Chaos and Hope for Writers of History

Chaos and Hope for Writers of History

Carol Gluck urges historians to seek new directions, quick.

History, properly practiced, can impel social and economic change.

In her Jan. 30 talk entitled "After the Shipwreck: New Horizons in History Writing," the historian Carol Gluck offered "good news" for colleagues struggling with methodology: "We are in the shipwreck." The visit by Gluck, who teaches at Columbia University, was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Japanese Studies.

Gluck went on to add more good and bad news: "The glaciers of intellectual orthodoxy are broken up." "We live in a land of paradigms lost."

The writing of history is in a state of chaos, and “one of the advantages of chaos,” Gluck said, is that it loosens the restraints for those who want to ask the past the questions that matter.

One immediately gets the impression that Gluck views history writing as much more than an academic affair. She said that “history, properly practiced, can impel social and economic change.” Quoting a Japanese Marxist historian, she said, “History is the driving force of the future.”

This passion has driven her to achieve. Her book Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period is a standard in the field. She has taught around the country and the world as a visiting faculty member. With many accolades preceding her, Gluck was asked to contribute an article on the writing of history in post-war Japan to a Japanese encyclopedia. The publisher wanted an outsider to write, she said, so no Japanese historians would get into trouble.

Her conclusions in the piece surprised her and her publisher alike. She found that, ironically, history writing across the world has come to a commonality. Although she and others expected to encounter a distinctive “Japanese viewpoint,” because national history tends to be very nationalistic, Gluck, in what became the groundwork for a forthcoming book, found that modern history breaks down boundaries. It does so because 1) nations have modernity in common, the problem of what it means to be modern and 2) the historians are drawing from the same theoretical well, with methodology and concepts in common. For example, historians in Asia draw from Marx, despite his perhaps Eurocentric vision.

Expanding on the first point, Gluck explained that the commonality of experience in modernity—the trials and tribulations of a global experience of the heavy toll of wars and totalitarianism, of capitalism and industrialization—has promoted a sort of unity in perspective.

And while the methodologies and concepts in the well are at a high-water mark, allowing for many ways of examining the past, right now there is no dominant paradigm, no ruling methodology.

Gluck reassures those frightened by the uncertainty by saying it presents a tremendous opportunity to ask questions that can lead to change.

‘Fire in the Belly'

To Gluck, good history is about “large questions, deep empiricism, and fire in the belly.” Young historians have to dig for their own, individual responses to the issues that matter to the world.

They have new technologies and methodologies to aid them, and historians can roll across disciplines—into sociology, ethnology, physical sciences—and pick up momentum.

“Keep your footing” Gluck warned, because the “anachronistic academics set up by our tenure system” are the last vestiges of an old order that subscribes to outdated methodologies and resents change.

Act now, because “the window will close," she said. "History has shown that new paradigms will form. Orthodoxies will congeal.”

Published: Friday, February 10, 2006