These [post-Fordist] experiential shifts have been intertwined with and enhanced by discursive shifts. Especially since the mid-1980s, commentators, pundits, editorialists, and scholars constantly inform us that we are living in a new world, that old economic paradigms have been superseded, that ours is an entrepreneurial age, that contemporary global flows of populations and ideas are unprecedented, and so forth. The bursting of the late-1990s "dot com" bubble quieted the endless babble about the "new economy," which was supposedly capable of creating wealth without generating actual revenues. Nevertheless, hyperbolic claims about the novelty of our current condition remain common. (It is a sobering thought that this chapter itself might be cited as an example.) In any case, the experiential effects of changes in economic and social relations have been magnified in the past two decades by discourses telling us that the new footloose relations are particularly significant--just as the discourse of the Fordist era previously magnified our sense of the solidity and standardization of socioeconomic relations. Hence, while it is surely true that careers have actually become increasingly unstable and entrepreneurial over the past few decades, careers during the Fordist era were less stable than we imagined and those in the current era are probably more stable than we imagine. The changes we experience are products both of changes in social relations and of changes in the cultural categories through which we understand them.Cultural history, Sewell says, is to post-Fordism what social history was to Fordism: the reading of history most appropriate for the social, economic, and political climate of the time. His case is a convincing one, mainly because it is only a minor extension of David Harvey's two-decade-old argument about postmodernity. We live in a world of wobbly fluid things that leave no definite future for me or for you. It only stands to reason that we project the same networks and flows backwards through time. (Hence, perhaps, the surging interest in the eighteenth century--that, too, was an age of flows.) It might even be said that we're "complicit" with post-Fordism, although it is difficult to say how much we're really helping it.
... I want to make it absolutely clear that I remain a determined advocate of the cultural turn. But at the same time, I think it is essential to recognize that the cultural turn was also fueled, in ways we were essentially unaware of, by a secret affinity with an emergent logic of capitalist development. Cultural history's tendency to celebrate the plasticity of all social forms made good political sense as a critique of Fordist social determinisms, but its critical force in the context of a capitalist regime of flexible accumulation is far less evident. Indeed, such a celebration indicates an unacknowledged and troubling complicity between the cultural turn and the emergence of contemporary flexible forms of capitalism.
- William H. Sewell, Jr., "The Political Unconscious of Social History," in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (2005)
Like Jameson and Harvey, Sewell is unable to separate his insight into the sociopolitical configuration of post-Fordism from his delusions about political agency. His unacknowledged premise is almost a shibboleth in the profession: if we could only develop a theory of where we are as historians, we could use that theory to fuel the kind of practice we support! But, although Sewell would be the first to distance himself from "crude" base/superstructure determinism, it is difficult to reconcile the claim that historiographical fashions mirror dominant political and economic trends with the claim that historians can rise up and do something about it. Of course, his answer is that we should pay close attention to social forces and temporality and such, which is all well and good in its turn but hardly represents the Treason of the Intellectuals he seems to want. (Foucault says somewhere that all we've got now are people who propose new intellectual programs that eventually die with them, and this is no exception.)
There is a great deal of potential to Sewell's claims, however, as long as we step back from the empty talk about agency. What his chapter reveals, in fact, is that historiography is always, in a sense, fighting the last war. When we "realize" our collective "error" (as in the late nineteenth-century reaction to Bancroft), we produce critiques in lockstep with the climate of our time (positivism, in this case). In fact, the internalist and externalist explanations for the shift between historiographical eras can no longer be cleanly separated. An internalist account, as Sewell says, will want to point to social history's blindness with respect to the neutrality of its empirical data and so forth and use that to explain its replacement by cultural history; an externalist account would point to society and economics. But if we trust the cultural historians, we begin to see that (external) transitions between sociocultural forms are workings-out of many of the same problems faced (internally) by historiography.
Sewell's book, then, should not lead us to try to abandon our intellectual context in favor of some kind of revolutionary bird's eye view. Rather, it should help us accept the blinders of that context, and learn to see them not as restrictive but as formative. Like an accent or a dialect, the temporal coloration of our historiography is part of its unique identity. It is pointless to try to predict what the trends in history will be in 25 years--except that they will likely not be the same as today's. So let's do the best we can, and study the cultural while it's there--and let's trust in the community of historians to shift its paradigm when it's ready. Otherwise we'll only deceive ourselves.