AHA Today

Townhouse Notes: Empiricism Meets Its Match! (Or Does It?)

Allison Miller | Jun 18, 2018

In May three historians calling themselves the Wild On Collective caused a minor stir with a manifesto titled “Theses on Theory and History.” Helpfully providing a please-make-me-viral hashtag (#theoryrevolt), they argued that historical scholarship was afflicted with an atavistic empiricism so damaging and corrupt that practitioners ought seriously to reconsider (or perhaps consider for the first time) the tenets of historical research and analysis. “Critical history”—or study of the past informed by critique, and critique informed by study of the past—could lead the way forward. 

The AHA Townhouse in Washington, DC

The AHA Townhouse in Washington, DC

Although empiricists, such as there were, had their quiet say, most observers with words on the manifesto actually took up pro-theory positions of some bent. Some cheered the rightness of the theses on Twitter; some protested that historians do employ theory; some thought the theses were well-intended but analytically weak; while some were puzzled, wondering whether this battle had been fought decades in the past, incidentally with theory victorious.

As a historian who’s queer for theory, I have encountered hostility toward its supple pleasures, both in my training and in conversations at my current job. I suppose critical history was what I sought to write, though I leave any assessment of my success to the experts. (The curious can find my single published article online. I should emphasize that members of my dissertation committee fully supported my interests.) I think the hostility came—and comes—from uneasiness and impatience with struggles to articulate the difficulty of what history tries to accomplish. I found theory (poststructuralist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and queer) immensely helpful in guiding me to possibilities, nurturing an interpretation that felt accurate without being definitive.

The collective’s portrayal of graduate education in history, though rather cartoonish, reflected mine, but mostly in memories of coursework. The graduate students I’ve known have a way of idealizing methodology when they lack experience in extended historical writing and research. I’ve seen innovative books sink in class discussions for not examining race, class, and gender in exhaustive detail. And in seminars that guide students to write publishable articles or dissertation chapters, the fetishization of evidence is all too real, because what actually happens in archives is for many a matter of conjecture.

But most of us encountered problems when we finally started researching. The pieces of paper animating our neophyte dreams, all that glorious evidence we thought lay waiting for us: most of us found traces, whispers, absences. Waking from parchment dreams cracked a great deal of resolve and forced a reckoning.

Admittedly, for most of my peers that frustration didn’t light the way to theoretical inquiry, if by that you mean the systematic study of theoretical literature or self-reflection on what we do, which the theses advocate. But even a glancing encounter with the mundane aspects of archival research—the backaches, the boredom, the close of another barren box—acquaints you with disappointment. Then it teaches you to improvise an alternative interpretation based on what you do find. You consider alternate possibilities, you dream anew.

Good history comes from that liminal stage of listening, to letting sources change your mind, to surrendering as they shake out your stubborn expectations. You hardly need to believe they’re telling the truth or even speaking “their truth.” The ways we record our actions have changed, but sources of all varieties (from archives or not) show that humans have survived by dissembling, flattering, hedging, peculating, crying out for help. Historians learn the language of sources, the desires and fears embedded in their rhythms; we learn to place faith in them, we learn to doubt everything they say. For a modern historian, the belief in unmediated plain-spokenness is risible, a straw man. But when we listen to sources, we’re doing theory. And you might, with tongue in cheek, call that theory empiricism.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


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