Hayden White, 2005
Walter Benjamin once remarked that fascism allows the masses to express themselves (see his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction). This rings in my ears as I contemplate the new universe of blogging, for I see this revolution as both a great innovation and a dangerous outlet for irresponsible opinion. So a few words are in order to separate out YDS blogging from those of political partisans and other activists with designs upon the reader.
1. On “activist” scholars. The late Budd Schulberg left the Communist Party because party functionaries were demanding that he change his writing, for instance, What Makes Sammy Run (1941), because he was not foregrounding “the progressive forces” in Hollywood. And when the second wave of feminism got started, there were women artists who, knowing the history of the authoritarian Left, worried that they would be expected to follow some party line. As for the postmodernists who ruled while I was in graduate school at UCLA, there was a widespread view that “the archive” itself was a social construct and inevitably biased toward the ruling class. The same cohort averred that “science was a swindle” and I, the defender of empiricism and archival research, was derided as “the last positivist.” And yet all these activists loved “the people” and believed themselves to be their emancipators.
During the final stages of expanding my doctoral dissertation for publication, I discovered that the furious Tory response to the American and French Revolutions was directed at “autodidacts” who were now reading books for themselves and drawing conclusions about the social order not dependent upon the opinions of their betters. These same autodidacts were held to be assassins and demagogues, stealthy, bloody, tyrannical, and inept in the fine art of reading, so naturally, the mandarin class was poised to set them straight, that is, to be as deferential and docile as they supposedly had been before the seventeenth-century and the Scientific Revolution or the Radical Reformation (those precursors to the Enlightenment).
And during this same period of research, I learned that it was considered bad form to include long quotations from primary source materials. This struck me as very odd: can you imagine a scientific discovery being published without fully informing the reader as to all the materials and procedures that led to the experimenter’s conclusion, along with an accurate description of those prior conceptions that were now revised in the light of new knowledge? Yet the humanities frowned upon long quotations from the sources, and writers still apologize for them. Readers of the blogs on the YDS website will note that I do quote liberally from my sources, so that the reader can check upon the accuracy of what I draw from them, and then correct my readings if they distort the source or otherwise misinterpret them. (Postmodernists will find my practice hilariously retrograde, so I say to them, “you don’t think much of the rule of law, do you? And of course they don’t for the state is nothing more than the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. See my blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: rival visions of national unity” for the Charles Sumner understanding of liberal nationalism.)
Back to the activist bloggers or activist scholars. I once met an important art historian, who told me of a lecture he had given at Yale on British landscape painting of the eighteenth century. “I start,” he said, “with bourgeois society.” Huh? I thought. What about starting with the object and looking at it carefully, not missing any details, surrendering to its power, and then moving on to personal biography and all the institutions that might impinge on the making of a book or a painting or a musical composition or any other cultural artifact? After all that, going back to the painting, etc. and looking some more, perhaps seeing it even more deeply and understanding its appeal (or threat) to others. In other words, for my friend, “bourgeois society” was self-evidently evil, and anything that was made under its awful spell was bound to be tainted. It is true that patronage is important to artistic production, but if ever there was a comparative free-for-all in art-making it was a by-product of market economies and the marketplace of ideas. (Many readers will wince at this. Oh for the days of the Popular Front when–briefly– the bourgeoisie was viewed as a progressive class.)
Now switch to how we encounter persons who may disagree with us on the heavy issues of the day. Too often my activist friends (and I have some) are too quick to dismiss anyone who does not share their judgments on this or that policy issue, let alone the larger questions that are currently roiling the world. Such impatient partisans may lack curiosity about the life experience and upbringing that might have led to the current polarization or “culture wars,” just as they may lack insight into their own preferences or need to belong to something big and heroic. One of the most damaging consequences of the fashionable existentialism after the second world war has been the notion that we cannot think ourselves into the heads of any other person, let alone understand our own motivation, or, get this: write history. Yet how can there be a civil discourse without some degree of mutual- and self-understanding, let alone a relatively accurate picture of the past and how we got here? In a “culture of despair” (to recall a title by Fritz Stern) desperation leads to catastrophe.
To conclude this first point about YDS blogging, nearly all my posts strive toward objective scholarship, and invite the reader to test my work, by checking my readings of the sources, and then determining whether I have drawn reasonable conclusions from the evidence I provided. I understand that this stance is not fashionable, and I do not care. I am not working to please any establishment, and write for citizen-autodidacts and fellow-professional scholars.
2. Language matters. Many postmodernists believed that I was doing work similar to theirs. This is true: language affects emotions and political will, and it is a constant struggle to resist the power of words and images that purport to represent “reality.” Therefore, I get very testy when persons I otherwise respect as sincere advocates for their policy du jour, refer to their opponents as loons, fanatics, crazies, wingnuts, moonbats, etc. Leaving aside the insensitivity to the suffering of real psychotics and their support systems when these epithets are tossed around, when I was at Pacifica radio and had the program director job, I tried to explain that the First Amendment was not intended to enable libel and slander (see the correspondence of Jefferson, John Adams, and Abigail Adams on this point), but to advance the search for truth so that citizens could make informed choices in their representatives and support policies that advanced the public interest (not that the public interest is easily determined). In other words, free speech was not an excuse for venting, but a rational means toward a rational end. And I never said that would be easy. Where I diverge from the postmodernists and other irrationalists is my view that we can get better as readers and to a degree, overcome our subjectivity* and get to closer and closer approximations of reality. If we can’t do that, how can we save the planet?
*Hayden White describes himself and his postmodern colleagues as “radical subjectivists,” that all history writing conforms to literary genres, while he, with other postmodernists, believes that there is nothing “outside the text.” Cf. Immanuel Kant who insisted that we can never encounter “the thing in itself.” In my own work, I agree that particular historical narratives are deployed for purposes of persuasion, and of course believe that these must be identified as misleading and either deliberately twisted, or as simply ideological. [Added August 1, 2010: Benjamin Shepard disputes my reading of Kant and cites this passage from the Prologomena as evidence: ” The dictum of all genuine idealists from the Eleatic school to Bishop Berkeley, is contained in this formula: ‘All cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion, and only, in the ideas of the pure understanding and reason there is truth.’ The principle that throughout dominates and determines my Idealism, is on the contrary: ‘All cognition of things merely from pure understanding or pure reason is nothing but sheer illusion, and only in experience is there truth.’ ” More on this later as the question now arises: why has Kant been so frequently misdescribed by subsequent philosophers (at least the ones I have read)? And what does he mean by “experience.” The same as Locke?]