Blogs > Cliopatria > Pointless Little Countries

Jan 11, 2005 3:25 pm

Pointless Little Countries

I actually enjoyed this year’s American Historical Association meeting. Normally the sight of pained and anxious job candidates produces a flash of remembered trauma, but this time I just managed to have fun seeing friends and colleagues, including some of my fellow Cliopatria bloggers. On the plane ride home, in an aircraft stuffed to the gills with historians, I did happen to overhear the conversation of three historians in the aisle next to me. At least two of them were Americanists; I’m not sure what the specialization of the woman next to me was, as she was rather quiet while they were talking.

One of them said, “Well, at least I won’t have to think about African history any more.” Sympathetic murmur from her colleague. “Reading all those letters and dossiers! All those pointless little countries!”

I had to pinch myself to avoid saying something. I sometimes think every Africanist begins their career in a midnight ritual where they burn Hugh Trevor-Roper’s infamous declaration, “There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness and darkness is not a subject of history,” into their memory. In some ways, the entire field of African history is imagined as a sustained answer to Trevor-Roper.

Almost any practicing Africanist nurtures an exquisitely fine-tuned sense of their own exclusions, both imaginary and real, from the larger discipline. Almost any AHA meeting I’ve been at, I’ll bump into an Africanist colleague who will mope about their perception of Africa’s exclusion from the program.

This is partly why I bit my lip, because I generally don’t share in the complaining by my colleagues. Sure, that overheard lament does make me roll my eyes a little, and makes me feel a little bit sorry for whomever the future colleague of the historian on the plane might be. Still, there’s something to it. Not that Africa’s history is the history of a bunch of pointless little countries, but that clamoring for an equal place at the disciplinary table is something best done within the intellectual marketplace, not by guilt-tripping the incurious and smug.

Sometimes African history really is written as the history of little places, and the only answer it provides to the question, “So what?” is “Because it is there”. Africanists have themselves to blame some of the time: like all area studies scholars in history, they have a tendency to lock themselves up inside their geographical and temporal box and assume that its relevance is self-evident. This is true of course even in European or U.S. history: both fields boast many monographs about topics whose significance is evident only to a small handful of fellow specialists, if even to them.

Not everyone should have to write history to answer the most compelling, marketable and wide-ranging kinds claims of significance. Somebody has to write careful scholarship about the detailed empirical history of places like the Central African Republic in order for wider or more expansive interpretations of that history to exist. But I think Africanists often neglect the second task and regard the value of the first as self-evident. Written too much and too self-centeredly in that way, African history really does amount to the pointless history of many little countries.

To matter, any field of historical writing has to eventually lodge meaningful claims about why it matters with a wider range of historians, intellectuals and various publics. I suspect many of us work in fields where eavesdropping on planes or in bars at AHA meetings could be irritating. My Cliopatria colleague KC Johnson seems to suspect, for example, that he would overhear social historians and others dismissing diplomatic and political history as boring and reactionary. His suspicions are correct. I haven’t just overheard such conversations, but I’ve nodded neutrally at others making such remarks.

All casual remarks about our own specializations made by others bear some truth to them. The reaction to older modes of writing in diplomatic and political history isn’t entirely unfair: some of it really was unusually sterile and formal in the way it defined its subjects of legitimate interest. Some military history really has been written with a kind of breathlessly boys-own-adventure celebration of battle minutia. Some social history of Annales variety really does act as if quantifying something is tantamount to analyzing it. Some history-from-below ends up disfigured by its own presumptions of radical achievement. Some cultural history wallows in the hopelessly trivial and prattles on expansively about transgressiveness. Name a field, and there’s a stereotype to match that a pair of well-tuned ears can pick up out of the background noise in the hotel restaurant at any given annual meeting.

Some of the stereotypes amount to well-honed secret weapons in the ceaseless turf wars between specialists, the war to claim positions, journals, grants and so on. Some of them are honest reactions to the actual content of a field. Whichever it is, the only answer is to write history as if every word, every idea, every argument has to earn its own keep with the widest possible legitimate audience, to not rely on the in-built crutches and alibis that our fellow specialists provide us. That’s really why I didn’t say anything: it would amount to nothing more than a self-conscious scolding reservation of my own team’s place at the table, not a persuasive argument about why particular African histories matter to more than those who lived them.

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John Edward Philips - 6/13/2005

It should answer a lot of the questions and objections!

Writing African History

" . . . a serious, balanced, and useful work that ought to become basic for outsiders new to the field as well as for specialized Africanists."
-Joseph C. Miller, T. Cary Johnson, Jr. Professor of History, University of Virginia

"African history has clearly come of age with this monumental, comprehensive guide."
-Merrick Posnansky, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA

"This is essential reading for anyone interested in African history, and should be the first book read by anyone who does not know anything about African history."
-Paul E. Lovejoy FRSC, Distinguished Research Professor, Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History

"An excellent guide for introducing the field to beginning graduate students and even upper division undergraduates."
-Edward Alpers, Professor of History, UCLA

Jonathan Dresner - 1/14/2005

Actually, "because we need to know more" isn't a terrible answer. The "so what" question often is unanswerable until the basics and complexities are known. Someone has to do the basic work, and then someone has to start connecting it to the larger theoretical and narrative structures... then "so what" is self-evident, but it wasn't before.

Lloyd Kilford - 1/14/2005

I think that if one feels that a piece of work makes us say "so what?", it might be useful to articulate *why* the work deserves it, and to ask a better question, such as "doesn't this just repeat your earlier paper?" or "how precisely does this add to our knowledge of the field?"

Derek Charles Catsam - 1/12/2005

The "so what" question is a lazy attempt to dismiss someone's work by someone who has not bothered to think about the topic, or who has not been able to muster up a question of any real worth, or by someone who feels the need callously to dismiss someone else's work publicly. Now there might be work that really makes us ask "so what?" to ourselves or amongst or colleagues over a beer, but to ask someone "so what" in, say, a job talk or a thesis defense (seriosuly -- you or your colleagues brought me to campus; if you really think i must address the "so what" question, didn't you just waste a lot of money and a lot of people's time? Don't you people communicate; wait, don't answer that) is an incredible cliche, and is one that can easily be turned around. I mean, can't that question be asked of any work? Isn't that precisely the sort of patronizing that all of us resent from those outside of the field? You could be doing what to your mind is the most important topic ever and the odds are pretty good that some local businessman will not know, will not care, and would shrug his shoulders and say, simply, "so what?" Ninnies like that, whether in a pinstriped suit and on his way to file and oh-so-important brief or in a rumpled suit in the back of a thesis presentation are bulbous boils. They ought to be lanced.

Timothy James Burke - 1/12/2005

But I think the "Because it's interesting to me" answer is a very good answer to "So what?"

As long as the person giving that answer is able to give a compelling account of why it's interesting, whether that's an account that makes the subject itself compelling or illuminates the interior structures of individual taste.

What is not a sufficient answer, ever--but it is one that area studies often promotes--is "Because we need to know more about this subject/place/people/era". E.g., where a specialist falls back on the idea that there is a great unfinished pile of sand on the beach that needs to have more grains of sand added to it. Essentially where the project explains itself, and where the underlying infrastructure of that explanation is institutional and no more than that. "It needs doing because it needs doing."

Some of the most compelling things I've ever read have been by people obsessed with some very small area of investigation who have no larger claims to make, but whose passion and obsession can be clearly articulated as such. A late friend of mine who wrote extremely detailed empirical accounts of precolonial Zimbabwean history that everyone else now relies upon was so honest and clearly articulate about his passionate interest in the topic that his work needed no giant claims to significance beyond that.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/12/2005

I'm with Oscar on this one. The use of "significance" as a justification for historical study goes back at least as far as Polybius, and there it was marshalled for pragmatic ends. I studied Palmares simply because I found it interesting, not because of any possible global significance. Heck, I'm not even sure what light it throws on contemporary Brazil, nor whether anything but human curiosity is being addressed by contemplating the question of whether Palmares was a state, or a sui generis phenomenon.

Sharon Howard - 1/12/2005

I think you could add to that that even if we do concern ourselves with 'global significance' that is itself something that changes in unpredictable ways over time. A century or so ago it was Britain that was the Top Dog, jostling with other European nations; would anyone have predicted this expansion of the USA on the world stage then? And Britain then hadn't held the position for that long. Empires come and go.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/11/2005

Like Ralph and Julie, I don't know how you sat still. Yet it is the your comments on significance that intrigue me more.

I have always found the "so what?" question--"Interesting topic, Ms. X. Why does it matter? What does it tell us? --to have a touch of tyranny to it. Even when I ask it.

Your comment reminds of me of why I feel that discomfort at the need to make history conform to some outward standard of importance. At one level, there is nothing wrong with that; in many ways it is essential to communicating, and it certainly is to teaching.

Yet it can be a trap. How was the background of slaves rendered irrelevant to American history as it was taught to you? Because their importance increased the closer they came to the big story, the beginning of the United States.

By any number of relatively objective factors, that can be defended, even in a wider context. The impact of the United States is extraordinarily important in World History. In the same period of time, there is no country in Africa that has had a remotely equivalent impact on world affairs. Thus understanding the background of African slaves is still used more to explain their contributions to the America's than it is to understand their homelands.

But this standard has one basic problem. It's immoral, and particularly so when viewed in the context of American values. If an individual has intrinsic worth, shouldn't a people, a nation? If a student, echoing Mallory, wants to study something not because it fits some standard of significance but because it's there, that may be irrational from a career standpoint but is that so wrong?

Julie A Hofmann - 1/11/2005

Damn, I was just thinking that all those pointless little countries make up one big continent. I don't really know how Europeanists and Americanists can talk in a sensible way about, oh, slavery or colonialism (and lots of other things, but they stand out the most) without giving some background information on the people they're enslaving or conlonizing. I know it's done, because I remember it being that way when I was a freshman, but there is just so much good information out there now that didn't use to be available that we should just use it.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/11/2005

Tim, I don't know how you restrain yourself. The "pointless little countries" comment indicates such indifference, even ignorance, that I'd have been tempted to intrude myself on the conversation across the aisle and do some intensive educating right there, on the spot. It might have made crowded airplane conditions even a little less pleasant than they were -- but I can get really highly charged up when I realize that these are people who are supposed to be teaching young people at fairly sophisticated levels. But, where to begin? With the notion that nation/state itself doesn't work very well for traditional African societies, that it was imposed by imperial overlords, and has to be made to work catch as catch can by post-colonial elites, etc?