Letters to the Editor

On “Jargon in History Writing Shuts Out the Public”

Ty Geltmaker | Oct 3, 2019

To the Editor:

AHA President John R. McNeill’s critique “Jargon in History Writing Shuts Out the Public” (May 2019) humbly admits of his generation, “We pioneered—or at the very least normalized—the use of relentlessly abstract and obscure prose, often in imitation of models once current in literary criticism and philosophy.” He cites as an example a current student’s phrasing regarding “discursively imbricated ontologies.” But the American Historical Review is itself too often guilty of this crime.

Regina Kunzel’s admirably comprehensive, incisive article, “The Power of Queer History,” in the December issue of the AHR,for example, could have used an editor’s eye in making sense of the following excerpt:

Anthropologist Gayle Rubin insisted as well on the imbrication of sexualitywith larger historical forces in her field-making 1984 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Rubin made a powerful case for a new field of study that would focus on sexuality as a “vector of oppression,” intersecting with but distinct from feminism’s analysis of oppression based on gender, and one in which the study of non-normative sexuality would be central.

As a historian of sexualities embedded and, yes, imbricated (like a layered tile roof?) within the broader field of modern Europe/US socio-cultural evidence, and as an AIDS/LGBTQ/feminist activist who crafted Queer Nation LA’s 1990 founding statement welcoming “queers of all sexual persuasions,” I understand the academy’s embrace of obscurantist writing. I resisted this trend in the 1980s while in grad school after a career in journalism, decrying it as a linguistic fetishization. Hayden White’s magisterial 1973 Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe may have guided us historians into the so-called “linguistic turn,” even if it supplied its own brakes against taking this route into an ahistorical theater of the absurd.

I’ll take “the long 19th century” any day of the week!

Ty Geltmaker
Los Angeles

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