The theme of this weekend, for me at least, seems to be “willful disobedience.” So, while I fully understand that the purpose of this week’s readings was to teach me to put the historian E.P. Thompson’s writings within the framework of Marxist theory, I’m going to, instead, think and write about history itself. It may seem like an exhausted trend after the past few weeks, but it’s something I feel compelled to explore at least once more.
As a student, I’ve always thought that history is long—it has happened for thousands of years; it has existed in the same manner, more or less, for hundreds of centuries. However, our readings in Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line truly showed me that history as we practice it is young; indeed, the history that I have grown up knowing and doing is little older than a lifetime. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve known this, but until today it appears to have never quite sunk in. Certainly, I understood that history has changed over time; I understood that there had been a shift during the 19th century, and again during the mid-20th century. Tosh’s The Pursuit of History had taught me about Ranke and the formation of history as we know it. So why did Eley’s piece strike me so? After all, we only read the section about Marxist theory. Three things, I believe, are what truly made me feel so connected with this work.
First, Eley’s conscious choice of tone made me feel as if I were sitting in an office with my very educated advisor. While reading, Eley was talking with me, allowing me to absorb content about the history of history while also advising me, imparting learned-wisdom. Through his well-explained use of personal pronouns, the book became one large conversation between the two of us. My marginalia became responses to his content, and we passed a few hours in pleasant exchange. Some things I did not understand, some rhetoric made me cock my head to the side and wrinkle my forehead, but most of all I was happily coerced into meaningful thought. I sipped tea and digested historical theory. My time was well-spent. We, Eley and I, both had purpose for a few hours’ time.
Second, this reading provided proof to me that individuals can experience history as a thing. Not as a passion or a profession, but as a tangible, changeable thing. Eley began school learning in the early, Rankeian mode and was, he says, bored with it. It wasn’t until he stepped outside the academic classroom and began exploring the local Paperback Shop which received new monthly shipments of new theory works. For Eley, this pseudo-education helped to lay the foundation of the traditional education he received during his graduate studies. During a very brief period, he went from being trained in what was becoming an outdated mode to practicing social and cultural history. What hope this gives to a new graduate student. While I certainly don’t expect to become a historian in the same right as Eley, his story inspires confidence. During the last greatest change, new historians not only survived but succeeded. They were as uncertain as I am, and yet were able to create a more broadly applicable and accessible history by maintaining a dialogue, and by being excited by the changes taking place around them. By becoming involved, by educating himself and by seeking information from others, Eley became a contributor to history and historiography.
Finally, this optimism comes in the wake of three weeks of graduate school where I have learned that the state of history is currently in flux; that the field itself is changing, in more ways than we can count. The shift to digital history (recently explored in readings, blog musings, and class discussions) seems, at least in my small academic world, to be met with mixed feelings. There are those who have slight misgivings, those who are willfully disobedient and deny that change is taking place, and there are those who are embracing the shift and are excited to be a part of it. As our class discussion has evolved over the past few weeks, we have discussed the potential for incredible achievements and the potential for danger that our current digital shift involves. Yet, hearing about Eley’s experiences in the 1960s and 1970s again gives hope that we are in yet another natural, paradigm shift. As he explained of the shifts he experienced, “Methods improve, archives expand, subareas proliferate, bad interpretations are junked, and better interpretations mature.” Just as this happened during the emergence of Marxist theory within history, and with the development of an interdisciplinary, social-science based approach to history in the 20th century, so too can this evolution of change happen with our current shift. The future of history is not so bleak as we, or at least I, have come to believe in the past few weeks. As in the past when “[historians have] been required to respond not just to the various transformations internal to the discipline, including the remarkable changes in the society of the profession, but also to the constant pressure of events in the wider social and political arenas,” so too will my fellow students and I respond to the changing climate of the history we have entered and will become a part of.
Perhaps it is the warm weight of the ginger-haired cat sitting on my lap tonight, or the accomplishment I felt after flipping through a book just to read its footnotes, or my excitement to get to class to talk about the Thompson essays that is giving me this sense of calm and purpose. Historians have met change before, historians will meet change ahead. The profession and field of history will persist, as it has. We cannot be like Eley’s early professors who “willfully closed their eyes to the changes occurring outside.” And I know that we will not. The key is to remain in dialogue, to explore the interdisciplinarity of the field, to experiment with what can be thought, and to be willfully disobedient (while still respecting theory and methodology, of course…I’m not crazy). We must endeavor, we must explore, and we must drink tea—and we will flourish.
 Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 4.
 Ibid,. 6.
 Ibid., 2.
7 Responses to How Marxism Made Me an Optimist
I can picture you sipping tea and reading Eley. Your dedication to scholarship is inspiring. You may need to invest sometime in a wooden paneled library or spend some time in England. I expect to hear great things from you. Keep your expectations high. And keep your optimism, even when it may be hard. I think it’s a great time in ‘history’ to be studying history.
what Faith said!
“…this reading provided proof to me that individuals can experience history as a thing. Not as a passion or a profession, but as a tangible, changeable thing.”
I LOVED this aspect of his writing!! I like to believe that I experience history as a thing, trying to immerse myself in the outside world, not just classroom; I think the speed-bump comes in getting other historians to join us. As I read Eley, I was reminded of all the historians I know, professional and non, and it’s clear to see who does and does not experience history as “a thing.” I wonder if it’s “upbringing” in the field or something else? Maybe even a lack of interest in further discovery – or a fear. Challenging the norm is scary, as we all know. I think this is no different.
I thoroughly enjoyed your post, very well written (per usual!) I have to agree with you that I had no idea (at least, I had never really thought about it) that the subject of history as we know it is still so young. And I agree, we are currently facing a time of change in our discipline but as you argue, history has changed before and will continue to change into the future. This is the nature of academia, and I feel that as budding historians ourselves, we should do our best to embrace the changes that are seemingly inevitable at this point. I don’t know about you but over the past few weeks I have become more excited about the future of history (an oxymoron?) than I ever thought possible. We get to be the front runners in this digital age and we get to carry the study of history into the future. And while this may seem like a daunting task at first glance, I truly think it is something we should take more time to appreciate and revel in as we continue our work as historians.
At risk of repeating what everyone else has already said in regard to your post, I believe you pulled from the absolute best aspects of Eley’s chapters and the comfort that you received from the reading you have now transferred on to others (myself especially) as well.
How reassuring it is that the discipline of History is constantly evolving. What is the saying…”If you aren’t moving forward you’re moving backward”? Ironic as it is for those who make careers of studying the past to be focused on moving forward, I think it is so imperative. As the times change, so much the discipline. And it has been done before, more recently than we even realized! It is odd that for the past several years I have been learning about the “new social history” and the ways in which its adoption changed the discipline, and yet I never fully noticed the parallels to the current transition.
Thank you for the optimistic post–it was warm and fuzzy and made me want to sit down with both you and Eley for the next conversation over tea.
I love your “willful disobedience” and your post is vivid! I also love the idea of experiencing history as a thing. Your optimism provides a model for me at the time that we had talked in the past few weeks that we are facing a challenge and an opportunity of new technology and new mode of knowledge, and we will be improved, just like how you see Eley did.
Thank you again for a wonderful, thought provoking post. I found that in your conclusion: “The key is to remain in dialogue, to explore the interdisciplinarity of the field, to experiment with what can be thought, and to be willfully disobedient (while still respecting theory and methodology, of course…) I find a little of my train of thought as well. I respect previous authors and historians, in their own right, but I find myself wanting to be a little willfully disobedient, as I wish to research often frowned upon topics and look at “why” something is accepted the way it is in history. We still are in the infancy of our becoming Master’s degree graduates, and I am intrigued by all that we are learning and discussing in class. I realize that we are in a transitional period in recording history and I am starting to gradually accept the change, yet with some reservations. I am not sure why I have these reservations, I believe that it may be fear of change, or the very scary thought of not knowing the future and what will become of our chosen field.