We’re pleased to share a post from the Wild On Collective, which comprises Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, about their new project “Theses on Theory and History.” Scott and Wilder are both Duke University Press authors; Scott is editor of Women’s Studies on the Edge and author of The Fantasy of Feminist History, and Wilder is author of Freedom Time and co-editor of The Struggle for Life is the Matter, forthcoming in 2019.
Linked here is a programmatic intervention entitled “Theses on Theory and History” co-written by the three academic historians who currently compose the Wild On Collective. This first publication, which is freely available for web viewing or as a downloadable PDF, emerged from a series of conversations among the three of us that began in fall 2018. Despite our different theoretical investments and analytic orientations, we were each struck by how deeply entrenched realist epistemology and empiricist methodology remains in the field of disciplinary history. This, notwithstanding repeated attempts by successive generations of critics to free historical thinking and knowledge from the fetishes of archival evidence, chronological narrative, and reified boundaries between past and present. We discussed the perverse mechanism whereby the epistemological challenges to conventional history that developed between the 1970s and 1990s were superficially embraced, only in order to be domesticated as new themes or topics to be explored in familiar ways. We concurred that circumscribed assumptions about what counts as historical evidence, argument, and truth are systemically produced by the disciplinary guild.
“Theses on Theory and History” is divided into three sections: one on the assumptions of disciplinary history, another on the strategies through which the field resists “theory” as somehow foreign to real history, and a third which calls programmatically for a theoretically informed practice of critical history. Our aim is to provoke a debate among and beyond professional historians about the intellectual implications of this unstated but regularly enforced disciplinary commonsense concerning descriptive realism and archival empiricism. Specifically, we hope to challenge any artificial separation of empirical research and theoretical reflection; to invite historians to be more conceptually self-aware and critically self-reflexive; to push the field to recognize non-realist and non-empiricist modes of analysis as legitimate ways to know the past; and to remind scholars in other fields that professional history does not possess a monopoly on modes of historical thinking or means of historical insight.
Because these domesticating and disciplining processes are systemic, our theses address all aspects of professional history—training, research, writing, publishing, hiring. Likewise, we believe that any attempt to redress such problems must do so holistically. This intervention is not in any way meant to be a comprehensive inventory of all that is wrong, even theoretically, with the field and the guild (e.g., the persistent Eurocentrism of its frameworks). Even less is it meant to be theoretically prescriptive; we make no claims about which theories historians should engage, how they might be employed, how they might go about theorizing their own work, or to what end. But we do believe that any attempt to change a specific aspect of the field that brackets questions about what counts as evidence and how we produce knowledge is likely to be limited at best. We hope that this initial intervention is only a first step in opening a broader debate about these issues within the field of history. We also hope to create a community of like-minded scholars, within and beyond the field of history, to share concerns about and strategies for doing history otherwise.