U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How History Writing Turned Me into a Dialectical Mess

dialecticAs historians we naturally lean back on history when we analyze the present. Thus for instance many of us are for very good reason disturbed with the eerie similarity between the surge of anti-democratic populism world-wide today and the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s. In history classes I try not to shy away from such comparisons, for I regard them as the most powerful moments students can experience. It is precisely for these kinds of moments of analytical clarity that we teach history. Ultimately history is a tool in the present. That is what distinguishes historians from antiquarians.

However, only recently have I realized that the process is far more dialectical than I imagined. Taking several months off from dissertation writing for reasons beyond my control has allowed me to better realize what exactly it is that I tried to do. I also now realize how my project—and I believe that in the end of the day to some degree any historical project—straddles both the past and the present in a dynamic that I can best describe as dialectical.

The concept of dialectics is very useful for historians, for it captures a very complex dynamic that is both almost too obvious, yet at the same time almost impossible to fully trace and flesh out. The word dialectical, then, is a stand-in for something that happens all the time—given that reality is complex—but we cannot fully wrap our minds around. To put it perhaps too simply, a dialectic process involves several, if not many, moving parts that keep changing as they engage in a reciprocal relationship with one another. The process of historical research, for instance, is a great example of dialectics at work. We all arrive at the archives with premises and agendas which affect the way we investigate historical records in numerous ways. Then, however, upon engagement with our research material we find that many of our assumptions were to some degree flawed, which leads us to rethink our agendas and premises. These in turn, of course, become a new synthesis, as it were, which again informs the way we conduct our research and so on and so forth, until we get tired and decide that we figured things out to the best of our ability.

In this vein, I found that the past and the present share a similar relationship in my very own work and that my very subjectivity—my way of being in the world—has been all along the crucible in which these two moving parts interacted dialectically. No wonder historians tend to take their own work so seriously! Not only does my understanding of the past inform my view of the present, but upon reviewing my dissertation I found that the present appears everywhere in my dissertation. On the face of it this was not a shocking finding, but it was nonetheless quite a revelation to me. Furthermore, this process is ongoing and the more I engage with the past and the present the more they intertwine and reciprocate.

When I came to the US for my graduate studies I wanted to investigate the Jacksonian period to better understand the curious contradictions at the heart of American ideology. However, once I got here and saw the glaring contradictions in contemporary American ideology I realized that my conceptualization of the problems at the epicenter of American ideology were seriously flawed. I was then very much the Tocquevillian, thinking that better understanding capitalism and its social implications will offer penetrating insights. What I found, however, was that though capitalism has and had much to do with America’s ideological contradictions, understanding power more broadly best illuminated what I was after. After all, power is and always was at stake in American history, as it has always been in every human society. And capitalism, I found, had no intrinsic exclusive claim to determining the way people in America struggled for power.

Indeed, it became increasingly clear to me that the construction of manhood and whiteness as forms of cultural capital were even primary to material capital in this regard. In other words, in many crucial facets of American life whiteness and manhood were more real and consequential to Americans than material capital, and plugged white men into entrenched and powerful institutions. In so doing, it also offered them access to considerable resources that one might regard as material. The extent of authority white manhood commanded ebbed and flowed over time, but was nevertheless a constant in American society. For instance, while it peaked in Jacksonian America, an historical ebb has caused white men to launch a furious attack against countervailing forces in our own time.

Consequently, I became less interested in democracy and capitalism per se, and more concerned with recognizing how power operated and still operates in American society more generally. I only now recognize that my engagement with the present was slowly seeping into my research and transforming it. What I found particularly suggestive was the way white men seemed to conduct themselves in American society when compared to other people. There was something so self-assured and at the same time almost delusional in their subjectivity. They felt so aggrieved and yet enjoyed such obvious privileges. The more I interrogated the past the more echoes I found in the past of the present and vice versa. Manhood and whiteness suddenly revealed themselves as powerful forms of capital constantly upheld and wielded in America, for the most part by white men.

What then happened was more striking still. I started to see in America echoes of my native country of Israel. For this form of geographic dialectics I was not at all prepared. Suddenly American settler society revealed itself to me through my experience with Zionism in Israel. Indeed, through my former experience of my past subjectivities. By the same token, I started seeing patterns familiar to me from American history in my native country and came to understand Israel and Zionism as I never had before. This is when I turned to the concept of settler colonialism, offering me incisive observations both when applied to Israel/Palestine and the United States. It also increasingly dawned on me that if I presume to have the nerve to profoundly criticize American society, I must do the same with regard to my native society. It would be the highest form of hypocrisy to chastise Americans but give a pass to my earlier Zionist self, especially given the frightening similarities I found.

In short this dissertation had made quite a dialectical mess out of my subjectivity, but it was quite a ride. As I finish my dissertation I can only look forward—with some degree of trepidation—to the dialectical rollercoaster rides to come.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. You’ve written a solid piece. I wonder how long it will be before someone criticizes you for allowing your presentist biases to distort the Past. The thing I find interesting is how the process you describe is affected across the generational divide. I thought of Gordon Wood after I finished your essay. In the 1960s, it was the younger historians who were working so furiously to topple the Beardian/Neo-Beardians and their concerns, and a few decades later, Wood was a member of the Old Guard screaming “Get off my lawn!” from the porch. I’m thinking of his review of Robin Einhorn’s excellent American Taxation, American Slavery in his compilation entitled The Purpose of the Past. I don’t have access to his review, but I remember it being a scathing indictment of her “presentism.” But then again arguments about historians and their “objectivity,” “subjectivity,” and “presentism” are as old as the profession itself.

  2. I appreciate your intellectual bravery, Eran, in this piece. Not many people like to discuss how they are learning even as graduate students, considered from the angle of pre-professionalism. I wish more of us were brave enough to narrate our sense of discovery, about ourselves and our topics. For it’s than narration that helps others understand how narratives are built and how they become complex creations of art. – TL

    • Thanks Tim. I didn’t mean for the piece to be revealing, it kind of happened, and I decided to leave it that way since it seemed the only honest thing to do.

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