Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Hedgehog’s Array: February 27, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis,” Gerry Canavan
“As every college administration invokes generalized, free-flowing “emergency” as its justification for arbitrary policy after arbitrary policy — all of which need to be implemented now, en toto and without debate, even the ones that contradict the other ones — they are arguing that their management up to now has been so wildly and irredeemably poor that the university has been thrown into total system crisis. And yet the solution to the emergency is, inevitably, always more (and more draconian) administrative control, always centralized under the very same people who took us over the cliff in the first place!”

“Remarkably Modern and Profoundly Religious,” Cole Carnesecca
“In Japan, religion significantly influenced Japanese modernity. Japanese modernity didn’t look like Western modernity (which was hardly a cohesive reality beyond its more theoretical construction) because it wasn’t Western modernity.”

“Dark Leviathan,” Henry Farrell
“The libertarian dream of free online drug markets that can magically and peacefully regulate themselves is just that: a dream. Playing at pirates is only fun as long as the other players are kids too. The trouble is, once adults with real swords appear, it may be too late to wake up.”

“Heaven is a Place on Earth,” John Gray
“Popular culture contains few, if any, convincing representations of a happy afterlife.”

“The Allure of Hyperlocal History,” Casey N. Cep
“Arcadia certainly occupies a small niche in the publishing world, but it’s a comfortable one, one that resonates with the full meaning of that word, offering rare nests in a time of endless migration.”

“The Failure of Macho Christianity,” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
“For both PUAs and the hyper-masculine ministry of Mars Hill and its like-minded flankers, the story goes something like this: feminism and its attendant ideological shifts have undermined traditionally male sources of power and dignity; nevertheless, certain anthropological realities (divinely ordained gender differences for the Christians, evolutionary psychology for the PUAs) resist this newly imposed order.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Revival—Elmer Gantry Returns!,” Leann Davis Alspaugh
“Oral Roberts is said to have burst through his front door one day, shouting ‘Fix me a steak, I’ve just seen Jesus!’ The charismatic televangelist, who died in 2009, had an appetite for fiery sermons and faith healings, but it was his reliance on the collection plate that really aggravated his critics.”

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Beethoven and the Beef Jerky Maker

Klaus Kammerichs: Beethon (1986) Material: Beton nach einer Vorlage des Beethoven-Porträts von Joseph Karl Stieler (1819) Standort: Beethovenhalle in Bonn

Klaus Kammerichs: Beethon (1986) Material: Beton nach einer Vorlage des Beethoven-Porträts von Joseph Karl Stieler (1819) Standort: Beethovenhalle in Bonn. By Hans Weingartz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago, a Boston-based recording studio was entrusted with an especially challenging remastering project. As box after box of reel-to-reel tapes, the classical music archives of RCA’s Living Stereo label, began arriving, the studio engineers had to figure out how to get usable material off the fragile tapes and transfer it to compact discs. The tapes had been stored properly, but the glue that held the magnetic medium on the acetate tapes had become sticky. Unspooling the tapes in order to thread them through a playback machine could destroy them entirely.

Introduced in the 1950s, the Living Stereo label brought stereo recordings in the form of long-playing records (LPs) into the mainstream. With a postwar boom in home record players with stereo sound reproduction capability, music lovers could enjoy affordable LPs featuring some of the world’s greatest orchestras in the comfort of their own living rooms. Living Stereo, along with rival CBS Masterworks, changed more than just how people listened to music. Heard on radio programs and used as music education tools, these recordings set new musical standards for amateurs and professionals all over the world. Conductors like Charles Munch and violinists like Jascha Heifetz became household names whose interpretations have continued to have an indelible impact on music.

In the early 2000s, many record companies began to dig deep into their back catalogs, looking for a way to monetize their holdings. Transferring Living Stereo archives to CDs would give audiophiles greater access to historic recordings and provide a profitable boost to the record companies. But none of that would happen if the reel-to-reel tapes couldn’t be rescued. Finding a machine to play the tapes on wasn’t a problem—the studio in Boston is a veritable museum of audio technology. But even unspooling the sticky tapes carefully by hand could create irrevocable damage. The solution turned out to be a humble beef jerky maker. The appliance’s round shape is exactly the size of a tape reel, and its dehydration settings reach just the right temperature to “cook” a tape without damaging it. The studio went on to transfer scores of Living Stereo tapes, bringing Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and a host of great orchestras back from acetate oblivion. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: February 20, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Nice to Meat You,” Adam Kotsko
“A single creepy property, if strongly expressed, can give rise to the entire ensemble.”

“Why ‘The Enlightenment Project’ Is Necessary and Unending,” Todd Gitlin
Those who scorn ‘the Enlightenment project’ fail to realize how heavily they depend on the very reason they scorn or at least the reputation for reason, even as, instead of deep studies, they are encouraged to play games of citational gotcha: Pin the tail on Kant.

“Always Already Alienated,” Jon Baskin
“Lerner is the leading practitioner of the novel of detachment—an ascendant genre in contemporary American letters.”

“Where Van Gogh Learned to Paint,” William Cook
“Van Gogh’s suicide, in 1890, went entirely unreported in the Belgian press, but in the summer of 1914 six of his paintings were exhibited here in Mons, at the handsome Hôtel de Ville. The art critic from Le Hainaut didn’t think that much of them, apart from a ‘violent’ painting of some sunflowers.”

“What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood
“Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions.”

“Dressing Down,” Claude S. Fischer
“Our contemporary informality may depend on much tighter internal control than formality did.”

“What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals?,” Mark Greif
“When The Chronicle Review invited me, with the spur of Partisan Review’s digital reappearance, to compare it with the ‘state of polemic’ now, in 2015, I confess my heart sank. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and it is so hard to distinguish in your own time what is temporary rubble and what is bedrock once you get the historical jackhammer whirring. Yet I do feel certain that quite common, well-intentioned arguments about ‘public writing’ and polemic now are misguided, and the university-baiting is annoying.”

And for those looking for a little more reading to do:

“Forty for 40: A Literary Reader for Lent,” Nick Ripatrazone
“This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.”

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In Little League, All Racial Politics Are Local

President Barack Obama welcomes the Jackie Robinson West All Stars to the Oval Office, Nov. 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama welcomes the Jackie Robinson West All Stars to the Oval Office, Nov. 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).

Little League International has stripped the Jackie Robinson West team of its national title. The team, made up exclusively of black players from Chicago, won the US Little League title last fall, losing only to South Korea in the Little League World Series final in August. Their triumphs earned them accolades, parades, and even a trip to the White House. Jackie Robinson West’s success was particularly poignant given the well-known decline in baseball participation among black Americans, especially those from urban centers like Chicago.

According to a statement released by Little League, Jackie Robinson West was stripped of its title due to league officials’ apparent falsification of league boundaries. The aim of the team’s managers, the statement suggests, was to include some high caliber players on the team who otherwise would not be eligible to play on it because they live and go to school outside of Jackie Robinson West’s league boundaries. There is, however, another dimension to this story—a racial one, having to do with how Little League local government operates in the first place.

Anybody who has worked with Little League baseball knows that it is a surprisingly unwieldy institution. Although heavy on rules, Little League is a highly decentralized organization. The building blocks of Little League baseball are “leagues” and then “districts,” with the latter made up of several, sometimes many, leagues. Most of the finer points in Little League rules and procedures concern “tournament” play, a form of play different from the regular season. Akin to the playoffs, tournament play features all-star teams made up of the best players in a given “league,” of which there are hundreds in the United States alone. Every summer and fall, all-star teams from a few of these leagues work their way through an elaborate tournament structure and end up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series. Jackie Robinson West not only made it to Williamsport, but also defeated all the other US teams in the tournament to play in the Little League World Series final.

Under Little League rules, districts have clear boundaries. Leagues nominally do, too. But in reality, league boundaries are not infrequently contested, redrawn, debated, or made “flexible” for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons has unquestionably been race.

In Champaign-Urbana (about two hours south of Chicago)—my own Little League community—there are clear boundaries drawn around the four “leagues” that comprise Little League baseball in this area. Their boundaries are far from square (as you can see here). Rather, they wind and weave here and there, barely following the grid layout imposed on a flat, prairie city. A local board made up of the Champaign-Urbana Little League sponsor (the Kiwanis) and the four league presidents meet from time to time to redraw the boundaries according to new developments in town—including, in 2012, contracting from six Champaign-Urbana leagues to four due to a decline in Little League participation. These new boundaries are sent to the District Manager and eventually to a central Little League office to be made official. But pending that approval, it is up to the local league boards to figure out exactly where the league boundaries should be drawn, and when they should be redrawn.

With this arrangement, Little League has given local communities tremendous discretion in determining the boundaries of its leagues. This tends to lead to boundaries that consistently follow “local prejudices” in the sense that historically black areas are separated from nearby white areas, in the same way that we see, for example, the placement and quality of urban public schools mirroring a pattern of racial and socio-economic demographics. Little League regulations, thus, tolerate, even perpetuate these patterns by putting into place rules and procedures that enable this to happen with little or no resistance. The all-too-common result: all-black leagues.

For example, one of the Champaign-Urbana leagues, known as “First String,” covers a large historically black neighborhood that is also, and has been for some time, the poorest area in the area. The southern, eastern, and western boundaries of this league follow the perimeters of this historically black neighborhood. The league extends north into a box-store district with very little single-family housing. Only one school from which to draw players is found within its boundaries, whereas numerous schools are found within the borders of each of the other local leagues. And First String is the only league on the map that crosses the boundary line dividing the two major municipalities of the area: Champaign and Urbana (and, thus, the two major school districts). It is self-evident to anyone who knows the Champaign-Urbana area that First String’s league boundaries are drawn according to racial and socio-economic demographics. Of the four leagues in my area, First String’s is consistently composed of all-black players.

That Little League boundaries are drawn according to local racial politics should not be all that surprising. Little League is, at bottom, a community-based organization. This is one of its virtues, but that also makes it vulnerable to local prejudice—and this is the more telling aspect of the story of the First String league in Champaign-Urbana. There is, and has been for decades, an “understanding” in the community that if you are black, no matter where you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, you can play for First String. This does not mean—at least not in recent history—that if you are black you must play for First String: The team I coach in Urbana is racially diverse, and it is not in the First String league. Rather, it is understood that if you are black and don’t live within the borders of First String, you may nevertheless play for them.

Properly speaking, this is against the rules. But there’s a shared understanding that such boundary crossing is permitted. This has been the case for years, and officials have long turned a blind eye. The black players who cross the league boundary are often players from wealthier areas, and wealthier families, in town. Their parents justifiably and even nobly see the boundary crossing as a form of support for a historically black league, an act of civic solidarity in a racially divided town. Indeed, some of these parents from other areas coach in First String as a show of further support. And, unlike Jackie Robinson West, First String is only modestly successful. In fact, it has not fielded a playoff team in recent memory because First String’s board is aware that players living outside its borders do not qualify for postseason play. The boundary crossing, in this case, really does seem to be motivated by racial solidarity.

Does racial solidarity factor into the case of Jackie Robinson West, and have there been “understandings” in the Chicago area that have permitted such arrangements? I do not know, and so far have been unable to find out. Since the story broke out, I have not been able to find any details on league boundaries and histories in Chicago (Jackie Robinson West’s website has since been taken down). However, the Little League statement on Jackie Robinson West speaks of “multiple issues with boundary maps and operational process with multiple leagues in Illinois District 4,” and of a variety of “misunderstandings in multiple league boundaries.” “Little League International,” it continues cryptically, “learned of several operational issues within the entire District that have occurred over the course of many years under different leadership at the District level.”

There is no doubt, in the case of Jackie Robinson West, that black players crossed league boundaries to play on the team. If this were simply about “ringers” being brought in to bolster the existing team roster, then we might expect to see white players as well. But that would not happen and, in fact, would not be tolerated. The real point here is not the use of “ringers,” but the existence of the long-sanctioned context for boundary crossing for black players. This, I strongly suspect, is what is behind the vague verbiage in the Little League report about a “history” of boundary issues in the area. This is not simply a case of bending the rules or even outright cheating, but rather a long history of racial segregation, racial segregation that can’t be neatly uncoupled from racial prejudice. In my opinion, the racial history explains the community norms around “flexible” boundary crossing, what some might more accurately label cheating.

There is a great irony, even hypocrisy, in Little League’s coming down on Jackie Robinson West now—and only now—that they have won a national championship. Little League’s action is not about the enforcement of the rules. If it were, Little League, an $80 million organization, would do much more to address the problem of boundary enforcement and might even encourage districts to consider racial and socio-economic factors proactively when constructing boundaries for leagues.

Rather, this is likely about a white suburban league crying foul and taking down Jackie Robinson West, invoking rules that had been implicitly bent for decades. If Jackie Robinson West had been knocked out at the district level, they—and their fellow teams—would have happily continued the practice of boundary crossing. But they weren’t. They won, and won big time. And so they paid. In Little League, it seems that all racial politics are local until you win a national championship.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination.

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Where Moth and Rust Doth Corrupt

Vint Cerf, 2007.

Vinton Cerf, 2007. By Joi Ito (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data,” said Dr. Vinton Cerf, the vice president of Google, in a recent address to American Association for the Advancement of Science, “into what could become an information black hole without realizing it…. In our zeal to get excited about digitizing we digitize photographs thinking it’s going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong.” And if we do turn out to be wrong, Cerf continues, then we will probably leave few historical records behind us. Our excessively documented age will simply disappear.

Cerf’s comments might come as surprise to some. When expressing fears over our digital records, we focus much of our concern focuses on permanence—the idea that, for instance, an unkind or embarrassing action could linger on and haunt us long beyond any reasonable amount of time. When looking at the recent hiring-and-firing of Ethan Czahor, Jeb Bush’s tech officer, many draw the obvious moral that it is unwise to tweet. “Everyone of Czahor’s generation and younger,” says Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post, “will come with some kind of digital dirt, some ancient tweet to be deleted or beer-pong portrait to untag.” This is, of course, true.

But it’s also true that those tweets don’t stay accessible as long as we might think. Without requesting my archives or searching for specific terms, I can’t access my own tweets past a certain point (last I checked, mid-December). For those who use Twitter, as I sometimes do, as a way of taking notes, this discovery can be very unwelcome. The archive still exists, of course. I can get to it if I want. But as Cerf points out, it may be that in three or four years that archive, downloaded to my computer, may exist in a form I’m unable to open; and Twitter may no longer exist to provide them to me in a format that I can use.

These tweets are no great loss to anyone, of course, not even to me, and in their contents they do not even rise to the level of the mildly scandalous. All the same, it came as a shock to realize how many small notes of mine were functionally inaccessible to me. In fact, thinking into the future with our current technology is a difficult task in many respects. You can, if you so desire, write an email to the future, which is by itself a fairly draining spiritual exercise. But are you really so confident that you know the email address you’ll use in the future, let alone that you’ll be using email at all?

Continue reading

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Harlequin as Hammer

Harlequin, 1927, by Salvador Dalí; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea; Art Resource, NY; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.

Harlequin, 1927, by Salvador Dalí; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea; Art Resource, NY; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.

Lobster telephones, melting watches, deviant behavior—such images could only come from Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). Over the course of his life, Dalí created a body of work that examined memory, visual perception, sexuality, religion, and identity against a backdrop of a host of twentieth-century dislocations. The critical reception of his work remains divided—was he a craven manipulator or a genius-dilettante?— but few would doubt his abilities as a draftsman, a colorist, and an exuberant explorer of psychosis.

Dalí’s stylistic experimentation—some have called it stylistic promiscuity—marked his entire career. In the upcoming spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, we include Dalí’s Harlequin (right), an example of synthetic cubism from 1927. We chose the image to illustrate an essay with a particularly thorny premise, a defense of prejudice by Adam Adatto Sandel. Perhaps surprisingly, Dalí’s depiction of the hoary commedia dell’arte character Harlequin has quite a bit in common with Heidegger’s hammer.

Dalí’s awareness of Harlequin came from two main sources: his love of the theater, where commedia characters have been mainstays of the stage for centuries, and the influence of fellow Spaniard Picasso. The latter painted many depictions of Harlequin and other circus performers during his Blue and Rose Periods and into his cubist period; Dalí perhaps saw some of these during his visit to Picasso’s Paris studio in 1926. In Barcelona, Dalí also encountered circus performers among his circle of acquaintances. (No doubt, their antics inspired some of his own.) In addition around this same time, Dalí designed the sets was Adrià Gual’s La familia de Arlequín (Harlequin’s Family) at the Teatro Intim in Barcelona. So Harlequin held a prominent place in Dalí’s aesthetics of the late 1920s.

Dalí’s Harlequin relies on a disturbed dualism. Its limited color palette is primarily black and white, with a bisected humanoid figure that seems to be half crumpled and half smooth. The left half of the figure has a white head covered in creases and is clothed in uninflected black garment; the right half has a smooth gray head and wears a dark red tunic with three dimensional strokes indicating the diamond pattern of Harlequin’s traditional costume. The misshapen head, vaguely crescent shaped, indicates Harlequin’s jester’s cap. In the background, an ornamental wall in bright yellow frames the left half while the background of the right half is the same wall in dark red. These neat binaries are offset by a slightly diagonal line that respects neither the background wall nor the foreground figure, bifurcating the picture plane and emphasizing the formal aspect of the composition. We want to read this as a portrait but the surface elements are constantly interfering, thwarting our natural instinct to see faces in everything—Dalí relished pushing the boundaries of art and kitsch by frequently incorporating faces into his paintings and photographs.

While there have been endless discussions of Dalí in the context of Freud—what artist could be more accommodating in this area?—let’s return to the idea of Harlequin and Heidegger’s hammer. As Sandel explains in his essay,

We relate to things, Heidegger points out, and come to know them, not primarily as observers but as participants. As a carpenter hammers at his bench, for example, he does not really perceive the hammer as if he were a disengaged observer of it. He does not relate to the hammer as a thing with properties or even as an object of conscious awareness. The more proficiently he presses the hammer into service, the more the hammer disappears from his perceptual range. The carpenter’s first-person perspective, the “I,” or “subject,” disappears into the work he carries out. Absorbed in the flow of work, the carpenter and his hammer vanish into the activity of hammering.

So Heidegger proposes a way of understanding the world distinct from Cartesian subject-object dualism. In the hammer analogy, absorption has a pragmatic purpose, one offering a practical and moral understanding of “being-in-the-world.” While the moral aspect of Dalí’s work is the subject for another discussion, we can arrive at an understanding, however brief, of his approach to “being-in-the-world” by examining this work. For Dalí, Harlequin carves out a space in which to examine how visual perception informs epistemology. Through an interaction of conscious and unconscious forces, Dalí delves into psychical operations—his own and ours.

First, he utilizes the cultural referents of the historical Harlequin, the commedia figure, as an object that makes meaning and constructs relationships. Not only does Harlequin have a meaning on stage within the rules of dramatic unity, he also serves to make meaning for the audience and viewers who recognize him and his attributes. At the same time, Dalí thwarts meaning by emphasizing the thingness of the character he depicts. Dalí’s interpretation of Harlequin is based primarily in its physical presentation, so much so that it tends toward what the linguists call misprision. Up to a point, we recognize certain signs of Harlequin—the hat, the costume, the artwork’s title—but the artist’s insistence on misleading visual cues prevents a full comprehension. We can’t even really be sure if the apparent three-dimensional aspects of certain parts of the work are trompe l’oeil painting or actual collage.

Cubism’s stylistic hegemony—the dislocated binaries, the tactile surfaces in a two-dimensional work, and the distortions—interferes with what we want to understand about what few clues we can decipher. Falling back on those familiar terms with which we confront the world, what Sandel refers to as our particular “life perspective,” we discover that perhaps the most salient point in our interpretation is anxiety about what we are seeing—is it Harlequin or not? Dalí has so skillfully reimagined the character of the Harlequin that like the carpenter wielding the hammer, he and his tools have disappeared into his work, absorbed in the purpose at hand: that of investigating conscious and the unconscious sources of identity, meaning, and self-knowledge. And we have become reluctant co-conspirators.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: February 13, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“AA Envy,” Helen Andrews
“Why this special treatment for twelve-step programs? Because all the other moral languages in which modern Americans are fluent, the languages that sound so inspiring and correct when talking about politics, turn useless in the face of addiction.”

“One Wine, Two Wine, Red Wine, Blue Wine,” Damion Searls
“The most well-known color-translation problem is Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’—the sea rarely being, of course, what we would call the color of wine of any color.”

“A Place of Pasts,” Joseph Mitchell
“In the fall of 1968, without at first realizing what was happening to me, I began living in the past. These days, when I reflect on this and add up the years that have gone by, I can hardly believe it: I have been living in the past for over twenty years—living mostly in the past, I should say, or living in the past as much as possible.”

“Iammmmyookkraaanian,” Peter Pomerantsev
“After decades in Moscow with its aestheticised cynicism and London with its apolitical resignation, Kiev’s uprush of utopias was refreshing, and occasionally disturbing. Soon I found myself sitting in cafés scribbling my own pet utopia: Ukraine as a Russia 2.0.”

“A Clever Collection,” Matthew Walther
“We hit astonished, indeed open-mouthed, upon the truth, namely that the teenaged Austen was already a prudent, wise, humble person trying to make sense of a world full of boorishness and stupidity.”

“Your Snitching Gadgets,” Jacob Silverman
“Always-on data collection, combined with porous privacy policies and insecure devices, are changing our expectations for security and privacy. What matters now is not just what our devices and apps collect but also why, for whom, when, and how.”

“Why Max Weber Matters,” Duncan Kelly
“For those who hold fixed ideas about Weber the political animal, Ghosh’s claims will be hard reading. But part of the problem with seeing him as a straightforward nationalist was that even incandescent rage about national shame was allied to a profound understanding of geopolitics and political responsibility.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Cézanne and the Modern,” Leann Davis Alspaugh
“Henry Pearlman liked to say that every time he saw his art collection, it gave him a lift. We should all be so lucky.”

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The End(s) of History

Historia, Nikolaos Gyzis (1892). Wikimedia Commons.

Historia, Nikolaos Gyzis (1892). Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Harvard University, thinks history is in trouble, big trouble, and that its difficulties have been a long time in the making. Setting forth his reasons in a recent review-essay in The Nation, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” he has started a minor skirmish in the larger debates over the parlous state of the humanities. Many of Moyn’s fellow historians have taken sharp issue with his argument,  including Princeton University’s Anthony Grafton, whose mentor, the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, represents what Moyn believes are the inveterate weaknesses of the discipline: namely, an excessive and antiquarian fealty to fact, and a discomfort with theory. Grafton, who has engaged in a fierce Facebook exchange with Moyn, hardly needs my support, but I too find reasons to quibble—and some reasons to disagree strongly—with Moyn’s attempted take-down.

First, the quibble: Is history—and let’s just leave it at historical work produced by professional academicians—really at such a low ebb? Moyn’s assessment, though he puts it in the words of the authors he is reviewing, is in the sweeping affirmative:

Today, historians worry that they have lost their audience, and their distress has made the search for the next trend seem especially pressing. At the beginning of her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt remarks that “history is in crisis” because it can no longer answer “the nagging question” of why history matters. David Armitage and Jo Guldi, in their History Manifesto, concur: in the face of today’s “bonfire of the humanities,” and a disastrous loss of interest in a topic in which the culture used to invest heavily (and in classes that students used to attend in droves), defining a new professional vocation is critical. History, so often viewed as a “luxury” or “indulgence,” needs to figure out how to “keep people awake at night,” as Simon Schama has said. Actually, the problem is worse: students today have endless diversions for the wee hours; the trouble for historians is keeping students awake during the day.

This professional anxiety may loom large for a certain part of the history professoriate—namely, academics who rely on theoretical trends to make up for their deficiencies in the craft. But does it pertain to the better historians of the last half-century who have had a large claim on the attention and interest of the educated public? Moyn names Simon Schama. But he could also name Gordon Wood and John Ellis in American history, or Robert Darnton and Lynn Hunt in European history, or Peter Brown on late antiquity, or Roy Foster on modern Irish history.

As far as declining student interest goes, it afflicts other areas of the humanities as much as it does history. In addition to a broad flight to STEM and more practical business-related studies, a general erosion and shallowing of attention is at least as much the problem as the intellectual poverty of trend-sniffling historians who have run out of theories to rest their facts on. More significantly, though, Moyn’s attack aims far higher and deeper than at the mediocrities of the field: Continue reading

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