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[HJMatMeth] History, power and ethics

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  • David Amador
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 14, 2000
      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
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