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Historical Insultography and Posture May 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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All good historians know that one of the biggest pitfalls to writing good history is taking historical actors at their word.  Testimony from the past is bound to be limited by the witness’ particular perspective and colored by their own interests.  For example, a dispute of a scientific claim might be said to be motivated by “jealousy” by one party, where another party might claim the other was “narrow-minded”.  Reckless historiography simply takes actors at their word without getting the view of the other side.

Historians are thus challenged to adopt an analytically useful posture to find some way to resolve the problem.  One possible posture is to parse all the evidence to “get to the bottom of things”.  (One sees this a lot in really old-school historiography, especially out of Britain.)  Another possible posture is to see the existence of the controversy as an opportunity to examine some broader issue.  Following the epistemic imperative, one might dilute actors’ positions, to show that their position was “not universal” or “limited” or “influenced by tacit interests”.  A very common posture is a variation of this: to use controversies to triangulate out a detached position by simply acknowledging the existence of disputes: “but their actions were not without controversy”.  For some reason, it has become popular to just assume that narrating a controversy in such a way as to invert the actors’ broad claims is useful historiography regardless of the place of the particular controversy in broader history.

One gets the impression from the historiography that the history of science is nothing but conflicting and contested claims—the Great Inversion of “science’s”  claim to be the ultimate model of open and collaborative society—a throwback to very particular criticisms of very particular claims of people like Karl Popper and Robert Merton, which were themselves made for very particular reasons.  A popular triangulation from the Great Inversion is to use an “on the whole” argument—a sort of resort to statistical regularity without statistical measure.  On the whole, science has been good and beneficial, but, yeah, it’s true there have been some overhype, screw-ups, and abuses.

Marxists, traditionally, have taken a strong stand against this kind of “use-abuse” argument, because it implies a fundamental neutrality in science and technology, which they view as inevitably politicized—a line of critique taken up by generations of critical theorists and postmodernists.  Marxists and postmodernists have a stake in subverting, or at least deconstructing, the fundamental assumptions that define what constitutes “use” and what constitutes “abuse”.  These lines would note that if “most” science is not controversial, it very well might be, or even should be, if the more fundamental political conflicts were made explicit, if subverted insults were given a voice.  It is, by the way, this alleged fundamentality of the political nature of science and technology that gave such heat to “technological determinist” insults some decades ago.

Once you get to this point, you sort of reach an impasse, and historical debates tend to follow the line of historical insults.  “Technology and management are lined up against the worker!” “If they’re so lined up against workers, why do workers line up for jobs in our factory!?” and what not.  We’re back to jealousy and narrow-mindedness, just in new clothes.

Once we hit these points where the historical debates devolve into “Was the Soviet Union trustworthy?” or “Should humans have ever taken up agriculture?”, I’m of the opinion that historians really need to step back and reevaluate what it is they’re doing, and start looking at whatever local issues and “mesoscopic” trends prompted the hand-waving analysis in the first place.  This is the point where historical rhetoric starts to conceal underlying more concrete historical ideas, and it is just where the historian needs to take up the initiatve and start characterizing just what those ideas were.

If we’re looking at 18th-century natural philosophy, the insult “speculative” tended to get thrown around a lot, usually by either side of any given debate.  In that period, it’s nearly pointless to try and mediate who was speculative and who was not.  As Simon Schaffer has pointed out in some detail, accusing someone of invoking “occult” explanations was more common than people actually managing to avoid occult explanations for issues like pneumatology.  What’s at play are competing ideas for how not to be speculative, and how not to invoke occult causes, when in fact, everyone did both.   Similarly, following the French Revolution, “rationality” and “utopianism” don’t tend to be useful analytical terms.  Someone may invoke their “rational” approach to distinguish themselves from someone else’s unsubstantiated claims, but others might, in turn, claim that the so-called rational approach represented a naive utopian rationalism; in other words, that it was the rationalists’ claims that were unsubstantiated.  The Great Inversion is pretty much rehash of this earlier round of insult trading.

The historiographical craft constantly struggles to escape from these terms.  At once, one does not want to dismiss altogether the possibility that insults had some foundation, but one doesn’t want to take them at face value either.  By digging down two or three levels of specificity, one usually can uncover what ideas were really at stake (e.g. different interpretations of “pneumatic” phenomena) beneath the unspecificity of the rhetoric of insults (e.g. occult causes).  Charting these specific ideas and problems seems to me the safest way of subverting the influence of historical insults over our craft, without denying the poignancy of historical controversy.  Specifically how this is to be done should be an issue of intense discussion.


1. Michael Robinson - May 4, 2009

I take your point about historical insults: speculative, occult, and, in the late nineteenth century, “materialist.” And I agree that we need to dig down rather than accept actors’ accusations at face value. Here’s my question: where do you see this historical insultography play out? Maybe we have different reading lists, but most of the secondary work that I’ve been reading tends to be pretty careful about the nature of historical debates.

A different subject, but one of the weak spots that I notice in the secondary lit is that it often invokes a fairly narrow range of primary lit, particularly for contextual work that may not be the author’s focus. For example, scholarship about manliness in the the late nineteenth century almost always invokes the same core of primary lit subjects: Teddy Roosevelt, the Boy Scouts, and Tarzan. (I admit, I’ve invoked them too). These subject became linked by Gail Bederman and others (for good reasons), but now seem to exist as a unit. As a result, contextual background on manliness sometimes appears like pre-fab housing, as historians import subjects, concepts, bibliographies, etc wholesale rather than selectively. Maybe this is just an occupational hazard – we can’t research everything – so context often comes as boilerplate. Or is there another way to do it?

2. Will Thomas - May 4, 2009

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the great questions! First off, I should clarify that I don’t mean insultography to mean “writing down insults as fact”, so much as I mean it as “what do we do with insults when writing history?” Some cases—obvious conflicts of interest, say—historians can deal with easily. Other cases, I don’t really know what to do with, myself.

What do we do, for example, when an economist is accused of having “unrealistic” models? Most economists’ models are unrealistic in one way or another, so the insult isn’t exactly off target, so how to evaluate it: Dismiss it? Accept it? Sympathize with it? Attempt to determine whether it was unduly unrealistic? Say it missed the point? Merely report the insult’s existence? These issues get dicey, and you’ll find the matter dealt with quite differently if you’re reading, for example, Phil Mirowski, Roy Weintraub, or sociologist Don MacKenzie’s latest. I view this issue less as something that divides good and bad historians, and more as a very live matter for debate.

I was probably wrong to bring the usual Marxism/postmodernism specters into the discussion, because this is a complex enough issue without them. Nevertheless, the issue is important because certain kinds of insult—“your research is part of a/an [Imperialist, Bourgeois, Corporate, militarist, etc…] agenda”—is a popular topic for historical writing. These insults did exist, and implicated all research in them. Mid-century Marxist historians understood it as irresponsible to focus on controversies other than these professedly fundamental ones. Yet, historians are tasked with placing these insults in their proper place, and therefore directly challenging the fundamentality attributed to them by other historians, in favor of the history of the “silent majority” so to speak. What contexts, and therefore, what insults, really mattered to the way history actually unfolded? Should we attempt to weigh different insults and contexts against each other, given our interest in the marginal as well as the central, in losers as well as in winners?

This actually brings me to your second point, which is the problem of “which context?” I think you’re right about how historians tend to go to “stock” contexts represented by a few handy icons. You’ve mentioned before how you avoided Imperialism, and instead focused on masculinity in your treatment of exploration. The question you bring up is an important, and yet another live problem in historiography.

Zeitgeist mongering is one facet of this issue. We often find our histories packaged as X in an Age of Reason; or Y in an Age of Masculinity; Z and the Cold War. But, we could easily select another set of sources that characterize cultural contexts in precisely the opposite way as their usual stock characterizations. (This, by the way, is the point of David Edgerton’s title “Warfare State”; the history of British science and tech, he claims, has too often been told in a way accommodating narratives of Britain as a welfare state in technological decline, when, in fact, Britain was both highly scientific and militaristic).

OK, so what to do? Do we deny that the Enlightenment was an Age of Reason? Do we tabulate all the cultural sources and somehow “measure” just how fixated on masculinity the late Victorian was? Do we reject cultural context as important? Do we throw up our hands and declare every age an age of contradictions (a la Dickens and the French Revolution)?

None of these solutions seem very satisfying. If we’re looking at exploration and its contexts, as you’ve shown, we absolutely can link it to masculine culture, so clearly context matters. The question is what we do with it?

Personally, I’m still a long way of arriving at a useful or cogent discussion of any of this, but it has to do with what I think of as “quasi-Aristotelian” historiography (if we take the form of “exploration” and dip it on the material context of “Late Victorian culture” what does it look like?) It also has to do with the problem of writing “coherent” history—if we write a history of “Cold War and 20th century science” and collect a bunch of case studies around this theme, will we actually learn anything coherent and useful about either the Cold War or 20th-century science, or will the exercise serve as an excuse to recite what we already think we know about the Cold War and 20th-century science? Again, this is all stuff I’m wrestling with in spare time, nauseatingly repetitiously, and am probably not being coherent, let alone useful, here.

Sorry for the windy reply!

3. Michael Robinson - May 4, 2009

Not windy at all – interesting stuff. The context stuff is on my mind because I’m wading into a new project and that means wading into a new historiographical slipstream. I like the background reading but I’m aware of how much psychological weight it brings to my conception of the topic. Its a bit like trying to figure out if I want to hear the review before I see the movie. Still, I don’t want to go completely off-road and dive into the primary material without any sense of what people have done. So what I’ve decided to do is read secondary lit more broadly – out of my disciplinary comfort zone – if only to keep myself from locking in too early. Just an experiment really.

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