Blogs > Cliopatria > Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

Feb 9, 2004 8:31 pm


Don't Tug on Superman's Cape



In an earlier entry on Niall Ferguson's recent writings, I complained about a lack of"hard work" on his part. We've just been exchanging (polite) emails and a mea culpa from me is certainly in order about that particular comment. It would be hard to find a more prodigious, productive or hard-driving historian than Ferguson writing today. Whatever the issue is behind my criticism, it's not about productivity.

The deeper issue that we've discussed strikes me as a truly complex one, a problem I struggle with and blog about myself quite a lot. It's rather odd, in a way, that I should complain about the lack of Ferguson's detailed attention to the historiography or scholarly canon in Empire given that I so often argue for the need for generalists in the academy, and bemoan the degree to which both generalists and popularizers are ill-regarded by scholars.

When you achieve the success that Ferguson has achieved through his output--which combines both broad, sweeping works like Empire with detailed, intensely and precisely scholarly work like his two-volume history of the Rothschilds, to some extent you pass beyond the chains and constraints of ordinary academic life, and are free to write, think and argue whatever you like, and to command justifiably favorable attention and respect when you do so.

In more ordinary circumstances, for relative plodders like myself, choosing to favor a generalist sensibility in the way we go about historical writing instead of retaining a fidelity to a narrow specialization exposes you to a kind of netherworld of vulnerability-through-neglect, a lonely status of neither fish-nor-fowl. Scholarly historians do not normally have much regard for communicating with wider publics through blogging or other means or for trying to forge arguments that bridge knowledge in many different fields of expertise.

To be fair, there is reason for such skepticism. It is much easier to construct enforceable, agreed-upon standards for recognizing a good specialist monograph than it is for distinguishing gaseous punditry with a Ph.D after it from a useful hybrid of scholarly insight with a generalizing, widely communicative vision.

Scholarly training ought to make a public intellectual more responsible, disciplined and above all knowledgable. At the end of the day, the scholar is one who knows. I have always been a bit dismayed by some historians on the academic left who seem to feel that the aspiration of their professional practice is to erase or efface the difference between scholars and publics. The historian needs to be a person who knows something that is not generally or commonly known, that is knowable only through the craft of history. If not, we might as well come out of our universities with our hands up and get out of the game.

On the other hand, what we know needs eventually to be of value to someone other than ourselves, to delight, instruct or transform a wider audience of readers and thinkers. Here the art of the generalist and popularizer takes pride of place. History must pay its rents in its utility and value to the present.

And I suppose in the end this view figures in my quarrel with Ferguson's Empire--a feeling that if Ferguson is going to argue that the" case against" the British Empire, the argument that empire was a"Bad Thing", is sweepingly wrong, and the British Empire actually was largely summed up by its benign effects, at some point or some place, even in a consciously popularizing work, he's going to have to acknowledge that a lot of careful, scholarly work suggests otherwise for reasons that go beyond the biases or politics of the historians who wrote it.

At the end of the day, that's what makes all professional historians, whether in or out of the academy, specialized or generalist, mandarin or popularizer, humbly responsible to some loosely shared standards of craftwork. I might not want to die the death of a thousand footnotes in what I write, but I would want to convey the sense that if I am sailing against the tide, I nevertheless have a lot of respect for the labors that filled the ocean.


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back40 back40 - 2/13/2004

Good post. I have that (mostly silent) quarrel often with the pronouncements of most works. It seems that all the energy and ink goes into supporting the argument when I need (selfish me) help with refuting the counter arguments. Some are refuted without explicit reference but many are ignored.

I require recognition of contrary work even when swimming with the tide. It isn't the volume of contrray labor that seems important. I suppose it's too much work and that I am responsible for reading diverse views and doing the sifting and sorting for myself. I should have been a scholar but it seems like such a lot of dreary work.


Josh Kaderlan - 2/10/2004

The fact that Ferguson puts out some good work which clearly shows the effort he put into it doesn't negate the possibility that other aspects of his work exhibit a disinterest in scholarship or a lack of effort. Having read back through your original post, it doesn't strike me that you have anything to apologize for.

I would also argue that when you write
if Ferguson is going to argue that the "case against" the British Empire, the argument that empire was a "Bad Thing", is sweepingly wrong, and the British Empire actually was largely summed up by its benign effects, at some point or some place, even in a consciously popularizing work, he's going to have to acknowledge that a lot of careful, scholarly work suggests otherwise for reasons that go beyond the biases or politics of the historians who wrote it.,
the "even in a consciously popularizing work" should be amended to "especially in a consciously popularizing work". It's one thing to expect a specialist reader to know the body of work on a subject and realize when a writer is going against it. It's another thing entirely to give a non-specialist reader a mistaken impression of the state of scholarship on a given issue.

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