Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society neatly mirrors the historiographical trends we have studied so far this year. Using his own academic career as a basis for his investigation of the history profession’s shifts in the past forty years, Eley provides a great record of one historian’s journey from the social history of the 1960s through the new cultural history of more recent years. I enjoyed the story, but I found his conclusion the most compelling. At the end of the book, Eley writes, “My first point in concluding this book concerns the urgent need for a basic pluralism” (200). He goes on to mention current scholarship and “new studies [that] specifically refuse the polarized division between the ‘social’ and the ‘cultural,’ vesting recognizably social and political topics with a cultural analytic, responding to the incitements of cultural theory, and grounding these in as dense and imaginative a range of sources and interpretive contexts as possible” (201). Even typing that sentence is exhausting, but I quote it here in its entirety because in it Eley so eloquently illustrates what I have come to see as a major theme of our Historical Methods course.
We have been learning about different historical approaches and theories, but to what end? I don’t think we are meant to choose one and stick with it. The time for picking a side has long past, if you believe Eley’s narrative. Instead, I see what we’re doing as giving us new historians a sense of the different frameworks we will encounter in the historical literature we use. Being able to recognize, say, a Marxist perspective can help us understand the work more deeply. While we have been reading texts exemplary of particular approaches in this class, the work I have been reading in my other classes supports Eley’s notion of the plurality that has become standard in the field today. I think he’s right to point out this phenomenon, and I agree with him that the rise of plurality adds much to the opportunities historians (especially those of us just starting out) have. The theories we are learning about are tools which we can use, or not, as we set ourselves to work on various historical projects.
In an American Historical Review forum on A Crooked Line, William Sewell and Gabrielle Spiegel discuss their readings of Eley’s argument as a desire “to revive social history’s effort to grasp (capitalist) social totality without giving up the immense intellectual gains made possible by the cultural turn” (Sewell 402). William Sewell criticizes Eley at this point for not laying out a method for accomplishing this goal—for not finding “a theoretical perspective adequate to the task” (Sewell 402). On this I must agree with Eley in his forum response (“The Profane and Imperfect World of Historiography”): Sewell and Spiegel, I think, miss the point. Eley doesn’t lay out one theory because no single theory can stand alone anymore. As Eley points out, “as a matter of principle,…no one set of theories and methodologies can serve as an answer to each and every question that historians are now trying to ask” (“Profane” 433).
I am not a Marxist. I am not a feminist. I am not a post-structuralist. I am not a cultural historian, a social historian, or a historical anthropologist. I am all of these and none of these; perhaps as I move forward I will choose to follow more closely one approach or another. But for now I am happy to be plainly a historian, learning from those who have come before, but also willing to strike out on new paths. I will gladly embrace Eley’s “basic pluralism.”
that which we are, we are;/ One equal temper of heroic hearts
-“Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson