Thu 13 Aug 2009
A recent post about an interview of David Kaiser sparked a fair amount of debate, which you can read in its entirety here. Kaiser’s comments in the original interview, about the postmodernist approach to history, were criticized by Derek Catsam, among others. We were pleased to hear from Kaiser in the comments, addressing some of the criticism. I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight his commentary and some of the responses to it in a new thread (the old one has gotten a little lengthy and out of hand).
Let me just try to distinguish three types of history which are getting mixed up here:
1. The study of decisions made by governments, based upon archival research, and incorporating insofar as possible all the important non-governmental influences on those decisions. Such work also often deals with the impact of those decisions.
2. The study of social groups, including workers and their families, peasants and their families, minority groups, etc., which originally was also based on the most thorough possible archival research. Such work was certainly valuable, particularly, in my opinion, when it took care to integrate the story of those groups into broader political developments.
3. The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class. That is what I meant by riffs–and that kind of history, unlike (2), really is outside the bounds, in my opinion, of what history was originally designed to be. I would guess that most issues of the American Historical Review now include at least two such articles.
I hope this will help everyone clarify their thinking.
David Kaiser, Naval War College
Catsam responded (slighty edited)
I think it’s great that David Kaiser came in to weigh in, and his distinctions are useful, if mechanistic. In current social history — in the overwhelming bulk of civil rights history, for example, which is at least in part social history, though part of my problem is that these very categorizations are in very real ways false, the overwhelming majority of work comes from area 2, if such an area really does exist beyond serving as a (somewhat) useful analytic schema.[…]
I am not the world’s biggest fan of the American Historical Review. It is the “biggest” journal in the field but I cannot honestly remember the last time I read a full article in it and the AHR is a classic case of why “biggest” does not equal “best” (and why things like “impact factor” are dreadfully misleading). But Kaiser’s assertion that there are at least two articles every issue that fit his category number 3, which he has so clearly drawn as a pejorative as to be self evident to anyone reading it in isolation, seems itself a rather unnecessarily broad (and perhaps self-serving inasmuch as it allows him to “validate” his views on changes in “social history” — quotation marks intentional) swipe. My suspicion is that historians who write such articles would categorically reject the categorization of their work that Kaiser leaves us with.[…]
I think [examples of] articles would be useful, sure. But I also think there is a huge burden of proof on someone asserting that those articles represent “The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class.” I also might reject the premise that using historical events to draw larger conclusions is problematic. That’s actually what most historians do. In fact, it’s hard to imagine history done otherwise other than huge synthetic works. I just think his third category is hugely problematic and any attempt to cram scholarly work into that box would be futile.[…]
Titles do not tell us much. But I think they can provide a starting point — they should at least let us know if we are drawing conclusions about non-whitemales from “isolated incidents.”
The last issue of the AHR is a bit odd, because it had but one article (”Tamil Diasporas across the Bay of Bengal,” which by no measure is about an isolated incident) and then an AHR Roundtable on “Historians and Biography” that included ten contributions of about ten pages each and an “AHR Forum” on Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain.” One would have to read all of the contributions, but I think it is safe to say: Not so promising for the assertion under discussion.
So let’s go back to the TOC for the April issue:
“Mistaken Identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingo Alvares, and the Methodological Challenges of Studying the African Diaspora”
“Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”
An “AHR Forum” on “The International 1968, Part II” with article-length pieces:
“Sons, Daughters, and Patriarchy: Gender and the 1968 Generation”
“Solidarity and Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968″
“Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968″
Now, we’d have to read the articles in full to know, but I’d like to know which these articles (never mind two an issue)one would like to argue contains “The use of isolated incidents from the past, usually focusing on non-whitemales, to make broader “theoretical” points about race, gender, and class.” The 1968 panel might be the closest, but only if one considers the global movements of 1968 to be “isolated incidents,” which would expand that label to an elasticity that would defy credibility. Let’s don’t confuse “stuff I don’t like” with some sort of fatal flaw in the profession or a subsection of the profession that happens not to overlap with our own specalties. I may not have an interest in Tamil Diasporas Across the Bay of Bengal because it is a long way from my own work. And I at most flipped through most of these articles. But I would not have the temerity to dismiss this work with the wave of a hand as a result.
Kaiser posted this earlier today:
Last year, the AHR devoted not one, but two issues to the year 1968. Those of us beyond a certain age remember some of the events of that year around the world, including:
1. The Tet Offensive, leading to a re-evaluation of US policy in Vietnam and the withdrawal of President Johnson.
2. An extraordinarily hard-fought and significant Presidential campaign, involving the assassination of a popular candidate, the emergence of George Wallace as a serious third-party candidate, and the dramatic beginning of the new Republican majority that more or less dominated US politics for the next forty years.
3. The Prague spring, a reformist-Communist movement in Czechoslovakia that seemed to offer the East bloc new hope, but was crushed by Soviet intervention.
4. The political crisis in France that was triggered by the student revolt (among other things), leading to a general strike and the sudden disappearance of President de Gaulle, who went to talk to the commander of the French Army in Germany to verify that he could count on the Army, if necessary, to maintain order. The crisis ended with a tremendous Gaullist victory in elections.
5. A student revolt in Mexico that was brutally suppressed, Tianimin-style, on the eve of the Olympics in October.
6. The first post-Berkeley major student revolt at Columbia, a harbinger of things to come over the next two years.
Now here are the titles of the articles commissioned and printed by the AHR:
AHR Forum: The International 1968, Part I
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (24 kB)
The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975
By Jeremi Suri
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (561 kB)
“1968” East and West: Divided Germany as a Case Study in Transnational History
By Timothy S. Brown
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (750 kB)
Japan 1968: The Performance of Violence and the Theater of Protest
By William Marotti
Sons, Daughters, and Patriarchy: Gender and the 1968 Generation
By Sara M. Evans
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (503 kB)
Solidarity under Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968
By Jeffrey L. Gould
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (883 kB)
Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968
By Richard Ivan Jobs
Citation-Full Text-PDF Version (867 kB)
That’s right: NONE OF THE DEVELOPMENTS THAT I MENTIONED were discussed more than tangentially, it would seem, in any of these articles. One of the questions we are debating, I think, is whether the kind of focus, if you can call it that, reflected in the actual articles published is a good thing. Obviously my answer is a resounding no–yet I am quite sure that the AHR editors are very proud of the shift in emphasis which they have encouraged.
May I say quite honestly that I do not hold it against younger scholars that they are following current fashions. That’s the price of working in a college or university. That is why, sadly, serious criticism of what is happening only comes from people at the fringes of academic life like myself (and my contemporary Camille Paglia), or from people who are retired, or from long-tenured chronic malcontents (that’s a term of endearment) like Allen Kors. Even most of the holdouts within universities–the older faculty who consistently draw larger enrollments because the subject matter appeals to intelligent young lay people like those we have heard from on this forum–generally prefer to keep their mouth shut, and I can’t blame them.
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