Backlash History

a reaction against reactionary history.

John Lewis Krimmel, The Village Politicians, c. 1819.

David Kaiser’s recent, woe-is-me interview on the History News Network puts traditional history in the role of victim. He places practitioners of “new history” (now almost forty years old, but never mind) in the role of usurping pirates and mutinying crew.

Kaiser’s interview is striking for the ways in which he seems utterly tone deaf to the insights of the multiple approaches he lumps together willy-nilly as “new history.” Worse yet, his objections barely conceal what I can only call a muted racism and misogyny: blacks, browns, yellows, gays, and worst of all (gasp!) women, are suddenly in charge, demanding that their stories be told, too, and that they might too have a hand on the historical steering wheel; oh no, the ship of state might be steered in new directions, and the older modes of political history tossed overboard in favor of silly concerns about gender, language, and the role of those who have not successfully (or tragically, as Kaiser’s own work makes known) concentrated governmental or economic power in their hands!

There are two intertwined strands to Kaiser’s complaint that deserve untangling:

The first is a methodological knot he seeks to unkink. Kaiser wishes to place language and ideology back in the hands of masterful historical actors and he wants to insist that history is about reconstructing the past as those powerful figures understood themselves. “There is an intrinsic interest to studying decisions that affect the lives of millions,” he argues. “Personalities of people like Wilson, Roosevelt, LBJ, Nixon, Westmoreland, etc., are also inherently interesting.”

In contrast to these “inherently interesting” men, Kaiser seems to reject histories that seek to understand the (maybe also inherently interesting?) contexts in which they lived. He points to Frank Costigliola’s explorations of George F. Kennan’s gendered language in shaping understandings of the early Cold War among American diplomats. “That’s a problem,” Kaiser argues, “with post-modernist history, looking for ‘gendered’ language and such in the past.” To Kaiser, “they are not studying the past as such, not asking what words meant to those who used them.”

But the whole point of the new history (social history, cultural history, women’s history, labor history, whatever subfields are not traditional diplomatic and political history) was to explore more carefully “the past as such.” These historians sought to ask whether historical actors themselves were products of history, shaped by the frameworks of larger linguistic, cultural, and ideological forces. They noticed that you couldn’t just ignore the kink in the methodological rope.

Kaiser will have none of this. Without providing much evidence, he asserts that, “What you have to understand is that the new history has given up the idea that the past can be recreated as it really was.” But this has always been the point of “new history”: to investigate carefully the “real” in “really was.”

This first complaint is an age-old one: as Kaiser himself admits, powerful men such as George F. Kennan “don’t make them with complete freedom of action”; and he grants that “sophisticated historians have always understood that.” But for Kaiser, the methodological strand of his complaint is tied up with another problem, one that makes his commentary far more troubling.

His second, and related, complaint is that new historians are relativists. Kaiser simply refuses to engage with the vexing questions of historical objectivity that new history raises. Instead, he dismisses all new history for its “postmodernist” subjectivity and insists that it is dominated by the “assumption that history is simply a matter of valorizing certain people over others.”

I can only describe this second gripe as close-minded, even reactionary; it seeks to close down debate in the name of Kaiser’s asserted version of the truth. And that, upon reflection, seems far more relativistic than anything new history has ever come up with.

I would argue that almost no “new” historians are the relativists Kaiser fears. They have only asked new questions of existing archival materials, sought out untapped sources that raise new perspectives, and explored new categories of analysis. They have not rejected objectivity in doing so, but rather have sought to more carefully expand its scope and, simultaneously, to probe its complexities. Kaiser refuses to see this. And his response to the new history tilts toward a Horowitzian (as in David of the “101 most dangerous academics”) anxiety about new voices and perspectives shaping how we understand the past.

There is a nostalgia in Kaiser’s words for an older kind of worldview, one in which powerful men make history through limited channels of state power or economic might while everyone else has history made for them. This nostalgia barely hides a reactionary backlash against new ways of viewing the world–and maybe also the new people doing that viewing.

Kaiser wants his history to only be about those men “who, by virtue of the positions they occupy, make decisions upon which the lives, property and happiness of thousands, and sometimes millions of people depend.” And he patronizingly dismisses the study of other historical actors as not “the past…as it really was.” His seething resentment against broadening the historical terrain is most striking (and revealing) when he says the following:

I was in grad school when social history was having an impact. It—like women’s history, the history of sexuality, etc., later—was sold as a way to broaden out history by adding previously understudied topics.

Um, it’s not that women or sexuality (or race, or class, or culture, or add to the list) were legitimate and innovative new ways of exploring the past objectively. No, in Kaiser’s form of infantile historical objectivity, they were merely “sold” to unsuspecting and naïve (and feminized?) consumers who were bamboozled into thinking they were true.

“There’s only so much room in the garden,” Kaiser insists of ye old Edenic traditional history, when Adam was in charge until Eve ate the apple, “and the new species are crowding out the old, and replicating themselves much faster.”

Watch out! Those “replicating” weeds of nature have overrun paradise for Kaiser. But maybe it’s more accurate to say that the messy past of historical time as it “really was” has arrived. Better board your ship of state, Noah, and batten down the hatches to survive the flood.

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2 thoughts on “Backlash History

    1. For anyone else who might read this, here is Tim’s post: Proposition For Debate: Change In The Objects Of Study For Intellectual Historians.

      Culture Rover agrees with Tim that there is much work to be done in a more expansive version of intellectual history. And as the response from Eric Brandom suggests, we need to do a bit more historiographical thinking about the intersections of intellectual history, cultural history, and what might broadly be called cultural studies (from American Studies/Ethnic Studies types to Media and Comm studies to Sociology to literary scholars gone historical).

      I will say, in a momentary outburst of self-promotion (hey, it’s my blog, isn’t the whole thing an outburst of self-promotion?!) that something like what Tim calls for is what I’ve always had in mind for my book on the “civics of rock music and the making of the counterculture.” That is, in taking seriously the responses to rock music by participants in the counterculture (but not taking them too seriously, as in appreciating their own finely-honed spirits of absurdity and humor), I have always wanted to treat their ideas with the kind of legitimacy we give to more scholarly modes of intellectual thought.

      Yes, of course they were stoned and zonked much of the time (but hey, so was William James!). And yes, as a cultural historian, I want to broaden intellectual history to something beyond a narrow mind-body, ideas-sensations/feelings kind of binary. And yes, I think “intellect” gets expressed in more than philosophical tracts or belle lettres, but also in poster art, light shows, record criticism, dress, the built environment, and bodily dance. In fact, maybe I want to expand intellectual history to the point that it can’t be called intellectual history anymore. Or as Tim’s posting suggests, we at least need to pin down more precisely what the intellectual history aspect is of a broader approach to ideas and intellectual engagement.

      But in the end, caveats made, when I’ve looked at the archival evidence, I increasingly view the counterculture as a kind of vernacular public sphere, a use of popular culture by participants to debate the world around them. And, Habermas in mind, I never would have been able to think of the counterculture this way without intellectual history. Listeners to rock debated the meaning of their lives in multiple expressive registers and with a sense of what I’ve called “irreverent sincerity,” a deeply-reflexive perception of the absurdities and dead seriousness (Vietnam War and all) of their lives.

      All this has made me increasingly think of my book as an intellectual history of how hippies danced.

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