Thursday, January 12, 2012

What makes History, History?

I do Twenty-First century history – and, yes, it does sound strange to my ears to be saying this. Over one-third of my published work deals with events that happened after Y2K. In a future blog entry, I’ll discuss some of the promise and perils of doing Twenty-First Century history, but now I want to address a related question: what makes the work that I do history?

It isn’t history simply because it is a study of the past, because what I write about isn’t the past -- at least not for most of us; it’s too close to the present to look or feel like the past. On the other hand, most freshman students are too young to remember Bush v Gore at all or to have clear memories of 9/11. (Here, I invoke the exchange between the Ghost of Christmas Past and Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: When this ghost announces itself, Scrooge asks, “Long past?” The ghost answers, “Your past.”) So chronology alone isn’t enough to make what I do history.

My work also isn’t what a purist would consider to be “proper” history as it includes elements of a presentist agenda. Although such concerns do not drive my work, I believe that my work does have a lot to add to our current debates about how we can make practical democracy work. For example, in arguing that we need to evaluate the events of November and December 2000 as comprising a breakdown of the American electoral system – a breakdown that could have been fixed but was not -- I inevitably find myself commenting on current electoral practices. In fact, the events of the last few years has largely proved my thesis that the only people who really took to heart the lessons of 2000 (that we had a broken electoral system, not just broken voting machines) were the partisans who took advantage of such opportunities to skew the electoral process in their favor and against their foes.

In the end, the only answer that I’ve been able to devise is methodological. What I do is history and not journalism because, to the best of my ability, I treat even recent events in the same way that I would treat events that took place a century ago. I examine all the primary sources that I can find; I work to set these sources and the events they explain within a wider historical context; and then I try to craft a narrative that expresses these insights. Similarly, what I do is not political science because I don’t build my work around theoretical models, nor do I subordinate my narrative to an abstract, normative agenda about political processes. Although my work has theoretical, analytical, and normative foundations, I bury each in the narrative -- letting the voices and actions of the historical actors who appear in my work drive the narrative. (That is to say, I shape the theoretical, analytical, and normative elements of my work by reference to what those historical actors tell us, rather than applying my facts to suit the needs of testing or explaining those theoretical, analytical, and normative elements).

So I conclude by turning the question back on those among this blog’s readers who find themselves doing recent history – why (or how) do you situate your work as history as opposed to journalism or political science? Or to repeat this blog's title: In your view, what makes history, history?

1 comment:

Alfred Brophy said...

Charles -- lots of things to think about here. Your discussion reminds me of James Kloppenberg's Reading Obama -- which is an intellectual history of the very recent past. It was cool to see how much Kloppenberg applied the techniques of intellectual history (like situating Obama in what was taught in college and law school) in understanding his thought.