Week 0: Race and Gender

This post comes post-facto, positioned at the peak of our page, though it was written once our class was well underway. We created our course curriculum collaboratively, but also celeritously. Thinking about “alterity” and “alternatives” to traditional historiographical methods, we thematically traced the future course of our course. In doing so, we both predicted and prescribed what would come next.

But our created course took on a life of its own, and through discussions and collaborative writing, birthed a possibility of new, “alternate” versions of our class, rupturing our understanding of what we ourselves had created. The following reading list, “Week 0,” argues that historicizing race and gender are integral in our course, both in revealing on what our historical establishment is founded, and leading us to potential new paths. If we turn back time, it might become our week 1.

Interventions interweave our sentences, our paragraphs and pages. Consider this one one of many, one which ruptures our rhythm without ruining it, and questions our creation without quashing it.

PROPOSED READINGS:

Emily Martin, The Egg and the Sperm: how science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles

Anne Fausto-Sterling, The Bare Bones of Sex

Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Racecraft

Screening: Happy Birthday, Marsha!

If, in our collaborative endeavor, we wish to challenge the establishment and not unwittingly recreate it, we have to identify the foundations on which is has been built: whiteness and performative masculinity. Contemporary historians have begun to unveil a gaping blind spot in contemporary historiography: the extent to which our historiographical conventions and values emerged in order to preserve these values, and continue to do so. In using whiteness and masculinity as lenses through which to look at our disciplinary toolbox, we can better understand how these tools actually serve us, the cultures they perpetuate, and where our toolbox is lacking.

[I have taken a little time to think about this, and rather than putting a long thing in here, I am attaching a few comments on the questions raised in the paragraph above — focusing on the central challenge that JPO has posed.  I don’t have time right at this moment to do thoughts on the Dostoevsky below, but might ask JPO for clarification on that part of the post anyway: isn’t Dostoevsky talking about general human perversity and self-destructive folly here (as the last bastion of our “freedom,” as our final resort in our [semi-/sub- conscious] combat against determinism and the mechanico-metrical-auto-alienation of “rationality”)? How does this passage work for you in relation to the problem you are putting to us?  Forgive me for not being sure!  -DGB]

[We’ve been thinking about whether it’s possible to read JPO’s post in such a way that her intervention converges with the concerns articulated above by DGB about isolating gender and race as singular “foundations.” We share and feel these concerns deeply — we’re especially anxious about how quickly race/gender/[insert variable here] can become normativizing and disciplinary in ways that foreclose, rather than open up, inquiry. Yet we wonder if we might read JPO’s post in the same way we might read Oppenheimer’s film as playing on the conventions of documentary filmmaking. If we take this post’s tone as a mimicry of (historically male and white academic) rhetorical conventions, then we might read it as simultaneously enacting a certain bravado (through use of words like “challenge”) to emphasize race and gender while being critical of the logocentrism of presuming “foundations.” Reading the post in this way, as an undoing of its own doing, might enable us to negotiate the epistemological dangers DGB outlines and think outside the limiting dialectic of “foundational critique” in ways that foreground race and gender without rendering them singular. HHN/TS]

We need new criteria for evaluating alternative methodologies. If we value methodologies by virtue of their otherness, we risk remaining stuck in the value system of our discipline. We cannot escape our cage by merely grasping outside of it, and by attempting to invert “it,” we remain ironically tethered to it. Dostoevsky, a white dude, encapsulates “man’s” problem perfectly in Notes From Underground:

“It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself—as though that were so necessary— that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar… the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key.”

-JPO

[Thank you for this, JPO. It’s good to think on, and totally in line with what I suggested we should try to do together as the term proceeds: imagine extended and improved versions of the class. I think we need to have a conversation in class this upcoming week (Week 7), and sort out how we might re-arrange some things in the second half of the term. I would encourage anyone who has an alternative proposition for a week to work it up now, so we have some things to think about on Wednesday the 26th of October.   I am also going to suggest that we eventually make a section of the website with several different/alternative weeks laid out (you will see below in Week 6 that I feel we probably should have had a week on Memory, and one might also have included a specific week on “the Body”). We won’t probably be able to do them all — or maybe even any of them, not on this go.  But they will be invaluable for anyone navigating the course materials in the future, and really helpful for me if I try another version of this class someday. -DGB]

[I hope that there will be a lot of discussion on this page, since it speaks directly to one of the main reasons why I chose to take up History in the first place. It might be that this is not a reason that we share, yet I would hope that in any case it might help us to think through what history does for us, what, if anything, we can learn from it, and as a consequence, what our ethical obligations as historians ought to be.

As far as I see it, the study of history is the only Geisteswissenschaft capable of liberating the individual, precisely because there is a limit to its ability to be prescriptive. However much we rattle the cage and subscribe to post-structuralist theories or embrace the linguistic turn, History as a discipline can hardly do without the idea that somehow, we need to do justice to the past. And that means that we have to work with “documents”, tangible material evidence with which to craft our historical narratives. One can rearrange them, deconstruct them, go on a quest to discover new ones or even use historical narratives as historical documents in their own right, as Hayden White does. Yet however much we push the boundaries of the acceptable categories of “documents”, and we have come a long way here already, we cannot simply pull them out of thin air. And if our documents necessarily exist within reality, then they are open to be subject to differing interpretations by different people. As such our methodologies and historiographical approaches can only be authoritative for so long, since soon enough the next bright mind comes along and finds a new, more compelling way of interpreting and compiling documents into historical narratives. 

Of course, this way of looking at history is completely idealized. History is not being written in a vacuum, but rather in the here and now. I think that the realization here, that History as a profession, the way it is practiced and the things we write, are in and of itself the products of sociological and economic trends is something we need to always keep in mind. I myself am a strict Crocean, and firmly believe that there is no history but contemporary history. When we sit down to write a work of history, we always do so because of an immediate concern. It might be because we are trying to understand more about a topic that is close to us, or because we are trying to make a name for ourselves in the professional field we have chosen, and now need to prove ourselves in. In either case, we write history, because it has meaning to us, here and now, in the present. What whiteness and masculinity do in the context of the historical profession today, is to circumscribe the realm of acceptable historical work, and to delineate the circumstances under which that work has to be written. While we might be eager to address controversial issues, the possibility that we are stepping on someone’s toes while doing it means that one has to carefully weigh whether to follow one’s heart unconditionally. We are thereby limited in our ability to use history to address our immediate concerns, or else put under undue stress when we decide to do so anyway.

Yet I think that it is precisely where the historical method can help us. As has been pointed out above, “we cannot escape our cage by merely grasping outside of it”. In fact it would appear to me that we cannot escape the cage at all, since it, much like ourselves, is the product of historical developments which we cannot simply do away with. What we can do, however, is to keep working in order to expand our freedom of movement. And history is to me the only way one can do that, because it ought to make us feel small.

In the sheer breadth of human experience, in its history of violent struggles, of dazzling accomplishments in art, science and culture, of hurt, of unspeakable acts of cruelty and of inconceivable acts of kindness, one will eventually have to face the realization that we are hardly as remarkable as we think, hardly as important as we perceive ourselves to be. Since the historical narratives which precede us, and which serve as the foundation upon which one rest his inflated sense of self-worth, are based on the use of documents, and those in turn are subject to differing interpretations, they are susceptible to the probing shovels of the historian, who can and must collapse them if it serves to do “justice” to history.

We might therefore want to cut down to size those who constrict our freedom of movement within the cage. Yet we ought to be careful in how we do it. I hope you will excuse the ongoing metaphor I’m employing here, but it would appear that some of the “big” figures of history are those which through sheer force of argument have pushed against the grates, bulging them out and thus expanding this collective space we are all trapped in. We need to make space for others, stepping back to avoid being at each other’s throats like caged animals and curtailing the destructive and prescriptive forces that threaten our well-being. But we should not forget that we also need to keep pushing the boundaries. And here we will need to be both strong and considerate, in order to be able to push together without stepping on each other. -AB]

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