June 23, 2003

Do We Really Need Another 'Other'?

Not since Joan Wallach Scott heralded a new age with her 'Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis' have historians faced such an exciting time to rethink what we do. Over the past two decades, our cousins in anthropology and literature have produced essays and monographs dealing with disability as a historical subject. The fields that blazed the trail for studying race, gender, and sexuality while introducing postmodernism and the linguistic turn have provided valuable analytic and theoretical tools for exploring this new Other. Now the work of more and more historians -- some who have been studying disability for decades, others who have been doing it without consciously describing it this way, still others recently inspired by different disciplines -- is beginning to bear fruit in the form of a fresh area of inquiry that could well reshape our scholarly landscape. One need not identify oneself as disabled in order to reap the benefits of this up-and-coming field.

-- Catherine J. Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other,'" The American Historical Review vol. 108 no. 3 (June 2003): 763-793

The life of an academic high-flier such as myself is a relentless round of conferences, symposia, and (well-paid and well-attended) speaking engagements, and an endless series of dissipations. Catch me if you can, and I'll bring you up to speed. But you'd better act quickly: I'm a whirlwind of energy and a blur of motion, and I'm sure I spend more time in the airport lounge than I do in my own living room. Ocassionally, however, I do condescend to take valuable time out of my gruelling schedule in order to ensure that the readers of this blog can confidently place themselves on the cutting edge of contemporary historical scholarship.

So then:

At the risk of repeating myself (because I know I've said it elsewhere on this blog, though at the moment I can't remember exactly where), this is an age of immodesty.

In this very recently published article, which might be seen as the birth announcement of a new field of historiography, Kudlick asserts that disability "should sit squarely at the center of historical inquiry" (p. 765) and argues that "disability is so vast in its economic, social, political, cultural, religious, legal, philosophical, artistic, moral, and medical import that it can force historians to reconsider virtually every concept, every event, every 'given' we have taken for granted" (p. 767). These are bold claims, and they are uttered in a tone of breathless and unqualified enthusiasm. Indeed, Kudlick can barely conceal her sense of excitement at being the herald of the good news: with the discovery of disability history, Kudlick has apparently identified a new growth industry for historians desperately casting about for a new project, or at least a new angle. When viewed in the "protean terms" that she recommends, Kudlick assures us, "the field offers possibilities for intellectual exploration that will appeal to a variety of scholarly tastes," while "its very ambiguity and changing meanings open up uncharted areas of research and modes of analysis" (766-7). Best of all, "one need not identify oneself as disabled in order to reap the benefits of this up-and-coming field." Though "in light of these sweeping implications," Kudrick writes, and without a trace of irony, "it is curious that disability did not capture historians' attention sooner" (767).

It is curious indeed.

Well. I don't dispute the claim that disability has been overlooked. And I'm open to the idea that its significance is greater than most historians have realized. Moreover, I will readily acknowledge that Kudlick cites a number of works -- on deafness, on disabled veterans, on the medical history of autism -- that do indeed sound valuable and interesting. And then of course, given the whole campus culture wars routine, it is difficult for a liberal feminist type to criticize a new field without fear of aligning myself with the fuddy-duddies.

Nevertheless. I have to say that, as announced by Kudlick in this article, the enterprise smacks of academic opportunism. Now that we've exhausted the possiblities for race, class and gender, runs the subtext, it is time to find or else to create for ourselves a new Other.

Granted, I'm feeling a wee bit cranky these days (yes, thank you for asking, and welcome to my blog). But I read something like this and I think, Good grief, has it really come to this? Can we not encourage the exploration of new topics and themes without requiring grand gestures and hyperbolic claims of world-historical significance? How likely is it, after all, that someone or some group has recently discovered a previously overlooked category of such breadth and scope that it will overturn our basic understanding of all that we had, up until the day before yesterday, taken as given? I'd say it is not at all likely. Indeed, I'd go further and say that the very suggestion strikes me as a-, or perhaps even as anti-historical. But then, I'm not one of your high-fliers, just a humble and invisible adjunct.


Rebecca Goetz agrees that the Kudlick article "was, um, a tad overdone," and finds it "really sad that historians feel like they have to present every idea as the next new thing--the greatest contribution to history since last year's major paradigm shift" (permanlink bloggered; scroll to Tuesday, June 24 2003).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 23, 2003 09:08 PM

Oh, yes, I know exactly what you mean. I have been inclined to blame Kuhn (or, rather, everyone's misreadings of Kuhn) for this phenomenon. No one's happy to just do some work in their field anymore, no -- now you've gotta _change the paradigm_ to count as doing anything interesting. Of course, almost no one ever _is_ changing the paradigm. So, as they say, you have to have the part where you put it forward, and then the part where you take it all back.... This lends itself to some pretty annoying academic prose.

Posted by: JW at June 23, 2003 11:31 PM

I recall but can't place "changing the paradigm of a major field of scholarship" as a requirement for tenure. Was that Harvard? Or am I remembering an MLA job ad (e.g., "in your letter of application to Great Valley State College, please describe how your scholarship has changed the paradigm of your field as well as how you teach remedial composition.")

In any case, I guess that delusions of grandeur are characteristic of enterprises on the eve of disintegration.

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at June 24, 2003 07:43 AM

A very good friend of mine directs an interfaith nonprofit disabilities network. However overstated Kudlick's point is --aptly summarized by Thomas above-- the disabled community is not just another academic trend.

Posted by: chutney at June 24, 2003 08:29 AM

"However overstated Kudlick's point is --aptly summarized by Thomas above-- the disabled community is not just another academic trend."

Agreed. Which is one reason why it strikes me as opportunistic:

"One need not identify oneself as disabled in order to reap the benefits of this up-and-coming field."

As I read it, this is not about advancing the interests of those in disabled communities, but rather about using disability to position oneself on the cutting edge of a new trend in academic "paradigm-shifting."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 24, 2003 08:58 AM

I've always wanted to create a bumpersticker or a t-shirt that would read:
"Just Another Marginalized Other" and distribute it to about a million people.

Posted by: Cat at June 24, 2003 09:47 AM

This isn't about changing the paradigm, but about the well-meaning tin cans that are tied to the planning of academic classes. Awhile back I I submitted a proposal to teach a class on Marco Polo and the Mongoil empire. Basically the idea was that world history and social studies teachers who were keeping their credentials up would learn something interesting and useful that they might be able to use in their classes. I figured that I had the gloabalization and multicultural angles sacked.

Among the impenetrable paperwork I had to file (no translations of the bureaucratese) was a list of politically-correct goals -- the class should have a multicultural, gay friendly, non-sexist message. Among the points was handicapped awareness.

All issues I agree upon, but how do you jimmy handicapped awareness into Marco Polo? My problem with the course was already reducing the material to manageable size.

Another thing I found was that multiculturalism is americocentric. "Minorities" without an American footprint, such as Mongols, Aas, Georgians, and Oirats, don't really count. But the Khazars do, because they were Jewish. (But wait -- are Jews a minority any more?)

My lifetime of leftwing politics has turned around to bite me. Oh well.

Posted by: zizka at June 24, 2003 12:01 PM

I've always been somewhat bothered by the tendency to take currently relevant social and cultural categories and cast them backward in time to give the people who are currently in them a "history." I appreciate the impulse, but, hey, "African-Americans" didn't exist 100 years ago, even though people of African descent living in the United States certainly did. Even an apparently transhistorical category, like "women," has so many manifestations and permutations that there's a real risk of assuming that the current understanding of a social category is essentially the same as a past one. Granted, there's enough overlap to make studying women, or the English, etc. over time feasible, but even that must be done with care.

I would imagine the same holds true for "disabled studies" -- or would that be the study of the halt and the lame, if this person is being honest about looking at disability in a historical context in order to understand _past_ -- not current -- understandings and practices?

Another point -- I reread the part IA quoted above, "One need not identify oneself as disabled in order to reap the benefits of this up-and-coming field." To me this signals not only the "use-the-disabled-as-a-hot-new-paradigm" mindset, but a subtle manifestation of the belief that those best suited to write/teach a history of a "minority" group are members of the modern incarnation of that group. Note that this only applies to "special" groups -- you never hear anyone saying that you have to be a white male Puritan to teach colonial history -- so the author's mention of this suggests to me that "the disabled" are being (re)constructed as a "special" group, which implies again that the people who inhabit that category are not the real concern.

Posted by: Rana at June 24, 2003 01:12 PM

I detected the same "subtle manifestation" as Rana did.

I am wondering what sort of special research skills a person with specific disability might have that would equip them to do the sort of research that other differently abled people couldn't. Read Braille texts? This sort of "special skills" argument is often used to justify hiring decisions in my little (non-western, non-English speaking) corner of historical inquiry. But because a sighted person can learn Braille and I can master, say, Vietnamese, the skills argument seems like a shabby decoy for demographic-driven hiring.

An interesting wrinkle is that I could, of course, become disabled by taking matters into my own hand. I'm not that desperate -- yet.

Posted by: Chewy at June 24, 2003 03:17 PM

Paradigm shifts ended for me many years ago when I started shifting baby paraphernalia instead of theoretical constructs.... I left academia back when marginalization was a hot new topic, and the membership of marginalized groups was still small enough to be exclusive. I must say that coming to this weblog and the commentary as I did and so far removed now from the fires that kept me arguing back then makes me realize now what a tough situation you all face ... not just in terms of landing that teaching job, but also in terms of claiming the boundaries, or a bit of terra firma, in the quicksand of opportunism

Posted by: maria at June 24, 2003 04:23 PM

the class should have a multicultural, gay friendly, non-sexist message

A class on Marco Polo and the Mongol empire?? I have no words.

I'm beginning to think we're getting less and less able to understand the past at all; how can we if we're so horrified by the terms in which people living pre-political-correctness saw life that we are unable to see things from their point of view, even hypothetically, even for the space of an hour's musing?

Posted by: language hat at June 24, 2003 05:42 PM

Too right, l.h. One of the first things I have to drum into my students' heads is that while it is okay to disapprove of how the people of the past lived their lives, they have an equal or greater responsibility to learn to understand _why_ people -- especially those deemed good, decent and kind by their societies -- would say or do or think things that today we condemn. I also try to get across, by extension, the idea that their own beliefs, common assumptions, practices, etc. are no more universal than those of medieval peasants or 17th century Tlingit shamans, and to hopefully develop a bit of modesty about their own culture's "superiority."

I'd add too, that if we can't get a grip on the mentalities of people who are dead and long gone, how on earth are we ever going to figure out how to live with the people alive right now?

Posted by: Rana at June 24, 2003 05:52 PM

This is about how careerist tropes seize hold of and ultimately parody real causes and communities--sometimes, though not invariably, in alliance with some similar seizures and instrumental uses among identity politics activists. It would be funny if it weren't so damned annoying: the "discovery" of a marginality is proclaimed like Columbus claiming the New World for Spain, rescued from malign and deliberate neglect. An earnest project of recovery is outlined, and a rhetoric of urgent redress accompanies it--which carries with it an implicit need to commission the discoverer as the agent of redress, speaking on behalf of the hidden, lost, concealed, suppressed history.

Then comes the people who want to reveal "hidden complexities" in the heroically recovered marginality, while more or less maintaining the recovery narrative intact. Then comes the people who question whether the identity in question even really exists, and who pronounce it part of a system of representational binaries which enmesh everyone who tries to speak of the categories in question.

Meanwhile, the gold rush search for the next never-mentioned marginality in need of recuperation has long since moved on.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at June 24, 2003 06:48 PM

Parody is a good term.

"The fields that blazed the trail for studying race, gender, and sexuality while introducing postmodernism and the linguistic turn have provided valuable analytic and theoretical tools for exploring this new Other."

I find it (almost) incredible that someone could utter the above line with a straight face.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 24, 2003 07:37 PM

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

This is one of the main problems with academia (and, to some extent, the broader society)--start with a paradigm, and look around for places to apply it. This is in many ways the contrary of true scholarship, which seeks to understand without preconceived notions.

I've got some more thoughts on this at my blog if anyone's interested.

Posted by: David Foster at June 24, 2003 07:51 PM

Good post, David. I do want to add that I don't think that theory is intrinsically a bad thing. Speaking as a historian, I find that a lot of historians (particularly older ones) espouse an approach of "letting the facts speak" while the historian acts as a neutral channel through which information flows. This seems to me to be a form of scholarly self-delusion, because if historians were merely transcribers, we would drown in the data and be of little use to anyone.

Our job is to identify and explain the significance of relevant facts, not random facts, and that requires some sort of intellectual framework, that is, a theory. If one is not aware of this on a conscious level, how can one make sure that the operating assumptions governing one's selections of "relevant" facts are appropriate?

On the other hand, there are those "theory" historians who do tend towards that "all the world looks like a nail" attitude (Marxists seem especially prone to this; I don't know why). This also strikes me as bad.

It seems to me that historians (and others, probably) need to be conscious and deliberate about their theoretical approaches, meaning that they select them with an eye to the questions and topics being addressed, and that they be willing to alter the theory if it cannot make sense of the facts, or even devise a new one.

Inventing new theories should not be the goal per se, however. At that point, I would argue, one has moved beyond the purpose of historical scholarship.

Posted by: Rana at June 24, 2003 08:20 PM

"Fields that blazed the the trails". Do fields blaze trails? That strikes me as the most godawful metaphor I've ever seen. There's something eerie about it

Posted by: zizka at June 24, 2003 09:41 PM

Hi Rana...I totally agree that theory can be of great value. My objection is to those who would misuse theory thru overemphasis and force-fitting.

I do think there is something to another comment made by Lewis (again, via a character in a novel): "I happen to believe that you can not *study* men, you can only get to know them, which is something quite different." (emphasis added) I wouldn't go as far as Lewis; I do feel there is value in "studying" men (as in quantitative sociology), but the "getting to know them" perspective is also crucial. Traditionally, this was a function of the humanities, which I am afraid is in serious danger of getting lost.

Posted by: David Foster at June 24, 2003 09:57 PM

David: This is absolutely brilliant, and I want to post it here for those who haven't been to your blog and seen the entry:

"Becoming an acolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships--all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics--you don't need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying "that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors" (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan's unusual novel True Crime.)"

I have oft thought this, but never managed to so well express it.

Posted by: language hat at June 25, 2003 10:20 AM

"fields that blaze . . . trails"
is indeed godawful. but last night
i saw a simile that might have it beat:
"rising like a meteor". i kid you not.
hmm. this seems suspiciously like
an off-topic ramble. well, okay:
do we need another "other"? --
good lord, no. but neither do we need
another club with which to beat multiculti
PC jargonloving obfuscation majors;
their retreat into irrelevance
is a pretty well established fact.
what then are we to do?

Posted by: vlorbik at June 25, 2003 10:33 AM

Can you folks help me with a definition of theory? I am very much an outsider here, I fear. I work as a financial economist and as you are probably aware, we at least pretend to have theories that are subject to testing and refutation. Now we live up to this ideal less than half the time, but it is the case that in my field we have had a pretty productive and humbling engagement with the data in recent years. For example, stock markets and a lot of related phenomena have not been behaving the way theory says they should, to put it mildly. Some of us have retreated to denying the data or to emptying our "efficient markets" theory of any empirical content so as to avoid refutation. But a lot of us are struggling to see exactly where we went wrong. It is actually a lot of fun. But maybe that is because we also have a good job market???

Posted by: gerald garvey at June 25, 2003 12:00 PM

(Hoping others will chime in to adjust as necessary)

Theory -- in history at least -- is usually understood to mean an analytical framework used to make sense of the raw data. It will probably include a number of key concepts into which the data fit ("capitalism" "race" "nature" "culture") and an explanation of how they relate to each other ("workers are alienated from their labor, leading to..."). Ideally, this offers the researcher a starting point from which to search out and organize data, and then the framework is refined to reflect the fact that data and abstract categories never match up perfectly.

It's that last part that gets tricky, as David points out. Too often someone happens on a pet explanation and forces the data to fit into it, or ignores the data entirely while crooning happily over the "perfect" theoretical model they've created.

Part of the reason that the latter sort of theory obsession can develop is that the main feedback mechanism is peer review (and, if you're able to cross over into popular audiences, public outcry); if you misuse data, there's often not immediate negative consequences like those that result from failing to calculate the proper variables when building a bridge.

Posted by: Rana at June 25, 2003 12:59 PM

The thing that I find stupid about "theory" since Adorno or so, maybe since Freud, is that the whole point of a theory in other discourses is to produce something more intelligible and easier to understand than the raw data. E = mc2 or Newton's laws of motion are not immediately obvious or immediately intelligible, but once you understand these theories you can apply them unambiguosly and make formerly-difficult questions easy.

Whereas all the English- department theory I've seen is tremendously complicated and ambiguous and doesn't really help make anything clear and simple at all.

Posted by: zizka at June 25, 2003 04:37 PM

Exactly, zizka..a good theory makes things easier rather than harder. Philosophy majors will be familiar with Occam's Razor, which states in essence that if several theories can explain the same phenomenon, the one which is simpler is most likely to be correct. (For example, both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories can explain the observed motion of the planets, but the former (sun moves around the earth) requires some strange patterns of motion to be assumed.)

I'm curious..is Occam's Razor a concept to which humanities majors (outside philosophy), and even science majors, are exposed to these days?

Posted by: David Foster at June 25, 2003 04:46 PM

OK, it sounds familiar in that a theory is supposed to help us think about/explain raw data. But what about deriving additional predictions from the theory and seeing how they line up with new or previously unmined data?

David: thanks for the reminder about Occam's razor. Never heard it in school but it is immensely valuable working in a business school. Applied to most of the stuff I see in management, the razor carves out huge chunks of stuff and often takes the whole thing out. Very valuable!

Posted by: gerald garvey at June 25, 2003 05:40 PM

I know about Occam's Razor, for what that's worth -- though I think sometimes it's misunderstood. The qualifier is the simplest explanation that explains all the variables -- not the simplest one period. (Which I know is not what you meant, David.)

I don't know how relevant it is in my field, despite the intellectual appeal. :) History is so messy that good historians are sceptical of simple explanations. This is also why our theories (with the possible exception of Marxism -- or at least a bastard form of it, which is where most of the theory obsessives hang out) tend to be explanatory rather than predictive.

Posted by: Rana at June 26, 2003 11:18 AM

I knew Joan Scott way back when. I took American History from her husband Don. Are they still married?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 2, 2003 10:44 PM