Near Dark at the Museum

Below is my response to Dan Wickberg’s good-natured challenge at S-USIH, while explaining that my review of Paul Murphy’s recent book, The New Era (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), was mere debunking.  “Farting at the museum,” as he characterized my “screed.”  Fair enough.  I was, in fact, upset by the book and its provenance, knowing, of course, that it was an entry in the same series my World Turned Inside Out appeared.

You just never know what will set people off.

It will post at S-USIH at 1:01 AM EST.


Five years ago I wrote a piece on Richard Hofstadter for boundary 2, the literary journal edited by Paul Bove out of the University of Pittsburgh.  The occasion was David S. Brown’s strangely reductive biography. Here’s how the thing began in draft.


The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances (and these circumstances include the range of ideological commitments they can profess with plausibility).  We “go back” to the people of the past in the hope of changing our perspectives on the present and thus multiplying our choices about the future.

But these people with whom we differ, and from whom we must learn, are, to begin with, other historians; for we can’t peek around our corner of the present as if they aren’t there, standing between us and the archive, telling us how to approach it.

No one gets to the “primary sources,” whether they’re constituted as the historical record or the literary canon, without going through the priests, scribes, librarians, professors, critics—the professionals—who created them in retrospect, in view of their own intellectual obligations and political purposes.  In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it’s the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch.  It’s the endless argument about what the future holds; for the form and content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.

Richard Hofstadter understood these obvious yet awkward facts better than anyone of his generation, even better, I think, than William Appleman Williams or Eugene D. Genovese or C. Vann Woodward, three great scholars whose published works had improbably profound political consequences in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  “Historians do not have direct access to their subjects,” as he put it in 1956.  So we don’t have to “go back” very far to appreciate Hofstadter’s lasting effects on American intellectual life.  Indeed I would suggest that we’re just now catching up with him.


I borrowed these metaphors of going back and catching up from Lewis Mumford’s book on Herman Melville, which was published in 1929.  It’s not actually a biography: the author consciously omitted quotation marks around his subject’s utterance, so there’s no way to tell where Mumford leaves off and Melville begins.  You could of course read this book as a therapeutic answer to Van Wyck Brooks’s unfinished biography of Emerson—the writing of which drove Brooks mad.  But no matter how you read it, these metaphors are unequally useful.  You can’t “go back” to the past without the conviction that it’s always already different from the present, but when you feel you’re just catching up with something from the past, that difference is erased.

The historian’s obligations, as I understand them, are unequal in the same sense.  I can demonstrate to you how we finally caught up to Hofstadter—I can show you how fresh and immediate his methods and insights remain—but my prior task is to lead you across the historical gap that separates us from him, regardless of how close he might appear to us in chronological time or in political sensibility.  If I don’t get this (hermeneutical) priority straight, if I don’t explain why and how we have to “go back,” I’m ignoring or denying the difference between the past and the present, not to mention our more local differences with Hofstadter as historians—I’m treating him as Mumford treated Melville, as a contemporary.  In doing so, I might be producing extraordinary insights, as Mumford did in ventriloquizing Melville, but I’m not doing History, because I’m overlooking the distinction between meaning and significance (Skinner), meanwhile assuming that understanding and explanation are equivalents (White).  Or put it this way: I’m doing History in the antiquarian mode, acting as if the continuity between past and present is a given—it’s normal or natural—rather than a mere possibility that has to be both produced and proven (Nietzsche, Foucault).

So what?  For many years now, my colleagues have told me that I’m not doing History, anyway—not even the history of ideas.  Their definition of my deviance takes two venerable forms.  On the one hand, they say that I’m doing Theory or Philosophy (of History?), on the grounds, as I understand them, that feminist theory or pragmatist philosophy can’t be both the method and the object, the means and the ends, of intellectual enterprise; or rather, they can be, but the result won’t be History.  On the other hand, they say that what I’ve written about pragmatism, particularly William James and John Dewey, is “fanciful” and “imaginative,” which means either that it lacks a known referent—admissible textual evidence—or that it exceeds the permissible, disciplinary boundaries of historical interpretation by favoring the sublime over the beautiful (Kloppenberg, Westbrook).

Either way, the colleagues are saying that what I’ve written isn’t based on the facts, documents, and events that they know are relevant to the understanding (not explanation) of the subject at hand, whether that is pragmatism or feminism or corporate capitalism.  It’s instead overdetermined by an unseemly politics of interpretation which allows me to say that pragmatism and feminism were crucial ways of comprehending the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism as a social, political, and intellectual opportunity—as the opening act of a comedy, not the final scene of a tragedy (White, Burke).


Why, then, do I insist that I’ve been doing History all along?  Because I don’t see any practical difference between the past as such and what historians (and others) have said about it.  You know the refrain: “Of course interpretations of the past have changed, but not the past itself.”  (E. H. Carr naturalized this notion with his metaphor of the mountain that can be approached from many angles but never changes its shape.)   To which I say, really?  How would you know?  How would anybody?

Yes, there must be unknown moments from the past that still affect us—but again, how would we know without hiring a metahistorical psychoanalyst who was prepared to reveal this dreamwork to us?  The content of our thinking, no matter the object of our scrutiny, is not determined and cannot be known until it takes concrete social form, in language (signs) of some kind.  The content of our thinking about the past is no exception to this rule.  So why would we insist that the past exists apart from our thinking, writing, and teaching about it?

You might answer by saying that even before historians of class, gender, race, and sexuality built out the archive with new documents dredged from abandoned grottoes, subaltern groups were shaping the past from below, always already making history: workers did this, women did that, slaves and freedmen did it too, and eventually homosexuals got in the act.  The relevant facts were always there, right in front of us, we just didn’t notice them.  In short, the past didn’t change, our interpretations did.

Bullshit.  The past changed because the facts changed because the world changed.  You can put these nouns in any sequence you like.  The past in question here began changing for good in the 1950s, when the whole history of Reconstruction had to be revisited (“revised”) because the NAACP got the attention of the Supreme Court and the Montgomery Improvement Association meanwhile got the attention of everybody else.  When black folk became visible historical agents by organizing consumer boycotts, denouncing apartheid, and demanding the right to vote, the political past looked different, and so did the future, or rather the past looked different because the political future did.  In fact, the past was, suddenly, different.

Now the past I invoke is like any other reality, it’s what we can act upon—it’s what we can take for granted because we have decided on its scope and limits, or it’s what we have accepted without thinking, as an unspoken but effective grammar.  When we say that the reality has changed, however, we typically mean that we have changed it, and we mean this because we’re modern individuals.  The scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries taught us what the Reformation did, that the condition of certainty in knowledge was experiment, in the sense that you had to manipulate objects in a purposeful manner if you were to produce the truth.  You couldn’t posit a prime mover and proceed logically from that premise to your conclusion about, say, planetary motion or salvation, you had instead to approximate the motion of bodies in space by miniaturizing and measuring them in a laboratory—or you had to claim that the Kingdom of God could be established here and now, on this earth and in these times.  Philosophers had interpreted the world differently.  Scientists and Protestants changed it.

I’m neither a scientist nor a Protestant, not anymore, and I can’t imagine how anybody would teach History as a science—actually, I can, because I served as Paul Kleppner’s TA for a year—but the point remains: and yet it moves.  The past as such, being indistinguishable from what we have said about it, changes to the precise extent that what we say about it changes.  This actionable object of knowledge—this reality—is as malleable as the mountains of West Virginia.


It follows, I think, that we cannot reproduce the past in any meaningful sense, at least not in good faith.  As both Werner Heisenberg and Elton Mayo discovered in the 1920s, observation is participation.  We’re acting on the past, changing the reality, whenever and however we write it up, because we enter from a world elsewhere—either we “go back”  in time or we acknowledge our separation in social space.

Paul Murphy’s book mystified and irritated me, then, because the writing exhibits no temporal or any other kind of estrangement from the historical moment we call the 1920s.  We don’t have to “go back” to understand this decade (and why do we follow the US Census in deciding on credible historical periods?), he assumes, because we’re in the same place—us intellectuals are unduly alienated from the masses, just like Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty and Nelson Lichtenstein said we were!  Once upon a time, before and after the 1920s, we weren’t, but our fallen state is not permanent.  We don’t have to stay all modernist, we too can make an “organic” connection to a usable past!

In this excruciating, exhortative respect, Murphy’s book reads like a reproduction of the present—in exactly the same way Mumford’s “biography” of Melville did.  But these writers, artists, and intellectuals of the 1920s are not our contemporaries, no matter how close they might feel and sound.  For every one of them, the novelty of the New Era was determined by its radical break from the past, and this break became legible, for every one of them, as fundamental change in the meanings of work, labor, and necessity.  They created new connections to the past, which is to say they recreated the past as such, because they knew it had been whirled away.  Unlike them, we can take that fundamental change for granted, so an explanation of it is in order—we’ll never understand them, or for that matter ourselves, without such an explanation, without “going back” to where they stood.


My colleague Jackson Lears has recently written an important historiographical intervention that intersects with what I’ve been arguing here.  The piece is called “The Trigger of History”; it was published in the Spring 2012 issue of The Hedgehog Review.

Lears wants out of the “master narrative of modernity” because he insists we can claim the future by extricating ourselves from the story told there—it is only by changing the very idea of the past, he explains, that we can hope to make a future worth inhabiting.

That master narrative was of course codified by Marx, Weber, and Freud, who were able to show, sometimes without intending to, that capitalism and modernity are pretty much the same thing, because they share a “common future orientation and a common commitment to endless dynamism.”  In explaining this affinity or linkage, the masters sought a trigger of history, “a prime mover that would explain that quickening pace, that forward thrust, wherever it occurred”—something that expelled pre-modern people from their supposedly idyllic, naturally static lives, and that meanwhile started the train of “linear progress” toward the neoliberal wreck of our time.

Lears deftly criticizes all three of the masters, but he doesn’t blame them for the bleak techno-determinism their clerical epigoni have drawn from the original texts.  In fact, he suggests that the trigger metaphor can be “a weapon in the fight against determinism” because it lets us identify who pulls it under real historical circumstances, when genuine choices are available to real human beings.  And he evades the charge of nostalgia by insisting that longing for the good old days is like boarding the train of linear progress on its return trip—it puts you back on the same track first laid by the master narrative of modernity.

Get off the train, Lears urges us.  To do so, he says, is to develop a “politics of place,” which avoids an “oppressive linearity” by sidestepping not the condition of modernity but the master narratives that have convinced us of its ubiquity and inevitability.  Practically speaking, however, the necessary move is rhetorical, because the future changes only insofar as we are able to change the past, rewrite the story, and act upon it accordingly.  Our ability in this regard depends, though, on how seriously we can take the exiles and “off-modernists” among us, mainly artists like Bruno Schulz, Joseph Cornell, Walter Benjamin, Vladimir Nabokov, but then again the small farmers of Egypt who opted out of the increasingly neoliberal agricultural regime of the late 20th-century—all of them experts in getting out of the way of History.

My only objection to the argument is the how part, and this is where I’ll try, finally, to get myself in some trouble.  I agree, we have to change the past if we expect to change the future—and vice versa—but, speaking of the people with their fingers on the triggers, who can afford to ignore both by evacuating the present?  Apart from the 1%, who has enough resources to give up the gun and step off the train?  OK, those small Egyptian farmers did because they could feed themselves.  Can a working stiff, an administrative assistant, or a middle manager in the US do that?

“Determinism, in short, denies history,” Lears declares.  Really?  Are you are now free to choose your destiny because today is the first day of the rest of your life?  Or does the sequence work rather differently, like this: either we acknowledge that the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, shaping and determining us in the present, forcing us back to the primal scene of our crimes, making us change our stories, or we pretend that we’re weightless, free of all ties and obligations to this hollow shell we call the past, able to sample it at our leisure as if it’s a song on the iPod?

Isn’t the question we’re asking as historians more difficult, more basic: how to refuse this either/or choice?

The past is both real and artificial.  Like God, it’s consequential because we created it.  The past is what we make of it—it’s narratives all the way down—but we make it from these raw materials, and meanwhile they make us.


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