By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin
In May historians Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, together known as the Wild On Collective, released “Theses on Theory and History,” a widely-discussed manifesto on historical methodology. On October 8, this “cabal of rebels” made their first public appearance at the New School for Social Research, introduced by historian Oz Frankel. (Ethan Kleinberg could not attend.) A recording of the event is available below.
The “Theses on Theory and History,” emerged, Scott reflected, out of the authors’ shared “impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in significant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?”
Scott began by addressing the most obvious criticism of the manifesto: “Didn’t you do this already in the 1980s? Haven’t you fought that battle?” “Yes,” Scott answers, “we did fight that battle, but somehow we failed to transform the disciplinary norms in significant ways. What we’re witnessing is a reaction against exactly the kinds of theoretical incursions, rethinking, the epistemological transformations, that we’d hoped to be putting in place, securing. We don’t believe in linear, progressive history, but I think we hoped that somehow those battles would have established a stronghold forever. I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which I think in terms of progress, even as I am a critic of [progress] narratives.”
Of course, she notes, critiques of history and historicism were not invented in the 1980s: Theory Revolt’s roots go back to the 19th century, to Nietzsche, Simmel, and Croce; to the interwar period, to Heidegger, Bloch, Du Bois, and C.L.R. James. “It’s not as if the discipline has not had its critics time and time again,” Scott reflects, “and yet that critique never came to hold.” Hence, she explained, “What we wanted to do was figure out how we could again address the questions, the ways in which theory has become ghettoized in the domain of intellectual history, how documentary and synoptic accounts were replacing the kinds of epistemological transformations the three of us had all undergone somewhere along the way in our formation.”
The manifesto emerged as the right genre for this intervention. Kleinberg in particular was keen on nailing copies of the theses to the door of every history department in the country in the fashion of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. These Theses themselves are clearly inspired, Scott said, by manifestos from Marx, Benjamin, and Horkheimer and Adorno. Making the theses open access—at Kleinberg’s insistence—resulted in a swift and eager reception around the world, including translation into many languages. “We hit a nerve that people in many parts of the world responded to.”
Scott spoke highly of a forum of critical responses to the Theses the authors commissioned at History of the Present, where she is an editor. Andrew Zimmerman, notably, “reminds us of the need to decolonize theory” to include figures like Fanon and his encounters with Africa, and Foucault’s unacknowledged debts to the Black Panther Party in his work on prisons; in Scott’s words, “theory is bigger than the suggestions we make about what theory could be.”
“Let’s break some windows” was the attitude that brought Wilder to Theory Revolt. He critiqued the “insidious ways” that “superficial but shallow and domesticated embrace of theory” has preempted real theoretical engagement. Their target, he said, is not historians of old who think theory is “nonsense,” but rather those who say, “we already do that!” and “we read your book twenty years ago and it’s on the syllabus!” Scott added to the chorus, “it’s in my footnotes!” Theory Revolt opposes this “domestication of theory by history” and also “the ghettoization of theory in intellectual history.” The issue is not that nobody out there is doing critical history; it’s that the structures of the discipline—journals, hiring, tenure—still make doing it difficult.
The aim of the Theses, Wilder said, “is not a call for historians to write about theorists or somehow apply theory to their work.” It’s not a call to “do theory,” whatever that might mean, but rather to practice “self-reflexive critical history.” For Wilder this means “conceptualizing our material: treating as real those processes, relations, structures, that might not be… objectively verifiable. It means asking questions whose answers can never be definitively found in an archival box. It’s not a call to not do archival history; but it’s calling out this idea that any question worth answering could be answered by a document in a box somewhere.” This amounts to a plea against “conventional history,” conceived, in Dominick LaCapra’s classic formulation, as “the translation of archives into narratives.” As he glossed the manifesto, this entails “being self-reflexive about the histories, limitations, and risks of one’s own categories and frameworks. It means taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the object of study—psychic, social, political, ethical. It means the need to address ways in which the past is implicated in the present, and vice versa. And critical history means being clear about the political stakes of the work, addressing the relevance for our political present. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every work of history has to be instrumental in some immediate way, but it means that if that question isn’t being asked then we’re in scholasticism or antiquarianism and we’re not speaking to the world.” A central aim of theory is to help the historian become conscious of, if not ever fully overcome, the liberal assumptions about self and agency they bring into the archive to begin with.
“The whole point,” he said, “is to challenge the reified distinction between history and theory. If you do history, it’s got to be theorized critical history; if you’re a critical theorist, you have to be doing history, because otherwise you’re also reproducing an ideological conception of the world if you’re not relating your concepts to social arrangements and social formations.” He readily admitted that there will always be traditional empirical historians, but its more modest intervention of Theory Revolt would be to say “not that every historian should be this kind of critical theorist, but at the very least, the field has to stop pronouncing on what is and is not history.” His preoccupation in his own work, he concluded, is “to break the fantasy that professional historians somehow have a monopoly on how to think about the past.” “Just as we should never concede politics to the politicians, or ethics to the ethicists, or even philosophy to professional philosophers, there’s absolutely no reason that professional historians should own history.” As Foucault once flippantly declared, “I’m not a professional historian—but nobody’s perfect.”
New School historian Jeremy Varon, a student of Dominick LaCapra, asked why the authors bothered to try “to rattle the cages of hegemonic discourse” within the discipline instead of creating to their own critical spaces, which as Scott agreed, the authors already do.
The most most interesting exchange was between the speakers and Ann Stoler, a historian and anthropologist who is also a leading postcolonial interpreter of Foucault. Stoler argued that using the word “theory” in the title of the manifesto and movement creates a black box around what the revolters are really advocating. Instead, she argued, they were ultimately after “a politics of knowledge” and reclaiming history as a political space. History, she said, must be answerable to the classic question of David Scott, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” “I don’t think we need the word theory any more,” she said, claiming what is meant by the word theory itself “isn’t even problematized half the time.” “Theory with a capital T,” Stoler said, has become “a black box.” “We are doing a disfavor to our graduate students by constantly talking about theory and history, theory and practice. It paralyzes them.”
In place of Theory, Stoler proposed “concept work” and “conceptual labor.” Changing this language, Oz Frankel suggested, would also help the authors get away from the same old “usual suspects” of Marxism, deconstruction, etc.—of giving the impression “that theory is history’s other” and that “we always have to cross some boundary” to reach it. Wilder thought it was interesting that they were read as “reifying theory” with its own “guild mentality” when he in particular has little patience for poststructuralism and is much more of a “live” ethnographic theorist in a Marxist framework—akin to what Stoler does with Foucault. As Wilder defined it, “Theory is a practice of triangulating your material, your concepts or categories, and the world” and, conversely, “every descriptive act already prefigures an whole theory of society.” Their opposition to “empiricism” is not a critique of doing archival work, but rather an attempt to dethrone the particular historical ideology “that the observable is the real.”
A pass through the Revolters’ academic trajectories reveals that none has ever been totally at home in the historical discipline: Wilder is equally a historian and an anthropologist; Kleinberg is just as often in conversation with philosophers as historians; and Scott was employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the School of Social Science, not the more conservative School of Historical Studies where she said has “never been welcome.”
As the discussion neared a close, Scott made a surprising admission that doesn’t come through in the boldly written manifesto: In the 1980s, she said, the feminist movement of which she was a part rejected the idea that the discipline should simply “add women and stir”—achieving sociological diversity without rethinking its work. Rather, their “great goal was to transform history.” Yet “that didn’t happen, for the most part; it was adding women.” “The dream of the 1980s that history was never going to be the same” ended in institutional resistance.
Perhaps addressing the critique of their own institutional power levied by John Handel on the JHI blog earlier that day, Wilder reflected that they wanted to use their platform to clear the ground for young graduate students to do more creative, exciting work. To have “to intervene yet again,” to use Scott’s words, might seem an exhausting task. But the energy Theory Revolt has injected into the discipline might just serve to nourish the next generation of critical historians.
Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.