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Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn Maxwell School of Syracuse University

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn Maxwell School of Syracuse University

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Published by The New Inquiry

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Published by: The New Inquiry on Nov 06, 2010
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Copyright Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn 2010 1
“Intellectual History for What?”U.S. Intellectual History Conference 2010Elisabeth Lasch-QuinnMaxwell School of Syracuse University For all those interested in serious, nuanced study and exchange of ideas, the post-1960speriod up to the aughts was not exactly a boon. Between pressures for intellectualconformity from both right and left, public discourse that was little more than therapy session qua shouting match, a society rent by a self-righteous and fundamentalistevangelical culture and its equally self-righteous and fundamentalist atheist critics, andthe frenetic technological distractions that threaten the last vestiges of thecontemplative life and fact-to-face interpersonal relations, we face a climate openly hostile to the free and open exploration of ideas.Meanwhile, our field faced its own obstacles: a drastic shrinkage of jobs, hyper-specialization; the bureaucratization, over-administration, and commercialization of theuniversity; careerism; and the crisis in the humanities.In the waning of the 1950s and 1960s, a heyday for the academic field of history,excitement about the new focus on blacks, women, and workers was largely sublimatedin the establishment of specialized academic journals, ghettoized in programs of specialstudy and subfields, or absorbed into the mainstream with token classes in lecturecourses or separate chapters in textbooks. Who would have known that the generationof C. Vann Woodward and Herbert Gutman, was not a beginning but an end? Thelegacy of the push for inclusion of the marginalized in the American context was African American studies, Women’s studies, the new Social History, and more recently, QueerStudies.Critics have decried this splintering. By the late 1970s, Lawrence Stone called forrenewed attention to narrative. There were calls for “bringing the state back in” and forsynthesis, and new thematic approaches, such as Atlantic studies or Global History, butthese do not automatically get us any closer to a sustained focus on ideas or truly animating interpretations. The last far-reaching historiographical challenge to Whighistory and consensus interpretations (or conflict interpretations, for that matter), based on intellectual history and socio-cultural context was the now largely forgottensocial control school. It fit the times, both inside and outside of the profession, to arguethat the powerless were subjected to forces beyond their control, but others saw this asdiminishing the outsiders themselves. Critics of social control emerged in the late 1970sand 1980s when the sixties social movements were domesticated for use in thecurriculum. The institutionalization of cultural politics channeled different promisinginterpretive streams into the same dull and obvious funnel of agency.The new premise of much historical writing was that the inclusion of marginalizedgroups and the study of ideas were mutually exclusive. In a twist that was doubly cruel—to the field of study itself, which suffered from this inauspicious timing, and to
 
Copyright Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn 2010 2
those deemed automatically, by virtue of their station in life, to have no connection toideas—intellectual history became suspect, the sole preserve of the elite.The outpouring of interest in this new venue (the U.S. Intellectual History conferences)thus is an occasion for surprise and delight for those of us working in relative isolation—perhaps even alienation—during the months, years, or decades past. It joins other signsof renewed interest in ideas in American life.One sign of an unmet craving for ideas was the takeoff of the new media as a forum fordiscussion, together with the debate over the public intellectual, which have dovetailed. Whether one thinks the blogosphere promising or damaging, or the public intellectual isin decline or alive and well, is overshadowed by the good news that people are actually debating these questions.However, cultural historians and theorists have brilliantly showed us the power of theexisting cultural apparatus to lead to a “colonization of the life-world,” turning issues of substance into opportunities to gain viewers’ fleeting attention for attention’s sake. What intellectual history can do is resist this.How? By deliberately resisting the tidal wave of our time that pushes nearly allendeavors to an ever-heightening level of awareness of one’s own position, a rarifiedform of self-consciousness that forever edges out content not even for form but for alevel of self-referentiality that leads nowhere beyond itself. A case in point is the debate over the public intellectual. So much energy goes intoassessing the List (in the various publications which have drawn them up), intodiscussion of what someone’s place is on the List and the question of who are the public versus—what? private?—intellectuals. From the mutual recriminations, it would appearthat each of us faces a rational lifestyle choice between two different career paths oralternative identities.If Intellectual history is to become, in this amazing second chance it has been given,something of real significance it will certainly do so by refusing to be the subfield of Intellectual history per se. Once it is objectified as a field that exists today as merely analternative to other fields, it is subject to the temptations to which other contemporary fields have yielded: above all, the pressure to engage in relentless self-examination.Such examination, when taken to a certain attenuated level, ends up obliterating what is being examined. It becomes a way of examining ourselves from without rather thaninhabiting ourselves from within. The myth of objectivity suggests that examiningourselves from without will free us of blinders and bias; yet, it is only by looking at the world from within that we can be outward looking.In this exciting reemergence of Intellectual history, instead of asking who are the realintellectuals, the real public intellectuals, or the real non-public intellectuals(presumably the real academic scholars), we might decipher the various practices andtraditions in which we wish to be engaged.
 
Copyright Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn 2010 3
The best way to become free of the powerful cult of personal identity today as well as the bureaucratized pseudo-sciences of the modern research university is to resurrect orcreate anew a different way of being in the world. Making Intellectual history into ameaningful activity requires a similar discipline. This involves, in part, a recognitionthat identity—or better yet, self-definition--comes only through engagement withsubstance, not prior to it.Our field needs to prove itself. Of course we need introspection and armor. It doesnone of us any good to be so contrary to current trends as to be out of the picturealtogether, no matter how praise-worthy our purity.But what do we really need at this key time if it is to be a real turning point? What we need is a true revival of the passionate commitment to ideas and the bestpractices that have grown up around them, produced them, and made a hospitablespace for them. Any renewal must take into account the hostile conditions I haveoutlined above. It must push onward not just in spite of those conditions, but also because of them.U.S. Intellectual history in particular has a great deal to prove. There is acre after acreof unbroken ground that needs to be put into cultivation. One of the corruptions of today’s careerism and commercialism is that success comes from marketing and self-promotion and not inherent worth. If we agree with this criticism, it falls on us to createsomething of worth.Rather than marketing for marketing’s sake, we should adopt the craft model and draw attention to our efforts through quality. But more than ever now, because theintellectual crafts have all but died out, we need originality as well. What picture do I have in my mind of this emergent intellectual history? It is one thatanswers the following questions, not through defensive strategies but through new  work:1.
 
 Why do American History graduate students often have fewer or no languagerequirements for the highest levels of educational attainment than those studyingthe history of other parts of the world? When is it not an advantage to know atleast German, French, Italian, ancient Greek, and/or Latin or other languagesdepending on the subject, for serious U.S. intellectual history?2.
 
 Why have American historians largely ignored developments in ContinentalTheory and other movements that have caused such a stir in other disciplines? What is the cost of leaving assessment of recent intellectual developments tothose without a historical perspective?3.
 
 Why have other fields of history, such as European history, managed to producemore significant individual works and noteworthy schools of thought orapproaches? Why were there no prominent attempts to write in the vein of mentalities or micro-history? Why no beautiful wedding of the best theory andempirical observation? Of institutional and intellectual history as has been done

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