Assignment 2, September 10, 2012 (Part 2)

American History Review Forum: Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective

Part Two: Forum Reflection

An answer to this assignment.

If the American Historical Review forum discussed here indeed aims to represent the most recent discussion in historiography (and given its date of publication, that seems highly likely), the criticism presented by Gary Wilder seems to be entirely justified: such a discussion indeed seems to be mere theory, “abstract … from its worldly entailments, as if it stands apart from history as something that can be used or applied” (730). After all, as the two responses by Julia Adeney Thomas and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal rightfully point out, all four initial essays focus on reflection on the reflection – reflecting on whether a “turn”, that is, a common denominator which, itself, has only been introduced reflexively (753), really existed, and what the ramifications of that might be (795). The responses, in turn, are not free of reflecting on the reflection: just like Judith Surkis, asking, “[h]ow can we historically assess this recent ‘turn’ to a generational account of historiography itself” (716), introduces an editorial “we” which, according to her own account (714), is one of the (reflexive!) characteristics of a “turn”, so does Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, who takes up the generational trope in his account of the historical profession (805).

Is there a way out of this predicament? Is it a predicament at all? Certainly, the turn upon “turns” does not aim to form a coherent set of movements called “turns”, neatly separated from each other, which is to say, closed and dead (753). Rather, as all papers agree, the task is to open up ways for the future of historiography (cf., e.g., 769). Which options are opened up?

The first, and arguably most problematic, is the option Julia Adeney Thomas introduces. That this option is highly problematic is not due to its – as I think – very sudden and somewhat surprising introduction of global climate change into the “‘conditions of possibility of the historical knowledge’ we produce” – as if this were a genuine problem of the historical profession as a profession -, nor to the strange and weakly presented [1] way she advocates “a readiness to accept eventfulness” (803) as a means to call attention to global climate change. Rather, in the context of a reflection upon turns, their merits and their shortcomings, I find it unconvincing to call for yet another turn: for the general message of such a call, within this context, is simply a return to the business of “turning” as usual – who is to say which new turn is to be introduced? Based on Julia Adeney’s piece, any new number of “turns” can be called for, focusing on any element of coherence, and moving towards any amount of goals.

On the other end of a hypothetical spectrum, one may find the equally problematic call for a less coherent, more experiment-based movement of leaving behind “turns” altogether. This challenge has been brought up against postcolonial, theory-driven research by, as Ghosh recalls, “scholars whose work remained resolutely autonomous, self-consciously based in ’empirical’ evidence” (787). Here, as in any number of new calls for new “turns”, it remains totally arbitrary which objects are to be analyzed, which stakes are to be assumed, and which ontologies are to be presupposed in the future work of historians.

One could, of course, take up a combination of Gary Wilder’s and Durba Ghosh’s accounts, specifically governed by Wilder’s call for an actualizing, engaged historiography, as an acceptable third way of writing and researching historical formations. I do not see any objections to such an approach.

However, there is another, perhaps more promising option implicit in some of the accounts discussed in the forum. It does not seem to be a coincidence, that the two “turns” most widely discussed in the entire “turning” problematique are the linguistic and the cultural turn, with their similar, implicit flipsides of asking for their own material underpinnings. These material underpinnings do not just, and (I maintain) not even primarily concern economic or environmental problems: their most immediate materialization is the medium in which they are written down; or, more precisely (for now), their literary form. Judith Surkis mentions, among other factors creating a “turn” as a coherent whole, anthologies (705), and Ghosh gives the example of “Subaltern Studies” being created by an anthology (786); there are Historical Forums like the one considered here; JSTOR indexes give graphic representations (748); and biographical accounts streamline bodies of work into more or less neatly arranged genealogies (764). Is a turn, perhaps, a question of mediation rather than a question of content?

If so, a more meaningful (less arbitrary) call for a different object of methodological coherence – a different “turn”, if necessary – would be yet another call to the archive, and even a reflexive call to the archive of historical works, to examine how an anthology, a reader, a collection of excerpts, portraits of historians (or scientists in general), and other forms of writing history have shaped what history is.

In other words, has the replacement of articles with blog entries, of blog entries with “tl;dr”s, and of “tl;dr”s with tweets changed historiography – or history?


[1] I am aware that this criticism is perhaps harsher than Thomas’s text deserves. Suffice it to say that it is not directed against her piece so much as it is directed against the so-called new materialist approach (or its twin brother, object-oriented ontology), which I deem to be an approach that deserves severe criticism.

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