Speeding Up the Past

caroline walker bynum proposes a work slowdown of historic proportions.

Caroline Walker Bynum has an intriguing essay in the Winter 2009 edition of Daedalus in which she asks historians to slow down. I imagine this applies to most fields in the academic humanities and perhaps beyond to intellectual life in general. Bynum argues that for young historians, value has been placed increasingly on research productivity rather than quality.

To combat this, Bynum argues for a postmodern notion of what historical knowledge is. She wants us to recognize that our own interpretations and arguments are but partial parts of the whole cloth of historical narrative. This ideological position, she contends, could serve as a framework for stopping the knowledge production speed-up that has been afflicting the humanities, and history in particular. Here’s how she puts it:

I propose that we adopt toward professional practices the same postmodern stance that has facilitated creative new work in the substance of our scholarship. For if we could really understand what we undertake as historians to be by definition partial and discontinuous, forever redone and in need of redoing because of our own cultural situated-ness, we—all of us, young scholars and old—would be able to slow down. If there is no goal at the end of the race—that is, if the point is the running not the goal—why sprint instead of stroll (especially if sprinting damages our knees forever)?

Bynum makes an important addition to this argument. For she is no relativist:

Awareness that we all write from a particular perspective and with the aid of specific methods and interpretations does not mean that there is no difference between good and bad arguments; opposing the transparency of evidence—whether objects or texts—does not mean opposing evidence. Indeed, exactly the opposite is true. More attention to the complex and indirect ways in which evidence renders up the past leads to more attention to the cogency and accuracy of argument.

For Bynum, the key notion is that we adopt a postmodern methodology—a kind of empathetic skepticism—that might undergird a new economy of thinking and writing history.

But paying more attention means taking more time. What I suggest is that an enthusiastic acceptance (instead of a grim fear) that each of us writes from a partial perspective might free us from the pressures of speed-up and over-production.

There are wonderfully radical implications in Bynum’s call for a postmodern turn in historical method, particularly in mapping out a philosophy that pushes toward deeper, more fully-realized scholarship that speaks to the meandering and often difficult pursuit of new truths, even partial truths (or better said, of evidence-based interpretations that join the rich fabric of meanings that make up the past).

The only problem is that Bynum really does sidestep the economic and institutional dimensions of the speed-up she identifies in scholarly production. She does so in a manner, I must add, that only an institutionally and economically well-established scholar is capable of doing (I want to make clear here that Bynum is, in my opinion, absolutely and deservedly well-established—her work is magnificent and this essay is important in its argument—but that doesn’t dismiss the  condescending undertone that keeps creeping in to this otherwise insightful article).

The problem is twofold. The first is that the essay lacks of a deeper explanation of the speed-up’s causes, particularly as they relate to economic and institutional factors. “I am attempting to counter (at least for the United States) that current professional anxieties are owing primarily to economic or institutional forces,” she writes.

Bynum does not link the academic culture of the speed-up to any material basis. I’m not asking for a crass Marxist base-superstructure argument here. I’m a culture rover after all. But the problem is that Bynum only kind of “ahems” about the experience of the crisis for many aspiring scholars in the humanities. She writes, “Despite a disturbing increase in the number of people in adjunct or part-time positions who would prefer full-time employment, and an alarming tendency for women to suffer salary discrimination at later points in their careers and at elite institutions…” and then goes on to cite statistics to argue that the job market is not that bad and that assistant professors are still getting tenure (wait, what about all those adjunct and part-time people she just mentioned?). That’s it.


But, what are the causes of this speed-up? All we get is “as publishers are increasingly willing to review and publish manuscripts in only those areas they think will sell, and department chairpersons and senior professors put greater and greater pressure on young scholars to produce what Jonathan Beck has cynically called work that counts, is countable, and is counted, it will require courage (as indeed it has always done) to tackle genuinely new topics.” Nowhere in this essay do I grasp the reasons behind the increasing focus is on limiting economic and marketing factors (Beck’s idea of “work that counts, is countable, and is counted”). Why is this speed-up happening? What is it about, exactly?

We are just told to have “courage” and enjoy the feeling of our voices swept up in the partial, contingent making of history. Fine. I’m all for exchange and wondering and the mystery of it all. Go team! But are the tenure lines going to be “forever redone and in need of undoing,” as Bynum wants the postmodern knowledge-making to be? Are the endowed chairs going to be “partial,” “fragmentary,” and “truly collaborative”? If you do not alter those institutional and economic factors alongside the call for a postmodern methodology, you seem to be selling younger scholars a bill of goods (for which they will accrue much student debt).

This leads to a second problem—more a blind spot I think—in the essay. Nowhere does Bynum address the ways in which capitalism itself has adjusted so well to the postmodernism sense of “professional practices” she calls for us to adopt. If anyone has made the most of the postmodern acceptance of radical pluralism and its destabilizing, egalitarian implications, it is capitalism in its recent “conquest of cool” guise. I want to be on Bynum’s team, but will most of us wind up as “team members” in the Whole Foods history department? “Associates” instead of associate professors?

Unless structural changes in economics and institutions accompany Bynum’s call for new cultural and intellectual attitudes, this all sounds more like a descent into doublespeak than dissent of the courageous sort she asks young scholars to embark upon. It sounds like superficial changes rather than deeper liberations, or, worse yet, it opens the door for university managers to undo the economic and institutional basis in which postmodern pursuits of historical knowledge might flourish. The puzzle is how to let history become the brave unknown it should be while securing the means for more people to pursue its endless depths of mysterious wonder with dignity.

Despite all that, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Bynum’s vision for historical scholarship: first, that there is, indeed, a speed-up; and, second, that she is absolutely right about the real story of history: that it is much more productive to think of it in a postmodern framework, as something contingent, partial, without a larger meta-narrative, and that we might approach our own work as part of a larger canvas, researching and writing “in the comic mode.”

There is a lot of fun and joy to be had in these hard labors of the mind, and there is a need for much more time to be spent on the stitching, on the discovery of new threads, on the fashioning and re-fashioning of the seams, and on the interdisciplinary exchange of tips and the creation of collective patchwork. But the work Bynum envisions will only work if the postmodern knowledge factory itself is reimagined alongside her call for a new postmodern mentalité.

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