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May 31, 2004 1:24 pm

On Ubiquity and Social Change ...

A month ago, Ophelia Benson left Cliopatria on a cloud of angry charges over at Butterflies and Wheels. With minor skirmishes here and at Crooked Timber, the attack continues unabated. Her initial objection was to a post by my colleague, Hugo Schwyzer, but as time passed, the attack at Butterflies and Wheels turned to me and includes criticism of my professional ability. For the most part, I've not responded to them ( the"it feeds the trolls" sort of thing). I haven't done so over there because of B & W's proprietary claims and its proprietors' habitual quoting out of context and without modifiers. I haven't done so here because there are more important things to discuss. I'm not above the occasional cheap shot. Somehow, Miss Manners thought it was more polite to be coy about who B & W was smearing, so I didn't use her name in reply. Still, she seemed not to like being referred to as"Madame DeFarge." Cheap shots do occur to me:"B & W -- the lower grade root beer"; or,"‘Jerry S' cannot be Jerry Springer because Springer offers clever commentary." But there are more important things to do here than taking cheap shots.

In recent criticism of my intellect (in comments here), however, B & W's proprietor,"Jerry S", recalls something I had said earlier:"When something is ubiquitous, the interesting question isn't ‘how could it have been tolerated?' because it was commonly and widely accepted.""Jerry S" finds me unable to understand why my observation is"just plain silly." But it is of interest to historical practice to think about my claim.

I made the claim in the context of a discussion of slavery and its ubiquity in the early modern world. Explaining the presence of pro-slavery arguments in a world in which slavery was ubiquitous is less interesting, I think, than explaining how an anti-slavery argument emerged in the face of slavery's ubiquity. It is important to understand received frameworks and institutions and, beyond that, to understand how even a ubiquitous institution like slavery varied from place to place. But history's drama is not found in received frameworks and institutions. Rather, it is found in the emergence of subversive challenges to and contentions with them. So, the interesting question is how anti-slavery emerged in the face of slavery's ubiquity or, as certainly, how feminisms emerged to challenge the ubiquity of patriarchal"known worlds."

"The known world" is an intriguing concept in itself, as Edward P. Jones's brilliant novel of that title recently suggested. In some real sense, the plantation, itself, was"the known world" to those who were enslaved there, even in strange ways to those who"mastered" there. So, one has some compassion for the free child of color when he inherits his white father's plantation and knows that he must preserve its"peculiar institution." To have acted otherwise would have undone the precious advantage that his freedom and his inheritance bequeathed to him. We have that sense of compassion, knowing all the while that his choice was a tragic one, because he was born into a tragic world.

Unless you think that we have somehow grasped final knowledge of good and evil, one has to believe that the limits of our vision are a matter for some compassion. Otherwise, as a historian, I may berate all women everywhere in patriarchal pasts and elsewheres who were not in continual rebellion against the patriarchy. How dare I imagine that they must know that things might be otherwise? If I believe that some ultimate knowledge of good and evil is ubiquitously available, I will sit in judgment of slaves who did not rebel against their inherited plight. If I believe such things, I must hold child laborers in Pakistan accountable for not rising up against their oppression. But, surely, their"known world" knows that in a limited but, for all practical purposes real, sense that child labor is ubiquitous.

I think we must reach this sort of attitude toward the data from which a historian creates a narrative. Otherwise, we have no compassion for the victims of received frameworks and institutions. Otherwise, we must surrender ourselves to the harsh judgment of some distant future for not having created a better world, for not having overthrown some intolerable evil whose ubiquity blinds our recognition of it as such; for not having created a world whose conception is possible only to those whose distant wisdom finds our known world so enslaving.

Update:"Jerry S" replies here. I don't see how quibbling about an article helps matters, except as it encourages me to meet a philosopher's measure of precision of language. More importantly,"Jerry S"'s reply says nothing about ubiquity, social change, and what one can expect of people in distant pasts and elsewheres.

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Jonathan Dresner - 6/2/2004

You're right, too, and there are interesting questions (whole categories) which really aren't in that "decision evaluation" model. But the closer you get to the present the less clear the outcomes become as well. We can talk about the short-term gains of the civil rights movement, but the long-term implications haven't really played out yet. As Mao said of the French Revolution, "It's too early to tell."

Ralph E. Luker - 6/2/2004

Your first point about Mr. Halasz's comment is beyond dispute. The second point is more debateable, isn't it? The distinction you draw about history as an exercise in decision evaluation is a very important one. Yet, the conclusion you draw from it may exaggerate the degree to which a historical figure is or figures are in control of relevant information. It seems to me that the more remote in time the period you are writing about and the more reliant the historian is on non-documentary sources, the more likely what you say is to be true. In more recent times and literate places, the problem tends to be the opposite -- that one is overwhelmed with evidence -- and it would be mistaken to assume that principals were aware of all of the information contained in it, any more than we can claim to have plowed through _all_ of the relevant documentary and non-documentary sources.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/2/2004

If you were one of my students, I'd point out that there are about four or five paragraphs worth of material there, and until you separate it out it's unlikely that a reader will follow your argument.

Most of your historiographical points are ok, except that your point about the historian knowing more than the historical agent is only true if you see history as an exercise in decision evaluation, where knowing the outcome matters more than being in the moment. In fact, historical records are fragmentary, contradictory and rarely address precisely the question you wish to answer, and so the historian knows a great deal less than the people studied.

john cornelius halasz - 6/2/2004

A hermeneutics of empathy as a fundamental basis of historiography seems to me to be a reasonable position. (If you want to style it "compassion" to add theological resonance, that's fine by me, so long as you are explicit about what you are doing. And I would have some philosophical quibbles about whether "empathy" is an adequate basis for hermeneutics, but that's not important here.) After all, one of the functions of historiography is to rescue the past from what E.P.Thompson termed "the enormous condescension of posterity" and this is a contribution to practical reason, as a caution to the conceits of the present. (By contrast, with respect to postitive lessons to be drawn from history, such historical thinking is a species of argument by analogy.) Historiography is caught up in something of a paradox, since the historian knows much more about the historical topic than do the historical agents,- (since that is, after all, the point of his exhaustive and continuing historical research,)- but, equally, the task of historical understanding and explanation involves taking account of the limits and constraints in the information, communications and understanding of possibilities affecting the courses of action of historical agents. This is where I find questionable the emphasis of narrative and "drama", in contrast to the ubiquity of the background of social and institutional practices. The dispositions and attitudes of historical agents can not really be understood without taking into account the conditions and structures in which actions and articulations are intricated. When social systems emerge and hold sway, with numerous nodal points of cross-implication between the constraints on various actors, they exercise an enormous force and power over the participants, such that they come to seem to be a "natural" reality over against the capacities and understandings of agents, who are all variously affected by this, regardless of whether they oppose or accept the system and regardless of their peculiar motives. Hence, with the example of American slavery, the political economy of that "peculiar" institution needs to be taken into account, without which consideration its historical endurance and impact makes less "sense". It is not just a matter of the "moral" rationalizations, of how its dread fatalities were confronted or evaded, that needs to be taken into account, for they may well have been quite secondary to the actual force of the system, which concerned not just those who were advantaged by it, but also those who were disadvantaged by it. For example, the spread of the plantation economy, which was the primary vehicle of slavery, would have effectively created a large class of poor whites, since not only was the best land taken up by the planters, but small farmers' crops would have had to compete with the produce of slaves. Yet it was the ambivalent postion of this class that came to form a bedrock of support for the system. Likewise, the spread of the plantation economy, especially after the invention of the cotton gin, was occasioned by the vast and growing demand for the produce of slaves on the part of the factory economies of New England and England. And this reality was deeply embedded in the aggregate national economy as a whole, affecting "free", as well as, slave state interests. In fact, before the Civil War, the nominal market value of slaves was 3 times as great as the net capital stock of the rest of the nation, exclusive of land, and the export value of slave-produced materials was a prime factor in the balance of trade, (hence the availability of foreign capital.) Finally, the U.S.A. was very much founded as a white man's republic and the transport, (i.e.murder and kidnapping), of Africans and their condition of involutary servitude was very much in contradiction to the thinking of the white man's republic and its voluntarist ideology. But, of course, this contradiction was displaced onto the Africans themselves and served to stigmatize them, and this thinking in terms of the white man's republic persisted after the Civil War and affected variously abolitionist and irredentist currents. Indeed, it is hard to see how such a mode of "perception", re-enforced by persistent patterns of social realtions and the competitve scramble for advantages, could be readily overcome, and the subsequent difficulty in overcoming racism against Afro-Americans testifies to this "fact". The thinking of the white man's republic persists to this day, at least insofar as the equation of white = "normal" = normative is still fairly prevalent. And if there is a lesson to be drawn here, it is the need to distinguish between social-psychological attitudes and socio-structural effects. For, if much progress has been achieved in "reforming" the attitudes of whites, many embedded structural effects, involving the distribution of assets, resources, and opportunities and the strategic investment in the maintenance of social positions, carry on their legacy in transformed conditions, such that structural effects regenerate racial attitudes.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/1/2004

When people (Ahem, Jerry S) set themselves up as final arbiters of the language, it might behoove them to avoid things such as ending sentences with preposition and what some might call borderline comma splices. I'm just sayin' . . .

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

P.S. You're right, I've gotten terse and formal, on occassion, and I've gotten angry and written rashly on occassion. I have sinned, and I have apologized where I thought appropriate. How I would respond if Ophelia Benson and Jerry S. were targetting me I don't know. But I think ridiculing Jerry S. for his fixation on prepositions and articles is much more effective than historically weak and inflammatory labelling.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

World history textbooks are trying to integrate the native African, Arabic/Islamic and Atlantic slave trades, though I'm not sure how much that's reflected in monographic analysis and how much of it is, like many of my lecture rubrics, making it up as we go along and sometimes getting it right.

Whether stability is normal depends on the scale you're looking at, I guess. Teaching World History year after year (and Western and Asian surveys before that) has given me a rather contingent view of everything. I tend to refer to any tradition less than two centuries old as "relatively recent".... But it's hard to find periods of history now which really qualify as "stable" in a rigid sense. Sometimes change is quick, sometimes it is slow (which is what we usually call "stability"), but it happens almost everywhere all the time. And if you can put it off for a little while, others will change and you'll be forced to respond at some point which will change you.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/31/2004

Jonathan, I think that you make an especially good point in re slave systems. If I'm not mistaken, even our most cosmopolitan historians have yet to encompass more than the Atlantic world on the history of slavery and anti-slavery. Most of us are aware that slavery still exists in parts of the world. Depending on what you count as slavery, it still apparently exists in the United States, for that matter.
But the title to your comment is intriguing. I suspect that most of us would _tend_ to think of stability as normal. How is it not?
p.s. I assume you are fully aware of the professional smearing that's gone on over at B & W. I'm not sure how much ignoring of that is in order. Civility has its place and it's an important one. But I've seen you get real chilly when you thought someone was not giving you your entitlements. It went way beyond that at B & W.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2004

While I entirely agree with the importance of history with compassion (I saw a talk by Michael Luick-Thrams, who studies the WWII POW camps in Iowa and elsewhere in the US, in which he said "A historian has to learn to be forgiving." Though there are limits) I also find the emphasis on change, particularly in modern history, to be a bit one-sided. Stability, continuity and preservation are interesting phenomena, particularly when they seem to run against the grain of change. The way in which different components of a seemingly stable system support (or are in tension) with each other helps to explain both the success and failure of efforts to change them.

There was not a single anti-slavery movement, for example. There were several, each struggling against different forms of slavery, some of them successful sooner, some later, some died and had to be resurrected before success was to be had. And slavery persists today in places: that deserves, demands, explanation (and rectification, but that's a different issue).

Every "tradition", every "social habit", every "ubiquity" was once new. It succeeded in becoming part of the system, sometimes by transforming the system, and in maintaining itself within the system. Thousands, millions of people turned new ways of doing things into traditions, then habits (Marc Bloch, I think it was, distinguishes between a conscious tradition and an unconscious habit), then faced questions and challenges: sometimes habit was returned to conscious tradition, sometimes it changed. It's a long trajectory, not just the short landing, that tells the whole story.

p.s. Ophelia was not the only person who objected to "Madame DeFarge."

Hugo Schwyzer - 5/31/2004

Jeez, Ralph, I've always been worried I wasn't smart enough for you!
Hurrah for a call for compassion, and the recognition of our epistemological limitations!

Ralph E. Luker - 5/31/2004

Ya, right! If you think the tone over here is poopy, you oughta see what's posted over at B & W.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/31/2004

I remember a time when people reserved their most heated and personal comments for private email correspondence. kids these days . . .

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