Interview with History of the Present editors Joan W. Scott and Brian Connolly

We’re excited to welcome History of the Present to our journals publishing program starting with its tenth-anniversary issue this spring. Joan Wallach Scott and Brian Connolly, two of the journal’s editors, sat down with us to discuss the journal’s resistance to mainstream standards, the kind of scholarship that the journal makes space for, and why joining Duke University Press feels like coming home.

DUP: How would you describe History of the Present to someone who’s new to the journal?

Brian: I think it’s for people who are interested and engaged in critical theory in the broadest sense, who are also interested primarily in historical problems—how to address critically theorized historical problems across multiple disciplines.

Joan: It’s for people who tend, in whatever discipline they are part of, to use history to think the interpretive and theoretical questions that they have. It’s not at all a journal confined to historians.

DUP: As founding editors, what need did you see for History of the Present to exist? What gaps does it fill?

Joan: We felt that the standard history journals had requirements for what counted as a serious scholarly article that we were very much in resistance to and critical of. As a group, we shared an impatience with a certain kind of orthodoxy, both methodological and presentational—how articles had to look and conform to some standard. We wanted to provide the space for people who are doing critical work—not only in history—to publish and not have to conform to the orthodox standards of mainstream disciplinary journals.

Brian: There was a sense in the historical discipline that it had its moment with post-structuralism and psychoanalysis in the 1990s and that “history” had moved past that. Most of us involved in founding the journal were working with some kind of theory, and we found that others—those who were doing the same kind of historical work we were interested in whether as historians or in other fields—had the same complaints. We wanted the journal to offer an interdisciplinary space for people working with theory, and while post-structuralism was one of our theories, it wasn’t the only one.

“We were sick and tired of the notion that theory was over.”

Joan: We were sick and tired of the notion that theory was over, and we wanted to say, no, theory is not over! It’s critical to the work that we do, and that a lot of people in other disciplines do as well. We wanted to have a place where that could be okay, where that could be demonstrated. We also wanted to give an opportunity for publication to younger scholars doing theoretically-informed work because their work was being turned down by some of the mainstream journals. It really was a kind of rebellion.

Brian: Particularly in literary studies, things like postcritique and surface reading have emerged to say that critique had its place and we’re trying to find a space after it. As a journal, we push against that, but we also say that these concerns with critique don’t look the same in history or anthropology or political theory as they do in literary criticism. So it reinvigorates the questions around critique.

DUP: What are you looking for right now in submissions?

Joan:We’re looking for articles that demonstrate the importance of theoretical thinking for the empirical work that’s being examined. We’re not anti-empirical at all. The point is to see how somebody’s theoretical perspective, whether it’s Marxist or Foucaldian or Derridian or psychoanalytic, is informing the kind of reading that they do. The articles that get us most excited are the ones where you can see that operating within the article. The ones least interesting to us are those that are entirely descriptive: describing a body of material without any new insight into what it could mean or how you could read or understand it.

Brian: We’re also looking for articles that think about the relationship between the past and present as something like a problem—rather than saying “if we just understood the past this way, then we would understand the present better,” saying that the relationship between past and present is problematic and complicated and political and ethical.

DUP: What special issues are planned for the journal?

Brian: There are two issues in the works that are related to each other, although they weren’t planned that way. One special issue will think about the way that what are called the new histories of capitalism, which emerged more or less around the recession of 2008, called for a rewriting of the history of capitalism. Some of that work doesn’t seem so new, so we hope the issue will look at some of the ways of thinking about the history of capitalism that get pushed to the side.

Joan: It would be a critical look at what’s taken to be the new history of capitalism.

Brian: The other special issue is on reproduction and racial capitalism—histories of racial capitalism and how reproduction gets articulated in those spaces. And we have more ideas for future issues, like psychoanalysis and history, which wouldn’t just be five or six articles that theorize psychoanalytic history but would rather show what a psychoanalytically informed history would look like.

And that’s where we distinguish ourselves, on the one hand from historians who are concerned only with empirical evidence, and on the other hand from pure theory. We don’t necessarily discourage pure theory essays, but we’re not a philosophy of history journal. We look for balance between theory and history.

DUP: History of the Present has a team of seven editors, rather than just one or two. Can you talk about this decision and how it benefits the journal?

“We have a reputation now as a journal that makes good articles better.”

Joan: We didn’t ever want to have a journal with one editor and an editorial board. A group of us came together to talk about founding a journal, and it never seemed like it would be anything else but the group of us doing it. It means that you get a lot of good input right away. When an article is submitted to the journal, before it’s sent out for readers, at least three of us read and respond to it.

You get a collective take on an article with different sorts of responses, and that makes a huge difference. The fact that we come at it from slightly different perspectives, we each have different personal tastes as well as scholarly commitments and interests, means that an article gets a better reading than it might from a single editor or managing editor who is saying “this is for us; this is not for us.”

Brian: It also allows us to work with authors more. If an article has a kernel of something great in it, we have seven people to split the labor to help the author develop that. We’re able to develop relationships that one editor just wouldn’t have time for.

Joan: We have a reputation now as a journal that makes good articles better through this kind of editorial intervention.

DUP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Joan: Coming to Duke University Press is very important to us in our tenth year. In our first year, we won Best New Journal from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, so it isn’t that we’ve lacked visibility, or that we haven’t increasingly seen submission of articles that are the kind we’d like to publish. We do see more and more people who get what we’re about and who want to be published in the journal—one author said their dream was to publish in History of the Present!

But coming to Duke puts us in the company of other journals that we feel very much akin to, like Social Text and Public Culture and differences. differences was our inspiration—Elizabeth Weed, one of the editors, said we should have a journal to make space for the kind of critical historical work we’re interested in doing. She and Denise Davis, the managing editor, gave us enormously useful advice at the beginning. None of us had ever done a journal before.

“Coming to Duke brings us into a family that feels more like who we are.”

Coming to Duke brings us into a family that feels more like who we are—a family of like-minded, critically engaged journals. That’s been tremendously exciting for us as we enter our second decade.

Brian: Despite the name History of the Present, we are just as interested in the past as in the present. In fact, we’re interested in all chronological periods, and we’re also looking to expand the geographical reach of the journal, to encourage submissions from people working in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Joan: Every once in a while, we have an article that is immediately relevant to contemporary events—for example, an upcoming article in our first issue with Duke is about Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen. We also have an article about sanctuary, which although it starts in ancient Greece, is about sanctuary as a political concept. Moving to Duke, we’re excited for the chance to make some of these immediately topical articles freely available for a limited period—articles that look at contemporary issues, but with a question about how they got to be what they are now and with the assumption that the way they were in the past was different.

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