U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Mean(s) of History: #TheoryRevolt, Evidence, and Purported Anti-Intellectualism

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

43 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I tend to agree with you Tim. There are not enough specifics in the theory manifesto to prove that what they say is happening is the case generally. I do see many monographs that are so narrow, so focused on archival evidence, and particulars that no “universal” lesson can be extracted from them. Studies that mean nothing to anyone besides the particular subjects, location or narrow field. I will not name names. Railing against the white universal model of humanity, which needed to be critiqued, has produced the tyranny of the particular. Social history has contributed much to this.

    I would like for us, or at least me, to engage with theory by another name, philosophy. As in developing a philosophy about the past that makes a case for meaning and direction. But then a sense of direction smacks of the old teleology which has been discredited. I don’t think that teleology necessarily means that one must hold to a closed direction to a specific outcome. We should be able to look at the past and perhaps come to some humble sense of direction while having an openness to contingency. If history is radically contingent then is it impossible to learn anything by contemplating the past? What exactly is the point? Shouldn’t history help humanity understand what we are doing in the grand scheme of things and why? These are the questions that still bug me. These are the big philosophical questions.

    I thought that my training would be more philosophical, if not theoretical, and not so much how to cite evidence and nail everything down. The sociology of knowledge is the closest I have come to a satisfying model. I am still trying to find my way to what history should actually do.

    I realize that what I have written will sound controversial to some. I am not advocating some universal monolithic interpretation of the past. The more viewpoints on its meaning the better. I don’t claim to have answers just a lot of questions, but mostly I ask, so what?

    • Lilian: As a white male Midwesterner and a social justice guy (sure, I’ll run into that), I’m all for railing against the universalizaiton of the white-washed model of humanity. I don’t think that’s yet run its course. More is needed.

      I’m all for blurring the lines between philosophy and theory. We need more integration of the conversations of the two. And, like you, I wished I had more training on “the history of the philosophy of history” for my doctorate of philosophy in history. Perhaps people like me (and you) can never get enough of the philosophy of history.

      Otherwise, I’m always for thoughtfully interpreted inductiveness in our field. We should work from evidence, but take it as far as needed philosophically and theoretically. – TL

  2. Tim, I am glad you wrote this. My reading of the Theory Revolt manifesto, which I’ll have to wait on writing up until I am back to my laptop, was much less generous than yours. Quick and dirty: I have never seen a more ill-timed academic manifesto arguing for a more presently perilous approach. I suppose Theory will have its renaissance — everything old is new again — but empiricism is dangerously underrated these days. And I write as someone whose training was (thankfully) deeply philosophical and encompassed far more than learning how to nail things down.

    More later in an ornery post…

    • LD: I’m with you on empiricism being dangerously underrated, in society generally, these days. We historians should always, and everywhere, support the proper deployment of evidence in the matrix of good historical thinking. I look forward to your ornery postscript, post-vacation. 🙂 – TL

      • It is just as well that I didn’t bring my laptop. But you saw my FB comment on the manifesto, and I stand by it. As Dan says below (above? – I can’t tell on my phone where this comment is going to post), the manifesto shows little awareness of what most of us actually do–and, I’d add, no sound sense of hiw its own contrived vision of the field would work. I dare say it would not work at all. It doesn’t even work as a manifesto.

        Okay, back to my best caftan life…

  3. I was not aware of this manifesto until reading this post.

    Joan Scott is the only one of the three authors whose name I recognized in any meaningful way. I have no doubt that she’s produced good historical work during her very successful career. Based on passages I’ve seen quoted from it, I think I can say that I’m not a particular fan of one of her (reasonably) well known articles, “The Evidence of Experience.” However, I would need to read the whole piece before making a more considered judgment, and it’s not high on my reading agenda right now.

    As for making a fetish of archival research, my sense is that some historians love doing it and spend their whole careers doing it, while others, esp. after their first book is behind them, don’t set foot in archives again. I’m not sure this kind of diversity in terms of aims and approach (monographic vs more sweeping or synthetic work) is a problem. Indeed the historical profession probably needs both.

    • Louis: See below for my comment on archival work, and how it is/isn’t valued generally. As for Scott, I really love her work on gender and politics. – TL

  4. P.s. Of course it’s also possible to combine the sweeping and the archival, and there is no shortage of examples of that. The separate issue of “theory” I’ll leave for others to discuss.

  5. I want to clarify that it wasn’t my particular school that trained me to nail everything down but the conditioning of the profession with its emphasis on archival work. I was extremely aware of evidence and citations in writing my dissertation and that allowed for less time to think more broadly and philosophically. Much of that came later as I revised for the book. I hope to do more of that moving forward.

    • An overemphasis on the archives as THE source for all historical work is, well, anti-intellectual and ridiculous. And I say that as someone who explored about 140 record boxes for my dissertation work. I was wedded to sources. But that didn’t make my final manuscript The Bible on Adler or great books historiography. It didn’t gain me a single kudos on the interview trail. Not a single interviewer acknowledged that archival work (time, money, or deployment). – TL

  6. I read the Manifesto weeks ago and I like it less the more I think about it.

    In the middle of the first section of the Manifesto (I.6), the authors gesture to a very real problem that we need to do a better job of attending to: our field’s ongoing lack of diversity, both in the people who study history and the objects of their study. Things are of course not as bad as they used to be in this regard, but that’s hardly an excuse for how bad things are or how slowly things are changing.

    But Theory is not the solution to that problem and “resistance to Theory” is not its root cause.

    Back when this front of the culture wars was more active in the 1980s and 1990s, I was always more annoyed at the anti-Theorists than the Theorists…and I think I still am. I thought (and think) there were (and are) things to learn from the History and Theory crowd. I know I’ve learned a ton from reading Joan Scott’s work, e.g.. And I had (and have) no sympathy whatsoever for Keith Windschuttle and the folks who tried to argue that Theory was destroying history. I’ve always been suspicious of the Historical Society precisely because its origin was in such hysteria. Given the choice between Windschuttle and Scott, I’m still going with Scott.

    But most historians I know see Theory neither as the solution nor the Enemy. And I guess I’m with most historians on this. And as L.D. Burnett says upthread, this is a particularly bad time to engage in unwarranted attacks on empiricism.

    • Ditto on theory as neither the solution nor the enemy. That said, there are better and worse times to call attention ongoing issues (such as too much or too little theory). Right now, with the humanities under attack (falsely, by conservatives) for being self-interested, obscure, and disengaged, it’s better to put our most accessible feet forward. That said, the Manifesto authors’ call for engagement and a bit more presentism is not unwelcome. It never pays to be too historicist in one’s work—burying the message of beauty and relevance with obscurantism.

      Otherwise, Ben, I came into graduate school (1997-98) at the tail end for theory’s high times, and I LOVED Scott’s work, and reading about poststructuralism. I appreciated the depth of engagement, and I still think that deep philosophical and theoretical thinking about one’s own work and the field are always worth the time—even if it doesn’t explicitly make it into one’s books or written work. – TL

  7. This manifesto is a little disappointing, for a couple of reasons. The main one, I think, is that it insists on a polarization of naive empiricism and sophisticated theory, while at the same time insisting that it is against such polarities. As such, it gets the historical profession wrong, in a way that makes the object of its critique unrecognizable for its practitioners. Instead of saying that some aspects of professional history sometimes slip away from ostensible concern with interpretive practice and sometimes fall into epistemological realism or essentialize disciplinary history, the manifesto creates a false opposition between a theoretically-informed history and disciplinary practice. For instance, it pits the “methodological fetishism” of the profession against theoretical and critical awareness. But methodological self-consciousness is often predicated precisely on theoretical understandings or frameworks. This is a false choice, not only in theory, but in practice! And it’s a little much for Joan Scott, the author of probably the most-cited and widely-read article to ever appear in the AHR, to sign on to a position that argues that the AHR marginalizes theoretical and critical awareness of historically constituted categories. Is there a lot of reflexive empiricism amongst historians–especially in comparison to other humanistic disciplines? Sure, but there is a lot more going on in the disciplines of history than the polarities that underwrite the manifesto would allow for. Failure to understand the spectrum of theoretical awareness present in the profession, then, is a problem for the manifesto. If anybody is essentializing the history profession, ironically, it’s the authors of the manifesto themselves, who can’t quite get the range of historical thought and practice present today. Scott, by the way, is one of the editorial voices behind the journal History of the Present, which aims to do what the manifesto prescribes.

    At least this is shorter than The History Manifesto of a couple of years ago–both of them sloppy, however.

    • Thanks Dan. I agree on the polarities posited in the Manifesto, false and otherwise. It’s as if they want all history to be metahistory. There seems to be no acceptable level of empiricism for the authors. And, on histories of the present, that too requires the best possible evidence–even if sources are contingent.

      I was displeased, overall in relation to the Manifesto, that there was no acknowledgment that history *always* balances, to some degree, fact with interpretation—selection and emphasis. There is a mean in the practice of the field between empiricism and the structure/theory guiding one’s interpretation. People are drawn to history, I think, because they like and appreciate this aspect of history work. Stories are based on some degree of agreed upon historical basics, even while readers will follow interpretations that veer to the far end of plausibility, stretching our senses of sophistication and subtlety. – TL

  8. I actually LOVED the manifesto and I think the asking for specific examples kind of reifies their point. I’ve found, in my graduate training thus far, an almost blind loyalty to the archive as the factual basis for history. I’ve had many historians tell me theory was meaningless, doesn’t exist in the real world, etc etc and I think much of the work of good critical theory (feminist, queer, post-colonial) has been to make room for non-archival histories and space for marginiilized groups.

    I have also seen, with the rise of “alternative facts”, an emphasis on the need for empiricism in history. But is history really an empiricist discipline? Should it be?

    But more importantly, I think this critique gets a lot right. History is feared, shamed, and attacked in history departments (not legitimately critiqued). Most other humanistic disciplines (literary studies, American Studies, philosophy, anthro) require a sustained engagement with theory. I think historians lack this.

    I think it was much needed, but I am glad to hear your perspective on this as i’ve been hearing lots of critique.

  9. So much depends on who or what we mean by “history” here, and what we mean by “theory,” and what we mean by “empirical.” A literary scholar I heard give a talk the other day (John Elder at Middlebury) made a distinction between scholarly disciplines and department. Perhaps useful here. I think we might say that in the discipline of history, there is quite sophisticated engagement with theory. Not everywhere, to be sure, but certainly in plenty of journals, books, conferences, classrooms, correspondence, and coffee pot discussions (not to mention on certain blogs!). In the departments, hmm, maybe not so much. By which I mean that the departments tend to be the places in which a weirdly positivist guild mentality tends to kick in. Sure, let the “theory” action—if by theory we mean more philosophically engaged inquiries into the very ways in which history gets constituted out of understandings of the past—take place on the margins of the departments, or in joint appointments, maybe at a special symposia once a year, but good forbid in the tenure lines (or the adjunct ones for that matter). How many ads does one see for “historian of theory” or “theoretical historian”? Maybe the closest is intellectual history. And we all know how few and far between those kinds of positions are. So, I wonder if this might be part of what the authors are trying to get at: a critique more at the level of resource allocation in departments rather than at the level of what are actually fairly diverse disciplinary practices of the field as a whole. You can be theoretical, but it must always be set—manifested? manifestoed?—at least a bit against the trade of history rather than in its name?

    • Michael–
      I don’t think this is what the authors are getting at, because they are fairly explicit in taking aim at the flagship journal of the discipline and its peer review process. In addition, they provide a critique of intellectual history itself as insufficiently theoretical–that theory is treated as an object of study by intellectual historians, but not as the ground of perception and analysis. I think the distinction you’re making (or borrowing from John Elder) is a useful one, but not one that the manifesto makes. We might also add that even on the level of “the department” the critique gets things a little backwards, since there is no universal “department” of history, and what you find at Princeton or Berkeley is going to be very different from what you find at Kansas State (for instance). At which of these kinds of institutions do you think “theory” is more likely to be taken seriously? Students at elite institutions, I think, are much more likely to be introduced to thinking about “theory” in history. Maybe I’m wrong, and the center and periphery are inverted. I wanted to like the critique, since I do think there’s a pervasive “nuts and bolts” empiricism that one finds in some sectors of the discipline, but it was really too ham-fisted and dogmatic to take seriously. Maybe that’s a problem with manifestos in general!

      • Hi Dan — Yes I agree with your point about the different kinds of educational institutions as well as the hamfisted tone of the manifesto (which as you point out is endemic to the form perhaps). I found myself trying to think through better binary than the theory-empricism one. I sometimes think about the tensions between determinists and “contingencists.” There’s one driving energy in history to determine what caused what and do so in a way that strives for slam-dunk conclusivity. There’s another driving energy that wants to identity the “deep contingency” of the past (term borrowed, contingently, from Ed Ayers) and figure out ways of describing the damn complexity of the whole thing and how, methodologically, we can even grasp its elusive web of relationships. I do think the one reason to take the manifesto as valuable, if frustratingly maniefesto-ish, is that it goes back to that Walter Benjamin effort to figure out how we access history not of the victors, but of most of the rest of us. How do we really truly “brush history against the grain”? But you know all this if anyone does!

  10. In looking quickly through the Manifesto, I got to the passage where the authors write that to equate “facts” with “truth” involves or implies a denial of the notion of “change over time.” Their implicit reasoning here seems to be that the “truth” suggests something unchanging, so if you think “facts” are “true,” you deny the possibility of change.

    Put that way, it sounds weird at best and ridiculous at worst, but I’m at a loss as to how else to interpret or read that particular passage. To see this passage’s weirdness, consider for example the (U.S.) Civil War. That the Civil War occurred is a fact, and the statement “the Civil War occurred” is a true statement. Does recognizing this imply a denial of “change over time”? Obviously not.

    Now maybe the authors in this passage were simply trying to urge historians to think critically about what counts as a fact and how their own assumptions influence what they take to be facts — clearly, that’s part of the authors’ concern in the Manifesto. And if they had put it that way and left it at that, they would have had a legitimate point. Instead, in this passage they bring in “truth,” which doesn’t forward their argument but, at best, sows confusion and, at worst, has the effect of allowing readers to conclude that the authors are reaching for an unnecessary metaphysical point of dubious validity.

    It is perfectly possible to make the point that “event,” “structure,” and (by implication) “fact” are not self-evident categories, and to do so in a fairly straightforward, intelligible way (to take one example, Marshall Sahlins did this years ago in one or two of the essays in his Islands of History). This passage in the Manifesto doesn’t do that. Rather it muddies the waters and opens the authors to the charge that at least some of what they have written is gibberish.

  11. For the most part, I agree with Holly above that the document was important, interesting, and worth thinking about, and that the reaction to it asking for evidence behind the claims is telling that at the very least the authors were on to something. Part of its argument just feels right, that whole arenas of different modes of historical thinking are actively policed out of legitimacy by a kind of progress-away-from-the-heady-days-of-theory-narrative. As Brian Connolly has pointed out on more than one occasion, we need to be as worried, if not more worried, about whig narratives of historiography as we are about the old bugaboo whig history. Thinking critically and contextually and what that is and what it has been and what it can be to do critical and contextualizing thinking and writing (and painting and sculpting and dancing, etc) is really important today. The manifesto at its best is a prompting to that, and I think that is all for the good.

    If I had a criticism of the manifesto, its that is so damn serious. I mean, my goodness, the invocation of the gods at the beginning doesn’t really have the tongue-in-cheek tone I would have hoped that something like that would. One of the things theory is good for, I think, is that it allows us to imagine the variety of ways in which things and images and narratives are put into play in their own time and in ours, or in others, and the relationships between those ways and those times, and that sense of intellectual play to me is very important, and missing a little bit in the manifesto, just as its missing in the rote historicization mode of a good deal of contemporary professional historical practice.

  12. Matt,

    In lieu of “smoking-gun” type evidence to support its claims (see Andy Seal’s latest post for an excellent discussion of what we might mean by evidence), what does the manifesto have to offer? Sweeping and vague denunciations of “empiricism” (do we mean the same things by this?), and the possibility of making arguments that “just feel right”? And the magical thinking surrounding Theory as the cure for all that supposedly inhibits the profession from speaking to this moment — well, it’s very quaint.

    “If only historians didn’t insist on making reasoned arguments built of claims backed by solid inference from empirical evidence, they could begin the world anew.” This strikes me as an oddly Trumpian methodology, bad means to worse ends.

  13. A Trumpian methodology? Come on. Respect, BUT COME ON.

    I think in naming anti-theory attitudes a form of anti-intellectualism, the manifesto is mostly right and at least clears some space for thinking, space the discipline really needs. I mean, if you work on eighteenth century theories of political economy, along with Istvant Hont and Emma Rothschild and others, you need Foucault, you gotta have him, writing about that material without him would be like writing about the ideological origins of the american revolution without Bailyn, but I have been in more than one seminar or conference discussion where you can’t bring up the name, even if its to mention it as a way of thinking that might hold some value, without being dismissed out of hand, and that’s not just uninteresting, its dishonest. Its a refusal to read part of the scholarly literature because its been made safe for you to get away with it, and I think that’s bad. When the manifesto talks about methodological fetishism (I would call it methodological policing), its on to something.

    Its not that everyone has to write history this or that way, to me what’s at stake here is the legitimacy of thinking outside the box of contemporary professional historicism at all, to even dream of something else for us to do besides license certified historicizers (the duck hunt model of history, if you see something that hasn’t been sufficiently historicized, get out your context gun and shoot it). Too much of history today works like a homeowner’s association, if you paint your door purple or plant an Agamben flower in your yard, you’re done. In the field of early american studies, I rent.

    Another thing that drives me up the wall is this idea that the point of history is to introduce people to how historians think, or how the discipline works. Only half-jokingly, my God, why would we do that? First and foremost, I want my students to be able to use history to think with in other arenas of inquiry and action, but maybe that’s another issue. One of the reasons Hayden White matters is because as an intellectual historian, he rightly pointed out that he was the traditionalist, the idea that history was something else besides an exercise in rhetoric is of a very recent vintage, and we should grant ourselves the collective freedom to wonder if that’s paid all the dividends we often assume it has.

    Now, I think the manifesto got caught up in some of the particular theoretical work of its authors, and I am pretty sure they could have done a much better job of translating, as it were. I would have used the word positivism instead of empiricism, but whatever. I also think you guys here are lucky in a sense that if you do twentieth century intellectual history, then theory historiography and history blend together in ways that they are not really allowed to in other fields (work on pragmatism, etc). The discipline looks different, I think, from other shores.

    • Matt: I appreciate your passing comment about how the term “positivism” would’ve been better than the term empiricism. Otherwise, I did note in my post how my perspective on the Manifesto is colored by the friends I keep in the field of history. I see a bit of theory everywhere in the work of intellectual historians, and others. – TL

      • Yes, i saw that, and I think it was a good point! I should have mentioned that.

  14. No, I was serious about the “Trumpian” part. I was thinking of how historiography 25 or 30 years from now might frame that manifesto, which seems at first glance so utterly out of tune with this moment when empiricism in all forms is under sustained attack. But then I thought of Daniel Rodgers’s brilliant reading of the 70s-90s, and how he was able to show that seemingly antithetical groups spoke alike the same conceptual language of the era and came to see reality in similar terms, sharing a common sensibility. I think 50 years from now, that manifesto will look completely of a piece with “Trumpian” epistemology. So, future historiographers, you heard it here first.

    • Yeah I don’t think the manifesto itself will mean as much as some work it clears the way for. I hope. Either way, I think intellectual historians and historiographers, assuming there are such things, in decades to come, will be looking for where the issues of their time got confronted and thought out, and I am afraid what they will find among historians is a guild mentality that sent an army of polite professionals out to remind people Marx is a nineteenth century thinker and Foucault was not sufficiently archival, tut tut. They will find the energy of the terrain in anthropology (how the hell did we let that happen?) and literature and even economics, theology, I think maybe a kind of psychology, Freud will have made a big comeback I think. My fear is that the enforced restriction of historical writing in the academy to professionally empirically verified stories will seem quaint, at best.

      • The pejoration of “guild” is an interesting problem for intellectual history, and that problem could doubtless be illuminated by a close look at labor history. The pejoration of “professionals” is a similarly interesting problem, and it seems likely that the two are connected, though my surmise is that the pejoration of professionals and professions is far more recent.

        We are in a position (sadly) to observe the consequences of this pejoration: anti-science hacks in charge of the EPA, the DOE, NASA, you name it.

        And this is why the manifesto, and your defense of it in your most recent comment above, are very much of this Trumpian moment. Heaven forbid that a bunch of *professionals* should insist on basic standards of evidence-based argument, broadly construed. Tut tut at professional historians for their stifling loyalty to “empiricism,” when what we need now is…what exactly?

        Pardon my boring fidelity to empiricism at a time when the most basic norms of good-faith dialog regarding social values and the social good are under sustained assault from a political movement that has left any idea of veracity behind. I will gladly accept the tongue-clucking disdain of future historiographers for not embracing this Trumpian manifesto with its contempt for professional dialogue, professional norms, and professional history. ‘Cause, you know, amateurism is so much better for our society, especially in this moment.

  15. I guess at this point I have a lot of thoughts about this, of which I will share some here. I’m quite sympathetic to the #TheoryRevolt and am one of the editors of History of the Present, which it is true was founded to pursue precisely the kind of scholarship suggested in the manifesto. As a not wholly irrelevant aside, we have published 72 articles over the past 8 years, of which 24 have been written by historians (that includes a few by the editors themselves). This is partly accounted for by the fact that we are more interested in publishing work that we see as historical and less concerned with what discipline the work comes from, but it is also true that the kind of historical work we are thinking of is more readily produced in other disciplines and that we get more submissions from those outside of history. So I guess make of that what you will.

    I think a fair amount of the responses to this have been of some variant of “didn’t we already do this?” For one, I think that presumes a kind of whiggish sense of historiography, as Matt Crow says above. To take it to its absurd end, haven’t we been doing archival research for a long time? Shouldn’t we get past that to something better? But I also think it presumes that history, as a discipline, had the same engagement with “theory” that other disciplines did in the 70s-90s. Without pretending that no historian ever did, I don’t think that is the case. The engagement with theory was, I think, always one of resistance, with some notable exceptions. Foucault and the Birmingham School were ok, even if much engagement with them was limited, but others – Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Wittig, etc. – were mostly absent, a kind of transgression for which a historian might be labeled needlessly difficult or something like that. Take psychoanalysis – there is little patience for psychoanalysis in historical work anymore, a presumption that historians had their engagement with Freud in the 1960s and 70s and that it was, on the whole, a wrong turn. One might have any number of intellectual critiques of psychoanalysis (I find it to be one of the more compelling ways of thinking sexual difference and history) but simply saying that it is something out of the past is more symptomatic of the antitheoretical bent of history than anything else. Many may think this is all for the best, but it does not mean that the discipline has already had its engagement. As William Sewell pointed out in Logics of History, many of the most prominent historians associated with “theory” have had extra-disciplinary appointments – Hayden White, Joan Scott, Dominic LaCapra are who come to mind from his book, but I don’t have it in front of me.

    While there are not specific examples in the manifesto itself, I don’t think they are hard to come by. For me they are readily apparent anecdotally. With one exception, every single thing I have ever submitted to a history journal came with at least one readers report that said something along the lines of “it’s nice that a literary critic is trying to do something historical…” I think there are any number of instances of editors and dissertation advisers and colleagues suggesting that an author “move the theory to the footnotes.” This may be about jargon, but I often think the idea of jargon is a red herring, rooted in some fantasy that there is a public waiting impatiently for well-written historical narratives, and that jargon is the major obstacle. Moreover, in a short essay I published a few weeks ago, which was rooted in the work of Foucault, Barthes, and Denise Riley, the response was a case study, I think, in the anti-theoretical bent. While I am certain there are any number of criticisms of the essay itself, and a few people engaged it that way, the primary responses were that I should be ashamed, that I was pompous, that “a little theory is a dangerous thing…”

    In another vein, I think one can certainly be critical of the genre of manifesto/theses, but I would imagine there were genre concerns for the author – are manifesto’s always nuanced? Aren’t they supposed to be polemics?

    There are certainly critical engagement so make with the manifesto, and I think the authors intended that. I agree with Matt Crow that a bit more intellectual playfulness would have been nice. There is this tendency – and I think, in my 20 or so years in academia, historians excel at it – that says that theory is not for the real world, that is might be nice in the abstract but that that is the end of it. I think this is profoundly wrong, to be honest, and as much an effect of a willful resistance to theory as anything else. Pete Coviello, in a beautiful memoir that is as much subtle work about “theory” as a way of being in the world as it is about intimacy, family, and pop music, has a great line to this effect: “the reckless joy you find in the ordinary transformative act of interpretation.”

    As for Trumpian, there seems to be small cottage industry at this point in the genre of “postsructuralism laid the groundwork for Trump/post-truth.” I haven’t found this all that convincing, even in its ur-text, Latour’s “Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Isn’t it as conceivable that the conditions of so-called post-truth follow from the persistent demands of positivism (note necessarily by historians), the desire for objectively true claims that, for the most part, fall apart at some point. And that Trump’s inane, cruel, and destructive truth-making comes out of that line of thinking? Broadly speaking the critical tradition that runs through poststructuralism never claimed that truth is entirely relative or can just be made up – that would give way more authority to the subject to control language than any of them, whatever their differences, would have accepted.

    Anyway, if theory is evidence of one thing here, it is that, on a Friday night I can be quite longwinded…

    • Brian, I am not suggesting that Theory paved the way for Trump. That’s a tired culture wars cliche. I think if anything Trumpism avant la lettre — a few decades now of gaslighting by Fox and Friends (and friends), Karl Rove, conservative claims of a “post-fact” politics, and now this grotesque man occupying the seat of ultimate power — these paved the way for such a manifesto at such a time.

      Leaving empirical evidence behind evidently allows one to accomplish all kinds of things. One really can make the world anew…if the world will listen. The timing of the manifesto suggests a sense that the time is right or ripe for such projects. But the fruit they have yielded after decades of cultivation by the Right is poisonous. Are academic theorists better intentioned? Most likely. Are they better positioned to see their ideas take root? Not likely.

      Narrative history that priveleges arguments supported by empirical evidence actually works. It doesn’t work miracles. But it works. Slowly, maybe. But it works.

    • Brian,

      Thanks so much for this long comment. I appreciate your clarifications about intentions and motivations.

      This excerpt from your comment resonated: ” I think there are any number of instances of editors and dissertation advisers and colleagues suggesting that an author “move the theory to the footnotes.” This may be about jargon, but I often think the idea of jargon is a red herring, rooted in some fantasy that there is a public waiting impatiently for well-written historical narratives, and that jargon is the major obstacle. ”

      More and more, I think that engaging with “jargon” is more important than suppressing or excising it. There is a belief that all history should be written for wide consumption, which is taken as inherently a good thing—desirable above all else. But sometimes thoughtful, well-done, critical history helps feed changes in consumption and production. In this vein, I agree with the Manifesto—let’s not fear critical history. Write it. Read it. Wrestle with it. And let’s see what happens.

      On the other hand, I think the tools that display history’s “positivist” side—footnotes, documentation, citations, and bibliographies—are good for everyone. These tools put the critical thinking behind selection and emphasis on display for all. They prevent obfuscation. Some authors doing history are not transparent (sometimes purposely); they do not want others to know the sources and motivations behind the construction of their stories.

      – Tim

  16. Two things hit me about this lively discussion so far: First, I don’t think our work is primarily to be narrators of the past ( tell good stories that sell books). It’s about extracting meaning and “theorize” about the past. We all do it. Even if we theorize in the background and don’t mention Foucault or some other formalized theory. We all have a theory/thesis/ philosophy about what happened, what is important and why it might matter. To make sense of the past you start with a theory and then you go to the evidence and see if it fits. At that intersection, you have to be honest instead of trying to shoehorn the evidence into your theory/thesis. If you start with no theory/thesis/philosophy you would not know where to start looking among the millions of available facts. So this debate about theory/empiricism seems like a red herring to me.

    I rather aim to be a philosopher of history and do that in prose or narrative that is compelling/convincing. If I wanted to tell stories I would have become a fiction writer not bound by the straight jacket of evidence/facts/archives/professional rules.

  17. Thanks, Brian, for coming here to engage. If the authors of the manifesto, and their like-minded compatriots want a real discussion, and not just a sense of their own intellectual superiority over the benighted denizens of the city of academic history, I think they should not reject all criticism out of hand as reflexive anti-intellectualism and take a good hard look at their own work. If you are asking historians to reform their ways, imagine that there are some things you might be able to do to make your own more successful, rather than reproducing the antinomies of archival fact-grubbing and theoretical broad-based critique and expecting historians to say “oh, yes, that’s us.” I, too, have heard many of the kind of anti-theoretical statements from practicing historians that are the basis of complaints, and I agree that they are fundamentally anti-intellectual in their dismissiveness–I think these reflexive anti-theoretical historians, who won’t even take the time to understand what the ideas they reject out of hand are actually saying, betray their own profession, and even their preferred empiricism by embracing a priori anti-theory positions. The difference is that I don’t think this reflexive anti-intellectualism is the sole or dominant position in the profession, and the manifesto does. Instead of using theoretical insight into the ground of historical scholarship and recognizing its complex pluralism, the manifesto fails theoretical insight by essentializing the historical profession–the manifesto is insufficiently critical and analytical, while declaring its own perspective as the truly “necessary” one . The recourse to anecdotes (e.g. some student in a seminar said something dismissive of theory, therefore the sensibility of the entire discipline is anti-theoretical) is a sign of weak argumentation and bad thinking. I don’t think all the criticisms of the manifesto come down to “been there, done that,” although some surely do–and there are better and worse versions of “been there, done that.” (e.g. “the engagement with theory among historians foundered on specified inadequacies, from which we learned a great deal,” is different from “theory took historians away from their true mission, glad they’ve returned.”) Just to make a point: here are several important books from the past 20 years that one would be hard-pressed to say were “marginalized,” but were deeply informed by theory (if not the preferred Derrida, Lacan, Irigiray, etc.): Kerwin Klein (UC Berkeley), _Frontiers of Historical Imagination _ and _From History to Theory_; Walter Johnson (Harvard), _Soul by Soul_; Sarah Igo (Vanderbilt), _The Averaged American_; Michael Sappol, _A Traffic of Dead Bodies_; Michael Meranze, _Laboratories of Virtue_. And this is in American historiography, which is often viewed by non-Americanists as the most narrow positivist field.

    • Dan, I think there are certainly lots of works that do the kind of theoretical work, or engage theory, in the way the manifesto authors suggest. Two things in that regard. The first is genre, again. I wonder if the manifesto would have received the same kind of engagement that it has if they had been more nuanced? This is an honest question – on the one hand, the stature of the authors would certainly have garnered some attention. On the other hand, I think a lot of the engagement has been generative of discussions like the one that is going on here, which i think suggest a lot of points of difference but I also think have been a bit suppressed in recent years. Second, I often wonder to what extent theoretically informed work like that you cite is engaged with on the critical terms it sets out. I think, for instance, Joan Scott’s gender article is much more cited as a key work in the history of gender that it is, necessarily, for its engagement with “theory,” although the two certainly can’t be disconnected. Or something like Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency,” which I think has both been much cited and little followed.

  18. I think there is a difference between Theory capital-T (or “theory” in quotation marks) and theory small-t. Well before Theory capital-T came on the scene, there was an impulse among some social scientists, and some historians too, to more consciously integrate history and theory small-t, meaning especially in this context classical 19th-century social theory but also psychoanalytic theory and probably other things as well. At the risk of over-generalization and oversimplification, I think of Theory capital-T as being more interested in discourse and language and how they “construct” the world, whereas theory small-t is more interested in the non-linguistic or non-discursive analysis of social reality, though Theory and theory may sometimes share an interest in demystifying that reality. (Paradoxically perhaps, Marx, whose writings I’d categorize as theory rather than Theory, made brilliant use of language and literary tropes in much of his work.)

    I’d have to read the authors’ manifesto more carefully to be sure of this, but I’m not certain that the authors accept the validity of a distinction between theory small-t and Theory capital-T. I’m not interested in arguing that one is better than the other (it probably depends in large part on the topic one is writing about), but I think it may be a distinction worth preserving. I’m also not sure I could always draw the line between the two in a particular case, nor is the line always hard-and-fast, but (to adapt what Justice Stewart said about pornography) I think I roughly — very roughly — know the categories when I see them.

  19. Just a brief comment to say two things, both perhaps a bit too much self-promotion – on the archive/theory distinction, I co-edited (with Marisa Fuentes) an issue of History of the Present on slavery and the archive that I think takes up lots of these questions. It is the Fall 2016 issue – if you don’t have access let me know I’d be happy to share it. Second. sometime this week (I hope) the History of the Present website will link to the manifesto and be open for both comments and longer essay engagements with the theses, so look out for that if you are interested in continuing this conversation….(historyofthepresent.org)

  20. I just think there is no need to accuse any anti-empirical arguments here of being Trumpian. Not every historian desires “empirical evidence”- think about those who use literary and cultural sources, theory, even oral history. By limiting historians to neo-enlightenment empiricism historians shut down engagement and critical discussion. It’s one reason I’ve left for Am Studies. I think we should think about the ways other disciplines-lit, anthro, esc-use theory in engaging ways. And I think dismissing anecdotes outright isn’t a good idea. I was constantly criticized in grad seminars for my interest in theory, particularly feminist theory, but also my interest in oral history “no facts!”, ethnography and literature. These ideas about empiricism do really strain the work of graduate students.

    I also think we are dealing with an “imagined public” that we can engage if only our facts are documented and our narratives are interesting. I don’t want to write narrative history. Yet my work is often aimed at some sort of imagined public. I think the idea that theory can’t be publicly accessible is classist but also makes it seem like there is some massive public awaiting narrative history. There isn’t and we don’t all want to “tell stories.”

    In grad seminars if I would bring up theory people would grown. My lively MA advisor told me to get out of the required theory course, that it seperate is from the story, etc. I think this is about what we want the discipline to be.

    In full disclosure, I’m organizing a round table called “theorizing the public” on these subjects for ncph

    • Holly, literary and cultural sources and oral accounts ARE empirical evidence. Historians make claims about what happened in the past and what it meant based on primary sources, and we build our arguments not on some generalizable theory of human behavior applicable to all times and places, but on the particular details we find in the past and how they fit in with what we know of that era from the work of other scholars. The high-handedness of this manifesto is silly enough; but its absolute sloppiness in attacking “empiricism” without defining anything about it, other than condemning “the archive,” is really unforgivable.

      Secondly, you badly misread my meaning in calling the manifesto or Matt’s defense of it Trumpian. I have already disavowed, in comments to Matt and to Brian, that I am suggesting either that “postmodernism in academe (or anywhere else) paved the way for Trump” OR that by “Trumpian” I mean reflecting Trump’s political will / intentions. Indeed, I defined pretty clearly how I was using the term, and why — because beneath the completely antithetical politics of the execrable Trump on the one hand and the liberation- and justice-minded theorists on the other, there is an underlying common willingness to sidestep notions or problems of truth, facticity, evidentiary standards, etc. For very different reasons, and from very different politics, both the manifesto and Trump/the Trumpers seem to be taking a similar approach to those “empirical” matters. If/since we’re in the era of Trump, like it or not (or the fifth seal of the apocalypse, or the fourth trumpet, or what the hell ever is going on right now), I think it is quite likely the case that historians looking back at this manifesto will not see an underlying sensibility that is working against Trumpist erosion of basic norms of discourse, but will see an academic expression of an approach to “truth” and “facticity” and “what we all know to be so” that is very much of a piece with a Trumpist approach.

      If the adjective seems jarring, then maybe the manifesto needs a rewrite so that it doesn’t read as an all-out assault on people who think “the truth” or just “a truth” might matter. And defenses of the manifesto that wring their hands about historians acting as professionals, or speaking up to uphold standards of scholarship or argument? Those are of a piece with this moment in history too.

      I’m not name-calling — I’m pointing out a common thread that runs through the discourse of people who would never recognize any common ground with each other. As I said above, Daniel Rodgers did that in Age of Fracture, and it was a good approach. I’m no Daniel Rodgers, but I’m not a complete novice at this business either.

      The manifesto as written is ludicrous. It’s a petulant assertion, not a reasonable argument.

      The co-authors need to do a rewrite.

      • You might assert that literary, cultural, and oral historical sources are empirical. Many historians do not, or at least do not treat them with equal measure has other traditional archival sources. I think the idea that theory is “a generalized theory of human behavior” is a gross generalization regarding both the use of critical theory and what critical theory argues and asserts. Most works of critical theory that I am familiar with are not creating a generalized theory of human behavior.

        I should have more properly defined my conception of empiricism, that’s fair. I don’t agree that the manifesto is silly or needs a rewrite. I agree with the vast majority of it and am happy it’s being debated.

        Just to clarify, I didn’t mean to misread or mischaracterize your use of Trumpian and I wasn’t only referring to your point. After Brian Connelly’s essay ran in public seminar, that were a lot of critiques referring to it as Trumpian with varying degrees of nuance. But I also disagree with your argument that there is a common “problems of truth, facticity, evidentiary standards, ”

        I found that the manifesto spoke to my experience and I really value it, and not for it’s “petulance.”

        I do think we should continue to discuss the role and value of critical theory in history.

      • Holly, I am hardly the only historian who recognizes a vast array of possible sources from which to draw in order to make sense of — and a sensible explanation of — the past. Everyone who writes for this blog practices history that way. Indeed, I would suggest that most in the profession take such a view.

        I think you are confused about how “empirical” is being used in this discussion because the manifesto is confused, sloppy, sweeping, and, yes, silly, in how it deploys the very terms on which it purportedly stands.

        To say that history is an empiricist discipline is not to make a claim about what kinds of sources historians use, but it is to say that we use sources, that we rely on evidence, that our arguments depend on a good-faith reading of past utterances in relation to other scholars insights and, yes, in relation to the explanatory schema that make sense to us as individual historians.

        The authors of the manifesto seem convinced that unless all historians approach this work exactly as they do, there’s something terribly wrong with the discipline. That’s petulant, and uncharitable, and also ridiculously unaware of real work happening right now in the profession. Before writing a sweeping indictment of an entire academic field, it would have been useful for the authors to familiarize themselves with what the field is actually doing. However, the empirical evidence they then would have encountered, illustrating the rich diversity of theoretically-informed historical writing, might have gotten in the way of their polemic.

        What I’m more interested in is this: why this manifesto, and why now? What is the anxiety, the urgency behind this utterance? What in particular — or maybe even in general — are these authors and their like-minded readers afraid of? I know what the manifesto says, but, since it’s not at all clear that the dystopian state of affairs it describes or the cause for that state that it identifies correspond to the profession as it actually stands here and now, I’m very intrigued by its timing and its tack.

      • I think in your arguments you are misreading the political moment, and I think you are misreading at least my defense of the manifesto. I agree that the manifesto was not as well conceived as it could have been, but I still think it can be a useful moment in the discipline.

        Lying is not a new phenomenon in politics, it is as old as politics itself, big lies in particular. The lies we see now are particularly dangerous, but I think the problems we face run so much deeper than assertions that don’t check out, we need thinking about how this was possible in the first place, about political power and authoritarianism and desire and cruelty and enjoyment and media and the environment and gods and women and men and beyond. Now those things can be found in good stories, to be sure, but they can be found elsewhere and in other ways and they need to be, so that we can think about them in different ways. Where you and I disagree, I think, is whether a mode of professional historical practice that restricts itself to a kind positivistic approach is adequate to the demands of the day. At the very least, a historical profession that is as concerned as ours seems to be to police its methodological boundaries rather than explore them is in danger of losing its place at important tables both in and out of the university.

        And I don’t think you individually will be earning the scorn or the tut tut of future historiographers, far from it (I should add that I found out recently some of your blog posts are assigned as theory in first year rhetoric and women’s studies classes here at HWS, so there we are). But I do worry that the profession is not letting itself think through broader and bigger problems and issues so that it can enjoy the satisfaction of having everything we wrote properly cited. Brian was right about the piece of his he mentioned and some of the reaction, the rage at the mere thought of accepting an invitation to openly rethink some of the stories we tell about ourselves as a profession was striking. Its the unwillingness that gets me, its the unwillingness, I think, that the manifesto rightly aims its ire at, if for no other reason than to crack open some new intellectual space.

        Your point and Tim’s too are well taken on the issue of the kind of intellectual exploration one sees, for example, on this blog, which is exemplary and that’s why I read it. I am not suggesting that historians aren’t capable of thinking critically and they need such and such big theory name to get there, and I am not entirely sure the manifesto does either, but anyhow, I think its the ethos of “what we do here is tell stories from the archive” that at the very least deserves questioning. Your constructed division between that idea and the idea of universal theories applicable across all times and places (a straw man for the kind of theory being discussed here, I would argue) is overwrought, I don’t recognize it. I’ve always seen theory as something that historians can use to check themselves and their place in the world. When I hear “theory” being discussed as something imported to make small stuff big or fashionable, I honestly don’t know what people are talking about. Maybe I’m the one that’s off base there, I dunno.

        To begin to answer your what then question in the response to me above, I envision a historical practice comfortable with appreciating its fundamentally civic and political setting, and willing to at least entertain the idea that every image of the past put forward in the present is a used and useable one, that the lines we have drawn separating professional historical practice from the varieties of historical practice are not as clear cut as we think, that avoiding narratives and images of the past that don’t check out or not seeing ourselves as implicated in them can be just that, an avoidance. Historians fighting the invitation to theoretical reflection are probably working off of the thinking of some past theory or theorist without knowing it. To me, intellectual history and theory are two conjoined and important pillars of historical practice, and I am glad someone stood up and said the latter exists.

      • Matt, thank you. I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve outlined in your last paragraph. My sense of the profession, though — or at least my corner of it — is that this is already current and widespread historical practice. I am reminded of James W. Cook’s 2012 article “The Kids Are All Right,” examining the scholarship of a generation of historians going through graduate school in the middle of or shortly after “the cultural turn” (abstract/link here: AHR June 2012). As Dan mentioned in one of his comments to Brian, there are numerous recent and crucial significant works of history that take Theory seriously as a lens of analysis and as a framework for making sense of “the empirical.” Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is one work I’d add to that list, and there are many more.

        The fact that there are individual, prominent historians who pooh-pooh “theory” or “the cultural turn” or “gender as a category of analysis” should not be used to characterize the entire profession. Indeed, to give so much weight/importance to the scorn/disdain of a few prominent voices is to receive as a given and then further reify the very top-down patriarchal model of the profession that the manifesto seeks to dislodge by conceiving of different relations between authority and power. Is it really a crisis for the profession that some eminences grises are going to sneer at others’ methodological commitments? That just sounds like another day at the office to me.

        Basically, I see nothing in the profession as a whole (if it can even be so sweepingly summarized) that actively discourages engagement with theory or awareness of the situatedness of historians or the histories we write. It is a heterogeneous discipline that offers room for a fruitful number of approaches. “Empiricism” broadly construed is probably best characterized as the tent-pole holding up the big tent. There’s already room in the tent for Theory, and it’s already flourishing. But the solution to wanting more room in the tent or more openness between its various constituencies is not to hack down the tent-pole or the guy-wires holding the whole thing together — unless the goal is to utterly destroy what is already standing as unsalvageable and undesirable in toto.

        That’s not a goal I would sign off on.

  21. The adjective “empirical” when attached to the noun “evidence” is basically redundant: practically all evidence any historian uses is open to observation, hence it’s all empirical evidence. So literary sources and oral histories are evidence, and they are also empirical evidence (as LD says).

    The noun “empiricism” is a different story, but the adjective “empirical” when it modifies “evidence” is, to repeat myself, redundant, at least as far as I can tell.

  22. Reply to LDB et al: Points well taken, thanks for the back and forth. My guess would be a lot of this is field-specific, but I definitely agree that there is a danger in grandiloquence and going meta with what happens in a day at the office, not just that it can be disagreeable and unpleasant, but that it gets in the way of a kind of democratic, common, civic spirit and sensibility that is under serious threat today, and that we could do more to practice ourselves and not just use Hannah Arendt (who I admire a great deal) to point out that its missing in the white house, etc. That’s a good thing to remember and for me to take away from this. Good practice, thanks again.

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