Imagining the Future of History — Are you Isms or Ism-free?

AHA session recap: Imagining the Future of History — Are you Isms or Ism-free?

This semester I am offering a graduate course on “The Writing of History” (syllabus here). I’ll talk more about my choices and its progress over the course of the coming weeks, but I wanted to add the AHA recaps by reporting on the session Imagining the Future(s) of History(ies).

Sessions at the AHA are always a struggle — given the publisher and job-prospect distractions — and coming out of the San Diego sunshine and into the windowless air-conditioning of generic conferencedom made it an additional challenge. But the session organized by Alun Munslow, UK editor of the Rethinking History journal, and including four members of the journal’s editorial board made it worthwhile.

The abstracts on the AHA website provide a good sense of the papers’ topics and the presenters’ styles. Some traveled high into the theory clouds over Ism peaks, where it can be hard to follow. But some insights stay with me, and will influence how I teach the writing of history this semester. Here’s the travelogue:

Elizabeth Ermath opened the session with a challenge to historians to acknowledge the postmodern condition and the constructedness of our conventional understandings – including time. We live not in the world described by Newton as measured in God’s time, she said, but the more elastic world Einstein proved to exist. (“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” Faulkner adds, in Ermath’s perpetual present.) She urged historians to help students see patterns beyond the linear – How do things repeat? Continue? Become reenacted? In comments, she urged interested historians to think about how we can intervene in the past. Some moments felt like the underpinnings of LOST, but I think her discussion of making representations of history match with postmodern analysis is a worthy challenge.

David Harlan noted the irony of professional historians bemoaning the inaccuracies of popular history while not actively engaging its influence. HBO specials, docudrama films, historical novels, and the occasional museum exhibits shape general perceptions of history. Yet, as Harlan noted,  the American Historical Review has drawn the curtain against even reviewing biographies or films. Briefly striking fear into this untenured heart, Harlan suggested historians should become more like the English department—but the intent of the metaphor was a good one. Citing Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 MLA presidential address, Harlan argued that we can invite the idea of historical figures speaking through current intepreters. Arguing for the power of historical novels in the teaching and writing of history, Harlan wished for more of Greenblatt’s vision – historians as ventriloquists of the past – in blurring the boundaries productively and responsibly. In the comments, he raised the importance of Jose Luis Borges’s insight that “language is social memory” for those of us documenting the past with those linguistic tools.

[About here, the blandness of the room and all that frontal presentation cut down my attention span, and so the next two summaries may falter.

If we have worked so hard to change our approach to engage our students, why do we still subject our professional colleagues to old-style panels? The day of all-precirculated papers, five-minute précis, and long vigorous discussions will eventually arrive, right?]

Dennis Dworkin discussed the importance of Geoff Ely and Ely’s commitment to examining his own priorities in the writing of history as a model for the profession. In a theme touched on during a later session I attended, Dworkin discussed the role of historians’ memoirs in revealing some of these choices, and suggested Ely as a model for how historians can re-emphasize class tensions and embrace politics, even in a nominally globalized, nominally homogenized world.

With the power of a roustabout, Sande Cohen linked the increasing privitization of the academy to what he called the logic of decadence. (There was a lot of referencing French and Continental theory – Nietzsche, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari – and I can’t say I, or many in the audience, could follow all the virtual footnotes.) He raised the parallel of the current job-market competition and public-university freeze in line with an announcement by a journal (did he say the PMLA? Internet sources suggest he did) that one year they had only published solicited manuscripts – nothing at all that had come in over the (likely electronic) transom. With the bravado inherent in a CalArts professor, Cohen compared such nihilism/narcissism to the artist Andres Serrano finding faces in photographs “of his own poop.” Not exactly where we wish the profession to go, I can confidently assert.

Alun Munslow, serving as chair, tried to keep his comments short. But he mentioned that his next book is titled The Future of History. So that can be a place to search out more answers – or merely more questions?

I hope sessions on the writing of history, either in the practical or the epistemological vein, continue to appear at major conferences. Perhaps we can organize some writing workshops, focused on works-in-progress, can occur at these meetings as well — there’s much to learn as history is written, not merely when it is presented.

In the meantime, happy returns in 2010! And, of course, comments from session attendees and presenters, and current and future students of the Writing of History welcomed here! No need to sit for an hour and a half before getting your question answered.

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