What is History Writing Now?

People reach post historical all the time by searching for odd little historical, philosophical and political science-related phrases. Given the obscure nature of many of these terms to those not deep within postcolonial or imperial studies, I assume they’re doing research for some paper or project. I wonder if they feel they can trust what they read. Am I a reliable source? Are my ideas sound? Can one cite a blog, or is this an even bigger research no-no than citing Wikipedia?

If it is, why? Consider this blogger: I have a graduate history degree from a good school, which, for many, constitutes formal “training” in the discipline.  I know how to cite sources and (hopefully) construct a logical and well-supported argument. Does this make me “qualified” to comment on things? Does being qualified today require being intelligent, well-trained, and peer-reviewed (in the traditional sense), or does it come from an even more democratic approvals process based on sheer number of readers? Would having six million hits to my blog make me a “qualified” opinion leader? Or do I need to have published six books through a university press that only 6 000 people will ever read in order to be a real “expert”?  And is either something to which I should aspire?

These questions have far-reaching implications for me as I go through the process of deciding whether to continue on with studying history as a career, or do something else entirely – something more practical, that would affect people more directly than a well-researched book in an obscure field and a few impassioned lectures about Lord Curzon and the Raj for a dwindling number of undergraduates who don’t care. Because it’s very important to me that I influence the way people think, not in a creepy mind control kind of way but by presenting a fresh perspective that makes them reconsider the world around them and how things work within it.

I’m not sure academic writing is the best way to do that: its scope is too narrow, and its audience is those who are already predisposed to thinking from many angles, and who likely know a lot about the subject already. Traditional academic writing is also very dry. It connects with the reader because it is persuasive, and offers a sourced argument with little personal point of view. Blogs and new media, in contrast, connect with readers because they cover current events and are often based on personal biases or feelings. They are inherently populist, because the vast majority of bloggers want others to read their blogs, and so they talk about things that appeal to a large audience: fashion, entertainment, celebrities, popular political news, etc. And the vast majority of people who read blogs read about the above topics. But does this make them experts in their fields? And does it translate to “academic” subjects like history?

One of my main goals for post historical is to bridge this gap with a forum that is flexible enough to talk about current events and timeless philosophical questions at the same time, yet with a focus that isn’t so personal or academically specialized to be unappealing to a broad audience outside of a strict historical discipline. One might call this “accessible” writing, though as I wrote about in my last post, “accessible” can be a bit of a loaded term. What matters most to me is making an impact in a way that is direct and tangible, which is why the thought of another history degree and a life as a struggling academic is slightly off-putting at times. It’s very clear what such a life could do for me: I’d be a recognized expert in my field; I wouldn’t have to get out of bed torturously early every morning to go to another soul-crushing corporate meeting; I’d be able to have great chats over coffee with fellow bright people and give speeches about things like maps; I could help out engaged students by giving them interesting research suggestions; and I would generally get to run around having people think I was a big smartypants. Clearly, these things all sound fantastic. But what would a life like that do for others, even if I did manage to actually get a job out of it (which these days, as my fellow blogger and history professor trivium points out on his excellent blog, almost nobody does)? How would it contribute to my big life goal of being a respected public intellectual who makes people think in exciting new ways?

I don’t mean to criticize academics, who are generally brilliant, insightful, creative people. It’s the system that is at fault, a system that encourages people to go to school for 10 years with absolutely no hope of finding employment of any kind at the end of it, a system that encourages killing trees by publishing books nobody cares about, and a system that has created the popular feeling that it is so removed from the everyday that it serves only to train its own. I fear academia is becoming so specialized that it just doesn’t have the impact, or the scope, or the popular appeal, to be taken seriously. When the people who make the most money and important decisions all have MBAs and law degrees, humanities majors are in for some trouble. Actually, we’re all in trouble because we’re losing out on diversity of thought and experience – big time.

As I’ve written before, I think great writing is all about having a conversation, which necessitates a connection between readers and writers. One of the great things about blogs, and Wikipedia, and other new media is that the connection – and the feedback, via the comments or revisions – is immediate, and the process of forming consensus iterative. This is when history and philosophy are really exciting (and this is why I love to receive comments and feedback from readers, particularly when you disagree or want to point out something I’ve missed). Traditional academic writing just isn’t set up to react quickly enough to changes in events, or popular feeling.

So, to paraphrase the great E.H. Carr, what is history writing now? One would think that it would adapt to the changing relationship between reader and writer, from words sent down from a lofty perch in an ivory tower to those that are picked over in comments forums around the world. It hasn’t. And we’ve all lost something in the process.  The Economist ran an article today about how this election (in Britain) is bound to be a landmark one, and yet has no landmark book or philosophy written about the popular mood to match it, or to spur discussion, as was the case in 1945, 1964, 1979 and 1997. (I was particularly excited to see that the article cited one of my historian idols, Linda Colley, as having written a significant work from which Tony Blair drew inspiration in 1997.)

Can it be that nobody has written anything groundbreaking in the past five or ten years that bears mention? Or is it that the political audience is too fragmented – or too busy writing their own blog posts – to notice? Is there still a place for the academic as a public intellectual, or has academic writing been pushed to the fringes of literate society by virtue of being irrelevant to everyday concerns? And if academia is on the fringes, who is in the centre?

I suppose we can all take comfort in the fact that there is still the expectation of something by the intelligent people who read and write for publications like The Economist. There is an intellectual void that will always need filling, by academics or writers or particularly insightful and far-reaching bloggers. The question for the next few years, it seems, is whether those who step up to fill it will have new job titles, and if so, what they will be.

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One Response to What is History Writing Now?

  1. trivium says:

    Thanks for the shout-out; very tempting topic… have a major deadline this month and so am particularly slow at blogging. But, that being said by way of excuse, I think that a lot of the fault lies directly with the liberal artists themselves, who have followed the fine artists down the path to nihilism ever since Dada. In short, I think that when fine art stopped dealing with the ‘Platonic ideals’ of truth, beauty, justice, etc… then they stopped moving to the rhythm of the human mind, which the Greeks and the renaissance people had stumbled upon. In short, everyone thinks that modern art for the most part sucks. My point in saying this is that I think that the liberal artists then followed the fine artists, during the ‘deconstruction’ craze/phase. While I think that deconstruction was very positive in breaking down barriers to inclusivity, it was also very negative insofar as it put professors in classrooms all over the civilized world saying, “my subject has no inherent value. Shakespeare is dead, there is no such thing as history… why not study your shopping list, etc.” As soon as they did this, the public said, “you know, you’re right…I’m going to go and get an MBA, since all that matters is money.” So my schtick is, if we could re-remember that the liberal arts are in fact all branches of history… the re-creation of human experience in all of its totality, and that to live wisely and humanely (as opposed to animalistically) is impossible without our grappling with this history in all of its major forms (and note that most old money studies the liberal arts… they realize their value), then we’ll be able to get politicans and administrators back into the groove of saving civilization. Until then, we’re headed towards the Matrix, i.e., a stew of cultural meaninglessness.

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