As is probably the case with many who read this site, I attended to the #TheoryRevolt Manifesto, offically titled “Theses on Theory and History,” released within past week. What follows is a summary of my own reading, and my response.
Given its depth of content on the Manifesto’s page, I would not normally start with the visuals. But the topfold of the Manifesto clicked for me. Its crimson-colored graphics convey a geometry of revisionary thinking, calling the reader toward a triangulation of new dimensions. The authors want the blood flowing through the executive functioning areas of your mind.
Authored by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, the manifesto calls reader-practitioners away from naive empiricism, the “fetishism of the archives,” “impotent story-telling,” “realism,” “reified appearances,” and the “tales” of “victors and moralists.” The discipline of history, currently, is more about a stultifying disciplinarity and unstimulating objectivity (still!). Our “doctoral training…reinforces…[an] anti-theoretical and unreflexive orientation.” We are imprisoned—a chained and bound set of grubby archive rats. Our “guild mentality” prevents us from being noble thinkers and historical intellectuals.
The authors push readers toward what they call “critical history.” We are to aspire to a foundation of “critical theory”—for example, as “…semiotic, psychoanalytic, Marxist, hermeneutic, phenomenological, structuralist, poststructuralist, feminist, postcolonial, queer etc.) as well as an understanding of the history of historical knowledge and the theory of history (theories underpinning historical analysis).” We should engage “critical theories of self, society, and history.” The authors want you to “produce theoretically informed history.” Your history must resist the “false opposition between empiricist induction and rationalist deduction, and historicist description and transhistorical abstraction.” You must remember that facts are “facts,” mediated by the conditions that produce them. The manifesto calls you, the practitioner, to remember that context ” begs as many questions as it may seem to resolve.” Contexts beget contexts. Finally, critical history “is a history of the present that links past to present dynamically… .” This kind of history is always intervening in today’s debates, political or otherwise, questioning “the givens of our present.”
What do we make of this? What work does the manifesto do on today’s practice? To whom is it speaking?
On all of these questions, my answer is the same: I’m not sure.
Perhaps it’s due to the company I keep—meaning the kinds of historians that traffic this blog, AAIHS, RiAH, and S-USIH and OAH conferences—but I don’t see a present-day distortion among working professional historians toward naive empiricism. I don’t see a profession enchained by common-sense realism, mere description, or stale evidentiary standards.
I see no overly-prominent anti-intellectualism in the profession. I see, rather, a lot of professors and historians—young, mid-career, and senior—trying to write in compelling ways, trying to reach new audiences and tell meaningful stories. I see practitioners working toward a mean between evidence and interpretation. I see a flourishing of interpretation aimed at understanding the base racial and economic components of the United States.
If only the Manifesto had cited some evidence—of lame historians, bad books, or terrible historical television or movies—perhaps I could offer a hard counter-opinion on, or endorsement of, their analysis. As it is, I have no means to analyze their claims. The answers to my critical questions must necessarily float in the same airy regions as the Manifesto itself. – TL