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Monday, 28 April 2014

Getting the Point of Pointlessness

[I am off to Kalamazoo in a couple of weeks, or rather less (eek!) where I will be giving a paper in the Exemplaria session on 'New Critical Imperatives'.  Here is the abstract I sent them.  Some may note similarities with 'the Manifesto'.  The finished version may end up as the last chapter of Why History Doesn't Matter.  

Given my previous post, it now seems especially pertinent... (On that issue, btw, there is some talk of specifically local reasons for poor medieval take-up, about which it would be unprofessional for me to say more, and I am not 100% convinced in any case.)]

Academic history seems not to know what to do with itself since the linguistic turn.  The realisation that the Rankean ideal of objective history, telling it ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’, was not (and never had been) possible appears to have led to a real – if largely unacknowledged – crisis of identity within the discipline, one result of which (in the UK and perhaps elsewhere) has been the removal of academic practitioners of history being increasingly sidelined from public discussions of the subject, its value, its place in education and so on, increasingly replaced by non-academic ‘media dons’ and ‘writers and historians’.  On one side there have been those who have adopted a position simply deriding the absolute possibility of history, a (usually ill-informed) nihilist position (Jenkins, Munslow, Ankersmit); on the other there have been more or less extreme or at least pragmatist defences of traditional empirical history (Evans) while most historians seem to continue in what Žižek might call an ideological fantasy, the ‘je sais bien mais quand même’: continuing to write empirical history judged by fundamentally Rankean empiricist standards as if it were still possible, even though they know it isn’t.


It seems to me that none of these stand-points is sustainable if the academic discipline is really to survive.  But how to avoid the pitfalls of epistemological nihilism when there is no possible transcendental ideal or goal for history, whether one sees that in empiricist terms of recreating or retelling a past just as it was or in more academic-political terms of creating a dominant paradigm/convincing everyone else?  I would like to draw on some work by Simon Critchley (Very Little … Almost Nothing) and Jean-Luc Nancy (La Communauté Désoeuvrée), possibly trying to marry it with some of the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, to try and deconstruct pointlessness.  In other words I want to argue that the role (political/ethical) of historical study is fundamentally transient, consisting in conversation and dialogue, and that that element of discursive transience should be embraced.  What I am suggesting is a ‘talking about’ or an ‘engagement with’ the traces of the past to help us live in, make sense of, engage with the present.  This does not avoid the traditional epistemological standards or rules of ‘fit’ between data and argument, etc., but it – I propose – permits us to avoid either the perils of trying to argue about who is right and who is wrong, or paradigmatic dominance, on the one hand, or simply seeing academic historical practice as no more than a mask for academic careerism on the other.  Whether this is possible without introducing some other transcendent ideal remains to be seen.

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