I’m off to a conference this week, and I’ve been thinking about some of the wacky papers I’ve given over the years. I’ve always looked at conferences as opportunities to test out new ideas, and the best times I’ve had at conferences have been times when I’ve delivered a paper that offers a fresh–some would say dubious–new interpretation or argument. After all, most conference papers are 10 pages long and should take no more than 20 minutes of the audience’s time–it’s not like we’re going to be able to clobber them with a truly convincing pile of evidence, so why not focus more on the specific interventions we’re making?
I once gave a conferece paper titled “Fields of Screams,” after an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon on an old episode of The Simpsons. It was about borderlands warfare and masculinity, and although I discarded the specific argument in that paper it helped me work out some ideas about space and gender. Recently, I’ve been having fun shocking people with Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” interpretive frame for understanding eighteenth-century Ursulines. I’m not sure where this idea is going, but it’s fascinating to see some people react so strongly and so negatively to the use of the word “lesbian” to talk about the eighteenth century! (Bennett’s lesbian-like women is in fact a very nuanced concept. It’s not so much about a particular sexuality but more a critique of the heterocentricity of women’s history, and an argument about creating space for imagining women-centered women’s communities in the distant past. Still, many people can’t get beyond their very fixed notions of what “lesbian” means.)
One of the things that I think was so desctructive of the controvery surrouding Michael Bellesiles’s book Arming America a decade ago is that it fed the popular notion that professional historians dig up allegedly objective facts and simply report them. We do that–but anyone who has worked in an archive and thought for about 4 seconds about hir sources knows that there’s no such thing as an “objective fact.” And furthermore, the art of history is in the assembly and interpretation of problematic individual facts. I think it’s perfectly fine for historians to be wrong, and that it’s not evidence of professional misconduct to make an argument that the consensus of our peers judges incorrect.
I like Bennett’s idea of experimenting with interpretations of history in “playful, wise, and careful ways.” Why shouldn’t we? What do the rest of you think?