The Ends of History, "Pleasure Without Depth"
Guest Writer: Ben Bascom

Friday, February 17, 2012

Henry Adams, 1875
[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 Ben Bascom. It is one in a series and the first of two grad student posts we will publish on the event.]

"Pleasure Without Depth"

Written by Ben Bascom (English)

Let’s imagine for a moment that historicism has ended, that the past is considered incommunicable and/or unnecessary for what we do as cultural critics and that no phantom limb affirms the past’s absent presence—nagging our consciousness, as it were, while we do our work, whatever that work might be. History, of course, continues to be made—or done, rather, as time won’t stop intervening into human awareness—but our work as cultural critics ceases to use constructions of the past as a frame for the forms and ideologies that hold in place our objects of study. There is only the ever-present now. Envision the immediate possibilities of a scholarly world without historicism (if not quite a world without history).

Stephen Best, in his talk "On Failing to Make the Past Present" at the Unit for Criticism’s The Ends of History conference, provided a salient reason to think outside the presumed benefits of historicism. Instead of arguing that the past is a sort of red herring for real political problems in the present—as Walter Benn Michaels did—Best pointed out the past’s limitations as a model for understanding and changing the present. Where Michaels asserted that the past sends critical inquiry in the wrong direction, Best finds that the political expediency in the directional movement to the past is insufficient to address present inequalities and oppressions. Taking Morrison’s Beloved and A Mercy as two texts that highlight what he calls a movement away from the "melancholic turn"—or the conceptualization that the irretrievable slave past functions as a way to understand present African-American experience—he stated: "the logic of racial slavery does not fully describe or capture injustice in the present." Historicism isn’t the problem, for Best, as it is for Michaels, but rather it is a weak solution. Something more is needed.

In attending the conference, I was excited to hear either about alternatives to historicism, or ways that historicism might be refurbished for new purposes. Being a sort of begrudging cultural materialist myself, I anticipated learning about new reading methodologies that could recognize the political limitations of historicism while simultaneously making possible new theories of cultural reception (say, through affect studies). Yet if historicism were to end, as Michaels’s talk "If We Can’t End History, Could We At Least End Historicism? (An Apology)" proposed, how would that come to be and what might be the stakes for its departure? Michaels believes that historicism’s relationship to identity politics naturalizes the actual facts of inequality more than it remediates this problem. Yet, considering identity politics’ call for the recognition and ethical treatment of difference, does the work of historicism necessarily lead to perpetual atavism and inevitable conservatism? Or might there be a more nuanced way of understanding experience, even the ofttimes visceral and embodied connections forged through the study of history?

Throughout the conference, many in the audience questioned the efficacy and possibility of ceasing to historicize. Some wondered if the desire to stop historicizing is merely one more thing that needs to be historicized—an initiative that should be contextualized to understand it in its appropriate light. Indeed, my opening sentence obfuscates the actor(s) that would bring about this end to historicism (if not history). Will historicists cease to historicize? And, if they did, what would be lost ?

Henry Adams’s interesting if self-indulgent The Education of Henry Adams (1918) might, I think, provide a useful example to think about the relationship between history and experience. This curious text offers a model of experiencing the past that I find guardedly visceral, with Adams talking about himself in the third person--objectifying his experience--yet often using emotion and bodily affect as a way to represent his memories. Bodily responses to feelings, then, are used in order to conjure his own (and the reader’s) sense of historicity, but they simultaneously make the remembering subject--the individual nursing emotional and visceral connections to the past--as a sort of historical-materialist version of Emerson's transparent eyeball, no longer transparent and no longer transcendental but rather embedded in a particular space and experiencing that space in an explicitly material manner. For Adams, emotion theorizes his relationship to the past--it is the suture that enables him to represent the 10-year-old Adams's life. Speaking of his experience viewing "The Dynamo and the Virgin," he finds "his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new." Studying history can often provide this sort of psychological whiplash. (Was it really less than 100 years ago that a federal amendment in the US allowed women to vote? Was it really only 50 years ago that the remaining Jim Crow laws could be legally recognized as unconstitutional? And, indeed, was it really just a year ago that openly gay and lesbian citizens couldn’t serve in the US military?) I would venture to say that the affects one experiences in responding to such historical information could and should be described and brought into conversation with whatever cultural object we have on the table.

But perhaps the metaphor of the examining table relies too much on a medico-analytical model that the "descriptive turn" tries to question. This turn to description animated Heather Love’s talk—"What Is Going on Here? Observational Method and Literary History." She began by pointing out how issues of concretion and scale inform how she perceives individuals building frameworks around the cultural objects they study. These words "concretion" and "scale" bring to mind a spatial imaginary, as opposed to historicism’s emphasis on temporality. In hearing the paper, I got the sense that she was theorizing a mode of suspending judgment on cultural objects—offering a practice in critical humility that doesn’t jump too quickly to presumed ideological implications. Using a sociological text by Erving Goffman as a model through which to theorize alternatives to the hermeneutics of suspicion (e.g., the "paranoid reading" that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick contrasted to "reparative reading"), she also built on Christopher Nealon’s notion of reading as a historical friend. No one likes the friend (or acquaintance, rather) who constantly points out shortcomings and failings. (Indeed, the needlessly repetitive Debbie Downer from SNL seems vaguely familiar to how easy it is to read cultural objects as being always [already?] ideologically suspect.) In thinking of reading under a model of friendship, Love asks, pointedly, how far can we push a false-consciousness model of reading? Instead, Love wants to consider how the line between description and interpretation—identification and disidentification—is never quite as demarcated as we’d like; relying on a model of reading that presumes a false consciousness (one that hides latent issues) can quickly paint us into a corner, as it were, where there is symbolically nothing left to do but verbalize the colors, shades, and brushstrokes of the world before us.

I’m still riveted by Love’s sense of reading—its possibilities and the ironic depth its focus on "surface" opens for nonjudgmental observation. As one who enjoys being lost in the forests and mazes and oceans of texts that surround me—whether in the library’s archives or on the Internet—there’s a sort of pleasure without depth in a model of reading more attuned to attend to the project of description rather than analytical implication. Poignantly, Love asserted at the end of her paper that cultural critics should "get rid of the assumption that [they] know what’s going on. In the meantime," she concluded, "describe."


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