Link to Simon Schaffer talk, “Understanding (through) Things”


Symposium Schedule

UC Berkeley, Townsend Center for the Humanities, Geballe Room (Sat Nov 1, 2014)

10:00            Welcome and Opening Remarks

Nicholas Mathew (UC Berkeley) and Mary Ann Smart (UC Berkeley)

10:15            Session 1 (Chair: Ellen Lockhart)

James Davies (UC Berkeley)

Emily Dolan (Harvard)

Deirdre Loughridge (UC Berkeley)

11:15            Break

11:30            Session 2 (Chair: Benjamin Walton)

Nicholas Mathew

James Currie (SUNY Buffalo)

Benjamin Piekut (Cornell)

12:30            Lunch

2:00            Session 3 (Chair: Emily Dolan)

Mary Ann Smart

Aoife Monks (Queen Mary)

Ellen Lockhart (Toronto)

Benjamin Walton (Cambridge)

3:15            Break

3:30            Panel Discussion

Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley)

Alan Tansman (UC Berkeley)

5:00            Drinks

Full Symposium Description

In many humanities disciplines – but particularly the histories of art, literature, and music – the past twenty years or so have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the types of objects and ideas that can be meaningfully invoked in the course of historical study. One consequence of this has been a new reveling in the allure of objets trouvés or historical micro-narratives – the conversion of the obscurity, strangeness, and distance of historical debris into a form of rhetoric, which frequently acts as a substitute for more conventional forms of argument or exposition. This tendency is what this symposium calls Quirk Historicism.

The emergence of Quirk Historicism is partly a story about how historical study has been turned into a species of aesthetic experience. On the New Historicist model, marginal or ephemeral historical data serve to embarrass, transform, attenuate, or reshape the overweening ambitions of the art work. But once the canon that historical ephemera was supposed to critique or illuminate has been unsettled, these quirky remnants of the past – in all their titillating inscrutability, complexity, and oddness – tend to go it alone as objects of aesthetic contemplation. Quirk Historicism may thus function as a proxy – and even express a form of nostalgia – for the increasingly discredited practice of close-reading or, worse, appreciating works of art.

To be sure, the broadly New Historicist project of using material research as a way of changing or complicating the position of canonical works has been hugely successful, especially from the perspective of disciplinary politics. The problem of Quirk Historicism arises primarily as the discursive presence of the canon fades. When historical data are no longer implicitly polemical, on what basis should they be invoked? Indeed, if we were to be more open about how we select our historical and aesthetic evidence, what would we say? Scholars are institutions; to talk about anything at all is always performatively a form of advocacy, however buried or nuanced. So how should scholars justify their new patterns of advocacy? Indeed, what makes scholars interested in, invested in, or affectively involved with things to begin with?

Here are some possibilities:

  • This material has some kind of explanatory power historically. In the broadest terms, it tells us something not obvious about the past, reorganizes historical trajectories, or illuminates a process of historical change.
  • This material serves an ethical end, perhaps representing a marginalized voice or raising awareness about power relations. Related to this is a form of political rhetoric, which might hold that certain aspects of history or art have been undervalued for ideological reasons that should be interrogated or overturned.
  • Perhaps least respectable nowadays are aesthetic justifications: this work or artistic practice has been unfairly overlooked or undervalued because of our flawed criteria for evaluating it.
  • Forgotten or overlooked historical details help to reconstruct past modes of consuming cultural products – the implication being that, if one knew more about how audiences engaged and what they valued, one would know a great deal more about art than merely by paying attention to either canonical or marginal examples. (This approach might be understood as combining the ethical and aesthetic impulses described above.)

Several questions arise from each of these mooted forms of advocacy:

  • Don’t “real” historians typically do this work better than music, literary, or art historians? Shouldn’t scholars of the arts aspire to be more than sub-standard historians who talk more than usually about art-like things?
  • In a climate in which it feels essential to demonstrate the ethical stakes of our scholarly projects, how do we avoid making excessive claims for the ethical and cultural relevance our work? And how do we navigate the danger of over-determining the ideological significance of the objects we study through a kind of circular reasoning?
  • Are all of the strategies described above actually disguised or displaced forms of aesthetic engagement? As Sianne Ngai argues in her recent book Our Aesthetic Categories, the venerable notion of the “interesting” (surely a fundamental category to the Quirk Historicist) shows that even the information-oriented ways in which scholars and critics “generate discourse” from their material might be productively reconceived as a set of aesthetic claims. The Quirk Historicist reveals, if nothing else, that all art-historical scholars are drawn to things that are judged to be “interesting.” But does this create a problematic distance between how historical actors felt about things (they might have been greatly moved or disturbed) and how scholars feel (they are merely “interested”)? If scholars are to come clean that their “interest” is a low-intensity form of aesthetic engagement, shouldn’t we also want to rehabilitate more intense kinds of aesthetic experience (say, the kind canonically represented by the sublime)? Many artistic practices seem to require an affectively powerful response – sincerity, sentiment, absorption, and so forth.  Yet scholarship still seems to demand the sort of disinterestedness that sits more easily with the high value claims of the canon, or with the marginal strategies of modernism.

In seeking answers to these questions, scholars have much to learn from disciplines that were never able to assume the presence of a canon and an associated system of value to begin with – and therefore could not rely on the idea that these things are axiomatically recalibrated by marginalia, ephemera, or “popular” objects of attention.  Nineteenth-century theater history, to take one example, has long dealt with practices and events that are by their nature ephemeral, in the absence of any recorded “official history.” In many cases, theater anecdotes constitute actors’ histories – and rather than operating as a critical mode of resistance from the margins, they are frequently anti-historicist and conservative (both disavowing and expressing the anxieties of this bourgeois profession).

A last set of questions inevitably concerns the consequences of new digital paradigms. The methodologies inspired by New Historicism became mainstream just before the conjunction of digital media and newer funding models in the humanities gave renewed emphasis to the value of information-gathering and data-richness. Yet eye-opening historical digressions and surprising intertextual links are now frequently the product of half an hour’s googling rather than a summer in an archive – and the visually arresting powerpoint slide a simple matter of dragging and saving from a web browser. Moreover, the rhetoric of the counterintuitive link or the unexpectedly important marginal detail has become a cliché of the publishing market beyond university presses, whether in the pseudo-iconoclasm of Gladwell-style behavioral economics or popular “world histories” of subjects such as salt or bananas.

In this increasingly data-replete research environment, how long can (or should) Quirk Historicism retain its rhetoric of quirkiness? And what residue will remain once even quirkiness fades? A sort of neo-antiquarianism, perhaps, which aristocratically eschews the wider questions of ethical or aesthetic advocacy that formerly motivated disciplinary exchange? A descriptive, Latourian historical localism, maybe – piously flattening in its methodologies, nobly ascetic in its refusal to approach grand political questions, except provisionally and obliquely? As Quirk Historicism loses its power to intrigue us, it seems more important than ever that historically minded scholars interrogate their reasons for talking about what they talk about.

We invite participants to prepare informal remarks (around 3 typed pages, or 5-8 minutes long) that capture some aspect(s) of their own interaction with documentary and historical materials. To give our discussion focus, we would like each speaker to build this brief presentation on an encounter with some object (text, sounds, image, or physical object) that is shared with the group in the form of a handout or slides. In the spirit of a workshop, we would like to hear something about the process by which you elicited historical or hermeneutic meaning from this source or object; about the challenges or uncertainties the process may have posed; about the generic, strategic, or institutional factors that may have shaped this process; and about how your own encounter with this object relates to the larger methodological questions around quirk historicism. We plan to circulate some short readings on historical methodology (no more than 20 pages) that we hope may stimulate your thoughts; feel free to address these in your remarks.  Stay tuned for selected readings by October 1.

Topics discussed might include:

  • the meanings of “historicizing” in art-historical scholarship, its future, the limits of doing literary, art, or music criticism “historically”;
  • whether musicologists, art historians, and literary or theater historians really “do” history, or whether (and how) their standards are different from “generalist” historians;
  • what happened “after” New Historicism;
  • whether canons and canonicity are things that anyone is or should be concerned about any longer;
  • the consequences of digital media or data-driven funding models on historicist ideas;
  • the role of mediums such as powerpoint or keynote, various digital databases and archives, in creating our objects of knowledge;
  • how historical study, historicity, etc. are (implicitly or explicitly) aestheticized by particular methodologies or in particular studies;
  • the extent to which the historical and the aesthetic are antithetical or mutually implicated;
  • What scholars should do with things that they don’t like: how they might respond to the affective experiences of absorption, rapture, discomfort, and repugnance in relation to scholarly practices of disinterestedness and historical distancing;
  • what makes the scholar interested in things, invested in them – what guides and arrests our attention, historically.