Comments on Manifestos for History
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

July/August 2008 · Historically Speaking 27 Comments on Manifestos for History David A. Hollinger Historians often remark wistfully, and sometimes with real conviction, that if only the people running the world (e.g., the president of the United States and his closest advisors ) understood more history,we'd all be a lot better off. Knowing more history will not prevent every mistake, historians who speak this line will be quick to acknowledge, but it might diminish the number and scope of die mistakes the United States has made in international affairs even since 2001, to say nothingof earlier periods, and to say nothingof domestic in addition to international affairs. This idea that what we historians know could make a difference if somehow we could present it compellingly to the men and women of power in private as well as public sectors, beyond die United States as well as within it, seems to me worth assessing. It is easy to dismiss die idea as naive. All historical knowledge, we are often reminded, is caught up in political interests and ideologies. How can we entertain the hope that such knowledge, as warranted by a consensus of professional scholars, can serve as a guide to worldly action any wiser that die forces diat now control events? Have we no understanding of die annals of die abuse of history in the interests of this or that political authority?The retort can come in the form of odierquestions: Why, then, are we in this business? Do we not suppose that die books and articles we produce can offer some instruction ? Is there really no civic purpose to our endeavors beyond reinforcing the status quo? I wish more of the twenty authors and editors of ManifestosforHistory had shown an interest in assessing the prospects of our making a productive difference in the exercise of power in the world. Prominent among those who do is Frank Ankersmit, whose sketch of "analytical political history" vindicates die practice of historicizing all political events and shows how, in the historiographical tradition of J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, a body of theoretically informed knowledge of political history can clarify the character of contemporary political choices. David Lowenthal and Dominick LaCapra, too, display a sense diat historians, whateverelse they do, produce knowledge of a kind, and diat the dissemination of it might help people find their way in the world. A number of the odier contributors declare that the historian's ideal role in the world is one of critique, variously defined, but die gaining of actual political traction—finding a way for the insights of historians to be publicly warranted and deployed —is quite far from the aim of most of diese essays. Instead, most of die contributors to this rather overheated book seem to have as their top priority the convincing of their fellow academics diat they are liberated from "conventional history." They are doing something more appropriate to an era in which just about everything that even the most admirable of men and women believed in die 1950s has been shown to be an illusion. The editors propose to treat as an "axiom" that the entire project of "modernity" is over, and diat "diose post-Enlightenment experiments of attempting to establish, in both bourgeois and proletarian forms, 'human rights Most of the contributors to this rather overheated book seem to have as their top priority the convincing of their fellow academics that they are liberated from "conventional history." communities,' have now failed on their own terms amid die genocides, the gulags and the death camps of die twentieth century." Postmodern thinkers have assessed die whole heritage of "the Western tradition " to see if "anything could be retained as useful for new social livings," but it turned out diat "very little was." ManifestosforHistory is dius largely an exercise in postmodernist one-up-ship, in which the most emancipated proceed into either a discursive domain of greater and greaterabstraction or an emulation of the practices of artistic genres that most publics would have a hard time recognizing as history . Fortunately, several of the contributors are less confident than the editors that they know the cosmic score. LaCapra, who knows...


pdf