Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Impossible Politics

My response to Rachel at IdleThink, who asks "what can historians do to matter?"


What can historians do to matter? — It seems to be more than simply paring away academic jargon like ‘discourse’ and ‘deconstruction’ from one’s speech and writing, although as one of the authors was determined to hammer home, this was a good and necessary start. And how much can historians actually do? Where is the point where it ceases to be a matter of the historian’s sense of civic obligation and becomes a matter of the citizen’s apathy? or the point where the historian’s ability to write clearly ends and the citizen’s lack of education begins? Between these things there is a chasm that surely the historian can only do so much to bridge…

My default answer is the answer Malcolm X gave when a young white woman asked him what white people could do to help black people: “Nothing.”

The caveat, however, is that this only answers the question “What can historians do to matter as historians?” And luckily for you, the vocation “historian” does not exhaust your identity, your usefulness, or your possibilities.

Intellectuals are easily trapped by the competence fallacy. We invest so much in becoming competent in and qualified to speak for our corner of academic scholarship that we presume that speaking (or writing or acting) in any other context is governed by the same norms of competence. Since we are not qualified to speak to (or especially for) the farmer, the schoolchild, or the illiterate in the same sense that we are qualified to speak to our for our specialized discipline, we assume that such speech is impossible.

In fact, we have to speak and act, but for the most part not as historians: as critics, certainly, as journalists, possibly, and when a political claim rests on some fraught, mistaken, or mendacious claim to history, those roles can be invested with the weight of scholarly training. But above all, we can speak and act as citizens.

This is why I would (here and for this audience) deconstruct the authors’ goal to bypass the specialist and speak to the citizen, since it appears to preserve the very distinction that the authors wish (or should wish) to break. When one writes as one citizen to another, speaks and listens as one member of the polis with another, that is the very nature of the political. Politics cannot exist as a dialogue between the knowing and the ignorant, or between the authentic and the fake. That may be an untenable form of liberal democratic idealism, but that is where we are and where we must begin. The abandonment of the security one seeks in competence, and the fiction (if it is a fiction) that all citizens are made equal is the condition of possibility (or impossibility) of politics.

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