Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) has an interesting post on her book blog about the assumptions that audiences make about the politics of historians based on their subject matter choices. She writes:
It isn’t uncommon that, when hearing about the research I have done on the history of anti-pornography feminism, audiences assume that I must be an anti-pornography feminist too.But do you know that? Do you even have the right to ask? Should I tell you?
My hope for this book is that you will be so compelled by my scholarship that you will never know my private views on this question.
I found the assumption really interesting, in that the vast, vast, vast majority of feminist intellectuals I know and have worked with are far from anti-porn feminists. Maybe my experiences are idiosyncratic, but in my experience academic feminists–much as most of us are disgusted by mainstream pornography–tend also to be First Amendment absolutists.
Potter continues with a meditation about identity politics and historical subject matter that is really worth the read:
Making assumptions about intellectuals based on superficial knowledge of their research interests is fairly common, but honestly? I think it happens to women, queers and people of color more often. I have a friend and colleague who is African-American, and writing a history of African-American conservative thought. That colleague is frequently assumed to be a conservative, much as I am often presumed, on the basis of nothing, to be an anti-pornography feminist.
I think this is true. Some of us, by virtue of our bodies and appearance, are presumed to be politically rather than intellectually motivated to study what we study. This may or may not be a reasonable assumption, as Potter explains: it’s women historians who first pushed women’s history into the historical profession; African American scholars who pushed slavery and race to the forefront of historical scholarship; and of course, it still tends to be queer historians who write LGBTQ histories.
But making assumptions about intellectual interests and personal approval can be dicey. Potter writes, “Several decades ago when I was on the job market with a dog and pony show organized around bandits during the Great Depression, invariably someone would ask during the Q & A: “You don’t actually approve of these people, do you?” It is probably the stupidest question I have been asked, ever, and yet otherwise intelligent people seemed to think it was a relevant question. If you study crime, you must think crime is ok, right? Right?” HA-ha.
When I sat down to write this post, I was going to argue that it’s probably historians of the very recent past who face these kinds of assumptions about the alignment of our politics and our subjects. However, I think Potter is right that work on gender and sexuality in almost any period might elicit some strange reactions. For example: when I was a junior scholar writing about men and masculinity, I got a lot of hostile reactions, mostly from male historians who were about my father’s age. It was like I had to remind them, “I’m writing about the seventeenth century here. I’m not writing about your marriages.” Was it me or was it they who had problems with “objectivity?” One of my BFFs was writing a book about rape in early America at the time. She was astonished by the number of people who asked if she had been a rape victim herself, as though that’s the only reason anyone would be interested in writing about rape.
In her blog post, Potter returns to a book that I’ve always regarded as remarkable in that it seemed like a viewpoint preserved in amber from the day it was published: Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press: 1988). Potter calls it “one, long, not terribly objective, sputter on this very topic. Look at the chapter titles: “Every Group Its Own Historian;” “The Center Does Not Hold;” “There Was No King in Israel. . . . The problem with Novick’s views on thee matters is not that they are entirely wrong; rather that they dismiss the role of history in legitimizing politics, trivialize the scholarship they survey, and undervalue the generative impulse to write one’s own lost history.” What the heck was “noble” about that particular “dream?”
Novick’s book was published when I was a college junior getting ready to crank out my grad school applications. Friends of mine majoring in history at our sibling college were reading Novick for a required historiography course our senior year; I looked at Novick and wondered what the frick he was talking about. Even in 1989, who under the age of seventy believed in “objectivity,” or Truth with a capital T in History? Evidence, yes–we believed in evidence, which is why we chose to study history rather than in lit departments. We also believed in methodology, and had long conversations about different approaches to writing history. Was Novick like Rip Van Winkle, and did he fall asleep in 1946 only to wake up forty years later after having missed the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements? Jeebus. I thought that maybe grad school would help me to understand the subtleties of his arguments. I took a look at Novick’s book again, but no: it seemed like a cable from a distant planet.
I’ve taught our required historiography course to our M.A. students in the past few years, and I’ve never considered assigning Novick’s doorstop. Why bother, when I can assign Francis Parkman or George Bancroft to make the same damn points, only with livelier prose and less pretension? Maybe next time I teach historiography, I’ll also assign posts from Potter’s book blog, too.
(N.B.: The comments on Potter’s blog post are closed for some reason; if you want to comment on her blog post here, feel free. I’m sure she’ll stop by to see what kind of conversation evolves here.)