Townhouse Notes: Complicating Ourselves into Obscurity
I devoted one of my earliest Perspectives columns to the historian’s store of clichés. One was “we must complicate our understanding.” As I complained back then, I do not like the phrase. History, of course, is tremendously complicated. That’s part of its beauty. Many of us can recall how central the discovery of history’s complexity was to our falling in love with the discipline. But the cliché bespeaks a set of assumptions about how one must think about history and then go about doing it.
My main concern isn’t how we historians communicate among ourselves; it’s how we communicate with people we don’t consider historians. If “history is complicated” is one of our starting points in public-facing discussions, that’s an assumption about what people outside our realm already know about history, and it’s not a positive one. We can’t tell feel-good stories with easy resolutions, at least if that’s not faithful to the evidence. But we also can’t assume that that’s what everyone wants.
Professionally trained historians are fumbling toward relevancy in public discourse. There have been successes. After a white supremacist’s horrifying and deadly attack on counter-protesters in Charlottesville in August, we went into overdrive and successfully provided historical context about the Civil War and the Jim Crow roots of Confederate monuments. The AHA’s statement on the subject has been accessed online over 21,000 times, and we also provided a page of links to members’ and our statements, opinion pieces, TV and radio appearances, and more. In that emergency, we came through. If we didn’t get everyone to listen, we provided clarity to the discussion. The recent growth of historical media has been spectacular, too, including a Washington Posthistory blog and a number of well-produced, serious podcasts.
But historians, increasingly thinking about how “the public” perceives history, aren’t sure at all what this nebulous entity wants. Conversations among academics often concern narrative: popular history—sniff!—is strong on storytelling and light on analysis, and that’s not professional history. Cue the urgent calls for better academic writing (including from this editor’s desk). Another issue, we think, is what aSlatearticle called “uncle books,” which usually compose the entire history shelf in bookstores, deal with wars, presidents, and generals, and are written by popular historians. If the “public” demands this history, there’s little historians can do if they don’t specialize in those topics. Or so the reasoning goes. (Never mind that there are plenty of history-reading publics with non-battle-related interests. Aunts read history, too.)
Professionalization drives these assumptions into historians, as early as the first year of grad school. Specialization pushes us and our students to narrow dissertation topics into something doable and hopefully significant. But how does the discipline justify projects that take three or more years to complete and that answer a question one wouldn’t think to ask unless one were already familiar with the historical literature? Well, these projects complicate our understanding.
As I watch our community grapple with outright dangerous interpretations of history—about the nature of slavery, the prowess of the Vikings, or the contours of fascism—I see, repeatedly, a double insistence: that complexity governs history and that the public we construct is only interested in it when it’s simplistic. Perhaps we could start assuming that our potential audience is bigger than we believe and that not everyone wants history that confirms what they already know. The complexity that first sparked our affection for history could be waiting to strike many others.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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