11.10.2009

Opaque

Dissertation update time.

I'm in a dissertation reading group this term, sharing duties with three of my fellow UC to the SC history dissertators. One is writing on tourism in China in the early 20th century, one on hydrology in San Diego around the turn of the century, and one on Yellow Fever in New Orleans in the mid-19th century.

We talk about phrasing and organization, we call attention to the little grammar flubs everyone succumbs too once in a while, we discuss framing and argumentation. But the bottom line is that I understand all of their stuff just fine, despite not knowing a damn thing about Late Qing China, water management, or epidemiology. The background assumptions implicit in their respective works are evident to any reasonably well-educated person.

The same cannot, apparently, be said for the background assumptions in my work. For some reason, intellectual history is inherently more difficult for other historians to grasp than are other sub-fields (with the possible exception of economic history.) I write as clearly as possible and I try to announce the issues in the literature. I call attention to context and try to explain the nuances of postwar French history. I do my part for The Cause. All of it still leaves my friends and colleagues fairly baffled.

The problem is, I think that every intellectual historians finds him- or herself justifying the whole enterprise, arguing that in fact the history of ideas in context is a legitimate pursuit within the larger field. Yes, it strays across disciplinary boundaries, but after all these years, isn't that supposed to be (at least in part) a good thing? If I can be in conversation with philosophers and literary scholars, how is that a problem?

There is also the question of how much context is enough vs. how much is too much. If I copy out an entire textbook worth of fun facts about French political, social, and cultural history from 1945 - 2007, I don't think I will be doing my readers any favors, since the point of my project is Andre Gorz, his life and (especially) his thought. I guess I still haven't cracked the code on making this kind of thing transparent to people who aren't already interested in it, but it still begs the question: why is intellectual history more esoteric than other kinds of history?

Anyway, on the up side, I had a good meeting with the adviser yesterday, who suggested I take a thematic approach to Gorz's journalism, since there's just too much to summarize in an interesting way. This means that I'm on track with my finishing plans, at which point I can safely devote all of my energies to finding that barrista job in Fresno, Bakersfield, or Redding.


1 comment:

theNerdPatrol said...

Shoot high - aim for Modesto!