Saturday, July 26, 2003

HISTORY, THEORY AND PRACTICE, THREE: UPDATE: Jacob has responded to my comments here and here. Taking the shorter post first: I never called Jacob a Marxist, as the reader can see above; I merely suggested that Jacob's approach to history seems to me to still be influenced by a Marxist, or a certain sort of economic-materialist-determinist, view of history. There is a very great difference between being a Marxist, and being influenced by, and to some extent agreeing with, Marx. I, for example, utterly reject most of Marx's philosophy of history, to say nothing of his political program -- but, like Jacob, though to a perhaps lesser extent, think it valid to look at the (often hidden) role of economic interest in motivating human action; and while I don't see all of history as dominated or defined by class warfare or the struggle for the control of the means of production, I do think this is an important facet of history.
With regard to Jacob's longer post, I'm not entirely sure what he means by 'contextualize', but I don't think it does rightly sum up all of the goals I ascribed to the historian's craft; I'll stick with my string of verbs, thanks. Jacob also, I think, somewhat mis-translates my observations on his post on the British Empire, in portraying the dichotomy at issue as one between individuals and structures. I was concerned, rather, first with the distinction between looking at individuals and looking at groups -- which is a somewhat different matter from looking at structures; and, secondly and more importantly, with how the historian seeks to treat the meaning and motivation of past actions. Here, the dichotomy is between an approach that, starting with the expressed beliefs of past actors, but also looking at the larger context of thought and discourse surrounding them and forming or informing their thinking, seeks to understand the actors' actions as they understood them themselves; and an approach which seeks to locate the REAL motivation and meaning in some deeper, often unacknowledged, perhaps unconscious spring -- in Jacob's case (and Marx's), economic interest.
One can, of course, still focus on individuals and individual agency, while thinking that those individuals are behaving for reasons other than what they claim, or even think. But to do so does seem to subjugate individual self-consciousness, not only to social and cultural structures and concrete contigencies, but to certain assumptions about -- and, in the case of Marx, laws of -- human behaviour. And this does seem to me to sit uncomfortably with the ideal of history as focussing on, and perhaps even celebrating, the agency of the individual.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

HISTORY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE, TWO: Jacob's discussion of the way in which history should be practiced, responded to below, is interesting to read in light of his own practice. A particularly fine, and complex, example of this is this post on the history of British imperialism. Leaving aside how accurate Jacob's description of British imperialism is (or mainly leaving it aside. A brief comment though: Jacob knows far more about imperialism than I, and I tend to bow to his knowledge; his description of the 'liberal' rationale for imperialism seems to me largely accurate, though it is of course an over-generalization which collapses the views of many individuals into one general position, and so can't do justice to the intricacies of the views of an individual thinker such as, say, J.S. Mill -- or, I'd imagine, to the 'lived experiences' of most Britons. But, again, the historian can only convey so much at once; and as Jacob's post is a work, not of historical scholarship, but of historically-informed commentary, it'd be unfair to fault him for not doing what it would take a long monograph, at least, to do), I note a certain tension in Jacob's account of how the British thought about their empire (we'll also leave aside the matter of how close the parallels to the present are, though I may come back to this at some future time, when I've thought it through more). Whether this tension is a sign of slight inconsistency, or whether it reflects a sophisticated and nuanced view of the past, is something I haven't yet worked out.
Jacob notes that the British viewed their empire (I hope I summarize him correctly) as a means of 'civilizing' those they ruled -- leading them (none too gently) down the path to such great Western/Anglo-Saxon things as democracy, self-rule, the rule of law, individual rights, capitalism, etc. It was in the name of these high-sounding ideals that the British conquered -- and oppressed -- half the world. (This in itself is, again, a bit of an over-generalization; there were plenty of Britons who didn't give a fig for the improvement of others, and never made a pretence to, but were pretty nakedly concerned with British power and prestige; these are the people we call jingoists)
BUT, Jacob says, it wasn't REALLY for these noble reasons that the Brits embarked on imperial conquest; these were just rationalizations, or perhaps pretenses. The real reason, he seems to suggest, was economic gain -- and maybe also just the pleasure of domination others. Power and money, not civilisation and progress, were the driving motivations. BUT, the way the Brits thought about what they were doing is important to bear in mind, and we shouldn't disregard their own views of their own actions -- BUT those views were wrong, and we know better.
Now, on the one hand, this approach is clearly preferable either to accepting the British imperialists' self-serving and perhaps self-deceiving justifications of their actions, or reducing everything to a simplistic Marxisant perspective which doesn't bother to take heed of the Brits own actual beliefs and self-perceptions at all. On the other, it seems to waver a bit over how right the Marxist view is, and how important the Brits' self-perceptions were. These self-perceptions aren't unimportant; but they're still wrong -- they're still not the REAL reason people acted.
Now, I think that, despite his attempt to recapture the lived experiences and self-understandings of individuals in the past as respectfully, fully, and honestly as possible, Jacob's view here remains dominated by certain Marxist, or at any rate economic-materialist, assumptions about the deepest or most real springs of human action. I think that it also, despite his (to my mind entirely appealing and valid) call for focus on INDVIDUAL agency, creates problems by focussing on the British as a group. So far as I can tell, many individual Britons supported empire for a variety of reasons. Sometimes their motivation was clear and simple; often not. Sometimes they acted out of self-interest, sometimes out of genuine idealism, often out of a complicated mixture of the two. To reduce it to base-superstructure terms, however much respect one pays to the superstructure, seems to me to simplify individual variation and diminish psychological depth to an extent that makes full and truthful understanding impossible.
I've said, recapturing and recreating this complex, varied picture with a full and adequate respect for nuance is the task of a serious work of scholarship, not of a blog post; and Jacob's back-and-forth between economic interests and expressed ideals at least points to this greater complexity, which for his purposes in that particular post are certainly enough. But the thinking reflected in, and prompted by, Jacob's post is, I think, instructive for the reflective student of history -- and so worthy of consideration and, I hope, some correction.

HISTORY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE: Over at Waldheim, Jacob has a slew of great posts dealing with the theory, practice, and lessons of history. I especially liked, and agreed with, his reflections on the importance of narrative to convey the nature of individual experience in history in this post -- though I would, of course, add a couple of qualifications. One is that history, some of the time and in some of its aspects, seeks not merely to recreate or recapture the lived experience of the past, but to go beyond that experience in order to understand it within the context, and emerging out of, a larger picture, as well as understanding the connections, similarities, differences, continuities, discontinuities, etc., between different moments of experience -- and for this reason, more analyitical approaches to history are valuable (they're also valuable because, while all people live their lives as stories, as Jacob [echoing Alasdair MacIntyre, intentionally or not] notes, most also reflect on their lives at some point; our lives are shot-through with analysis, with attempts to think through our experiences in conceptual, rather than narrative, ways. This is, of course, far truer for some -- especially for those once refered to as the 'theory classes', i.e. those who devote most of their lives to thinking things through conceptually or analytically -- which is why an analytical approach is an important part of recapturing the experiences and meanings of the past for intellectual historians, in particular).
Another qualification is dissenting, mildly, from Jacob's mild criticism of Rogers Smith's masterful Civic Ideals. Jacob is quite right to note that Smith only looks at one facet of American society in his attempt to trace the interactions and influences of three dominant 'ascriptive traditions' that have shaped American political and legal culture and policy -- the law and the courts that make it. As Jacob notes, discussions of the dominant ideologies that have shaped American political thought and life should also make reference to social history at its broadest -- and also those aspects of history Jacob doesn't refer to, such as more narrowly political and intellectual history. That is, examination of different social movements, of political debates and policies, and of works of analysis, imagination, advocacy and reporting, all have much to contribute to our understanding of the beliefs and assumptions shared, or disagreed over, by all involved. But, as Gertrude Stein once asked, why must everything always be about everything else? Because human capacities are finite, every historian is forced to choose one angle from which to approach the past, one slice of the teeming, continuous, irreducibly and often incomprehensibly complicated past on which to focus; and this is what Smith has done. I hardly think he should be faulted for not writing a book he didn't set out to write -- and which, had he attempted to write it, would've prevented him from writing the very, very good book he did write.

(NOT TOO) TAXING READING: There are very, very few people who can write about the history of US taxation policy in such a way that I'm interested in reading about it. In fact, so far as I know, there are two. One of them is John Kenneth Galbraith, who's always fun. The other is my dear friend Susannah Camic. The author of the book she reviews here may be another -- and Susannah's review very nearly made me interested enough to find out, if I had world enough, and time.
Also, many congratulations to Susannah for having her article linked to by ALDaily! (Or, should I say, many congratulations to ALDaily for having the good sense to link to Susannah's article?)

GOOD NEWS: As already noted pretty much most places in the blogosphere, the US military in Iraq seem to have caught up with Saddam's sons -- and brought their careers of terror to an end.
Hopefully this will be a blow for the Ba'athist resistance that continues to bedevil, and claim the lives, of US occupying forces. Even leaving that aside, though, it's great news: US forces have (without any fatalities, mind) brought to (admittedly rough) justice two of the highest-ranking, and most personally brutal and reprehensible, figures in the Ba'athist regime. And, as one might suspect (well, as I would've), the Hussein family's former subjects/victims are hardly mourning:
"As preliminary reports of the deaths were broadcast on Arabic-language satellite television stations, thousands of Baghdad residents poured out of their homes to dance, shout and fire AK-47 assault rifles into the air. Red tracer rounds arced across the night sky, and horns blared on the capital's streets."
Read about the sort of things the Hussein boys presided over here (warning: not for the faint of heart or stomach), and you'll probably feel like shooting off some AK-47 rounds as well.
Now the big question is: where is Saddam?

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