Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Melancholy of a Critical Mind

Call me Nihilist. Once I became aware of hermeneutics thanks to my undergraduate major in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Biblical Studies, my romanticisation of, my belief in, and my attachment and devotion to academic disciplines has never been the same.

When I began seeking out a graduate programme to enter I looked for a programme that would allow me to be the interdisciplinary scholar of cultural studies and ideology I wanted to be. I tried American Studies. It didn't work out. The head of the programme was pretty much a standard historian and really didn't have much time for the interdisciplinary research I wanted to do. I tried sociology. It didn't work out. It was much too disciplinary and quantitative and far too historically anemic while I was interdisciplinary and qualitative and thought a historical sensitivity essential to an understanding of humans and those things humans had created. I tried anthropology. It didn't work. It was much to disciplinary, historically anemic, and holistic in orientation forcing every student to take courses in bioanthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology while I was focused on culture and symbols and was interdisciplinary in orientation. Finally I tried history and while it was difficult to complete my doctorate in that discipline for a number of reasons, primary amongst them was that I have read too much Max Weber, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault all of whom made it difficult for me to put aside my reflexive and critical mind, a reflexive and critical mind which made me see academic disciplines and their practitioners as little more than social and cultural constructions which fetishsed their ideologies themselves--I did manage to finally graduate with a Ph.D. in history.

The fact that I have a Ph.D. in history, however, doesn't mean that I give history an intellectual pass or that I am a true believer in what history does and how it does it anymore than I was a true believer in sociology or anthropology because I am not. In fact, as someone who knows a bit about and has a lot of experience with a number of academic disciplines, history may be the most dismal social science and humanities discipline of them all.

So why do I find history particularly dismal? I think it is because of a number of things. First, its aversion to theory. Far too many historians think that it is acceptable to do studies of divorce, something that has been studied extensively before, in a group about whom the researcher knew nothing about their ethnic backgrounds, their sectarian background, or their class backgrounds, studies which, in the final analysis, don't tell us anything we don't already know, i.e., people divorce. Second, its general lack of theoretical reflexivity and its attendant difficulty specifying significance. Historians too often have little if any conception of what is significant to study and what is not as I learn again and again when I listen to historians tell me about yet another study of a workers movement that tells us nothing different from studies of labour movements that preceded the one they are doing. Third, its often unvocalised utopian belief, a belief rather like that which underlay the wholism that dominated anthropology into the 1970s, a belief that is related to its inability to discern significance, a belief in the inductive process of collecting research on every aspect of every human group (intellectual and academic totalism), a process which, it is believed, will result in the "true" science of human life and human history. Fourth, its inaccurate belief that history is unique because of its study of primary source material. All disciplines, including physics, biology, film, television, and music have a domain that constitutes their primary source material. Fifth, its sacralisation of primary source material itself, a totem so sacred that every historian has to partake of it as though it were a Eucharist wafer. Sixth, its belief that history simply reveals to a waiting intellectual public what is in those primary source materials, the historical version of automaton positivism. And seventh, the tendency for history to be a kind of vanity practise in which the history of Jews is written by Jewish historians, the history of Mennonites is written by Mennonite historians, and the history of the left is written by leftist historians. Max Weber was clearly right when he noted that intellectuals tend to do research on and write about things they value, things they value ideologically. All this, by the way, is how one academic discipline, it is not the only one, fetishises (in all senses) the objects of its desire.

In reality, history is as theoretically oriented as any other social science and humanities discipline. Many historians just don't know it. Historians interpret primary source materials economically, politically, culturally, geographically, and demographically. They read primary sources, in other words, through the theoretical lenses which arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lenses which regard economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography as central causal factors impacting human life and human history. Additionally, the narrative tales historians write about primary documents are themselves selected by the teller of those tales. It is this amnesia, intentional or not, this amnesia about how history really works that I dislike the most about the discipline. And it is this lack of reflexivity which is why I would argue, at least on some occasions, history is the most dismal of all the social science and humanities disciplines.

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