Thursday, November 23, 2006

Random thinking

Out of the blue, I've just heard from a long-time friend and (to use an applicable term from a less ironic time) comrade from my undergraduate days, who, happily, has gone on to a successful career in history.

Along with providing another of our periodic chances to catch up a bit, it's gotten me thinking about the many changes in and influences on the way I see the world since that seemingly antediluvian time - shortly before the end of the Cold War - when I ticked the 'Choose a major' box next to 'History'.

In particular, I've long been struck by the extent to which my own intellectual perspective has been subject to chance and coincidence - factors which in more academic surroundings go under the more weighty and serious-sounding term 'contingency'.

I was long plagued by the feeling that 'real' historians developed their conceptual and methodological approach to the world and its mysteries in a coherent, organised way. So, that they systematically and cumulatively increased their understanding of the world starting, let's say, from about secondary school. I have always envied those people, if, in fact, they truly exist. However, I don't think I'll ever be one, as my intellectual development, such as it is, has in retrospect been a rather haphazard undertaking.

I attended my midwestern undergraduate university simply because it was nearby and affordable. There, because of my choice of courses and friendships my introduction to historical study came to be shaped by the relatively concrete certainties of the form of Marxism (more old school than new left) which guided the thinking of a small but dynamic cadre of professors in my department. Marxism, you might think, was in itself a fairly serious and invigorating mental leap for a boy from the suburbs (and it was), even if, ultimately, my exposure to it had been a matter of chance (conditioned, of course, by a certain stage in capitalist development and particular forms of cultural hegemony...and so on).

(By the way, that was a long time ago, and the department has most likely changed since then. So, no need to go warning David Horowitz about the red menace lurking on the plains, OK?)

But contingency was only getting started with me. The wheel of fortune had new surprises in store in the form of a graduate fellowship, which not only took me far away from cornfields, but also required an often bewildering submersion in the turbulent waters of post-modern theory. Suddenly, nobody around me was talking about Marx, but rather about a variety of French people I'd never heard of who wrote in sentences I could barely understand. This meant that a slew of new theories then took centre stage, some of which fit well with the older me, some of which didn't. A chance encounter with the field of crime history (What?...crime has a history?!) opened new perspectives all its own, some of which swam with, and some against, the intellectual tide around me.

The result, in such situations, is typically an amalgam, based not only on what you think, but on what the important people around you happen to think, such as your advisors. So it was with me. I had learned a lot; however, there seemed little which was systematic about it. I had taken things from here - modes of production, civilising processes, social relationships - and from there - discourse, narrative, practices, power, you name it - and tried to weave them into something I could wear which at least didn't have any major holes in it.

And then...

Dissertation research - as is probably usually the case - failed to follow the carefully outlined script of the prospectus I had so labouriously sweated over for a year. (Trawling through archives has a tendency to churn up all kinds of bottom-feeding wildlife you don't expect or even want to find. ) Of course, even if you do all the careful, systematic things required of quality historical work (and I had), in the end, you have to make use of what you find and constrain its semi-radomness with a more-or-less coherent framework. But this framework is itself not only the product of well-structured things like reading lists and seminar schedules, but also of comments from random strangers at conferences, serendipitous world events, the background noise of the media, the influence of friends and the mysterious proddings of the unconscious.

Somehow, in the end, it all seemed to fit together in a string of about 100,000 sense-embodying words whose solid grammatical structure and cool logical order conceal the contingencies which gave birth to them.

For whatever reason (I like to think of it as a courageous sense of intellectual might prefer to call it confusion), having achieved a semblance of an orderly Weltanschauung for the length of one book, I almost immediately began remodelling it, since I'd discovered still more things - evolutionary theory, biology, neuro-psychology - which made me think in new ways about the topics - culture and violence - on which I had been working. These have now become a part of what I write just as much as the perspectives which came before.

Now, all along, it's not been so much a matter of throwing out previously gained knowledge and diving into a completely new methodology. (I think we all can think of scholars whose every book seems to trash their last one while asserting 'No, now I really know the truth! Listen...'.) No, rather than radical paradigm shifts, there have been incremental additions of different ways of looking at things. In looking back at some of my work I think that I would today do some things differently; however, I haven't (so far!) found any of it to be so much wrong as simply in some ways incomplete. Ultimately, now having far more experience of how 'real' historians work, I think that just about any book or article is open to this criticism.

In any case, I have - at least in my own opinion - been able to incorporate the best elements of all the various perspectives along the way (whether they go by the names of Thompson, Hobsbawm, Hill, Elias, Foucault, de Certeau, Daly, Wilson, Tooby or Cosmides). In the end, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

But can I even say that there was a method to that madness? Mmmm...sort of. I don't know. What if I hadn't attended certain universitives, taken particular seminars, gone to certain conferences, read certain books, checked out certain boxes of primary sources in the archives, etc.?

Would I see history the same way today? Would I have written this paragraph - taken from an upcoming essay - any differently if certain chance encounters had not occurred?

People are no more ‘programmed’ to be violent than they are to be considerate, but ‘selection thinking’ – considering how evolutionary processes have shaped human psychology – can contribute to the cultural analysis of violence. Culture, after all, is not a free-floating force or a realm (for example, defined by text or language) existing independently of psychology or material reality. It is, firstly, produced within an individual psyche with its own in-built predispositions. Secondly, each psyche is possessed by an individual who is positioned within a series of specific relationships with other people. Some of these relationships are consensual and equal; others are less so. Culture, although it cannot ‘do’ anything on its own, provides a framework through which people are motivated to act. Subsequently, incidents of violence are individually and socially understood through narrative, that is, through the stories which are developed by participants, observers and the institutions which deal with them (such as the courts and media). These narratives, in turn, can express motivations or justifications for further violence or, alternatively, for its avoidance or suppression.

I chose this passage simply because I think it contains - in some degree and in very abbreviated form - elements from all the developmental stages in my own thinking noted above. You, depending on your predilictions, views and background, may see something banal, insightful or infuriating, but that's not the point I'm making, which is this: when I read it, I can see the places where things might have gone differently, where the emphases would be different - and perhaps even reversed - had certain, contingent factors not been present.

And that's an odd thought.

(If you happen to be a historian, go ahead, dig out a recent essay and try this at home. Go on. It won't hurt.)

I suppose there is a certain danger for a historian to suggest that his conceptual viewpoint is not a seamless, sytematic edifice of intellectual coherence. On the other hand, I presume that most historians - if they're honest - can see similar patterns in their own development. Moreover: since a certain amount of contingency is central to the subject we study (except for those historians who believe in iron laws of social development...are there still some of those people around?) why should we be afraid to identify it as a factor in producing not only history but also historians?

Along with being set off by the voice from the past which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my thoughts on this topic have also been sparked by the receipt of a new book I'm to review for a journal in my field. Coincidentally - hey, there's that word again - it's written by someone who used to teach at my alma mater when I was a naive but very serious undergraduate still wrestling with the term 'dialectical', memorising a long series of dates and mastering the art of the topic sentence.

The book, appropriately enough, an inquiry into causality.

I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

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