Day By Day

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gordon Wood and the Ideologues

Gordon Wood is stirring up a quite heated controversy among historians. His latest book, a series of essays, in the form of book reviews but actually a series of meditations on the writing of history, lambastes the profession for being irrelevant. The reason for this, Wood argues, is that with few exceptions professional academic historians, influenced by postmodernist literary theory, have focussed almost obsessively on abstruse arguments informed by left-wing ideology and questions of race, class, and gender. He writes:

The result of all this postmodern history, with its talk of 'deconstruction,' 'decentering,' 'textuality,' and 'essentialism,' has been to make academic history writing almost as esoteric and inward directed as the writing of literary scholars. This is too bad, since history is an endeavor that needs a wide readership to justify itself.

And that is the essential point. Without a wide readership, history is trivial -- it is only in its popular form that historical writing gains significant meaning. But today's academic scholars have perversely raised barriers to popular understanding of their product, adopting
the special language that literary critics now use to separate themselves from the power structure as well as the common herd of us ordinary readers: 'interpellation,' 'exfoliation,' 'ambiguation,' 'valorized,' 'intellection,' 'narrativized,' and 'meta' this and 'meta' that.
And perhaps most damning is the fact that today's academic historians are willing, indeed eager, to shape their understanding of the past to currently popular ideological stances. In today's historiography ideology and political utility stand triumphant over experience and the past is placed on the procrustean bed of present concerns. The result is a failure to appreciate the past on its own terms and to see it instead as a distant reflection of the present, and not the present as it is lived, but the present as seen through the refracting lenses of left-wing ideology.

It is ironic that the same forces that have subordinated history to ideology and theory have also induced practitioners of the craft to render their product almost unreadable. Academic historians are turning out immense quantities of crap, but it is so poorly written and conceived that hardly anybody reads the stuff. In their perversity the ideologues have made themselves and their profession increasingly irrelevant and that, considering the current state of historical understanding, is probably a good thing.

You can order Prof. Wood's excellent book by clicking on the Amazon banner at the top of this web-page.

For an overview of Wood's writings see this piece in the Claremont Review of Books.