Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin. This and John Handel’s “The Principle of Theory; or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

Theory Revolt has initiated a session of analysis with history’s collective unconscious; it presents a timely occasion for critical reflection not only about the discipline’s current practices and institutions, but also its most fundamental aims and commitments. In that spirit, I’ll start by placing my own theory cards on the table: I research and am deeply invested in Frankfurt School and French critical theory. I worked at the theory journal Critical Inquiry for several years. I wrote a sympathetic review of Ethan Kleinberg’s most recent book, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past for the JHI Blog earlier this year. I also attended two theory of history programs this summer that featured Kleinberg prominently: The Bielefeld and Wesleyan Summer School on Theories for Historical Research in Bielefeld, Germany, which could be considered the education arm of Theory Revolt, as well as the third International Network for Theory of History Conference in Stockholm, where Theory Revolt was invoked approvingly as a testament to the enduring legacy of the late Hayden White (1928–2018).

Critiques of Theory Revolt are already many. Scott McLemee captures the basic objection in Inside Higher Ed. “In Yogi Berra’s haunting words,” he writes, the theses left him feeling “déjà vu all over again.” Many of its points were made decades ago—and in some cases more provocatively—by the likes of Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, and Joan Scott herself. This time around, the authors “rely on the old tropes to rally new forces.” For McLemee, the theses represent a Baudrillardian nightmare: “What came after the End of History was post-postmodernity: social reality as tape loop, life as an eternity of reruns… The only thing really new about ‘Theses on Theory and History’ is that it comes with a hashtag.” But Theory Revolt has no pretense of faddish novelty: it argues that many of those lessons were not learned the first time, or were engaged briefly only to be handily dismissed, as if theory’s relevance passed together with its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. The authors wrote this manifesto now because new subfields widely regarded as the future of the historian’s craft—digital humanities, Big Data, global history—are, in their view, simply repackaging the “ontological realism” that has long stifled “objectivist” history. As a rearticulation, a synthesis, a call to arms, and a gadfly probing the discipline for self-consciousness and criticality, this manifesto is both necessary and welcome.

According to the Wild On Collective, the contemporary historian’s anti-theoretical bias starts early: doctoral training in history tends to neglect theory and emphasize historiography and producing original research from primary sources, “as if ‘doing history’ is a self-evident technical undertaking and students need simply to develop the methodological habit of gathering factual evidence to be contextualized and narrated” (I.8). At the broadest level of the discipline, this conclusion is spot-on. At the Bielefeld summer school I attended, students from around the world agreed that it is difficult to find courses in theory of history, and even more difficult to do research in this field. To study theory, one often has to go to a philosophy department or repackage one’s work as intellectual history. The Bielefeld program attempts to correct this dearth of theory by offering participants—all students of history—a week of courses on practice theory (Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Theodore Schatzki), actor-network theory (Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law), systems theory (Nicholas Luhmann), discourse theory (Foucault), and a general introduction by Kleinberg ranging from Droysen and Dilthey to Reinhart Koselleck, Hayden White, Joan Scott, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Ewa Domanska. Yet at the level of graduate pedagogy, this theory revolt is not the first. I hope that exploring a distant predecessor may help us understand the current revolt’s aims, limitations, and importance.

At Princeton University—one of the allegedly conservative and anti-theoretical bastions of the discipline—my cohort-mates and I can claim that Hayden White’s Metahistory was the first book we read in graduate school. It typically kicks off the syllabus of the required introductory course “HIS 500: An Introduction to the Professional Study of History” (a relatively recent course title that no doubt reflects the problematic “guild” mentality described in the manifesto). The syllabus regularly includes thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Foucault, Scott, Chakrabarty, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot alongside a wide range of historiography old and new.

The first iteration of this course, proposed in 1964 and held in the 1965–66 academic year, was conceived and taught by Professors Arno Mayer and Lawrence Stone. (Professor Mayer shared his course documents with me.) The two sought funding from bodies like the Social Science Research Council for the course “Theories, Concepts, and Methods of the Social Sciences for Historical Studies,” which aimed, according to their proposal, “to sensitize first-year graduate students in history to the contribution the social and behavioral sciences can make to formulating sharply focused analytic and topical questions for historical investigation.” They complained that among graduate students, “both enthusiasm for and professional commitment to history seemed disappointingly weak.” The culprit: “Part of the trouble appeared to lie in their struggle to cram their minds with vast masses of information from broad fields in preparation for the General Examination…a deadening process, intellectually as well as psychologically.” Students thus confronted with the pressures of mastering their subfields “seemed reluctant to use this mass of information to think about history analytically or comparatively.” They lacked the intellectual courage and theoretical innovation of some of the first guest speakers Mayer and Stone brought in to teach the course: Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz. (Scott was also brought in later, but, according to Mayer, soon clashed with the Princeton “boys club.”)

HIS 500 1968 Syllabus

HIS 500 Syllabus from Spring Term 1968

Mayer and Stone’s theory is quite different from Theory Revolt’s theory. The former also invited speakers to present then-in-vogue positivist social-scientific “techniques” including demography, statistics, and economic history—the Big Data of that time. Yet while they valued such developments in adjacent disciplines, they also found “that the classical social scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Max Weber, speak more effectively to the concerns of our students and ourselves than do many contemporary practitioners of sociology and political science.” Hence they determined that “incoming students are now asked to spend part of their summer before arrival at Princeton reading from the works of Marx, Freud, Weber, and Durkheim.”

theory-proposal-2.jpg

Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Despite Mayer’s own radical Left politics, this theory revolt did not aspire to be a theory revolution. It attempted to shake up the Rankean house but leave it standing, to keep the old but destabilize it with the new. The seminar, Mayer and Stone wrote, “does not try to persuade students to adopt new approaches at the expense of traditional ones. Historical truth can be approached fruitfully from many angles, and a healthy department is one in which a diversity of methods and viewpoints coexist, mutually stimulating and criticizing one another. The primary aim of the seminar is rather to extend the range of methodological and conceptual choice.”

Theory Proposal 1

Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Writing in 1964, Mayer and Stone taught well before the sweep of the linguistic turn—Derrida and Foucault in particular—that motivates Theory Revolt. Yet they wrote on the cusp of a theory wave symbolized by Hayden White’s landmark article “The Burden of History.” Published in History and Theory in 1966, it became a touchstone of debates about the role of theory in history—even if its impact was not as enduring as the Wild On Collective would have preferred.

Mayer and Stone’s attempt to destabilize ossified historical methodologies with new theoretical approaches from other disciplines shares the spirit of this new revolt, even if it was not yet equipped to fully articulate it with the deconstructive tools of the linguistic turn. Yet for this reason it also lacks Theory Revolt’s force: the call for self-critical reflection on history’s own “conditions of possibility,” on how evidence, arguments, concepts, and theories themselves become normatively constituted as legitimate in the first place (I.9). Mayer and Stone don’t step back far enough from their practice as historians to ask one of the fundamental questions of Theory Revolt: What are we really doing when we do history, and why do we do it?

The Theory Revolters rightly combat the most familiar “dismissal of theory”—“The charge that theory—any theory—involves the distorting imposition of fixed ideological categories on self-evident facts” (II.7). As Wesleyan’s Gary Shaw aptly glossed the philosopher Nelson Goodman in Bielefeld: “Behind every fact is a small theory.” In the language of Theory Revolt, “History’s anti-theoretical preoccupation with empirical facts and realist argument… entails a set of uninterrogated theoretical assumptions about time and place, intention and agency, proximity and causality, context and chronology” (I.11). On the contrary, the manifesto proclaims, “Critical history recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work” (III.4). If history is the study of change over time, then this manifesto reminds us that the categories, facts, and questions that make up historical research must themselves be historicized and left open to critical contestation. Only thus can we stay attuned to our work’s temporal contingency, institutional situatedness, and relation to power both within the academy and in society at large.

Theory Revolt calls for more theory not as a superfluous garnish to be sprinkled over the meat of real historical work. Rather, it proposes a fundamental re-imagining of what history is for and how we should practice it. On some level, it shares a rather conventional and unobjectionable goal with Mayer and Stone: to move beyond the “impotent story-telling” brought about by disciplinary fixation on facts, empiricism, and objectivity. Theory Revolt’s target is the geographically diverse but theoretically “homogenous” articles published in the AHR, whose “guild”-like disciplinary policing strips the field of innovative methodological approaches: “Only that which is already familiar typically finds its way into the pages of the journal” (I.5). Given such sweeping critiques of “conventional” historical writing, the stakes are high for Kleinberg’s forthcoming book The Myth of Emmanuel Levinas, on the Talmudic lectures the French-Jewish philosopher presented in postwar Paris. Kleinberg claims in the conclusion of Haunting History that this subsequent work will put his deconstructive approach into practice by telling two accounts of the same phenomenon, what Levinas’s onetime assistant Jacques Derrida called a “double session.” Each account can destabilize the authority of the other and leave the past open to alternative meanings: the one a conventional secular intellectual history and the other a theological account inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time” (Haunting History, p. 147). Kleinberg hopes to stretch the limits of what counts as history, in this case moving beyond assumption that historical scholarship must be secular and operate within the framework of what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous empty time.” An earlier article of Kleinberg’s on these themes published in History and Theory bears the telling subtitle “Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision.” This idea seems compatible with history as both a theoretical and “scientific” enterprise: being open to critique, revision, the contestation of textual meaning, and, yes, even to deconstruction.

The Weberian and social-scientific focus Mayer and Stone shared with much of their era remains to a large extent trapped within what Max Horkheimer called “traditional theory,” or conventional social science, held back from the self-reflexivity of “critical” theory. They thus remain within the paradigm that Theory Revolt criticizes, whereby disciplinary history tends “to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data” (I.9). By contrast, Theory Revolt’s critique of empiricism rests upon an insight clearly articulated in Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment: In the words of the Wild On Collective, positivist historians rest far too heavily upon mere “reified appearances” and “supposedly given contexts.” In his 1938 essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer likewise disdained traditional theory, which encompasses the empirical social sciences, for attempting to grasp the external world “as it really is.” Part of this distinction is captured in Theory Revolt’s critique of the historical discipline producing “technocratic” knowledge and “scholars rather than thinkers.” By uncritically condensing that reality into timeless theories and laws, traditional theorists or mere scholars commit the fallacy of thinking that the present world is the only world, operating on the false and conservative assumption that everything has to be the way that it is. For Horkheimer and Adorno, genuinely critical theory did empirical work and attempted to ascertain the ways the social world worked, but always with an eye to how it might also be otherwise—to its fuller realization and emancipation. The Theory Revolters’ final thesis comes to a similar conclusion through the related insights of Foucault’s method of genealogy: “Critical history aims to understand the existing world in order to question the givens of our present so as to create openings for other possible worlds” (III.10).

Fetishizing purportedly “tangible” or “concrete” facts—as if they were self-evidently knowable—traps us in the flattened horizon of our own troubled social world, falsely granting it a quasi-natural status. To thus privilege “the real” over the theoretical—what Theory Revolt phrases in the subjunctive as “the dream”—is to come under what Adorno called the “spell” of reification, the downward pull into crude materialism that leaves us trapped in the lifeless circle of late capitalism and sanctioned state violence. Adorno’s negative dialectics bars positively developing alternatives—the error of Nazism, Stalinism, and other prescriptive utopianisms—but it does enable us to determinately negate spaces of unfreedom in the world as it is, severing our psychic ties to the world in which we find ourselves and opening up theoretical space in which alternatives might eventually be developed. To invoke a line from Negative Dialectics, history—like the metaphysics that preoccupied Adorno—“must know how to wish” (p. 407).

The Theses end with a call for historians to seek out “the navel of the dream.” Dreams push against the ontological realist historian’s sensibilities because they are inherently personal and nonobjective. One of Theory Revolt’s related final points seems closely inspired by the psychoanalytic insights of Dominck LaCapra: “psychically, historians should acknowledge and try to work through, rather than simply act out, their unconscious investments in their material.” In philosophy (which I was trained in) such investments are quite often made manifestly clear: It is widely understood that many people who work on Kant, for example, would identify as “Kantians” and attempt to think and even live their lives within the framework of Kant’s thought. When they speak on contemporary issues, they often do so explicitly and self-consciously from the position of their philosophical background and personal commitments; they then feel free to critique, revise, and dispense with aspects of such traditions that no longer hold or appeal to them.

Working in a history department for the past two years, I’ve found it curious that historians on the whole seem to lack this self-consciousness. They tend to repress the fact that most of us do the research we do because it interests us—which is to say, because we have a psychic investment in our material that is rationalized rather than rational. Either we see something in the past that “speaks” to us today or, on the contrary, we seek out something in the past that gives us distance from the weight and all-encompassing spell of our own moment. It is no surprise that the historian’s identity, life experiences, and politics often shape their choice of research subject. Yet unlike disciplines such as anthropology that productively theorize and “work through” these relations of implication, cathexis, and transference, historians often resort to the pseudo-objective refrain that their subject is simply “important.” But why do we really need to know it? What justifies the time and expense of researching it? Sometimes, to be sure, there’s just a good story to be told. But more often than not there are investments, both personal and collective, that undergird our choice of projects, subconsciously dictate their frameworks, and hence drive them to certain conclusions. Hayden White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but rather, in the “ironic” mode he graced us with, only “moral or aesthetic ones” (p. 434). My greatest hope for Theory Revolt would be that it presses more historians to such self-conscious reflection about the relation between themselves, their world, and their work. If “critical history is a history of the present,” that present surely includes ourselves.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

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