historicism vs. historical materialism in the niceties @ geva theatre, 02 november 2019.
…with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. …To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. — Walter Benjamin
The Niceties, written by playwright Eleanor Burgess, portrays a confrontational dialogue between a young female black millennial student and an older, baby boomer female white professor of history. In two acts, each an extended conversation in the professor’s office at an elite American university, the two characters do battle over questions of race, activism, knowledge, and generational difference. While the play is set in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and its immediate concern is the dynamic of racial misunderstanding today, it is also very much about the role of history in contemporary society. Dispensing with the niceties, The Niceties gets down to tougher questions, one of which is: to whom does the American past belong and on what terms?
Burgess’s play suggests that history always remains unsettled. Many Americans imagine consensus about the past, thinking everyone agrees about “how it really was,” to use Walter Benjamin’s sneering critique of what he called the historicist stance. The older professor tilts toward this stance. She is no conservative provocateur a la Charles Murray, but rather a solidly liberal, established scholar. Nonetheless she wants the center to hold, and a moderate vision of the American past to prevail.
The student, by contrast, seeks “to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” That is what Benjamin describes as the historical materialist approach, in which the past is not dead (it is not even past, thank you very much, William Faulkner). Instead, the past’s traumas remain painfully and potently alive. What happened then is still happening now. There is continuity between the suffering of one’s ancestors and the unfinished project of reckoning with redeeming them. Remembrance is history. Redemption comes from personally linking oneself to a liberation from bondage, as it is imagined in the Jewish faith when the Israelites fled Egyptian slavery. This is a very different understanding of history’s relationship to the present. It defies our sense of orderly time, and makes the past contested ground upon which contemporary struggles for power, control, knowledge coruscate and burn.
The Niceties reaches for these different perceptions of the past: what it is, how it matters in the present. At times, it is rather clunky in staging the Benjaminian dialogue between historicism (“how it really was”) and historical materialism (“to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger”). We get two caricatures instead of complicated characters. The keenness to dramatize the binary between them in order to reveal how racism operates at elite universities gets in the way of the play’s best moments.
However, when Burgess introduces little twists in the background stories, or collides the yearning of each character for justice and fairness with the needs of the other, she troubles the distinctions between the successful, confident, older professor and her passionate, striving, activist student. When The Niceties dances its dialogue between their oppositions and potential alliances, the play illuminates how the history of race reaches out from the past, like a ghostly hand turned flesh again, wrapping itself around people’s actions in the contemporary moment and guiding their words and actions to surprising, and often disturbing, places. We may think we can wield history to win arguments and score points in the now, the play suggests, but history might also be wielding us. The past whispers all the time when it comes to racial injustice in America, and often it screams. The dead, persecuted, don’t rest. They haunt. Even in the quads and offices of scholarly reason and rationality.
Inspiring The Niceties, Burgess explains in the program notes, was an event that took place at her alma mater, Yale. In the fall of 2015, the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email warning students not to wear insensitive costumes for Halloween. One professor, Erika Christakis, countered by urging students to ignore the request in the name of freedom of expression (this event was one of a number of heated conflicts over culture, race, and power not only at Yale, but also at many American campuses during the last few years). At Yale, the Intercultural Affairs Committee framed offensive costuming within the deep and painful histories of colonialism and racism. In their view, privileged, white young adults dressing up as racialized others formed part of the cultural edifice that supported long-standing political and economic inequities. What young adults wore on Halloween for fun was not only insensitive, it was part of the saga of American racism. Christakis responded from her perspective as an expert on child development, in which imaginative play, she believed, should be exercised as much as possible even if it drifted into clueless tactlessness. Offensive Halloween costumes were insensitive, but they were meaningless, in her point of view, and institutions should not be bandying about their authority at microscopic levels of control and the policing of student behavior.
This was, one should note, a controversy over free speech and “political correctness,” but it was not really staged at the national level, between, say, rabid, Rush Limbaugh-listening conservatives and radical, socialist lefties feverishly imagined as headed to the barricades alongside the Squad. Instead, it was more precisely about the ways in which history’s traumas resurface within a narrow, privileged sector of the larger world. The Niceties was, in short, not about the larger battles raging today in America between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, flyover country and latte-flooded coasts, red and blue states, Fox News and MSNBC. The play was more focused on a smaller story about the differences that exist between liberals and radicals within the fancier quarters of elite academe. These differences are often papered over, but occasionally they erupt with the full force of their lurking animosities.
The play imagines the historian presenting a kind of consensus liberal version of American history, while the student demands a more radical accounting of the past. The historian’s version is Ken Burns territory: the US had flaws, particularly around race, but it is ultimately a good country. This is not conservative history. It acknowledges the historical shortcomings of the United States. “Oh sure,” this version of the past grants, “there was slavery and subjugation, exploitation and conquest, and those continue to need fixing, but ultimately there was the dream of universal equality and freedom, and that is what matters most.” America’s moderate revolution is to be celebrated for not slipping into the more radical modes of the French Revolution, in which terror arose from transformation. The limited revolution of the US makes it exceptional, according to this line of thinking, and should be affirmed as such. Here is Whiggish history, in which progress is always on its steady march toward gradual improvement. We find this narrative prevalent not only in Ken Burns documentaries, but also, it is true, in some of the most elite precincts of the historical profession.
And yet, The Niceties misses more than fifty years of historical scholarship! It just ignores it, and this undermines its portrayal of the professor. Historical work that is far more damning of the American past dates back at least to Edward Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, if not earlier in the work of Charles Beard, W.E.B. Dubois, and others. To be sure, there were studies of the sort portrayed in The Niceties during the conformist decade of the 1950s, and some of those ideas linger, but the voice of historical critique has been far louder, its volume increasing in the 1970s to this day with social history, women’s history, African-American history, and other incursions into antiquated notions of the American past as a celebratory tale.
Both the professor and the student seem unaware of this historical scholarship. The student, in particular, pictures herself as the first to confront liberal consensus history as if no historians whatsoever question the story of the victors, the conquerors. The Niceties unfortunately positions academic historical knowledge as still fundamentally controlled only by old white men (and with a twist, an old white woman) ensconced in tenured posts at places such as Yale. In one chilling moment, the student, in frustration and pain, goes so far as to question democracy itself. What good is it, she wonders, if the American form of democracy accompanied slavery and racial persecution? But in staging the student’s position this way, the play obfuscates the tremendous historical resources she might have at her disposal (yes, even at Yale). The Niceties occasionally gestures to this space of righteous inquiry into racism and its traumas, but it misses the opportunity to connect the student’s desperately personal approach to a larger, more complex body of scholarship beyond the caricature of the liberal professor’s restrictive, normative celebration of the founding of the United States as a nation gloriously engaged in the grand experiment of democracy.
Race is the main focus of The Niceties, but there is also another history it seeks to portray as well: the recent generational struggle between baby boomers and millennials. We could even imagine contemporary American politics in their entirety as shaped by this debate: Trump versus Ocasio-Cortez; an older, more conservative rural and exurban populace putted against a younger, more cosmopolitan and radical one. What is odd is that the generations between these two large groups seem to be missing, both in the larger public portrayals and in The Niceties (I am reminded of a recent TV graphic making its way around the Internet that completely erased Gens X and Y from its statistical portrayal of the US population). This seems, increasingly, like part of a larger problem in the United States, in that it also makes invisible the history of the culture wars that have raged since the 1990s. It is as if that history must disappear in order for the sometimes stilted, sometimes riveting dialogue between student and professor, between millennials and baby boomers, to take place in The Niceties. Perhaps some other resources for confronting racism and racial justice are being lost in this move to ignore recent history in service of focusing on the American Revolution and its legacies?
That all said, what is powerful about The Niceties is how it presents the interaction of racism and knowledge in the interplay between the two characters in the play. History and the past figure differently for the two women. For the older professor, history is about the authority of certain sources over others—written documentation matters; the past is a foreign country; one can read against the grain of sources, but always as a sort of outsider. The historian is a kind of guest worker in the past externalized, existing outside the personal experiences of the historian herself.
For the younger student, the past is personal. It exists inside oneself, not outside, and one can access truths through being sensitive to the aspects of the past that have not been clearly documented, if at all, in anything other than feelings of identification. The story of slaves during the American Revolution, for instance, must be approached not through sources and artifacts alone, but also through mapping the present onto the past imaginatively. How else would one access the stories of those who were not the victors, whose voices and experiences do not turn up in the official record? Felt memory becomes as valid as archival traces in this approach to the past. For the student, a historian must carry the weight of the collective memory of trauma. It is internalized and she is obligated to address it as a personal, subjective matter, not just a distant and objective one. The pains of the present and the past blur. This radicalizes her. History is immediate and becomes linked to activism and a demand for urgent contemporary redress.
As the play goes on, it becomes clearer, however, that the supposed objectivity of the older professor’s approach is not as neutral and external as she first imagines, while the student confronts the need to reflect more neutrally on her own intensely personal positionality. For the professor, historical objectivity becomes inflected with her own subjective experiences and family background. She confronts her own personal investment in her way of trying to tell an authoritative version of the American national story. Meanwhile, the student struggles to square her own privilege in gaining access to an elite university education with her sense of betrayal to a larger collective cause of racial justice. She begins to grapple with externalized, objective self-reflection alongside her deeply personal, internalized approach to the past. Intriguingly, for both professor and student, baby boomer and millennial, these realizations occur through rather narcissistic means. The characters are in dialogue, yet more often than not they speak past each other, as if the other was but a mirror. The caricatured binary begins to collapse, but Burgess keeps emphasizing the way that meaningful connection still eludes.
At its best, the play ultimately excels at catching these subtleties and ambivalences. The staging literally has the two characters tensely circle each other as if in an intellectual cage match; each actress’s body language intensifies their journeys through moments of anger and, in other moments, self-questioning. Unlike other controversial dramas located in professor’s offices—one thinks especially of David Mamet’s boomer-dude sexual harassment melodrama Oleanna—The Niceties strives to move past making one of the characters a straw man (or more accurately, in both plays, a straw woman!). Burgess seems most intrigued by the concept of sustaining both sides of the debate about knowledge, race, power, and justice on campus in a tangle of divergence yet also occasional, fleeting empathy. This is not the story of two people completely misunderstanding each other. It is the story of two people continually trying to grasp the perspective of the other, and yet still unable to find stable common ground.
The unfinished tale of racial justice in America will do that. Racism’s historical form flows through all Americans, reaching out from the past to ensnare us all. It shapes ideas, affect, emotions, and actions. It does so whether we want it to or not, no matter what one’s individual identity is. The Niceties shows how this is not so nice, and it is the ugliness of it, the way in which there is no refuge from it, that must be confronted. Maybe, although it might not look or feel so nice getting there, some kind of comic resolution might one day be found lurking in this American tragedy. Perhaps this could be the case if we remember Benjamin’s warning to the historian:
In every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it. For the Messiah arrives not merely as the Redeemer; he also arrives as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ. The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.