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History and its Discontented February 25, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in Uncategorized.

Thanks Will for inviting me to this online forum. I am glad to provide some contrast and ahem, some color to this discussion on history, pedagogy, and what it means to be a young scholar working in academia in a slew of historically-related fields. I think it is great that there are more and more graduate students and scholars who are interested in pushing the boundaries of how we write, teach, and conceive of history either in the classroom, in a dissertation, or in an academic community as a whole.

Will and I actually first met in a history of physics class at MIT. I think I was the only non history of science person in that class (by history of science, I am also including a number of STS people as well). The class covered Cold War American physics and was a great exercise in seeing how historians of science pursued their topics, articulated their arguments, and focused on science as theories, experiments, institutional developments, and as visual practices and representations.

Regarding Will’s earlier post, I find that philosophy and literary theory do tend to make themselves quite prominent in the field of architectural history, which is what I am currently pursuing. They also tend to find their ways into art history as well. I think Will’s idea of philosophy and literature is still somewhat mixed together. One can find both transhistorical questions and the constructions of categories (subjectivity, bio-life, politics of the image, phenomenology of space) in both areas. Again, I am also using philosophy and literature here as somewhat generalized fields of study. Foucault as a philosopher employing history is one thing, and Stephen Greenblatt on history is something different altogether. For example, I think New Historicism is something that a lot of different graduate students study – those in comparative literature, art history, history, etc. Hayden White’s work also attracts many types of readers. Another instance of this trans-disciplinary concept is the formation of the canon, a known set of universalized standards that are taught as being the exemplary works in a discipline, whether it be a Manet or a novel by Toni Morrison.

I am not sure if I quite like the term transhistorical – I think history operates both in the macro, long durée and in the micro moment. Trans implicates that one is breaching a temporal protocol in examining a historical event or phenomena. Examining “how disciplines develop” can also be an exercise in institutional history. How did biology develop as a classroom curriculum in 1950s America is also a story about how a discipline develops.

I just re-read Will’s line about sociologists of science and putting them into this philosophical category of history…I’m sure that they too would have something against being put into this box. Anthropologists of science have their methods and uses of history as well. Most of them, however, rely mainly on ethnographic evidence and interviews for their work.

I do agree with Will on finding concrete facts and archival evidence to fill out these seemingly meta-narratives that rely on conceptual questions rather than the who, what, where, how and why of how something occurred. It is also tough to write an excellent history with an innovative intepretation of facts. The historiography that currently exists in the history of science is now filled with these books that are much more provocative in their historical interpretation and use of sources. I personally think that this combination of broader questions about concepts in the history of science coupled with good original research is where the field is headed next…



1. Will Thomas - February 25, 2008

Once again, welcome, Jenny–great first post. I certainly do a lot of lumping in my carving up the uses of history, partially provocatively, but partially because I think it’s legit.

I think for me it boils down to utility in explanation. Many fields use historical example to develop a transhistorical (or longue-duree) concept; whereas I see a historian’s historian as doing the inverse: using a concept to construct an explanation for historical events. The problem, say, with trying to reconstruct a discourse is that its explanatory power is limited by the sheer density of unacknowledged discourses.

I agree there are longue-duree trends in history as well as the history of ideas, but how to deploy them in the writing of history is a difficult question. The usual answer is to dodge the question altogether: theoretical interpretations, discursive analyses, etc., are not meant to have explanatory power, we are told (which is also why its verboten to say that one is better than another). OK, but why, then, should anybody care?

I think it’s fine to have this kind of analysis, but, ultimately somebody has to do something a little more daring and concrete, construct explanatory narratives, etc. In absence of such studies, the inevitable temptation is to apply our discursive analyses as explanatory schemes, and what we wind up with are historical analyses that take little regard for the intelligence of the historical actors–especially in instances of critique (and I’m thinking of especially 20th century “experts”).

The usual tactic here is to show their scientific discourse (e.g. Edwards’ “closed world”) as “limiting” their ability to command objective authority in a complex and essentially unknowable world. But I have, time and again, been disappointed by the ability of this particular discourse to have any relevance to observed historical dynamics.

In the end, I think we actually have pretty similar sensibilities regarding this. There are certainly a lot of great examples already, but I think we need a culture of explanation rather than interpretation again. Rather than just pointing out metaphors and literary techniques, we need to make claims about why they matter, because I don’t but the whole metaphor-as-limiting-factor argument.

2. Will Thomas - February 25, 2008

erm, “buy” the argument, not “but”.

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