Monthly Archives: August 2011

Learning from History

Here are some things we can not learn from history:

  • What happens when we die?
  • What is consciousness?
  • Are there other forms of consciousness?
  • Is there more to reality than what we can perceive and understand?
  • To what extent are societies coherent, objective entities?
  • What are emotions (or why do we do stupid things)?
  • What, if anything, makes us different from animals?
  • What will happen next?

Here are some things we can learn from history:

  • How other people have asked and answered these questions.
  • How the these questions and their answers have been formulated and reformulated in particular ways that are grounded in time, place and institutions.
  • How people have behaved when they thought they knew the answers to some of these questions.
  • What people have done and thought when not worrying about these questions.

There is no reason to expect that history can answer the first set of questions. It makes perfect sense to only ask the second set. The challenge is how we can bring the answers to the second set of questions to bear on the first set. But we have lost our way when answering this second set of questions becomes an end in itself, and we start to think that the first set of questions is trivial or misguided. At worst, we mistake answers to the second set of questions to be answers to the first.

The Myth in History

I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness ‘what is the myth you are living?’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust.

                                                                          –Carl Jung, cited in Red Book, p. 197

Academic history writing is not so befogged by concepts as the social sciences. The mere fact that we write narratives generates meaning in a way that is different than trapping it in concepts, a way that is more analogous to the unfolding of meaning in myth. But we still frame those stories in terms of arguments, reducing the narrative into a concept that can ideally be described in a five-sentence abstract. We then spend much of our time arguing about which argument is better, and what more we need to know in order to modify our arguments. It is the apparatus built up around argumentation—the fortresses, weapons, rules, strategies and tactics used to build, defend and attack arguments—that makes academic history so alienating to a broader audience . . . and so engrossing to the academic.

The real problem comes when—as so often happens—we mistake our theoretical possibilities and arguments for reality. Arguments can help us find paths and patterns among the facts. But we betray the facts and their complexity when we boil our arguments down into abstractions and then use those abstractions as if they were facts. We choke off the other paths and possibilities.

A narrative need not be subservient to the argument. Indeed, even argumentative narratives still structure much of their meaning in mythic forms–even if they try to tame and control that meaning. Because in a mythic narrative, the interpretations are uncertain. The facts can be both symbolic and concrete, but never subservient to a single concept. Moral lessons are pervasive, but the details are evasive. Right and wrong, reason and emotion, carnal and spiritual, good and evil are entangled, often uncomfortably so. The meaning comes not through clarity, but through plotting and structure. This allows the narrative to point to the ineffable and to the paradox without dissolving in chaos.

What is history, if not an attempt to link personal meaning to something bigger than ourselves—to origins, genealogies, bloodlines, societies and heroic collective endeavor? Popular histories—so often subject to political agendas and marketing strategies—are just as guilty as academic histories of betraying both the myths and the facts. The real struggle, behind all the academic theories, politics, concepts and advertising, is whether we want to portray that story as one of progress or tragedy, of hubris or heroic action, of resolute firmness or daring innovation, of the traditions of a fine, noble people or of the constant upswell of rebels and upstarts. These are the contents of our mythic narratives. And the best myths manage to leave space for all of these possibilities (I’ll elaborate with some specific works later. But, if I want to do this right, I need to engage with my personal narratives even more).

To Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

I still can not escape my professional conditioning. So I researched several blogs by humanities and social science academics before starting this one. Each blog is distinct, although most seem to be made up of six basic ingredients. Here’s a list of those ingredients–annotated, of course.

1) Exhaustion, overwork, frustrations at academic politics and pettiness, and melancholic musings about the barrenness of academic life.

Done well this approach can be harrowing, a disheartening tragedy of ideals betrayed. Done poorly, it is a bog of tedious whining–the tragic flaws of the narrators are laid bare to all except the narrator himself.

I sympathize greatly with the driving emotions and insights behind this approach. It will be hard to resist the temptation to go that way myself. But what is the point of wallowing in those things that have disappointed and annoyed me? I’d much rather recover those dreams and fascinations that seduced me into history in the first place-and which can still occasionally consume me. What light did I glimpse?

I won’t resist the temptation entirely. In many ways these melancholic musings are about the sociology of academia. And one thing I’ve learned from history is that ideas can not be divorced from the social institutions where they live and breed. And one thing I’ve learned from journalistic science is that ideas and knowledge are sterile without some emotion to inject them with direction and meaning. But best to partake in moderation.

 2) Commentary on contemporary political events, whether in the academic’s home country or the area of research.

 My gut instinct is that following contemporary events is the surest way to rot your mind and suffer emotional apoplexy. As often than not, this kind of political commentary is angry and bitter—coming from the same emotional source as ingredient #1. Again, I sympathize. But why wallow? And worse, why subject and manipulate history—as so often happens—to the unquenchable fires of our political battles and frustrations? Commentators rarely tell us how history has made them change their minds. We only learn why their opponents are wrong and dangerous. Is there no other way that history can matter?

For many of my fellow historians, politics and public discourse are precisely the most important places to insist that history does matter. I don’t think this follows from actually studying history, where you can learn: 1) Large (or deep) structures and processes shape our lives more profoundly than the perturbations of politics; 2) How people have made meaningful lives outside of politics; 3) Not to trust any political analysis without a minimum of ten years hindsight (and even then to be highly skeptical); 4) History is far too complex to offer any clear-cut insight on contemporary problems; and 5) That the best political intentions and critiques can lead to the most horrible consequences, and vice-versa.

 So, if not for politics, how does history matter? That is the question that troubles me, and is not one I can answer now. I will admit that that my antipathy towards politics is just as emotionally driven as any political partisanship. I also have to admit that history gives plenty of examples of ways in which politics does matter. So I can’t avoid the politics. . . . But hopefully there is more.

3) Daily life, such as how the kids are doing, recent vacations, house repairs, meals cooked, committee meetings, when the flowers bloomed, etc.

The best blogs always integrate the personal with whatever else the blog is about. But all too often, the descent into daily details is the mark of a blog that has run out of ideas.

4) Updates on recent publications, upcoming talks, workshop schedules, lists of work-in-progress, and the reception of recently completed work.

Really? Is this what a personal blog is for?

5) Informal presentation of interesting findings, ideas and reviews of recent scholarship.

 This can be a nice way to work through ideas and materials without the restrictive trappings of more formal academic work. The best of such blogs cultivate a love of the material and speak to people other than the specialists. Some seem to assume that history matters, but they rarely make an explicit case why. Others—often the most interesting—do not seem to worry about it.

6) Well-adjusted and constructive ruminations on teaching, publishing, administration, academic life and ideas in general.

This is a foreign land. I have visited for long periods and even have some good friends who live there. I can admire the achievements, values and structures of this culture. I have sometimes even been mistaken for a native. But I will never feel at home there.

The blogs I still read for pleasure either have lots of pictures or are very well written. A surprisingly large proportion are also written by ex-academics.


Me and My Blog

I’m trying to keep my mid-life crisis alive. It started with a lot of hope. Some of that hope has been fulfilled. I can’t go back to my pre-crisis self. But I’m not sure how to go forward.

I’ve been enjoying my crisis in fits and starts for four years now. In mid-2007. I was a recently tenured history professor at Claustrodemonic U., finishing my second book manuscript, irritable, sullen, sleeping poorly and plagued by headaches. I had a research leave coming, and knew I wanted to take some time off. I told some people that I needed to “figure out how to enjoy my job” (it looks so good on paper: flexible hours, self-direction, travel opportunities, stimulating challenges. What is the problem?). I told other people that I needed to salvage whatever I could from the detritus of my soul, and figure out how to live the second half of my life properly. I told most people that I’d just be starting my next research project—a “long-term” one.

Within days after sending in my book manuscript, I realized that my biggest problem was not my job, but my marriage.  The next couple of years were a kaleidoscope of divorce, sex, travel, romance, introspection, tarot, a new neighborhood, some psychedelic drugs (entheogens, they like to say now) and expanding my reading list to include novels, Jungian psychology and neuroscience. All in all, a pretty stereotypical mid-life crisis, lacking only fast cars, alcohol and younger women. But it was exciting and worthwhile. My headaches are gone, I sleep well, am less frequently irritable or sullen, and I am more inclined to see life in terms of possibilities rather than problems to be dealt with.

But as things settle down, I realize that I am still confronted with the problem I started with: how can I enjoy my job? I have learned how to keep my job contained so that it rarely seeps out and contaminates the rest of my life. I am also better at going with the flow of the parts I enjoy. But every now and then, when I am not vigilant, it does seep out of its box. I have even caught myself planning my future entirely in terms of articles and books to write, papers to present and classes to teach. And, by the end of the semester, I sometimes start to get irritable, avoid people and sleep badly again.

Fortunately, I can usually recognize the symptoms pretty quickly and stuff work back in its box. But these episodes also remind me that I still haven’t learned to enjoy my work. It is only a job. All the hope and promise of meaning and insight that had once inspired me to start that 7-year training were now pretty much gone. Even the recognition I receive for my achievements does not really thrill me. Now it is just something I do that takes up nearly half of my waking life. I can keep on stuffing it in a box. But it will always find some new, toxic way to seep out. I need to engage it, to integrate it into my life. I have these skills, this experience, this extensive knowledge. Surely, it can mean something?

And so, here I am, trying to figure out why history matters.