Thursday, November 25, 2010

Academic v. popular history

I wrote last month about "rightwing productions of history" by non-academic historians. My central point was that the political right engages in a self-conscious effort to implant (largely tendentious) memories or understandings of key episodes from the past, a process they partake in not by contesting academic historians but by bypassing them. (Note the noncoincidental similarity, here, to the way that Sarah Palin essays to channel her communications around and away from traditional media "elites" — that is, the keepers of professional standards.)

Of course, that they can get away with this is made possible by the increasingly cloistered nature of academic historical writing, which has opened up a discursive space for historians who write for the general public rather than just for each other. Gordon Wood explains the evolution of this growing (and in my view lamentable) separation:
Independent scholars such as Chernow, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Jon This gap between popular and academic historians has probably existed since the beginning of scientific history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century, but it has considerably widened over the past half-century or so. During the 1950s academic historians with Ph.D.s and university appointments, such as Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allan Nevins, Eric F. Goldman, Daniel Boorstin, and C. Vann Woodward, wrote simultaneously for both their fellow academicians and educated general readers.

This is normally no longer possible. Academic historians now write almost exclusively for one another and focus on the issues and debates within the discipline. Their limited readership—many history monographs sell fewer than a thousand copies—is not due principally to poor writing, as is usually thought; it is due instead to the kinds of specialized problems these monographs are trying to solve. Since, like papers in physics or chemistry, these books focus on narrow subjects and build upon one another, their writers usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these monographs.

So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the specialized subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.

The problem at present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.


Anonymous said...

Hi. This isn't germane to the post, but I wanted to pass this article along, but wasn't able to find your email address, and cancelled my twitter acct because of noise to signal issues. Of course, I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the author in passing this along (maybe after a second read), but it did seem quite relevant to deviant globalization.

"Links then between coca production and the politico-economic realities of the capitalist world are not paranoid fantasy. On the other hand, I do not intend to make anything of the well-known US green light to cocaine smuggling at the time of the Contra war of destabilisation in Nicaragua; nor to claim that these links are always Cause A and an inevitable Result B. As a major cocaine trade route associated with extraordinary levels of violence, Mexico has to deal with its location, history and experience of politically controlled smuggling. But the business has seen an exponential increase since the imposition of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This 'free trade' agreement meant, in practice, that smuggling became easier due to the increase in cross-border trade transport. The de-regulation of the Mexican financial system also made money laundering that much easier. As subsidised American corn flooded the market, over a million small farmers and another 1.4 million dependent on the agricultural sector lost their livelihoods. Monthly incomes for self-employed farmers fell by 90 percent between 1991 and 2003.27 Ehrenreich notes that in Bandiraguarto, people 'have little choice but to become narcos because there is so little other work, and with a government that largely doesn't care and a formal economy that takes pity on no one.'"

Bryan said...

I am not sure the problem is the difficulty of synthesizing numerous highly specialized studies, but that there is little incentive for academic historians to try to write for a broad audience.

Nils said...

Bryan, you're absolutely right that the reward structure of academia is geared entirely toward reacting to and writing for other academics.

Still, this leaves the puzzle of why there isn't a left-liberal popular history industry in the same where there is rightwing popular history industry. And I think there are two main explanations. First, left-liberals already feel as if the history they believe in is being produced, by the experts, so there's less need to create a counter-narrative. (I think that's politically short-sighted, but that's another matter.) Second, Democrats are much less ideological than Republicans, and (consequently) much less strategic and disciplined about messaging. I've written about this elsewhere: