Saturday, October 21, 2006


Our historical being is part of our present. It is that part of our present--namely, the part that belongs to history--that we cannot fully understand, since it requires us to understand ourselves not only as objects of historical forces but as subjects of our own historical understanding.--J. M. Coetzee, "What is a Classic?"

Anthony Grafton's second Tanner lecture Thursday was more closely focused on history, his own field, rather than the humanities more generally. The upshot of it was that his generation of historians have done a pretty good job of training historians with a grasp of the value of archival research. But the aside that had most relevance to me was when he spoke of two kinds of historical writing: the large sweeping accounts for a general readership, and the fine-tuning and solving of more minute historical issues for specialists in the field.

No matter how amusing Grafton's snipes at public discourse, and regardless of how warranted his statement that the misuse and abuse of history in various forms of journalism constitutes a willed ignorance of the past, it was at every moment clear that he was an academic speaking to academics, that his professional standing has nothing to do with public accountability because the public, gratifyingly -- particularly in private institutions -- has no voice in the classroom, its simplifications no place in the curriculum, and that most pundits would likely fail a course in the subjects they so glibly summarize for "public knowledge" -- a phrase that strikes one as having a kind of oxymoronic ring to it. Grafton stood before us as one who has scaled the ivied walls of serious scholarship -- writing a book on the footnote that sold well, as academic books go, is no mean feat -- but he seemed frustrated at not having a scheme for how to make history more generally relevant to the world at large.

A student in the audience, in the question section, posed the idea that, as the physical sciences have found a bogeyman in intelligent design that gives them a ready-made soapbox to expound upon, so must the historians find a cause célèbre to give them more cultural clout. Grafton suggested as bogeyman a statement that the U.S. must "bring the Reformation" to Iraq. For Grafton the unintelligibility of the statement was linked to some ill-formulated idea of what the Reformation actually was and what it did. It struck me that there was more common cause with the creationist outlook than might immediately appear. On the one hand, a fundamentalism that the West finds outmoded (Islam) must be "reformed" in the interest of progressive Protestant values that lead to a more secular and intellectual approach to the world -- our Germanic values, in other words, out of which the modern university and its seminar system evolves -- but on the other hand, we see a limit to that secular investigation of the world when a virulent Protestant fundamentalism asserts one ancient text above every previous and subsequent event.

The point for Grafton's lectures, it seems to me, arrives there: by losing touch with larger public discourse, the academicians miss the chance to provide the overarching narratives by which the world at large -- or at least its reasonably educated portion -- understands itself. Wisely, the historians of the day refrain from the kind of speculative history that at least one German -- Oswald Spengler -- was famous for, but I can't help wondering if Grafton's repeated point that only historians from Britain or trained in Britain seem to have the scope for the large epic account of history has something to do with a last vestige of Imperial British thought finding expression in explaining the world it has ceased to direct. Perhaps it could be only a chastened U.S. that would care enough about history to learn from it.

The lines from Coetzee leapt at me from an essay I read Friday. He lucidly presents the problem that Grafton was grappling with: it's hard enough for a historian to convince readers that we are the objects of historical forces because the job of delineating those forces is so difficult and complex (and our media rejects complexity and refuses to remember more than twenty years back). But the task of showing how we are the subjects of our historical understandings is even more vexed, and so even more crucial. Because without some sense of history we have no idea of what we are, and so we have no coherence or consistency, and if the task of a certain kind of critical history has been to show us that our historical understanding is shallow, specious or false, that gives some an incentive to do without historical understanding or to make what little we know the be-all and end-all of the question.

Even those gifted in the cult of Clio like Grafton may find themselves at a loss when they have to account for themselves as historical subjects so distantly on the sidelines of a U.S. war, unlike that generation of historians Grafton cited for whom WWII was an education and an occasion to educate. No doubt certain historical forces might be found to explain that difference.

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