A Review of Manifestos for History
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July/August 2008 Historically Speaking 25 Manifestos for History: A Review Forum In 2007 RoutledgepublishedManifestos for History. The volume's editors, Keiththekindof historicalconsciousness[they]wouldtiketoseedevelopedinthetwenty-first Jenkins, SueMorgan, andAlunMunslow, invitedcontributors—thelistinlcudesjoancenturyin, asitwere, thebestif allpossibleworlds. " Weinvitedfivehistorians, allnoted Scott, Dominick LaCapra, Beverly Southgate, Dipesh Chakrabarty, FrankAnker-fortheircommentary on the nature of historicalinquiry, to respondto the book, smith, DavidLowenthal, andHayden White—to reflecton "thekindof historyand A Review of Manifestos for History Allan Megill Given the general conservatism of academia and die peculiarities of the historical discipline, how can we encourage original and innovative historical scholarship that is also significant and true?1 I take it that this is the pri: mary question guiding die editors of Manifestosfor History. Their idea of asking various historians and theorists to write a set of manifestos indicates their dissatisfaction with historiographies "business as usual." After all, the manifesto is a "futurist genre," as a recent historian of the manifesto, Martin Puchner, has emphasized.3 Accordingly, Keith Jenkins , Sue Morgan, and Alan Munslow urged their contributors "to describe and give a raison d'être for what they think history ought to be at this particular point in time, such that everything they think a historical consciousness might consist of could be realised in the future." If achieving this aim is the standard by which we are to judge the anthology, I do not think that it works very well. Some of the contributors responded with a "you've got to be kidding" reaction to the assignment that the editors gave diem. These responses point to a problem with the collection 's animating idea. The manifesto, as we moderns understand it, implies a radical break. As another recent historian of the manifesto, Janet Lyon, notes, the manifesto "refuses dialogue or discussion"; instead it "fosters antagonism . . . scorns conciliation."1 But such an orientation puts us dangerously close to the realm of the possibly self-indulgent and probably ineffectual "radical gesture ." Missing from the volume is a collective attempt to offer recommendations to the discipline's practitioners. That would have required the presence in this collection of a deeper theoretical and critical engagement with die question of what it means to write history within a disciplinary framework . It is not good enough to take the position, as some of the contributors do, that history is simply "a discourse." History is indeed a discourse, but it is more than that, at least if its practitioners want their work to be more than a collection of diverse bardic responses to the pains of people's historical existence or multiple attempts to celebrate the glories of our nation's past, whichever nation or would-be nation that is. One can certainly imagine historians becoming bards, blog writers, or hired celebrators. But if history were to become a multiplicity of discourses it is likely that historians' variant voices would drown each other out or not be heard at all. Surely some measure of disciplinary auctoritas—and the quality control that goes with it—is required. In sum, I am not happy with die drift of this collection toward a kind of antinomian anarchy. Hayden White suggests in his Afterword that history is both a discourse and a discipline—a "discursive discipline." I wish diat diis observation had been instantiated in its full dialectical richness in the essays themselves. The defect that I most clearly detect in the collection is that die underlying theory is either confused, contradictory, or absent . In this sense the volume emulates die discipline, which has within it a huge amount of craft intelligence, narrative skill, and specific knowledge of historical fields, but little in die way of philosophical and theoretical expertise or even of mere philosophical "good taste" (by which I mean a capacity to appreciate and assess philosophical and, more generally, theoretical arguments). Our discipline is radically un- or even anti-theoretical, such that even a modest and limited presentation of a conceptual or theoretical argument in, to take a hard case, a departmental job talk is likely to doom the offender. A sign could be put up around the precincts of most history departments: Danger : Theory-Challenged Zone. (Odier humanities and social sciences departments would need odier signs, notably...