The Ends of History: Response from Mark Steinberg

Monday, February 13, 2012

A covered arcade in 19th-century Paris.
[On February 10, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Trowbridge Office on American Literature, Culture, & Society for a symposium, The Ends of History. Below are remarks from Mark Steinberg, professor of History and Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Illinois, delivered as part of the symposium's closing roundtable. Prof. Steinberg's is the first of several responses we hope to publish.]

Written by Mark Steinberg (History/Slavic Languages & Literatures)

I want to pick up on a couple of large themes provoked by the background readings for this conference as well as today’s papers and discussions—especially a few in the work of literary scholars that spoke to my own work as a historian (most recently of city stories, especially in newspapers, as an account of what "modernity" might mean in early 20th-century Russia as well as, more recently, the meanings and uses of violence and freedom in the Russian revolution) and as a history teacher where questions of method are constantly at issue.

Above all, I was struck by appeals—often gathered around talk of a descriptive turn in literary studies—to allow ourselves to become intimate with the past, to engage in a sustained, susceptible, and generous attentiveness, enabled by a willful uncertainty about meanings (most of these terms are taken from the essay by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus). Or as Rita Felski suggests, in her recent critique of the fetishization of historical context in literary studies, that scholars need to "slow down at each step, forgo theoretical shortcuts, and attend to the words of our fellow actors rather than overriding—and overwriting—them with without own." In other words—to invoke the often-quoted Bruno Latour—the problem is "stopping description when you are too tired or lazy to go on," and failing to recognize that we need "more not less, multiplication not subtraction." Most historians would find all of this rather encouraging, even feel ourselves to be rather superior in doing this already so well: we love more, we love attending to the words of others; we love description. Like Walter Benjamin's flâneur, we sometimes feel a certain "intoxication" in endlessly wandering in the past, taking in everything, looking for every connection.

Too much so, in fact.

The problem in a great deal of history work is often going beyond attentiveness, susceptibility, and multiplication. I see this often in dissertations, but also in submitted scholarly articles (as editor of a journal), and not only in the discipline of history. Of course, it used to be worse: especially when historical work was dominated by the old-historicist faith that "all information is within reach and every problem has become capable of solution" (the infamous declaration of the editor of the first Cambridge Modern History, Lord Acton, in the 1890s). Most historians now consider it a commonplace that we cannot "reach" every fact (and, as E. P. Thompson famously put it, that facts often "lie"). Still less can we see and understand all of the connections, and it is the connections that are most important—what Felski calls the "sociability" of texts.

In some ways, these doubts have pushed historians more in the direction of description. In the fact of inevitable interpretive uncertainty, the impossibility of closure, we might as well revel in the fragmentary and incoherent traces of the past, in the Romantic ruins of evidence, in the pleasures of intimacy with echoes and ghosts. It is indeed, as Baudelaire famously said, an "immense joy" to be the "the passionate spectator"—the "perfect flâneur" who "set[s] up house...amidst the ebb and flow...the fugitive and the infinite." Working on Russian city texts, I found just this sort of pleasure in reading the daily papers of a century ago—agreeing with Walter Benjamin, in his essay trying to explain his "Arcades Project," that "to seize the essence of history, it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper"—which, for me, meant favoring the unboxed temporality of the newspaper.

Latour is right, but in the opposite way he seems to mean: we cannot stop here, we have to work our way through and beyond description. And this means not being too deferential to the texts of the past. It is not enough to "talk with the dead" because we cannot, however much we dream of this. For the dead tend speak only in response to our questions—which shape the answers we get. And they sometimes lie. So we need to interrogate them—though short of "torture" (say with the splinters-under-the-fingernails of grand theory), which can produce, as torture tends to, new lies and substitute the interrogators strong voice for the fainter voices of the past.

Does this mean, as Felski’s critique suggests, that the we know more than the texts that precede us? I think it does, but this is nothing to be arrogant or complacent about (or tired and lazy, as Latour says). It requires hard critical work: not only in a more intense and immersive encounter with the residues of the past, but also more "suspicion" not less: and not only past texts and voices (what is said and is not said), our own vision and voice, (especially how we question the past) but also what we cannot read because it is absent, or we are not intellectually ready to hear.

Which brings me to my last theme: the much contested concept of "historical context." Felski and others are right to warn against a notion of context that forces everything we find into a "box" of teleological or structural argument. Or, as the historian Martin Jay recently wrote in characterizing this crude approach to contextualization, we cannot situate every event in terms of "deep, abiding structures," every text into a "single, homogeneous discursive whole," every story into a coherent and totalizing teleological narrative, including not only reified historical "periods" but also sometimes over-determining boxes like class, gender, and race—which should be questions not answers.

But context can be (and is, in much good history) a landscape rather than a box, a way of exploring and questioning, not answering. Something never closed. Something that is both singular and rich in its particularity (like a literary text, as Heather Love commented) and linked to other times, and places, and questions. Context is where we wander and work (slowly, attentively, susceptibly...but also full of questions and doubts), not where we end our walk because we have become tired.
Also, we cannot (and should not) be too sure of what we may find. It has been said (by Susan Buck-Morss, echoing Benjamin) that it is the work of the historian to "surprise" the present with the evidence of the past…. It is no less our work to surprise the past from the perspective of the present. And, hopefully, surprise ourselves.


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jdesmond said...

Thank you Mark, for this thoughtful opening in the conference and for the post. As anthropologists and cultural studies scholars we too struggle with, while always invoking, the necessity of situating our analysis in historical context. You remind us that those contexts are always unknowable and partial even when we strive to recreate them, and that these renderings are always shaped by contemporary notions of "evidence." There is a certain liberating humility that follows from this that is useful to think with and about. Thanks!