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Friday, January 30, 2004  

Recently Found

Robert Katz's TheBoot.it is "an in-depth English language resource" about the History of Modern Italy "with an independent point of view. "

posted by Marc | Friday, January 30, 2004

Thursday, January 29, 2004  

In 'Theory in chaos,' Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates looks at Postmodern literary theory and notes that "[v]iewing literature through the lens of some 'ism' seemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, many are calling it an irrelevant approach" though he does conclude that the theory "will persist, but in altered forms." Below is a bit of a chop-job of a summary for those who don't want to read the whole thing:

"...literary traditionalists...have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics."

"...some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip."

"'For me, theory reached its apogee in the early 1980's and has since been declining,' says Roger Lathbury, professor of American fiction at George Mason University. Today, he says, it's a matter of 'the pendulum swinging toward the center.'"

"But if theory is so profoundly flawed in its inability to address the ideas and emotions that not only make us individual but also allow us to marry, build communities, and undertake the countless transactions that would be impossible without basic shared assumptions, how did it ever become so popular in the first place? How did the notion that There Is No Truth become The Truth? Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn't begin to catch on in America until the late '60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on 'The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man' which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents' ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn't work, ditch it. Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what's right and what isn't and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices. The problem is that by the time theory's anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear. Before theory came along, most people shopped in department stores and paid in cash; then the malls went up, banks started sending credit cards to people who didn't want them, and television became a 24-hour-a-day advertising medium. By sometime in the 1980s, the 1960s mantra 'If it feels good, do it,' seemed more likely to apply to buying a fully-loaded minivan than staging a revolution. Subversive ideas about theory simply didn't belong."

"A second problem for theory is theorists themselves. Fundamentalism is always ugly, and many of the secondgeneration professors who followed famed theoreticians like Derrida merely applied their ideas dogmatically, thus guaranteeing that theory would became static and stale. Eventually, theory's freewheeling skepticism became as one-dimensional as the celebrations of objective truth it sought to replace."

"...for some academics, what the rejection of theory is really about is the joyous rediscovery of literature itself. There is today 'a renewed appreciation of the irreducible particularity of an art work, an author, an historical moment, a particularity that theory may illuminate but never fully explain,' according to Dennis Todd, professor of British literature at Georgetown University."

"Theory is also notoriously hard to anchor in the concrete world of books. A longstanding complaint about theoretical writing is that it contains so few examples. And because it is vague, charge some, it allows teachers to shrink from admitting to personal views. 'It presents itself as a way of thinking that exists by itself, and not the product of personal choices,' says Edward Mendelson, professor of literature at Columbia University in New York. 'Most people outgrow it when they stop feeling insecure or threatened.'"

"But there are also those who suggest that theory is not dead but simply seeking new directions - some of which may prove as esoteric as the old.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. - star Ivy League academic who was recently the object of a turf battle between Harvard and Princeton Universities - is soon to publish 'The Third World of Theory,' a book that promises not only to extend literary study into uncharted pluralist and multicultural domains but also, according to the current Oxford University Press catalog, offer 'a unifying statement about the future of theory.'"

"Of course, no change is likely to occur at lightning speed. 'Universities are remarkably conservative institutions,' says S. E. Gontarski, professor of Irish studies at Florida State University. 'After some 20 years of careful hiring, they are now heavily packed with what we might now call old-line theorists.' Before any real change can take place, he predicts, "it will take the retirement of that group.' But in the meantime, where Marx once ruled, today more down-to-earth literary explorations seem to be on the throne once more."

posted by Marc | Thursday, January 29, 2004

Wednesday, January 21, 2004  

I recently came across a transcript of this intellectually stimulating debate between Niall Ferguson (New York University), author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, and Robert Kagan (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), author of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research on July 17, 2003. Ferguson believes the U.S. is an Empire while Kagan seems to believe it may be more of a hegemon, but it doesn't really meet the definition of 'Empire.'

posted by Marc | Wednesday, January 21, 2004

In Tuskegee re-examined, Richard A Shweder (a cultural anthropologist, Carnegie Scholar and the William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago) reexamines the 'Tuskegee Study' of untreated syphilis in African-American men from Macon County, Alabama between 1932 and 1972. The study "is often associated with the image of monstrous government researchers allowing black patients to suffer from a curable and devastating infection (syphilis), so as to document the natural course of the disease." He goes on to say that "most importantly I learned that there is a plausible counter-narrative about the Tuskegee study that has received rather little press coverage, has not entered public consciousness (although it can be found in some academic writings) and, perhaps because it does not fit with the discourse of horror, has not figured in the official literature seeking to justify the post-Tuskegee evolution of the IRB [Institutional Review Board] system of research regulation. Whether this counter-narrative can survive open debate and responsible, impartial cross-examination remains to be seen, but it is a story that is plausible enough to deserve a more public hearing." He puts forth many interesting points and concludes that a counter-narrative to the now canon one is plausible.

"As I [Shweder] interpret it, there are three main themes in the counter-narrative. The first is that circa 1932 a reasonable, fully informed public health researcher who cared about the welfare of all human beings - black and white - might well have supported the Tuskegee syphilis study. The possible reasons for such support have been outlined by Benedek and Erlan: '1. syphilis was recognized to be a major public health problem; 2. it was most prevalent in the black population; 3. there was disagreement about its optimal treatment; 4. all treatment programs, were lengthy, painful and potentially toxic, with a very poor completion rate; 5. a large proportion of the syphilitic population obtained no relevant treatment; 6. according to one retrospective study [an earlier analysis of medical records on an untreated white Scandinavian population], the disease resolved spontaneously in a majority of cases.'" (Shweder refers to Benedek, T.G. and Erlen, J. (1999) 'The Scientific Environment of the Tuskegee Study of Syphilis', 1920-1960, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 43:18-19).

Shweder concludes that he is "neither endorsing nor dismissing the counter-narrative, but rather spelling it out and suggesting why it is plausible enough to warrant more public attention. It remains to be seen whether an impartial assessment of the evidence (and future research) will continue to lend support to the popular contemporary horror-story version of Tuskegee; or whether, alternatively, one will come to the conclusion that the Tuskegee project was neither racist nor in and of itself the cause of great harms. Perhaps the horror story will have to be revised and toned down because it has been too heavily influenced by post-1968 identity politics. Perhaps not - that remains to be seen."

posted by Marc | Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Tuesday, January 20, 2004  

The History News Network is an interesting site with a few Blogs and discussion areas. For example, Roundup: Media's Take on the News.

posted by Marc | Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Friday, January 16, 2004  

I have presumed to offer a raw and amateur work of my own, the Historical Method and Theory Project, for perusal. It is a very rough compilation of class notes taken in a course I took last year. Please see the important note before delving too deeply. Thanks.

posted by Marc | Friday, January 16, 2004

Thursday, January 15, 2004  

Francis Fukuyama has and article in The Atlantic called Nation-Building 101. " The chief threats to us and to world order come from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Learning how to fix such states and building necessary political support at home will be a defining issue for America in the century ahead."

posted by Marc | Thursday, January 15, 2004

Wednesday, January 14, 2004  

Virginia Postrel has a column on Friedrich Hayek at Boston.com. "Dismissed by critics as a free-market extremist, economist Friedrich Hayek is gaining new attention as a forerunner of cognitive psychology, information theory, even postmodernism. A reintroduction to one of the most important thinkers you've barely heard of."

posted by Marc | Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Monday, January 12, 2004  

I addressed an oversight on my part and finally added the Historical Text Archive to the Primary Sources section of HSO. They've been online since 1990 and deserve mention.

posted by Marc | Monday, January 12, 2004

CSPAN2's BookTV had the AHA Biography and History Panel live on Saturday. The panel consisted of Joseph Ellis, Annette Gordon-Reed, David Levering Lewis, John Lukacs, Robert Remini and Lynn Hudson Parsons and was a great discussion of the practice of and trends in historical biography. Look for it to re-air as it was a valuable discussion.

posted by Marc | Monday, January 12, 2004

I linked to a piece by Michael Knox Beran (here) title "Never Forget, They Kept Lots of Slaves" in which he asserts that the slavery issue is overshadowing the other accomplishments of America's founding fathers in contemporary historical works. He also touched on differing interpretations of the role that the aristocratic Federalists played in shaping the government. Today, in his "The Savior of His Country" (also at National Review Online), Beran defends his piece against criticism from others, including some historians. Jacob Levy, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, argues with Beran's "contention that historians have portrayed the Federalist framers of the Constitution as spoilsports and reactionaries" and put forward the work of Gordon S. Wood of Brown University.

After referring and excerpting from Wood's The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, in which Beran contradicts Levy's assertion and explains that Wood does believe in "an interrupted Revolution, a Revolution which culminates in the imposition, by the Federalists, of 'their aristocratic system' on the country." Beran cites from page 562 of the Norton edition of Wood's aforementioned book to prove his point. Beran also contends "that a number of professors have seized on the work of Wood and others, and that they have used the rhetoric of the Antifederalists who opposed the Constitution and the classical republican ideal of civic virtue both (a) to portray the framers of the Constitution as reactionaries, counterrevolutionaries, a less than heroic breed of Thermidorien spoilers; and (b) to criticize the classical liberalism — Hayek described it as "Whig liberalism" in The Constitution of Liberty — the Founders bequeathed to their posterity." He puts forth Mary Beth Norton as a typical anti-federalist historian and explains that, according to Norton and like-minded scholars, "[t]he Antifederalists, in other words, were right all along; Washington and other Federalist delegates to the Philadelphia convention were not 'disinterested saviors of the nation.' That archaic — or as she [Norton] has it, 'dismal' — notion has 'essentially been dead for at least 50 years.' The Federalist framers exaggerated the troubles of the 1780s in order to impose a new Constitution on the country, and they did so, not as 'disinterested saviors of the nation,' but (so we must infer from her language) as something less noble. Professor Norton presents the Federalists as overzealous and not especially scrupulous figures — just the sort of fellows who would disingenuously impose an 'aristocratic system' on the unsuspecting populace." Beran continues: "In defending her interpretation of the Constitution, she rightly insists on its continuity with the great bulk of academic scholarship during the last century: her interpretation is one that finds support not only in the work of the Progressive historians (such as Beard) but also in Professor Wood's Creation of the American Republic."

Beran then says that "Professor Levy takes me to task for placing an 'inordinate emphasis on the editor-written headline' on the cover of The New York Times Book Review of December 14. 'Never Forget,' the headline reads, 'They Kept Lots of Slaves.' It is, I think, an inordinately provoking headline. 'Never Forget' is a motto that many people, quite rightly, use in connection with the National Socialist party in Germany; and I suppose my temper was, to use Professor Levy's words, 'set aflame' by its application to General Washington and Mr. Jefferson. Whatever their faults, they deserve better than to be branded with the iron that has been used on men like Himmler, Goering, and Heydrich. That's wrong. But it's also, I think, revealing — thus the piece I wrote for NRO. To be perfectly fair, however, I see now, in looking over the essay, that Professor Levy makes one valid point. I should have made it clearer that I was troubled by the Book Review cover and headline, not by Professor Wood's essay itself, which is fair-minded in a way that cover and headline are not. Had I been clearer about this I might have spared myself complaints from readers who criticized me for 'attacking' Wood without noting that he had reviewed my book."

Beran concludes his column with the following (quoted in full):

"Virtues modern academic history undoubtedly has; but the bulk of it leaves much to be desired. As a rule the academic historian is an inferior judge of character. One looks in vain for the niceness of discrimination Gibbon employed in his analyses of the virtues and vices of Diocletian and Constantine, Charlemagne and Rienzi. Nor does one find, in the academic annals, adequate justice done to genuine greatness of soul. After every deduction is made for the severe Whiggery of Macaulay's History of England, after all the exaggerations of Strachey's Eminent Victorians and Elizabeth and Essex have been taken into account, the books remain a standing reproach to contemporary academic history. Which university has produced as brilliant an account of the American Revolution and its great hero, Washington, as Macaulay gave of the Revolution of 1688 and its hero, William of Orange? Which professor has painted Lincoln's soul with a finesse approaching that of Strachey in his portraits of Newman and Queen Elizabeth?

It may be mad, hysterical, and "over the top" of the "ranter" in me to say so (I am quoting, not Professor Levy, but some of my other disgruntled readers), but would it not be better for the country if more of its scholars were again to embrace what Professor Norton calls the "dismal" and anachronistic view of a man like Washington — "so ancient," she says, "it creaks" — the view that he really was the disinterested savior of the nation? That he really was, in spite of his failings, what Byron called him: "the first, the last, the best — the Cincinnatus of the West?" Doubtless it would be an improvement on much of today's dead-souled history, bless its mealy mouth.

The kind of history I have in mind would require no sacrifice of scholarly integrity. The Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor was not a conservative and quite the reverse of a reactionary. But consider his appraisal of the character of Churchill in his history of modern Britain. It was Taylor's practice to provide, in notes at the bottom of the page, a brief summary of the lives of the men and women to whom he referred in the text — where the individual was educated, what offices he held, the nature of his family connections. Taylor would also mention a revealing idiosyncrasy or two, for he had to deal with some eccentric figures. The sketches are brief lives, and Taylor composed them with extraordinary wit and irreverence. But when he came to describe Churchill, he was laconic. His tone changed; the mirth vanished; the statement was plain and unadorned. (I quote from memory, not having the book to hand.) "Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, K.G.; the saviour of his country."

If Professor Levy could show me a professor writing today whose work on the Founders reveals so exquisite, so delicate, and so just a moral sensibility, a professor whose sober judgment is able to pronounce as fitting an epitaph on the Founders' achievement, I'd be grateful to him."

posted by Marc | Monday, January 12, 2004

Thursday, January 08, 2004  

Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of 'Shows About Nothing', has a column about a Park Ranger's explanation of the events at Ford's Theater in 1865 an how. Lincoln asked for it in his article "The House that Booth Built" at National Review Online.

posted by Marc | Thursday, January 08, 2004

Wednesday, January 07, 2004  

The Chronicle of Higher Education has this article by Jennifer Jacobson about the colon (the punctuation not the organ ;) and how it is No Mark of Distinction. "Some publishers and scholars want to purge the colon from book titles; the only thing that's worse: semicolons."

posted by Marc | Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Tuesday, January 06, 2004  

Yahoo! News - Study: Professors Favor Donating to Dean. There is also information regarding donations to other Democrat candidates and President Bush. This is not meant to be an opening salvo in an academic bias debate, merely an attempt to illustrate reality. I post this only to remind that critical analysis of sources, including secondary works by some of these same academics, is the keystone of historical research and interpretation.

posted by Marc | Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Monday, January 05, 2004  

Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs: "'The golden age of cultural theory is long past,' Mr. Eagleton writes in his new book, 'After Theory' (Basic Books), to be published in the United States in January." Eagleton is "man whose best-selling academic book 'Literary Theory: An Introduction' (1983) has for two decades been the classic text that professors assign to give graduate students an overview of modern literary criticism." He also says that "now the postmodernist giants — like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes — are over." Essentially, his thesis is summarized by this snippet from the New York Times article to which I referred:

"In this age of terrorism, he says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering.

Today graduate students and professors are bogged down in relativism, writing about sex and the body instead of the big issues. On the wilder shores of academia,' he writes, 'an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing.'

His critique goes further. 'The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically catastrophic one,' he writes. Cultural theorists can no longer 'afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are.'"

posted by Marc | Monday, January 05, 2004

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