Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christine Kelly at AHA 2015: Intergenerational Collaboration as Historical Practice

Christine Kelly returns to The Way of Improvement Leads Home this conference after writing for us last year in Washington. She is a Ph.D student in modern U.S. history at Fordham University and I am very proud to say that she is a former student of mine.--JF

After a relatively quiet first day at the 2015 AHA AnnualMeeting, consisting primarily of training to help staff the event, I hit the ground running on day two. I was briefly exposed to the Meeting’s rising pulse yesterday afternoon as I watched the number of historians in the Hilton Midtown and Times Square Sheraton hotels incrementally proliferate, but was not fully immersed in the action until I revisited the conference centers this morning and found myself carefully weaving my way in and out of lobbies and corridors swarming with recent arrivals and alive with their energy. 

One observation which I’m frequently struck by at the Annual Meeting is the rareness of this immense gathering of historians from around the country and the world. It provides an opportunity like few others for historians from all walks of their careers, from highly regarded academic elites to early career scholars, to spend time in close social and spatial proximity to one another. I noticed so many of them mingling, helping one another navigate the hotels, and collaborating in panel discussions. When I think of how the field usually progresses – through a cross-generational scholarly dialogue so often staged in print rather than in person, and easily spanning several decades – the real-time and personal nature of the Meeting’s gatherings is both refreshing and exhilarating.

It’s only fitting, then, that for a Meeting which invites so much close interaction among the discipline’s otherwise scattered professionals – geographically and generationally alike – that several sessions should be devoted to reassessing the contributions of some its most essential (or “canonical,” as I heard many times today) thinkers. Since theoretical interventions have done so much to compliment the discipline’s empiricism in the last three to four decades, I’m thinking particularly of the many “Reassessing Classic Theory” sessions held this year calling for critical reappraisals among scholars old and new of Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and Foucauldian philosophy. AHA President Jan Goldstein specially advertised these panels in a morning email, attesting to their significance at this particular moment in the profession.

I was happy to attend a high powered morning panel which participated in this spirit of intergenerational collaboration among historians at different stages of their careers and which set out to rethink a variety of capstone theoretical frameworks. Entitled “Historical Analysis after the ‘History Wars:’Gender, Race, Subjectivity,” 2008 AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel chaired the session which featured papers by Anna Krylova, Bruce Hall, and Andrew Zimmerman, with comments by Sarah Maza and Judith Walkowitz. Each speaker addressed the features of theoretical formations among now well-developed conceptual categories – gender, race, and subjectivity – and offered new methods for scholars to extend each of their current analytical possibilities.

Krylova’s paper positioned itself in conversation with Joan Scott’s classic 1986 essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” in hopes to broaden, in Krylova’s words, “our analytical expectations of gender.” As a figment of ideology and discourse, historians of gender hope to demonstrate its culturally constructed existence as a way of dismantling the exclusive and hierarchical connotations of gender when regarded among historical actors as not imagined but real. Gender, according to Krylova, is often limited in definition as simply a binary discourse of heterosexual difference. So in order to think beyond gender, Krylova, like Scott, regrets having first to resurrect this limited category in definition and concept. To resolve this, she proposed an approach to gender analysis which incorporates both non-binary and non-heterosexual subject positions.

Hall’s paper applied interventions in critical race theory, rooted in the American academy, to pre-modern and non-Western contexts. Hall acknowledged that the intellectual lineages which combined to form race theory originated with modern Western ideas that emerged from trends in anthropology and continental philosophy. Not only were these ideas responding to contexts in the modern West, but they are difficult to translate into non-Western vocabularies and broader systems of meaning. Moreover, a slew of critical race theorists in the United States, drawing from the issues of the 1960s civil rights movement, rendered race as little more than a black/white binary divide, regardless of the historical field they worked in and whether such a formulation truly applied. Hall, who offered examples of racial formations from the early modern Iberian peninsula, together with Brazil, Africa, and India, suggested that racism must be understood as a strategic discourse used to dominate, exclude, and oppress in different ways at different moments, reinserting historical contingency into this broadly applicable analytic category.

Andrew Zimmerman’s paper offered a reception history of Michel Foucault and his writings on the modern subject, describing how his works, including the History of Sexuality, Vol. I, were interpreted first in the 1980s by a group of scholars at Berkeley University in California and later in the 2000s by Italian autonomous Marxists like Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri. Zimmerman read Foucault through separate “spatial dislocations” to point out how Foucault, especially in the Berkeley setting, was understood as a scholar of the liberal individual subject more than one of biopolitics in the late Cold War era. Zimmerman, too, inserts a kind of historical contingency into interpretations of Foucault’s epistemological frameworks. He emphasizes that ultimately, “there is no one Foucault,” but rather many appropriations of his ideas to fit the needs and fashions of particular contexts.

This morning’s panel featured intense intellectual collaboration among a constellation of historians interested in pushing theoretical possibilities forward into more thoughtful and innovative directions. Their spirited discussion which played with several bedrock formulations speaks to the heart of this yearly gathering’s purpose: to cooperatively think and rethink about several of the discipline’s most long accepted trends to compliment them with new and risky critical moves. Witnessing them make these moves together, combining their separate experience, influence, and training toward a common cause, was awe-inspiring.