"What Is to Be Done?" Manifestos for History and the Mission of History Today
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

30 Historically Speaking · July/August 2008 philosophy of history after positivism, I think of Quentin Skinner. But he gets only three mentions in the index, while Hayden White has twenty-five; Ankersmit has twenty-two; Jacques Derrida has eighteen; and Michel Foucault has seventeen. There is clearly a postmodern impulse in this book, and some of it is just plain crazy, as well as angry. Best example: Elizabeth Ermarth says that to be against postmodernism today is about as informed a position as it was once to be against Galileo and Luther. What is going on in the head of someone who would say something like that? There is also a predictable—and now I think a little tired—rant by Joan Scott. Most of the rest of the essays, however, are not predictable. The late Greg Dening, an Australian who pioneered the anthropological history of indigenous peoples, wrote an engaging memoir about his work over the last fifty years. And a large chunk of Wulf Kansteiner's essay considers the ways diat interactive video game culture may be like (or unlike) historical consciousness. Those essays that have taken seriously the charge of the editors to say where they think history ought to go are soberly reflective. They all brood a bit over the state of professional history and what we can hope for it. While the authors have their individual qualms, as a group the writers illuminate a set of recurring problems. As I read Dominick LaCapra, he has become troubled by die popularity of "radical constructivism." He wants to see history in the future attempt to combine critical theory that is always self-questioning with the careful empirical orientation of conventional history. David Harlan, who wrote The Degradation of American History in 1997, here appraises the relationship between historical fiction and history proper: What can history learn from novelists? Ann Rigney worries about how the work of professional historians links up with the historical consciousnesses of the ordinary people with whom professionals are ultimately trying to connect. And Mark Poster wonders how writing die history of die electronic media might transform our understanding of what history is about; grasping the impact of new forms of communication may, he supposes, alter the way we will understand die past. These manifestos and several others all seem to me to be grappling with die same sorts of issues. The authors righdy believe diat history has a public function; if it has no such function, what is the point of historical practice? Indeed, in die eyes of some of die practitioners, history has a radical role to play in a liberating political life. But this actual or hoped-for role is unlikely to flower if historians are shut off from the public by their commitments to an esoteric guild. If they elaborate ideas diat people can't understand or suggest that history is somehow all made up and that historians have no impartial and expert knowledge to lay down, why should die public listen to diem? The manifestos correcdy fret about the role of the professional historian, especially in a time when there are seemingly so many other ways to access the past. I cannot resist making one last observation that has come to concern me more and more in my academic late-middle-age. As I have intimated, many of the questions raised here are worth pondering, but very few people are going to have die time or the energy to go through this volume, for it is virtually unreadable. The prose in the book is almost uniformly atrocious. There are grammatical errors, made-up words, excrutiatingly long sentences, and various pronouns whose antecedents are AWOL. Most of these authors cannot write clear English. I am an old-fashioned American historian. I was brought up on Richard Hofstadter, Edmund Morgan, and Arthur Schlesinger as models of clarity. What do we do widi "narrativisation," "quangocratisation," "existentiality," and "die televisual"? I have some rules of rhumb. The next time you see a historian using "epistemologkal" or any of its variants, you can bet the person does not know much about die theory of knowledge. And if a historian tells you that a subject...


pdf