Both Bollinger and Haskell were attempting to stake out an epistemological "vital center"--a middle-of-the-road grounding for the historical venture. This was a not unworthy endeavor; one which they conducted with great subtlety, modesty, and circumspection; one which, in other circumstances, might have attracted considerable attention and support. But as of the 1980s, hardly anybody was listening. Sensibilities were too diverse to be gathered together under any ecumenical tent. As a broad community of discourse, as a community of scholars united by common aims, common standards, and common purposes, the discipline of history had ceased to exist. Convergence on anything, let alone a subject as highly charged as "the objectivity question," was out of the question. The profession was as described in the last verse of the Book of Judges.As far as Novick is concerned, the age of substantive debate about the "objectivity question" is over. Individual historians might have opinions and proposals about the virtues of relativism and objectivism, but there is little hope that any of them might be able to win a significant fraction of the others over. While he might have been chary about making a prediction for the future, the trend Novick identified in the '80s has not ceased--sure, there was cultural history, Atlantic history, and the history of the book, but none of these approaches proved robust enough to erase the epistemological and methodological fragmentation of the profession. (Indeed, to the extent that cultural history acquired a position the others did not, it was by losing its sharp edges and becoming more pluralistic--so two works of cultural history might differ from one another more than a Progressive and a neoconsensus work would.)In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.How long "those days" will continue is anyone's guess. With the triumph of professionalized, scientific history at the turn of the century, historians were confident that problems of historical knowledge had been definitively resolved. Surveying the development of historical theory through the 1930s, Bulletin 54 of the Social Science Research Council announced that with the victory of relativism, American historiography had "come of age." In the early 1960s historians congratulated themselves on having successfully transcended relativism, and having established a mature and permanent equilibrium in a "practical" objectivity. The reader will understand my unwillingness to join the ranks of these failed prophets by predicting the indefinite continuation of present chaos (or some other outcome). In any case, as I have attempted to show, the evolution of historians' attitudes on the objectivity question has always been closely tied to changing social, political, cultural, and professional contexts.
- Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (1988)
So what we have, in effect, is an enforced relativism (as Novick essentially claims). Even if Joe the economic historian has definite commitments to historical objectivity and rigor--and even votes against hiring Jean the Derridean culturalist--he still generally has to inhabit a department in which "heterodoxy" is every bit as professionally ensconced as "orthodoxy." So little by little, a kind of historiographical Lockeanism becomes established and the use of the disciplinary power of the profession to resolve epistemological disagreements becomes impossible. Novick makes much of the case of David Abraham, who was railroaded and ostracized by an objectivist lynchmob; in 2009 such a situation would look very strange, to say the least.
For Novick, though, this pluralism seems to be explicable by the various new approaches being taken by historians. This is not a very satisfying explanation, since it basically begs the question. Why are so many new approaches being taken? Is interdisciplinarity merely a passing fad for historians, devoid of meaningful underlying causes? I don't think so. I think the explanation lies in a dynamic recently outlined by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle (hat tip to Dave Mazella): the economic nature of scholarly production. It is not at all naive, even for a relativist, to think of the body of history-to-be-written-about as a pool of raw material which is processed into monographs and tenure. (The reason it's even okay for a relativist is that the "raw materials" need only represent the "pool of history that people are interested in reading about," with no reference to the objectivity of that pool. Thus there is considerably more raw material in Tolkien's Middle-Earth than there is in the world of Robert Asprin. But that's a subject for another post.)
Up to a certain point in the postwar period, the central problem for historians was encircling and tapping the raw material in a complete and reasonably undistorted way. There was so much of it that scarcity did not enter into the picture. Thus a unified epistemological approach promised great reward for the coordination of efforts and the efficient exploitation of available resources. Today, due to the vast amount of research done since the '60s, scarcity is much more palpably present to us, and the unit price for truly new historical breakthroughs has risen dramatically. Epistemological fragmentation is the inevitable result. Compare oil extraction: for a long time the only way to get at oil reserves was There Will Be Blood-style drilling. Then seaborne oil platforms came into widespread use--and today, due to rising prices, it has become economical to get it from algae, oil sands, oil shale, and so on. There would not be nearly enough oil if all of it were still extracted by drilling. If all historians still followed Richard Hofstadter's lead, there would be no research professorships left outside of the Ivy League.
The Leninist theory of imperialism is the other point of comparison. Capitalism must inevitably find its home markets insufficient and therefore engage in market-creating ventures abroad; this produces a variety of new ideological justifications, e.g. the "white man's burden," that in the last analysis are merely superstructure. It is the same way with our profession, which has rapidly ascended to the stage of finance capitalism. (Given that fragmentation and not consolidation is the operative metaphor, the analogy is imperfect. But you get my drift.) Unless new technologies, more significant even than computer-based datamining, produce dramatic new bodies of primary sources--or unless the publish-or-perish system is uprooted in its entirety--the relativization of the profession will not stop. It's all we've got.
Also, this isn't entirely relevant, but I just wanted to reproduce this footnote from Novick's book:
The way in which substantive sessions were organized at meetings of the AHA was the best evidence that the ostensible purpose of the gathering was not taken seriously. Typically there would three tenuously connected papers, edited with a cleaver so as to be (almost) deliverable in the allotted time. The shredded remnants were read aloud as rapidly as the speakers' lips and tongues could move, while pretending not to notice the chairperson pointing at the clock. There followed one or two "prepared" comments cobbled together at the last moments because the paper had only just arrived. Then, if time allowed, there would be a couple of rambling and off-the-point remarks from the floor. The conclusion was often a plea to the audience (friends and family of the speakers, those on search committees sampling the merchandise, and a collection of incurable innocents in search of enlightenment) to exit the room as rapidly as possible because the hotel staff had to arrange it for a luncheon now overdue. If there is exaggeration in this description, it is slight; if there are exceptions, they are rare. (n. 8, p. 580)Yup.