Bresson homme a mort note

Theory After All

Comments on theoryrevolt

There’s a stupid saying that if you are not a liberal when you are young you have no heart and if you are not a conservative when you are old you have no brains.  I’ve tried to fix this idiocy by adding that if you are not a revolutionary when you are old you have no soul.  I am much more radical as an old man than I was as a young man for the good reason that I’ve seen enough of beastliness to tolerate repetitions of it no longer and instead to oppose them as they occur daily and to speak for stopping their sources, as far as it is in my little power to do so, especially in the fields of activity to which I have been inclined.  The authors’ sense of the source of wrongdoing through bad thinking and false history is the motive for Professors Kleinberg’s, Scott’s, and Wilder’s manifesto that I admire and support.

They wrote it for the sake of humankind and also for the sake of other historians and people who reflect on the past.  That they are trying to do something helpful for academics who have not got the protective rewards they have earned, rather than because they want more people to read their books and papers, is a glaringly obvious fact that escaped Mr. McLemee in his notice of the matter in Inside Higher Education.  Who better to speak for improving and enlarging historiography than those in the senior ranks, rather than the others who suffer the pressures for lexical, stylistic, methodological, and  philosophical conformity that the manifesto describes?

I am not a fan of the manifesto form in academia, because it is very hard to match to the force of this form any urgency in our proceedings.  It serves better in politics.  The peer-review process of the American Historical Association’s Review (sec. I.5-6) would not be whispered about at the barricades of May 1968 or in American city streets of the summer of 1968; and when, fifty years after those events right now, some days seem more like August of 1939, intramural matters seem small.  On the other hand, I am positive, even without having talked to the authors, that they and I are moved in our work by much the same ethical and political concerns: cessation of war, maintenance of a livable planet, and justice for the poor and oppressed.  These higher-order commitments are the ultimate source of concerns about journal editorial practices. 

The prominence that their remarks on editing have are, I think, a result of the choices in exposition the manifesto format suggests: refutatio, then confirmatio, with an apostrophic exordium and an oneiric, exhortatory finale.  Even apart from this point, it is hard to get theory of this sort, at any rate, across in a combative mode.  The comments on the McLemee article show exactly the gelastic twaddle about the perils theory is supposed to pose to facts that Kleinberg and company wish to overcome.  On a broader scale, this is the same difficulty on which the execrable Prof. Jordan Peterson trades in his ignorant and incompetent calumnies against Foucault and Derrida. 

“Theory” in this context comprises Frankfurt and post-Frankfurt critical theory, philosophy of language, structuralism, post-structuralism, editorial theory, post-modernism, post-colonialism, gender identity, object-oriented ontology, phenomenology of embodiment, post-humanism, and trans-humanism, along with the ontological commitments and political and moral implications of all of these.  Theoryrevolt might include some things I unintentionally omit, and by and large it does not include analytic philosophy.  It is upon this group of theories that new philosophies of history are being built, instigating an intellectual and creative richness that previously had been given up as gone from the field and that it is hard, if not impossible, to find by conducting discussions of historiographic method.  I hold that it is the moral implications of all of these that, having inspired the theoretical developments in the first place, give these approaches their significance; and it is the moral impact that historical theory has received and seeks to extend.  This is the analysis I have long been trying to refine since the original intuition of it.

So if we want to get people to look over in our quarter of the heavens, to see our shining moon for a sun as strong as that of literary, artistic, and cultural thought, and to take all the implications of what Kleinberg has called the ontological impossibility of the past into the large accounts that thinkers are proceeding to form in the face of our difficult present and our more difficult future, it is best, following my analysis, to place the moral valence of historical theory first, rather than last, in our thinking and therefore also in the appeals we make.  This is not merely a strategy for a more persuasive rhetoric.  A manifesto ought to hit hard right at the affective core of the problem it squares off against.  But really this is what theory in this sense—these theories—are for: to free and enhance our moral thought.  They remove “facts” as excuses and fig-leaves, and then they put the choices we make fully onto us.

A likely reason for the emphasis on the AHA Review in launching the rhetorical structure of theoryrevolt is that as the journal of a massive professional organization it is a critical node in the disciplining of the discipline.  History is, I think, one of what Gilbert Ryle called the subsuming disciplines: like physics, it applies to everything.  Even with the need for technical rigor, it is hard to see what really separates art history or literary history, for example, from history-history besides zombification by institutional gate-keeping.  This is extremely difficult to fight against, despite the best will in the world, when it comes down to cases and careers.  If theory demands interdisciplinarity, it finds that the defenders of “fact-based” ontological realism are allied with the bean-counters, deanlets, and government of the academic world.  The moral appeal that theoryrevolt  makes (III.6.c-d) is far more the kind of thing that moves institutional agendas, reflecting the self-image they like to build and the good they desire to do, and is probably an effective way to promote interdisciplinarity in the long run.  As it is also the right thing to pursue, I suggest that this is how we should make our case, not only in systematic discourses.

There is one other suggestion I want to make.  Only one side of our field is history.  The other side is philosophy.  The orphan philosophy of history is disdained by both departments, but theoryrevolt addresses mainly the history department side.  An philosopher  deeply familiar with the range of work in academic philosophy once told me that most Anglo-American philosophers would not know what you are talking about if you discuss historical theory.  It is they too who are largely realist in various forms of the ontology, frequently averse even to the history of philosophy, and sometimes outright eliminationist in their views of non-scientistic knowledge.  They can also be exceptionally open to very free but forceful speculation.  It is very much in the interests of the philosophy of history to confront resistance from the philosophy curriculum as well as that from the history curriculum.

The editorial “analogue ceiling” is also part of the last issue theoryrevolt comes to: the difficulty of bending academic form to meet organic form in historiography and also opening up the possibility of truthful and consequential but entirely “creative” ways of writing history.  This is a profound matter because we are driven to it by the recognition that standard sorts of accounts cannot do justice (justice both as sufficient explanation and as retrospective right action) to the full meaningfulness of the past and of the evidences of the past.  While to say that evidence can never be adequate for understanding the past would be a pessimism-causing conclusion, the truth is not far from this.  Conventional historiography uses “facts” to get at things facts do not convey, and then upon this error it concludes that it is right to confine these other things to the restricted domain of “real facts.”  Thus realism betrays itself.  Minus this dead end, the possibilities are tremendous: just for now I think of the “Robinson” films of Patrick Keillar as examples; it is even productive just to make things up, as in the essays on  But both the theoretical and the practical success of organic form and artistic approaches to historical accounts require us, on our end, to live with realism rather than to treat it as opposition to be eliminated.  Setting aside the ultimate metaphysics of the matter for present purposes, in terms of historiographic practice we can do this by emphasizing the ethical and moral persuasiveness of different kind of discourses and visual narratives.


Bennet Gilbert

Last updated: 14.6.2018

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