In her post, “A Canon Canon,” L.D. asks readers to suggest books related to the canon debates of the 1980s, which crystallized with the Stanford “Great Books” debate, L.D.’s dissertation topic. L.D. seems both excited and worried about her topic’s continued relevance, about how such relevance should or should not inform her approach. As she writes: “At some point—and I haven’t quite identified that point yet—the debate about canons and canonicity shifts from a historic moment that I am examining to a current critical discourse into which I am, as the argot of academe has it, ‘making an intervention.’ This is one of the (many!) tricky methodological challenges of my dissertation.”
In the comments section, I posted the bibliography of the most important books I used and/or analyzed in my chapter on the topic of the canon wars (one chapter of nine on the history of the culture wars). My list of books provoked this response from L.D.: “This is both informative and illustrative. Your list instantiates exactly the oscillation I see ahead—a toggling between immediacy and remove, a scholarly debate as a historic ‘event’ and ‘detached’ scholarship about the event.”
Does writing about topics in such close proximity to our lives—temporally, professionally, epistemologically, politically, perhaps even psychologically—change our approach? Are we more likely to engage our subjects as contemporaries? Are we more likely to enter into the struggles that we are seeking to understand and analyze? I find these methodological questions fascinating.
I admit that when I first chose the culture wars as the topic of my second book, I had similar concerns. I had a dog in the race, so to speak. But I did not want to write yet another culture wars polemic, yet another missive against all that is wrong in the world. To my happy surprise, once I began my research I felt less of a subjective pull. I started seeing historical subjects worthy of historical analysis. Yes, I disagree with many culture warriors (and I even agree with a few). But I also feel detached from them. I suppose this is as it should be (although my former self would be surprised not only by my detachment but also by my comfort with such detachment).
None of this is an endorsement of detachment in and of itself. Sometimes, I think, a full-throttle polemic is in order (as I hoped to make evident by the example of my very un-detached essay on Teach for America). But I also think learning how to be detached from the culture wars has improved my ability to understand them. In writing my chapter on the canon wars, I felt like a distant observer, much as I would if I had written a chapter on the Constitutional Convention. I held no more affinity for a poststructuralist obliterator of canons like Stanley Fish than I did for a traditionalist defender of them like Allan Bloom. I identified no more with Richard Rorty than with Dinesh D’Souza (this definitely came as a surprise). Of course, this does not mean I sought faux “objectivity” in the fashion of some half-wit television host like David Gregory: “Let both sides present their case, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle; or, at least we won’t be accused of bias, the ultimate sin of political reporting).” No, in writing my canon wars chapter, detachment meant I had the freedom to point out the contradictions that inevitably formed the arguments of all of my subjects, such an approach being a means to a better historical understanding.
In sum, L.D.’s “tricky methodological challenge” is not necessarily mine. For the most part. I am currently writing a chapter on a topic from which detachment is proving more difficult. The topic is the “history wars” and the chapter deals with some of the infamous controversies about public history from the 1990s, especially the brouhahas over the Enola Gay and National History Standards. It also is an intellectual history of the methodological debates about the historical discipline that were embedded in these larger public history struggles. Historians are the main subjects; historiography is the central content. In other words, this chapter hits close to home. The reason for this is not because I want to take sides, although I am more tempted here than in my other chapters. Rather, I am finding detachment more difficult because the explanations and arguments offered by historians are my own. I have been trained to think like my subjects. More than that, given that my subjects are some of the most influential historians of the last few decades, given that their books have often been de rigueur in graduate historiography seminars, it’s not too far fetched to claim that I have been trained to think like my subjects by my subjects.
By the early 1990s, a debate had ensued about the proper approach historians should take to the past. On the one hand were traditionalists, who caustically criticized the hold social and cultural history had taken on the larger discipline, to the demise of traditional political and, yes, intellectual history. They charged that New Historians were relativists who no longer believed in the longstanding purpose of the historical craft, to shed light on the truth. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, one such traditionalist, maintained that privileging the “holy trinity” of race-class-gender was an ahistorical imposition of present concerns on the past. On the other hand were postmodernists on the order of Hayden White, who provocatively claimed that the work of the historian was no more than “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse.” The contours of this debate were not new, but the political urgency of it was unique, given the larger context.
Most professional historians sought to carve out a middle ground in these historiography wars. In their 1994 book, Telling the Truth About History, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob sought to “take on both the relativists on the left and the defenders of the status quo ante on the right.” Eschewing both epistemological (if not political) extremes, they argued in favor of “a democratic practice of history [that] encourages skepticism about dominant views, but at the same time trusts in the reality of the past and its knowability.” But, while charting this middle ground, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob offered a compelling analytical framework that explained how historiographical developments had contributed to a traditionalist-postmodernist binary that seemed false. Social historians, who came of age in the 1970s on the heels of the sixties liberation movements, wrote histories of marginalized groups, predominantly blacks, women, and workers, that complicated traditional, often triumphalist narratives of the United States. But they accomplished this with traditional methodologies and epistemologies. “Social historians did not oppose the standards of objectivity or the codes of professional discipline; they used those very standards to challenge the traditional interpretations which had excluded marginal or nonconforming historical groups.” That said, no matter their objective intentions, social historians undermined the premise of historical objectivity by revealing that historical narratives were always partial, always political. “It is as if the social historians with their passion for breaking apart the historical record had dug a potentially fatal hole into which history as a discipline might disappear altogether.”
I can’t detach from these subjects because their analysis seems, well, truthful. As such, I see Telling the Truth as both a primary and secondary source. (The same goes for a few other sources, especially Peter Novick’s brilliant That Noble Dream, which emerged from the same historiographical crisis about the “objectivity question.”)