[HJMatMeth] History, power and ethics
- Dominic -
Thank you again for your patience. You see, I'm concerned, because we have
reverted to a legalistic (read adversarial) model of knowledge, and have not
considered the severe ramifications and implications of this model upon our
efforts at producing knowledge. I was hoping we had learned something from
Lyotard regarding this stuff: how the very rules of model of litigation
creates the Differend, the excluded. The very Jews and others for whom the
War-Crime trials were silenced by the rules of evidence designed to allow
them to speak. This is the epistemic violence at the heart of this model,
and it is a violence whose modalities of power we must be careful to learn
from and leave behind.
You are not alone in this: I have been in a discussion with Barbara
Theiring, and she appealed to the same model. It is perhaps only intended
to be exemplary, to function to explain or give a concrete instance of the
kinds of issues and concerns you would like to raise, but it is telling that
this model is so easily broached.
We want to know 'what happened', what 'really' happened. I have a hard time
believing we want to know this only out of historical curiosity. Is it only
because it is of some value to set 'facts' in order, to get the (hi)story
straight, as (hi)storians? So the reason we do history is to disprove those
who claim we can't do history?
If that's all, then great: let's go home. We've uncovered some mildly
interesting 'facts' about a guy who lived 2000 years ago in an obscure part
of a backwater region of the ancient Mediterranean world living under the
Roman Imperium. Big deal - these series of facts, or at least our
narrativization of them, should strike us a precisely important as, say,
reconstructing a critical life of Josephus or Philo or Ezekias or anybody
else. Which may be exactly why, as a discipline, we are showing signs of
diminishing importance in university life, why our departments are being
cut, why positions are not being replaced once someone retires, etc. We are
certainly expending a great deal of effort over one person - try to justify
an entire department dedicated to a reconstruction of the life of, say,
Hyrcanus, with all the books, all the journals, all the publishing houses,
all the methods and languages deemed necessary by our apparently
legal-adversarial system of knowledge. It wouldn't work at all, would it?
So, it is not as simple as 'doing history for history's sake'. And here I'm
trying, indeed, to be very 'local', to be very concrete, not abstractly
theoretical at all. There is much, much more to our enterprise, isn't there?
Knowledge and power, while not the same thing, are inextricably intertwined,
and to avoid the great issues of power with respect to our discipline is
simply to turn a blind eye to them, I think. It is to allow for the kind of
world you describe would take place 'in theory' ("I concede that if we stay
in theory we could easily persuade ourselves that historical reconstruction
can never be done, that we are so locked into bias and prejudice, opinion
and viewpoint, that all we can ever do is operate power plays on one
another.") to suffuse our very specific concrete efforts with impugnity.
Rather than to ignore it, perhaps it is time to face up to it and look at
how these strategies affect our work, to learn from them, to get better at
figuring out what it is we are hoping to achieve by them, and to quit
fooling ourselves into thinking we can avoid the issues altogether by just
getting 'real', getting 'methodological', by establishing 'due process' (not
a very scientific concept, that; more ethical, I would say).
I also suspect that the rather neat division of "those who claim to do the
first (history) when they are in fact doing the second (dogma)", while it is
a powerful rhetorical assertion, is nonetheless pragmatically quite
impossible in our discipline. I do not intend to suggest that since this is
so, we should just throw up our hands and let things run wild (though, I'm
pretty sure that such happens anyway), but that we take a very close, very
critical look at our work within the context of the struggles of power that
we are unavoidably engaged in and are shaping us. This would not be an easy
thing to do, but I believe it is a necessary thing to do, and I wonder if
any certain results would ensure and what they would look like.
I happen to like a great deal of what you have come up with in your studies.
I have some questions re: the easy way in which very traditional methods and
their results are accepted, but for the most part I find myself reading your
works (and your responses here) and think, "Yeah, alright, I can accept that
and wonder how it will play out..."
But I have a suspicion, just a hint of a suspicion that what is happening in
our discipline is more the result of our ethical concerns and the ethical
foundations of our discipline than we really feel comfortable admitting to,
much less owning up to.
(Put succinctly: we cannot avoid the entry of values into our work by
asserting rationality. Values can be reasoned through and with, except by a
rhetorical caveat that rules them 'out of court' as 'irrational'.)
J. David Hester-Amador, PhD
Department of Humanities
Santa Rosa Junior College
Santa Rosa, CA