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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: A Tempest in a Historical Teapot?
On first consideration the controversy arising this month over an editorial published in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s house magazine, by the group’s president, James H. Sweet, encapsulated everything most depressing about the academic humanities now. Against the backdrop of a probably irreversible decline in history majors and an almost nonexistent job market for new history Ph.D.s, Sweet’s attack on “presentism” — “history … as anachronistic data points” in support of contemporary political causes — might have seemed to locate the crisis on the wrong plane. And his criticisms of a history limited in its approach to the past by “contemporary social-justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism” — gave an awkward culture-wars inflection to what was intended as a methodological intervention. Sweet’s essay was, as
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On first consideration the controversy arising this month over an editorial published in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s house magazine, by the group’s president, James H. Sweet, encapsulated everything most depressing about the academic humanities now. Against the backdrop of a probably irreversible decline in history majors and an almost nonexistent job market for new history Ph.D.s, Sweet’s attack on “presentism” — “history … as anachronistic data points” in support of contemporary political causes — might have seemed to locate the crisis on the wrong plane. And his criticism of a history limited in its approach to the past by “contemporary social-justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism” — gave an awkward culture-wars inflection to what was intended as a methodological intervention. Sweet’s essay was, as Joan W. Scott put it in our pages, “clumsy.”
But did it merit the outraged displays and implausible militancy directed at it on Twitter and elsewhere? And was Sweet’s subsequent apology — he lamented having caused “harm to colleagues” — the product of a healthy culture of intellectual give-and-take, or a concession to a new sensibility basically at odds with scholarly disputation? (“I’m listening and learning,” he concluded — which is something politicians say.) The philosopher Liam Bright, an adept observer of academic mores, surely spoke for many when he wrote that Sweet’s criticisms “should be a thing the field can talk out rather than demanding the critics just fold and apologise; if they can’t then … I don’t trust them.” Bright’s concerns were echoed by journalists and others for whom academic humanists’ often perplexing vituperations tend not to encourage confidence in the state of the university.
But once the first chorus of outrage dwindled, something surprising happened. Sweet’s essay ended up being, in a productive sense, the “provocation” he said he wanted it to be. Hard thinking about presentism — its definitions, its limits, its uses and perils — happened. In The New York Times, Jay Caspian Kang took the kerfuffle (what he called, amusingly, “one of the confusing messes that pop up from time to time in the highest reaches of academia”) as an occasion to ask whether invocations of historical precedent had become more distracting than clarifying: “Over the past two years, for example, I have been bewildered by how much of the conversation about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans has been dominated by evocations of history, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or Japanese internment.” On his blog, Timothy Burke questioned the “presumptive alterity” of the past that charges of presentism assume. And on Twitter, the intellectual historian L.D. Burnett wrote that, too often, critiques of presentism are rooted in “fantasies of epistemic distance or objectivity.”
In our own pages, the historians David A. Bell and Joan W. Scott each responded to Sweet’s essay, with widely different conclusions. Bell’s “Two Cheers for Presentism” points out that, because all historians are writing in their own present, presentism is not only unavoidable — it “is not something that can simply be ‘corrected for,’ like measurement error in a scientific experiment” — but often laudable: “History written with an eye to the present serves the common good.” For Scott, this is merely a “soothing” mystification, since “the line between a politically engaged critical history and a dogmatic reading of the past is not easy to distinguish.” The real work, she suggests, begins not by noting that presentism is inevitable but by asking, given that fact, about its shifting politics in any given body of scholarship.
Those essays join earlier ones in our pages, including Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins’s “Beyond the End of History,” which historicizes the taboo on presentism against the backdrop of the Cold War; my own “What Are Historians Good For?,” which draws on, and quarrels with, David Armitage’s book chapter “In Defense of Presentism”; Sam Fallon’s polemic against presentist pedantry; and Vanita Seth’s “When Did Racism Begin?,” which wields the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner’s canonical 1969 attack on presentism, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” against some current trends in the study of race. A small irony: In the longer History and Theory article from which Seth’s Chronicle Review essay was adapted, one of the historians of racism suspected of presentism was none other than James Sweet. The example was cut for space.
The Review | Essay
When Did Racism Begin?The history of race has animated a highly contentious, sometimes fractious debate among scholars.
The Review | Essay
Two Cheers for PresentismAn essay by the president of the American Historical Association generated a firestorm of criticism — but got some things right.
The Review | Essay
History Is Always About PoliticsWhat the recent debates over presentism get wrong.
The Review | Essay
Our Students Don’t Need Identitarian PaternalismColleges have co-opted queer mentorship.
The Review | Opinion
Biden Just Forgave Some Student-Loan Debt. Now What?The plan carries many unknowns, including whether it can survive a legal challenge.
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