David Gange, ‘We simply don’t argue over anything, really, anymore’

David Gange

David Gange

Antoinette Burton is right, in her critical response to the MBS working paper, to note the lack of big issues around which real, sustained argument takes place in the modern historical profession: ‘we simply don’t argue over anything, really, anymore’. If the History Manifesto continues to receive the attention that has accompanied its birth, it has the potential to stoke the kind of fundamental arguments that have recently been scarce in historical interpretation.

This will only happen if the Manifesto succeeds in provoking a response from those who see different ways forward than the book proposes; so far, Armitage and Guldi have drawn a great deal of admiration for their striking intervention, but (understandably given that the book is only three weeks old) very little sustained and explicit critical engagement. The Manifesto is certainly worthy of this engagement. It purports to present a recipe for how historians might speak truth to power, yet it does not present a fully-formed argument about how this might take place. This is where the input from a wide range of historians, including medievalists and global historians as well as micro-historians is required. Strangely, the Manifesto‘s rallying cry for longue durée approaches is rarely backed up by genuinely longue durée arguments. Instead, much of the book proceeds by selecting moments (microhistories?) from modern European history alongside vague evocation of climate change as a longue durée problem. Amidst all this, the longue durée of much recent global history is a particularly strange absence. This is just one way (the use of ngrams to support arguments for historians as responsible data handlers being another) in which a mismatch between aims and methods threatens to subvert the larger agenda. The text should therefore be taken as a rallying cry for all those committed to the interpretation of the past to renew debate on the purposes of history; it cannot be an instruction manual for doing history on the public stage.

Historians have a single task to pursue before any or their other aims can really be achieved. This is in nudging audiences (ranging from students and politicians to local communities) towards willingness to deal with complexity. This means engaging publics in the process and practice of historical work, with all their uncertainties, not just with its results. It also demands that historians themselves are trained to drill down into complex and tightly defined problems without losing sight of the big issues. This is in fact something that many of the historians the Manifesto is critical of did phenomenally well, particularly those how took the cultural turn and dealt intensively and provocatively with the themes of class, gender and race. The skills to deal with this complexity, and the awareness it brings, are precisely why historians are equipped to provide an antidote to many of the trends towards superficiality bemoaned in the History Manifesto. My fear is that a reliance on the approaches outlined in the Manifesto risks diluting this usefulness and blunting history’s critical edge (looking to the work of a microhistorian such as Carlo Ginzburg in, for instance, the article ‘Our Words and Theirs’, ought to alert us to the limits of the keyword search). My hope is that this significant publication can help us sharpen that critical edge by inspiring fresh debate about communication and cooperation between historians and diverse constituencies, taking into account the many purposes to which interpretation of the past can – and should – be put.



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