January 08, 2004

Historians in the Blogosphere

I had to laugh when I read Kieran Healy's Historians of the World, Unite:

A group of well-known history bloggers — including Timothy Burke, Robert ‘KC’ Johnson, and Ralph Luker — have banded together to form Cliopatria. Proof if proof were needed that group blogs are continuing their irresistable rise to global dominance. Or, as a historian would put it, proof if proof were needed that at least one, probably quite atypical, group of historians launched what we can loosely refer to as a group blog (with all the difficulties that amorphous term implies) in late 2003 or thereabouts, according to the best available sources (but see below for futher discussion on this point).

And I thought of it again as I read Timothy Burke's recent post on the use of historical analogies, where he sets forth "some loose, informal standards of discursive fairness when making explanatory historical analogies in general public debate, so as to preserve the mutual transparency between all participants." It's a really nice piece, and well worth reading (and not only by historians).

Burke's post intersects with a set of questions I've been thinking about lately, which have to do with the boundaries between academic and popular history, or between history as an academic discipline and the use (and possible abuse) of history in other spheres (e.g., the blogosphere). What, if anything, can historians contribute to public debate and discussion, and how might they go about doing so?

In terms of analogies, much as I agree with the substance of Burke's post, I do wonder how exactly his guidelines would play out in an actual online conversation. The problem, I think, is that people tend to use analogies as a kind of shorthand or shortcut -- which requires, as Burke quite rightly notes, that the analogy "should be one that a generally educated person not only recognizes but can evaluate fairly." You say B is like X on the assumption that everyone already knows what X is like. And if people don't already know what X is like, then you're not saying anything useful about B.

So far so good. Where things get trickier is with the case of the "unfamiliar example," in which case, writes Burke, it is

incumbent on the person citing the analogy to provide some details at a very high standard of preemptive fairness to those who might disagree with the reasoning. Meaning, if I use an unusual or unfamiliar analogy, I should provide the kinds of details that I myself might use to argue against as well as for the relevance of the analogy in question.

Which is only fair, and the only productive way to make use of the analogy. But at some point, I think the analogy starts to lose its shorthand/shortcut force, as the historian enters the territory of making a lengthier and more detailed argument from history -- which is a very good thing to do, of course, but not necessarily what is required in a conversation about this or that contemporary issue, question or policy.

I suppose the larger question is: What do people want from history, and are historians willing and able to provide it?

Must run. More on this later...


Edward at Mildly Malevolent responds to Tim Burke's post on the use of historical analogies.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 8, 2004 03:35 PM

The larger question is a potent one, and of course the answer begins with, "Not any single thing".

One of the things that has occurred to me since posting the analogies piece, partially based on comments, is that there are many other uses of analogy that I wouldn't mean to subject to my provisional "rules"--analogies as allegorical forms in cultural work, analogies as personal strategies for understanding the structure of feeling in the past and present, analogies as rhetorical provocation. I'm really thinking quite narrowly about the use of analogies in public debate where the analogy is offered as a predictive, social-scientistic guide to understanding political or social choices, where it just seems to me to be dirty pool to use analogies as a kind of quick way to bash an enemy or where accidental confusion and opacity by analogy-maker can really skew a discussion in a bad way.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at January 8, 2004 04:27 PM

Thanks for writing this, Tim. Given that experimental methods are of very limited usefulness in political and social matters, historical analogy is, in my view, indispensable to any coherent thought process. (This is also true to a considerable extent in business.) It's very useful to begin developing some criteria for deciding when analogies are applicable and when they aren't.

Posted by: David Foster at January 8, 2004 07:08 PM

"I'm really thinking quite narrowly about the use of analogies in public debate where the analogy is offered as a predictive, social-scientistic guide to understanding political or social choices, where it just seems to me to be dirty pool to use analogies as a kind of quick way to bash an enemy or where accidental confusion and opacity by analogy-maker can really skew a discussion in a bad way."

Okay. I see your point, and can only agree. Except that (there's always an exception, eh?) it's not necessarily "dirty pool," which implies a sort of bad faith on the part of the analogy-user.

For me, it comes back to the gulf between history as understood and practiced by academic or specialist historians and history as understood and practiced by those who aren't academics or specialists. Historians mostly don't believe that history can be exemplary in any direct, obvious way. Yes, we learn a good deal from the past, but not in a "leadership secrets of attila the hun" way, or in a "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it" way. To cite Simon Schama: "history never repeats itself, ever. That's its murderous charm."

Until fairly recently (ie until the professionalization of history), exemplarity was a given of historical knowledge. Bolingbroke called it "philosophy teaching by example:" young men of a ruling elite studied history in order to prepare themselves for public life and public duties. The idea was that analogies did work in a fairly straightforward way, so that reading about the ancient Romans would help you avoid the decline and fall of your own polity.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that when people use analogies in ways that seem unfair or unhelpful, they are (at least sometimes! though sometimes, of course, people are just playing dirty pool) drawing upon a tradition of exemplarity that doesn't much hold weight in academic circles anymore, but that still carries enormous weight outside the sphere of academic history.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 8, 2004 07:54 PM

That's a really smart and interesting observation, IA, and it opens a whole range of possible discussions. I confess that one of the things I was thinking about was quite narrow and specific, and that's the sort of small, unhelpful use of analogy by pundits and bloggers. What you're pointing to is the much richer terrain of the general production of historical knowledge and consciousness, and the ways the academy does or does not intersect with it, a subject near and dear to my heart.

I don't know that I would say that academic historians entirely scorn exemplary uses of history entirely, but they do tend to look with overall suspicion or wariness on popular or general demand for same. At least in Africanist historiography, exemplary rhetoric from scholars tends to be almost entirely aimed at analogizing past colonial situations to some contemporary cultural or political practice, a tendency Nicholas Thomas rightfully criticizes in Colonialism's Culture. (This is distinct from arguing that there is a direct lineal or genealogical connection between some past colonial situation and the present: that's not an analogy, it's a straightforward causal argument, also very common and naturally so in Africanist writing.) It's much rarer for an Africanist to make exemplary analogies from a historical situation involving precolonial or indigenous African events or actors, a complex absence that rests on a whole bunch of things.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at January 8, 2004 10:47 PM

I'm not sure that historians in higher ed. are all that opposed to analogies or exemplarity. In their teaching we/they (I, too, am a marginal academic) use them all the time. We have to, partly for heuristic reasons and partly because students expect it.

I may be wrong, but I detect an inverse relationship between the collapse of general historical knowledge among the public and the use of simplistic or misleading analogies, such as "Saddam Hussein is another Hitler." Actually, a case can be made for that analogy, but it requires a great deal more knowledge of Middle Eastern and much other history than is possessed by those who make it.

In this and in many other cases of both right- and left-wing provenance, advocates of political views and strategies use analogies with a moralistic thump to them. Hitler=bad, if Saddam=Hitler therefore Saddam=bad. Even for someone such as myself who supports the Iraq War this is frustratingly simplistic. "Bad" or "evil" have become political categories in this intensely moralistic (but not very moral) age, and it grates, because they are not, actually, political categories at all.

So, I try to warn against analogies that use moralized capsules of history and in favor of analogies that can provide useful insights into such things as the nature of power.

Posted by: David Gress at January 9, 2004 06:45 AM

"What do people want from history?"
People always want a fascinating story.
People always want to be entertained.
They sometimes want to know why the world is the way it is.

"Are Historians willing to provide it?"

I think a lot of them are. Re: Linda Colley, Simon Schama and co.

Posted by: Duckling at January 9, 2004 10:59 AM

If you want a good sense of what people desire from history, take a glance at the textbook industry and the efforts of school boards and "decency committees" (a la the Gablers in Texas) to remove statements that seem "un-American." Texas and California school boards drive the content of the majority of grade through high school history textbooks in the United States, since the textbook industry won't gamble on offending this large sales base. It's a fascinating area to look at, especially since it is a concrete example of where popular sentiment and commerce merge ot influence how we see history.

Posted by: Cat at January 9, 2004 12:14 PM

Even in my more paranoid moments, I would shy away from equating the public with textbook selection activists.

But their actions do raise another venerable use of history that modern historians shy from: history as heritage.

Exemplary history assumes the possibility that we can learn from the past (and model ourselves on individuals, like Washington on Cincinnatus). History as heritage is using and transforming the past to exault the best in us.

The definition of "best" is the rub, of course, and what makes textbook selection so perilous.

Posted by: Oscar Chamberlain at January 9, 2004 02:10 PM

Doesn't really apply to me.

"Like the doomed Tayang Qan, led by the treacherous Jamuqa's bad counsel to retreat ever farther up the mountainside in his vain attempt to escape from Genghis Qan relentless advance, the Democratic party has allowed the insidious Martin Peretz to frighten it into adopting a hopelessly timid strategy."

Probably isn't going to work.

Posted by: zizka at January 9, 2004 10:40 PM

Oscar and Cat, Can you write more about this. It's very interesting.

Posted by: Duckling at January 10, 2004 12:23 PM

The exemplarity idea is very interesting - you can see that all over Montaigne, for instance. (One of the reasons Montaigne is so fascinating, at least to me, is that he's such a rich, detailed source for the way people like him thought in the late 16th century, and there just aren't that many mental self-portraits like that at the time. Not published and easily available anyway, not in Penguin editions.) He's always talking about Epaminondas, for one. And he probably thinks of Socrates, Seneca, other favorites as examples. It seems reasonable to think a good many provincial gents with libraries thought that way. (Then again a lot of others were no doubt more like Don Quixote, reading romances instead of Plutarch, and thinking of Amadis of Gaul as their exemplars rather than Epaminondas.)

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at January 10, 2004 04:07 PM


I want to respond to your request for more on history as heritage, and the tensions resulting from the combination. As a first installment, here is a link to a posting I made at Cliopatria.

It's on more of a personal level than a scholarly level, but I think it portrays the tension that can exist between the two. http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/3035.html

Posted by: Oscar Chamberlain at January 14, 2004 03:35 PM

I also recommend the work of Michael Apple, who has studied the textbook industry from a critical perspective. History-as-heritage goes way back, at least to Plato's Republic, and brings up a host of ethical issues, the least of which challenge the notion of an "objective" history.
Even science textbooks are under the influence of special interest groups. There have been cases of environmental textbooks having to remove statements that question the oil industry's role in pollution, etc. Apparantly the statements in the textbook were "unfair" to the oil industry and had to be removed in order for the textbook to be adopted. As we all know, large corporations are vulnerable and need our protection...geez.

Posted by: Cat at January 14, 2004 03:40 PM