The author, the work, and “the objectivity question.”

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.)

17 thoughts on “The author, the work, and “the objectivity question.”

  1. Thanks for this incisive commentary, Historiann. I can tell you why the comments are closed: because views about the sex wars, and pornography, are so strong that I was concerned about how either moderating or not moderating them would be taken as “evidence” of my personal views on the topic. I am relying on a lot of permissions here, and I need a continuing sense from all of my subjects that I can be trusted to represent them fairly. Social media can undermine that confidence significantly. The problem that is mostly specific to recent history (I say mostly because the Martin Luther King, Warren Harding and Thomas Jefferson descendants have been so active in protecting their ancestors) is literary rights.

    Daniel Horowitz’s introduction to the Betty Friedan book is instructive here, since Friedan refused to grant him re-publishing rights, even though her archive is open to use by historians. Fearing to this day that he would tell the truth about her Red past (which he did) and that she would lose control of her image (which has happened anyway), Friedan’s refusal to grant rights meant that in many cases Horowitz had to characterize evidence rather than embed it in the text. This is more common in literary studies (Sylvia Plath is an excellent example), but is becoming a more common problem for historians since SCOTUS’s Mickey Mouse decision.

    What makes the anti-porn women interesting to me as well is that they had far more skin in the game than the pro-porners, most of whom have moved on to other issues, other activisms and other intellectual interests. One of the leading pro-porn feminists, who was a First Amendment absolutist back then, has now become a First Amendment relativist in relation to the Israeli Occupation, and I suspect she’s not the only one. Another dynamic that is interesting to me are beliefs that exist in sectors of both sides that sex is implicitly a “protected” realm: either protected from (state intervention, pornographers) or “protected so that” (I can enact my eros/I can be shielded from other peoples’ eros.)

    Finally, what few people understand is that, despite the exponential growth of porn since the 1970s, anti-porn feminism was far more successful than anyone wants to admit. It actually changed pornography workplaces, prompted the genre of “feminist pornography” (which anti-porn women would argue is a contradiction in terms) and women-run production studios, produced a broad political will to act against child sexual exploitation, and — wait for it — there is a case before the Supreme Court in this term that is essentially a version of the MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinance (a woman coerced into child porn suing distributors and consumers of her image for many millions of dollars.)

    As a historian, all of these things are so much more important to me than taking an ideological stance on porn: I have my views, of course, but that’s another story, and they would be likely to be misconstrued by everyone even if I did share them.


  2. History makes for curious bedfellows, eh?

    Thanks for your further thoughts. I’m glad that you closed comments protectively rather than reactively–I thought maybe that some nastygrams were being posted (either porn spam or demands that you take a side).

    My sense is that the world-wide non-peer reviewed internets have really scrambled the ideological lines on porn as they existed since the 1970s and 80s. I don’t know where Catherine MacKinnon is on porn these days, but I know that a lot of feminists are very sensitive to the ways in which crude censorship by private corporations can shut down feminist conversations (i.e. the flap at Facebook over people’s comments on breast cancer being shut down because they include the word “breast.”)


  3. This is true, in my experience, in literary studies as well, and primarily for women and minorities, though it also comes up in religion & lit topics.

    And some people who work on major authors with a strong personality or politics (Milton, Byron, Pound) are also assumed to “like” or “relate” to then in a reductive way.


  4. FB shut down a breast cancer discussion, but maintained for days that a site extolling torture of gays in Uganda did not violate “community standards”? ???? There aren’t enough shock emoticons in the world for that.

    Anyway, what I actually got into comments for was to continue my thought from a previous post. Given what porn on the internet seems to have become, we really need another word for material that celebrates sex versus that other stuff. I’m revolted at the sale or rent of human beings that is porn. Sex, on the other hand, is fun. Using the same word for both feels like newspeak. War is not peace.


  5. What great posts by both TR and yourself Historiann!

    I remember liking Novick’s book ok, but being left cold by the last chapters. I think that was because I was of the generation that also read Hayden White’s _Metahistories_ as well as Foucault’s discipline and punish. Its hard to go back to some sort of imagined era objectivity once you’ve opened the door to thinking about language and power.

    I just returned from teaching my upper division class on the History of Modern Russia and the Soviet Union. The thing that struck me about Historiann’s post is about how readily the debates over the political vs. social approaches to Soviet history can be viewed through this problem of gender and ascribed politics. I am struck by the fact that one of the great pioneers of the Social History of the Stalin Era, Sheila Fitzpatrick, was a women who was denounced by some of her male peers as a Stalinist, or apologist for Stalinism. It was presumed that her willingness to study Stalinism was in a sense condoning it.


  6. Sorry to threadjack, but Matt_L, have you Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir, ‘A Spy in the Archive’? It’s a great read and shows how difficult it was for Soviet historians back in the 1960s! She discusses how she was caught between the anti-communists and the pro-Soviet historians and said that she really just wanted to understand how Soviet society functioned, not play politics.


  7. The same issue comes up, of course, in teaching. It’s been a while since I’ve taught a course that had me dancing around revealing my own ideological grounding/assumptions, but this semester I’m teaching some literature that is firmly grounded in a Christian worldview, which often needs to be explained to students, and that is also quite open to Marxist critiques, which also need to be explained. I hope my students are currently uncertain as to whether I am a Christian (of some stripe), a Marxist, or both (actually, a liberal Christian who thinks that Marx had some excellent insights into how the world works, but is unwilling to swallow the whole ideological/theoretical package, hook, line, and sinker). It’s also a class in women’s literature, but we’re analyzing a lot of things in addition to what the literature has to say about the position of women, which may also be surprising some students (I figure that’s actually a pretty egalitarian approach: let’s see what women had to say about all kinds of issues in their day, how they use literary devices, etc., etc., just as we would with any author. Of course, issues of the day include the position of women; they’re just not limited to that subject).

    It’s nowhere near the challenge that TR has taken on (the results of which I’m looking forward to reading, since the porn wars were raging during my undergrad/grad days, and since I’ve since developed an interest in how anti-trafficking groups appropriate the language of slavery/anti-slavery to their own purposes — some, I’d argue, in entirely legitimate ways; some, in more doubtful/questionable ways). But it’s interesting, and, I think, parallel. And, of course, classroom teaching is also increasingly vulnerable to attack, protest, etc. (and I’m not sure concealing one’s own views is all that much protection against that, since such attacks often rest on out-of-context quotation/sound-biting).


  8. Oh goodness, try writing about the 1920s Klan! I’ve had people assume that I must be a white supremacist for researching such a topic or at least habor sympathies. Senior male scholars commonly asked, “What is a nice girl like you doing writing about that?” People seem very curious to know what is it about me that drew me to my subject matter, especially search committees. There’s definitely a gendered component to this.

    The assumption that our identities can be easily discerned from our subject of study is still common and problematic. I’ve written a little about this in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (41:1), regarding how people stereotype me for writing about “unloved” groups.


  9. It is a very common dishonest rhetorical tactic to pretend that depicting something entails supporting it. The despicable right-wing filth that constitute the Republican Party here in the US are pros at this.


  10. Historiann,

    There’s a number of really excellent books by recent historians about modern conservatism that I’m quite certain were written by liberals, but who cares?! They’re great books and the fact that they describe without preaching is what makes them great books, praised by liberals and conservatives alike.

    I write this in response to your comment about the history of the recent past. I don’t think it’s the time they cover that made those historians careful to cover their political tracks, I think it’s the fact that their subject is itself political in both the traditional (and in some cases) the broader definition of that word. Some subject matters just bring out the caution flag in good historians, and that’s probably a good thing for both them and their histories.


  11. “Some of us, by virtue of our bodies and appearance, are presumed to be politically rather than intellectually motivated to study what we study.”

    Oh, yes. Or the historians we teach are described in such a fashion. Just finished up my women’s history course and there were some students who wanted to characterize all of women’s history as political and, thus, suspect. The most irksome part is that they wouldn’t say that about Niall Ferguson or Jack Granatstein or any other high profile historian who is overtly political but not in a way that alarms them.


  12. Janice, I’m astonished at the conservativism of your students. After all, I assume that they chose your women’s history class–so I hope that they got some pushback from your other students.

    I haven’t had that kind of open response in my teaching for a long time. Once, about a decade ago, I taught a course in which I happened to assign mostly books by women historians (not women’s historians necessarily, but women historians.) One of the young men in the class, after we had read a book by a male historian, said that reading the book by the male author gave him greater confidence in the previous books by the female authors, because the man’s book was organized around some of the same themes and ideas, and that helped him to see that the history written by women was therefore legitimate.

    (But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that.)

    Kelly: I think you get that kind of question about your work on the Klan because you’re white as well as female. If you were a young African American or Latina writing about the Klan, I think people would probably assume that you weren’t a white supremacist. It’s so interesting how the discourse of the Klan still infects our society, when fellow scholars read a young, white woman’s interest in the Klan as somehow nasty and inappropriate. That’s the kind of raced and gendered segregation of interests the Klan promoted, esp. keeping “white ladies” on a protected pedestal.

    Here’s something interesting: writing about a nun now, no one ever assumes that I was a nun or wanted to be a nun. No one, to my recollection, has even asked me if I’m Catholic. Quite frankly, I think it’s kind of disturbing that some are more willing to entertain the thought that Kelly J. Baker is a white supremacist than that I ever considered a religious vocation. I think it says something about our secular society, as well as about the very protestant-leaning default setting of most Americans.


  13. Actually, I find that after the initial generation that brings a neglected topic into the public spotlight, the real danger is over-identification.

    As Flavia says, the subject of early modern religion still attracts people who have their own denominational or doctrinal motivations, and those motivations can seriously distort the work. Ego identification with a major figure is even more misleading.


  14. I have enjoyed this post and the discussion.

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the problem outlined in this post — assuming that a historian’s interest in a particular question/problem is a sign of partisanship for (or against) that question — is also happening within the post, in relation to Novick’s That Noble Dream.

    Novick looks at the history of the idea of objectivity in relation to the emergence of the historical profession, and he traces the shifting fortunes of that idea as a kind of marker — like a radioactive dye — to delineate changes/developments in the professional practice of history. Though he very aptly captures the sense among some historians that the fate of “objectivity” (which was problematic and problematized from the get-go, as Novick shows) can best be framed as a narrative of declension, Novick is not presenting the reader with his own narrative of declension. That’s not how I have understood him, anyhow.


  15. L.D.–thanks for stopping by & commenting. I am sure you’re a more reliable reporter on Novick’s book than I am. I think you’re right that he sets out to trace the evolution of the idea, but my recollection (admittedly, a pretty ancient one) jibes with TR’s account of the book in that it ends in sputtering indignation and is very hostile to feminist historians in particular.

    My reading of the book was probably very defensive, given my age and stage of career.


  16. Well, like I said, my reading/recollection might need some rethinking. I do recall that as Novick’s account gets closer to his present moment, his narrative changes — you see the problematizing of “objectivity” happening more clearly within his text as he struggles to give a fair account of events/people about which he has personal connections or strong opinions. At at least one point he says so, when discussing the David Abraham scandal — Abraham was Novick’s student, and N. acknowledges that he can’t very well be objective about the issue, or at least he can’t feel dispassionate/detached. I will have to think some more about how that acknowledgment, given in a footnote, fits in with the overall trajectory of Novick’s book.


  17. and, I assume, those who question a Nice Girl Scholar’s interest in the 1920s Klan haven’t looked deeper themselves — its rise nationally, outside large Negro enclaves, is a story of adaptation, response to local political corruption, and downplaying certain rougher tools of terrorism, to suit the marketplace. It acted in modern, decentralized ways.

    Reading that the Klan’s female auxiliaries were champions of women’s suffrage rewired my brain, a bit.


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