A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.

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