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Damn Those Historians and Their Facts

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Are you of the belief that the humanities is too engaged in politics? Do you think the humanities should become even more irrelevant in the twenty-first century world? If so, you will no doubt love Sam Fallon, English Professor, who decided that what the world needed was a Chronicle of Higher Education column complaining about historians using “facts” on Twitter to influence politics!

Readers who doubted that the moment demanded a defense of the Middle Ages could be forgiven. In a political battle of such high human stakes, the question of whether calling Trump’s proposal “medieval” constituted “an insult to the Middle Ages” (as the Vox headline put it) might seem worryingly beside the point. But the wave of furious responses was entirely predictable. In their parochial, self-serious literalism, they exemplify a style that increasingly pervades public writing by humanities scholars — a style that takes expertise to be authoritative and wields historical facts, however trivial or debatable, as dispositive answers to political questions. Such literalism is bad rhetoric, a way of dissolving argument into trivia. It’s also bad history: At root, it betrays the humanities’ own hard-won explanations of how we have come to know the past.

This betrayal is deeply ironic, for literalist interventions usually profess to offer a more nuanced approach to history, one alert to how the needs of the present shape representations of the past. Weiskott, for instance, emphasizes the role of Enlightenment historiography in inventing the categories “ancient,” “medieval,” and “modern”; he argues that “the very idea of a backwards Middle Ages came out of Enlightenment thinkers’ high opinion of themselves relative to their predecessors.”

The insight that there is no such thing as raw history — no grasp of the past that isn’t framed by those who tell its story — didn’t come easily. It was one of the achievements of such 20th-century historians and philosophers as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (whose Dialectic of Enlightenment lies behind Weiskott’s critique), Michel Foucault, and Hayden White, the great theoretical historian who died last year. For White, historical meaning emerges through history’s narrative forms. “The facts do not speak for themselves,” he wrote. “The historian speaks for them, speaks on their behalf, and fashions the fragments of the past into a whole whose integrity is … a purely discursive one.”

This view of history, controversial at first, has by now become something close to conventional wisdom. Graduate students in the humanities can hardly escape reading Adorno and Foucault, and if they miss out on White, they absorb his arguments indirectly. So it is odd that, as scholars unite around the idea that historical writing constructs the past that it studies, they should at the same time turn to literalism as their favored mode of public engagement. To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.

The question is how it happened: how, even as the humanities absorbed the insight that history is fundamentally figurative, their public voices sank to new lows of literalism. It is tempting to blame an environmental culprit, and the media ecology that professors enter when they seek out nonacademic readers offers some likely suspects. Twitter’s enforced brevity privileges the factoid; conversely, its endless threads — the favored genre of the Princeton historian and social-media star Kevin Kruse — tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps. Or perhaps academic literalism is diffused from the mainstream venues where scholars often publish. Vox in particular, setting out as it does to “explain the news,” has built a brand around a house style that blends earnest righteousness and complacent, self-satisfied wonkery.

But the real answer may lie elsewhere, in the anxiety with which humanists watch their marginalization in the university and in the public at large. Battered by a program of relentless austerity that has virtually shuttered the academic job market, cowed by the increasing institutional prestige of the STEM fields, and wearied by the provocations of Trumpian reaction, the humanities increasingly seem at risk of disappearing altogether. Under the circumstances, who could blame historians and literature professors for clinging to the shreds of authority left them? Among those shreds, no doubt, is the possession of expert knowledge, a form of capital whose readiest currency is the potted fact.

From this perspective, the point of literalism is less the facts themselves than the performance of expertise — the reminder that being a professor still counts for something. In an essay for The Chronicle Review last year on right-wing critics of academe, Benjamin Paloff urged academics to fight back: “If people understand nothing else about your expertise, let them appreciate how hard-won it is, that it represents work that is long, difficult, and, yes, ‘elite.’ ” But as hard-earned and ill-treated as it is, expertise deserves better than the pedantry of academic self-regard.

Or, I don’t know, maybe facts are actual things, and some of us think that we should use our abilities to make the world a better place? Maybe we think we have stories to tell that people are interested in? I know that’s not nearly as noble as writing incomprehensible texts based upon obscure theorists in conversations that no one outside of your own colleagues can understand. I mean, there are many paths in academia and no one should be required to do what I do. But if you think the problem in the world these days is historians presenting facts on Twitter and in essays, you are the problem.

In conclusion, this entire essay reads more accurately engaging in a wanking motion while perusing it.

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