Blogs > Cliopatria > Dismissing Outsider Discourses

Jun 29, 2004 4:05 am

Dismissing Outsider Discourses

Our newest Cliopatriot, Manan Ahmed (Welcome!) has raised a very interesting question: the Arab scholars’ habit of ignoring outsider perspectives, particularly inconveniently analytical ones. But it’s not a particular habit of the “Arab Mind” or whatever you want to call it. It’s a very common bad habit of scholars the world over.

How many American historians of US history are aware of the American Studies scholarship which the world produces? How many of that small percentage consider that scholarship to be of any real interest? (Actually, we have someone “on staff” here at Cliopatria who might be able to answer that question, Israeli Americanist Mechal Sobel. I hope she’ll jump in with her experiences.)

I'm in the same boat, of course: I'm an American scholar of Japan, and while my scholarship seems to be of interest in Anglophone circles (more on the ASPAC experience when I’m back home next week), and might even be noted by a few local historians in my subject area, the odds of a mainstream Japanese historian of Japan considering the work I do of interest or worthy of comment are nearly zero. I don't take it personally: there's a vast, high-quality literature on Japan in English (and several other languages) and the Japanese only very rarely even notice that it exists. The last two Pulitzer-prize winning Japanese history books (one deserved it, one didn't) were translated into Japanese, and sold quite well: the market for popular history writing there is very strong, the books were on sensitive subjects, and the prizes gave the work a sort of"ohmigod, people are reading this stuff, we should know what they're saying about us" cachet....

The blanket dismissal is wrong, but there are some things about it that make sense. For example, in Japanese historiography, there is a powerful Marxist strain, which has produced a plethora of scholarship on some subjects, and very little on others. There's also the nationalistic strain, similarly distorting. And local history is very much antiquarian rather than analytical (not too different from most non-academic local history in this country). American (and many other nationalities’) scholars of Japan have come to the history with very different questions, and very different theoretical tools and personal agendas, and have collectively produced a scholarship on Japan that is very hard to integrate with the Japanese historiography.

Then there is the language barrier. My Japanese is good (rusty, except in reading comprehension), but I don’t claim to be a great writer in Japanese nor a professional-quality translator: it would take me forever and a day to translate even a chapter of my dissertation into that language on my own (and it would take me longer to explain to my tenure/promotion committee what I was doing). So the odds that a Japanese historian would be aware of my work, interested, and able to read it are long. (Yes, the vast majority of educated Japanese have a working reading knowledge of English when they graduate but like any language skill, it atrophies if not used).

I’m a great believer in the positive power of broader and more diverse communication, and it’s getting better. But there are real obstacles, even in academia.

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More Comments:

Van L. Hayhow - 7/1/2004

Thanks for the input.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/1/2004

I wondered if anyone would catch that. After the flamefests which accompanied the last discussion of Pulitzer-winning history, I hesitated to write it, actually.

The Dower book is based on rich historical sources which allow him to draw new and interesting conclusions about Japan in wartime, occupation and post-occupation. Bix's book is based on a few new items, many of which he uses badly, and a lot of old theory about the role of the Emperor, much of which he uses badly.

The best part of Bix was the early years: the wartime and occupation stuff is very weak -- I got tired of "presumably" and "it is logical to conclude" and scholars who have followed his footnotes and know the secondary literature he's using have not been impressed at all. It's a good attempt to update the "Hirohito as war criminal" argument, but it's not going to convince anyone who wasn't already convinced. There are sources which contradict his argument in places which he does not address, and there are important sources we still don't have access to.

Dower, on the other hand, is one of the three or four best Japanese historians working today, and Embracing Defeat is his best so far. It is fantastically rich and readable, but also complex in it's relationship to previous historiography and the ultimate argument.

Van L. Hayhow - 6/30/2004

Prof. Dresner:
I tend to shortlist Pulitzer winners to buy when they come out in paperback or the used market. Generally, I have enjoyed whatever ones I have read. I note that you feel the Bix book didn't deserve the award while Dower's did. Could you give a short summary of why you feel that way? Thank you. Van L. Hayhow

Michael C Tinkler - 6/29/2004

In European middle ages the antiquarian side is especially strong. The "professional" historians -- the Marxists, the nationalists, what have you -- tend to be very aware of American and British medievalists who work on Continental topics. Most of the people who run the archives, the libraries, etc., are of a more antiquarian stripe and tend not to know much about even other European specialists. I found this out the hard way last year in Rome, where Iused a letter of introduction from a German scholar (long resident in Rome) to get access to a library! It worked, but I heard some scoffing about Herr Doktors and American "professors." The funny thing was that I wanted to read their outsider discourse. It's almost impossible to get that kind of local history publication in America, and it's impossible to get a complete run with indices.

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