The Ends of History, "History Without Ends"
Guest Writer: Ezra Claverie

Friday, February 17, 2012

[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. The below contribution is from Ezra Claverie. It is the second of two in a series of grad student posts published on the event.]

“History Without Ends”

Written by Ezra Claverie (English)

I have forgiven myself for assuming that the 10 February symposium, The Ends of History, would deal with what Giorgio Agamben calls “the Hegelo-Koj√®vian idea of an end of history.” A look at some of the Unit’s suggested background readings showed me my error, though it might be fairer to say that it made me realize that the wordplay of the symposium’s title had offered me two readings of the noun end, and I had taken the wrong one. These are not “ends” in the sense of completion, where a process ceases (in, say, a utopia or, perhaps, a sustainable liberal commonwealth); these are “ends” as opposed to means, the ends of “doing” history—as in methodological historicism. If historicism is the use of history as “theory” in Jonathan Culler’s sense—that is, the techniques and assumptions of one discipline brought usefully to bear in another—then the question that the participants in this symposium all seemed to ask was, what kind of historicism should literary scholars do, and why?

One answer is that they should do “surface reading” which could be conceived as a shallower kind of historicism. In articles available on the Unit for Criticism’s webpage, two speakers at the symposium, Stephen Best and Heather Love (along with Best's co-author Sharon Marcus) argue from comparable perspectives that the dominance of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” has inflated critics’ self-importance leading scholars to fancy themselves as prophets who reveal the meanings encrypted in texts, while simultaneously blinding these very same scholars to meanings hiding in plain sight on the text’s surface. A more polemical variation on this argument is found in Rita Felski’s essay. But, as Rachel Buurma noted in her lecture, the only speaker to advocate against historicism explicitly is Walter Benn Michaels.

Unsurprisingly, then, a recurring topic at the symposium concerned the distinction between a detached and “antiquarian” historicism (to use the adjective Michaels introduced into the discussion of Best’s paper on Toni Morrison’s A Mercy), and an ethically and politically committed brand of historicism—which might possibly but not necessarily take its cue from an identitarian politics such as the aim to recover the stories of marginalized or silenced populations. For Americanists this might center on the lost or diminished voices of slaves in the Americas though, from a different point of view, historian Andrew Sartori (whose paper was read at the conference by Zack Sell in History) pointed to African responses to the imposition of capitalist structures in the imperial era. In discussion and in his paper, Michaels argued that understanding the past is neither sufficient for nor even necessary to changing the present. In particular, understanding the historical origins of the high levels of economic inequality in the United States is well and good, he argued; but it does not tell us what to do next, and it does not do that work for us. Most of all, Michaels argued, identitarian focus on race and the history of slavery loses sight of the fact that inequality is increasingly a question of class rather than race. Neither the presenters nor the audience seemed satisfied with Michaels’s more polemical claims—including Best, whose published arguments in favor of “surface reading” did not appear to tally with Michaels’s position against the history of race in particular and the use of historicism more generally. Nonetheless, those claims did lead to the most energetic discussions of the day.

The claim that racial history is antiquarian may seem simply false to some, but Lauren Goodlad offered a useful way of getting past the debate when she suggested that even an antiquarian historicism could be pedagogically important. Our undergraduates, she pointed out, do not necessarily understand that the world in which they live is significantly different from the world of thirty years ago (or 130 years ago): that is, they often don’t understand that the common sense of any given period has, historically, changed over time, with so-called conventional wisdom often (as it is now) in contest. “Mere” antiquarian history, which strives to reconstruct past events and structures of feeling, enables students to formulate their own political opinions—once they are able to realize that the status quo is not (and has never been) either natural or eternal.

My own experience as a teacher of film bears out the significance of these questions. Many times I have interrupted students whose urge to analyze “deep” phenomena blinds them to the obvious:

CINEMA TEACHER: So what do these [camera] framings of the gunfighters do here?

STUDENT: Well, the outlaw is like, a wanderer between the city and the wilderness, which is why he’s wearing a hat—hats are a product of civilization—even though we can still see the mountains behind him. And he’s from Red River, which is probably something about communism and the Russians—

CINEMA TEACHER: Yeah, but in the reverse shot, you can see the mountains behind the sheriff, too, and the mountains are out of focus in both shots. And the sheriff is also wearing a hat. But over the sheriff’s shoulder you can see the stagecoach waiting, and it’s in focus. Let’s just talk about what we see and hear during these two shots—then let’s talk function, then let’s talk motivation.

So, yes, “surface reading” makes sense: for students as well as teachers in the humanities.

Yet, I would add that arguments about motivation, why a certain technique appears in an artwork, can and should use historicist methods, especially in the classroom. In the above story, is the camera technique salient without knowing that two years earlier, the same production company made a successful (but now largely forgotten) spy film using the same personnel and equipment? Does the western’s supposedly distinctive mountain landscape enter plain sight because the producers shot the film in a location where the costs of labor were low (say, the right-to-work state of North Carolina), or in a country without any movie industry (say, the Canary Islands)—far from the usual locations where Hollywood and Cinecitt√† shoot their horse operas?

Thus, even non-suspicious research into the histories of production and reception can give our students wider bases on which to interpret texts, whether those interpretations lean toward formalism, “symptomatic” reading, or some blend of the two. Love’s call for “descriptive reading” that is close but not deep may require the descriptive inputs of “antiquarian” history–even as students are enabled to understand (pace Goodlad’s point) that the conditions of textual production and reception are not and have never been eternal.

My hypothetical student’s impulse to find latent or hidden political meanings is not blameworthy, but students imitate their teachers whether or not they have mastered the hermeneutic techniques that their teachers use with such apparent ease. We might do well to rein in our desire to map the submerged part of the iceberg for our undergraduates, until we have carefully mapped the part that anyone can see, and maybe we should convince them that our surface mappings are thorough and accurate before we send them into the depths.


Make A Comment