminary exam lists (from 2011) and received brief mention in a couple of my graduate seminars (between 2008 and 2010). I do not, however, know any other students who had That Noble Dream on their exam lists, so perhaps mine were unusual in that regard.

  22. [PART 1 of 2]

    Ben —

    Marvelous stuff, as usual. One contemporary debate that your post made me think about is an emerging method in the digital humanities–what Steven Ramsey calls “deformative criticism” (which got taken up by Stanley Fish in his NY Times columns on DH recently). I’ve been gathering materials to write about this developing method so here’s a preview of what I’m working on in relation to Novick, Daisey, Bady, et. al.

    What I’m noticing is a growing interest among digital literary scholars, communications/new media folks, and even a few historians to use computational power to “play” with texts and sources in order to produce new possibilities for interpretation. Ramsey calls this “deformative crticism.” I’ve also seen it called the “performative humanities” and, most fabulously, “screwmeneutics.”

    From what I can tell, the main idea of it all is to think of interpretation as always already reshaping, recontextualizing, and even sometimes distorting evidence, but that these imperfections can be harnessed to the pursuit of a kind of deeper “truth.” Sound familiar? It’s not unlike how you describe the way that Daisey, Bady, and many novelists, filmmakers, storytellers, and the like are drawn to fiction in the name of truth in their work.

  23. [Part 2 of 2]
    But there is one crucial difference: deformative criticism replaces the starting point of ideological certainty (Apple bad; Marlo must be caught; etc.) with the uncertain power of computational algorithms and computer processing. The idea is not to rearrange, fictionalize, or even warp facts to “the truth,” but rather to see what new kinds of patterns might emerge from large-scale rearrangements of existing materials. What happens, one scholar (I think Mark Sample) asks, if we rearrange all the words in a new patterns within a corpus of text?

    These DH scholars do this sort of thing not in the name of “truth” but of “play.” That said, it’s not entirely unrelated at various levels since there is a lurking postmodern linkage here between the play of surfaces and the idea that truth is something rather elusive and not straightforward. But to me there is a big difference between, on the one hand, asserting that fiction leads to truth because you already know what the truth is and, on the other, playing with evidence to see what you get. One is predetermined, the other leaves open surprise; one asserts a noble lie in the name of a kind of fervent millennialism, Stalinesque control, or a Straussian philosopher-king’s superiority, the other is far more agnostic–it expresses a faith in the truth of bottomless possibility and endless mystery of meaning (is it all about religion in the end?).

    What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue not merely of truth and the real, but also of authority. How do we grant authority to different methods and modes of truth-seeking, to different kinds of findings and conclusions? How much should we police the borders between these different ways of pursuing truth?

    When it comes to the digital humanities, what I am seeing is this: many think that the field is an effort to bring the humanities into the sciences and math. Truth as data and all that. But there is another side emerging, which is to bring the humanities closer to the arts. Interpretation as invention, to borrow terms used by Alex Reid (http://www.alex-reid.net/2012/01/invention-and-digital-humanities-navel-dhdebates.html). Much of this work is taking place in literary studies, and it makes me wonder if it’s time to start to spell out a bit more the differences between digital history and digital literary studies–not to police that boundary, but rather to productively think through these larger questions about truth, the real, and play in terms of long-running disciplinary conversations between historical and literary studies. In its way, your post starts to do this. It does other things too, but it is starting to do this as well.

    One last thought: I’ve only skimmed Bady’s piece on the McNulty Gambit, but I always take much of Season 5 of the Wire to be a kind of meta-commentary on the show itself. So that Simon and company are asking, is not our own show a fictional representation of the truth of urban culture and city politics in America? Are we, the makers of The Wire, not unlike McNulty, as we ask viewers to grasp the reality of the truth we perceive through the fictionalization of it in all its sad, beautiful, suffering humanity (The Wire equals surveillance and eavesdropping on pretend stories that are realer than real?) and then are we not asking the viewer, after watching our show, to DO SOMETHING?

    Thanks again for your post!


  24. Michael: I fully realize that what follows addresses nothing of the substance of your comment (i.e. postmodern “play” in relation to digital interpretation/screwmeneutics), but I love the notion that season five of *The Wire* is a meta-commentary on the show itself. – TL

  25. As a third-semester graduate student at Illinois in fall 2002 I read Novick’s _That Noble Dream_ in a historiography course taught by an early modern Europeanist. Most of my (non-Americanist, non-intellectual historian) cohort thought it was dry and boring. I devoured it, and it helped me formulate my dissertation topic. Therefore, I think it is good as a work of methodology as well as a work of history.

  26. Thinking about the history of how the profession of history in the United States has historically thought about thinking historically is probably an acquired taste.

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only grad student for whom this book was delectable.

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