#@%*! rainbows

by Carl Dyke

You can’t teach people ideas right the first time, because it’s never the first time. They always have other ideas already that are ‘in the way’ of the new idea you’d like them to entertain.

I’ve mentioned Gramsci’s point about this before, worth repeating, from the Prison Notebooks, Q 24,

The unitary … elaboration of a homogeneous collective consciousness demands a wide range of conditions and initiatives. … A very common error is that of thinking that every social stratum elaborates its consciousness and its culture in the same way, with the same methods, namely the methods of the professional intellectuals. … It is childish to think that a ‘clear concept’, suitably circulated, is inserted in various consciousnesses with the same ‘organizing’ effects of diffused clarity: this is an ‘enlightenment’ error. … When a ray of light passes through different prisms it is refracted differently: if you want the same refraction, you need to make a whole series of rectifications of each prism.

This principle of cultural diffusion, which turns out to include the professional intellectuals after all, is being nicely illustrated by the marketing of some possibly-new, possibly-valuable philosophical ideas, under the headings of speculative realism or object-oriented philosophy, e.g. at Larval Subjects. The prism hasn’t gotten rectified yet for Mikhail, as illustrated there and at Perverse Egalitarianism. So it goes.

Closer to home, when I teach our general education world history classes I find it’s really easy to waste a whole lot of all of our time if I just act as if the students are on board with the value of the project. I teach those imaginary students, the real ones produce just enough of a simulation to let me stay in my fantasy world, everyone does a brain dump after the final, and on we get with our lives. Then there are the disillusioned colleagues who try to ‘teach’ by brute force, like they’re gutting and stuffing turkeys; or the tinkerbells who just ignore everyone but the few nerds who already believe in our neverland.

There’s nothing self-evidently valuable about the humanities. As Weber said in “Science as a Vocation,”

… they give us no answer to the question, whether … cultural phenomena have been and are worth while. And they do not answer the further question, whether it is worth the effort required to know them. They presuppose that there is an interest in partaking … of the community of ‘civilized men’. But they cannot prove ‘scientifically’ that this is the case; and that they presuppose this interest by no means proves that it goes without saying.

History has done some marketing, but it hasn’t been very thoughtful or effective. To preserve our livelihood it hasn’t really been necessary. Mostly we’ve been successful in preserving a fait accompli as part of the historically elitist liberal curriculum by leveraging collegial omertà on the one hand and the cultural goodwill of petits bourgeois with all their social-mobility eggs in the education basket on the other. It also helps that ‘histories’ are part of the narratives of identity-construction for new groups challenging for access to higher education, and sometimes we hitch our wagons to those engines. But it’s a bumpy ride: troubling such mythologies is one of the first tasks of critical historiography at the university level. We’re professional killjoys over here.

I’m not content with mere existence or ideological stupors, and I like to be more selective about how I waste my time. So, right from the beginning of class I accept that most of the students don’t see the point and there’s no reason they should. I can teach them by stealth even so, and still do, but I’d like to create the possibility for a more active buy-in. So I ask them why we study history, and when they give me the stock answers, I see if they really believe them.

1. We study the past so we won’t repeat our mistakes.

OK: leaving aside that history is generally ‘them’, not ‘us’, why do I eat a whole bag of Snickers every year a couple weeks before Halloween? Why do some of us tend to keep ending up in the same disastrous relationships over and over? Maybe memory fades; maybe we’re not entirely convinced it’s a mistake; maybe we’ve got some deeply-embedded habits or compulsions that aren’t immediately subject to rational dissuasion. Whatever, the relationship between knowledge of the past and changing its patterns is not immediate.

How about the war in Iraq – are we repeating the mistakes of Vietnam? Well, was Vietnam a mistake? Was the mistake going in, or not going in hard enough, or not staying the course? Let’s say we’d ignored the hippies, gone hard and stayed; it would have gone differently, but how? Would it have gone better, or much worse? How can we know? And from what perspective? Is there maybe more to learn about Iraq from Snickers and old girlfriends than Vietnam? Are the similarities only apparent, and the effective variables all different?

2. The past causes the present, so to change things now we need to know how we got here.

This I call the ‘therapeutic hypothesis’. It doesn’t work with any of the examples in 1. I like the answer from Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (1974) best:

There are two possibilities: 1) The causal significance of the past is only a fascinating but inaccurate myth. In this case, the only question is the pragmatic one: How can desirable change of present behavior be most efficiently produced? 2.) There is a causal relationship between the past and present behavior. But since past events are obviously unchangeable, either we are forced to abandon all hope that change is possible, or we must assume that… the past has influence over the present only by way of a person’s present interpretation of past experience. If so, then the significance of the past becomes a matter not of ‘truth’ and ‘reality,’ but of looking at it here and now in one way rather than another. Consequently, there is no compelling reason to assign to the past primacy or causality in relation to the present… [and the only meaningful question is again the pragmatic one] (p.86, footnote).

Here we are in the present no matter what. At this point I mention the time machine I’m working on. A couple more empty paper-towel tubes and macaroni glue-ons and it will be up and running, I think. Then we can go back and fix things up so they work out alright. Until then, if we need the past to change the present we are well and truly screwed.

3. To know who we are we must know our roots.

Really? As I addressed in the last post, knowing my roots does very little useful work for me in knowing myself. I’m not a jerk like my German grandma (maybe in a different way); I’m not brilliant like famous historical white people Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein; I know bupkis about ‘my’ Scottish culture; and unlike my great-grandpa I did not discover a glacier. To know who I am I look in the mirror. Then I check in with the people who know me. It’s certainly helpful to know that I grew up in semi-rural eastern Pennsylvania; that my immediate family is riddled with academics; that I lived in Italy for two years as a kid. This personal history is quite different than tracing my bloodlines back to Charlemagne.

The identity myths of peoples are certainly effective in creating and maintaining group solidarity, as any anthropologist since Durkheim knows and has been argued more recently by Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak. But these “strategic essentialisms” are troubled by what Anthony Appiah calls “imperialisms of identity,” in which real human beings are trapped within the boxes they’ve created for themselves. Furthermore, for better or worse, strategic mythology is not critical historiography.

I think all of these advertising clichés for history have some truth and can be rescued with a little care and nuance. The point is that in their iconic forms they’re only superficially convincing, and therefore tend to be recycled as dogma rather than really believed. Students can produce them on demand, but don’t actually buy them. This gets the butts planted in the seats, but it does not produce a disposition to learning. On the contrary, what the students really believe is that history is useless. This is therefore the real starting point for actually teaching history rather than just going through the motions. I’ve mentioned before how I try to turn this starting point to advantage.


6 Responses to “#@%*! rainbows”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot, and I think I agree with your conclusions–all but the idea that these justifications can really be rescued.

    But I don’t think that the lack of a justification for history is either a fatal problem or one peculiar to history alone. Similarly specious arguments about “critical thinking” are routinely produced in the context of a justification for studying English or philosophy. I have rarely seen anyone actually learn critical thinking in that way; either they substitute new received ideas (liberal pluralism, rah-rah Marxism) for old ones (down-home “good citizenship,” Christian fundamentalism) or they learn a bunch of canned responses to equally canned arguments. In English classes this often resolves to the mechanical application of “feminism” or “postcolonialism” to any given text, a mode which generally ceases to be productive as soon as the dramatis personae are identified, since the conflict is already pregiven in the interpretive framework. (Which is not to make any claim about the validity of feminist or postcolonial discourse in general, just about the way they’re often used).

    This problem can actually be broken down into two parts, viz.:
    1) The abstract problem of providing a foundation or a justification for this or that form of inquiry.
    2) The concrete problem of justifying one’s own career for the purpose of obtaining or retaining employment/funding.

    Now, at the moment 2 seems to be largely irrelevant, because as you very accurately point out, the petty-bourgeois populace at large is already fairly convinced that history (in the abstract) is valuable and should be encouraged as a part of the liberal arts. At the very least, the populace enjoys reading Stephen Ambrose and would like to promote the possibility of more Stephen Ambroses arising in the future. The fact that funds for humanities departments are being reduced in favor of hard-science departments is not something that can be solved by any particularly compelling argument–it’s part of a broader and more intractable systemic logic.

    1, on the other hand, isn’t really a problem at all. If I’m a committed antifoundationalist and refuse to subscribe to the various activist interpretations of historical research, I don’t need to give any further abstract justification of my work than “I like doing it and I’m pretty good at it,” just as a poet is not always faced with the task of justifying poetry. The unhappy reality of life in a society where most work is make-work is that there’s no way to ground your own vocation. Sure, history is pragmatically pretty useless, but so is 95% of the bureaucracy and paper-shuffling that drives the American economy.

    If problem 2 ever arises in a more acute way than it currently does, it will not be a problem of theory but rather one of pragmatics. The point is not to convince the people and the government with a theoretically bulletproof argument, but to bamboozle them with enough sufficiently compelling points that they continue giving you money. Pieties about “knowing your roots” and the old Santayana bullshit are pretty good at serving that purpose so far. Historians are a pretty smart bunch, so I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with more superficial high-sounding nonsense should the need ever arise.

  2. Hi Greg! I think you nailed this. I’m not even sure I really think the standard rationalizations can be rescued either, but I think I could take a crack at it if I had to – if that became a battle that needed fighting. That it’s not is interesting for exactly the reasons you say.

    So for me, the ‘hegemonic’ or ‘legitimating’ issues take a backseat to pedagogical ones properly speaking. That is, I know I can get butts in the seats and draw a paycheck for being a history professor in the current regime. And I know I can do that whether I actually get any history taught or not. But I’d like my life to be substantively meaningful, and to me substantive meaning always comes down to relations with humans rather than formal ideals of this or that sort. I’m pretty simple-minded that way.


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