That Noble Scream

James Sweet is worried about the state of historiography. Beginning in August with an ex cathedra editorial in American historians’ trade magazine, Perspectives, and continuing now in an interview with David Frum in centrist pundits’ trade magazine, The Atlantic, the president of the American Historical Association names “presentism” as a clear and, er, present danger to historical scholarship. As both the professor’s lament and the pundit’s fruminations suggest, “presentism” is bad — indeed, not just bad, but (note the “-ism”) ideologically bad. And, as with all ideology, at least in the world of magazines, its fundamental problem is that makes things political when they shouldn’t, and presumably otherwise wouldn’t, be.

But what exactly is presentism? Given the importance of avoiding it, one might imagine this to be clear. Yet Sweet’s original piece was vague and inconsistent in its discussion. At one point, it is implied to mean “concern with the recent past,” and as such to be evidenced by the relative decline of pre-1800 topics as a proportion of doctoral dissertations in history. But this can’t be right. For one thing, the nineteenth century is hardly more “present” to us than the eighteenth, so that the line is arbitrary. More seriously, there is nothing more “ideological” (or less “scholarly”) about studying one rather than the other. If what makes presentism bad has to do with how the past is approached, then which past is approached is not the issue.

Further down the page, Sweet offers a rather different (though again, only implicit) definition: “We suffer from an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics.” So, presentism here is something like “the anachronistic use of history in present-day political argument.” Sadly, Sweet offers no evidence whatever that the anachronistic use of historical claims in politics is either new or increasing. To the contrary, both the phenomenon and the observation of it are as old as historiography itself, as readers of Herodotus and Thucydides will remember. Nor does he offer any reason for thinking that this is a particular problem in academic history, for, with bleak predictability, his sole example of a perniciously presentist work of history is the New York Times’s 1619 Project.

However intended, that choice had the (predictable) effect both of alienating much of Sweet’s presumed audience and of attracting support from a host of right-wing and white supremacist commentators, including the neo-Nazi and conspiracy theorist Richard Spencer. Somehow surprised by this, Sweet issued an apology of sorts, which hangs over his original piece like a withered fig leaf. The apology drew (again, predictable) denunciations from the likes of race-science bulletin Quillette, but is interesting here chiefly because it defines “presentism” in yet a third, still implicit way, when Sweet refers in it to his “clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism.” Here, presentism is associated with teleology — that is, with writing history less for the sake of understanding the past as such than of explaining how we got to some aspect of the present. Ironically, teleological narratives of history, typically denounced by professional historians as “whiggish,” are exactly the kind favoured by the cheerleaders of Western Science, “Enlightenment values,” and capital-P Progress who write for right-wing organs like Quillette.

What remains? At the end of Sweet’s varied denunciations (by turns of subject matter, purpose, and methodology), partial retractions, and offhand doublings-down, all we can say for certain is that “presentism” refers to an inappropriate presence of the present in present views of the past. It’s the sort of thing, in other words, that you just have to feel.

The pundit did better. Frum does not define “presentism” any more clearly than Sweet; in fact, his idea that it is opposed to studies of the past that “disturb and challenge our ideas about the present” is nearly backwards. (Whether I study the past for the sake either of unsettling or of confirming people’s ideas about the present, surely the present looms equally large in my mind.) But he does at least identify it as the opposite of “antiquarianism.” This is useful for two reasons. First, it avoids confusing issues of methodology and subject matter with what is essentially a question of purpose: why are we studying the past? Second, it is useful because — given a little thought — it indicates how hopeless and how unrewarding (in every sense) an all-out assault on presentism is likely to be.

As Frum and Sweet both know, history does not simply appear; it has to be made. This means that people must choose to make it — typically, to write it. More than that, it means that they must sort out which parts of it to write about, which questions to ask of it, which of the available sources to use, how to gain access to them, and — for even academic history has an audience — for whom to undertake all this work. These are, obviously, all questions asked and answered in the present. But they are also, in important and inescapable ways, questions about the present: what is it about the past that matters to us? And: What are we willing to devote time and money to finding out about it? As the head of the American Historical Association should know, resources are not indifferently available to all comers. Politics is built in.

Nor would presentism vanish even if resources were plentiful, though there would no doubt be more work on the pre-1800 period if history departments were less beholden to wannabe-CEO university administrators’ conceptions of “relevance.” (Perhaps Sweet has been holding his thoughts on this in reserve for a second term.) Frum suggests that “antiquarianism,” as a term of abuse, denotes “burrowing into the dust for no useful purpose at all.” It is more usually framed as an interest in the past “for its own sake,” or (in a seemingly less loaded but in fact no clearer formulation) for its “intrinsic interest.” But, of course, the past does not have a “sake” of its own beyond our present-day conception of it, and we come to it extrinsically always. The question is not whether studying the past serves a present-day purpose, just whose present-day purposes it serves — and what sort of institutional, social, economic, and political resources are ranged behind them. Antiquarianism and presentism are in this sense less opposed methodologies than different points of view. A 600-page monograph on medieval intellectual history is a career-builder in some contexts, just as a 160-page narrative of Enlightenment’s triumph spins money in others.

The real issue facing the AHA and academic history generally is that the context for the former kind of work (tenure-track academic employment) has disappeared as a realistic prospect for most PhDs, so that if historical research is going to be possible except as an elite hobby (that is, as a hobby that serves the present-day purposes of a particular elite), it is going to have to find new kinds of resources, outlets, and audiences. In this light, Sweet’s anxiety — as expressed to Frum — that blogs and even tweets might soon come to be regarded as scholarship, while monographs languish, illustrates more perfectly than any of his earlier comments how far some senior scholars are from understanding the conditions that have sustained their own work, and their own purposes, up to the present.

Note: US-trained historians will probably recognize the title as a reference to Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, a history of objectivity as an ideal in the American historical profession, and a staple of first-year doctoral seminars in history departments.

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